When it rains, Leo's shoulder aches. He rows harder.
In September, he ends up at Heidelberg because rowing is what he loves, still. Not much of an idea what else he'd like to do, but rowing is enough for now, and Heidelberg is the team to beat. They have a reputation for winning championships, and Leo wants one of those, too.
A gold medal is great, but it was his team who had won, not Leo, not really. He had to watch them win. After a whole year of fighting just to be accepted, it stung to stand on that dock and watch his boys cross the line without him. It was a shooting pain, travelling down, shoulder to elbow to wrist.
He thought they might celebrate, maybe with some more champagne, maybe get a chance to tell Tobi how he looked out there, but the aftermath was more awkward than the teams expected. Georg practically sprinted to his bus. Waldo carried their boat, Nils and Niels gathered oars, and everyone grabbed a backpack. Leo organised from the back of the bus what he couldn't carry.
RSC left before Queerschlag could say goodbye.
Leo felt like a stalker, but he found Tobi online and wrote him a few emails, a few days after he got home to Berlin. One came back, a handful of confused sentences that swam around in Leo's head for two weeks before he realised he hadn't written Tobi back. He missed the moment.
The rest of the summer was quiet, save for his mom's embarrassing praise. She had the whole family over for sauerbrauten with Leo's gold medal in the place of honour at the head of the table.
"Won't you put it on, Schatz?" Everyone stares when his mom holds it out, dangling from her finger. "We'll take some pictures." Of the gold medal--Leo is the prop holding it up. He lets her, because she is his mom after all, and she doesn't say anything when he escapes after the torte.
He takes his boat out on the Spree and rows until it's autumn. With only a few days left of summer, it isn't worth getting his heart broken again. Summer romances aren't supposed to be like this. They're supposed to be fun. The boys you kiss during those warm days are what get you through the cold ones.
Tobi gets him through the winter--far longer than Leo expected, really--but the first day back from break, Leo meets Berne. He knows it won't last. Leo knows before the first kiss, a surprise, and sloppy because they had only been talking over the keg, and Berne had barely swallowed before he lurched forward and caught Leo's lips with his own. Leo thought it might be a mistake, but then he felt tongue.
Berne is tall, and Leo likes that. He likes how he fits perfectly in the curve of Berne's arm when they sleep together in the narrow dorm beds. He has dark eyes, gorgeous, almost black, but completely unreadable. Leo gets lost in them.
"I'm kind of dating that boy named Berne," he tells Anke because she's the only one he told about that surprised and sloppy kiss. They have breakfast every morning. Berne isn't one for public meetings. They don't see movies, and they don't go dancing. Dating at university is different than Leo had imagined it. He had imagined there would be more sex than this. It's mostly handjobs, and Leo got handjobs in high school.
Anke bites her lip, then steals the second roll off Leo's tray, the one he was saving to get him through Art of the Wiemar Republic. "I don't like 'kind of'," she says, ripping into the bread.
She always says the right thing. It wasn't until he crashed into her, both of them sneaking in an early morning jog across the Old Bridge, that Leo realised they didn't know each other, that they hadn't talked at all last summer. He hoped he had congratulated her after the regatta, but now, a steadying hand on her shoulder, he couldn't remember.
"Oh my God, Leo?" She smiled and clutched at his arm like they were old friends, reunited.
So, they jogged back to campus together, discovered they had both ended up at Heidelberg to row. Leo didn't know, until he walked into the boathouse for the first team meeting, how good it felt to see a familiar face.
"We should have walked down together," Anke said, and Leo had liked her after the bridge, but now they were friends. They sat together and laughed together, until they boys and girls were split up, and Anke made him promise to wait for her after.
She's here for literature, and Leo, for history, but they met at the campus bar for coffee, then it was lunch, Anke's treat, and then they were eating breakfast together every morning. It was that easy, and no one had to know they both had the same ex-boyfriend. They didn't talk about Tobi at all, except that one night, hiding in her bed with two comforters because an ice storm knocked out the power in the dorms. In the end, there wasn't much to say.
Anke asked, "Do you think this is why he chose us?" Leo wanted to laugh, but it was a real question. He didn't have an answer.
Anke didn't like Berne, even after she met him. Another drunk dorm party, a public place where it didn't have to look like Berne was meeting Leo's best friend.
"He obviously didn't know he was meeting your best friend," she huffed, later, rubbing her hands to keep warm on the walk home.
Leo didn't call Berne, and Berne had never called him anyway, so that was it. Leo didn't miss the handjobs, but he liked having a warm chest to sleep on.
Rowing moves onto the Neckar River once the frost is gone and the birds return. Leo rows as third seat alternate in the Eights, more than he might have hoped for as a freshman. The rest of the boat seems to like him. Some are a little more interested in the girls team on the other end of the dock, but Leo finds himself glancing that way, too, looking for a reassuring smile from Anke.
"OK," she says, linking her arm in his as they hike back up the hill. "Do you like Heller? He invited me to a party tomorrow."
"Which one's Heller?" The guys on the team all call each other by last name.
"He's the mountain who sits in front of you."
He's all shoulders. He blocks Leo's sun, which works, actually, but also everything else, which doesn't. So, Leo puts his head down, listens for the the cox, and pulls until someone tells him to stop. Heller's also loud, with nicknames for everyone. Leo is, predictably, Curly.
He's nothing like Tobi, but Leo doesn't need to tell Anke that. He tells her to go.
"You'll come, right?"
The official start of competition season is next weekend, so this weekend is their last to be irresponsible college kids. Heller is more of a gentlemen that Leo expected, fetching drinks and checking in. He has a smile that makes Anke smile, and he asks three times if she's having fun.
She gives Leo an elbow in the side, gently, but pointed. That's the signal which means Leo has to pour his own beer for the rest of the night and find someone else to talk to. He finds a couple of last names from the rowing team in the corner. They say, hey, then ask what Leo thinks about the clutch of girls dancing in the middle of the room.
"Oh, Nussbaum." Koertig puts his arm around Leo's neck. His breath is warm and tickles. "He's more interested in you than that blonde with the stein."
He's not (Nussbaum enjoys tormenting freshman too much), but Leo takes the gesture for what it is. At least he knows they were listening.
But Leo is interested in the boy who, later that night, sits carefully on the arm of the hallway couch where Leo is taking a break. The boy who says, "I saw you out there this morning," which probably means he saw Leo rowing singles like he tries to do more often than he doesn't.
"I'm Leo," he says, offering a hand. The boy grins, says, "I'm Theo," and they kind of laugh at that, but they also still make out on the couch. It's better than a handjob.
School ends with the Heidelberg Men's Eights taking second place and the Women's Pairs grabbing gold in a last minute power to the finish line. This time, watching from the sidelines feels completely different. It feels like Leo got them there, too.
When it's been a year, Leo and Anke go down to watch the Summer Regatta together, trading off driving duties and control of the stereo in Anke's little green car. The competition is too small, too local for the Heidelberg teams, but Waldo is coaching a team that will be there--Queerschlag II? Leo teases when he sends an email back to say he'll come and he'll cheer.
He doesn't ask if anyone knew RSC would be there, because he knows they'd know he was asking about Tobi.
"I'm glad we did this," Anke announces for the both of them. She knows she's stronger.
Queerschlag II (the name's caught on) wins their first heat, but loses the second, and again in the repechage. Queerschalag I cheers hardest the third time they cross the finish line. Anke works them all up again when the girls get out on the water.
A punch in the arm passes down the bleachers until Nils leans up to tell Leo, "Tobi's here."
The guys all give Tobi sideways glances--Leo can see them trying to hide it, and he loves them for that--as they watch the rest of the guys from last year's RSC team arrive and find seats. Achim is alone, and it looks like he and Tobi have found their friendship again. Everyone waves, tentative, trying to remember if they're friends or enemies. Heads turn towards the water at the sound of a catcall, and Waldo blows a kiss for the boys.
"I'm gonna say hi." Anke uses Leo's shoulder to push herself up. He nods an OK. He's not going to be the over-protective big brother. Besides, that's her team over there. Even now, she knows Tobi better than anyone.
They're hugging, when Leo looks, and she waves back to tell him she's going to sit with her team while the races run. Waldo's boys are very good, even if they don't win. They'll be even better next year, a little more practice, a little more confidence, and Waldo can help with that.
"Tell me about the brainiac Heidelberg boys," he says, letting Leo out of the crushing hug. "Cute?"
"They like to think so," Leo says, because he knows it will make Waldo laugh.
He leaves the group with their champagne to walk down to the water and take a better look at the boat. It's La petite étoile. It's their boat, the one that carried Queerschlag over the finish line last year. Leo thought something felt familiar.
"I heard you guys took silver."
Leo nods. He looks back, not because he isn't sure who's standing there, but because he wants to see his face. He wants to see Tobi's eyes and if he can still read him like before.
"Congratulations," Tobi says.
Leo sits first, bare feet in the water, then waves Tobi over. "You still rowing?"
He shakes his head. "Just for fun."
"You did something to your hair," Leo says. He squints the sun away, and now, sitting closer, he can see that it's not a cut, it's gel. It's up and out of his face.
"You didn't," Tobi laughs, lifting his hand to Leo's curls, a longer, tangled mess than the summer before.
They shouldn't, but they do. The kiss is far too easy to fall into with Tobi's hand moving through his hair, down his cheek, resting on the back of his neck.
"Oh," Leo breathes. "We're really not doing this."
Tobi lets go. He sits back, and Leo can't help it; he pitches forward. They both catch the other in a smile.
"It's your choice," Tobi says. He could draw Leo back in so easy, but that was last year, and this is now.
Leo decides it's fitting their last kiss happens here, on the dock.
The last names of the Heidelberg Men's Eight take full advantage of the summer weather reaching into autumn. Some of them would row through the snow and ice, but some of them play football and hockey, too. They have to finish the season, and if they can't do it with a championship, the team decides on a sunny Saturday at the end of September.
Leo's taking a moment on the dock before they put into the Neckar River. He'll be rowing fourth seat this season, no alternate. The water is perfectly cold, exactly crisp, and when Leo stretches to the left, he can see the Old Bridge. He can hear footsteps behind him.
The boy looks like a freshman. Leo recognises that look in his eyes.
"Rowing?" he asks and points to the water. When Leo nods, the boy lets out a breath, relief.
"Cool. I tried out for football, but they said I was too pretty."
Leo laughs. "And Heller's always telling me footy boys like the pretty ones." The boy is lost again. Leo shakes his head. "Never mind."
He is too pretty, is the thing, and the sky is blue, and the trees are gold. There's an empty spot beside him on the dock, and the boy sits without waiting for Leo to ask.