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Slayer – Love Hurts (And Then The Mop Goes Into The Dragon)

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There were a number of ways Roman Wild enjoyed being woken up on a weekend. Kisses and blowjobs were excellent. Sunlight on his face, the smell of coffee, and anticipation of a day of absolutely blessedly zero responsibility were also more than acceptable.

The sound of shattering glass followed by a creative combination of curses in German and Turkish was decidedly less pleasant. Especially since he'd been dreaming of skating and his panicked subconscious promptly integrated the shattering sound as ice cracking beneath him, opening up into a pit that was – for reasons both mysterious and terrifying – bright pink and writhing.

"Hngaaah!"

Waving his arms, Roman scrambled back, trying to regain solid ground, and promptly tumbled out of bed. He knocked his elbow painfully against the bedside table as he flailed. On the upside of things, it woke him up, removing him firmly from his vision of the pink insides of hell; on the downside, his funny bone was smarting something fierce and when he blearily opened his eyes, it was to the sight of a used condom lying not two inches from his nose. At least it was tied off. Still. Not the highest of rankings on the list of Good Ways to Wake Up On A Sunday Morning.

Muttering a curse under his breath, Roman raised himself to his knees and elbows and crawled back into bed just as the door opened to admit the source of Turkish swearing and all things glass-breaking.

"What the hell are you doing out there?" Roman demanded, glaring and rubbing his still-hurting elbow. "You made me dream of a womb or something. It was awful."

Deniz had backed into the room balancing a tray; now he paused, looking bemused and a bit guilty. "Er, I broke a glass. Sorry." His mouth twitched a bit. "A womb?"

"Something pink. I fell out of bed." Roman ran a hand over his face, still not entirely awake. "I hit my elbow."

Deniz had the nerve to grin. "Poor baby. Guess all your skater grace went the way of your lost youth, huh?"

Roman gave him the icy glare that usually made his skaters scramble to do his bidding and his friends hastily find things to do elsewhere. "Fuck you."

Deniz kept grinning, unimpressed. "Again?"

Roman snorted, flopped back into the pillows, and pulled one over his face. "It's Sunday. It's eight in the morning. Why the hell are you awake? And more importantly, why are you intent on torturing me?"

"Are you talking? 'Cause all I hear is some kinda whiney noise. Anyway, I was making breakfast."

Roman risked a peek over the edge of his pillow. Deniz held up his tray in a wordless offer, but the sight of croissants and orange juice only managed to hold Roman's attention for a moment before his eyes started wandering. Deniz was wearing an exasperatedly amused expression and his washed-out grey tracksuit bottoms. They were heroically trying to cling to his hips but looked in serious danger of plummeting to a sad and puddle-y death.

Roman put the pillow aside, propped himself up on his elbow, smarting funny bone already half forgotten, and let his eyes roam further. The track pants were old, and very thin. They didn't leave much to the imagination, certainly not the fact that they were the only thing Deniz was wearing. Somehow the faded cotton made Deniz's skin glow like sun-kissed silk, his nipples like tiny dabs of melted chocolate on his chest. His hair was bed-mussed still, sticking out every which way and making him look entirely too young for the kinds of thoughts Roman was currently entertaining. He quickly distracted himself by tracing the width of Deniz's shoulders with his eyes – solid reassurance that he was in no way too young for anything – then slid them down his smooth chest, past the awkwardly held tray, and back to the grey seam of cloth riding much too low on those tantalising hip bones.

Deniz shifted from one bare foot to the other, slightly self-conscious under Roman's scrutiny. "What?"

Roman licked his lips. "Come here."

Deniz's expression went from confused to intrigued in a matter of seconds, then to comically indecisive. He raised his tray again, valiantly attempting to proceed as planned.

"But… breakfast?"

"Deniz," Roman said, and deliberately let his voice go low and husky, "come here."

He would have laughed at the speed with which Deniz whizzed across the room and all but slammed the breakfast tray down on the chair by the window, but then it was kind of difficult to laugh when looking at something that literally took your breath away.

With an expectant little smile on his face, Deniz padded across the rug to Roman's side of the bed and made to climb in, but Roman stopped him with a hand flat against his stomach. He scooted to the edge of the bed himself, sitting up with his feet on the floor. He'd slept naked, and knew that the bunched-up sheet across his lap was doing little to hide his arousal. Deniz saw it too; his grin widened and he started to lean down, but Roman halted his movement again, keeping him standing. Deniz cocked a questioning eyebrow at him that Roman answered with a slight shake of his head. He sat up straighter, reached out to grasp the loose material of Deniz's sweat pants on either side of his hips, and tugged lightly, pulling Deniz in until he stood by the very edge of the bed, between Roman's knees. The position brought his crotch on a level with Roman's face, and understanding rose with a warm flush in Deniz's face.

Roman smiled at his hopeful expression. He let go of the bunched-up material and flattened his hands over the warm flesh beneath, cupping the smooth curves of Deniz's hips and, to the front, the sharp jut of his hipbones. He ran his thumbs over them in slow circles, enjoying the feel of hot skin under worn cotton. Above him, Deniz exhaled somewhat shakily and squirmed under Roman's hands. His cock twitched in response to the touch, straining against the material. He reached for the drawstring of his pants, thumbs already hooking into the seam to pull them down.

Roman tightened his grip around Deniz's hips and shook his head. "No. Let me."

After a tiny pause, Deniz let his hands fall away to his sides, fingers clenching and unclenching restlessly. "Okay," he said, voice soft but with an undertone of urgency. Roman hid his smile by keeping his face down. He knew that given enough patience, that urgency could be coaxed into breathless pleading, and if he drew it out long enough, into a writhing mess of curses and shouting.

He had no idea if he could be patient this morning – he was achingly hard, and the feel and smell of Deniz were already making his control waver – but he was damn well going to try.

As if sensing his resolve, Deniz moved again, tilting his hips slightly forwards. "Go on, then," he urged.

Roman snorted. "Impatient much?" He kept his thumbs moving in slow concentric circles around Deniz's hipbones. They had always been a vulnerable spot, and now was no different if Deniz's restless shifting was any indication. Eye-level with his boyfriend's groin, Roman was in an excellent position to see how effective his touch was; his cock was fully hard now, the thin cloth doing nothing to hide it, and Roman hadn't even touched him yet.

"Take them off me," Deniz demanded, low and rough, and again Roman shook his head.

"Patience," he murmured, partly to himself. He spread his knees a little farther to make more room and pulled Deniz in closer; then he leaned in, opened his mouth barely an inch away from Deniz's confined erection, and simply breathed, a long, slow exhalation of warm air against the grey cloth, and through it. Deniz made a strangled noise. "That's… not… fair."

Roman grinned. And breathed again. When Deniz tried to thrust his hips forward, seeking contact, Roman tightened his grip to hold him firmly in place. He repeated the teasing breath, hot and damp, then did it again. On the third breath, Deniz cracked, his own breathing grown heavy and uneven. "Come on… please," he said, his hands coming up to rest on Roman's head. The touch was light, but Roman could sense the urgency in his shaky fingers.

"Please what?" he teased, brushing his cheek very lightly against the swelling bulge inside Deniz's pants and immediately withdrawing when Deniz tried to follow. There was no answer, so he looked up. Deniz was staring down at him with his lips parted and his eyes grown very dark and hazy. He hadn't shaved yet, the stubble a dark shadow against his pale skin.

"What do you want?" Roman asked him, keeping his voice low.

Deniz's brows drew together above the bridge of his nose. "You know what I want." His hands moved through Roman's hair, erratically stroking but never actually pulling. He was always careful about that, well aware that Roman hated having his hair pulled.

Roman tilted his head forward to playfully nuzzle his groin again, delivering more warm breath and pulling back almost immediately. "Mhmm. But I want to hear you say it."

Deniz glared at him, his blush slowly spreading down his neck and to the top of his chest. "Bastard."

Roman smiled up at him and kept waiting. Deniz was more than able – and willing – to talk dirty when in the throes of passion, but it was this, before that point, which Roman found the most endearing: this intriguing modesty, almost shyness, that even now made him flush and grimace rather than voice a specific desire bluntly. Roman wasn't sure what it said about himself that he delighted so in challenging it, in making Deniz put into words what his body expressed quite plainly.

"I want your mouth on my cock, damn you!"

Like those words.

Deniz was rigid and tense under his hands, and scowling fiercely through his blush. Roman rewarded him with a warm smile. "Okay," he said, then leaned forward and firmly placed his mouth over the jutting bulge before him. Deniz gasped and bucked, and his hands left Roman's hair to fumble with the drawstring again. Roman decisively pushed his hand away but increased the pressure, moving his open mouth up along the hidden length. When he reached the head, he wrapped his mouth around it, cloth and all. Deniz let out a long, deep groan, and his hands dropped onto Roman's bare shoulders, fingers scrabbling aimlessly. Roman tightened his mouth and sucked, tasting cotton and beneath it the rich, tangy flavour of Deniz. The fabric grew warm and wet under his tongue, and Deniz's breathing audibly irregular above him. His own cock was straining against the sheets covering it, and he resisted the urge to reach down and touch himself, instead keeping his hands cupped around the smooth lines of Deniz's hips, that intriguing contrast of soft skin stretched taut over sharp bone.

He licked his way back to the base of Deniz's cock, tipping his head sideways to get as much as possible of it between his lips despite the interfering cloth, and worked the quickly soaking cotton up and down the shaft, creating extra friction. Deniz had given up on trying to control Roman's motions; he was quivering under Roman's hands and mouth, his hips just slightly rocking back and forth, his cock hot and stiff against the wet fabric. Roman slid his hands around the curve of his hips and down, cupping the swell of his arse, and was rewarded with another breathy moan. The front of Deniz's pants was dark and wet, and Roman could taste the saltiness of pre-come when he closed his lips around the head again, sucking and sliding the soaked fabric back and forth across sensitised skin. He kneaded Deniz's buttocks through the thin material, gently at first, then harder, enjoying the feel of firm muscles contracting and releasing under his hands. His index fingers traced the worn seam along Deniz's crack, prodding gently at his cloth-covered entrance. With a ragged cry, Deniz shoved forward against Roman's mouth.

"Oh god… Roman, I'm going to… please, let me take them off."

"No," Roman murmured, lips moving against the pulsing underside of Deniz's cock. "Look how wet they are already… what does it matter?" A tight-lipped suck to the head, lashing his tongue against the slit. "Get them wetter." A broad lick, tongue rasping against the cotton. "I want you to come all over them, Deniz. Make a mess."

Deniz made a noise somewhere halfway between a moan and a sob, and his fingers tightened on Roman's shoulders, seeking support. Roman was dimly aware that his chin was wet too, saliva and pre-come having soaked not just Deniz. He could sense how close Deniz was – it was a shift in the smell and flavour of him that was hard to describe, a sudden sharper tang of need – and he picked up the pace, mouthing him through the worn, sopping cotton while kneading his buttocks roughly. Deniz's weight grew heavy on his shoulders, his entire body arching, yearning forward. He sought the back seam of the track pants again, followed it to the small, round heat of Deniz's hole, and placed his thumb over it, not breaching but circling it rhythmically, with gentle pressure. At the same time, he shoved his mouth down hard, wrapping lips and tongue and wet cloth around Deniz's straining cock, tightening his mouth and sucking it all in deep.

Deniz actually shouted, a rough, half-aborted sound, and his hips jerked without grace or control, now unrestrained by Roman's hands. Roman felt the thin fabric soak through anew, warm and creamy with the taste of come, and Deniz's cock soften under his wet lips. He kept his mouth in place a bit longer, gently working Deniz through the aftermath, until the lean body above him gave out utterly. The cotton slipped from his mouth as Deniz sank into his lap, a warm, heavy pile of boneless limbs and melted contentment.

Roman held still as long as he could, rubbing slow, soothing circles across Deniz's back, although it was getting increasingly difficult, especially with the warm, soaked front of Deniz's pants pressed up against his throbbing cock. He tried to shift to alleviate the friction a bit, but the resulting squirming didn't really help matters.

Deniz finally noticed his predicament and lifted his head off his shoulder. He reached up a hand to smooth sweat-damp hair back from Roman's temple and gave him a lazy, groggy smile. "Now can I take my pants off?" he asked laconically.

"Oh, definitely," Roman agreed, tracing a drop of sweat down Deniz's chest with his finger. Deniz didn't get all the way up, just wriggled rather gracelessly out of the pants while still on Roman's lap and dropped them to the floor in a soggy pile. Then, knees spread on either side of Roman's thighs, he leaned over to the bedside table to grab a condom and the tube of lube sitting there. Roman let him fumble with the wrapper and ignored the insistent pressure in his groin, instead running his hands appreciatively over Deniz's chest and shoulders, enjoying the shift of lean muscles underneath smooth skin. His fingers trailed over small brown nipples; even erect, they were tiny compared to his own, but Deniz did make a small sound when Roman flicked his thumb against one. Then he unceremoniously slapped Roman's hand away.

"My turn." He shifted above him, pressing closer, and reached down to cup Roman's cock between his spread legs. Roman sharply sucked in air between his teeth when Deniz gave him a few shallow strokes before rolling the condom on him and quickly slathering on the lube. Belatedly it occurred to Roman that preparations might be in order, and he slid one roaming hand to Deniz's backside while reaching for the tube with the other.

Deniz shook his head, though, grasped his wrist and pulled his hand back to his hip. "It's okay, I can take it. Just…" He spread the lube on the condom around a bit more, his palm warm and smooth through the latex, and Roman grit his teeth at even that bit of pressure. He smoothed his hands across Deniz's buttocks, stretched wide by his boyfriend's spread-legged perch on his lap, then gasped when Deniz shifted, one hand on Roman's shoulder for leverage, the other still cupped around his aching cock, and positioned the pulsing head against his entrance. He lowered himself slowly, and Roman swallowed a noise and bit his lip at the sudden sensation of clenching heat. Tight, so tight, but opening up to him easily enough, aided by the total release of orgasm and the wet slide of lube. Deniz pulled back slightly, brow furrowed in concentration, then sank back onto him, a little deeper this time. Roman bit back another moan. Deniz suddenly stopped mid-motion, hand coming up to cup and lift Roman's chin.

"Don't you dare," he said, slightly breathless. "I want to hear you."

Roman couldn't do more than nod, and when Deniz resumed his torturously slow downwards motion, he let the air trapped in his lungs escape in a deep groan. Deniz smiled at him, pupils dilated, and leaned in to capture his gasping lips with his own, his tongue warm and eager inside Roman's mouth even as he slid down the last few inches. He came to rest atop Roman's thighs, with his cock buried all the way inside. Roman kissed him hard and sloppy, feeling desperately short of breath and not caring. After a few moments Deniz started to lift himself up again, thighs tensing; Roman moaned into the kiss and let his hands fall to Deniz's hips, helping to lift him up and then pull him back down. His hips had little room to manoeuvre, pinned down as he was by Deniz's weight, but he jerked up in short, aborted stabs anyway, meeting Deniz's more measured thrusts halfway.

He knew he couldn't last for long; he'd been hard from the moment he'd spotted Deniz in those damn training pants, and the sight and feel of him like this, spread naked on his lap and riding his cock, did nothing for his self-restraint. He could feel his climax building by the instant, a full, hot pressure coiling towards release. Deniz had not relinquished his mouth and he could hear himself babble against those full, busy lips, a string of pleas, endearments and encouragement that he couldn't have held in if he'd tried. In response to his urgency, Deniz began to move faster, his arse now slamming down on him in a sweet, fast rhythm that made Roman's head spin. He dug his hands into Deniz's pumping buttocks and thrust his hips up hard. There were slick, wet noises coming from where his cock slid in and out of Deniz's eager hole, and he knew he was close, so close… but it was the kissing that tumbled him over, Deniz's lips curving against his in a smile and his tongue licking at the corner of his mouth before plunging deep and thrusting, warm and wet, somehow more intimate even than the tight heat of him squeezing Roman's cock. Roman bucked, open-mouthed and utterly defenceless, his cry caught in Deniz's mouth. The force of his orgasm shattered him, reducing him from strained tension to wobbling jelly within seconds. He sank strengthlessly back into the waiting sheets, letting Deniz deal with disentangling them and disposing of the condom.

Several endless moments later, Deniz slid up next to him and wrapped an arm around his chest from behind, spooning him tightly and snuggling into his neck.

"Good thing I didn't make a hot breakfast," he murmured.

Roman laughed, still struggling for breath. They lay quietly for several minutes, Roman's breathing slowing while Deniz idly caressed his stomach. Eventually Roman regained enough control of his muscles to squirm around in Deniz's embrace to face him. He trailed a finger across Deniz's kiss-swollen lower lip and gave him an exhausted smile. It had been a lovely way to wake up after all.

"So… shower, then breakfast?" he asked, moving in to kiss one of the freckles next to Deniz's nose.

Deniz turned his head to nuzzle him in turn, looking thoughtful.

"You shower, I'll get the paper. Then I shower, then breakfast," he said decisively, reaching up to tickle Roman's ribs. "If we shower together, we'll never get clean."

 

By the time Roman came out of the shower, towelling his hair dry and with another towel slung around his hips, Deniz was back and breakfast had been moved to the dining room table. The folded Ruhr Report was lying next to his plate, and Deniz was standing at the counter, making coffee.

Roman sniffed appreciatively and sat down, slinging his second towel across the back of his chair. "Shower's all yours!" he announced as he reached for a croissant and the Nutella jar.

"In a moment. I want some coffee first."

Deniz hadn't turned when Roman had come in, and Roman paused at his tone – an odd, restrained note in his voice that was reflected in the tense line of his back and shoulders under his t-shirt.

"You okay?"

"Mhmm."

Roman frowned, but when no further response was forthcoming, he shrugged and returned his attention to his croissant. It was amusing how decades of deeply ingrained athlete's diet still howled in abject terror when he sliced it in half and slathered each side thickly in Nutella, but after almost a year of treating the professional skater side of his eating habits to an extended therapy of "fuck you," they were finally beginning to dull a bit.

He opened the paper, flicking to the culture and entertainment section first, and nearly choked.

It was on the feature page, a full-page ad splashed across the cheap paper in green and gold – a dragon, wreathed in flame, the sinuous coils of its long, serpentine body spelling out a single word: SLAYER. Dark red blood dripped from the dragon's talons, and the ribbons of red ran together to form the sub-heading, "Love Hurts," and in smaller letters beneath, "A Musical on Ice." The lower third of the page, like an afterthought to the dramatic artwork of the dragon, was taken up by a shot of an ice rink, shaded white, blue and black, with the tiny silhouette of two pair-skaters entwined in the middle. On top of the page, neatly printed white letters proclaimed that this was an ice show production by "Hagendorf & Fouret."

Roman didn't recognise the French name, but his croissant was suddenly soggy and flavourless as cardboard in his mouth. He stared down at the ad without blinking. The dragon's mouth was hitched up in the corner, exposing impressive white fangs in a snarl. To Roman, it looked like a mocking sneer. In the bottom right corner, just above the ticket hotline info, was a white star announcing the musical's world premiere in Stuttgart in early December, less than two weeks away.

Roman scanned the names of the skaters automatically, recognising some up and coming talent. Three names were credited above the others, and he didn't have to wonder about their parts. He knew them intimately, having mulled over character profiles with Marc at No. 7 and at the Centre many times late at night, squabbling about ages and appearance and station. Yuri the serf. Kerrick the mercenary. Eltara the sorcerer queen. The latter caught his attention and he smiled, almost against his will. "So you did get Caroline Gülke," he murmured. "Good for you." He'd told Marc about a dozen times that his chances of getting the former bronze medallist of the German championships to sign up for an ice musical instead of trying for one last record-breaking placement in competitions were slim to non-existent. But there she was. Apparently the age bug was gripping more of his former peers these days. It filled him with an odd mixture of vindication and regret.

"What?"

Roman had all but forgotten about Deniz. His head snapped up to find his boyfriend leaning against the counter facing him. He was holding a coffee cup and his pose was deliberately casual, but there was a hard glitter in his eyes, a brittle undertone to the one-word question.

"Oh, nothing. I…" The instinct to hide and dissemble kicked in before less base considerations got a word in. It was only when Deniz's eyes narrowed and his lips thinned that Roman understood. He leaned back in his chair and tried for an even tone, despite his pounding heart. "You've seen it already, I take it."

Deniz didn't say anything, just jerked his head in a sharp nod. His eyes never left Roman's. Against his better intentions, Roman felt indignation slowly unfurl inside him. "And you waited to see if… what? If I'd faint? Cry? What is this, some sort of test?"

A flicker of guilt washed across Deniz's features, but then his jaws clenched. "Would it be so surprising if it was?"

Roman swallowed. The Nutella he'd been looking forward to was suddenly sticky and too sweet, smothering his taste buds. "I guess not. And, did I pass?"

When Deniz said nothing, just kept looking at him with that level stare, Roman threw up his hands in exasperation. "What did you expect, that I wouldn't care? Of course I care. I've poured weeks into this project. Years, if you count the time back in the day. Did you honestly think I'd just shrug and skip to the movie pages when I saw it in the paper, credited to someone else?"

"No, I get that. Maybe I was just hoping your very first instinct wouldn't be to lie to me about it."

Roman stared at him, feeling mutinous and resentful and no small amount of guilty. It was, after all, true.

Deniz turned away from him to put his empty mug in the sink. "Are you going?"

"What?"

"Stuttgart. The premiere." Still calm, still neutral, but Roman knew this tone. There was a subterranean lake of broiling emotion underneath the thin crust of those rational-sounding words.

He shrugged cautiously. In all honesty, he hadn't even thought that far. Still… "What if I wanted to?"

"What if I had a problem with it?" The question came shooting back as quick as a hard ping pong serve, and it hit Roman squarely in the chest.

"I don't know."

"I see." Deniz bent to dry his hands on a dish towel, and then left the room without comment, leaving Roman sitting at the table with his heart thudding and his head a whirling mess of conflicting thoughts. Next to his plate with its abandoned croissant, the green and golden dragon beckoned, beautiful, deadly and mocking. SLAYER. A Musical on Ice.

He remembered demonstrating the final battle against that dragon at the Centre, the ice smooth and sharp beneath his skates. "And then the mop goes into the dragon." Marc watching, his eyes intent and full of gleaming approval.

Damn.

He still hadn't moved when ten minutes later Deniz re-emerged from their room, wearing his down jacket and a gym bag slung over his shoulder.

"Where are you going?"

Deniz stopped to wriggle his feet into his sneakers. "The Centre. I'm helping Tom and Ben with their skating game, remember? They need more footage." He cast a quick glance at Roman and frowned at his blank expression. "I told you about it last week. They want to integrate some pair-skating stuff, so I'm doing a few moves with Isabelle."

"Oh. Right." He vaguely remembered Deniz and Tom rambling about it in the trainer's office sometime last week, but he'd been doing schedules at the time and only listened with half an ear. "I didn't know that was today."

"I guess you had other things on your mind." The neutral tone again, fraying Roman's already unsettled nerves.

"Deniz…"

"I gotta go. See you later."

Deniz was out the door so fast that even with the best intentions it couldn't be called anything but an escape. No glares or accusations, but no kiss either, and the door fell shut just a shade short of an actual slam. Roman pushed back his plate, avoiding the alluring coils of the dragon. Suddenly the morning's activities, rocking skin to skin while drowning in sensation, anchored only by the familiar taste of kisses, seemed very far away.

The sound of a door opening jerked Roman's head up in sudden hope, but it was only Florian, sleepy-eyed and grumpy as he peered out of his room. "Dude. What's with the domestic in the middle of the night?"

"Oh, nothing," Roman said absentmindedly, reaching out to close the paper. Local news and the sports section swallowed the mocking glow of green and gold, the white star that said Stuttgart.

"Do you want breakfast?"

"Not if there's Fluff involved. That shit is vile."

"Nope. Nutella."

Florian's face brightened. "Oooooh."

*

 

Unlike biking and certain other physical exercises, figure skating was not something you couldn't forget how to do. Practice was essential, and it had been more than half a year since Deniz had done even the most basic training for the occasional Male Function shoot on ice. He spent the first fifteen minutes stumbling around the Steinkamp rink like the greenest of beginners, with his body automatically going into hockey stances and his feet trying to relearn the uses of a toe pick. Being clad in an unfamiliar skin-tight black suit studded in ridiculous rubber balls that were supposed to track his motions wasn't helping.

Neither was Tom, who, after spending an eternity setting up his tripod, camera and laptop, just flapped his arms at Deniz and told him to do "I don't know, something snazzy." After watching him botch a basic toe loop for the third time, Isabelle took over, impatiently helping him back to his feet and instructing him to do warm-up laps and get back into his footwork before tackling anything more serious.

"But, no, that was good!" Tom protested. "I need more footage of falling anyway!"

"And you'll get more, trust me!" Isabelle called back to him, rolling her eyes. "But I assume you do want to record a few things that he actually gets right! Go on," she told Deniz, with a shooing motion. "He still needs a few women's jumps, so I'll do those while you fix your footwork. If you ever get that right, we can do a few pair moves. Assuming you remember those," she added snidely, and Deniz gritted his teeth.

"Okay. Thanks," he murmured, brushing ice dust off his suit. The tracker balls wobbled under his fingers. He set off for the edge of the rink in grim determination, willing his feet to execute the moves his brain remembered. It hadn't been that long, damn it. He could still do this.

It wasn't just his hurt pride and the glint of pity in Isabelle's eyes that scorched his confidence. When Tom and Ben had beset him earlier in the week, all flapping arms and wheedling tone, babbling about extra gaming options, male representation and pair-skating levels, he had agreed in the not-so-vague hope that he could talk Roman into coming; that he'd have his very own trainer standing at the boards to help ease him back into this with useful tips, fond mockery and the occasional stolen kiss. He'd thought they could make a morning of it, to relive their pair-skating days, bantering and poking fun at Tom, who inched his way across the ice with all the innate grace of a petrified bag of potatoes. He'd been looking forward to it, damn it all to hell.

Instead, here he was, hip and knee smarting from his falls, covered in these stupid white bobbles, trying not to fall over his own feet while Isabelle did one flawless jump after the other, and all he could think of was that stupid ad, the shell-shocked expression on Roman's face, and the way he seemed to have utterly forgotten Deniz's presence while he stared at it. The soft hint of a smile curving his lips as he studied Marc's creation come to life.

Bloody, bloody Marc.

The boards came out of nowhere, having the temerity to curve before Deniz had adjusted his course. He veered to the left at the last second but still slammed into them rather painfully, knocking his elbow.

"Fuck!"

"Maybe this wasn't such a good idea." Isabelle was a far-off, tiny figure at the centre of the rink, but the ice carried sound, and Deniz could hear her as clearly as if she was standing next to him. He scowled and gave her and Tom an erratic wave.

"I'm fine, okay? Just a bit out of shape." He pushed off a little harder than intended and nearly fell again before regaining his balance and doggedly skating on.

That almost-smile. Warm and intimate and a million miles away. Deniz clenched his teeth. It didn't seem possible that the man who'd been so close to him not two hours ago – the man who'd shuddered and come apart in his arms, who trusted him so completely with his body and every emotion splayed open on his face – could be whisked away again so completely, with nothing more than a printed page of memory, slipping in as insidiously as Marc himself had.

His legs were finally remembering what to do, shifting from the blunt forward plunge of a hockey attack into the more refined figure skating moves, his feet cutting sharp "V"s into the ice ahead. His shoulders shifted automatically to balance the momentum. He imagined his blades slicing precise gashes across Marc's smirking, traitorous face. It helped.

The bastard. The fucking, meddling, scheming bastard. Why couldn't he just stay away? Why did he have to go ahead with his stupid ice show, the leverage he'd used to shoehorn himself into their lives, prying at Roman's vulnerabilities until they cracked wide open? Why did he have to advertise it? Why did Roman let it affect him so shamelessly?

Questions upon questions. There was a bleak knowledge, somewhere inside him, that he might have the answers to some of them by now, if he hadn't been too scared of rattling their fragile peace to ask.

"Deniz!"

Isabelle's exasperated tone implied it wasn't the first time she'd called him, and Deniz turned, his feet instinctively scraping the ice in a near-perfect scratch spin. Isabelle was back-skating towards him leisurely, a half-smile curving her lips as she watched him across her shoulder.

"Looks like you got the hang of it. Shall we see how your pair-skating moves are, model man?"

Deniz snorted. "Hey. At least I have pair-skating experience, unlike some people I could name."

She matched him with an elaborate eye roll, skating around him in a neat circle. "Oh, please. Something tells me I'll just about manage to fool a bunch of teenies playing a computer game. Ready, Tom?"

Tom, in the process of marginally shifting his tripod to the left, gave them a manic, tight-lipped grin and a thumbs-up. Even at a distance, Deniz thought he could see his eyes bulging slightly, his hands clutched around the tripod for support. "Go for it!"

Isabelle pulled up next to him, reaching out for his hand. "Okay. Halfway around the rink to get the footwork synchronised, then a Choctaw and a backward twizzle? Three revolutions?"

He had done more difficult sequences with Roman by far, but instead of giving in to the urge to show off his experience, Deniz merely nodded, folding his fingers around hers. She was right. Between a mediocre pair-skater severely out of practise and a single skater training furiously for the German Championships, she still firmly held the advantage here, and he didn't need any more humiliations.

Surprisingly, the element of synchronisation came back to him more easily than single skating had. It had been ages since he'd skated with a girl, but he fell back into the habit of matching his motions to another body more naturally than expected, going so far as to improvise a quick crossover beside and behind her, swapping his hands curved around her waist in quick succession. The Choctaw went fine and he only missed one rotation on his twizzles, but saved the move by quickly dropping to one knee and flinging his arm out at her in a triumphant "voila!" gesture as she finished.

She grinned, quick and impish, took his proffered hand and gracefully draped herself over his bent knee. "Not bad for a total faker."

Deniz glared at her, snapping his fingers against the white bobble on her forehead. "You mean not bad for a total rookie, Süße. You've never even done the tiniest bit of pair-skating before, have you? It's about teamwork and synchronicity, not showing off you're the better of the pair!"

She blew him a kiss before pushing herself off his knee, gliding away backwards. "I just don't like to share."

"Poor Tom must've had a rotten childhood."

"Oy! Poor Tom can hear you, you know!"

They laughed at that, and the tension lessened. They carried on with simple step sequences for a while, did passably at a sit spin, then attempted a toe loop that went badly (Isabelle landing perfectly, Deniz adding a smarting backside to his other bruises). Tom was relentlessly encouraging, telling them that botched or not, he could use everything. As the familiarity of the moves sank back into his rusty muscles, Deniz's bad mood slowly began to lift. He'd never shared Roman's fervent ambition in skating but had always enjoyed it: the physical exertion, the keen precision of the figures, pushing his body to its limits and sometimes beyond, the sweaty exertion of first mastering grace and then making it look effortless.

The lifts took some getting used to, since it had been a while since he'd tried this with a woman. The first time he automatically braced for Roman's solid weight and was thrown completely off balance by Isabelle's lighter body. He sent them both toppling to the ice and earned himself another bruise and a volley of curses from Isabelle. The second time he managed to stay upright, although he felt clumsy and off-kilter; the third was actually decent, Isabelle's body stretched in a taut arch of rigid tension in his arms. She didn't have Roman's expression, that elusive element of translating the pull and stretch of carefully trained muscles into palpable emotion, but her technique was near flawless and her balance nothing short of perfect.

Tom was ecstatic, forgetting his natural terror of the treacherous ice for long enough to bounce up and down. "Guys, this is great!" he gushed. "Ben's going to love it! And more importantly, so will our customers," he added smugly, closing the camera and beaming at them both.

Deniz bent over, hands on his knees, more exhausted than he cared to admit. "Where's Ben, anyway?" he asked. "I thought this was his baby, too."

Tom frowned, looking up at the lit square of Richard Steinkamp's office window. "Working overtime while his dad's in Russia. He's hardly had any time for the game lately."

"Well, he better have time for me," Isabelle asserted, smoothing an errant lock of pale hair back from her face. "Are we done here? I want to drag Ben out of that office before he kills Axel. It's kind of a permanent hazard."

Tom nodded, pulled her close despite her squeaking protests and planted a big, wet kiss on her forehead. "Thanks, sis. This is awesome."

She squirmed away with a frown, although there was a pleased quirk to her mouth as she set off for the exit. "I have a bit of time before training tomorrow," she tossed back over her shoulder. "Not too much though. 8:30?"

Tom nodded, folding up his tripod. "Works for me." He grinned at Deniz as he tucked his camera back into its bag. "That went well, didn't it?"

"Didn't suck as hard as I thought I would," Deniz acknowledged, still bent over his knees. Ridiculous how a bit of figure-skating should exhaust him so much, given how much he trained for hockey every week. He straightened up and gave Tom the most pleading look he could muster. "Please tell me this game is going to rock."

Tom grinned at him, blue eyes glinting, and patted his shoulder. "It is going to rock your shit off, buddy. Now do me a favour, help a poor klutz off this blasted ice, will you?"

It was funny, the way using your body could affect your mind. Deniz climbed off the ice exhausted but pleased, and by the time he had peeled himself out of the motion track suit and soaked off the worst of his exhaustion in the shower, he felt calm enough to face the challenges awaiting him at home.

There was a part of him hoped Roman would be there when he stepped out of the shower; would offer a towel and a lop-sided smile with an apology, would tell him that he'd just been caught off guard by the ad but everything was fine now, he was over it, he didn't want to go to Stuttgart for the premiere. A part of him that hoped this could blow over like the few awkward moments they'd had since their reunion, when Deniz would make a pointed remark about secrets and Roman would quip just a note too sharply about emotional blackmail; moments that were quickly submerged in their daily routine, smothered in the depth of renewed love and the fear of scratching the surface of forgiveness.

But all that waited for him when he stepped out of the shower was his towel and the sight of his own face in the mirror, dark eyes avoiding his own gaze. He breathed deep as he dressed quickly and gelled his hair, trying to recapture the momentary satisfaction of his more than adequate performance. There was no reason to be this anxious. He'd talk to Roman, that was all. Tell him how he felt, without sputtering or accusing; share how the sight of that ad had rattled him, without being clingy or unreasonable. Be what he'd been on the ice, rusty but ultimately competent. He knew how this worked. He knew how to talk to his boyfriend.

Things would come right.

 

*

 

Listening to Flo babble about hockey and rant about Franziska – two subjects that seemed to be inseparably linked at all times – didn't do much to divert Roman from the morning's events. He only listened with half an ear and offered the occasional caustic remark about the pitfalls of dating girls, but his heart wasn't in it. Eventually even his chronically oblivious brother noticed his distraction. He interrupted his tirade about the physical impossibility of focusing on a game when all he could think about were Franziska's breasts underneath her hockey gear, cocked his head and frowned at Roman.

"Are you okay?"

Roman hastily tore his eyes away from the Ruhr Report, neatly folded and seemingly innocuous. "Yeah, I'm fine."

Flo was obviously not convinced. "Oh, c'mon. You look like you've seen a ghost or something." He studied Roman a moment longer, and his expression shifted from merely sceptical to truly concerned. He cleared his throat, fiddling with the lid of the Nutella jar. "You're not… you and Deniz aren't having serious trouble again, are you?"

There was something heartbreaking about the anxiety in Flo's eyes. "No! No, no, of course not. We're fine. Just a little disagreement, that's all."

Flo nodded slowly, but the worried expression didn't entirely go away. Roman supposed concern wasn't unwarranted from where Flo was sitting. His little brother had come into their lives – and their relationship – when the seeds of serious betrayal were already laid deep and sprouting. He'd been there through the worst of it all, and the honeymoon of their reunion was still a recent development. Flo had never seen them at their most stable, had never witnessed them standing shoulder by shoulder, taking on the world together. No wonder he was scared.

Roman leaned across the table and gently ruffled his brother's hair. "Really, Flo. We'll be fine."

Flo grimaced at him as he patted his hair back into shape. "You'd better. 'Cause being around you both when you're all emo seriously sucks."

They finished breakfast – or more accurately, Florian finished his while Roman had his second cup of coffee – in a slightly more relaxed atmosphere, and by the time Flo went to have a shower, Roman had almost convinced himself that he was fine. Almost.

Clenching his jaw, he reached for the paper again and flipped it open nearly defiantly, glaring a challenge at the ad. So Marc was doing his ice show. Of course he was. Good for him. There was no reason why he, Roman, should feel in any way upset by it.

In any way wistful.

He tossed the paper back on the table with a muttered curse, then got up and started packing his gym bag. Best to set this straight right now, before it could fester. He'd go to the Centre, see if he could help with the skating – Tom was sweet but utterly clueless, he'd record sloppy footage and be ecstatic – and talk to Deniz when they were done.

His mind made up, he was so eager to get out the door that he only realised halfway there that he still wasn't dressed. He rolled his eyes at himself and dashed for the bedroom to find some clothes, only to be stopped halfway by the ringing of the phone.

He wasn't sure what exactly it was that set his spine to tingling even as he picked it up; it was a sly knowledge in his blood, a sudden charge in the moment of silence in the line after his initial hello. Then the voice, low and hesitant and achingly familiar. "Roman?"

Roman briefly closed his eyes, drew a shaky breath. "Hi, Marc."

"Hey, stranger."

He cleared his throat, struggling for composure and wishing, absurdly, that he'd found time to put on some clothes. Talking to Marc while only wrapped in a towel – even if Marc couldn't see – wasn't exactly the most neutral and stable circumstance he could have wished for.

"Uhm. How come you're calling the land line?"

A slight hesitation. "I didn't want to cause trouble. You know, call your cell phone, come off all secretive." He laughed, sounding slightly self-conscious. "I don't know, I guess I just wanted to make this as official and non-threatening as possible. I am glad you're the one who picked up, though," he added wryly.

Roman could have told him it would hardly make a difference; had Deniz been here, all hell would likely have broken loose no matter which phone Marc called.

As if he could read his thoughts, Marc asked, "I take it you and Deniz… are back together?"

"Yes. Yes, we are."

"Right. I'm glad."

Roman snorted. "Liar."

Another laugh, and Roman could see him all too clearly, eyes crinkling as his generous mouth dropped into a customary lop-sided smirk. "Well, yeah, but no. I mean it. As long as you're happy." A pause. "You are happy, right?"

"Yes." Despite the morning's uncomfortable turns, he couldn't quite help smiling. "Yes, I am."

"Then I am glad." Another silence, too loaded with warmth and things unsaid. Then: "Listen, the reason I'm calling…"

"I saw the ad." Roman wasn't sure why he felt compelled to interrupt, but he felt quite keenly that he needed to keep at least some control over where this conversation was going. "For Slayer. It looks good."

"You did?" Marc sounded pleased. "It had better be good, after all the money and time we stuffed into it. I swear I've grown a dozen white hairs just in the last few weeks. Production's been a bit of a nightmare."

"Oh?" Roman slowly wandered over to the table again, eyeing the open newspaper page. "Don't tell me you hired some incompetent loser as co-producer."

"Hey. It's hardly my fault my first choice wasn't available." It was a friendly enough quip, but Roman didn't feel prepared to deal with any loaded remarks, however harmless the intent.

"So who's Monsieur Fouret?" he asked hastily. "I don't recognise the name."

"Madame Fouret, as it were. Dominique, an old friend of mine from France. She's not in the skating industry – she does theatre – but I worked with her on a few things in Paris, and her connections were invaluable. She got us this fantastic dragon prop from a puppeteer company…"

They fell back into discussing the ice show production with an ease that was as much a relief as it was unsettling. Roman listened to Marc talk about the incredibly tight schedule and budget, about the initial rivalry issues between the similar pair he'd cast for the male leads, the problems with the music and various costume-related disasters, and found himself unable to discern whether the nagging feeling in the pit of his stomach had more to do with envy or nostalgia.

"Who's this André Sullivan you cast as Yuri?" he asked, settling into the couch. "I don't think I know him."

"Mhm, he's fairly new to it all, not much to his name yet – only a few junior competitions in the UK. He's promising – intense expression, bit of a Johnny Weir thing – although to be honest, he's a bit younger than I had in mind, and I did hope I could get someone more experienced. But all my preferred choices were in competitions training." Marc sighed audibly. "Some things just didn't work out the way I'd planned."

There was an awkward pause. "Marc…"

"I didn't mean… I'm sorry."

"No, it's…"

"Listen, Roman, never mind that. The reason I called – the premiere's on the fourth of December. Are you… I mean, would you… damn, I have no idea why this is so hard to ask." A muttered curse, followed by a decisive intake of breath. "Do you want to come? It would mean a lot to me."

The twist in his heart coincided perversely with the twist of keys in the lock. "I'm… I'd love to, Marc, but…"

Deniz opened the door with a cautious smile on his face, but when he saw Roman on the couch – still in his towel, phone pressed to his ear with what he was sure was the guiltiest expression since the day Deniz had actually walked in on him kissing Marc in their kitchen – it fell quickly. Roman saw confusion settle into suspicion and then a hard realisation on his features, cold and frightening. He sat up straight, waving a hand at Deniz in a fruitless gesture of reassurance.

"…because of Deniz," Marc was saying in his ear, sounding resigned. "I understand. I just thought… well, it's not just because of me. I figured you should see it. It used to be your show, too, you know. Still is, in a way."

"I'll call you back," Roman said, numb-lipped, his eyes never leaving Deniz's face.

"Roman?"

He hung up, already getting up. "Deniz, it's not…"

"That was him, right? Marc?"

No way of denying that, even if he'd wanted to. "Yes."

Deniz's gym bag hit the ground with a discordant rattle. His face might as well have been carved of stone. For the second time today, Roman wished he was wearing more than a towel.

"Deniz, it's not what you think. At all. He was calling about the ice show. The premiere…"

"You do want to go."

It wasn't a question. Roman took a shaky breath; he felt as if the corners of the room itself were drawing in on him, shrinking his space to breathe.

"I do, yes," he admitted. Deniz's face turned even stonier. "For the show!" Roman added quickly.

"Uh huh. What if I don't want you to go?"

Roman frowned. "Deniz, please, can we talk about this like normal adults? I realise this is awkward and if you really can't handle me going, I'll-"

Deniz barked a harsh, ugly laugh. "Oh, is that the way you wanna play it? If I can't handle it? Nice. You know, for someone who's lied to me about pretty much his entire life for years, you're really not all that subtle with the manipulation."

The accusation caught him off-guard, and kindled a spark of indignation. "That's not fair."

Deniz smiled grimly. "No, I guess not. Neither is you running off to Stuttgart to fawn over Marc and his premiere. Do you really not get how the hell that makes me feel?"

"I do," he said quietly, but Deniz didn't seem the least bit appeased.

"Do you? Because it doesn't feel like it, Roman. Do you remember what happened the last time I gave you permission to get involved in that stupid ice musical?"

Roman straightened at that, irritation starting to win out over the keen need to defuse the situation before it got entirely out of hand. "I see," he said coldly. "Is that what you think I should do, then? Beg for your permission every time I want to do something that's slightly out of your comfort zone? Maybe you should put a leash and a nice tight collar on me too while you're at it."

Deniz made a wild, aimless gesture. "No, damn it, you know that's not what I mean! But yeah, maybe you should be asking my permission to go see the guy you fucking cheated on me with for weeks!" There was an angry flush in his cheeks and a note of desperation in his voice so ragged and hurt that it struck Roman temporarily mute. He reached out automatically when Deniz walked past him, but Deniz side-stepped him and jerked his hands up with palms out, the universal gesture of "don't touch me." He all but fled into the bathroom, leaving Roman standing helpless and unsettled in his towel.

 

*

 

Deniz avoided the topic for the rest of the day, and Roman too while he was at it, gratefully latching on to a last-minute request of his father's for help at the bar to get out of the house. He busied himself with drawing Pils and waiting tables for a few hours, idly bantering with the customers and laughing too loudly at jokes.

It didn't help, of course. Whatever flimsy determination the morning's skating exercise had given him was gone, effortlessly swept away by the sight of Roman, curled on the couch half-naked with the phone pressed to his ear and a warm smile on his face.

It wasn't that he didn't believe Roman. He knew the phone call was as innocent as it was possible to be, under the circumstances. But that didn't change a thing about the fact that the sight of Roman like that struck too close to home, and home was a minefield of clumsily disguised insecurities these days. Any second one of them might erupt, and so far the only way either of them seemed to have dealt with that was to avoid them, carefully stepping around them in the vague hope that given enough time, they'd eventually defuse automatically.

It had only recently begun to dawn on him that that might not be the case.

There were a number of things they didn't talk about these days. These things included what had happened during the spring and summer, why it had happened, why other things had not happened, and the likelihood of any of it happening again. All these topics began and ended with Marc, and Marc was most definitely among the subjects that they didn't touch.

"Shut up and kiss me," Deniz had said in that dusty coat room at the wedding, cutting Roman off when he'd tried to offer explanations. At the time, it had only been a moment's impulse, spurred mostly by the overwhelming sensation of peace and relief he'd felt at having let Roman back into his life, and the irrefutable need to have him back in his arms right then. Since then, though, it had somehow become a kind of tacit agreement, a blanket amnesty on discussing any of the things that had gone so utterly wrong during the months before. Deniz wasn't happy about it, but he wasn't sure how to broach the subject, and even less sure about whether or not he ought to open any doors that might not easily be closed again. Three years of knowing Roman had certainly wrought a difference in his own readiness – and ability – to talk things out, but even now he wasn't sure how to address a subject if Roman was avoiding it. There was a part of him that was still boggling at the very concept of anything that Roman – Roman! – wouldn't want to verbally dissect at great length; a part of him that was still trying to come to terms with the idea of his boyfriend as someone not only capable of close-mouthed secrecy, but scarily adept at it.

"Oof. Seriously lame-arsed wait staff at this joint. Whom do I have to flash to get a Coke?"

Deniz looked up from the glass he'd been aimlessly polishing, into Vanessa's face with its perfectly arched brow. He grunted ungraciously. "I don't know, try someone who hasn't already seen everything you've got."

She mock-threatened him with her raised purse before climbing the barstool facing him. "Where's Marian?"

"Helping out Uncle Yüçel with his taxes, or that's the official story, anyway. I'm fairly sure it's code for 'watching football and smoking pot.'"

Vanessa made a sympathetic noise. "I reckon he could use the distraction."

"You look like you could use some too," Deniz replied, looking at her closely as he put the glass of Coke down in front of her. She looked both tired and stressed, her make-up not heavy enough to hide the strained tension around her eyes. "How are things at home?"

"Okay, I guess. Mum sleeps a lot. Grandma's come down from Hamburg to help – she's sorting through Jenny's things with Frau Scholz. I was helping but…" She shuddered slightly and unsuccessfully tried to turn it into a shrug. "I needed to get out of there for a while."

"I understand." Deniz reached across the bar to brush a strand of hair behind her ear and stroke her cheek. She briefly turned into his touch before straightening her shoulders and lifting her glass to her lips.

"Eh, it was depressing. Tell me some gossip. Something sordid and fun, preferably."

"Uhm…" He racked his brains and came up blank. "Sorry. I'm flat out of fun."

"Deniz?" She cocked her head at him, frowning. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," he said, a bit too hastily, and began wiping furiously at a spot on the countertop. Vanessa made an exasperated noise and put her hand over his, stopping the motion.

"Deniz. What. Is. Wrong?"

He sighed, and told her, starting with the ad in the paper. Vanessa listened with furrowed brows, occasionally sipping Coke. When he had finished, the first thing she said was, "Have you talked to him about it?"

"Not really. I kinda lost it. Had to get out of there."

She sighed. "Oh man. And you don't want him to go, right?"

"No." Really, really, really not.

"You have to tell him," she said decisively, as if it were the easiest thing in the world.

Deniz made a frustrated noise. "I can't."

"Sure you can. 'Roman, I don't want you to go to Stuttgart because it scares the hell out of me and I don't want you to see Marc.' There."

"It's not that easy!" he protested. "If I tell him that, I might as well say that I don't trust him. And that would just mess everything up. We only just got back together," he added, hearing the lost note in his voice and hating it. "I thought things were getting back to… normal."

Vanessa sighed. "Deniz. There's a difference between trust and just plain being a moron. Of course you don't want him to see Marc after everything that's happened. He'll understand."

He didn't reply and managed to avoid her eyes by resuming his countertop-cleaning, but he could feel the weight of her shrewd gaze on him keenly. After a moment, she asked, "How badly does he want to go, do you think?"

Deniz shrugged. "Pretty damn badly? He got obsessed with that bloody ice show. Hell, some of the ideas are probably still his. And I can't tell him I don't want him to go because… because…"

"Because what?" she prompted gently when he broke off.

Deniz stared fixedly at the crunched-up dish towel in his hand. "Because that'll only make him want it more. And because it might make him not want to come back."

She didn't say anything for a long time, and he didn't look at her, not wanting to see the unavoidable pity in her face. After a while, she muttered "oh, man," and leaned over to hug him awkwardly across the width of the countertop. Deniz gratefully folded his arms around her and turned his cheek into the silent comfort of her shoulder.

 

His father returned shortly after 5 p.m., when the bar was beginning to fill up with after-work customers, and Deniz found himself uneasily released into the chilly late November evening. He quickly crossed the short distance to his building, climbed the stairs and braced himself as he unlocked the door to the flat.

He walked into warm light, the pleasant smell of browning ham, and the exasperated din of a Wild brothers' argument. Florian and Roman were standing by the stove, Florian looking annoyed and Roman brandishing a spatula at him like a medieval spear. They both turned at the sound of his entrance, Florian's expression relieved, Roman's cautious.

"Hey," Deniz said, trying for a light tone. "What are you guys up to?"

"He's trying to teach me to cook," Florian accused immediately. "Tell him I don't need to know how to cook!"

"If you're trying to make us eat what you don't know how to cook, then yes, you do," Roman told him firmly. "I'm just looking out for all our interests. I don't ever want to see, smell or ingest green carbonara sauce again, and that's the end of that. Now stir!"

He thrust the spatula at Florian, who took it with extreme reluctance and began to poke at the sizzling ham while Roman tended to the slowly simmering sauce. Amused against his will, Deniz strolled over to peek over Roman's shoulder.

"It smells like you're doing it right this time, anyway." Roman turned his head, and Deniz kissed his cheek, drawn in by habit and the impossibility of resisting the smell of his hair and the sharp angle of his cheekbone. Roman looked up at him with an inquisitive frown but said nothing.

Dinner was civil enough if not entirely relaxed, Flo's presence both welcome buffer and silent obstacle to any talk about the morning's events. Deniz talked about the progress on Tom's game, Florian agonised about his upcoming date with Franziska, and Roman vented his frustrations about Mrs. Bergmann's constant meddling with Isabelle's near-perfect program for the championships. Deniz volunteered to do the dishes and then accepted Florian's invitation to a game on the Play Station. Roman hung around for a while working on training exercises before he pushed back his chair, stretched and declared he was tired and was going to make an early night of it.

"Okay, g'night," Deniz said, eyes on the screen. He could feel Roman's eyes on his face, could sense his loaded expectation, but did not look at him. After a moment, there was the sound of a chair being pushed in, and then the quick tread of Roman's retreating footsteps followed by the bathroom door closing.

Deniz couldn't have said what kept him glued to the couch, but he stayed long after he'd lost interest in the game, accepting both Florian's invitation for a rematch and then his suggestion of a lame action movie. He was tired and restless at once and the movie didn't hold his attention for long. By the time he finally brushed his teeth and went to bed, it was well past midnight. He undressed in the dark and slipped into bed as quietly as possible. Roman was on the far side, curled around his pillow and breathing evenly. Deniz lay on his back and stared at the ceiling, wondering how it was possible to mishandle a day so entirely as he'd just mishandled this one.

"I can't help it that Marc called." Roman's voice was quiet and even, but it startled Deniz badly. He jerked his head around, staring at the dark mound of Roman's body, back turned to him. "And I can't help it that I care about the ice show."

"I know." Trying to calm his pounding heart, Deniz tried for an even tone, free of accusation. "It's not the ice show that I'm worried about."

There was a long silence. Then, softly, "I wouldn't do that to you."

"I know," Deniz said, and meant it, but there was knowing, and then there was knowing. Not too long ago, his belief that his heart was safe with Roman had been unshakable, a deep-seated belief as simple as the knowledge that his blood was red. Now…

In the stillness of the room, he could hear Roman swallow. "Deniz, I love you. The ice show has nothing to do with that. It doesn't change anything."

Loving me didn't stop you from cheating on me. He wanted to say it so badly, and damn the consequences. The words were in his mouth, ugly but necessary, graceless shapes like lumps of clay. But then Roman rolled around and reached out to touch him, tentative fingertips against his shoulder, and somehow what came out instead was, "If it's that important to you, you should go."

Roman's fingers stilled, resting lightly on his collarbone, and Deniz could hear the breath catch in his throat.

"Do you mean that?"

No.

"Yes." It came out firmly, full of assurance and confidence, and just when had he become that good a liar?

Since he'd learned from the master, he supposed.

There was a part of him that was hoping desperately that Roman would see through him the way he used to, would slice effortlessly through his façade to the truth of him with one keen gaze, but of course it was dark and their balance had shifted – he wasn't sure when – to a place where they could both deceive each other too well, or choose to be deceived.

Roman released his held breath in an audible stream of air. "Thank you." There was a slightly strained note to the two words, but Deniz found he didn't particularly care if Roman was uneasy with the thought of needing permission, or being grateful for it. He reached up and folded his own fingers over Roman's, holding them tight. Roman rolled towards him, then, his mouth warm and open against the side of his neck, and Deniz felt some of the tension ease between them as their bodies instinctively sought each other out. He gave in to it with a sigh of relief, pulling Roman close to luxuriate in the sensation of his skin, his body warm and pliant against his own; and if he turned a little eager, then, a little demanding and rough – if he left more marks than usual, imprinting the shape of his teeth and fingers on Roman's smooth skin and pulling rough-voiced, breathless screams from him that probably left Florian traumatised in his room – then surely that was normal, just an expression of passionate relief at having made up.

Surely it had nothing to do with desperation, or fear, or the nameless shape of his lie.

 

*

 

The next couple of weeks passed in a flurry of activity that didn't leave much time for agonised reflection, something that Roman was secretly grateful for. Had he let himself think about it too much, he knew he'd have to deal with the unpleasant mixture of emotions simmering somewhere inside him: genuine gratitude at Deniz's unexpected generosity in letting him go, uneasy resentment at having been granted a permission that not all of him was convinced he should have needed, and everything topped off nicely with a big helping of guilt.

It was a mess, and between training schedules and trip preparations, he was glad he had no time to dwell on it.

He sent Marc a carefully worded and extremely bland text message to let him know he'd come to the premiere after all. Marc replied with an equally innocuous text of polite pleasure, and a few days later there was a programme for Slayer in the mail, addressed to him in Marc's elegant, right-slanted hand-writing but without so much as a personal note.

The programme looked magnificent, sporting the green-and-gold dragon and dramatic blood-dripping title on high-gloss paper, and the shots of the production inside looked stunning. The plot description gave him a pang, though it was one he'd more or less prepared himself for:


SLAYER – LOVE HURTS

In a time when the days were longer and creatures of legend and myth populated the earth alongside humans, two young men of vastly different stations, thrown in each other's path by chance, discover that their feelings for each other are more than the friendship that their society and the rules of a life of servitude allow them.

One is a mercenary, sworn to no master, who drifts wherever the pay is highest. The other is a serf, a naïve dreamer and do-gooder whose most fervent desire is to lead the people he cares about into a better future, a "Golden Age." Against them stands a young sorcerer queen trying to find her own balance in the world, whose disillusionment with love sets her on a dangerous path of destruction. Only together will the two young men have the power to end the suffering of others – or see the world they seek to build fall into darkness forever.

 

With a few exceptions, it was the same plot he and Marc had agreed on in Essen – hell, it hadn't even changed significantly since their enthusiastic scribbling session on a napkin and a beer coaster ten years ago. It was the dream of a decade, finally brought to life.

Without him.

Roman browsed through the rest of the programme, determined to be as rational about this as he could. Of course it got to him. It would be more than strange if it didn't. He couldn't do anything about the way the production stills, the gorgeous dragon artwork affected him, but he could do something about how he handled it. He could go and watch this story unfold on the ice before him, the way he'd seen it in his mind's eye a thousand times, and maybe when the final note was sung and the final spin completed and the dragon lay still after his final battle, maybe then he could finally lay the dream to rest, and let it go. He thought he could. A part of him even longed for it. He only wished he had the first idea about how to convey all this to Deniz, how to make him understand when they skirted around the issue as skilfully as a pair of skaters around an invisible axis.

Deniz frowned briefly when he saw the programme lying on the coffee table, but offered no comment, and didn't touch it. Roman didn't press the issue, although it nagged at him insistently, driving him mad. Since that late August day when Deniz had appeared before him in a crowded ballroom, defiantly offering Roman his bruised heart with a hand thrust out and a gleam of challenge in his eyes, he'd been treading more carefully than he was used to; avoiding conflict that he would once have invited, leaving unprobed issues that he once would have talked into an untimely death. With a few notable exceptions, he was no good at apologies and had no inclination to grovel – and knew, with an appreciation he felt more keenly than his gratitude for being given another chance, that Deniz would never want him to grovel in the first place. So the only option that remained was to get back to normal, let painful subjects rest and hope that given enough time, the wounds would heal without the painful process of excision.

He'd done that, then, but it was not a natural impulse, and the strain had shown. And now, Stuttgart and the ice show were looming ahead and had turned the fine cracks he'd hoped would close with time into wider gaps, relentlessly crumbling at the edges, and he had not the damnedest clue how to putty them back together. He could not go, of course. In fact, that would probably be for the best; certainly the easiest choice. But at the same time he knew with utter certainty that it was the worst thing he could do: to let the guilt dictate the very fabric of him, denying himself so utterly for the price of Deniz's trust that if he made enough of a habit of it, there would be nothing left of him to trust, refashioned as he'd become in his lover's insecurities, in the righteous claim of love betrayed. No, he had to go.

Still, that left him with a boyfriend going through the motions of pretending he was so mature that he was really okay with him doing this, the thin layer of forced cheer and bravado so obvious in every one of his gestures that Roman found himself getting annoyed with it, and then guilty for being annoyed, and then more annoyed for feeling guilty.

 

He unexpectedly came upon a solution to at least a part of his problem one afternoon when he stood at the boards with Tom, watching Deniz and Isabelle skate another short sequence for the computer game. Despite the ridiculous bobbles on their motion capture suits, they looked well-matched: Deniz tall and dark, Isabelle lithe and pale against him, her blonde hair snapping like a flag in the wake of her jumps.

"They're doing well, aren't they?" Tom said beside him, echoing his thoughts. Roman nodded absent-mindedly.

"Yes, especially considering how out of practice Deniz is. Deniz!" he shouted. "Your grip is much too high on that lift! She needs more support on the hip!"

"Sorry!" Deniz called back, grimacing. "I keep forgetting she doesn't weigh a ton like you do!"

There was a snicker beside him. Roman glared at Tom, who hastily cleared his throat and promptly became deeply engrossed with his laptop. A few minutes later, he declared that he had enough material for today, and Deniz and Isabelle came off the ice, breathless but pleased. Roman reached out to box Deniz's ears, and instead found himself dragged onto the ice with him, yelping in alarm when Deniz spun him round and his feet automatically tried to do things his street shoes were in no way equipped for.

"I'm glad I never had to endure you as a trainer," Deniz quipped, pulling him close. "You're bossy."

"That's part of the job description," Roman retorted, grimly holding on to Deniz's shoulders to avoid slipping. "Besides, shagging your skaters is counter-productive and generally frowned upon."

Deniz's mouth curved. "Except when you're Lars. Or Mike."

"Exceptions prove the rule. Deniz, I'm going to fall, let me go."

"No," Deniz smirked, poking a cold nose into Roman's ear and turning him round so he stood with his back pressed to Deniz's chest. Roman hooked a hand around his encircling arm, trying to keep his balance.

Tom had packed up his camera and was playing footage on his laptop, gnawing his lip in concentration. "I think that'll look really good, guys," he declared, sounding pleased. "You two could do ice shows together or something!"

Isabelle laughed and sat down on the bench to take off her skates. "Maybe after I'm done with competitions. With a professional partner, mind."

There was a warm huff of air against Roman's ear as Deniz snorted, but he didn't rise to the bait.

"You know," Roman said slowly, "that's not a bad idea at all. What are you doing next weekend?"

"Huh?" Isabelle looked confused. "Training, probably. Why?"

"You should come to Stuttgart with me. See the Slayer premiere." Still standing within the circle of Deniz's arms, Roman could feel him tense slightly against his back, but the idea had taken hold and he was warming more to it as he talked on. "You haven't done any ice shows before, right? It's vastly different than competitions, and I think you should see up close how it's done."

Isabelle was pulling motion trackers off her costume and dumping them in the box Tom offered her. She looked interested, though somewhat hesitant. "Can I afford the time off training?"

"Just for a couple days? Sure. Besides, you should have some idea of your alternative options once you're done with competitions. It can happen faster than you expect – and no offence, but for a newcomer you're already a bit on the decrepit side, love."

Deniz made a muffled sound of amusement, and Isabelle raised a sardonic brow at him. "That's what I love so much about you as a trainer. Your unfailing encouragement and positive attitude."

Roman smirked at her and reached out to pluck a bobble off her back. "I'm just looking out for your best interests. So what do you say?"

She hesitated for a moment, but then nodded. "Sure. Should be interesting. It's a Hagendorf production, right?"

Funny how the mere mention of a name seemingly managed to drop the temperature by several degrees, at least near where Deniz was standing. "Yes," Roman said quickly, and Isabelle nodded again. "I've heard about it. Big do with a dragon?"

"A dragon?" Tom, who'd been fiddling with his laptop until then, perked up. Roman latched on to the opportunity to tell him about the overall concept and the fantasy elements, grateful for the excuse not to look at Deniz, who was now removing his own bobbles in silence.

Tom looked intrigued by the details. "Hey, you know what… can I come, too? It sounds really cool, and it might give me some more ideas for the game. Maybe I could even film some footage!"

Roman looked from one to the other, amused by the contrast between Isabelle's cool poise and Tom's unaffected excitement. "Sure, why not? As long as we don't interfere with the production, I'm sure we can get a few good glimpses behind the scenes, too. I think you'll like the props, Tom."

"We should all go!" Tom enthused, blue eyes flashing. "Deniz, you too! Some footage of Isabelle and you against a professional backdrop should make the digitizing a lot easier, and…"

"Tom," Isabelle said, in a soft but warning tone. Deniz was sitting down on the step leading off the rink, and bent over his skates, hiding his expression. His voice, when he spoke, was casual enough, although Roman could sense the undercurrents of tension as keenly as the traitorous smoothness of the ice under his street shoes.

"No, I don't have time… got a training session with the hockey team planned. It's a good idea, though," he added. "For the game, I mean."

Tom looked confused for a second, but his excitement quickly took over again, and he beamed at them all, arms spread wide. "Okay! Stuttgart, here we come!"

As they walked off the rink, Tom was babbling at Deniz about game levels and visual elements, and Isabelle took the opportunity to slip up front and walk next to Roman.

"This Marc Hagendorf," she said casually. "I've heard about his productions. He's pretty good, right?"

"Er… yes. He ought to be. He's been in the business for ages."

"And he's the guy who was here for a few months, right? The one you had a… thing with? We were never formally introduced."

"Yes. Your point being?" Roman could feel her looking at him but kept his eyes on the door they were approaching.

"And me and Tom coming with you to see his show is some sort of professional opportunity for me."

"Well, yes. Competitions aren't the only option for a skater, Isabelle," Roman said, vaguely irritated.

"Mhm. And it has nothing at all to do with us playing chaperones."

"What?" He frowned at her, flustered. "Of course not. I want you to get a first-hand look at a professional ice show production, that's all. And if your brother wants to tag along for his game project, I really couldn't care less. Okay?"

"Mhmm," Isabelle said again, drawing it out into a sceptical hum. She gave him a long look from the side, her mouth twisted into its usual mocking smile, but under her perfectly coiffed fringe, her blue eyes were direct and uncomfortably perceptive. Roman lengthened his strides, wondering longingly how much easier his life might be if he were surrounded by less clever people.

 

*

 

Deniz wasn't entirely sure what to think of Roman's pulling Isabelle and Tom into his little excursion. Wanting his star skater to see an ice show up close sounded plausible enough at first, but given how loaded Isabelle was, Deniz highly doubted she'd never seen one before, or that it had to be Marc's. The next obvious conclusion was of course that Roman was trying in some roundabout way to reassure him. It failed for two almost equally obvious reasons: One, although he got along fine with the Reichenbach siblings, they hadn't known each other long enough to be real friends and Deniz doubted either of them held any stake in looking out for his interests with Roman; two, by none too subtly putting the two of them in a watchdog position, Roman had more or less openly acknowledged that watchdogs were necessary in the first place, which threw a wrench into the whole thing.

Also, the addition of Isabelle and her brother extended the trip from a simple go-on-Saturday-return-Sunday plan to a four-day trip, since Isabelle wanted to be there for the preparations and Tom thought he stood more of a change to get to film some footage if they weren't only there for opening night itself. Four days instead of two meant a 100% increase in the time Roman spent with or near Marc. It wasn't in any way an encouraging thought.

 

On Tuesday evening, the day before Roman and the Reichenbachs were due to leave, Deniz came home from a late hockey team meeting and found Roman recently emerged from the bath, barefoot in briefs and an old t-shirt, packing his bag. No matter how rigorously he had schooled himself to not be a jealous asshole about all this, the sight gave him a sharp pang.

"Hey."

Roman looked up at him with a smile. "Hi."

Deniz dumped his gym bag in the bedroom, then came back out to get a drink. "All packed?" he asked over his shoulder as he opened the fridge.

"Almost. I can't find my red and white hoodie. Have you seen it?"

"It's in the wash, I think." Deniz leaned against the fridge, unscrewing a bottle of water. "Got the train tickets organised and stuff?"

Roman zipped up a side pocket. "No, Isabelle's driving. She wants to beat rush hour, so we're leaving early."

"Ah." Deniz groped for something else to say, but there was nothing; he found he didn't care about the details of the trip, he just wanted it to be over and things to go back to normal. Or better than normal, actually; better than this strained, polite walk on eggshells they'd been doing for weeks.

Roman must have heard something in his non-committal grunt, because he straightened up and came over, reaching up to put his hands on Deniz's shoulders. "Thank you, by the way. This really means a lot to me."

"I know."

Roman stood on his tiptoes to kiss him – just a light, fond touch of lips, but the brief contact sparked a sudden hunger in Deniz. He reached for Roman's wrists, stopping him when he would have drawn away, and pulling him back in. He dipped his head to kiss him more thoroughly. Roman's mouth welcomed him in, his tongue flicking playfully against Deniz's, and Deniz released a shaky breath against his lips, strangely relieved.

This, at least, had not changed. There was no awkward restraint between them physically, no cautiousness or holding back for fear of saying too much or too little or the wrong things at the wrong time. Even in their darkest days, their bodies had always had a way with communication.

"Wait," Roman murmured when Deniz's hands began to roam under his t-shirt. "Florian…"

"Gone to the movies with Franziska," Deniz murmured back. He slid his hands up Roman's chest under the shirt. "He won't be back for a while." He smiled at the hitch in Roman's breathing when he splayed his hands over Roman's ribs and flicked both thumbs against his nipples, feeling them harden almost immediately. He circled them with his thumbs, enjoying Roman's uneven gasps in response, then plucked at them as if they were ripe berries, loving the way they stiffened further under his fingertips. When he twisted them lightly, Roman's head fell back and he uttered a throaty moan that went directly to Deniz's groin, making him swell inside his jeans. He broke the kiss for long enough to nibble a trail of smaller kisses along Roman's jaw and cheek to his ear, teasing it with his tongue. Roman's hair was still slightly damp from the bath, smelling faintly of his expensive body wash. Deniz nuzzled against his neck while he turned them slowly, manoeuvring Roman back against the kitchen counter.

Roman had managed to unbuckle his belt and unzip his trousers; now he slid a hand inside, cupping him through his underpants. Deniz shuddered, pushing his hips forward, and Roman made a hungry sort of humming noise deep in his throat. He leaned back, looking at Deniz with shining eyes and an inquisitively raised brow. "Bedroom?"

Deniz peeled him out of his shirt and pulled off his own too while he was at it; then he drew Roman back against him, fingers tracing the smooth ridges of his spine and shoulder blades. "No," he murmured, dropping his head to place his mouth against the sensitive spot just under his boyfriend's jawbone. Roman shuddered when he latched on to the tender skin there and pursed his lips to suck on it.

"If you give me a hickey, I will give you a spanking," he warned in a not altogether stable voice.

Deniz snorted laughter into his neck. "Is that supposed to be some kind of threat?"

"You better believe it." Roman wriggled in his arms, increasingly restless. Deniz pushed a knee forward, sliding it between his thighs. Through his jeans, Deniz could feel him hard against his thigh, and why the hell was he still wearing his jeans, anyway? He clumsily shoved at them with one hand, unwilling to let go of Roman altogether. Roman was arching against him, hands trailing over Deniz's stomach, tracing the narrow dusting of hair below his belly button, and finally dropping to help him push his pants down. Deniz was kissing and kissing him, chasing the warmth of his tongue, hoarding kisses against the looming days of absence.

"Uhm," Roman said breathlessly, hands on his hips, and peered around his shoulder. "Okay, couch?"

"Hmmm," Deniz said, running his hands down Roman's sides. When he reached the seam of Roman's briefs, he slipped his thumbs underneath them to trace the sensitive grooves on either side of his groin, relishing the shudder of reaction. "No," he said decisively, reached lower still and hooked his hands under Roman's thighs, lifting him. Roman automatically wrapped his legs around his hips but frowned when Deniz carried him a few steps to the right, and dug his hands into Deniz's shoulders.

"Not on the ceramic-"

"Fuck the ceramic stovetop," Deniz growled, and deposited Roman smack on its polished surface, crowding in between his splayed legs so he couldn't climb back down. Roman tilted his head back and stared at him with a mixture of exasperation and amusement. "Deniz Öztürk, you know I approve of all things kink, but if you are thinking even for a second that I'll let you defile my ceramic stovetop…"

Deniz shut him up by kissing him again, sucking on his lower lip, and simultaneously plunged his hand fully inside Roman's briefs, wrapping his fingers around his stiff cock. Roman made a loud noise, one part protest and two parts something else entirely. Deniz smiled against his mouth and moved his hand up and down, fisting him loosely. He felt his own cock grow heavier at Roman's noises and the way he was squirming restlessly on the gleaming surface, apparently less concerned now with the defilement of his precious stovetop and more with getting off. His head had dropped back and his eyes were half-closed. Deniz's own pants were still tangled around his knees. He had to interrupt what he was doing to get them all the way off, along with his shoes and socks. When he looked back up at his boyfriend, his breath caught in his throat. Roman had pulled his own briefs off and drawn his legs up, feet perched on the edge of the counter, glowing and shamelessly exposed. He smiled at Deniz's gobsmacked expression and dropped a hand between his legs, lazily stroking himself. "Are you just going to look or are you going to do something about it?"

Without taking his eyes off him, Deniz dropped slowly to his knees and joined his mouth to Roman's hand, licking up the underside of his cock before tangling his tongue with Roman's stroking fingers. He repeated the slow, deliberate lick, feeling the vein pulse against his tongue, before taking one of Roman's balls in his mouth and sucking on it lightly. Roman made a noise half growl, half moan, and his fingers dropped away. Grinning slightly, Deniz replaced them with his own, fingertips dancing across the head of Roman's cock in a teasing caress while he licked, kissed and sucked his way from the base of his shaft to his balls and then lower. There was another one of those delicious noises, needy and deep, when Deniz swiped his tongue against his twitching entrance, delivering a series of short, playful licks to the sensitive skin. Once he had Roman writhing restlessly against his lips, he started to probe more deliberately, darting the tip of his tongue inside. Roman was breathing in harsh gasps now, his knees fallen wide to either side, and Deniz could feel the wetness of pre-come slicking his fingers. He circled the tight ring of muscle with his tongue, feeling it loosen under the soft, wet caresses, growing open and eager. His cock was pulsing against his thigh, eager to take his tongue's place. Inhaling deeply to get the most of Roman's smell, fresh from the bath but heady and musky underneath, he delivered one more wet, probing lick and then straightened up, breathing hard. Roman was sprawled on the stovetop, looking flushed and debauched, and Deniz swallowed at the sight of him, so desperate to have him it hurt. He pulled Roman off the stove and turned him, gently pushing him down with his mouth pressed open-lipped against the small of his back. Roman let him arrange his body as he pleased, loose-limbed and inviting, fingers splaying against the countertop.

Deniz was having trouble tearing himself away. "Stay here, don't move," he murmured into Roman's ear, before he made a quick dash to the bedroom for condoms and lube. In passing, though, his eyes fell on the mostly-packed bag on the couch, the Slayer programme lying next to it, and for a moment the sight filled him with an irrational, cold flash of disenchantment that dampened his arousal. Bloody Stuttgart. Bloody ice shows. Bloody Marc who had but to call and Roman was running to him eagerly, without a second thought for how hard-won Deniz's resolution to let him go was, how much it cost him to act gracious.

He couldn't find the condoms at first, and dug through the nightstand with increasingly erratic motions. He ended up scattering knickknacks across the floor and had to stop, breathing hard, fired by something more sinister than a moment's mundane frustration. The combination of ice shows, Marc, and the hunt for condoms merged in his head into the kind of unpleasant lurid mirage that these days he mostly managed to banish from his thinking: the kind that pictured Marc and Roman all over their flat in merciless detail, twining naked in their bed, on the couch, in the shower, imprinting betrayal on every inch of his home. Hell, maybe he'd had him on the bloody stovetop, too.

"Deniz?" Roman called from the kitchen in a tone half questioning, half amused. "Do you need help?"

Damn it all. He hadn't imagined things like these in weeks. Had thought he was getting past it.
"No, I'm fine!" he yelled back, and resolutely slammed a lid on his thoughts. He forced himself to breathe deep, and eventually found the pack of condoms on the floor on the other side of the bed. Something of the traitorous visions lingered, though, and when he returned to the main room, his lust had shifted, turned to something less playful. Roman was where he had left him, looking at him over his shoulder, smiling and unaware, mouthing "hurry."

Deniz took up position behind him, tearing the condom wrapper and quickly rolling the slick latex on himself. Then he ran his hands down Roman's flanks, over his buttocks, cupping them in a slow outwards spread. Roman was making small, restless noises, urging him on. Deniz slipped a thumb inside him, pleased at finding Roman still wet and ready from his tongue, then added his other thumb as well, stretching the loosened muscle and sliding the head of his cock against it. Roman hummed encouragement low in his throat, spreading his legs even wider. Deniz wrapped one arm around him, fingers splayed on his chest, and pushed inside, slowly enough to let him get used to it but not bothering with lengthy build-up. Roman made a muffled sound. His hips did a slow twist, muscles clenching deliberately around Deniz's cock.

Deniz moaned, felt himself teetering on the edge of self-control, and then just let it all go. Instead of the leisurely teasing rhythm he'd had in mind earlier, he ended up fucking Roman hard and fast, his hips slamming forward in a mindless, furious rhythm, one hand clenched around Roman's midriff, the other dropping down to his cock, trying to match his strokes to his thrusts. Roman writhed within the tight circle of his arm, his body arched and graceful beneath his. The image rose again, unbidden and certainly unwanted, of Roman twisting this way under Marc's body, doing that clever, slow clench to drive Marc closer to orgasm. Had he moved this way for him, hips rising, offering himself so blatantly? Had he made these same noises? Deniz hissed in frustration and quickened his pace. Trying to banish the image, he pulled Roman tight against him and stroked him quick and hard, thumb rubbing across his wet tip, while shoving himself as deep as he could. Roman tensed and shuddered abruptly and his hips jerked forward, come splattering warmly across Deniz's hand and the previously immaculate stovetop. Deniz dropped his head to Roman's shoulder, breathing hard, and desperately tried to hold out against the contracting muscles milking his cock, but he stood no chance. One more thrust, two, and he too spilled helplessly, shuddering and whimpering embarrassingly as his climax rolled over him. All his strength left him and he sank forward on top of Roman's limp body, his cheek resting against the sweat-slick curve of his boyfriend's shoulder.

After several long moments of trying to regain their breath and remember they had legs, Roman began to squirm under him. "Nghhh. Get off."

Deniz poked his nose up against his nape without opening his eyes. "I did, thanks."

"Hah hah. Seriously, get off my back." Roman squirmed again, more insistently this time. Grumbling, Deniz complied, scrambling up and pulling out carefully, then dumping the condom in the bin. Roman made a half-repulsed, half-amused noise as he pushed himself up from the stovetop. "Good grief. This is completely disgusting and possibly sacrilege. And more to the point, you are cleaning it."

Deniz was tottering, pudding-legged, for the bedroom and tried to pull Roman with him with a hand around his wrist. "Mhmm. Tomorrow."

Roman was having none of it. "Oh, no way. Knowing you, you'll forget and when I get back Sunday, there'll still be crusted come on my ceramic stovetop and Flo will probably have cooked eggs on it at least twice. No, no, no. You're cleaning this right now."

Deniz rolled his eyes, but he cleaned it. When he came to the bedroom, Roman was already asleep, and he turned to curl around Deniz automatically, his body warm and loose and reassuringly familiar against Deniz's back. Deniz sighed and snuggled closer, pulling Roman's arm more tightly around him and pressing a kiss on his knuckles as he gave in to sleep.

 

With Roman's limbs twined around his, he didn't think of Marc or of Stuttgart until morning, but the dark grey December dawn brought reality back, solid and undeniable in the form of Roman's packed bag, Isabelle's sleek little red Fiat 500 downstairs, and the cold air gathering in clouds as the four of them stood outside. Never a morning person, Deniz stood by, grumpy and cold, slapping his hands against his upper arms while Roman stowed his bag in the boot. Tom was excited and entirely too awake for 7 a.m., rambling on about Stuttgart and how good the programme looked. Isabelle, unusually casual in jeans and a basic black coat, looked more like she shared Deniz's mood, bleary-eyed and resentful at the early hour and her overly chipper brother. She gave Deniz a stiff hug while Roman dashed upstairs to fetch his forgotten gloves.

"Don't worry, we'll bring him back safe," she murmured, kissing his cheek, then made a face. "You're scratchy."

"Haven't shaved yet. Uh, drive safely." He didn't know what to say to her remark about bringing Roman back, didn't know how much she knew, or if he wanted her to know. Roman didn't need a babysitter. Or at least he damn well hoped he didn't.

Then Roman was back, breathless and smiling and kissing him. "I'll call you when we get there. Hey," he said, pressing a finger against the tip of Deniz's nose. "I'll miss you."

I'm sure, a snide, traitorous voice inside him jeered, but he forced himself to smile, briefly rubbing his nose against Roman's, curving his hand around his boyfriend's nape for another kiss. "I'll miss you, too."

He couldn't bring himself to add "have fun." Roman kissed him back, his lips cold from the morning chill. "Talk soon."

Then there was the sound of slamming car doors and the engine starting up smoothly, and the little red car pulled away, alone on the street this early in the morning. Deniz looked after it until it disappeared, feeling cold and lost and angry, and embarrassingly close to crying. Too late, he realised that they'd not even said I love you.

 

*

 

The drive was uneventful, traffic on the A3 flowing smoothly. Isabelle had been planning on driving herself, but when Tom offered to start them off, she accepted quickly enough. Announcing that she was going to sleep for a bit longer, she curled up in the back seat with strict instructions to keep the music down and not to wake her unless there was coffee involved.

"Brat," Tom murmured under his breath, but fondly.

The morning was grey-white and uninviting, and Roman kept his coat on although Tom had put the heat on. They talked for a while about Tom and Ben's progress with the game and Isabelle's chances at the upcoming Germans; friendly, harmless talk that Roman was careful not to take to more personal levels. He had nothing against Tom but he did harbour a natural amount of suspicion against anyone seemingly that universally friendly and stable. It couldn't be healthy to be that wholesome.

When they ran out of casual conversation topics, Tom played music on low volume and Roman curled up against the window for a bit of extra sleep. The seat was not particularly comfortable and he spent a moment longingly picturing himself back at home, in his bed. Deniz would be asleep still, or gone back to sleep, and he himself would be awake but lying still, enjoying the relatively rare luxury of a morning to linger in bed. Still wrapped in sleep, Deniz had a way of touching Roman that was both endearing and somehow heartbreaking: making small, unselfconscious snuffling noises while burrowing into his ribs, his head entirely buried under the blankets; his hands would twitch and then tighten on Roman's chest, pulling him closer, rubbing one foot against his calf or nudging his knee against Roman's thigh, warm breath puffing into his neck. They were undisguised and casually possessive without being smothering, these motions, and Roman treasured them as much as they terrified him, because sooner or later surely Deniz was going to wake up and realise that what he was holding on to with so much determination was hardly worth the bother.

Roman jerked awake at Tom's touch, blinking, rattled, into the unwelcoming grey light of day: they'd pulled over at a rest stop for coffee. Isabelle stretched on the back seat, in a slightly better mood for the extra sleep, tousled and insolently beautiful for so drab a morning. She reminded Roman of Sleeping Beauty flexing her muscles after her long hibernation, except he rather suspected if this one woke up and found a strange prince snogging her, she would punch rather than marry him.

Coffee, a stale croissant, and another hour's drive later, they were manoeuvring the unfamiliar streets of Stuttgart. Isabelle was driving now, arguing loudly with Tom over his confusing set of printouts from Google maps. Roman stayed out of it, staring out the window and trying to calm his growing sense of trepidation. Marc. The last time he'd seen him had been by a cab next to the fry stand: a half-finished sentence, a murmur of denial, a brief touch, and he'd even missed the ultimate moment of departure, too fixated on the stark look of misery on Deniz's face. How exactly did you face someone again after something like that?

They eventually found their hotel and pulled into the parking lot at a little past 2 p.m. A neatly printed pale blue sign at reception announced that check-in wasn't until four, but Isabelle raised a fuss with the receptionist, tossing her hair and name-dropping her father until two rooms became magically available. Tom, clearly embarrassed by his sister, hastily declared that they didn't need a third room and he was fine sharing with Roman, if Roman didn't mind. Roman sort of did, actually, being picky about roommates at the best of times; but he had other things on his mind just now, and when Tom turned the full force of his – admittedly remarkable – pleading blue eyes on him, Roman took pity on him and murmured assent. He let Isabelle have her shower and change but was too restless to hang out at the hotel and ushered the siblings back outside in search of the theatre as soon as he possibly could. Before long, they were back in the car, Isabelle grumbling loudly about tyrannical trainers, inconsiderate brothers and completely inadequate hotel hairdryers. Roman ignored her while he punched out a quick text message to Deniz, not entirely convinced that his boyfriend was not in fact still lounging in bed. "Arrived safely. Off to theatre. Call you later."

The Eispalast was one of Stuttgart's older venues of entertainment, an enormous oddity combining an industrial skating rink with the old-fashioned interior of a tiered theatre proper. The recent wave of refurbishing, upgrading and modernisation had not yet reached its gently crumbling stucco façade. Roman's breath caught in his throat when he saw the Slayer promos out front, the high-gloss posters topped by two enormous flags rippling in the chill wind at two corners of the building. It was the dragon, of course, its long body spelling out the intricate letters of the title. It looked magnificent, the green and gold coils animated menacingly by the motion of the wind.

He straightened his shoulders as he got out of the car, and took a deep lungful of cold city air. He was a figure-skating trainer, here to see an ice show he held a marginal interest in, and to make a star pupil familiar with the genre. That was all. He could do this. "Let's go," he said loudly, taking comfort in the evenness of his voice.

 

The lobby was as old-fashioned as the outside of the building suggested: red plush and gilded stucco everywhere, the once-deep carpet noticeably frayed under their feet. A bored day receptionist pointed them backstage, from where a couple of hassled-looking stage-hands and a short woman with a dark bob and Czech-accented German gave them further directions to the offices. Roman led the way, past faded brocade wallpaper and framed black-and-white photographs of theatre stars long dead, until he reached a door with a temporary nameplate stuck up on the wall next to it, reading "Hagendorf/Fouret (Prod. SLAYER)".

The door was ajar, and the angry voice he could hear raised behind it all too familiar, its smooth timbre marred by audible frustration.

"…out of her contract a few days early? What about her understudy? Well, that's just great, isn't it? No, I'm not blaming you. It just leaves me in a rather untenable position, that's all. I have a premiere on Saturday… yes, I know that's not your problem. Yes. No. Yes!"

Roman peered cautiously around the edge of the open door. Marc, in a simple black cashmere sweater and jeans, was pacing up and down the small, cluttered office, frowning darkly as he talked into a phone. A middle-aged woman with short red hair and rimless square glasses sat perched on the edge of a large desk, following every one of Marc's words and scowling as darkly as he was. Roman was just about to pull back and tell Isabelle and Tom they'd come back later when Marc turned on his heel and spotted him. He froze halfway through whatever he'd been saying, eyes locked on Roman. He was unshaven and hassled-looking, but his expression brightened at the sight of Roman, and after a moment, his surprise settled into a warm smile. He waved them in eagerly, rolling his eyes at the phone and lifting a shoulder in apology. The red-haired woman frowned at them over the rim of her glasses as they milled awkwardly near the door.

"You know what, never mind," Marc said curtly into the phone. "Tell Mikkeline not to worry and I'll see her on Sunday. And thanks for nothing. No, to you, genius, not to her. Yes. Quite. I assure you, the feeling is mutual. Bye."

He slammed the phone down and said something quick and filthy-sounding in French to the woman on the desk. She made a disgusted noise and threw up her hands. Then Marc came towards them across the worn carpet, the warm smile back on his face. "Roman! I'm so glad you came. You're early."

There was an awkward moment when neither of them had the faintest clue how to greet each other and they did a weird pantomime of back-step, forward-step, step-to-side, like two one-legged storks trying to observe some obscure give-way traffic rule. With an uncomfortable laugh, Roman eventually settled for a brief hug. He tensed as the familiar subtle scent of Marc's aftershave enveloped him and stepped away quickly to make introductions. The red-haired woman turned out to be Dominique Fouret, the co-producer; she shook Roman's hand briefly, ignored Tom and Isabelle, and proceeded to make another phone call.

"Sorry," said Roman in a lowered voice while Marc quickly shook hands with Isabelle and Tom, not paying them much more attention than Dominique had. "Looks like you're in the middle of something."

Marc groaned. "Only in the middle of a complete nightmare. Caroline Gülke took a fall yesterday. She's in hospital with a broken leg."

It didn't take a full second for the implications to sink in. "Oh shit, Queen Eltara? What about the understudy?"

Marc smiled bitterly and gestured towards the phone. "Mikkeline Kierkgaard. Locked into her contract with Love Crash III until Sunday. They're wrapping up the tour in Amsterdam, not a snowball's chance in hell of getting her here early. I knew I was taking a risk when I signed her on, but dammit, I didn't think it'd be an issue not to have an understudy for one bloody night."

"Opening night," Roman said dryly.

"Yeah. It's the rottenest of all rotten luck." Marc sighed, then straightened up and briefly touched Roman's shoulder. "Oh well, not to worry, I'll figure something out. I'm so glad you made it, though. Do you want to see the details?"

"Are you kidding me? This used to be my show!" He waved Isabelle over to him when Marc started to spread out plans and schedules, laying it all out with tangible enthusiasm despite his current predicament. She came, but slowly, looking annoyed – probably at being ignored, Roman thought. He gave her a nudge in the ribs and a glare. Before long, they were all leaning over the desk while Marc explained set-ups, props, direction and music.

"I didn't know Caroline could sing," Roman offered as they went over the track list. He frowned at the sheet music, the extreme range of notes. "Or Norman Jeschke, for that matter. He's your mercenary, right?"

"Yes, and I'm very proud we got him. But the skaters don't sing, anyway."

"Huh? I thought you were going for the full musical thing."

Marc's eyes were gleaming. "I am, but see, that was always our problem. We wanted the best skaters, and we wanted the best singers. They don't generally come wrapped in one, not in skating, right?"

"Right?"

"Right. So here's the thing. Each part has a double cast. One singer, one skater. Here, let me show you." Marc whipped out another large-scale plan of the Eispalast's ice rink and tapped his finger to a number of small rectangles arranged around the rink's oval. "See these squares? They're open-aired booths we've built specially for this, sound-optimised and everything. That's where we put the singers. They perform the songs, while the skaters do their part. I've lined up the choreography to be perfectly in synch. That way everyone can focus on what they do best, and Dom and I didn't have to worry about bad compromises with mediocre skaters who could sing a bit, or okay singers who just barely knew how to stand up on the ice in blades."

Roman followed his explanations closely, nodding and marvelling at Marc's daring. "That's new."

Marc did a cautious little weighing gesture with his hands: comme ci comme ça. "Yes, that's the thing. This whole production is new. We'll see how it takes. If it does at all… oh, Dominique! What about that newish girl we were talking about last week, Martina Goldstein?"

Dominique briefly put her hand over the phone and shook her head. "Pas possible. She left for Les États-Unis, remember? She has option for a training with McKinley."

Marc swore again, softly. "Right." Then he frowned at Tom and Isabelle, who were leaning over a collection of large black folders together. "Be careful with that, okay? Those are the skaters' routines."

Isabelle shot him a glare that could have slain dragons. "Yes, thank you, I can tell," she sniped.

Beside her, Tom was leafing through one of the folders, his mouth forming a silent "O" of admiration at the coloured sketches of poses and costumes. "These are gorgeous! I wish Ben and I had anything that good for our game."

"Game?" Marc looked confused. Tom enthusiastically started to explain about the computer game, at which Marc promptly lost interest. He shrugged. "Feel free to copy them after the premiere, I don't mind. If the premiere even takes off," he added darkly.

"Really? That would be amazing!" Tom was beaming, clearly unruffled by the pronounced indifference to his game. He went on browsing the sketches until he paused at one that caught his attention, tilting his head to examine it from all angles. Roman craned his own neck to get a look at it. It was a full-body portrait of Eltara, the sorcerer queen, in a rich velvet costume of sequin-studded dark-red velvet, her hair curling heavy and black down her back. A bunch of choreography sheets were stuck in with the costume sketches, and Tom picked one of them up, studying it closely. Isabelle peered over his shoulder, still looking cross and more than a little bored.

"Eltara, queen of the western sea and the mountains, keeper of the dragon; the sorceress who holds the once-free realms of Windover in a tight grip of magic and oppression, driven by spurned love and impossible choices," Tom read out loud. He flapped the folder at Marc. "Is this the character you're missing?"

"Er, yes. Please be careful with that," Marc repeated, sounding annoyed.

Tom paid him no heed, staring at the choreography sketches. "Isabelle? This looks a lot like your freestyle, doesn't it?"

"Hm?" Isabelle leaned closer, examining the colour-coded sequences and the symbols of jumps woven in. "Not a lot, no. It's a smaller rink, so all the footwork is shorter, and the jumps are more basic. The triple combination's similar, but I have a Lutz there, not an Axel."

Tom followed as her finger tapped at the sketches, pointing out the differences. He was frowning. "Hm, yeah. Still, looks like something you could do, no?"

"What?" Isabelle said, startled into laughter. "No. I mean – no. What?"

Tom cast a quick glance at Roman from under his curly mop of hair, wide-eyed but serious, and jerked his head in a wordless invitation. Frowning, Roman leaned across the desk to take a look at the sketches Tom was offering him. "Double Axel," he murmured, tracing the sequences with his finger. "Toe loop with a triple combination… Salchow with a Mohawk entrance, double combination with a camel spin finish… huh. Actually, Isabelle, this does have a lot of similar elements to your long program at the Essen Cup, too. And most of the jumps are singles or doubles, nothing you couldn't do, technically."

Isabelle stared at him, taken aback, then leaned across to take another look. This time she went through the entire sheaf of papers, brow furrowed. "Yes, but my competition programs are three and five minutes respectively. These are, what, nine individual numbers?"

"Five," Marc said, "two of them are reprises, and the other two are basic footwork only." He approached the desk slowly, looking at Isabelle with a frown on his face, as if he only now saw her for the first time. "Hang on… Isabelle Steinkamp, you said?"

"Née Reichenbach," she said, with a lift of her chin, and straightened up, sketches still in hand. Marc's face brightened slightly. "Wait, you're the Reichenbach girl? Junior National Champion 2007 and 2008, first place in the Bavarian Championships last year?"

"That's right."

"And winner of the Essen Cup this year," Roman interjected.

Marc was studying Isabelle with new interest now. "I've seen your footage. You were good."

Isabelle's eyes narrowed. "I am good."

Roman was shaking his head, half bemused, half intrigued against his own will, and trying to temper it with reason. "She is good, Marc, but this is nuts. Five full numbers, in three days?"

"Yes, and… I'm training for the nationals," Isabelle said, eyes flickering from one to the other. Dominique had dropped her phone into her lap and was watching Isabelle along with the rest of them, eyes coolly calculating above the bridge of her stylish glasses.

Tom grinned. "Well, if ever you wanted some hardcore training…" he said, nudging Isabelle in the shoulder. Her responding glare turned into a long, silent exchange between the siblings, Isabelle looking doubtful while Tom studied her with his head tilted sideways. A grin lurked in the corners of his mouth, but his light-coloured eyes were serious and questioning.

"God, if this worked," Marc breathed, arms spread wide in a helpless gesture of entreaty, "you'd be saving my life. Because frankly we're out of options here."

The words, and the gesture, were directed at Isabelle, but even so Roman could feel his own traitorous heart clenching in his chest. Slayer. Marc's show. Their ideas. His skater. This couldn't be coincidence, could it?

Isabelle was looking at him now. Her blue eyes were wide and alarmed, but Roman thought he could see something else lurking not too far beneath, something crazy and reckless and calculating, something altogether familiar: the hungry spark of ambition. "Roman," she said slowly, "Can I learn a program like this in three days?"

"And three nights, given enough coffee," Tom offered helpfully. Marc elbowed him rudely into silence, eyes still glued to Isabelle.

Roman was looking at her too, his mind a whirlwind of training regimens, high-intensity strength training, diet, focus. "Diana Sommer once learned a championships routine in one night," he said slowly. He remembered her all too well that night, radiant in her unflattering yellow costume: the obstinate gleam of determination, the will to defy impossibilities.

Isabelle's eyes were flashing in rebellion, although he hadn't meant it as a challenge. "I'm not Diana Sommer," she declared haughtily, and Roman had to smile.

"No," he conceded. "You're Isabelle Reichenbach. And yes," he added firmly, "I think if you put your mind to it, you could. It'd be a crazy amount of work, mind you," he added warningly.

Isabelle looked around the room, meeting one pair of expectant eyes after the other, and eventually coming back to Roman. She looked very young, and very scared, and suddenly very stubborn.

"Okay," she said briskly, sliding a hand through her ponytail. "Why the hell not? Let's get to work."

Marc was beaming. "Okay!"

"Okay," said Tom, straightening up. "I'll start getting coffee, shall I?"

"Okay," said Roman slowly, trying to suppress the cynical little voice inside that laughed incredulously, jeering, Oh, this can't possibly go well.

 

*

 

Deniz was in a foul mood. The Centre, which should have been bustling with pre-Christmas activity, was still in a hushed mood of tension and grief, the Steinkamps currently engaged in a massive clash with Axel over a life-sized portrait of Jenny he was trying to have permanently installed in the lobby. Work was a drag of filing and fetching, and Maximilian had dismissed Deniz's offer to compile the press kits for the German Championships out of hand, declaring that he didn't have the experience. Not for the first time, he wondered if acquiring management skills at the arguably worst-managed business in all of Germany had really been the best of ideas.

The worst thing was that Roman wasn't calling. Well, he had called once, late at night, babbling for half an hour about the missing part and Isabelle filling in and that they were going insane with the training; there'd been yelling and music and the unmistakable scratching noises of skating in the background, and Deniz had hardly got a word in edgewise. Other than that, Roman had only sent brief texts, glowing or despairing updates on their progress, always accompanied by an apology for being too busy to call and ending in an "ILU!" that Deniz found less reassuring by the hour.

Hockey provided some distraction, for which he was grateful, but his heart wasn't really in it these days. It was fun, for sure, and he enjoyed the team's respect and those few occasions when Ingo let him take over a training session. Still, it gave him an odd feeling sometimes to watch Florian and Franziska throw themselves into it so completely, cheeks flaming with enthusiasm, always entirely focused on the next goal, the next pass, the next game, like there was no way but forward, no doubt that they'd eventually make it to the premier league. It filled Deniz with a fond kind of nostalgia for the days when it had been his heart's fiercest dream to play professionally; a nostalgia that he surely was too young for, at barely twenty-one.

"Do you remember when that was us?" he asked Vanessa, nodding at the team's two star players chasing each other across the ice with hoots and challenges, the puck whizzing back and forth between them as they wove through the other players trying to block them.

Vanessa leaned over the boards, grinning. "Mhm. Franziska's passes are harder than mine, and you were too busy angsting over Roman and the gay to play worth shit, but otherwise, yes. Good times."

"Dude. I was so much better than Flo."

"Oh, you are delusional." She laughed, her raucous, bubbling dolphin laugh that he didn't hear too often these days. It made him glad to hear it now. She was unofficially assisting the hassled new centre medic, since she still wasn't sure when she could return to Boston and wanted something to do. She'd come down on her break to watch them practise. "Kinda weird to look at us now, huh? Four years ago, I definitely didn't think I'd be patching up injuries instead of causing them. Or that you'd be strutting about in a suit pretending to be some kind of corporate tool."

She giggled, and Deniz shot her a glare, the comment all too close to his own worried musings about his job. He yelled some instructions to Basti and Julian about their lazy defence.

"How is work?" Vanessa asked, too good at reading his moods, as usual.

He shrugged listlessly. "It's okay. I don't know if it's really for me." He briefly told her about the annoyance over the press kits and the fact that there never seemed to be anything for him to do that someone else didn't claim they'd get done faster, or better, with the result that he pretty much spent all his days making photocopies and typing up membership forms. "I'm probably just too impatient, but how am I going to learn anything if they never let me do anything important?" He broke off, realising how whiny he sounded.

Vanessa was zipping up her jacket against the chill of the rink and watching him from the side. "Is there anything else you can see yourself do?"

"Not really. Maybe I should just go with what the job centre profile spit out and become a cop," he said morosely, at which Vanessa promptly burst out laughing.

"Somehow I can't see you hunting crime. Now if we're talking stripper in a cop's uniform, yes, okay, but-"

"Oy!" he said, affronted, but it was hard to muster outrage when she was all giggly and mischievous, and after a moment he relented and returned her grin.

"I'll keep it in mind as a fallback option." He watched the team for a while, then cleared his throat. "Do you think if someone turned up ten years from now and offered me another shot at being a pro hockey player, I should go for it?"

Vanessa squinted at him incredulously. "Uhm. Well, for one thing it'd be a riot and a half considering you'd be the oldest professional hockey newbie ever. Two, I suspect it would depend on who the someone was, which leads me – three – to the obvious question here: would you mind dropping the code and talk about what's really bugging you? My Öztürk Emo-ese is a bit rusty."

Deniz narrowed his eyes at her, then sighed and gave in with a shrug. "Roman hasn't called in a day and a half. And he's working on the ice show. With Marc," he added darkly, before giving Vanessa a quick-run down about the skater dropping out and Isabelle taking over.

"But that's good, isn't it?" said Vanessa when he was done, then rolled her eyes at his hurt look. "Not the Marc thing. But working on the show. You said he partly developed it, didn't you? It must be awesome for him to get to have a hand in how it plays out. And for Isabelle, too. I mean, I don't exactly get on with her, but it's pretty cool that she's helping out. It must be so much work."

"Yeees," Deniz said impatiently, flapping a hand at her. "But…"

"But you're worried? About Marc?"

He shrugged, unable to meet her eyes. She leaned over and gently nudged his shoulder with hers. "Hey," she said, in a softer voice. "I thought you trusted Roman."

"I do! It's just…" Deniz toyed with the trainer's whistle around his neck, grimacing. "It was easier to trust him when he wasn't five hours away from me, with the guy he cheated on me with. And not calling me," he added glumly.

"Hm. Why don't you call him?"

"Because I don't want to interrupt his oh-so-important work on that stupid show. And because I don't want to make it look like I'm checking up on him. I mean, hello? 'Hi baby, how you doing, you don't happen to be sucking Marc's dick backstage, are you? Oh good, just making sure!' How lame is that?"

She put an arm around him, patting his shoulder. "Not as lame as you think, given the circumstances. But point taken."

Just then his cell phone, deposited on top of the boards, started ringing. Deniz grabbed for it hastily, heart speeding up, but it was only his father. Marian sounded slightly slurred, as if his daily date with the Rakı bottle had begun early today.

"Hey, Oğlum, it's me. You are still coming round for dinner tonight, right? I'm making Mantı."

"Sure," Deniz said, glancing at his watch with a frown. "Dad, are you drinking? It's not even three."

"Oh, don't be such an old woman," Marian retorted, sounding irritated. "I've only had one shot after lunch. Are you bringing the pipsqueak, by the way? I need to know how much I'm cooking."

"No, I think Florian's eating at Franziska's." An idea dawned in him as he looked at Vanessa from the side, watching the game with a vague frown. The Steinkamp villa wasn't the cheeriest of places these days, and though she never complained, he could tell that having to be her family's quiet pillar of support was taking its toll on her. "Hey, do you mind if I bring Vanessa instead, though? It's been a while since she's had Turkish food."

She gave him a surprised look but nodded when he mouthed an Okay? at her. "Of course, that'll be great," Marian said, after a brief pause. "We'll have fun. See you later!" He hung up before Deniz could decipher if he was being serious or cynical. His father's humour these days usually held a cutting edge.

 

He might have guessed, had he spent more than a moment thinking about it, that it wasn't the best of combinations. Dinner was delicious, the pasta cooked just right, the minced meat tender and spicy, and the garlic yoghurt pleasantly complemented by the wine Vanessa had brought from her father's cellar; but conversation was strained, since the number of acceptable topics was limited. Vanessa was the type of person who found solace in talking of her sister often and fondly, bringing up anecdotes and musing about what might have been. By contrast, Marian never spoke of Jenny without being prompted, and usually shut Deniz down ungraciously when he brought up the topic.

They were doing an odd, polite dance of social awkwardness around the edges of the subject now – Marian asking about how things were going with the new Centre doctor and if there was news from Boston; Vanessa inquiring about the bar, the motorbike and Marian's brothers; and Deniz filling up the pauses with talk of work and hockey, for his part avoiding any mention of Roman, Stuttgart, and the silent phone next to his plate.

It was strange, Deniz thought: There had never been one of these family and friends dinners that had included Jenny (he wondered idly if his father regretted that), but now, when she was irretrievably gone, it almost felt like she was there at the table with them – elegant, sherry-eyed and haughty, teasing his father, annoying Vanessa and ignoring himself; probably making things awkward as all hell. It gave Deniz a surprising pang of sorrow. He hadn't known Jenny well, hadn't liked what he did know of her, and had never really understood what either Roman or his father saw in that caustic, scheming woman who guarded both her weapons and her vulnerabilities so jealously it seemed impossible to break through to who she really was. But his father had managed, somehow, and had screwed it up nonetheless. And looking at Marian's face across the table, blank and slightly spongy with drink, his smile held in place by sheer will alone, Deniz knew with absolute certainty that given the chance, he'd do anything to bring her back, to wipe that haunted, empty look out of his father's eyes.

"So, have you heard from Roman?" Marian asked after they'd cleared the dishes away and divvied up the last of the wine.

"Not in a couple of days," Deniz said, struggling for a neutral tone and not meeting anyone's eyes. His phone was still lying next to his elbow, tauntingly quiet.

"Right. Well, I'm sure he'll call soon," his father said awkwardly. There was another long silence. Deniz toyed with the rim of his glass. Marian went to set the empty bottle next to the sink. Deniz could sense his longing for the Rakı as if it was his own. Maybe he was projecting.

"Oh, for god's sake!" Vanessa suddenly exploded, slamming her hand down on the table. "You two are worse than my parents! At least when they don't know how to deal with their issues, Dad blames it all on Max and Mum blames it all on Ben and then they have enough fodder for a proper row. Look, Deniz, what do you think Roman's doing right now? Having a laugh? Cheating on you?"

He stared at her, aghast. "I don't know, do I? He's not calling me!"

"And you're not calling him."

"I told you, I…"

"Don't want to look like a clingy sissy. Yeah, yeah. I hate to break it to you, Deniz, but you kind of already do. Listen, I don't know what's going on with Roman, but I imagine this whole thing hasn't exactly been peaches and cream for him either. Do you know how hard it is to be forgiven something monumental like that? To forgive yourself? Jesus, I was messed up for months after what happened with Ben. Totally loathed myself."

Deniz was sitting back slightly, just in case he actually needed to make a dash for the door. She looked dangerous. "Ben? That's not even… that is completely different!"

Vanessa made a disgusted noise. "Of course it's bloody different. It always is. My point is if you don't talk to him, you'll never find out how this particular thing is different. It doesn't help to let things fester."

"We're not-"

"You are," she interrupted. "You're way beyond festering and well into the realm of gross chronic infection. And if you don't tell him whatever the hell it is that's bugging you so much about all this, you'll be talking gangrene. And lemme tell you, that is not in any way pretty."

Deniz was staring at her, heart pounding, torn between horror, anger and a completely absurd urge to burst out laughing. "Uh, Vanessa…"

"No, don't 'uh, Vanessa' me. Do something useful." She reached out, grabbed his phone, and flung it at him. Deniz caught it by reflex. Across the table, Marian very slowly pushed back his chair.

"I think I'll, er, let you guys sort this one out," he declared, backing away.

Deniz looked from Vanessa's challenging black glare to his phone with the silent dark display. His heart was suddenly hammering in his chest as if he was facing the prospect of calling up his crush for the first time. He flicked the phone open, thumb hovering over the 2 on his speed dial. He paused. Swallowed. Flicked it shut again.

Across from him, he could hear Vanessa suck in air, probably for another rant, so he quickly spoke up before she could, or before his courage could leave him. "Dad? Do you need your motorbike tomorrow?"

His father paused at the door to his room, bleary-eyed and confused. "Uh, no?"

"Can I borrow it?"

Marian shrugged. "Sure. What for?"

Deniz cautiously met Vanessa's eyes, still fixed on his face with a shrewd glare that had shrunk many a hulking hockey player to half his size, and probably many a recalcitrant patient, too.

"A bunny hunt," he said lamely, and restocked his resolve with the smug warmth of her answering smile.

 

*

 

"Okay, Isabelle, that'll do. Come here! Norman, you too." Roman hit pause on the CD player – they'd had synchronised training with the singers earlier, but for simple repetitions he used the recorded track – and crossed out the notes he'd made on his pad earlier about working out the kinks in the fifth scene.

Isabelle approached slowly, skating bent over with her hands on her thighs. She was exhausted, and no wonder. It was Friday evening and she'd had no more than four hours of sleep the past two nights; but then, neither had any of them. Even so, Roman made a mental note to make sure she slept through tonight. They'd worked on the routine almost non-stop since Wednesday, and it was as good as it was possibly going to get. They still had dress rehearsal to get through tomorrow, and it would help no one if his skaters collapsed.

Norman Jeschke glided up behind Isabelle, towering over her by a head and a half, and gave Roman a nod and a smile. Not for the first time, Roman thanked his lucky stars that Marc had signed Norman on as Kerrick the mercenary. Calmly competent, perfect in technique and very nearly impossible to rattle, he was one of the few bastions of sanity in the entire crazy mess that was Slayer. It seemed like absolutely everything that could go wrong with a production was determined to go wrong. Norman's skating partner André, the young newcomer who played the idealistic serf Yuri, was given to nasty outbursts of temper and flounces off the ice when something didn't go his way. Isabelle had matched him fit for fit, growing increasingly frustrated on the first couple of days when it seemed like there wasn't enough time in the world to learn her routine, never mind three days. More than once, she'd screamed at Roman or flung any available item against any available hard surface.

Props were a nightmare. The dragon, spectacular though it was, had a tendency to look droopy if even one of the skaters propping it up fell out of line, which basically meant having to keep eight people perfectly in synch for every dragon scene. There was a life-sized horse prop Kerrick was supposed to be "riding" that was the single worst manufactured prop Roman had ever seen, constantly ripping seams or dropping legs at inopportune moments. One time the two skaters bearing it up had not mastered a curve in perfect synchronicity and the damn thing had actually broken right down the middle, the two halves skidding comically across the rink at opposite ends. The grips were calling it "the zombie horse," and Roman had actually dreamed of it last night, its lifeless mouth gaping wide, a hapless skater trapped inside as it leaped across the boards and wreaked havoc among the audience, ripping people to shreds.

The wardrobe mistress, an energetic young woman by the unlikely name of Aida, had fallen sick and was running around the Eispalast wrapped in giant scarves, glowing with a high fever as she made last-minute adjustments to costumes but refusing to go home. There had been some kind of drama with one of the lead singers that Roman was all too happy to leave to Marc and Dominique, focusing resolutely on the skaters only.

"That was pretty good, huh?" Norman said, pulling up in a short, sharp circle. Ever the gentleman, he handed Isabelle her water bottle before reaching for his own and smiled at her. "You got that double Axel down perfectly now."

"The combination doesn't feel quite right yet," Isabelle gasped, drinking in deep gulps. "And if those losers inside the dragon miss their cue and cut me off one more time, I swear I'm going to rip off the tail and feed it to them." She scowled towards the other side of the rink, where the massive dragon swayed and wobbled as its carriers bore it off the ice. Norman grinned.

"Please don't," Roman said dryly. "We really can't afford any more props disasters." He closed his notepad and waved Isabelle closer, handing her an extra jacket. "Okay, Schatz, we need to talk expression. You've got the routine down well – really well, in fact. That Axel was phenomenal."

She smiled at him tiredly, pleased but cautious. "But?"

"You're playing this whole scene too dejectedly. Like, the Biellmann spin after the triple/triple combination? Your arm work, your expressions – you're all Hollywood melodrama heartbreak. But Eltara's not like that, see? This is the moment when she's giving up on love, but she's turning it outwards almost immediately. She declares war. She's telling Kerrick that he'll rue the day he didn't choose her."

Isabelle was listening with a frown. "Okay, so more anger?"

"More strength," Roman amended. "Think of the finale – when Kerrick fights the dragon and she has her magic duel with Yuri. Everything that motivates her for that fight – this is where that begins. I want you to focus on how you can hurt him instead of how he hurt you."

She nodded slowly, rubbing her forehead. "This acting stuff is hard. In competitions you get it drilled into you over and over again that you have to be 100% yourself to have good expression."

Norman patted her sympathetically on the shoulder. "I know, getting in character thing took me a while, too. You're doing really well, though, considering you've only been at it for three days."

Isabelle made a sardonic moue. "Maybe an evil queen is just the perfect character for me."

Roman was still trying to come up with ways to explain. It had come as a novelty to him, too, having to talk character motivations and specific expression. Even stranger that these were characters that he had helped develop. Ten years ago, Kerrick and Yuri had been a blurry vision on his and Marc's sketchpads: a gay couple in an ice musical telling a fantasy story, a novelty in every way. To see them here – Norman casually wearing the tunic and sword that Roman had once sketched on a beer coaster next to a gleaming dragon, Isabelle enacting Queen Eltara's turn to the dark side – was a constant flash of surreal wonder.

"Okay, you know what, then try to find the common elements," he told Isabelle, hunkering down in front of her as she sat down to unlace her skates. "Just try to imagine what you'd do if Ben suddenly decided he wanted to be with some skinny boy off the streets instead of you. Would you crumple and never stop crying, or would you bring hell down on him?"

Isabelle blinked at him. For a fleeting second, there was a flash of actual worry in her face, and Roman was about to bite his own tongue off. It didn't take special perceptiveness to notice that all wasn't well between her and Ben; over the past couple of days, he'd witnessed more than one phone call where Isabelle had been tense and angry, asking questions that didn't seem to get any satisfactory answers. He was just about to back-pedal and apologise when she burst out laughing. "Probably both, to be honest," she replied, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "But I get it. She wants to crush him."

"Pretty much."

Isabelle nodded. "Okay, I need to see Aida for another costume check on the silver dress for the finale and get a bite to eat – and some caffeine, god. Then we can try it again."

"That's my girl."

*

 

Deniz was dreaming. It was one of those annoying dreams where he knew he was dreaming but it didn't change anything, didn't make him wake up or the dream seem any less real. He was in bed in the dream, too – a strange, massive old four-poster with velvet curtains and a canopy. He was lying still. His eyes were open which was wrong – he was supposed to be asleep. His hands were folded on his chest. Something was curling around the edges of the canopy over his head – he'd taken it for carvings at first but now he could see that they were vines, thick, grey-green vines crawling in at the corners, studded with vicious-looking thorns.

Then there were voices. Voices in the corridor, a door opening, a draft stirring the heavy curtains. Laughter, warm and familiar. He was so relieved. Roman. He'd been waiting and he was bored lying still, but Roman had finally come so everything would be well now, he could get up and get on with life.

He just needed to be kissed.

His body was immobile but he could move his face. He pursed his lips, expectantly. The voices were close now, just on the other side of the curtain. He smiled, imagining the warm slide of Roman's lips against his own, the way he'd whisper things into his mouth, always talking, always laughing. Roman. His Roman, infuriating and neurotic and mercurial, come to claim him. His lips were tingling in anticipation.

Voices, though. Two of them. Something was wrong with that. He frowned, trying to remember, but it was hard. His brain was strangely foggy, unwilling to draw concrete thought out of the floating mist of his dream-spelled mind. Maybe when Roman kissed him, that would dissipate and he could think clearly again.

The curtain was ripped back so abruptly that he flinched, or tried to; his body was still not moving. His heart leaped when he saw Roman… but then plummeted when he saw him peering over his lover's shoulder, amused and smirking at the sight of him laid out on the bed. Him. The other. Marc. He leaned in close to Roman's ear and murmured something. Roman laughed, and turned to kiss him.

"No," Deniz tried to protest, but his voice wasn't working either. He tried to do something, anything, tried to sit up and throw himself between them, to pull Marc off or at least toss something at them, yell or storm off; but all he could do was lie frozen and watch as their kiss deepened, watch as Roman slipped his tongue inside Marc's mouth and Marc's hands slid possessively all over him, caressing his hair, his back, sliding down to his hips and pulling him closer. Roman made a pleased humming noise deep in his throat, a noise that Deniz knew achingly well. He tried to protest again, feeling tears stinging his eyes, but try as he might, he couldn't utter a sound. There was creeping motion somewhere above him: the thorny vines, unperturbed, closing in.

Marc broke the kiss to peer past Roman again, watching Deniz. He whispered something in Roman's ear, and Roman turned, bright-eyed and eager. He put one hand on the foot of the bed, then another, and began to crawl up the length of the bed, on top of Deniz's prone body. He smiled at him warmly, as if everything was fine, then laid a hand along his cheek, fingertips brushing Deniz's lips. Then the mattress dipped lower under the weight of another body, and then there was Marc's face, looming behind Roman's head, he, too, smiling. Deniz wanted to snarl, to lash out, throw him off, rip out his throat, but he still couldn't move.

Somehow they were naked. Roman was moving against him, sliding deliciously over his skin, murmuring things. His nipples were hard and red and glistening like tiny poison apples; someone had obviously lavished some attention on them, licking them taut and wet. He reached for Deniz, idly stroking him. Over his shoulder, Marc watched, smiling broadly, his hands busy somewhere outside of Deniz's field of vision. Roman began to move more restlessly against him, one hand between Deniz's legs. His expression was earnest, open, almost tender. He dipped his head low, lips parting, towards Deniz's face, and Deniz knew that if he could just close the distance, could just claim Roman's mouth and kiss him, it would all be over; he could move and Marc would be gone and everything would be fine. But Roman's gasping lips stayed an inch from his own, and then Roman's body suddenly rocked hard against his as he was breached from behind. Deniz mouthed another wordless protest, straining up so hard that he felt like his neck muscles were about to tear. Again Roman's body shoved down, tensed, relaxed, tensed. That humming noise again, deep in his throat, the one Deniz had stupidly thought Roman made only for him. Roman's head fell back, his eyes lidded with pleasure, and Marc leaned closer behind him, his body thrusting powerfully as he rocked Roman between them, so forcefully it pushed the air right out of Deniz's lungs.

He wanted to cry, but he couldn't. All he could do was stare up, unblinking, breath failing in his throat as Marc's thrusts into his lover stole his air. Marc was smiling, oddly gently, before he dropped his head lower still, over Roman's shoulder, his lips just barely brushing Deniz's as he whispered, "There, isn't that better?"

Deniz woke gasping into the still air of their empty bedroom, his thighs wet with come and his eyes wet with tears. The clock next to the bed read 2 a.m. and his phone had no new messages at all.

 

*

 

They had moved the dress rehearsal to Saturday morning, the same day as the premiere, to give Isabelle maximum training time. It was a pretty insane move, and Dominique had protested it vocally, but, as Marc claimed with a grin, this entire production was pretty much nuts. Across Dominique's head, he smiled at Roman warmly, and Roman couldn't help the familiar jolt of electricity he felt at the sight. They'd fallen back into a routine of working together with relative ease, one stepping in when the other was occupied, sharing tasks without having to discuss it, divvying up the organisation according to each one's strengths. Under Roman's tutelage the skaters performed more smoothly and the singers fell easily in tune, while the utter chaos of the backstage departments untangled and quieted somewhat when Marc had more attention to spare them.

Dominique was not pleased, Roman could tell. Her initially cool tone with him now stopped nothing short of rude, and more than once she had practically snatched something out of his hands, curtly telling him she'd handle it. Roman felt bad for her but at the same time he was too wired to care too much about Marc's snooty French back-up co-producer. He was here, working on Slayer. With Marc. If they'd hardly had a moment in three days to exchange more than the most cursory inquiries after each other's lives, it didn't seem to matter; even their more recent, bittersweet personal history had become submerged in the priority of the production. The show mattered. This mad, disorganised, disaster-prone hybrid of skating and singing, magic and technology, and always the harsh, glittering lure of the ice: This mattered, and he knew with absolute, matter-of-fact pride that it was running more smoothly for his presence.

His good mood – and Marc's – took a serious plummet, though, when the dress rehearsal went as disastrously as it was possible to go. Isabelle fell no fewer than four times, two of them on moves she should have been able to do in her sleep. Norman and André fared little better. André's singer counterpart showed up late for his first big solo and missed his cue for another number, leading to a screaming row between him and André in the middle of the show. The dark-haired skater was about to dash off the ice for good, fuming, and only Marc's stern interference and Norman's soothing influence managed to force him to stay. Thrown off their game, they botched a twist lift quite badly, André coming down too soon and Norman crashing to the ground beneath him instead of catching him.

Tom, who was watching the whole sorry affair with Roman, his camera at the ready as ever, sucked in air between his teeth in a sympathetic hiss. "Oh dear," he murmured. Roman groaned when Isabelle missed another cue and crashed into the boards. Without taking his eyes off the rink, he reached over and gently closed the flip-up screen on Tom's camera.

"Trust me, no one wants to see this," he murmured.

"No bloody kidding." Marc had appeared on Tom's other side, watching the performance with a pained grimace. "This is a disaster."

"Yeah, but dress rehearsals are supposed to be, right?" Tom offered. "Don't they say the dress rehearsal has to go wrong for the premiere to be a success?"

Roman, who'd subscribed to a healthy philosophy of pessimism all his life, had to marvel at the boy's unflappable positive attitude to pretty much any misfortune. To be fair, Tom had actually been rather helpful over the last few days. In exchange for permission to film footage for his game, he'd made himself useful wherever he could, dashing to and fro with endless supplies of coffees and take-away when they were too busy to eat, helping to improvise repairs on the constantly breaking props, and generally spreading good cheer. He'd even helped Marc design a flyer insert for the programmes to announce the opening night cast change about Isabelle, and had handled all of the printing and the tedious job of slipping the extra page into stacks of waiting programmes. In the midst of the thrills of creative excitement and the looming fear of complete failure, he was a constant source of tousle-haired, enthusiastic positive energy, and Roman rather wished to kill him for it.

Not that he didn't appreciate the vibes of sanity and encouragement. It was just fucking annoying.

Marc sighed in response to Tom's hopeful words. "Yes, but there's disasters and then there's disasters," he stated, waving a frustrated hand at the skaters. "We're supposed to do this again in a few hours. Flawlessly. Before hundreds of people."

"We'll practise it again," Roman said, clenching his hands around the boards. "It's all we can do."

The skaters came off the ice in various states of dejection, solemn concern, and angry panic. Marc held a short speech, telling them all that this had frankly sucked but on the other hand, there was nowhere to go but up and he was sure they'd do wonderfully later. One arm around an upset Isabelle and his other hand patting a quietly seething André, Roman could only hope that at least some of them believed Marc.

Tom had ducked out while the skaters finished; now he reappeared as if on cue with a delivery of fresh muffins and sports drinks that were gratefully received, and a hug for his sister. "Don't worry, Isa," he said firmly, holding her tight. "You were just nervous. You always screw up dress rehearsals phenomenally. Remember in third grade, Romeo and Juliet? When you peed yourself on stage?"

Isabelle boxed his ribs. "Yes. Thanks for the encouragement," she mumbled, but she did burrow her face into his untidy locks and hugged him back tightly.

They all laughed, and the mood eased slightly as they took fifteen minutes to enjoy their muffins and reassure each other that tonight would go better. Roman took the opportunity to step aside and ring Deniz, guiltily aware that he couldn't remember when he'd last texted. There'd simply been too much to do and he hadn't had a second to himself; plus he held a glum suspicion that Deniz wouldn't necessarily want to know about all the details of working on the show anyway. Still…

The phone clicked to voicemail immediately. "Hi, this is Deniz. You know the drill. Beep."

Roman frowned. It was not yet 2 p.m. "Uhm, hi, it's me. Just calling in to see how you're doing. Everything's crazy here, the dress rehearsal was awful. We need to go over it all again or we're doomed. I'll call you again later, okay? Miss you."

He tried the land line as well for good measure, but no one picked up there either. Puzzled, he hung up. Maybe they were at Marian's, or hockey practice. Yes, probably the latter – hadn't Deniz said something about a game?

There was a new commotion backstage when he returned: The horse prop had malfunctioned again, a seam opening along the neckline. Dominique was arguing with the two skaters operating the horse, who swore angrily that they'd handled it exactly right and the damn thing was just cursed. Marc was bent over the drooping prop itself, fingering the broken seam with a worried expression.

Roman stepped beside him, pocketing his phone. "Maybe we should just do without it," he suggested.

"And have him charge the castle on foot? Yeah, that'll look great," Marc retorted tersely.

Tom joined them as they discussed what to do, shoving the last muffin into Roman's hand in passing. He squatted by the side of the horse, poked and prodded it at various points, and eventually sat back on his haunches to look up at them. "You know, I can probably fix this. At least for long enough to last through the premiere."

Marc was eyeing him sceptically. "You can?"

"Yep. Can we move it further back so it's out of the way and people don't trample on it? And someone get me a toolbox and some strong wire. And ask the wardrobe mistress if she can spare me a few needles."

Marc sent off a stagehand with instructions, although he still didn't look particularly convinced. "Are you sure…"

"I am an architect's son, you know," Tom stated with a mild look of affront. "I know enough about tensile strength and fabric strain to fix a damn fake horse for its one scene."

"Two scenes," said Roman, bending down to help lift the prop and move it out of the way.

"Yes, two. Whatever. Lift! By the way," Tom added in a conversational tone as the three of them carried off the horse, "It's all going wrong because you're killing the dragon in the end, you know. It's bad luck killing a dragon. If you changed it to let him live…"

"Tom," said Marc, muffled under the strain of the prop's weight, but still sounding exasperated, "I told you half a dozen times, I'm not changing the story to save the dragon. The show's called Slayer. If there's no slaying, that'd be a serious case of false advertising."

"He could slay the horse!" Tom suggested hopefully.

"No," said Roman.

"The witches?"

"They're not witches, they're wise women," said Marc. "And no."

"The dragon could just be unconscious. In China…"

"The damn dragon dies," Marc said, with a glare and an amused eye roll at Roman over the bulk of the horse. Roman suppressed a grin.

Tom shook his head grimly, blond curls flying. "And see, that's why your show is cursed. Don't say I didn't warn you."

 

Roman spent the better part of the afternoon in an extra-intensive last-minute skating session with Isabelle and then a meeting with her singing counterpart, to go over the scenes and fine-tune their synchronicity. Anita, the singer, was a petite brunette with a snub nose and a brilliant smile, and Roman could not for the life of him figure out where in her tiny body she kept her octave-spanning, haunting voice. He and the two women rehearsed for over an hour, including an impromptu rendition of the Love Hurts ballad, with the tables in the cafeteria pushed back so Isabelle could go through her motions while she and Anita tried to match for a crescendo.

By the time they finally got it, there was an hour and a half left to curtain, and Isabelle was getting visibly nervous, fiddling with her phone. Roman went through her scenes with her one more time, trying to reinforce that she knew them. She was nodding and muttering assent but he could tell her attention was divided. "Ben was going to call me," she murmured, staring fixedly at her phone. "To wish me good luck."

"I'm sure he will," Roman soothed, and then remembered, with a guilty pang, that he'd meant to try Deniz again. He sent Isabelle off to get her make-up and costume for the first act on. Anita went with her, and Roman dashed towards the ice rink to see if he was needed there. On his way through the narrow corridors, he rang Deniz's phone again, but once again only got the voicemail.

"Hi Schatz, me again. Where are you? Sorry I haven't called earlier, everything's been chaos here and I couldn't get away. We're just over an hour away from opening, so I guess if you don't call me back before then, I'll talk to you after it's all over." He paused, swallowing at the sudden realisation of the enormity of what he was doing, and how enormously it could all go wrong. "Wish me luck?" He took a deep breath as he pressed himself against a wall to let a group of stagehands pass him, carrying props and equipment. "I love you!" he said over the din.

Backstage was a mad dash of activity, but the wide expanse of the ice spread out and swallowed some of the noise. All along the boards, the forest and mountain scenery had been set up, peaceful and green. The massive bulk of the dragon was coiled at its entrance ramp behind a curtain, ready to come to life.

There were only four people on the ice. Roman got an unexpected moment of quiet off the side of the rink as he watched Norman and André furiously practise the twist lift they had botched up at dress rehearsal. Marc was skating around them in a slow circle, calling out instructions. Tom was there too, filming the sequence; after several takes Marc herded the skaters around Tom's camera and used the footage to point out the problems.

He spotted Roman at the boards and waved at him. When André and Norman returned to the centre to perfect their move, Marc came over to join him, coming to a neat stop on the other side of the boards. Roman smiled at him briefly but kept watching the skaters.

"Horse fixed?"

"I think so, yes. Bit wobbly on the head, but Tom swears it'll hold."

Roman nodded. "I hope so." They watched the performance for a while. Tom was packing up his camera and tripod and inched off the ice in tiny steps with a look of intense concentration on his face. He stepped onto solid ground with an audible sigh of relief, and nodded at them in passing. He was smiling, but it looked a little strained; maybe even his good cheer was finally coming up on its limits.

"Looks like they got it," Roman said, pleased, when André's thin body arched into the air after Norman's throw, spun perfectly, and Norman caught him neatly, absorbing the impact with a practised turn.

"As long as they get it right tonight," Marc agreed. They watched the pair go through their routine in silence, and Roman found himself once again caught up in the lovely synchronicity of their bodies, the tale of caution, hope and yearning conveyed by their moves. They didn't have much to say to each other behind the scenes and had in fact argued more than once, but on the ice they were breathtaking. He found himself studying André closely, envisioning how he, Roman, would have held that spin a bit longer, would have arched his back more a bit there, been less on his outside edge on the turn. He snorted softly when he realised what he was doing, but the pang of nostalgia wasn't as sharp as he'd expected.

What he hadn't expected at all was Marc's hand, closing gently over Roman's fingers on top of the boards, and turning his head to find Marc watching him instead of the skaters, an intense, questioning look on his face. His eyes were very blue under the harsh lights of the rink, his mouth tilted slightly in his usual lop-sided smirk, the one that looked as if he mocked at everything, as if his confidence knew no limits. If you didn't know him better.

For a moment, Roman found himself drawn to that mouth and the promises behind it. He knew every inch of that face, had traced every line with his fingers and his lips, knew the rasp of Marc's stubble and the taste of his mouth, and he knew with perfect clarity that there was a part of him that hadn't got enough of any of that; not close, not nearly.

A moment only, and he saw something flash briefly in Marc's eyes, a spark of recognition – then he withdrew his fingers as gently as Marc had touched them, smiled, and raised one shoulder in a tiny, helpless shrug.

Marc exhaled slowly, a visible cloud of warm air in the coldness of the rink, and turned to lean his back against the boards next to him, looking once more out at the dancing pair. He flexed his fingers absentmindedly, as if expelling Roman's touch.

"What changed?" His voice was so soft that it took Roman a moment to make out the words, but when he did, it gave him a jolt, the flash back to the locker room sudden and vivid: Marc offering him his dreams, pleading for a reason why he wouldn't reach out and take them.

He shrugged again, leaned forward on his elbows. "I did, I suppose," he replied equally softly.

"Hmm." There was a long silence, and Roman found he was holding his breath; he let it out slowly, not wanting Marc to notice. Eventually Marc relaxed and leaned back, wide shoulders dropping slightly. "Timing's a bitch. We missed our chance."

"Twice," Roman felt compelled to add. His heart, which had been pounding earlier, was finally slowing down.

Marc turned at his comment and wryly cocked a brow at him. "Yes. Does that mean if there was a third time…?"

Roman was glad that his tone was light and dry; he wasn't sure what to do with the question. "Don't know, do I?" he said eventually, eyes fixed on the skaters. "You never know."

"Yeah." Marc was in full teasing mode now, the long, tense moments dispelled by a sudden air of fond mockery that sounded oddly genuine. "I won't wait around, if you don't mind."

Roman laughed. It felt good. "Oh god, please don't! For one thing that would make you a sad bastard. For another, I'm really not worth waiting for."

Marc shot him a brief, close look, then grinned. "I disagree. But no, Roman. I won't."

They smiled at each other. Then Marc leaned in briefly, touching his forehead to Roman's. They stood quietly like that for a moment, understanding passing wordlessly in the small space of chilly air between them. For the first time in weeks, Roman felt nearly peaceful, nearly at ease with himself. When he caught motion out of the side of his eye, he paid no attention to it at first, figuring it was one of the lighting people; but when the footsteps stopped abruptly, he lifted his head.

It was Deniz.

*

 

Deniz stared at them, standing there by the side of the rink, their faces cast into sharp contrasts of shadow and light. They looked so comfortable with each other. So familiar. So tender. He watched them, foreheads brushing in a gentle display of affection, and the pain of it stunned him, like the impact of a fall on the ungiving ice.

It was one thing to sit at home growing increasingly cranky over a dearth of phone calls from your preoccupied boyfriend, telling yourself you were being paranoid. It was quite another to have a row with your father over the unsuitability of motorbikes for roads with sudden snowfalls in winter, to cajole one of your friends into lending you his ancient rust bucket of a car ("if you crash and die, I'll consider my debts forfeit," Ingo had warned), to drive five hours through heavy snowfall and the gathering dark, cursing when you realised your phone was out of charge, and then to arrive and find your worst fears not just confirmed but surpassed.

He hadn't made a sound, hadn't stirred – wasn't sure, in fact, if he could even move – but Roman suddenly lifted his head, looking at him. His face lit up with surprise first, then actual pleasure (oh, the bastard); then there was a flash of realisation, a quick look at Marc, and then he was staring back at Deniz with an expression of sudden and utter alarm.

"Deniz!" He stepped away from Marc, towards him, and Deniz found he could move after all.

"Save it," he said, in an odd, toneless voice, turned on his heel and nearly ran. Behind him, he heard Roman make an appalled noise and call after him. He didn't stop, pushing open the heavy door to the maze of corridors and narrow staircases of the backstage area. It was confusing and he cursed when he turned a corner to an unfamiliar little side lobby holding several coat racks pushed up against a wall. Before he could get his bearings back, there was the sound of quickly running footsteps and then Roman's hand on his arm, pulling him around.

"Deniz, that was not-"

Deniz violently jerked his arm out of his grip, sending a rain of half-melted snowflakes arcing through the air. "Not what it looked like?" he sneered. "Oh, please, Roman. How many times do you think you can fool me with the same old tricks? Like some retarded puppy?" He spit the word out with fervent loathing for the old nickname and the sly insult it sugar-coated as an endearment.

Roman was wearing that infuriating expression that he always wore when he considered himself a step ahead: exasperation mixed with alarm and an odd kind of anguished fondness, as if he was going to pet Deniz on the head and tell him off for being silly. It spurred Deniz to new fury. "Get out of my way," he snarled, since Roman was blocking the narrow corridor.

Roman shook his head firmly. "Not before we've set this straight. We-"

"What's to set straight? I saw you! I fucking saw you!"

"And what you saw completely doesn't mean what you think it means!" Roman shot back, spreading his arms wide when Deniz tried to shove past him. "Nothing happened. We were just working together."

"Oh, is that what they're calling it these days?" He laughed bitterly. "I guess it explains why you were too busy to call me, at least. Were you going to send me a text? 'Changed my mind, back with Marc, have a nice life'?"

Roman's head rocked back slightly, as if struck. "Of course not! God, will you listen to me? Nothing happened! Nothing was going to happen! You've got it completely wrong!"

"He's right."

Marc was suddenly filling out the corridor behind Roman. The smooth, cultured voice immediately set Deniz's teeth on edge. "Spare me," he growled. "If you think I'd believe a single word out of your mouth, you must be delusional, asshole."

Marc's eyes darkened but he remained otherwise unruffled. "I don't expect that, no, but you should believe Roman," he said calmly. "He's been working hard on the show for the last three days. We've barely even talked to each other, and we've never been alone."

Deniz laughed again, a harsh, humourless sound that hurt his throat and made Roman flinch. "You looked pretty damn alone to me down there. And I'm sure you're alone in your hotel bed every night-"

"You stupid, stubborn fool!" For the first time, Marc was showing real signs of frustration, perhaps even anger. He took a sudden step forward, but Roman hastily flung out an arm, blocking his way. He was still looking up at Deniz.

"I'm not sleeping with Marc," he said, the words precise and clipped short. Deniz couldn't tell what he was thinking. "I didn't come here for Marc. I came for Slayer. And when we heard the female lead wasn't here, Isabelle and I got involved. We've been working on her routine for three days and three nights, that's why I was too busy to call, and I'm sorry about that, but I did tell you. There's nothing going on with Marc and me."

Deniz looked from him to Marc and back, utterly floundering now. "But… I saw you. Downstairs-"

"Wasn't what you think it was," Marc said curtly. He took a deep breath, visibly forcing himself to a more civil tone. "We were sharing a moment over something that's… over, alright? And the reason it's over was and is you, if you still haven't grasped that." He paused, staring at Deniz with eyes slitted like a cat. Something about the narrow anteroom and their tableau – Roman facing Deniz with Marc looming at his back – gave Deniz a sudden, sickening flash of his recent nightmare; but the expressions were all wrong, reality dispersing the details of the hated dream. Instead of gloating victoriously, Marc looked worn and exasperated, his usual elegant poise disrupted by obvious vexation. He ran a hand through his hair, leaving it dishevelled, before he resumed talking, in a tightly controlled voice that still couldn't entirely conceal his chagrin. "Look, I'm sorry you walked in at the worst possible moment, but get over yourself. He left me for you. If you honestly can't see by now that he's completely devoted to you, then you really are the brainless prettyboy I thought you were."

"Marc," Roman said calmly, not taking his eyes off Deniz's face. "I think you had better leave us alone."

Marc murmured a curse in French. "You're right," he said, with a last sharp look at Deniz. "I have a show to run." He turned on his heel and stomped off back down the corridor. "See you downstairs with Isabelle!" he called back over his shoulder.

Deniz stared down at Roman, slowly but surely starting to feel like the fool Marc had accused him of being, and not liking it one bit. He tried to hold on to his anger, keenly aware that it wasn't entirely unwarranted; but then he noticed, for the first time, how tired Roman looked, deep shadows of sleeplessness under his eyes and stress lines around his mouth. He was pale and his hair a mess.

His eyes were perfectly alert, though, level and blue and with a hard sheen like the ice just recently flooded.

Deniz swallowed. "Nothing happened?" he asked.

Roman's mouth twisted. "Nothing happened," he affirmed, then added sardonically, "Thanks for your trust, though."

Deniz's jaws clenched at that and he was about to give a sharp retort about Roman's questionable trustworthiness at the moment; but just then there was another flurry of noise along the corridor, and Isabelle came running around the corner in a sequin-studded cream costume with her hair done up, a slender silver band set carefully into her piled-up locks. Magnificent though she looked, there was not a scrap of poise in her stumbling run or the harsh dry sobs tearing out of her throat as she tried to push past Roman. She was clutching her phone.

"Whoa, whoa, Isabelle, what happened? Where are you going?" Roman caught her shoulders in his hands and turned her towards him, and Deniz automatically took a concerned step closer. Under her carefully applied make-up, she was white as a sheet, her eyes wide and stunned.

"Ben…" she said, in a voice like ashes. "Ben, he… he told me about Vanessa."

Deniz's heart skipped a beat, then hammered on at double speed. He exchanged an alarmed look with Roman, their own troubles momentarily shoved aside. "Vanessa? Did something happen to Vanessa?"

Oh god, no. Not Vanessa.

Isabelle stared at them in bewilderment, then shook her head impatiently, sending a loose lock tumbling down her cheek. "No, he told me about… what happened between them. Before they knew they were siblings." She stared at the cell phone she held clutched in her hand, as if she could get it to retract the news somehow.

"Oh." The relief flooding through him was so massive that he just barely stopped himself from saying "thank god." Even so, Isabelle clearly heard it in his voice, guessing from the look she gave him.

"I knew he was keeping something secret from me," she went on, in that same colourless voice. "And it's been getting more noticeable since Jenny disappeared. I… I thought at first it was Katja, but when she left and it didn't change – god, I'd ask him and ask him and he kept telling me there was nothing wrong, but I knew there was!"

Deniz took her free hand and patted it. The words tumbling out of her were too uncomfortably familiar. It hadn't been too long since he'd felt the same way. This week alone had been more re-enactment of that feeling than he'd ever wanted.

"And then?" Roman prompted her; his tone was gentle, but Deniz saw the anxious glance he cast at his watch. Right – the premiere. Their precious show. No time for emotional outbursts. He gave Roman a warning glance and Isabelle's hand a sympathetic squeeze.

"He… he was really weird on the phone these past few days," she went on, drawing deep, shaky breaths. "I knew something was going on, and I knew it was the same thing that had been going on all along, I could just feel it, you know? So I finally got a hold of him and I made him tell me." She laughed suddenly, discordant and wild. "So he told me. He told me he'd slept with his sister. With his sister!" she repeated, and with a sudden vehement motion, she flung her cell phone across the tiny anteroom. Defying her violence, it rebounded harmlessly off the satin-covered wall and bounced off the worn carpet.

Deniz had ducked to avoid her throw; now he straightened back up and cleared his throat. "Er… I know it's kind of awkward and it must be a shock to find out this way, but Isabelle – it was a long time ago. Long before he met you. And they didn't know. They broke up the second they-"

"What?" She stared at him like he was stupid. "No, I'm not upset with him for that! I'm upset with him for not telling me! Good grief, he married me without telling me! Vanessa was Maid of Honour!"

"Oh," Deniz said sheepishly. "Er. Right. Yes, that's, uhm… bad."

Roman rolled his eyes at his lack of eloquence, then turned back to Isabelle, still holding on to her shoulders. "Isabelle, I'm so sorry you had to find out that way, but the thing is… you need to put it aside right now. You need to focus on your performance."

She made a choked sound. "I can't go on the ice right now. No way."

"Isabelle!" Roman said sharply, but she shoved his hands off her shoulders with a sudden violent motion and forced her way past them. "I'm sorry, Roman!" she called over her shoulder. "I can't!"

 

*

 

Roman cursed bitterly and wished he had something to throw, too. "Of all the fucking, rotten, lousy times to pick…" he snarled. "I am going to wring Ben's stupid, useless neck!"

Above them, the building was buzzing with the muffled noise of people flowing in, the faraway sounds of many voices raised in conversation. The corridors all around them were alive with stagehands running to and fro, people calling out instructions, questions, good luck wishes. He heard someone shout his name. He felt the show itself tugging at him, commanding his attention; it was like an alarm set into his bloodstream, an increasingly urgent countdown. Forty minutes to curtain.

He closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath before turning back to his boyfriend. "Right. Where were we?"

Deniz uttered a harsh bark of laughter that jarred Roman's nerves. "Oh, you know. Just our relationship. Nothing important."

"That's not fair," he said, stung. To his credit Deniz nodded almost immediately.

"No, it wasn't. I'm sorry." He paused, then added very stiffly, "And I'm sorry about what I said before. About you and Marc. I thought…"

Roman waved the apology away. "It's okay. I understand."

"Right." Deniz exhaled slowly, then jammed his hands into his pockets. It made him look younger and oddly vulnerable. "I guess we need to talk," he offered.

Roman nodded slowly. "We do, except…"

"Except?" Deniz asked coolly, and Roman just knew it was no good. The bustle of the premiere preparations were all around him, the tingle in his pulse increasing by the minute; all the effort of the last three days hinged on this moment and it scared him badly to see Deniz looking at him like that, suspicious and cold, but there was nothing to say but the truth. So he did.

"I can't do this right now," he said blankly. "I just can't." Seeing Deniz's eyes harden, he hurried to explain. "Isabelle is on in half an hour and I need to get her on the ice. She's had three days to learn her routine and next to no sleep, she's just found out her husband's slept with his sister, and she needs every scrap of support I can give her. If we can't pull this off, the entire show is going to fall apart, and I understand why you don't care about that, but I do, quite a lot." He took a deep breath, trying to slow his tumble of words. "Deniz, for better or for worse, I'm involved in this production. I need to do this, and since you're here, I need you to be on my side. I know that's not fair, I know I've got no right to ask you, but it is what it is. So either we wait to have this conversation two hours from now, or, or…" He threw up his hands, really not wanting to end that sentence.

"Or what?" The question came back hard and fast, leaving him no quarter. Once, he'd have known the right thing to say almost immediately. Once, Deniz would've probably let him off the hook and been the pillar of support Roman had come to rely on so much. Now Deniz was looking at him with cautious mistrust, and Roman floundered, gutted beyond all reason by the prospect of being made to choose.

"Deniz… you… we…" he began, then trailed off helplessly. "I don't know." Deniz's gaze grew cooler still.

Appropriate or not, Roman felt like he hadn't been so desperately torn since spring. He had an eerie deja vu of how he'd felt then, a sensation like being braced between two walls that rapidly retreated from his touch, defying his attempts to maintain his grip on both. Except this time it wasn't even Marc. This time what weighed the scale opposite Deniz was just a silly song and dance. No real choice there, surely.

Still…

For a moment, he saw himself doing it. Saw himself walking away with Deniz to make whatever amends his diminished eloquence could offer, abandoning the harebrained risks of Slayer. Someone else would find Isabelle and get her on the ice; somehow the show would take off without him. And if it didn't… well, c'est la vie, Marc would say, with a shrug and a crooked smile, and he'd be right. The world wouldn't end, and Roman would know he'd picked the thing that mattered more.

Still…

"I don't know," he repeated, so quietly he could barely hear himself, and he didn't mean the choice, which wasn't impossible, of course; he meant the other things, shapeless but sinister misgivings at the edge of his perception, questions like what else he would give up if required; how far would he bend in the name of penance before he snapped, or before Deniz realised he didn't want a spineless supplicant any more than he wanted a lying cheat.

Deniz was watching him, still waiting, with an intense yet remote sort of look that Roman couldn't quite interpret. It wasn't angry anymore, but it sure as hell wasn't pleased. Snowflakes were slowly melting in his hair, and his fair skin still held the flush of having been recently exposed to cold air. He must've come directly to the theatre. Roman's heart clenched at that; he knew with sudden, painful keenness that he'd never loved Deniz quite so much as in this moment, and knew equally well that that alone wasn't enough; not close, not nearly.

"Please," he said, quiet and desperate beyond all defences. Roman thought he saw something flicker in Deniz's eyes when he said it, a tiny flinch, and something caved in him at seeing it, making him give up the tattered remnants of his pride entirely. "Please, Deniz. Just let me do the show. Two hours, that's all I'm asking. Please."

Deniz had his teeth sunk unconsciously into his lower lip, the way he did in moments of intense concentration. He didn't say anything but he didn't have to for Roman to know, with a sinking heart, the implications of what he was asking. Two hours was a long time. Long enough to consider what you were waiting for. Long enough to be far away by the time the curtain fell. Even so, Roman held his gaze, hoping against hope that he'd understand, that he'd grumble angrily or say something biting or petty, but that he'd understand, and would agree to wait.

Deniz did him one better. After what seemed an eternity, his shoulders slumped ever so slightly, though his features stayed grim. "How can I help?" he asked calmly.

For a second, Roman was physically dizzy with relief. He felt his mouth moving before he could hear what he was saying. "The press are all over the lobby, getting in the way. Dominique was supposed to herd them to the VIP section and prep them, but her German's rubbish, and Marc is too busy. Could you…"

Deniz nodded. "On it. I'll dazzle them with my charms or something. The VIP section?"

"Second corridor off the lobby. Box A. If in doubt, follow the champagne."

"Okay." Deniz looked around, spotted the coat rack, and grabbed an elegant-looking blazer off it. "Can I borrow this?"

It looked like Norman's. "Of course."

Still somewhat incredulous, Roman watched as Deniz quickly shrugged out of his snow-wet winter jacket and into the blazer. Habit carried him across the room despite circumstance, and he reached out to quickly adjust Deniz's collar. Their eyes met, then flickered apart.

"Thank you," Roman said, hand moving from the collar to brush tentatively against Deniz's cheek.

Deniz studied him briefly, then nudged Roman's hand away with a one-shouldered shrug. "We'll talk afterwards, then," he said firmly, and after a moment's hesitation, added, "Good luck." His voice was bland and professional; it was the good luck you'd wish a competitor at a skating event, just before you wiped him clean off the ice.

Watching him stride off down the corridor, Roman swallowed around the lump in his throat. Despite his sudden rush of grateful elation, he couldn't help the niggling apprehension that he'd been granted a finite number of chances, and that he'd just thrown his last one away. He stood frozen to the spot for long, indecisive moments before he finally rallied and turned on his heel to run in the opposite direction from where Deniz had gone. It was twenty minutes to curtain, and he had a show to run.

 

One of the background skaters had seen Isabelle heading for the toilets. On his way there, Roman first ran into Marc, who was engaged in a furious discussion with the wardrobe mistress over a torn seam in Norman's first act tunic. Norman himself stood between them like a placid blond rock, patiently holding the offending seam in place while Aida hastily stitched it together. He gave Roman a smile as he dashed past, looking infuriatingly calm.

"Roman!" Marc grabbed for his sleeve. "Isabelle's in the prologue – where the hell is she? She should be upstairs already!"

Roman quickly explained, downplaying it as much as possible, but Marc knew him too well. He cursed, low and unusually vicious. "Damn it, Roman, if that girl flakes out…"

"She won't," Roman said, with a good deal more conviction than he actually felt. "If I know her at all, she won't."

Marc gave him a searching look. "Things okay with Deniz?"

Roman shrugged. "We'll see."

Marc made a sympathetic noise. "I didn't mean to cause trouble."

"You didn't. Well, no more than usual. Marc, I have to go find Isabelle," he said, just as the wardrobe mistress demanded Marc's attention again, presenting the repaired rip on Norman's costume for inspection. Marc's hand briefly closed around his, large and warm. "Break a leg."

"You, too," Roman said, heart pounding, and ran.

 

The ladies' washrooms were of the old-fashioned sort, full of plush velvet wall coverings and gilded mirrors. Opposite the sinks was a dainty settee with pink upholstery, and curled on it, looking stunningly beautiful and utterly miserable in her glittering cream-coloured costume, was Isabelle, crying.

"Oh my bloody lord and fuck," Roman said, with feeling, and grabbed a handful of paper towels from the dispenser. "Isabelle, come on. We're about to start. You need to be upstairs now."

"I'm not going," she murmured.

"Yes, you bloody are!" he hissed. "You did not break your back – and mine, I might add – for three days to master this routine just to chicken out now because of Bloody Ben Clueless Steinkamp! You are going to move your spoiled little arse upstairs right now, you're going to skate, and you're going to give the performance of your life or so help me god…"

Isabelle suddenly lifted her head to stare at him, but just when he was about to breathe a sigh of relief for having got through to her, she grabbed his arms and sat up. "Roman, you've known Ben for ages. And Vanessa. Is it… were they really?"

There was nothing for it but to nod. She groaned, her hands dropping off his elbows, and slumped back into the settee. "Oh god."

Roman glanced at the clock. Ten minutes to curtain. Several corridors away, he could hear the strings of the orchestra, practising. "Isabelle," he pleaded, "we need to go."

Isabelle was not listening. "How could he not tell me?" she asked, sounding utterly stunned. "How could he marry me without telling me something like that?"

Roman dabbed at her teary face, thanking his lucky stars and the make-up artist's foresight for having chosen waterproof mascara. There wasn't too much damage. "He told you now, didn't he?"

"Yeah, now." She laughed, an ugly, broken sound, and brusquely turned her face away from his ministrations. "If he could keep that from me this long, what other things is he still holding back? How can I even trust him?"

"I don't know. You just do. Kind of what trust is all about, isn't it?" She blinked at him sceptically, and he dropped into a crouch before her, taking her hands. "Isabelle. Can you do anything about it, right now?"

She slowly and hopelessly shook her head, and Roman squeezed her cold fingers, silently willing her to harness despair into strength; willing himself to do it, too. "That's right. You can't. You can't change what happened with Vanessa, or the fact that Ben didn't tell you until tonight, or the fact that that's about the shittiest timing in the world. What you can do is go out there and skate your heart out. Show them what you're made of. Show them you can rock this thing." A memory flashed briefly before his eyes, Deniz stubbornly declaring that they could sweep the Gay Games. It brought a smile to his face. Isabelle was looking at him, eyes full of conflicted emotion, and he shook her a little, willing her to understand. "This isn't about Ben, Zauberfee," he said softly. "Tonight is about you. Don't let anyone take that away."

He saw the change in her eyes grow for long, agonising moments, a slow burn from anguish to determination. It felt familiar somehow. Eventually she nodded, and her icy fingers squeezed his. "Alright. Let's go."

They dashed down the darkened corridor to the rink with two minutes left. Above them, hundreds of faces in the dark blurred into insignificance as they made for the bright glare of the ice, lit green and gold for the prologue. The great dragon lay curled and still at the centre of the rink, the skaters inside motionless as they waited for their cue.

Roman took the blade guards Isabelle pulled off her skates, and gave her one last, critical appraisal. Her make-up was still a little smudged, but he hoped no one would notice. Her hair and costume were in place, her shoulders straight, and she was looking out at the bright lights of the ice.

"Okay?" he asked softly. At the opposite end of the rink, he could hear Marc's voice on the speakers, delivering his opening-night speech, but for once the smooth silk of his ex's voice did not command his attention. In the silence before the first strings of music set in, Isabelle turned to look at him, her face lit only by the glow off the ice. Her chin, too strong for her otherwise delicate face, was the least pretty of her features, but right then, jutting out beneath her narrowed eyes and compressed lips, it gave her a gleam that Roman had never seen in her before: a hard edge to her softly polished beauty, a kind of stark recklessness that moved him.

It took him a long moment to figure out where he'd seen that keen, narrow look before, and when he did it rattled him quite badly. Jenny. She had the look that Jenny used to have when she went out onto the ice and dropped all her crafty veneers: setting out, in defiance of love and other inconveniences, to win.

Isabelle gave him a tiny, almost imperceptible nod, and Roman leaned forward, briefly touching his lips to her forehead. "Go on, then," he whispered, and watched her glide out on the ice as the music started up.

*

 

The press were easy enough to handle, especially if you'd been dealing with them for a number of years. Deniz exchanged smiles and pleasantries all around and cheated his way through a few Slayer-related questions with what he remembered of Roman talking about it. One of the reporters recognised him from his Male Function days; Deniz answered a few questions about his retirement and posed for a few pictures before ushering the lot of them towards Box A, where they milled around him with champagne flutes in hand, waiting for things to get started. Their attention diverted for a moment, Deniz took a look around to get his bearings.

He'd hardly paid attention to the theatre itself or the preparations when he'd come in, too anxious and intent on finding Roman, so this was the first time he took in his surroundings consciously. The Eispalast had clearly seen better days. The kitschy pink and red wall coverings were worn in many places, the seat upholstery and the carpet threadbare. The ice rink, only about half the size of the one at the Centre but still impressive-looking, was obscured by a massive dark canvas in lieu of a curtain, held up by pulley chains. Above it, a huge double-sided banner hung from the rafters: the green and gold dragon with the blood dripping from its claws, spelling out words. Love Hurts.

Deniz made a face. You're one to talk, Marc.

The theatre was choc-a-bloc, people milling everywhere in search of their seats, a chorus of hundreds of voices echoing all around the silent, covered rink. On the far side, there was the orchestra pit, with the sounds of instruments being put through last-minute tunings.

A chime announced that things were about to start, and people began to settle down, the din growing quieter. The press box was spacious but all the seats were already taken up, so Deniz positioned himself near the edge, leaning against the satin-covered half wall that divided this box from the next. He wondered if Roman had found Isabelle. Craning his neck, he tried to make out where the main rink entrance was, but there were sound boxes and other booths raised all along the perimeter of the rink, and several access ramps, so it was impossible to tell.

Another chime, longer this time, and the lights went out entirely. A disembodied announcement droned from the speakers asking people to turn off their cell phones and reminding them that photography was not allowed. Glancing around at a good dozen photographers with cameras at the ready, Deniz assumed it didn't apply to the press and that he wouldn't have to stop them taking pictures.

There was a ponderous, clinking noise echoing throughout the space of the theatre as the huge pulley chains were set in motion and the black canvas, along with the dragon banner, was pulled upwards and out of sight. They revealed the bright surface of the ice, softly illuminated in a warm, mellow light. Arranged all along the sides of the rink were elegant papier-mâché backdrops of grassy glades with the blue ribbon of a river meandering through it all. The centre of the rink was dominated by a huge model of a craggy grey mountain. Wrapped around its base was the dragon from the banner. It was a huge prop, easily thirty feet long. The painted silk covering it was incredibly lifelike, every scale limned lovingly in emerald and gold. The square-jawed head rested on an outcropping in the rock, eyes lidded and massive fangs protruding from its curved lip. It was asleep.

One of the open-air booths arranged midway around the rink was lit by a soft dark gold glow; enough to notice it was there, not enough to detract attention from the scene. Inside it stood the slender, tiny figure of a woman dressed in sombre black. She rose slowly when the subdued sounds of strings rose from the orchestra pit; at the same time, another figure stepped down into the ice rink from a simple arch raised above one of the openings off the boards. She wore a pale cream costume studded with iridescent sequins that complemented her pale hair. Deniz involuntarily leaned closer as he recognised her, body arched in the seemingly effortless arch of an arabesque as she glided out into the rink. Isabelle.

He watched as she back-skated around the mountain and its sleeping charge in a narrow spiral, accompanied by the singer's soft, crooning voice. Every note was perfectly matched to every one of Isabelle's motions, both weaving together into a ritual of appeasement for the sleeping beast, and Deniz felt himself drawn in against his will, reluctantly spellbound by their symmetry and grace. When the scene wrapped up and Isabelle backed off the ice with a playful cross-step serpentine sequence, he clapped with the others.

It didn't stop there. The next number was raucous and bawdy, introducing Norman Jeschke's male lead, and Deniz found himself laughing at the thinly veiled sexual innuendo of the lyrics as the mercenary waved his sword about, his performance a shameless display of brawn and careless charm. He watched through an ensemble act featuring a disturbing number of peasants in drag, followed by another performance of Isabelle's, this one light-hearted and mischievously captivating, dominated by ballet-like spins and dancing sequences.

Driving here through the drifting snow, with anxiety and anger churning unpleasantly in his stomach, he hadn't thought of the show. He'd thought only of Roman and how it was possible to love someone so much that it caught you off-guard at odd and inconvenient moments in your life; spinning you off the safe axis of reason and confidence, making you do mad things like race down the wintery Autobahn in an ancient, borrowed Volvo without a sodding clue what to do or say once you reached your destination, only knowing that you had to go or you might miss some indefinable chance.

He hadn't truly thought of the reason that had drawn Roman here, away from his duties as a trainer in Essen, and away from him: the silly dream he'd dismissed for so long, letting Roman have it because it was important to him but never grasping the shape of the thing.

Yet here that shape was, opening up on the ice before him, a tale of hope and magic and betrayal, involving real people, real feelings, and if it all was wrapped in the clichéd cloak of musical, an apt lyric for every change of heart and every whimsical distraction, still it was no less real for that, nor less entrancing.

Deniz hadn't expected it to be like this. Hadn't expected to be moved.

He went on autopilot during intermission, fielding reporter questions and repeating over and over that no, they couldn't get a quick interview with either producers or cast now, they'd have to wait until final curtain. Silently he cursed them and his spontaneous offer to help; all he wanted was to get out of here, away from the responsibility – no matter how peripheral – of being involved in something he didn't want to be involved in. He hadn't bargained for this. He didn't want to care. He didn't want to get why this dumb show mattered.

The chiming of the gong ringing in the end of intermission saved him, giving him the opportunity he'd been waiting for. As the Entr'acte started up, he slipped out of the back of the box and dashed through the near-empty corridors in search of the stage entrance. An officious usher tried to stop him, claiming the area off limits to the audience. "I'm the PR manager, you idiot," Deniz snarled at him in his bitchiest I'm A Supermodel, How Dare You tone. "Get the hell out of my way." The kid blanched, stammered an apology, and got out of his way.

It was cooler down here, the familiar chill wafting off the ice. Darker, too, on the wrong side of the lights; more uncomfortable, but for all that more like home. He wasn't used to seeing the rink from above, a wide expanse of cold glitter that he had no part in. Things felt more real down here near the source of the cold.

Roman was at the boards next to the narrow, arched-over square of the entrance to the rink. He was wearing his rough-knit olive-green sweater and no jacket or gloves, but he didn't appear to be cold. His eyes were glued to the centre of the rink, where Isabelle, wearing a severe grey chainmail costume, and a slender, dark-haired skater in peasant garb circled each other in tight, elegant spirals. Their arms wove an intricate pantomime of animosity in tune with the snarling duet of their singing counterparts.

In the cast-offs of the light, Roman's cheekbones were sharp as knives, his jaws clenched tightly as he followed the two skaters' every move. He seemed off limits somehow, his focus too fierce to be disrupted, and in truth Deniz didn't mean to disturb him; not right now, in the middle of this. He stopped well behind him instead, blending in with a small gaggle of skaters who were waiting for their scene and make-up artists brandishing airbrush spray guns and powder puffs.

Isabelle came off the ice after her number while the dark-haired skater stayed on, transitioning into a haunting solo piece. He was beautiful to watch, his wiry body effortlessly twisting into positions that Deniz knew without a doubt he himself would never have mastered. Isabelle looked exhausted but tersely focused, drinking in deep gulps from the bottle Roman handed her and accepting the fleece hoodie he wrapped around her shoulders. Their heads dipped close together as they whispered to each other, and then Roman led her off with an arm around her shoulders, presumably for a costume change. Neither of them spotted Deniz, and he took the opportunity to step closer to the boards, to get a better view of the colourful battle scene that was now unfolding on the ice.

So this was the dream that Roman had abandoned a decade ago, slumbering in some corner of his lover that he, Deniz, had had no part in, that he hadn't even known existed. He watched with a curious ache in his chest, not for the cheesy comic relief or the overdone drama, but for the story at its heart: three people savaged by the sharp edges of love, struggling to deal with the consequences of their choices. As a new set began, Isabelle re-entered the scene from a different access point across the rink, this time in a dark red costume trimmed with intricate embroidery. He watched them all gather on the ice, the two men entwined in a simple but moving pairs routine among a set of green and silver trees, while the girl – the queen, Isabelle – patrolled the high walls of her garden alone; all three joined in the soaring notes of a haunting ballad: Love Hurts.

He didn't notice Roman had returned until there were fingers, warm and sudden, folding over his own on top of the boards. Startled, he looked down to find Roman standing beside him. He wasn't looking at Deniz at all, his eyes glued to the swaying figures on the ice. Deniz felt like he'd rarely looked more himself, and rarely more far away, despite the distance of a few inches. Still, his fingers were warm and solid and real, curled over Deniz's hand. Deniz turned his hand into the strong grip, palm up and wrapping his own fingers around Roman's, feeling both helplessly proud and profoundly terrified. This wasn't what he'd thought it was, but the hell of it was he didn't know if that meant it was better, or so very much worse.

 

*

 

Roman wasn't used to things coming through for him. In fact, he'd pretty much come to accept that things going wrong sooner or later was something of a status quo with him, so much so that he'd become rather comfortable with that philosophy over the years. There were too many things that had gone massively, irreparably, devastatingly wrong: his family, too many friendships, Marc. Even skating, in the end; he might have attained some Zen over the last year that allowed him to appreciate past triumphs, but there was always a small, mean part of him that remembered how it had all ended: with drugs and lies and the abrupt undoing of what should have been his final triumph. He hadn't been surprised, not truly. It had merely been a confirmation of what he'd already known: Dreams were for enjoying while they lasted, but they didn't come through, and sometimes it was better to help them along before they buggered off on you. Self-sabotage was a vital component of self-protection.

 

Yet here he was, with no defence in place at all, in the middle of a dream more than ten years old, hoping stupidly against hope that this time it wouldn't fall through.

And somehow, magically, it didn't. He watched it all unfold in a curious state of near-trance. Against all odds, the disaster that he was half expecting didn't happen, on the contrary. Norman and André mastered their twist lift effortlessly, and shone through the rest of their routines. They looked beautiful together, Norman tall and fair, every inch the embodiment of confident power, and André short and dark, all passionate grace.

Roman couldn't help a tug of wistfulness as he watched them. When first he and Marc had sketched out these characters, gradually coming up with personalities, flaws, back-stories, in their shared vision the lovers had always been them. These routines, changed a hundred times since then but still holding the basic elements of the story they'd come up with together, had been written for Marc and him. It was hard not to get a little bit nostalgic, although to his surprise, even that nostalgia was more fond than sad.

It might not be them on the ice, but somehow it had all come together, even if it was ten years late. The characters, conceived so long ago by a pair of enthusiastic boys in a dingy flat in Düsseldorf, were finally given faces, moves and voices. It was all there, the music, the choreography, the sets, the props.

About two thirds through Norman and André's ballad, he caught sight of Marc, halfway around the rink by the access ramp for the dragon. He stood leaning forward, watching the skaters as intently as Roman was, brow furrowed in anxious concentration. Their eyes met briefly across the stretch of ice between them. Marc's expression was unusually solemn, his mobile mouth without its characteristic amused tilt. He held Roman's gaze for a moment, quiet and unsmiling, then eventually gave him a tiny nod, and turned away. Roman took a deep breath, feeling less sad than he'd thought he might, and turned back to watch Slayer.

The premise of "disastrous dress rehearsal equals great opening night" was coming true. The only thing that failed as reliably as ever was the zombie horse, but even it had the grace to wait for an opportune moment. Near the end of the battle scene, a mock slash from one of the attackers that should have barely scraped its surface made the horse's head crack and drop suddenly to the side, half-severed off its neck. They saved it well, though; after a moment of shock, the skaters inside the horse had it dramatically crumple to the ground, and Norman did a quick improv of a grieving moment before resuming the battle on foot.

But the true gem was Isabelle. Roman supposed he was biased, but he didn't even care. Gone was the nervous girl who only had a few Junior Championship medals and a lowly Essen Cup trophy to show for herself; gone was the devastated wife crying in the toilets. Gone were the falls. She skated with a focus that knew nothing of fear, a furious intensity to her every move that made her shine. She became Eltara, and she made her real: much more than a scheming villainess, but a woman who fashioned herself into a weapon against a world that didn't understand her. She whirled across the ice with ruthless precision, Anita's throaty voice merging perfectly with her every move.

During With Or Against Me, her technically most difficult piece, Roman actually found himself holding his breath so many times that he was getting a bit dizzy, his hands clutched around her blade guards so tightly the plastic cut into his palms. Given the impossibly tight training window, they'd cut some of the most extreme elements out of the five-minute routine, but even so it was still an insanely fast-paced program: a series of complex combinations and double and triple leaps that required intense focus and control every second. It was a dark piece, full of anguish and betrayal. From her softly lit sound booth, Anita's powerful alto soared in time with Isabelle's jumps and dropped into a croon with her sit spins; thrummed with emotion during the death spiral with Norman, and burst towards the ceiling in a glorious, threatening affirmation of defiance when Isabelle spun away from him and whirled through a double/double combination culminating in a perfectly executed triple Axel. She landed lightly and perfectly, leg extended and arms raised, and Roman's gush of released air was lost in the sudden roar of applause.

When she came off the ice, he bustled her off for her costume change, and when he returned there was Deniz, leaning against the boards. For a self-declared despiser of musicals, he looked suspiciously like a spellbound little boy, lips parted slightly as he watched in unabashed wonder. Despite his lingering dread, Roman smiled to himself, feeling a warm glow spreading low in his belly, and stepped up next to him. He reached out and took Deniz's hand, and held it tight throughout the rest of the scene, standing close enough for their hips and elbows to touch.

It was a profoundly strange experience to stand here between two things that he'd aborted more than once, and that somehow had refused to fail him anyway: this glittering display on the ice, and the man beside him.

Four more sets, three, then two. The final battle. Isabelle and André chasing each other in dangerously tight circles, long glittery streamers attached to their wrists that they flicked at each other, while Norman battled the dragon. Brought alive by the skaters bearing it, the beast was magnificent, its silky cover catching every stray beam of light and reflecting it back, giving it the illusion of rippling muscles under the green and gold hide. A crescendo, building to the absolute breaking point; then André's triumphant launching of the magic gem, and a French horn bugling in agony as Norman sank his sword into the dragon's heart. With a lonely, haunted vocal from Anita, Isabelle crumpled to the ice and disappeared in a sudden flash of smoke effects.

"Yessss!" Roman hissed, slamming his fist against the boards in triumph, only to wince at the jarring impact. There was one number left but he suddenly knew nothing would go wrong now. They'd done it. He watched with a fierce glow of pride as Isabelle completed her final set, against the stark set of the mountain backdrop, arms raised as she did her final layback spin and Queen Eltara passed from the world, defeated but unbroken. As the lights went out, there was a long, airless silence in the dark.

Then the applause began, and did not stop for a long time.

 

The aftermath was a whirlwind of attention; with the entire theatre on its feet and the applause an ongoing thunderous rumble from above. The performers – skaters paired with singers, taking their bows together – were called back onto the ice no fewer than four times. The applause rose into a roar when Norman and André and their singers took the ice, the walls literally shaking with stomping feet and the sounds of clapping, hooting and whistling echoing off the high ceiling. When a beaming Norman leaned down to capture André's chin for a quick kiss smack on the lips, the crowd went absolutely nuts, roses and stuffed toys raining down onto the ice. Isabelle and Anita got only marginally less attention, and the cheering intensified when the girls embraced, laughing and overwhelmed. The individual bows were followed by the full ensemble out on the ice, with Marc and Dominique in the middle. The Eispalast's director, a thin, wiry old man with a slight limp, could hardly get the audience to be quiet long enough to give a brief but enthusiastic speech, delivering credits for the orchestra, Marc's choreography and the joint production.

Roman turned to Deniz, still somewhat dazed but beaming so broadly that his face actually hurt. Deniz was smiling too, a more subdued smile but genuine, and the pride shining from his eyes was unmistakable. Roman took a step towards him, the need to kiss him overwhelming, but then he found himself suddenly whisked along by someone, dragged into the centre of the rink with the performers despite his laughing protestations.

Isabelle threw herself into his arms, breathless and glowing. "Roman! I did it!"

He wrapped her up in a tight embrace, lifting her off the ice and spinning her around. "You more than just did it, Schatz – you owned it! You were brilliant! Out of this world! Completely amazing!"

"Thank you… oh god, Roman, I could never have done this without you. I still can't believe we actually did this! It's insane!"

"Completely bonkers," he agreed, and squeezed her tightly. She made an adorable squealing noise, and he planted a kiss on each of her cheeks and a third one resoundingly on her mouth.

The applause was finally starting to die down, people milling towards the stairs in search of after-show entertainment. Marc was suddenly next to them, wrapping one arm around Isabelle and the other around Roman and briefly hugging them close. "What a show, huh?" he asked, beaming all over his face. Roman just nodded, too overwhelmed for more. Close on Marc's heels was Tom, who seemed to have forgotten that he didn't know how to move on ice. He pounced his sister exuberantly, hugging her tightly. "Isa, you were completely fantastic! Wasn't she fantastic, Roman?"

"She was fantastic," Roman agreed fervently. He rose on his tiptoes a bit, peering towards the exit. There were so many people around he couldn't see Deniz anymore.

Next to him, Marc was leaning down to yell into his ear over the noise. "We'll be upstairs in the VIP lounge celebrating. Are you coming, too?"

"I don't know… I don't think so. I have to find Deniz."

Marc just nodded. "Okay, well, if you change your mind, I'll see you both there." He put his hand on Roman's shoulder and squeezed it warmly, adding with a smile, "You did an amazing job with Isabelle. And everything else. Thank you."

Roman smiled back at him. "You're welcome."

"Right, then… I'll see you later!"

Roman nodded and wove his way through the people milling on and off the ice. He had to apply his elbows liberally to get through the tightly packed knot of people at the exit off the rink.

"Congratulations." Deniz's voice came from behind him; turning around, he found his boyfriend standing in the dead spot half underneath the first tier of stairs, out of the way of the milling crowd. He'd taken off Norman's blazer and stood there in his cream knitted sweater, hands jammed into the pockets of his jeans. "It was a great show."

"Thanks," Roman said warmly, but he hadn't missed the odd undertone in Deniz's voice. "And thank you for helping with the press."

"Mhm." Deniz looked away from him, up the corridor skirting the rink. All the people had finally cleared off the ice, which was littered in flowers, and were making their way towards the exits, either to go home or join the celebrations. "I saw you on the ice just now," Deniz said, in a deliberately casual tone that clearly only knew casual from vague description. "With the applause and the hugs and all."

Roman frowned. "If you mean Marc, that was just-"

"So when are you leaving?" Deniz asked curtly, for some reason staring fixedly at the floor between them instead of at Roman. There was a tense, desperate note in his voice that Roman didn't know how to interpret, and frankly he was getting tired of all the mixed cues.

"What?" He probably shouldn't feel so bitter at the question, the ungracious implication that now that he'd been allowed his foolish little excursion, he had better put it all behind him and get his arse straight back home. "Tomorrow, as planned," he said coolly. "Unless you were planning to grab me by the hair and drag me back to Essen right now. Is it really that awful for you that I'm enjoying something I helped make a success?"

Deniz didn't answer, just continued to stare a hole into the ground, and Roman sighed, exasperated despite his gratitude. It might have been nice to be allowed the high of success a little longer, to celebrate with the others and have Deniz there with him instead of having to justify himself. It might even have been nice to go back to his hotel together and have a private celebration, preferably in a generously sized bathtub. Instead, apparently it was going to be more accusations and possessive Öztürk macho crap, possibly combined with a nice dose of emotional manipulation and guilt tripping, if all the jabs about Marc were any indication. Great.

Then he remembered Deniz relenting to his desperate plea, asking how he could help. Roman remembered his enthralled expression during the show, the warm touch of his fingers on top of the boards, and his anger lessened somewhat. He let his shoulders drop from their defensive hunch and jerked his head towards the stairs.

"Okay. The props room should be empty, and it'll be warmer than here. Let's go and talk."

 

*

 

It took a while to manoeuvre their way around and through the crowds. The constant delays when Roman kept getting accosted by performers and stagehands to exchange congratulations were doing nothing for Deniz's patience, and Roman couldn't fail to notice it. By the time they were backstage, navigating the maze of corridors, their uneasy truce was definitely over.

"You could've picked a better moment for this, you know," Roman, walking briskly ahead of him, was saying over his shoulder, in a mildly tolerant tone that set Deniz's teeth on edge. He was not in the mood to be patronised. "I still can't believe you drove all the way from Essen just to yell at me."

He scowled darkly at Roman's back. "Sorry I'm cramping your evening. I guess you'd rather be celebrating with Marc," he said snidely, and got a perverse bit of pleasure out of seeing Roman's shoulders tense. It didn't last for long.

"Has it occurred to you while you were so busy imagining me cheating on you," Roman demanded in a bitingly conversational tone, "that all your talk of being okay with me going and trusting me comes off pretty damn empty when the second you don't get a call every hour, you come running to check up on me?"

"It was two days!" Deniz protested angrily. "What was I supposed to think? Besides, don't try to make me feel guilty for being worried when the first thing I got to see after arriving was you wrapped around Marc's neck!" They were coming up on a door that said "Props Storage," and Roman stopped to yank it open, glaring at Deniz over his shoulder.

"I was not wrapped around Marc's anything!" he hissed as he flung the door wide and stormed into the props room. "I wasn't even…"

He stopped short so abruptly that Deniz bumped into him from behind, sending him stumbling a few steps further into the room. "What the…"

Props storage was a mess of papier-mâché models and painted wood and cardboard, weapons racks and banners. There were shelves all along the walls for the smaller items and several narrow corridors leading away towards the back. Unceremoniously dumped in the middle of the room was the collapsed model of the discarded mechanical horse, its severed head drooping sadly, support beams showing. Splayed on top of it with his shirt undone was Tom, wide-eyed and mussed; and braced between the younger man's sprawling legs, his hair tousled every which way and his hand stuck down the front of Tom's jeans, was Marc. Tom's right leg was up, knee hooked firmly around Marc's hip.

"What," said Deniz. "What."

"Er," said Roman.

"I'm on a horse," said Tom, crestfallen.

Marc said nothing. They both stared at him. "I thought you were celebrating," Roman said eventually, stupidly.

Marc cleared his throat. "I was… uhm… celebrating." He pulled his hand out of Tom's trousers with all the dignity a man caught groping a computer nerd on top of a decapitated horse prop could possibly muster. "Hello, Deniz," he added.

"What," Deniz said again. Tom was scrambling to get his feet under him, and Marc reached down, helping him up with a hand under his elbow. Then he straightened his sweater and smoothed back his dishevelled hair. Somehow he managed to pull off both without appearing terribly flustered. He even gave Deniz a small, polite nod.

"I heard you were helping out with the press earlier. Thank you so much for doing that."

Deniz somehow managed a non-committal noise, which was the absolute height of his communicative abilities at present. He was actually kind of proud of himself for managing that much.

Tom was buttoning up his shirt the wrong way. "Were you guys looking for something?" he asked sheepishly.

Roman was still staring at him as if he'd never seen him before. Deniz could relate. Tom? "No," Roman answered, "I mean, yes. Just a quiet place to talk. But er, I think actually we had best get back to the hotel for that," he declared, with a quick look of inquiry at Deniz. Deniz nodded dumbly. Any place that had a door to close on this very unsettling world just now was fine with him.

Marc was looking from Roman to Deniz and back. His expression gave nothing away. Roman turned abruptly. "Okay, let's go," he said, then stopped again, frowning, and turned back. "Oh, er, Tom… I know it's your room too, but I was wondering…"

"No worries," Tom said, flapping a hand at him. "It's all yours. I'll find someplace else." He cast a brief glance at Marc, then smiled at them brightly. For such a terminal klutz, Deniz thought, he seemed to have regained his composure remarkably quickly. And after the initial surprise, he didn't seem all that fazed or embarrassed at being having been caught in a compromising situation with Marc Hagendorf of all people.

Interesting.

Roman seemed to have similar thoughts, blinking at Tom in bemusement. "Okay. Thanks." He reached out and grabbed Deniz's hand, somewhat hastily. "C'mon, Deniz, let's go."

"What," Deniz agreed blankly. "Er, I mean, yes. Bye," he added as an afterthought, addressing a point somewhere safely above Marc and Tom's heads, before he fled the room, hard on Roman's heels.

 

*

 

"I'm going to assume," Deniz was saying, in the tone of a man who desperately wished to be answered in the affirmative, "that I don't actually need to know what Tom was doing with Marc."

"Don't worry," Roman assured him. "I couldn't tell you if I wanted to. Seeing as I have no idea either."

"Right. Good," Deniz said, with feeling. Roman snorted a laugh.

If he was honest with himself, he didn't actually want to think about it in too much detail, either. It was one thing to be okay with Marc not waiting. It was another to actually see him not waiting, and to see him not waiting with Tom Reichenbach: young, carefree, freakishly kind, gorgeous, and stinking rich Tom Reichenbach, whom actually he loathed more with every passing second. Just on principle.

He firmly pulled the blinds on his too-eager imagination. It was none of his business, and besides, it wasn't like they'd been exchanging wedding bands. They'd been groping in the props room, that was all. Well, and Tom would need someplace to stay tonight. But he wasn't thinking about that, either.

They were back at the hotel, which was blessedly quiet after the roaring noise at the Eispalast. Deniz had kicked off his shoes and was curled in a brown ottoman, one long leg tucked underneath him, the other drawn up to his chin. He'd taken one look around the room, realised that there was nowhere else to sit other than the beds, and had gone straight for the more neutral option. Of course that option also prevented Roman from sharing the same piece of furniture, but Roman refused to let that deter him. After a moment's hesitation, he'd gone and sat on the rug opposite the ottoman, with his back braced against the commode. The rug was thick and red beneath him, and Deniz made no comment.

He was looking up at Deniz now, whose eyes were darting restlessly about the room, flickering back to him every once in a while. His cheeks and ears were still reddened from the winter air, his dark hair flattened as if he'd not bothered for long enough to gel it before leaving the house. Roman's heart contracted briefly, with worry and exasperated love. He said the first thing he could think of.

"Why the hell did you think I was leaving?" He wasn't sure when he'd realised the question meant more than he'd assumed; that Deniz hadn't simply meant when was he going back to Essen. It worried him.

Deniz's eyes did settle on him then, frank and accusing. "What, is that really so far-fetched? You couldn't wait to come here. You were so wrapped up in it you never even bothered to check if I was really okay with it. And you've called me once since you left. Once! What was I supposed to think?"

"I was busy, that was all!" Roman said, aghast, before the more important part of that statement hit him. He narrowed his eyes. "What do you mean, if you were really okay with it?"Deniz gave him a blank, hard look. Understanding set in, cold and leaden. "You weren't okay with it."

"Not so much."

Roman bristled. The flat tone, together with the overall wounded self-righteousness of all this, was seriously starting to piss him off. If Deniz was expecting flailing apologies now, he could damn well wait until his arse merged with that chair.

"If you weren't okay with it, why did you tell me you were? I asked more than once! You told me to go!"

"Because I knew I couldn't stop you! Because I knew you wanted it so much! Doesn't mean I had to be happy about it, does it?" Deniz fumed. "In case you'd forgotten, the ice show is what started all the trouble last time!"

"Deniz," Roman sighed, "the ice show didn't start the trouble. I did."

Deniz leaned forward a bit, eyes suddenly blazing. "Yeah, and I still don't know how, or when exactly that started, what kicked it off, so how do you think it feels to have… to have things come up that feel exactly like they did when Marc first showed up, when you told me there was nothing to worry about over and over and I told myself if you said so, it must be true and I needed to quit having these thoughts… but I was right, dammit! I was right, and if you could fucking lie to my face about it one time, how the hell do I know it couldn't happen again?"

Roman sat very still. He hadn't expected it to be like this, not a hot wave of anger to blindside him. Hurt, uncertainty, sullenness, yes. Not fury like this, black-eyed like some fierce Turkish warlord risen straight out of Deniz's ancestry.

"I thought… I thought you trusted me," he said, floundering between guilt and disappointment, and coming up numb.

"I do!"

"No, you don't. Own it, Deniz Öztürk." He glared at his boyfriend, daring him to deny it. Deniz wasn't backing down. He got up suddenly, so abruptly he set the ottoman to rocking, and started to pace, erratically striding the narrow space between the beds, the window and the door.

"I do. I mean… I try."

Roman made a disparaging noise. There was a perverse kind of satisfaction in feeling proven right. He'd known all along that complete forgiveness was too good to be true. Deniz spun on his heel when he heard it, staring at him. A volley of conflicting emotions was flashing across his face in quick succession. Then his shoulders slumped. "Do you know how hard that sometimes is?" he demanded. "Not because I don't want to, but because I can't fucking control it? Do you know how hard it is to just – I don't know, just little things, to be in our flat, making dinner with you or lying on the couch, or in bed, and suddenly I have to think of you doing that stuff with Marc, laughing with him, kissing him, screwing him in our bed, over and over, and-"

He broke off, breathing hard, and turned his head away. From his place on the floor, Roman watched him, stunned into momentary silence.

"I don't want it," Deniz was saying in a choked voice. He sounded angry still, but more frustrated now than anything. "Do you understand, I don't want to be that guy. When we got back together… Roman, I meant that. I'd never meant something so damn much in my life. And I don't want to bring past shit up every time something goes wrong, but I can't help remember things, or imagine things, and when something like this comes up and you don't talk to me, don't even call-"

He walked another short, tight circle, slammed a flat hand against the wall and cursed. "This all sounds so fucking pathetic."

"Deniz…"

"No, I know it does, alright?"

"Deniz, it never happened in our flat. Or our bed. God..." There was a terrible tightness in his chest, horror at the thought of Deniz having believed all these weeks… but of course he would. He would have.

"Oh." Deniz paused at that, stopping in his furious path through the carpet and fixing Roman with a sharp stare. Relief flickered briefly across his face, but was extinguished as quickly. "It doesn't make a difference."

"No, I know, but…"

"Alright, so you weren't leaving this time. What if he shows up again next year?" Deniz said tonelessly, giving him the next jolt. "Or someone like him? Am I always going to have to fight off your past? You know… you were my first, Roman, my first. I don't even have anything like that."

Roman blinked. "I'm confused." He tried for a dry tone, even though his heart was pounding. "Are you seriously bemoaning the fact that I wasn't a virgin?"

Deniz snorted, though his mouth twitched briefly in something almost a grin. "Dude, no. If neither of us had had a clue, we'd never have gotten anywhere."

"Quite."

Deniz waved his hand at him, serious again. "No, but I mean…"

"I know what you mean." Roman drew his legs under him, sitting up on his haunches. He took a deep breath.

"I'm… I'm not sure if I can even explain what happened with Marc."

"And I'm not sure I want to hear the details," Deniz shot back, quick and grim.

"Fair enough. The fact is it happened, and I let it happen because I needed to be sure. And yes, for a while there I wasn't sure about anything, except that I wanted to have everything and I couldn't and it was tearing me apart."

A muscle clenched in Deniz's jaw, ever so slightly. "And now?"

Roman met his eyes straight on. "I'm here with you, aren't I?"

"That isn't really an answer."

"Yeah, it kind of is," he replied, more sharply than intended. "If it was Marc I couldn't live without, then I'd be in Hamburg right now. Or, well, here, but… you know what I mean. My point is I wasn't leaving, and I'm not leaving now because I love you, you idiot. Marc and I are over, for good."

"Unless someone else shows up," Deniz said darkly. He slumped suddenly, sitting down on the floor with his back against the wall at the far side of the room.

"Unless that happens, to me or to you," Roman agreed, with a sad smile. "There's no guarantee against that ever, is there?"

Deniz didn't reply, just looked at him with that same sharp look, intent and not entirely happy, but so penetrating and devastatingly open that there was nothing for Roman to do but hold his gaze and hope he wouldn't come away scorched.

"Do you have any idea how much you scare me sometimes?" he blurted, deciding that honesty was perhaps the best tack here, even if it made the mess even bigger.

Deniz's focus shifted, and he blinked at him in confusion. "Huh?"

Roman nodded. "You're so… I never expected to have anyone feel about me the way you feel about me. For a while there I was terrified because I thought you only felt that way because you didn't really know me. Now… now I'm just terrified because I think you do know me, better than anyone, and feel that way anyway. I think that makes you kind of mental, to be honest."

Deniz was still blinking. "Speak for yourself."

"I am." He smiled ruefully and held up his hands, palms out. "It's just… you're very intense, sometimes. About me. Us. It's disorienting. And flattering, but, well, like I said, scary too. It's all very vexing, really."

He shook his head and picked at the rug in front of his knees, wishing Deniz were closer, but not trusting his legs enough to get up and cross the room. "I wish I had an answer for you about next year, or ten years from now, but I don't. I don't really have any answers, these days." He hesitated. "Remember last year… when we first got back together? What I told you that night?"

Deniz nodded slowly. "That you wanted to enjoy what we had for however long it lasted."

Roman nodded, too. He remembered, too, the way Deniz had looked at him, glowing and agreeing, practically enraptured with love. If he was honest about it, he much preferred the way Deniz was looking at him now: conflicted and intent and more than a little cautious, but at least not enthralled by some freaking love spell.

"Yes, well, that's still true. But you know what else is true?" He looked up to find Deniz watching him closely. "I'm in this for the long haul. Marc… well, I'd be lying if I said I'll ever be completely indifferent to Marc. But you weren't my fallback option, Deniz. I'm with you because I want to be."

Deniz bit his lip. "Vexing and terrifying and all?"

Roman smiled at him, although it felt quite wobbly on his face. "Yeah."

"Right." Deniz put his hands against the rug and pushed himself up, slowly walking back to the ottoman. He flopped down into it again, body slightly tilted towards Roman, scrutinising him.

Roman cocked his head, a little worried still. "So… are we okay?"

He didn't really know what to do if the answer was no. The need to reach out and touch Deniz, to find reassurance in the feel of his skin and the taste of his lips, was so strong he had to restrain himself to stay where he was, looking up at Deniz from the floor.

"We are, it's just…" Deniz said slowly, head down, his index finger tracing pattern in the upholstery of the armrest. "Well… we used to talk. About stuff. Anything, really. I know it took ages to even get to a place where we could do that, and sometimes it'd be scary as hell to talk, and sometimes I just wanted you to shut the hell up, but… it helped. I liked it." He looked up then, eyes bruised and imploring. "I want us to talk about things again, even if it's not the easy thing to do. I want that back."

Roman swallowed around the large lump in his throat, and blinked when it suddenly disappeared. "I'd like that, too," he said softly. "Very much."

He could almost see the tension flow out of Deniz; his shoulders sagged slightly, and the desperate strain around his eyes and mouth lessened. "Okay."

"Okay," Roman echoed, and then, ironically, neither of them said anything for a long time. It was long past midnight, and the heater had finally warmed up the room. Roman could feel the bone-deep exhaustion that had been chasing him for days finally catch up with him; but his mind was still whirring, unable to settle down. Deniz was slumped sideways in the ottoman, legs dangling on the floor, watching Roman silently. Eventually Roman reached out, slowly, to curl his fingers around Deniz's ankle, sliding one thumb up hesitantly to touch his calf just above the seam of the sock. He stroked the skin there, very gently.

After a moment, Deniz shifted and his foot slipped from Roman's grasp. Instead, Deniz's long legs eased down from the ottoman, followed by the rest of him as he lowered himself to the ground to sit facing Roman. He looked exhausted and unshaven but peaceful. Roman reached out to cup his cheek, thumb gently tracing the curve of his lower lip. "Hey," he said softly.

Deniz smiled at him, a tired but real smile. "Hey." He ducked his head a bit and pressed a kiss against Roman's stroking thumb. "I love you."

Roman returned the smile, and the kiss, pulling Deniz's warm hand to his lips. "I love you."

They made love on the thick red rug, too tired to move to the bed and in all honesty too tired for sex, but unable to end the evening without the reassurance of sharing their bodies. It was quiet and intent, almost solemn, rocking towards climax together with their limbs entwined so tightly Roman wasn't sure they'd know how to disentangle afterwards. Their lips never once parted, one kiss dipping into the next, sometimes not even kissing, just breathing each other in, catching the other's gasps. They made a sticky mess of the rug, and Roman felt sleep drag him down almost immediately after, with the taste of Deniz's kisses still in his mouth. Deniz somehow managed to pull himself up and manoeuvre them both into the bed, which was too cool and impersonal after the warm, wet space on the floor. Roman made a grumpy noise and curled into Deniz, nudging him until he'd arranged him into the most comfortable position for his own purposes. Deniz snorted into his hair and murmured something unintelligible. Roman rubbed his cheek against his chest, enjoying the heavy weight of Deniz's arm across his ribs, the salty taste of his skin when Roman licked a sleepy trail along his collarbone by way of goodnight. He was asleep before Deniz had finished tucking the sheets in around them.

 

His phone rang early in the morning, jolting him shrilly out of the pleasant deep warmth of sleep. It was still dark outside, a thin dusting of snow coating the lower end of the window. Deniz, who had been lying curled against his back, grumbled a sleepy protest, both at the noise and at being dislodged, and rolled away as Roman groped for his phone.

"Mnnngh. Yes?" he said, rubbing his free hand over his face.

"Roman? It's Marc. Sorry I woke you."

Roman groaned. "Marc? I'm pretty sure calling people at…" He squinted at the clock, and swore, "six a.m. on a Sunday constitutes a criminal offence. At the very least it's malicious assault."

Deniz was stirring under the covers, prodded awake by the mention of Marc's name. He frowned at Roman over the edge of the duvet, tousle-haired and stubbly and looking delicious, Roman couldn't help noticing. He gave him a smile and ran a hand up his bare calf under the covers.

Marc laughed at the other end of the line. "I'm sorry. Tom put me up to it. Actually Isabelle put Tom up to it and I got the thankless task of disturbing your beauty sleep."

"Marc," Roman said exasperatedly, rolling his eyes for Deniz's benefit to show it was nothing serious, "I don't know what's going on with Tom and you, but if he's making you call at people at…"

"Six a.m. on a Sunday, yes."

"…yes, that, then you ought to, I don't know, stop him. By any means necessary."

"Stop whining. Anyway, he wants to do some final filming for his game at the Eispalast, and I wanted to give Isabelle one of the costumes to keep – you know, as a thank you, for saving my show. So can you and Deniz be at the theatre in an hour or so?"

Roman howled in protest. "Why that early? He can bloody well do his filming later, can't he?"

"They'll be setting up the rink for tonight's show later. Besides, Isabelle wants to get an early start back to Essen. Something about her husband, I don't know. So, are you coming?"

"I suppose," Roman said distractedly. Across from him, Deniz had propped himself up against the cushions, the sheets pooling around his waist. With a sleepy and slightly wicked smile at Roman, he slipped a hand beneath the covers, moving it in a slow but unmistakable rhythm.

"Roman?"

"Hmmm?"

"Bring your skates. Tom wants some footage of you skating."

"What, for all those computer gaming kids who want to play a virtual version of a middle-aged skater getting fat?" Roman asked sardonically. In his ear and from across the covers, Marc and Deniz both snorted, nearly simultaneously. It was slightly unsettling.

"You don't expect me to grace that with a reply, do you?"

"No," Roman said decisively, sitting up a bit straighter so he could follow every motion of Deniz's hand. His head had dropped back against the headboard, mouth slightly parted, watching Roman from beneath half-lowered lashes. Something occurred to Roman then, and he cleared his throat, tugging surreptitiously at the sheets. "Instead, you can tell me what on earth you're up to with Tom." Deniz lifted his head suddenly, his interest clearly piqued. Roman grinned at him and slid his thumb to the speaker button. Suddenly Marc's voice filled the room, low and amused.

"I am not authorised to disclose that information."

Deniz rolled his eyes, mouthing 'loser', and Roman snorted. "Oh, come on. What happened in the props room?"

"We were fixing the horse," Marc said reservedly.

Deniz made a choked noise and slammed his free hand over his mouth, eyes widening in suppressed amusement. Roman didn't bother hiding his, but then he didn't have to. "Uh huh. And, did the horse get a good… fixing?" He grinned at Deniz, who was biting the heel of his hand now trying to stop himself from laughing. Roman tugged at the sheet a little more, and it pulled free, exposing his boyfriend's sprawling thighs and his other hand, which had not stopped moving. With an insolent grin, Deniz briefly opened his hand, blatantly showing off. Roman rolled his eyes, but his gaze stayed glued to Deniz's fingers as they once again curled loosely around his cock. He stroked himself leisurely, fingers tightening near the shaft, then sliding down to briefly cup his balls.

Marc said something that Roman missed, too entranced with the wanton display in front of him. "Er… what?"

"I said no comment."

"You're no fun. Or, wait…" A thought occurred to him and he sat up straight. "Is he there right now? Is that why you can't talk?" An image rose inside his mind unbidden: Tom Reichenbach sprawled naked in Marc's bed, his tangled curls even messier than usual, blue eyes sleepy as he watched Marc on the phone. Perhaps doing the same thing Deniz was even now, fingers slowly pumping the length of his cock. Or Marc's cock. He squirmed a bit, trying to find a more comfortable position, and Deniz gave him a smile that was altogether too knowing.

Then Marc dashed the fantasy, the bastard. "No."

"Oh."

"He's in the shower," Marc added, sounding amused and just a tiny bit smug.

"Ooooh." There were some interesting images to be had there too. Deniz's eyes were crinkling and his rhythm failing, his shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter. Roman couldn't quite suppress a giggle of his own.

"Roman?" There was a sudden note of intense suspicion to Marc's tone. "Did you put me on speakerphone just now? Is your boyfriend listening to this?"

Deniz's eyes widened in alarm, and he bit his lip, trying to keep in any noises.

"No!" Roman said hastily. There was a long, suspicious silence, and then he thought, oh, to hell with it. "Well, okay, yes, he is. But that's what you get for waking people up this early. He's wanking, by the way," he added innocently. Deniz sputtered, hand freezing mid-motion.

"Good grief, Roman." Marc sounded as if he wasn't quite sure whether to laugh or tell him off.. "This is highly… okay, you know what, I have to go. See you at the rink in an hour. Try not to be too late," he added pointedly, and hung up.

Deniz was staring at Roman from the cushions, flushed crimson and mortified. "Dude! I can't believe you did that."

Roman leered at him. "What? It's only fair. He deserved a bit of payback. Besides, don't think I didn't notice you getting harder when he started talking about Tom..."

He expertly ducked the pillow that came flying his way, and quickly dove under the covers, pulling the billowing sheet over them both as he nudged Deniz's hand aside to replace it with his mouth.

They did end up being late, but really, Roman thought, he owed that to his reputation.

 

*

 

The ice had not been cleared or resurfaced yet; it was ravaged by last night's performance, scratched deeply and covered in forgotten roses and stuffed teddy bears and other souvenirs. The sets had been cleared away for now, except for the dragon, which had only been moved off to the side. The bulky prop lay curled as it had been slain the previous night, its red-tipped talons bright against the paleness of the ice.

A lonely figure was on the ice, weaving simple figures in and out of the strewn obstacles: Isabelle, in jeans and a grey turtleneck, her hair curling loosely on her shoulders. She was leaning low on a deep inside edge, knees turned out, leisurely plucking up a rose here, a stuffed teddy there, only to discard them again on the next spin, sending them flying from her fingertips flung out. The scattered items and the deep grooves in the ice didn't seem to deter her; she glided between them effortlessly, not with the thrilling perfection of last night's performance dominated by daring jumps and combinations, but with the slow, hypnotic grace of an impromptu dance.

Deniz, one arm slung around Roman's shoulders, was watching her intently as they walked the perimeter of the rink, drawn in by the flow of her motions. It was so different from the focused way he usually saw her skate, simple but lovely.

The others were already there. Tom was leaning far across the boards with his video camera and tripod set up just inside the rink itself, following his sister's movements on the ice. Sitting on the bench behind him was Marc, cradling a Styrofoam coffee cup. He had the collar of his coat up against the chill and one long leg propped up against the boards next to Tom. Deniz stiffened automatically, and Roman's hand tightened a little on his waist.

"Deniz," he said warningly, with a hint of amusement. "Be nice."

Deniz gave him an incredulous look that Roman cheerfully ignored, the bastard. Nice?

Tom spotted them first. He waved, a big smile on his face. "You're right on time! Roman, did you bring your skates?"

Roman raised them up high, held by the blade guards. "What do I get for this, again?"

"Same thing everyone else gets – the honour of being immortalised in digital form."

"Hmmm," said Roman, dubiously.

Marc had watched them approach in silence, his expression pleasant enough but impenetrable. Now he nodded at them. "Morning, Roman… Deniz."

Deniz grumbled something that possibly might be interpreted, with much good will, as a greeting. Roman shot him a worried side glance before he sat down on the bench and started to put on his skates, leaving Deniz to stand around awkwardly, not knowing what to do with his hands.

Tom nodded, satisfied. "Excellent. Monsieur Producer brought his too, but is refusing to perform. Too old or something, he said… couldn't quite make it out over all the bullshitting." He smacked Marc's outstretched leg disparagingly, demanding to be let past. Marc chuckled and pulled it back, taking another sip of his coffee.

"Trust me, no one wants to see me skate."

"I beg to differ, but fine. Come on, Roman! I need some footage from a pro."

"Yes, yes," Roman grumbled, tying up his skates. Deniz found himself surreptitiously staring at Tom, wondering about the casual banter, the unselfconscious way he'd slapped Marc's leg. He didn't want to know. He really didn't. Still… he snuck a speculative side glance at Marc, only to find the older man watching him over the rim of his coffee cup, a bit cautious but also openly amused.

Deniz narrowed his eyes at him, which only served to deepen Marc's smile. He let his gaze slowly travel down Deniz's body, lingering a little too long on the middle, and then looking back up at his face with an unmistakable grin. Deniz felt his cheeks warming with a flush, and abruptly turned away, instead focusing on Roman as he swept out to join Isabelle on the ice.

Tom, thankfully oblivious, had stepped inside the boards too, very stiff-legged on the very edge of the ice. He had one elbow hooked over the top of the boards for support while readjusting the settings on the video camera with the other. He looked up at Deniz suddenly, jerking his head towards the ice. "And you, ice prince? How about some more pair-skating? I'd love to have some of you and Roman."

Deniz shook his head regretfully. "I didn't bring my skates."

"Use mine." He turned, startled, to look at Marc, still sprawled on the bench.

"What?"

Marc bent over and picked up the skates, handing them over. "I'm fairly sure we're about the same size." Only the faintest hint of mockery in his voice, not enough to stand up as an excuse for a punch. It wasn't like he necessarily wanted to punch him, anyway. Just maybe spill that hot coffee on his crotch. Because that was definitely a safer option than the ones the morning's phone call had conjured up.

Deniz sternly forbade his imagination any re-enactments. He reached out and accepted the skates, at a loss for what else to do. "Uh. Thanks."

"You're welcome." Marc smiled at him, a brief, perfectly polite smile this time. Perhaps he'd imagined the teasing glint in his eyes after all.

Yeah, right. Deniz sat down and quickly changed into the skates, uncomfortably aware of Marc's quiet presence at his back. The shoes did fit reasonably well, and it was a relief to escape out into the rink.

Roman and Isabelle were doing parallel footwork, simple crossover steps, gliding together and apart again around the obstacle course of scattered flowers and trinkets. Isabelle waved as she skated past Deniz. "About time! We still have a long drive today."

"Yes, good morning to you, too, your majesty." Deniz drew even on her free side, catching her lightly around the waist and spinning her. "How come you're that eager to be off?"

She shrugged. "Ben's going on a business trip tonight. I want to talk to him before he leaves."

Deniz made a sympathetic grimace. "Oh."

"Exactly," she agreed, then added with a slightly sour smile, "Besides, Mikkeline Kierkgaard is getting here today. My fifteen minutes of fame are over. I'm no longer needed." She slipped free of him, and continued the spin across to Roman, who took over seamlessly, crossing their arms and whirling her into a spiral.

"Isabelle Reichenbach, you have got to be kidding me!" he announced exasperatedly. "Have you taken a look at the papers today? You're everywhere! No matter where this production goes or how long a run it has, this premiere will go down in figure skating history as that time Isabelle Reichenbach learned a full ice musical in three days. No one will remember Mikkeline, or Caroline. When they think of Queen Eltara, they'll remember you."

She was laughing by the time he was done ranting, giving him a mock bow as her leg came back down. "Okay, okay. Skating history. Check. Does he ever stop talking?" she asked Deniz, coming up next to him and taking the lead with one arm around his hips, guiding his arm. Deniz grinned. "Extremely rarely." She spun him once, twice, then transferred him to Roman's arm in a wide, soft sweep before suddenly speeding off across the ice, with a split jump across a forgotten sword prop, and then into a rapid layback spin. From the side of the rink, Tom whooped encouragement.

"Show-off," Roman muttered in Deniz's ear, then spun him round to face him with an impish grin that made him look all of seventeen. "Can we show her up?"

Deniz grinned back at him. "You bet."

They hadn't done the routine in almost a year, but their bodies remembered, aided by the casual daily symmetry of living together and knowing how the other moved, sometimes before he even did move. They dipped low into the parallel spin, Roman's arm warm and secure around his hip, came round to face each other and then slid apart backwards, as if pulled by invisible strings; made a wide backwards circle of the ring before they drew up close again, hands clasped, moving easily together. On a whim Deniz broke out of the program and pulled Roman towards him instead, one hand under his arm, the other on his hip. Roman went with it, lending him the momentum of his own body as Deniz lifted him into fifth position, light and easy. He held the pose for a moment, hardly listening to Tom's applause, enjoying the perfectly tensed arch of Roman's body balanced on his hands. Roman turned his head back, then, smiled, and stole a quick kiss before Deniz put him back down. He held him a moment longer, pulling him back against his chest.

"You know," he said softly, "you should maybe look into this."

"What, professional figure skating?" Roman laughed, a trifle bitterly. "Been there, done that, got all the third-place medals anyone could want."

Deniz impatiently shook his head. "No, I mean ice shows. Last night, when you were watching… you looked so happy, and proud, and… and okay, Marc can bite me, but the show turned out kinda awesome."

Roman was craning his head to stare at him, a delighted, sly grin slowly spreading across his face. "Deniz Öztürk, are you turning into a musical fan?"

He scowled, and poked Roman in the ribs without letting go of him. "Hardly. But I know it turned out awesome in no small part thanks to you. And if that's what makes you happy… you should maybe do more of it."

Roman's smile had given way to a different expression, strange and intense and touched. "Essen isn't exactly a musical centre," he said ruefully.

Deniz shrugged. "Other places are. And I probably wouldn't mind a change of scenery."

Roman was blinking at him rapidly. "You mean it."

"Of course I mean it. Unless you want us to move in with bloody Marc," he added darkly, "because that is not happening."

Roman made a thoughtful face. "Hmmm, actually, in terms of culture, Hamburg is very…"

Deniz launched a tickle attack that sent Roman's skates sliding out from underneath him. Roman grabbed onto his arms for support, and they went down yelping and whooping, crashing onto the ice. Deniz landed on his back, and Roman rolled over, leaning over him with shining eyes that crinkled at the corners. Across the rink, at the boards, voices were raised in laughter, Isabelle bantering with Marc and Tom; there was a sudden burst of amusement, but Deniz couldn't bring himself to tear his eyes away for long enough to see what caused it. He reached up to brush some ice dust off of Roman's hair, and Roman swooped down, playfully nudging his nose against Deniz's. Deniz nuzzled back, smiling, and then when Roman dropped his head onto his chest, he wrapped his arms around him and simply lay still. He watched the clouds of condensed air rise from their mouths, mingling, and in the corner of his eye, he saw the green and gold coils of the great dragon curled near the boards. Eyes half-lidded and his massive head resting on his claws, he looked only asleep after all: curled up in some dragon dream, waiting to reawaken and spread his wings against the gleaming ice.

 

THE END

 

 

 

 

DVD Extras:

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