30 December 2010 @ 06:25 pm
Five Times Marc Hagendorf Called Roman Wild  
Title: Five Times Marc Hagendorf Called Roman Wild
Author: [info]lilithilien
Recipient: [info]giorgiakerr
Character(s)/Pairing(s): Marc, Roman, Jenny, René, mention of some Turkish kid
Summary: Five moments when Something Could Have Happened and Everything Would Have Changed.
Rating: Gen
Warning(s): Present tense AUs, angst dripping with sap, non-flattering depictions of France, and crack-tragic character death.
Word Count: 8000 words
Author's Notes: Thank you to the wonderful Hofest mods who are making my winter so much brighter by masterminding this fest. Thanks to the always incredible [info]aldiara for everything, but especially for making my writing better (and for saying that she wanted Deniz out of the way – her highest compliment). Thanks to AWZ and the ultimate reminder that timing is a bitch, and particularly to Timo Hübsch, who’s left a big Marc-sized hole on Show. Most of all, thanks to my recipient, one of the awesomest people in this fandom. She DESERVES to have Marc come back, in these and many other incarnations, and to have the very sparkliest of holidays!


ONE

Launching a new show is always magic. He doesn’t know how else to describe it, when those ideas that have lived insubstantial for so long in the ether are suddenly born, concrete and tangible, first on paper and then on the ice. It’s a process that never ceases to amaze him, no matter how many times he’s experienced it. Oh, there’s the cold reality of it as well, of course; all the numbers and logistics and the million and one details that must be juggled or it will all come tumbling down. Marc has learned never to trust wholly in the magic; he knows it won’t take you all the way. But he also knows that without it, you don’t have a show. At least not one that anybody wants to see.

He’s still riding the wave of excitement from the first full rehearsal when his secretary hands him a note. “Your phone was off. He asked you to call back as soon as possible.”

The number is unfamiliar, but the name’s definitely not. It’s one he hasn’t seen for a long time, years even, although he thinks of it more often than he probably should. But he certainly didn’t expect to see it today.

He thinks back to the last time he saw Roman Wild. It was a few months after their break-up – the last one, when he had finally admitted to himself that it was over. That this person he wanted to spend his life with, who he wanted to tell the world that he loved, was never going to feel the same way about him.

No, he has to remind himself even now, that’s not fair. Back then, he never had any doubt that Roman loved him just as much; if nothing else, seeing how wrecked he was after their break-up left no question about that. That’s what was so bloody hard about the whole thing. It wasn’t love that Roman lacked, but courage – very different things, and Marc had worked hard to keep them separate. “If you loved me, you’d do this” had dropped out of their conversations early on. What remained was a minefield of carnage, scars, and unexploded bombs left from a childhood of abuse and scorn; in the end it proved too powerful for either of them.

Time dulls pain, though, and years make it a simple thing to sacrifice his hard-won self-protection for curiosity and dial the number.

“Roman Wild,” says the voice from long ago.

“Roman? It’s Marc – you called?”

“Yeah, just a second...” There’s a quick shuffling sound on the other end of the line as Roman breaks away from whatever he’s doing, and then his voice comes through clear. “Marc, hello. Um, how have you been?”

“I’m good, good. Busy, you know, with a new show and all...”

Marc answers the question as best he can, but it seems terribly mundane as he tells it, this list of his life, and it’s not what they should be talking about anyway. Roman shows interest and asks the right questions, but Marc feels him waiting for the moment to speak. It’s something that not many people ever understood about Roman, that despite his rapid-fire tongue – or perhaps because of it – the important things, the things that needed to be said, were always carefully thought out and guarded until the time was right.

At last their conversation lags. Marc lets a comfortable silence settle between them, waiting while Roman takes a breath. “I’m seeing someone,” he finally says.

Marc responds with a deep breath of his own. It isn’t that he has not expected this; surely Roman has not been a monk for all these in-between years, and neither has he, even if he hasn’t found anyone yet who’s been able to get under his skin like his ex once did. He wants Roman to be happy, of course he does. But Marc has always thought he’d be reading the Ruhr Report one day and see Roman with some obliging young thing on his arm, maybe someone hiding a secret of her own. To have him convey this news personally gives it a weight that feels oddly uncomfortable.

“Is she a skater?”

He is a choreographer.”

And that’s definitely not what Marc wants to hear, although he didn’t realise it until now. It’s an unexpectedly annoying feeling. He collects himself and manages to say, “Well, that’s good then,” his voice only slightly gruff. “I hope you’re happy with him.” But this, he realises, is ridiculous. He wants Roman to be happy, full stop.

“I am, it’s only...”

Marc can’t help it; his eyebrow bolts upward at the whisper of doubt. “Only what?”

Roman tells him about Andrew, this man who came into his life as a colleague and quickly became something more. Marc braces himself as Roman details how they work together, how they connect. And he listens closely for telltale signs of discontent, which come soon enough when Roman says, “He wants me to move to London.”

In the long pause that follows it strikes Marc, clear as the chime of a crystal bell, that this is the reason for Roman’s call.

“I don’t know, maybe I should go. It could be nice. He says he has an apartment already picked out for me there.” Marc raises an eyebrow at that; perhaps he is looking too hard for signs that things are not perfect with Andrew, but this strikes him as odd. The man he remembers would be hard pressed to let someone else select his curtains, much less choose an entire apartment. It’s a minor thing, perhaps, but it makes Marc uneasy. “And his friends are all eager to meet me,” Roman continues. “I’d pretty much have a built-in social set, I guess. And Andrew could set me up with one of the best skating centres – says it would be great for my career.”

It sounds all too convenient, Marc thinks, and it minimises that independent streak that he had always admired in Roman – the one that inspired a 17-year-old boy to break free of his dysfunctional family and take the first steps towards creating a life of his own in a new city. But rather than voice his thoughts, he waits, leaving Roman to work through his thoughts, and sure enough, he continues after a second’s pause. “But I’d be starting over completely, and frankly, I’m too old for that. My career’s here – Mike’s an asshole, but you know he’s one of the best trainers out there. And my friends are all here, and my mother, although I hardly see her anymore.” Roman’s words speed up as the frustration seeps out. It’s plain to see that he has no one that he can talk to about these things, if he’s confessing it all to someone that he hasn’t seen in years, and Marc wonders what these friends of Roman’s think of Andrew. He himself is resisting what is probably an unfair judgement against this person who drinks peppermint tea and speaks terribly accented German.

“And he says,” Roman continues, “that I have to come out if I’m going to live there with him. I told him that I want to win the championships, and that I can't afford any damage to my reputation right now." It’s not that different from what Marc once heard, and for a brief second he thinks he might sympathise with this other man. It lasts only until Roman continues, with a self-deprecating laugh, “He’s probably right, it’s not like I’ll be winning any championships anyway.”

Marc is taken aback. “Wait. He said that to you? That you wouldn’t win the championships?”

“I’m sure he didn’t mean it like that,” explains Roman quickly. “I know, it makes it sound worse than it was, when I say it like that, but—”

“Sorry,” interrupts Marc, unwilling to let Roman excuse this statement that cannot be excused. “Is there any way that doesn’t sound bad? This is your choreographer.” This is your lover, he wants to add, but he can’t without bitterness.

There’s no objection, but Marc knows it's not because his outrage is shared. It’s then that he remembers something he has almost forgotten about Roman: that for all his ambition and all his talent, Roman still believes that he deserves the worst. “I don’t know, Roman,” he says, his voice turning gentle, “but it sounds like he’s treating you like a little boy, a silly little boy.”

“But I know you used to wonder that, too. And maybe I am acting like one...”

Marc shakes his head firmly, then feels ridiculous when he realises that Roman can’t see him. “No. I knew why you were afraid, and I never thought it was silly. You had some very good reasons to worry. I don’t think I ever minimised that.”

“No, you didn’t,” agrees Roman. “Things were... different then.”

The first awkward silence descends on their conversation, heavy as frozen berries on a vine. Marc’s resentment at being compared to this other man grows, dragging along a mirroring fear that this might be how Roman saw it. It’s not a comfortable thought and part of him feels like he should apologise, say that if he did do that, then Roman didn’t deserve it.

“You don’t think I should go?” asks Roman, before Marc can get those words out.

You’d be his pet,Into all kinds of things, he silently adds.

“I don’t know. I want to win. That’s all I’m sure of.”

Marc can’t help but smile. From one moment to the next, Roman has regained his sure confidence. It’s just like it always was when he stepped into the rink, leaving behind his natural clumsiness and transforming into something so full of grace that it could take your breath away. It’s all about the ice, just like it always has been. The knowledge that nothing has really changed assures Marc that he can advise Roman, despite not having talked to the man for more than five years.

“Good. That’s something you know for sure, aside from any fears of coming out – you could do that here as well as in London, and be surrounded by your friends besides. But I think it’s more important to think about what’s there for you, personally and for your career...” As he goes through different aspects of training, of lifestyles, of just the pure appeal of starting something new, Marc can feel Roman listening, adding up the pros and cons in his head. It clears his own thoughts as well: that this is someone he has missed having in his life, and that this is something he might like to change.

There’s nothing settled when they finally say goodbye, just an assurance that Roman will think about these things and that they will keep in touch. Idle words, Marc starts to think, as the days pass and there’s no word. Before long, he begins to imagine Roman in London, cramming onto the tube with punks and professionals, wiling his time away on the banks of the Thames, performing his dazzling routines for polite English applause. He sometimes thumbs through the foreign papers, wondering when he’ll catch sight of Roman’s name in the sports pages, and how much it will hurt. Every so often, he looks at that number stored in his phone and thinks he should ring it, but doesn’t; he’s not ready to have Roman’s move confirmed by a robotic disconnection message.

And he goes back to his normal life. The ice show runs through the autumn while Marc does double-duty launching the Christmas extravaganza. His office becomes a War Room where crises are averted and schedules executed, skaters are coddled and managers threatened, and every single day brings the kinds of decisions that could bring the whole thing crashing down. It’s the kind of pressure that Marc loves. All the same, he’s not sad when his part is done, when the first show has ended and the second is rolling along without him. He can take a breather now, regroup, and get ready for the new year.

Mönckebergstrasse is not really the place for a breather, though. Marc’s put buying his Christmas presents off too late again this year, as usual, but as he moves elbow-to-elbow through the crowd, the shopping street quickly becomes a real-life advertisement for online shopping. A coffee shop beckons to him as he passes, promising a cappuccino and temporary respite from the madness. It’s quite blissful, this quiet corner he’s found, out of the stinging Hamburg winds, away from the gruffly determined crush of consumers, and at last Marc feels himself relax. He wants to ignore his telephone when it rings, and he almost does, but at the last minute peeks at the caller ID. And instantly answers.

“Roman?”

“Hi. I’m not disturbing you, am I?”

“No, no, not at all! Are you back in Germany for the holidays?”

“Back?” Roman sounds confused for just a second before catching on. “Ah, no. I’m still in Germany – I didn’t go with Andrew. I thought about what you said – it wasn’t the right thing for me.”

Marc smiles, unexpectedly pleased by the news. “And you’re still in Essen?”

“I am, yes. But I’m coming to Hamburg this weekend, and... well, I thought I might like to see your show. And you, if you’re available...”

There are few things that Marc loves more than new starts, when that flurry of intangible ideas clouding his imagination manifests itself, solid and concrete. But what’s even better, and so much more rare, is getting a new start at a second chance.

TWO

It’s a good day for German skating. Marc would have felt a swell of pride at the results in any case; seeing his former skating team from Essen doing so well makes it even better. Seeing his former lover place third... well, that dredges up a complex mix of emotions, but after he considers them all, the one that wins out is a genuine happiness that Roman’s made it so far.

They both shared that dream once, to dominate the men’s skating world. The World Championships, the Olympics, they would claim them all. In a fit of juvenile optimism they even designated a wall in their flat to hold all their trophies and medals. Marc often imagined it full, gold and silver from floor to ceiling, each glittering treasure marking another accomplishment. That dream disintegrated, of course, and not only because of the cutting irony of living in hiding with the most courageous man he’d ever seen on the ice. Giving up his own skating career was a difficult but necessary choice, once he realised that discipline and passion could only take him so far. But Roman had the talent he needed to go further, always had. Marc wonders if Roman has such a wall now, perhaps more bronze than gold, but still a worthwhile monument to his life.

He hasn’t talked to Roman for more years than he likes to recall, and he isn’t sure what it is that makes him think about ringing him now. It might be the convenience of visiting his sister in Bochum, just a short drive from where Roman lives, although he’s visited many times before without any thought of contacting his ex. It might be the sight of the skaters in Zürich, Diana and Roman and all the rest, the look of people that belong on the rink, that makes him remember the cool feel of frost in his face. It might just be seeing Roman in one of the most brilliant performances of his life, skating with that sublime combination of skill and passion that signals him as one of the finest athletes in his field. Then again, it might just be an unexpected alignment of the stars and planets that makes calling Roman Wild seem not just natural but necessary. He still has the telephone number stored in his phone, after all, and he is not even surprised when it turns out to be the same one he had all those years ago.

“I saw your routine,” he says, by way of greeting.

There’s only the briefest of pauses before Roman replies, “Yeah? And what did you think?”

“Not bad,” Marc answers, feeling an unexpected compulsion to slide into the banter they’d once enjoyed, even while holding himself back from words like “extraordinary,” “phenomenal,” “sublime.” “Shame that you rushed the twizzles. You’re lucky the judges were asleep.”

“You would notice that. You always did have trouble with those,” chuckles Roman.

His voice is warm in his teasing, maybe a little deeper than Marc remembers, but still terribly familiar. It’s like going back in time, to those days when these calls were common – to those days when he knew every one of Roman’s moves intimately, and vice versa; when Roman could predict every wobble in Marc’s toe loops, and Marc could anticipate a perfect Lutz just from the way that Roman stepped on the ice.

Not that he’d ever have let Roman know that. “You never did, though. Must be getting fat these days.” There’s a choked cough over the phone and Marc gets a vivid image of the indignation on Roman’s face. He interrupts the tirade before it begins by adding, “But it was good. Really good.”

“The judges thought so, at least. Anyway, a medal is a medal.”

There’s something in that phrase, in the way it rolls off Roman’s tongue, that catches Marc’s attention. It feels like there’s a hidden joke there that he doesn’t get. But the Roman Wild he once knew would not have been satisfied with third place. Too often, they pitied those aging skaters, the eternal third place ones, so desperate for a win. That isn’t where he imagined Roman. “You’ll get the gold next time,” he says, never doubting that it will someday be true.

Roman pauses while the seriousness of Marc’s words sinks in, and when he says, “You really think so,” there’s no question in it.

“I do.” There’s a pause, but not an awkward one, and Marc pictures Roman’s answering smile. It’s a different one than he remembers, the one he saw in Zürich, as flowers pelted the ice and Roman basked in the applause. It’s less naive, more cautious, and strangely, more satisfied. It’s as if Roman’s approaching some kind of peace with himself – a comfort in his own skin that he never had in the old days. It makes Marc want to see more of it, in person, not on a television screen. “I’m at my sister’s this weekend,” he says cautiously, “in Bochum...”

“Martha? How’s she doing?” Roman always got on well with Marc’s sister; one of the few people, in fact, that Marc has ever seen him be himself with.

“She’s well. She’s remarried now, they’ve got two kids. One’s my goddaughter.” But as lovely as Nathalie might be, she’s not what Marc wants to talk about. “Since I’m practically in Essen, I thought I might see what you were doing tonight.”

“Tonight?” There’s a too-long pause before Roman says, “I’m supposed to be at a party, there’s a guy here – just a kid, really, his dad runs the bar in town, and he’s throwing kind of a party for me – well, for the skating team, but Diana’s not back and Jenny hasn’t shown her face, so it’s just me, I guess. But he says that a medal is a medal, and that people will come, and I know it sounds kind of ridiculous when I say it like that, but I told him I’d go, and it’s important to him, I think it’s important to him, and...”

For all the years that have passed, what’s not changed is the speed of Roman’s words. They still pour out as fast as ever, like a cola briskly shaken and bubbling over the rim. And Marc can still read them as well as he ever could. This time he recognises that tone, that interest. He wonders about this kid, the one who’s throwing a party for Roman, this guy whose words Roman has parroted twice. Suddenly it feels like he’s walked into something a lot bigger than he’s been banking on. “It’s okay, maybe I shouldn’t have called...”

“No,” Roman interjects. “No, that’s not what I’m saying. I thought maybe you could come with me – we won’t have to stay long, just make an appearance, have a few drinks. And then afterwards we can talk…”

Marc smiles. It’s a chance to check out the competition, maybe see if he needs to bow out gracefully to this kid who’s satisfied with mediocrity, or if it’s the time for him to make a stand. Most of all, it’s a chance to see Roman, and to see what’s changed... and what hasn’t.

“I’d love to.”

It’s not a certainty, but then nothing with Roman ever was. It’s enough.

THREE

Word travels fast on the skating circuit – unless you’re in Paris. It’s something that he’s never really gotten used to, the way that France is a world unto itself, its small group of skaters content to move in their small circle like swirled brandy in a snifter, beautiful but contained. Marc found it claustrophobic at first; he longed for the easy exchange of the international skaters, the Russians flirting with the Canadians, the Germans playing the straight man to confound the Americans, the misunderstandings and the gossip and the secret affairs that were never really secret, and always the undercurrent of competition that pulled all these people together.

But he came to Paris for René, and over the years he’s discovered that he can almost live with the trade off. Together they weave fantastical tales of such elegance that he sometimes forgets they’re not true – productions that could only come to life because of René, with his keen eye for business and, most importantly, his unflagging trust in Marc. Because it’s not just the ice shows that they create, René reminds him; it’s their life. It’s a life that might feel small sometimes, but within its boundaries is everything Marc needs.

Most of the time.

So he’s surprised when René opens the door of their Marais flat before his key is out of the lock. His partner looks a bit grim and wears too much aftershave – sure signs that he’s distracted by some unwelcome news.

“Hello, chéri,” Marc says, offering him a kiss on the cheek. René leans into it briefly, but without any real interest. In a learned defensive reaction, Marc mentally scans his to-do list. There’s nothing he can think of left undone, nothing with repercussions that would cause René to worry like this. Nothing he can recall, anyway. “Is something wrong?”

René seems to study him, and Marc has the feeling that he is supposed to react somehow, but to what he doesn’t have a clue. It doesn’t become any clearer when René’s expression slips from vague apprehension to open pity.

“You didn’t hear?” he finally says, watching as Marc pours himself a glass of mineral water. René sits at the breakfast bar across from him, twisting his cufflink nervously – another dangerous affectation, and Marc can’t help the bristling impatience that accompanies his curiosity. His partner does enjoy his dramatic moments.

“Hear what?”

There’s a pause before René answers, “About Roman Wild?”

The name surprises him. He heard it not long ago, of course, several weeks after the World Championships in Zürich. He learned the news of Roman’s victory only after it crossed the ocean and returned in Figure Skating Monthly, part of an inset on the new skating hubs in Europe; the centre in Essen was hailed as one the Americans should keep an eye on.

But another skating victory would not bring this concern to René’s face. “What happened to Roman?”

René grimaces. “He was mugged. He’s in the hospital in Essen.”

It’s the last thing that Marc expects to hear, and at first he has the strange almost-compulsion to say “You’re kidding.” But he stops himself, because that’s not something René would joke about. Roman Wild is not even a subject that René likes to talk about; like an unexamined sore spot in their relationship, Marc’s thought at times, but now he can’t be worried about such sensitivity.

“Is he all right?”

René holds his hands up in a universal gesture of “No idea.”

Marc sits down heavily on the stool, his mind struggling to process the information. “Why would anybody mug Roman?” Skating success brought security, not wealth. He hasn’t seen Roman in years, granted, but he can't picture him flaunting an ostentatious lifestyle. The man never had more than 50 euros in his wallet at the best of times. “That makes no sense. Not that mugging has to make sense, I mean. There are all kinds of situa-“

“It might be gay bashing,” René blurts out.

“What?” And no, that’s the last thing that Marc expects to hear, an out-of-the-blue explanation that makes absolutely no sense. “No, that’s impossible,” he dismisses the notion. “Roman’s not out.”

“He is.” The words settle in their kitchen, as René shifts uncomfortably. “He came out after the World Championships.”

Waves of questions flood Marc’s thoughts, indiscernible and unformed, and the heavy silence that crushes down on the room doesn’t slow them a bit. “How do you know?” Marc finally asks, his words scratching his dry throat.

René clears his throat too, his eyes downcast and guilt making creases around the corners of his lips. “There was a photo of him in the local paper,” he explains quietly, quickly adding with emphasis, “He was kissing his boyfriend. It got picked up in the gay press pretty quickly. It was an accident, apparently,” René’s voice took on an accusative tint, “but he decided not to deny it.”

Marc stares at the water glass in his hand, suddenly unsure how it got there. An accidental outing, then, exactly what had always terrified Roman when they’d been together. Marc had imagined more than once what would have happened if they’d been caught. His imaginings had rarely ended with Roman’s cool acceptance.

And they never ended with René looking simultaneously culpable and defensive about the news, his usual self-control vanished. “I know I should’ve told you. I was going to, but I thought...”

“What did you think?” interrupts Marc, more harshly than he knows he should.

“That if Roman was out, that you would... that you might...” René frowns, obviously dismayed by his crumbling composure. Marc doesn’t care; he wants it to crumble, wants to break it right down to its foundations so he can dig through the rubble and see if there’s something there that makes sense, something that he can’t see right now. But René is fighting hard to hold on. “I thought you would have heard anyway.”

“Where would I have heard?” Marc asks angrily. “Where did you hear?”

René looks down, quiet, and Marc suddenly resents France; resents its secret ways that he doesn’t know and the gossip that apparently does exist, just very far out of his reach. It’s a sharp sting, the knowledge that he’s still an outsider in this place he’s tried to make his home; and what stings most is that René, the man who’s always been his door to this life, might possibly be his jailer.

He is still smarting from this realisation, not really able to move on from it, which is why he doesn’t notice that René has moved across the room and is mumbling something into the telephone. The words start to register when he hears René’s clumsy German asking for the number of the hospital in Essen. He repeats each number slowly but precisely, scribbling them down on a notepad although they’ve already been implanted in Marc’s head.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” René says, handing the phone to him like a peace offering. “And I know we need to talk. But right now, you should see if Roman is okay.”

Marc studies René’s face, the comfortable familiarity of it now drawn with worry, the sharp jut of his chin the only remaining sign of the resolute man he knows. Finally he nods, mutely, and René dials the number.

“Elisabeth Hospital, how can I direct your call?”

René watches him from the doorway, purposefully intrusive, as he asks for Roman’s room, and Marc wonders what he is trying to see. He hopes that René will share whatever he learns. At the moment, it all feels too fast, too uncertain, for Marc to even gather his thoughts. To even know what to say when the phone’s picked up and he hears, “Roman Wild.”

“Roman, it’s Marc. Are you okay?”

René backs out of the door as Roman repeats Marc’s name; even over the telephone line, it’s obvious that he’s smiling.

“Yeah,” he replies, smiling back.

“I’ve been better, to be honest.” Roman laughs, but it turns into a hacking cough. When it subsides, he says, “I’m surprised you heard.”

“I am, too.” René’s guilty confession rises uncomfortably. Is this what he was so worried about, this long-distance connection that hasn’t existed for years? The thought confuses Marc and he wishes he could dismiss it; he wishes he could keep these things separate, René on one side and Roman on the other. But that’s too simple, he knows; the two are connected, at least in René’s mind. And that feeling of insecurity, the sense that your lover is not entirely there for you – that’s something Marc understands, something he wants to make sure René doesn’t feel. “My partner, René… he told me about it.” Marc chuckles. “Apparently he follows your career even more closely than I do.”

“That’s a typical Hagendorf compliment if ever I’ve heard one.”

“I’m sure you’ve got enough fans fawning over you these days.”

Roman snorts. “Yeah, and some enemies too, apparently.”

“I heard...” Marc pauses, questioning whether to broach the subject that once dismantled them. But they’re already dismantled. “I heard that it might be gay bashing.”

“Yeah, I’m certain of it. I’m pretty sure I know who did it.” Roman’s voice is grim, not with indignation that he might be mistakenly identified as gay; more with the hard acceptance that Marc has heard from others who’ve been attacked; a resentful acknowledgement that this is part of their life, however much they may hate it.

“You’re reporting them to the police?”

“Of course. I’m already out, I might as well be loud now.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” And Marc means that in more ways than one.

“Are you?”

It’s an innocent enough question, but it smoothes the rough edges of Roman’s voice and Marc hears a soft flirtation tiptoe into the conversation, as if unsure of its welcome. He knows if he welcomed it in, it could root around in his memories and bring his wants and regrets to life; it could unearth all those fears that he didn’t even know René had. Marc feels himself standing at a crossroads, one where a careless answer could determine his future. On the one hand, the thought of resuming his place in Roman’s life is appealing, as second chances always are. On the other hand... well, on the other hand there’s René and his life here. It’s not perfect, and its imperfections have just been shown in sharp relief. But god knows, he’s never been one to walk away until he’s exhausted every effort. He did that with Roman once. His life with René deserves just as much.

And if he’s going to make this work, René needs to see that Marc’s past is not a threat to their present.

“I think we might come to see you. I’ve been wanting to show René more of Germany.”

“That’d be nice,” replies Roman, and it sounds sincere when he adds, “I’d like to meet him.”

“Can you have visitors? Do we need to call first?”

“No, you can drop by anytime…”

Roman’s voice drops off suddenly, replaced by a loud clattering in the background. It could be anything, from doctors bringing in overpriced machines to elephants stampeding through the hospital halls. “Is something wrong?”

There’s a quick laugh through the phone. “No, everything’s fine, Annette’s just dragging in half a supermarket.”

Marc doesn’t know who Annette is; probably one of the fawning fans. “Okay, well, we’ll try to make it over tomorrow.”

“Yes, see you later. Ciao!”

“Ciao!”

Marc sets the phone carefully in its cradle, then goes in search of René. He finds him in his study, going over the budget for their latest show. Pages spill out across the table, each covered in numbers that will make or break their production. Marc wishes there were numbers like that for his relationship; that he could tally up columns that would show him what he should do, that would confirm he is making the right computation. Accounting doesn't deceive, and numbers don't keep secrets.

He stands in the doorway and waits until René looks up, his face determinedly blank. “I’d like to visit Roman in the hospital.”

“Okay.”

His expression doesn’t change; Marc wonders why he never realised what a good actor his partner was before this day.

“I’d like you to come with me.”

René freezes, and for the first time, there is a flicker of uncertainty. “You want me there? Really?”

“I do.” Marc crosses the room, each step he takes feeling like he’s searching for more solid ground. “I don’t want you to hide things from me. And I don’t want you to distrust me. But yes, I want you there.”

The sound of René’s exhalation tells Marc just how much he’s been holding inside. His mask drops too, and René’s normally controlled expression gives way to guilt and gladness, regret and relief, a confused collage of emotions. The mystery of it makes Marc want to unravel it all.

France might not be his home, still. But René is. This is a trade off he can make.

FOUR

The invitation to judge the Newcomers’ Cup in Essen comes as a surprise – a welcome one, a sign that he’s reached a level of respectability among his peers. “Some level of respectability,” he corrects himself, because it’s no use pretending it’s his skating skill being honoured here. Hagendorf Productions, on the other hand, is riding the crest of several successful ice shows. And even the BDE knows that skaters need a future after their competition days are over.

Essen, he thinks with a twisted smile. It’s been years since he set foot in that city – it’s one of those unspoken barriers that lies between him and his ex. Like their CDs and videotapes, they’ve divvied up the country along with the spoils of their relationship, the Rhine and the Elbe; an extreme measure to keep the peace, perhaps, but a necessary one at the time.

At the time. It’s been nearly a decade – long enough for those boundaries to dissolve, and for him to return to Essen without fear. He’s hardly been pining for Roman Wild, after all. When he thinks of his first love, it’s swaddled in bittersweet nostalgia, packed away in cotton wool so its sharp edges no longer cut. It’s natural, an indulgence for his past earnest, this certainty that he wouldn’t repeat those mistakes.

But that resolve falters when he arrives at Steinkamp Sports and Wellness and sees the list of competitors. It’s a jarring feeling. It’s one thing to see Roman’s name in the papers, when he can applaud or commiserate from a distance. It’s quite another to see that familiar name on the roster of skaters, pair skating with Jennifer Steinkamp.

Who’s there in front of him now at the reception desk, her cheeks as rosy from her workout as the pink track suit she wears. “Well, if it’s not Marc Hagendorf,” she chimes in a too-playful voice, rising on the toes of her running shoes to kiss his cheek and sizing him up like competition on her way down. “You’ve sure changed.”

“You haven’t,” he answers, though it’s only half true. Her body is more a woman’s than a child’s now, her face so much thinner. But even if there are lines around her lips, she wears the same smile he remembers, the one that flickered from mischief to malice and back again in the blink of an eye.

“I didn’t expect to see you on the judges’ stand,” she notes, and maybe Marc is too wary of Jennifer Steinkamp, maybe he’s too defensive of his newly acquired status in this world he so wants to be a part of, but the remark feels anything but innocent.

“I didn’t expect you to be pair skating,” he parries. “And in a Newcomers’ Cup at that.”

Her smile freezes for an instant, the only sign that his attack found purchase. “We’re new to pair skating,” she counters. “Who knows what will happen?”

“Indeed.” Marc smirks. “Did you think about what would happen if you didn’t win?”

With a defiant lift of her chin that could be construed as flirty, if this wasn’t Jennifer Steinkamp and he wasn’t Marc Hagendorf, she said, “We’ll just have to convince the judges, then.”

“I’ll excuse myself, you know that.”

“Why?” Jenny looks genuinely confused. “Just because you and Roman were...?” She makes a wavy hand motion to somehow indicate their togetherness. Marc tries to control his surprise, but his mouth that refuses to close betrays him. Jenny says, “Oh really, did either of you think I didn’t know all about that?”

“Did Roman...”

“Of course not,” she sniffs huffily. “He never said anything to me. But god knows he’s never been exactly discreet.”

But they were discreet. The jumps he did on the ice back then were nothing compared to the hoops he jumped through to hide any sign of their relationship. He went to such pains to keep their secret under wraps, pains that turned increasingly painful as the months passed. And now to find out that Jennifer Steinkamp knew all along – it’s a sobering thought, and one he’s not sure he wants to think about right now. In fact, right now he wants nothing more than to leave the Centre and drive back to Hamburg, damage to his reputation be damned. “I’m still backing out.”

“Come on now,” Jenny tsks, “do you really think Herr Ackermann hasn’t shagged half the skaters on the circuit? Although, since these are newcomers, he’s probably scouting for new blood.”

She sounds too thoughtful about this, as if she’s honestly contemplating it, and figuring out how to turn it for her own purposes. It sounds like she’s just discovered a new doll, and Marc has to check himself from the image of her pulling off its limbs in a fit of pique. He wonders if that’s how the men she’s dated usually feel; he’s glad he will never find out. He himself has never been one to shy away from the unseemly, but he really doesn’t want to think of Herr Ackermann, that cadaver-like man, with anybody, ever, so he changes the subject. “Exactly, it’s newcomers. Why, Jennifer? Surely you’re better than that?”

“Everybody has to start somewhere,” she says boldly, but then drops her voice so the passing swimmers won’t hear. “And don’t think for a minute I don’t know how this looks. But when someone you love asks you to put on your public face and do what they ask, you do it. Surely you of all people can understand that.”

And he can. Oh, but he can.

“Speaking of,” Jenny asks, sliding back into her normal demeanour, “have you seen Roman?”

Marc shakes his head. Not for almost ten years, he nearly says, but he won’t give Jennifer Steinkamp any information. But of course it’s not as if she needs to hear it; her discerning eyes are enough.

“Are you kidding?” She stares at him for a long second, then laughs. “I never would have figured you for a scaredy cat.” Before he can object, she reaches across the counter for a pencil and is scribbling on a scrap of paper. “This is Roman’s number,” she says. “If you’re going to back out of the judging, you should at least let him know why.”

She’s right, Marc knows, and he assures her he will as he pockets the number. He pulls it back out much later, after he’s left the Centre, after he’s called the BDE to explain why he can’t judge the competition. They’re inconvenienced, but not unreasonably so, and they assure him that they will invite him to judge in the future. He’s not sure whether to believe them or not, but at the moment, he refuses to let himself think about it.

The lights are fading as he leaves his hotel and starts for the train station, but the numbers on the paper are still clear. It’d be no trouble, really, just a quick call to say hello, to wish Roman good luck... it’d be such an easy thing to do. Punching in the numbers, he steps into the street, making his way to the taxi stand across the street. He smiles to himself as the call connects and the voice on the other end of the line says, “Roman Wild.” Too late, he hears the screech of brakes from the bus that can’t stop.

FIVE

Marc can nurse a latte for hours. He savours each patient sip, in no hurry to tip up the bottom of his glass, in no rush to leave his relaxed perch on a high stool in a café or a comfortably worn sofa in a corner bistro. He’s at the train station in Hamburg now, tucked into a corner table at Caffé Ritazza – not the most relaxing place he’s ever lingered over a drink, but a welcome respite from the wind that whips through the open corridors. The cold feels more brutal with each passing winter, the chill rolling in off the sea picking up speed along the river, smashing into the city as if the skyscrapers were bowling pins and it’s going for a strike. As October slips into November, Marc’s not sorry that his job is taking him on the road again. He loves travelling, always has, from the moment he books his tickets to the first step he takes in a new city; loves the way train stations smell, that not entirely clean scent that mixes with the perfumes and hot lunches of his fellow passengers. He even loves the purring sound the zipper makes as he closes his suitcase.

But living in transit hasn’t exactly been conducive to relationships, as he’s reminded when his mobile chimes. A text from Julian: Away all week? Will pick up rest of things. Absently Marc thumbs Back Friday, can we talk then? and waits. Takes a small sip of his latte. Drags his eye from the travellers rushing across the platform to the young women working behind the counter. Waits. But his phone remains stubbornly silent. It’s right, of course, there is little left to say. They’ve been through all the stages of breaking up; the discussions, the fights, the silences. It’s a choreography that Marc knows by heart, and he knows there’s no use prolonging it. No more encores; he has to let the curtains fall. But in this moment he feels himself in that in-between state again, when he’s tied to the past and the future hasn’t taken hold yet. A change of locale, an escape from the wintry winds, will be the push he needs.

He spins his half-empty cup on its cardboard rim, watching absently as it makes lopsided circles on the formica tabletop. The café is getting more crowded now; he senses it as a heightened buzz around him, a growing energy, before he even looks up. A small clutch of women are at the counter, pressing their fingers against the glass protecting the desserts. Marc grins as they sneak chocolate croissants and raspberry tarts, pretending that calories don’t count on holidays.

Just beside the women he sees him, a man whose dirty blond hair is tousled as if he just got out of bed. There’s nowhere to sit so he’s standing up, clutching his paper cup as if it’s a lifeline. When he takes a long gulp, his eyes close in bliss, long lashes falling on his cheeks. It’s that image that strikes Marc with hurricane force, as if he’s only seen it yesterday instead of a decade ago. Roman Wild, the first of his many exes; he was never able to nurse a drink either. Whether a latte or the finest Bourdeaux, Roman raced through them as if he was late to training. It was a bone of contention when they were together, just another contradiction in their temperaments that always sought balance but failed as often as not, but now it elicits a smile that Marc hadn’t thought he had in him.

Distracted by these thoughts, Marc forgets that his eyes are still fixed on the coffee-guzzling man – who’s not guzzling coffee now, but instead is meeting his gaze with a knowing smile. And if Marc was in his normal state, not in this in-between place of autumn and summer, past and present, taken and oh so available, he would have smiled back. Instead he feels caught out, and recovers by diving into his phone. Scrolling through the numbers, he finds the entry for Roman Wild – not to call him, but just to see the solidity of his pixellated name. It’s there, he knew it would be, but it’s ancient; he’d punched it into his phone when Roman had insisted they could still be friends, when Marc knew that a friendship was unthinkable. But is it still, he wonders? Surely they could get over the acrimony of their past; surely, Marc thinks, Roman would find something to say that, if not comforting, is at least frank and honest about the mess Marc’s gotten himself into.

Almost without his conscious effort, Marc’s thumb slides to the call button, presses down. It’s only when the ringing begins that Marc thinks of what he might say, but the only thing that comes to mind is “another one’s gone and I’m not even that sorry and I don’t miss you, not really, but there’s a guy here drinking coffee like you do,” and that doesn’t sound quite right. Cringing at his recklessness, Marc reaches for the button to cancel the call, but then hears the electronic voice of grace announcing that “the number you’ve dialled is out of service, please check the number and dial again.”

With a wry smile, Marc slips the phone back into his pocket. The stranger’s gone now, swept away in the fast-running currents of the station. It’s time for Marc to drift towards his train as well, so he takes one final sip of cool milky coffee and makes his way out. The train bound for Frankfurt is on time, and the first class compartment is nearly empty; good omens for the trip ahead. He settles into a window seat, reaches for his iPod, and sets his laptop case beside, hoping it will ward off any intrusive would-be companions.

But it doesn’t work, because not two minutes later, a voice breaks through the peaceful Puccini in his earbuds: “Is this seat free?” Above him, the blond man is smiling cheekily down, not even waiting for an answer but already draping his jacket over the back of the empty seat. And Marc feels the seasons shift as the train pulls out of the station.

~~~ The End ~~~


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