Swish, swish. Ryan had almost forgotten how good it felt to push off against the ice, the feeling of his blades biting into the slick surface, and the chilly air blowing across his cheeks. He did a couple of laps around the ice rink at Rockefeller Center, crouching low and swinging his arms to build momentum.
He wasn't sure how Gary had managed to get a permit to film here, but sure enough, here they were, with Ryan doing his laps while Gary and Erik conferred with a camera guy by the boards.
Ryan pushed himself, feeling the slight burn in his thighs as his body embraced the sense of freedom that came with skating. He tried to put out of his mind the thoughts that had plagued him in the weeks since he had his revelation. He refused to believe that the relationship he had with Erik was anything more than professional, perhaps even friendly, but that was it.
He tried to forget the feeling of giddiness he felt whenever he got a text from Erik and tried to convince himself that he would send friendly texts back and forth with any colleague when they were away for the holidays.
Ryan told himself to ignore all of that and just focus on today, being on the ice, hanging out with Erik. Ignore the camera and Gary shouting instructions at them. Just enjoy the freedom of skating.
"Ryan!" Erik called from across the rink and waved him over.
Ryan finished his lap, and as he came around to the group, he executed a perfect hockey stop, sending a spray of ice right in Erik’s direction.
"Show off." Erik glared at him, but Ryan could see the faint hint of a grin underneath.
"Enough, you two." Gary stood on the other side of the boards. "Alright, we'll start with some wide-angle shots. You guys can chase each other around the ice; the camera will follow you from the other side of the rink. Don't drift too far apart, though; you still need to be in the same frame. Then we'll move to closer shots, as if you've caught each other. Got it?"
"Yep, got it." Erik answered for them both.
With the signal from Gary, Ryan took off skating backwards, grinning at Erik, daring him to catch up. Ryan didn't have to wait long, Erik was pretty decent on skates, perhaps not as nimble as Ryan, but Erik’s natural fluidity and sense of balance translated to the ice.
Ryan kept himself just out of Erik's reach, enjoying the flush that was developing on Erik's cheeks as he pushed himself to keep up. Erik's eyes narrowed, and Ryan couldn’t stop his grin from growing into a full-blown smile. He took pity and slowed just a smidgen, just enough to send Erik crashing into him.
Ryan grabbed hold of the other man and used their momentum to spin them around in circles until Erik let out an unmanly squeal. When he finally stopped, Erik was panting, clinging to Ryan, skates barely maintaining their purchase on the ice. Ryan’s heart thumped at the feeling of Erik in his arms again.
"Oh, my god. Who knew? Slap a pair of skates on you and you become the devil!" Erik exclaimed.
Ryan chuckled and took off again with Erik holding onto his waist in a little two-man conga line. Erik pulled him close, and they glided across the ice, Ryan in Erik's arms, Erik's chin on Ryan's shoulder, shifting their weight subtlety to maneuver around the other skaters.
"So you had a good Thanksgiving?" Erik whispered into Ryan's ear. The shudder that ran through Ryan's body had nothing to do with the chilly winter air.
"Yeah." Ryan reluctantly extracted himself from Erik's arms and turned around to skate backwards, still holding onto Erik's hands. "You did too, right? Family's doing well?"
"Yeah." Erik's eyes lit up at the mention of his family. "They're good. My nieces and nephews are getting so big."
"They're cute." Erik had sent Ryan a selfie of himself buried under a pile of boys and girls. "You miss them?"
"Yeah, but my place is in New York. I can't live in Salt Lake, so..." Erik shrugged.
Ryan didn’t like to see Erik so unsure of himself. It tugged at something in Ryan's chest. He pulled Erik into his arms and planted a quick kiss on rosy, wind-chapped lips.
A quick spin and Ryan skated around Erik, ending up beside him, hand in hand. Erik just shook his head with a defeated grin.
"You’re going back again for Christmas?"
Erik turned to look at him. "I don't think I've ever heard you ask this many questions in a row before. Did I miss something while I was away?"
Ryan grinned and shrugged.
"Right." Erik rolled his eyes with a smile, dropped Ryan's hand and took off on the ice.
Ryan let him get a head start before giving chase. It wouldn't have been difficult to catch up, but he let Erik take the lead. After half a lap, Ryan pushed a little harder and caught up, skating circles around Erik. Erik swatted at him, but didn't make a real effort to catch him as they looped the rink.
The next time they skated toward Gary, they were waved down.
"That's good, guys. Let's get the close-up shots over here." Gary directed them to a corner of the rink. "We can get the Christmas tree in the background from this angle."
The camera guy, hovering a few feet away, raised Ryan’s hackles. In the adrenaline of the skate, he had temporarily forgotten that they were in the middle of a shoot and not just hanging out on the ice together. Now he couldn’t un-see the floating box in his peripheral vision, and he had to force himself not to turn his back to its shiny black eye.
"Hey." Erik’s mittened hand nudged at Ryan's chin.
What Ryan was feeling must have shown on his face, because Erik looked concerned, with a little wrinkle in the middle of his brow.
Ryan pressed his lips into a thin line. He felt like their moment on the ice had been violated by the camera capturing every little smile, every little touch, and he itched to take the camera and smash it on the ice. But that wasn’t something he could share out loud.
Erik’s all-observing eyes narrowed as if he could read Ryan’s thoughts, and he offered a sympathetic smile. Then he leaned in, just a hair’s breadth away from Ryan’s lips, and whispered, “It’s okay.”
Erik’s lips felt cold and slightly chapped from the icy air. But it took only a second for them to heat up, and soon Ryan felt warm and a little light-headed from the simple press of lips against lips.
Erik released him but didn’t move away; instead he leaned his forehead against Ryan’s, noses still touching. Their heated breaths mingled and fogged up the air around them. Ryan blinked his eyes open, but Erik was too close; everything looked blurry. All Ryan could see was crystal-clear blue, pale—almost white—right around the iris and darkening to a rich royal blue on the outside. And if that wasn’t captivating enough, those lashes—darkest black—framed and drew attention to the depths of blue.
There was something right at the tip of Ryan’s tongue, something he felt he should communicate, but when he opened his mouth, he wasn’t sure what exactly he was supposed to say. Complimenting Erik’s eyes wasn’t quite it; there was something else, but the more Ryan searched for the right words, the more they eluded him.
When Erik finally pulled back, Ryan ducked his head, angling away from the camera. He pushed back, giving himself a few feet of space, spun to face the other direction, and bent down to fiddle with the laces on his skates.
“Alright,” Gary called out. “Guess that’s good enough. You guys can get out of there. I want to get some shopping scenes along the gallery over there, just in case we need extra footage.”
Ryan nodded and followed the instructions, but he felt a somberness settle over his mood. If he wasn’t under contract to finish the rest of the series, he probably would have left right then and there. Instead, he tied the laces of his skates together, popped the skate guards over the blades and swung the entire set over his shoulder.
He and Erik wandered around the gallery, looking into windows, and pointing at the Christmas decorations. They held hands, wrapped their arms around each other, and smiled at one another. But if the look in Erik’s eyes meant anything, then Ryan’s acting wasn’t very convincing.
He breathed a sigh of relief when Gary called it a day. Ryan felt restless and angry and itched for his punching bag. He appreciated Erik’s obvious concern, but he had no desire to field his probing questions.
The minute Gary dismissed them, Ryan took off for the subway entrance.
“Hey, wait a minute.” Erik rushed to catch up to him. “Are you okay? What happened? One minute everything’s great, and the next, you look like you’re about to kill someone.”
“Yeah, everything’s fine.”
“I don’t believe you. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I just... remembered that I forgot to put Caesar’s food out this morning. I’ve got to get back and feed him.”
Erik sighed, sounding frustrated. Ryan didn’t bother to soothe ruffled feathers or even to say an extended goodbye but made a beeline for the subway. The sooner he got out of there, the better.
Ryan didn’t go home immediately but took the subway to the Brooklyn Bridge. This was one of his favorite places in the city, the bridge that connected Manhattan to Brooklyn.
Getting off on the Manhattan side, Ryan strolled across the wooden boardwalk suspended above the water and the lanes of cars. The cold weather meant there weren’t as many tourists around, just small handfuls clumped together, trying to stay warm as they took selfies with the skyline behind them. The wind was strong here, an icy breeze that stung Ryan’s cheeks and cooled the intensity of his emotions.
Ryan could no longer deny that he felt something for Erik. But the admission only confused him more, because he didn’t know why he felt something for Erik. Yes, Erik was an attractive man, both physically and in his personality, and under normal circumstances Ryan would never question his attraction. But their circumstances were far from normal, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep his emotions in order.
Ryan paused on the side of the bridge and turned to look back at the buildings soaring high into the sky. They were the towers of progress and advancement, built by the drive to succeed at all costs, to push the boundaries of what was possible and remake the world in whatever image they saw fit.
Ryan loved this city, loved it from the minute he landed at the airport and felt the buzzing excitement all around him. That buzz was deceiving, though, Ryan had discovered. And in the past several weeks, he had been reminded of just how deceiving it could be.
People moved to New York because they were good at what they did, and Ryan had been at the top of his class when he’d been accepted into Columbia’s psychology program. But being good was never good enough in New York; everyone had to be the best, except only one person could be at the top.
So Ryan worked hard and slogged his way through graduate school without fully noticing the weight of expectation that bore down on him. He had to be the best student in his class, had to gain the attention of the most prominent professors, had to win grants and write acclaimed research articles, had to be the most liked TA in the department.
And when his own research didn’t pan out the way he had hoped, New York had no time to wait for him to figure things out. New graduate students who were smarter than him, sharper than him, and more successful than him came onto the scene, and he felt like he had to fight to keep his head above water.
It hadn’t been until he quit school that he realized something: that buzzing energy that filled the streets of New York could easily turn from excitement into anxiety and the line between the two was thin. Ryan thought he had left that all behind when he quit school. But this little project with Erik was proving him wrong.
There had been moments recently when Ryan had felt that excitement: watching the sunrise with Erik on the roof, holding Erik on Halloween, just now on the ice. Ryan recognized that little thrill, the slight increase in adrenaline that came with something new and captivating.
But then that camera, and with it the expectation to perform, to deliver. And suddenly, it wasn’t just about him and Erik and what this was growing between them. It was about what other people wanted from them.
Ryan took a step backwards as if the physical movement could separate him from his thoughts. He stuck his hands into his pockets, ducked his head against the blowing wind, and continued across the bridge. His shoulders felt heavy from a sense of loneliness he hadn’t experienced since he quit his PhD program.
At the end of the bridge, he turned once more to look back at Manhattan. It looked like a fortress, imposing and impenetrable. Only the best could make it in New York, but Ryan no longer had any desire to be the best.
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