Sunday, February 15th, 2009 09:22 pm
Title: In This Home On Ice – Chapter Two: The Rittberger Connection
Authors: [insanejournal.com profile] aldiara and [insanejournal.com profile] lilithilien
Fandom/Characters: Alles Was Zählt, Deniz/Roman
Word Count: 7K words
Rating: Gen
Summary: The thing is, playing hockey requires concentration, and that’s hard to come by when at every practice session, half his mind is already off the ice.
Disclaimer: Sadly we don't own these characters; we just like watching them fight.
A/N: This story picks up Deniz’s rentboy plot somewhere after episode 565, but goes AU from there (a.k.a. as far as we are concerned, Stella does not and will never exist). Lilith pirouettes; Aldi swings hockey sticks. Previous instalments: Chapter One and Interlude 1.


Rittberger: A loop jump that takes off from a back outside edge and lands on the same edge.

“Alright, ladies,” Ingo says cheerfully, clapping his hands, “that was dreadful. Bloodcurdling. Impressively pathetic. Maybe next time we can invite the ballet girls along and we can all sit in a little circle on the ice and sing Kumbaya and then we’ll giggle and talk about boys, and then-”

“Okay, Ingo, we get the point!” Vanessa yells impatiently, yanking off her helmet. “We suck. Can we go now?”

The rest of the team grumble in agreement, shuffling restlessly on the ice like a herd of garishly dyed bulls, shoulders drawn up against the sharp whip of their trainer’s tongue. Deniz would join in the sentiment, if it wasn’t Vanessa who had voiced it. Instead, he holds his tongue, pretending to inspect a strap on his helmet, turning it back and forth between his hands.

Ingo snorts. “You do suck, and no, you don’t get to go – chewing you out is the only thing about this training session that doesn’t feel like a complete waste of my time, and I plan to indulge. So!” Another sharp clap. “Defence! Karsten, Marco, I don’t care if you’re about to leave the team – while you’re still here, do me the courtesy to pretend like you give a toss about keeping the puck out, okay? Vanessa, I don’t know where your head has been this entire week, but I’d like it back on the ice next time, if that’s at all possible. And Deniz – puck, net, into! Any of that ring any bells? Stick? Striker? Scoring goals?”

Deniz ducks his head lower and murmurs something non-committal. In truth, he doesn’t even remember having seen the puck today. It’s easy to dismiss Ingo’s acerbic joking as just bluster, but underneath the jovial tone, Deniz can tell he’s actually pissed off, not that he can blame him. They have been playing like crap, not just today, and he knows a lot of it is his fault.

The thing is, playing hockey requires concentration, and that’s hard to come by when at every practice session, half his mind is already off the ice, bent with almost desperate eagerness towards the point where he can escape the rink, spend only the absolute minimum time in the locker room, and get out of the Centre as quickly as he can, lest he run into Roman. For nearly two weeks, he’s darted in and out of the rink like a child dipping a toe in cold water and then bolting; where once he would have lingered after practice, sipping a drink at the bar or spending a leisurely hour by the pool, he now makes straight for home and has even taken to postponing showers until the relative safety of his own four walls. It’s a nuisance, and he hates feeling driven to flee the place that used to be his second home, but it’s preferable to the alternative. The mere thought of a confrontation with Roman fills him by turn with rage and sick shame.

He hasn’t called the agency. He came close, a couple of times: once, after laboriously adding up the remainder of his debt to Marian and blanching at the result, he already had his mobile in his hand, the number on the screen and his thumb hovering over the dial button… and then the memory of Roman’s disgusted sneer drifted before his mind’s eye, the ghost sensation of hands in his hair and money rustling harshly against his ear, and he nearly flung the phone across the room. He hasn’t deleted the number, but he hasn’t called.

Another clap of Ingo’s pulls his attention back to the here and now. “All right, then, tryouts tomorrow!” he announces, consulting the clipboard in his hand. “Supposedly, we’ll have four people showing up. I have an extra aqua class, so I’m going to be half an hour late – Deniz, Vanessa, I’ll need you to take over until then.”

“What?!” At any other time, the perfect unison of their pitch and tone might have been amusing. In fact, there are a few snickers from the team, but Deniz can’t appreciate the humour. He and Vanessa exchange a brief look of dismay. Ingo frowns.

“Yeah. Vanessa’s been on the team the longest and Deniz is our strongest player, or would be if he stopped long enough to pull his head out of his arse and concentrate.” More snickering from behind. Deniz feels his cheeks go warm and anger bubble slowly to the surface. Ingo waves a dismissive arm at the rest of the players. “All right, you lot, shove off.” He skates up in a sharp curve as the team shuffles off the ice, coming to a halt just before Deniz and Vanessa.

“It’s just half an hour, guys, I’m not asking for the world. See if any of them know one end of a hockey stick from the other, take them through a few basic drills…”

“Dude, no,” Vanessa begins, and Deniz cuts in, annoyed. “Can’t Mike stand in?” Dealing with a handful of newbies on top of their lacklustre team is one thing, but doing it together with Vanessa, who is even now radiating resentment at him from the side….

“Mike’s booked up with the skaters for all of tomorrow. You slackers are my best option. Speaking of skaters, that reminds me –“ Ingo suddenly raises a hand, waving madly across the rink. “Yo, Mike! Snowbunny! Got a moment?”

From the step down to the rink, the familiar sound of skates scraping across ice approaches, growing louder as it nears, and Deniz can feel the back of his neck prickling. His spine goes rigid, shoulders tensing in near-panic. It’s ridiculous, but he imagines he can actually tell which of the scraping noises belongs to Roman’s skates: the one on the left, slightly smoother than Mike’s, who’s heavier on the ice and needs to build up more momentum.

“What is it, Ingo? Technically, the ice is mine for the hour.” Roman, blending against the ice in his white jacket, pulls up in a perfect half-circle next to Ingo, sparing no glance for Deniz or Vanessa. Quickly, Deniz averts his own eyes, finding a spot in the half-shadows beyond the boards and fixing it determinedly. His heart is pounding frantically and his airways seem to have constricted, making breathing difficult. He hasn’t been this close to Roman since the locker room, and all his instincts scream attack or bolt. He forces himself to stillness.

From the corner of his eye, he sees Ingo nod. “It’s about tomorrow. You’ve got the rink booked from two through four, right?”

“Yes. Is that a problem?” Mike sounds, as ever, as if he half-wishes it were.

“Not a big one, no, but I’ve got some tryouts coming at two thirty and Deniz and Vanessa will take them through some drills.” Eyes still fixed on his imaginary spot beyond the rink, Deniz briefly wonders how they got from Deniz, Vanessa, would you? to Deniz and Vanessa will; it occupies him just for long enough to miss drawing the obvious conclusion to Ingo’s words, until Mike sighs. “So you want us to share?”

“Yep,” Ingo says, cheerfully unapologetic. “The kids’ll be doing basics, no actual playing, so they won’t be in the way too much. It should be fine.”

“What?!” Deniz blurts, too appalled to remember where to look; his eyes first find Ingo’s face, brows quizzically raised, then Mike’s customary sneer, and then, unavoidably, come to rest on Roman’s face. His features are carefully arranged into cool composure, although Deniz thinks he can spot just the briefest flicker of dismay.

“That’s not a problem, is it?” Ingo’s voice sounds like it comes from far away. “I don’t mind,” he hears Vanessa say, and Mike shrugs. “Fine with me.”

“Roman? Deniz? Problem?”

Deniz swallows hard, forcing down a sudden wave of nausea even as he feels his cheeks heat with almost painful warmth. “No,” he bites out, lifting his chin and holding Roman’s gaze. “No problem.”

*****


Two weeks back, and Essen is finally beginning to feel like home again. Some kind of home, at least – he’s passing more time at Jenny’s house than the loft, and Annette is still giving him her stink-face whenever she catches him attempting such aberrant behaviour as bathing and eating breakfast – but on the whole, life is returning to normal. And for nearly two weeks – save for that one encounter that had been aberrant – his life has been blissfully Deniz-free. Until now.

“Thanks a lot, Ingo,” he grumps at the Centre bar over an overpriced Pils. By unspoken agreement they’ve taken to meeting here in the afternoons instead of at No. 7. Roman’s glad he never had to explain why, but still, he grimaces when Ingo signals for two more. He should never have offered to put it all on his tab. “Dodging a pack of kids who can’t stand up on the ice is going to do wonders for my training. Maybe I should work it into my freestyle routine?”

“Poor Hase,” Ingo smirks, not sorry at all. “Just think of them like the roses your adoring fans throw. You never have any trouble dodging those. And these kids are much softer, not even any thorns. The bones might get a bit crunchy, but nothing you can’t handle. It’ll be fine.”

“I need the whole rink, Ingo.” And really, he doesn’t, he’s shared many times before, and Ingo knows it. And as soon as he says it, he wishes he could take it back, because Ingo is getting that annoying perceptive look that Roman wishes to wipe away with more beer and distracting talk about Vegas kitsch or all the trouble Mike fell into during the tour. But no, Ingo has the intent expression of a terrier trained on a hare, ready to worry it to death.

“It wouldn’t be somebody else you’re dodging, would it?”

“Of course not.”

“No, I didn’t think so. Because even you wouldn’t be that stupid.”

“No.” Roman slides sulkily into his beer, resentment and confusion and just an irrepressible need to talk to someone battling for dominance. The latter wins, as it always does, and he sighs, “It’s just that…”

“Bunny, don’t start. You already know what I’m going to say. Deniz is bad news. He’s a nice enough kid on his own, but the two of you – he brings out the worst in you, and I know you know it.” Roman glares, but Ingo seems not to notice; he’s on a roll now, his teeth sinking into the subject to which, Roman suddenly realises, he’s apparently given a lot of thought. “He’s a confused teenager who doesn’t know his head from his arse half the time, and every time you get caught up in that you act as childish as he does. I know what he’s doing now with this rentboy stuff is stupid and reckless, but you’re just going to go in there guns blazing like you can fix it, and you can’t. You’ll just end up with your head up your arse too, again, and for what? So you can fall apart again?”

“I’m not trying to fix anything,” Roman spits out once Ingo’s lecture draws to a close. And that isn’t quite the truth, he had wanted Deniz to take a good look at what his new career choice meant, but there is no way he would ever share that memory with Ingo – with anybody. He still hasn’t worked out for himself how shame and anger and need have woven together so tightly, and even when he tries to tease out the threads they refuse to unravel. It isn’t just paying for sex, he knows – granted, he’d never done that before, but he could have lived with himself for it, even if it was stupid. But when he tugs at that thought more, when he realises that it was Deniz who he’d flung his money towards, when he imagines Deniz on his knees in toilets and train stations and cheap hotels, any rational thought seems to abandon him. He hates that he was just one more in a long string of johns, but he hates even more that he still wanted that bitter lust they’d shared to somehow be special.

But he’d gotten out of there in one piece, which had been rather touch and go for awhile, and in the weeks since he’s tried desperately hard to forget it. And that's easier to do when Deniz isn’t around, which is the whole point. “There’s nothing to fix, I know that, and I know he wouldn’t care what I had to say about it anyway. I’d just prefer not having to deal with him all the time.”

“Wouldn’t we all,” Ingo agrees glumly, tipping back his bottle and draining it. His gaze doesn’t return to Roman, though, and after a fraction of a relieved second, Roman follows it across the bar to where Lena and Maximilian are engaged in heated conversation. The pained expression on Ingo’s face dispels the last tendrils of Roman’s indignation.

“More beer?” he offers by way of distraction, “and have I told you about the she-male Mike was hitting on in Berlin?”

*****



“Well, this oughta be fun,” Vanessa murmurs sarcastically, watching the newbies pick their way across the ice towards their side of the rink. Like Ingo said, there’s four of them, three boys and, surprisingly, a girl. Two of the boys have a promising build, at least: one stocky and broad, the other tall and wide-shouldered. The third boy and the girl are both quite skinny, and no older than sixteen. But that doesn’t have to mean anything, Deniz thinks, remembering his own first practice sessions here, and how he got wiped off the ice by a pudgy girl half his size. Despite his nervousness about this whole training thing, he has to fight a grin.

It quickly falls off his face when his gaze is drawn, inexorably, to the other side of the rink, where a lone figure in red is doing warm-up rounds. As he watches, one leg comes up slowly, Roman’s left arm reaching up and behind to curl his hand around his own ankle until his leg is stretched in a taut arch. With deceptive ease, his torso dips forward, balancing the weight of his raised leg as he flies across the ice on the impossibly thin edge of one blade.

“Deniz.” Vanessa elbows him in the side, and he flinches, guiltily tearing his gaze away. “What?” Vanessa is frowning at him. Her eyes briefly trail across the rink, finding with unerring certainty the object of his distraction. She doesn’t comment, but Deniz is all too aware of the sharpness of her uncomfortably perceptive gaze. “What?” he repeats defensively.

Vanessa rolls her eyes, then nods past him to where the rest of the team is milling near the boards. “I said, Karsten and Marco aren’t here – again. Did they say anything to you?”

Grateful for the safety of the topic, Deniz follows her gaze to see that indeed, only four of the team have shown up. He shakes his head. “I guess they figured why bother, since they’ll be gone by next week.”

Vanessa’s looking disgruntled. “If they think they can skip tryouts just because Ingo isn’t here, they’re wrong.” She shoves the folder with Ingo’s notes at Deniz’s chest so abruptly that he nearly drops it. “Get started with them, will you? I’ll see if I can reach Karsten or Marco.” She steps back behind the boards, reaching for her mobile that she’s deposited on the trainer’s bench, and Deniz is left to clutch the folder and turn towards the expectant faces of his team mates and the new candidates. From the other end of the rink, the scrape and slide of Roman’s skates tugs at his ears like a thin but annoyingly strong thread, seeking to snag his attention even as he studiously avoids looking. “Right,” he mutters, preparing to push off, but from out of nowhere, Mike appears in front of him, pulling up in a short, tight loop. His face is set in a sneer, but then it so often is. It’s hardly personal, Deniz tells himself.

Mike’s next words promptly prove him wrong.

“Why, Deniz, this is surprising. I didn’t think you’d have time for training hockey greenies, what with your busy professional life.” His lips part briefly and his tongue flickers out, waggling in blatant suggestion. “Sucked off anyone interesting lately?”

Deniz feels his blood freeze, as if the ice under his feet has suddenly liquefied and seeped into his veins from underneath. Involuntarily, his eyes flicker back to where Roman is looping elegantly into a figure eight, seemingly oblivious. Did he tell Mike?

He wouldn’t, he tries to tell himself, hands clenching around the notes in his hands. Not something like this, and not Mike. Surely he wouldn’t. He and Mike are not even friends. He wouldn’t.

But Mike’s leer widens at his reaction, and suddenly the image is all too clear: Mike and Roman over beers at the bar, Mike sharing the story of his latest conquest and Roman throwing into the conversation, in a tone of pronounced disinterest, Oh, you know who I had the other week? My ex. Would you believe it, but he made me pay, the little whore.

Suddenly the sound of blades scraping on ice seems magnified a hundredfold, scratching at his very nerves. Mike’s grinning face blurs as he back-skates a few paces, then slides forward again, his every move a taunt.

“Was there something you wanted, Mike?” Deniz hears himself say, above the amplified scratching sound in his ears. He suddenly feels like the very ice is tainted by that image, Roman confiding with a dismissive wave of his hand that, why yes, Deniz Öztürk did suck him off in the locker room, and really, for a professional he could use a bit more finesse.

Mike looks almost disappointed at his lack of a more aggressive reaction. He shrugs. “I want you to stick to your end of the rink, okay? I don’t have time to keep an eye out for those hazards on skates.”

“Mike!” Roman’s voice cuts across the ice as sharply as his blades, and Deniz can’t quite suppress a flinch. “I know it’s probably asking a bit much of a skating trainer, but could you kindly spare a second to pay attention?”

Mike grimaces and mutters something under his breath; then, with a last, scornful glance he’s off, leaving Deniz rattled and clutching his notes so hard he feels the paper crumple underneath his sweaty palms. For the first time in weeks, he feels the beginning tendrils of anger wrapping around the big, hard lump of contrition at his core, obscuring it as they pull tight. No matter how wrong or bitter their encounter in the locker rooms turned out in the end, somewhere in that muddled mess of spite and anger and hurt, there was something real, too, something that wasn’t dirty no matter what Roman chooses to believe, and Roman has no right to go spouting his mouth off about it to Mike Hartwig of all people. You better not have, he thinks, fists clenching more tightly about the innocent notes in slowly mounting fury. You fucking smug bastard, you better damnwell not have.

“Uhm, hello? Trainer?” It’s one of the newbies – the thin boy, waving awkwardly to gain his attention. “Is this practical hockey tryouts, or are we gonna meditate and find our inner Wayne Gretzky? Just curious!”

Deniz shakes his head, wishing he could shake the images Mike’s taunts have painted, too. He pushes off the boards, heading for the gathered players; behind his back, the steady scrape and twist of Roman’s moves continue to leech his attention like small, needle-sharp pricks against the vulnerable patch of skin between his helmet and his jersey. Pulling up in front of the two small groups of seasoned players and unknowns, he resolutely straightens his shoulders and does his best to pretend the rink ends in the middle.

“All right,” he says. “Let’s start with the very basics, shall we? Anyone know how to skate?”

*****


Roman knows the instant Deniz steps onto the ice.

He wonders sometimes if he would have any better luck getting his ex out of his system if Deniz was only a smaller man. Someone whose presence doesn’t demand so much space, whose face isn’t visible head and shoulders above the crowd. No matter how Roman tries, when Deniz is around he can never seem to tear his eyes away. Even when he refuses to let them focus, as he does now, as he runs through his drills and banishes his thoughts with sheer physical motion, even now when all he sees from the corners of his eyes are blurry figures at the far end of the rink, he still knows unmistakeably which one is Deniz. He’s the one most solid, the one who stands with feet spread apart, who looks steady as a rock amidst bright flashes of colour.

“Roman!” Mike’s shout shakes him out of his thoughts. “Again. Keep your left hip tucked tight this time, you look terrible.”

Scowling, Roman begins again, focusing on his stance, on the subtle shifts of weight through a quick series of three-turns. The steps are easy enough, some of the very first he ever learned when he first put on his skates, but he feels sluggish, like something’s off – like his muscles are fighting with him instead of doing what they know how to do. It’s only to be expected – it’s been a long while since he had one of those nights with Ingo. He was so far gone when they crawled in after midnight that he hardly even noticed Annette’s resentful glare, hardly missed those calorie-laden feasts she’s always had waiting for them before.

Sluggishness, he tells himself, that’s all it is; he’s just taking a little longer than normal to warm up. He wonders whether Mike will notice, but then dismisses the thought – his trainer always has more criticism for a perfect performance than a flawed one. Sure enough, after a few minutes Mike calls out as much approval as he ever extends. “Okay, I guess that’s the best you can do. Let’s see your Rittbergers."

Lifting off from his outside edge takes a bit more concentration than usual, but finally his muscles seem to respond. He rolls from one loop jump to the next, feeling the warm burn in his calves as he bends, the exhilarating stretch in his back as he follows through. His shoulders check on cue, his skate edge crackles harsh on the ice, and for a few minutes everything feels right.

And then it all goes to hell.

He hears Vanessa scream, “Stop!” before he even sees what there is to stop for, but by then it’s too late. The kid is there, right there, his tiny round face looking wildly up at Roman … so close, too damn close, and so full of confusion and terror as Roman’s skate moves towards it in an unstoppable trajectory. Still in the air, there’s precious little that Roman can do other than tuck in his leg and hope, hope and pray, that the sharp metal will miss the boy’s face. It’s just a fraction of an inch but it’s all he has time for, and he hopes it’s enough.

It is.

The boy lies splayed on the ice, scared but unhurt. Roman, on the other hand, feels like a giant just pummelled him in the chest with humongous fists.

“Roman!”

Solicitous hands land on his shoulder and his hip. He feels them tense, senses their internal debate over whether to turn him or not. There’s a consideration in their touch that he hasn’t felt in far too long, something more personal than he’s used to these days, and he has the strangest desire to reassure them.

“I’m okay,” he says, and he really thinks he is. Sore as hell, and the wind knocked out of him, but if he can just manoeuvre his arm to push himself up…

“Deniz, don’t move him!”

Roman groans, and not just because he aches. Of course it’d be Deniz who got to him first, Deniz who feels free to touch him at will because it means nothing to him, who feels like he has a right to touch him even though those days are long gone, the door slammed shut and locked tight. He shakes off the hands like he’s sloughing out of his jacket, all the while pushing himself into a seated position. He looks up to see Mike staring down at him, to his credit, actually looking concerned. “I told you, I’m okay.”

*****


Feeling rebuffed and awkward, Deniz steps back, watching as Mike, despite Roman’s protests, pats him down, checking for hidden damage. His palms still tingle where he touched Roman, feeling damp skin and reassuringly solid bone beneath his shirt.

He makes a fist around the tingle, both to extinguish it and to steady his racing pulse. For a moment there, he literally felt his stomach drop as he saw Roman fall, heard the sickening crunch of impact. He doesn’t even remember crossing the ice.

Roman does seem fine, though, impatiently putting up with Mike’s fussing, and when Deniz hears Vanessa’s concerned voice and the stray comments from the team, he remembers that he has responsibilities here, and Roman isn’t one of them – or shouldn’t be. He turns abruptly, hoping he doesn’t look as shaken as he feels.

“Steady there. You were lucky.” Vanessa and the other girl are trying to help the thin kid – Nick, Deniz vaguely recalls from a round of introductions at the locker rooms – to his feet; a challenging task, since his skates keep comically sliding out from underneath him. She looks up briefly as Deniz joins them to grasp the boy under the arms, and together, they manage to haul him upright. “You okay?” Deniz asks, busying himself patting at the boy’s shoulders in order to avoid looking over to where Mike is helping Roman up.

Nick pulls off his helmet, revealing a shock of curly red hair; the face underneath is very white, but he is smiling, albeit shakily. “Yeah, fine. It was my own fault anyway – kinda got too far out there.”

“That was really dangerous,” the new girl says, frowning. She’s standing very close, her hand on Nick’s arm with evident concern. She, too, has removed her helmet, and though her short curls are brown, not red, there’s an obvious resemblance between their freckled faces that Nick confirms with his next words, impatiently shaking her off with a casual air usually reserved for friends or siblings. “Don’t fuss, Tascha, I’m fine. That looked amazing,” he continues, staring directly at Roman with an awed expression. “What kinda move was that?”

“Double Rittberger,” Deniz replies, unthinking. “Moving into a triple one when your face got in the way, you twit, and Vanessa’s right – you were lucky he didn’t slice your head off.”

“Perhaps he wouldn’t have gotten in the way if you’d been paying more attention to hockey and less to double Rittbergers,” Vanessa murmurs beside him. Mercifully, it’s pitched for his ears only, but Deniz shoots her a glare anyway. She returns it with a pointed, frank stare, and in the end, he’s the one to look away first. Because the hell of it is that she is right: He was watching, for what he thought was no more than a second, the graceful loop of Roman’s jump, and not the unfortunate mid-rink progression of his would-be teammate. Pull it together, man, he thinks angrily, trying to recall the relative safety of Mike’s leering taunt and his own mounting fury at Roman over it.

It helps, a little.

Nick grins, unruffled by the reproach, and brushes ice dust off his legs. “Yeah, well… thanks for that,” he says to Roman, who’s working his shoulder in short circles, grimacing at what must no doubt be substantial soreness. Before Deniz can stop him, Nick is hobbling across the ice, holding out his hand to an astonished Roman. “I’m Nick, by the way,” he declares, still beaming as if almost getting cut in half by a honed blade was an enormously fun adventure. “I, uh, don’t usually introduce myself by colliding with people in mid-air. And I’m not nearly as clumsy off the ice,” he adds hastily. Roman blinks, brows raised. “I’m glad to hear it,” he says finally, briefly shaking the boy’s hand. Nick’s grin, if possible, grows even wider, and Deniz feels a sharp little tug of irritation at the guileless awe in his face, and Roman’s bemused smile.

He sharply claps his hands. “All right, everyone, let’s get back to it!” he shouts, gathering the team around. For the next half hour, he tries to concentrate only on the task at hand as he and Vanessa take the team through drills, making sure everything stays firmly on their side of the rink. He doesn’t look towards the far side, never once; he so intently doesn’t look that he can feel the strain of it at the back of his head, like an impending migraine, but he doesn’t look.

“Well, he’s not bad,” Vanessa remarks as they watch Tom, the tall, broad-shouldered newbie, successfully master a back-pass. “And that other guy – was it Axel or Alex?” She waves towards the stocky boy, and Deniz, consulting the notes, supplies, “Alex.”

Vanessa nods. “He’s strong, even though he has no clue about tactics.”

“We can teach him that,” Deniz says, unconcerned. “You did manage to teach me, and you thought that was impossible.”

Vanessa snorts. “It was. You’re still about as subtle as a walrus.”

“Watch it, Turtle Girl.”

“Me? At least I know how to aim for the goal, not other people’s heads.”

He’s about to reach out and whack her with the rolled-up notes, but then stops suddenly, remembering – and when did he forget? – that this sort of easy companionship is lost to them, perhaps forever. You don’t get to have easy banter with the girl who had to learn from your ex-boyfriend that you were doing drugs and screwing around on her.

It’s strange, but when he thinks about missing Vanessa, he doesn’t always think about the tense, confusing few months when she was his girlfriend. These days, he often finds himself missing the time before that, when she was the best friend that he’s ever had; the person who could take one look at him and tell him exactly what his problem was, and then what to do about it, all the while making it sound like he was the world’s biggest dope but never once in a way that actually made him angry.

He doesn’t know what goes through Vanessa’s head, but judging from her dismayed look, it might be something similar. She clears her throat, brow wrinkling. “Deniz, I know I came down kinda harsh on you the other week, but – about that thing you do. Your job. I think-”

“I’m not doing it anymore,” he interrupts her quickly, and it comes as much as a surprise to him as it obviously does to her. “I, uh. I stopped.”

He half expects a jab, or at least some caustic remark along the lines of and why would you think I care?, but Vanessa surprises him. She says nothing for a long time, though he can tell she’s looking at him sideways. “Good for you,” she says eventually, no more; and then she grabs the notes from his hands to scribble something about defence next to Tom’s name, and “TACTIC!” next to Alex’s.

“Nick and Natascha are atrocious, though,” she says to the papers in her hands, and Deniz, feeling oddly relieved, barks a laugh.

“No kidding. But Ingo wanted someone for the substitutes’ bench, so that’s where they can stay for now, until they’ve learned not to be a hazard.”

“Speak of the devil,” Vanessa says. Following the direction of her gaze, Deniz sees Ingo stepping down onto the ice, making exaggerated flailing motions and holding his head in mock horror, pointing at the team. Vanessa sighs audibly. “When he hears about what happened with Roman, we’ll never hear the end of it.”

“Yeah,” Deniz says distractedly; behind Ingo, he’s spotted Roman and Mike standing at the boards, deep in conversation. As he watches, Mike nods, gives Roman a pat on the shoulder, and steps off the ice. Left alone, Roman turns suddenly, as if sensing his attention. Their eyes meet, Roman’s expression unreadable. It’s the face he usually wears when on the ice, Deniz thinks: a mask, cool and full of concentration, that only slips into a smile after a performance well-rendered, or when he’s borne backwards down on the ice with kisses. He banishes the memory, or tries to.

“Can you brief Ingo?” he asks, without thinking. “I’ll be right back.”

He’s off before Vanessa can voice either objection or consent, Ingo and his huh? expression whizzing by in a blur, and pulls up short next to Roman at the boards.

“Hey.” Roman says nothing, looking up at him with a frown, and Deniz finds, like so often in Roman’s presence, lost for the right thing to say. It doesn’t help that he came over here with no idea what to do once he got here.

“Sorry about Nick,” he offers at last, lamely. Almost against his will, his eyes flicker up and down Roman’s body, registering bits of frost clinging to his clothes where he fell, but no awkward movement that would indicate injury. “Are you really all right?”


*****


Sorry... Sometimes Roman thinks that if he’d gotten a euro for every time Deniz has said that to him, he’d be able to retire in luxury. He’s heard it in every context imaginable: when Deniz was laid bare with guilt, when he felt true remorse, when he was caught in the jaws of the most blatant lie. At one time Roman had worried himself almost to death trying to read the nuances, needing to know which version of sorry this one was. At one time he’d actually gotten rather good at it. Nowadays he doesn’t bother. The word’s grown meaningless through overuse, like salt poured too liberally over his food. Roman suspects that Deniz no longer even tastes its bite on his tongue, just sprinkles it freely over any situation he’s gotten into. It’s nothing more than a convenient way to assuage his guilt. It changes nothing.

But the other, the question … there’s something there, solicitous and just a little uncertain, that gives Roman pause. If he didn’t know better (if this wasn’t Deniz, he corrects himself) he might believe it was an earnest concern. But as it is, he rolls the question over in his mind first, inspecting each seemingly normal word for hidden mines. He can’t be too careful; these things have blown up in his face too many times before.

Try as he might, though, he doesn’t detect any subterfuge. Which leads him to a preposterous conclusion: Deniz is being nice? It’s a quality he hardly associates with his ex anymore. And with good reason, he reminds himself. Every emotion Deniz offers has a going price, he has to remember that. He has to remember that he’ll be paying one way or another.

Like you did last time, he reminds himself, not the first time you’ve paid, but definitely the most direct. The thought drags up an uncomfortable mixture of shame and lust as he remembers how Deniz looked on his knees, with his lips swollen and red. Not Roman’s proudest moment, and not one he wants to let himself think of now, not with Deniz standing in front of him, with the hockey team just metres away.

He shoves it down, shrugs it off, and answers with a guarded voice, “Yeah, I’m fine.”

That should be it; Deniz should turn and skate off now. He shouldn’t still be standing there, darting his dark eyes up and down Roman’s body like he’s sure an arm is about to fall off. “It was a pretty bad fall. Maybe you should get checked out by Oliver.” he suggests, and his eyes return to Roman’s face, searching it intently like he’s the one trying to detect a lie this time. “It’s just that you came down hard on your bad leg.”

Roman hates that Deniz would think of that, the same thing that he had thought as he was flying through the air and unable to stop. Deniz shouldn’t notice things like that. He shouldn’t let himself.

And this, Roman realises, is where he and Deniz differ more than anywhere else. Roman’s spent a lifetime focused on self-preservation. It wasn’t just being gay, although that surely contributed. Being smaller than the rest, caring more about skating than hockey or football, being more quick-witted than the playground bullies – all had been reasons for him to need protection. When he discovered that nobody else was going to give it to him, he’d set out to find it himself. He remembers telling Deniz once that he’s not going to pretend to be someone else, just to stay out of the way of bullies like Bulle. What he hadn’t told Deniz, what he’s never told anyone, is that he still does what he can to keep from being obliterated. It’s not pretending to be someone else, it’s just who he’s become after years of building the wall he needs. He keeps out those who would destroy him, and he would never let himself look to the other side to notice something like that.

Deniz is just the opposite. From that very first day when he lumbered across the parking lot and into Roman’s life, he’s held himself open to the world. He doesn’t have walls; he dares life to take its best swing. It is an innocence that Roman envies, that he’s drawn to like a moth to a lamplight, even if he could never hope to emulate it. Deniz knows himself loved; at the very least, he considers himself worth loving. Even his lies are a part of that; his charm is so irresistible that even betrayal can’t dim it.

Roman hates, hates, that he’s right.

If Deniz would just put up a wall like Roman’s, then they could so easily co-exist in this place. Then he wouldn’t notice what kind of jump Roman was attempting or suspect how badly his leg aches right now. Then they could share the same ice without crashing together, they could see each other in the same restaurants, they could change in the same locker rooms without… and Roman shakes that thought away before it can even materialise. Instead, he thinks, Deniz leaves himself open, vulnerable, far too innocent and trusting to be working in his line of business.

And Roman really hates that this thought makes his heart heavy, thinking of what Deniz has gotten himself into.

He can’t feel this way. Maybe Deniz can pretend they can just be friends, like nothing’s ever happened between them. For Roman, who falls in love rarely but hard, and who takes the rest of his life to recover from its reverberations, this is too dangerous. He’s worked too hard at stacking up bricks and mortaring them tight, keeping out any shred of compassion for someone who will just inevitably shatter his rebuilt heart. They’re stronger than to start crumbling in the face of a little earnest concern and attention to his skating.

“I should go,” he says suddenly, stepping off the ice.

“Yeah,” agrees Deniz, “I need to get back.”

But he doesn’t skate away. For just a second he holds Roman’s gaze with a look so genuine that Roman can’t bring himself to examine it for lies.

Later, he’ll let himself think about how pathetic this is. Now, he hardly recognises his voice when he asks, incredulous and surely sounding exceedingly random, “You really knew that was a Triple Rittberger?”

“Yeah, well you hadn’t unhooked your leg for landing,” Deniz shrugs like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. He looks like Roman has just asked him if he knows how to tie his shoes, not that he had just picked up on a nuance that even his trainer misses half the time. It’s strangely flattering, in a disturbing way, and Roman’s not quite sure what to do with it. The thought wings its way through his head like a swallow arcing upwards, higher and higher. Roman knows his walls are tall and firm, but now wonders if he’ll have to build them higher. He worries that with a stray current of wind something might sail over the top.

He’s almost surprised to hear Deniz’s voice again. “See you around then?”

“See you.” He answers, feeling far away. Deniz spins on his heel and Roman watches him skate away.

~~~ tbc ~~~

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