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A Beginner's Guide To Professionalism

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The first thing Michael Ballack would explain to newly capped players joining the Nationalmannschaft for the first time, if they were to ask, is that Torsten Frings does not actually hate them. They consider it their job, he and Frings, to keep the side cohesive, to keep morale up, and if Fringser’s way of showing that is to frown a lot and emphatically refuse to sing karaoke with Micha even when he knows it’s a bonding exercise, dammit, well – that’s just who he is. Torsten is, has always been, and will always be a grumpy old man. It’s how he shows he cares, Micha would explain, if he had to. Micha knows this better than anyone.

The first thing Torsten Frings would explain to newly capped players joining the Nationalmannschaft for the first time, if they were to ask, is that Michael Ballack has no sense of personal boundary space. The ear-flicking, the hugs, that one time Podolski swears Micha licked him even though Micha denies it and yelled at him for doing it to Schweini - that’s just how he is with everyone. It’s absolutely just their imagination that Balle is more like that with Torsten than anyone else, and they should probably find something else to think about, like the ball Torsten is about to kick at their face. Oh, did that hurt? Maybe they shouldn’t be blabbering on when they’re standing in front of the goal. They’ll never win the World Cup if they go on like that.

The truth is, of course, somewhere approaching, but not quite reaching, both of these assertions. Torsten is that grumpy, even with Micha, and Micha’s sense of personal boundaries is very close to nonexistent, particularly with Torsten. And if a newly capped player, about to begin his first practice with the team, were to come into the locker room at just the right time, he might not have to ask the questions.

Instead he might, for instance, see Micha in front of a mirror, dress shirt on but unbuttoned, chunky glass bottle in hand, spraying on something that smells earthy and fresh, subtle. He might see Torsten come out of the shower, towel wrapped low around his hips, see him sniff at the air and start to laugh.

“That shit again? Balle, you girl.”

“Fuck you,” Micha says, grinning, but he rubs at his neck anyway, trying and failing to take off some of the scent.

“You’re not going to get rid of it that way,” Torsten says. “Soap and water, that’s the thing. C’mon, I’ll wash your back.” He pulls at the collar of Micha’s dress shirt, and as it slides off his shoulders Torsten bites at the nape of his neck. “The reporters won’t be able to smell you from the podium, anyway,” he adds, shoving Micha off-balance in the direction of the showers.

“We’ll be late for the…” Micha begans, and then Torsten’s mouth is on his, and if he’s being honest Micha wasn’t really going to complain.

They know each other, Michael and Torsten, as well as any two players on any national side in Europe. They’ve played in tandem so often, it’s gone well past something either of them has to really think about. These days, the way they move on the pitch is something of a dance, rehearsed until the movements are so deeply engrained that when they sleep all they see is the arc of the ball and the other, there, running down the field alongside them.

When Torsten’s mouth moves down Micha’s body, water streaming around them, it’s just one more step in the dance.

He knows where to lick to make Micha throw his head back against the shower tiles, hard enough to feel it but not hard enough to distract from the sensation. He lingers over one spot, a soft concave dip of skin near Micha’s right hipbone, sipping at it until Micha moans, “Torsten, Christ,” and “Please, just – please.” Then Torsten moves, just enough over that he can take Micha’s cock in his mouth, all suction and warmth and twisting tongue, and Micha can feel the warm water streaming down, teasing over his nipples and spine and ass and balls and it’s all he can do not to come in Torsten’s stupidly talented mouth right then. He shoves Torsten away and finishes there, and watches as the water cleans the evidence off Torsten’s neck and chest.

Even before Micha has caught his breath, Torsten is standing, turning him around. Micha’s faces presses into the tile wall and he’s glad, glad for the cooler glass against his face, glad for the orgasm that was just rung out of him, glad that Torsten is licking at his ear and muttering something truly filthy in language he’s pretty sure he wouldn’t have even known if it weren’t for Torsten. He’s glad of that, too – glad he knows these things now, glad his face still heats when Torsten talks like that. And when Torsten’s finger, slick with God only knows what, slips inside him, opening him up and making his breath catch in that lightning pleasure-pain he knows so perfectly, glad doesn’t even come close.

Soon, though not soon enough for either of them, Torsten has Micha spread wide, opened and shaking and needy, reaching behind him to pull Torsten in for a kiss as Torsten slides into him. The water streams around them still, and the room is filled with clouds of steam. Both of them are oblivious to anything but each other.

The press conference still starts on time, of course. They’re professionals. That’s another thing a newly capped member of the team would learn quickly, without having to ask. They joke around, but when it’s time to work, they expect even more from themselves than they do from everyone else. So when Torsten mutters something to Micha as they’re running wind sprints on the practice field the next day that nobody can quite make out, and Micha stumbles and lands on his ass, it would be pretty clear to anyone, even a new teammate, that Micha’s cheeks go red from anger at himself for messing up. He goes to practice penalty kicks with Jens, each one finding the back of the net harder than than the last, and when Loewe strolls by and says, “Whatever you’re doing, keep it up!” Micha misses one, just one, by a few kilometers at least over the crossbar, and turns red again.

Nobody can really explain that, and it’s quickly forgotten.