Manuel first notices it when he finally (finally) comes back to the national team after recovering from his foot injury. In retrospect, he wonders how blind he must have been to not see it earlier.
Leno and ter Stegen have chemistry. Like, more so than the occasional glares or gloating looks they direct at the other when one of them makes a particularly good save during training. No, it’s little moments like whenever they're on a short break they smile at each other, the look on Bernd's face soft, happy crinkles appearing by Marc's eyes And always, it seems that as soon as they notice what they're doing, they both look away quickly, blushing.
It’s all very suspicious.
Also, thinking about it has been taking up way too much of Manuel’s attention. So much even that it’s almost a miracle that in the few days since they arrived at training camp, Andi hasn’t called him out for not paying attention yet.
The training itself is going quite well so far; no one has gotten injured yet, and everyone seems to be in good shape. The only thing that majorly sucks is the fact that it hasn’t stopped raining since the day they arrived; the air is warm, though, so it doesn’t really bother anyone. Except for Mats of course, who not only gets cold easily, but is also crowned champion at loudly complaining about anything that only mildly displeases him.
Still, at some point, having your clothes stick to your skin all the time does get a bit uncomfortable. Manuel spends a lot of time trying to pull his shirt away from his body and his shorts from his thighs. He tries to not blush when someone (usually Thomas, who always knows how to tease him in the most effective ways possible) whistles at him as the group of outfield players pass by where the goalkeepers do their exercises on one of their rounds, cursing his pale cheeks and the fact that the goalies have been assigned white training kits.
His understudies don’t seem too bothered by the rain or the wetness of their clothes though. On the contrary, one time, with Marc in the goal and Andi doing some exercises with him, Manuel catches Bernd pretty openly ogling the youngest ‘keeper. At least, that’s how it seems like to Manuel as the Leverkusener is unable to tear his eyes away from his former rival, with the look in his eyes conveying more of a ‘damn’ than a ‘fuck you ter Stegen’.
For some reason, Manuel’s brain then thinks it’s a good idea to plant his 6ft.4 next to Bernd – who doesn’t notice him since he’s too busy staring at Marc – then awkwardly clearing his throat and saying: “So, do you like what you see?”
Bernd looks at him like he’s a crazy person. Which, in all honesty, is probably justified.
After the failed attempt to get Bernd to talk about his slightly-more-than-professional obsession with Marc’s body, Manuel figures he needs a plan, because clearly, there’s something between those two and something needs to be done. They would make a great couple, he thinks; he really does. In the past, all their similarities had only further fueled their rivalry, but it would be a great foundation for a loving relationship as well. They are both really nice guys, have the same values when it comes to football, their family is important to both of them, and, remembering a conversation the three of them had a few days ago, it also seems like they have a similar taste in movies and video games. Also, it would probably ease up a lot of the tension between them, making working together easier for everyone.
Or so Manuel hopes.
So, he’s making a plan.
Since Bernd has kept a reasonable distance from him ever since the incident the day before, Manuel reasons it would be better to talk to Marc. In a hopefully non-creepy way, this time. Just a normal everyday talk about feelings between men. Easy. (He ignores the voice in his head that tells him he’s shit at talking about feelings, even if they belong to someone else.)
By sheer luck, he manages to catch Marc alone in the changing room one day, drying his hair with a towel, thankfully fully clothed already. Manuel plops down next to him, leaning back against the lockers, hoping to come over as relaxed and friendly.
“Hey, man, everything alright?” It sounds slightly forced.
Marc eyes him suspiciously. “We only saw each other ten minutes ago, but sure,” he says, not sounding fully convinced.
Manuel nods. “Good, good. Say, how are you getting along with Leno these days?” Full on confrontation, without actually asking how he feels about him. Nicely done, he thinks to himself. He sorta expects Marc to narrow his eyes at him, but instead the other keeper only smiles.
“Quite well really! He’s really improved this past season, don’t you think?”
Manuel actually agrees, even if he feels already a bit frustrated; he didn’t come here to talk about goalkeeping, after all.
“But what do you think about him as a person?” he urges.
Now, Marc lifts an eyebrow at him. “He’s nice? … Manuel, why are you asking me this?” Marc has never stopped addressing him by his full name. Manuel always wonders if it’s a respect thing; still, it’s a bit weird, since literally everyone but his mother and the press calls him Manu.
Manuel stares down at his feet, feeling his face flushing as Marc has called him out. “Oh, it’s nothing. Just thought you two seemed closer than you did back in France.”
Marc tilts his head. “We are. He’s a really nice guy, which even I realized once we got rid of our differences.” He chuckles. “Well, at least most of them.” With a sigh, he gets up, clapping Manuel on the shoulder.
“Good talk, Caps,” Marc says, casting him another slightly sceptical glance, then leaves.
Manuel huffs, crossing his arms in front of his chest. Well, there goes another opportunity.
He observes them closer over the course of the next day; if anything, there are more signs that he’s right. If either of them hits the ground particularly hard, the other rushes over to help him up. Occasionally they share a soft smile (and Manuel is pretty sure that neither of them have ever looked at him like that.) Of course, there are still those moments where they size each other up, where they critically analyze each other’s every move. Manuel gets that; even if you like someone, if they’re on the team with you, playing the same position, they will always be competition.
But other than that? They seem so in tune with each other, almost tender at times. Manuel wonders that he’s never noticed it before, or was this a recent development? Had they become closer during the time of his injury? It seems unlikely, what with Marc always the first choice backup and Bernd on the bench, since in the past, either of them playing usually meant the other being envious of him, even frustrated – not the best conditions for a blossoming romance; but their body language tells him otherwise.
Manuel complains about it during lunch. Luckily, Bernd and Marc aren’t there – he hasn’t seen them since after training, when they suddenly disappeared. When he’d asked Andi, their coach had only smirked, leaving Manuel with even more confusion. And with only Mats, Thomas, Benedikt and Toni there, he figures that a bit of gossip wouldn’t bother anyone; he knows all of them are pretty open-minded.
“It’s just that … I mean … I can’t believe they don’t see how they act around each other! Like, pretty much everyone would notice if they were so obviously crushing on someone! Especially if the other one also seems to like you back?!”
Benedikt gives him a Look, and next to him, Mats almost chokes on his food. Manuel ignores them, and instead turns to Thomas, who’s sitting on his right and apparently the only one taking him seriously, as Toni is focused on his phone and doesn’t pay them any attention.
Thomas thoughtfully chews on his stew. “Maybe they don’t want to notice. I mean,” he swallows, rubbing his chin. Manuel catches himself thinking that he looks unfairly good doing that. “With their background, it would make sense. When you’re looking at your former arch-nemesis, deciding you were interested in him would hardly be the first thing you’d ponder either, right?”
“I never had an arch-nemesis,” Manuel grumbles, shoving a sporkful of stew into his mouth, glaring at his plate, as if the somewhat bland food had done something else to offend him – other than being bland.
It makes sense of course, what Thomas said, but still, it mostly sounded like he was humouring him.
For a while, Manuel’s focused on eating, doesn’t even listen when Mats and Toni start to talk about basketball, doesn’t really notice when Benedikt gets up and leaves. His head pops up, though, when he notices someone sitting down in front of him; he narrows his eyes when he sees that it’s Marc.
The Barcelona keeper’s hair looks slightly more tousled than it had after training, not as perfectly slicked back, with some strands falling into his face, giving Marc more of an innocent, dreamy look, especially with that almost dopey smile on his face.
Why isn’t Bernd all over that? Manuel thinks, scrutinizingly, wondering what’s not to like about Marc-André ter Stegen. Well, if you were into cute blond goalies. Which Manuel isn’t. Obviously.
He gets thrown out of his thoughts when Mats, next to Marc, barely manages to suppress a giggle. Manuel pierces the brunet with a cold stare and silently vows to kill him if Mats gave his plan of playing matchmaker away by acting stupidly.
Marc raises an eyebrow, then focuses on his own food, leaving Manu to angrily glare at Mats and feverishly trying to evaluate if maybe locking his fellow goalkeepers in a closet for an hour or so would actually bring the desired results.
Manuel flinches a bit when he feels warm fingers touching his skin. He turns his head as Thomas gently wipes his chin, softly smiling at him.
“You had a bit of food there,” Thomas says, and something in Manuel’s stomach starts to tingle.
Mats snorts before getting up with a sigh. “Well I guess I’ll go find Bene then. Guten Appetit , Marc! And you Thomas, try to not confuse our captain too much; we need him with his brains still intact.”
Manuel wonders what he should be confused by when Bernd joins the table, plopping down on the chair Mats had previously occupied, shooting Marc a quick smile and nodding at everyone else before digging into his food.
The silence is a bit awkward; Marc seems to be staring at him (or was it Thomas who he was looking at?) and Manuel is almost glad when some of the younglings burst into the hall, loudly laughing, jokingly arguing amongst each other, pushing around and making a lot of ruckus in general.
It’s only when Bernd has finished his last bite that Thomas leans back in his chair, crossing his arms in front of his chest. He has that slightly devious look on his face that says he’s up to something, and Manuel feels his heart drop down to his knees.
“So, how are you two doing? Feels like I haven’t seen either of you in ages!”
It’s a blatant lie, they played Barça only a few weeks ago (though to be fair, it’s been a while since they’d faced Leverkusen), but Manuel feels that Thomas would be very cross with him if he interrupted him now. Also, he can't deny that he's curious to see if the forward manages to get anything out of them.
Bernd shrugs, but his happy smile is quite telling, whereas Marc shoots his fellow goalkeeper (Bernd, not Manuel) a short look before answering.
“Yeah, I’m good, thanks Thomas. How about you?”
Thomas shrugs, smiling widely, but other than that he doesn’t answer, simply prodding further. “And the love life, everything good? You guys happy?”
Marc’s smile grows further; he almost blushes a bit. “Yeah I’m,” he clears his throat, “I’m very good, thank you.”
“And you, Bernd?” Thomas asks so cheekily that it’s almost inappropriate.
Bernd has gone really red, pointedly looking everywhere but at Thomas. “Yeah um. I’m happy. Yeah.”
Thomas shoots Manuel a triumphant look, but the tall blond only frowns. This isn’t good news at all; if they’re happily taken – which is what it looks like right now – well. Then what he’s doing is wrong . He suddenly feels quite bad. Manuel doesn’t look at either of them when he gets up, mumbling a short goodbye before hurriedly leaving the dining hall.
When he lies in bed that night, head full of thoughts, Manuel can’t help but feel a little bit jealous. Jealous, that his understudies have apparently managed to find someone to love them dearly. Jealous that if they weren’t already entangled in a relationship of some kind, they’d have each other to fall back on. (Even if the fact that they are taken of course explains why they haven’t started anything with each other.)
As the rain whips against his window, he wonders what it feels like to be in love, to have someone who loves you like that.
He falls asleep with his arms wrapped around himself.
The next day, he doesn’t pay Marc and Bernd much attention during breakfast or during training. They don’t behave differently to before, but he figures it’s none of his business anyway. Instead, he focuses back on his training – to which he hasn’t paid nearly enough attention these last few days.
Still, he’s somewhat unfocused. After an hour, Andi looks somewhat displeased; by the time lunch break has arrived, the trainer looks annoyed. Manuel ducks his head. He knows he’s let in one too many balls, even if he can’t really explain why; except maybe because he hasn’t been able to shake this slightly queasy feeling in his stomach ever since he allowed his thoughts to linger over his own, tragically nonexistent, love life the night before.
Walking back to the training compound, Bernd and Marc walk in front of him. They’re laughing to themselves; Bernd is supporting himself on Marc’s shoulder, their heads dangerously close to each other.
When they get into the changing room, the outfield players seem to be already finished with their showers, getting dressed in their leisure outfits. They’re in a good mood, probably because surprisingly, the sky cleared up this morning, the sun peeking out behind slowly vanishing grey clouds.
Bernd and Marc are still joking around, seemingly in their own little world. It almost looks like flirting. Manuel would believe it was, if it had been anyone else. With a slightly annoyed roll of his eyes, he sheds his clothes, slinging a towel around his waist, heading for the shower. Before he reaches it, Thomas catches him by the elbow, frowning.
“Are you okay?” Thomas asks in a low voice. He answers Manuel’s no doubt questioning look with a shrug of his shoulders. (Not for the first time, Manuel notices that they’re quite broad for someone as lanky as Thomas. And muscular, too, he has to admit.)
“You look like someone preserved a rain cloud over your head. Just thought I’d ask.” Thomas’ smile is crooked but sincere, and somehow, Manuel can’t help but smile back.
Under the shower, Manuel’s grateful for the quietness, for once not surrounded by his noisy teammates. Sometimes it’s hard being an introvert in a team sport, as you hardly ever get moments to yourself, hardly find time to spend a moment alone during the day. He washes his sweaty hair, gently massaging the shampoo into his scalp. He doesn’t turn around when someone else enters the showers, only groans internally when he recognizes his fellow ‘keepers by their voices. They’re still giggling.
He tries his best to ignore them, but then their voices drop to low whispers quite unlike the normal bantering conversations held under the team showers. Reminding himself that it’s none of his business, Manuel turns his shower off, wraps his towel and makes a beeline for the door. But just as he’s almost reached it, out of the corner of his eye, he can see Bernd taking a step closer to Marc. For a second, he tries to overlook it, but with his hand already on the door handle, he turns around again, his curiosity getting the better of him. They’re not doing anything scandalous, but Marc’s shoulder is bumping against Bernd’s biceps and even if Manuel is not sure, their pinkies might be touching. Then, all the pent up frustration of the past few days finally causes him to snap.
He clears his throat, loudly, and they immediately break apart. It becomes uncomfortably quiet, only the sound of two showers still running as they face him with wide eyes.
“You know,” he starts. As his mind can’t seem to form words properly, Manuel angrily runs a hand through his wet hair, already cursing himself for not just leaving it be. It’s an incredibly awkward situation; they’re both still naked, and probably have no idea what’s even going on.
But oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound. It would be even worse if he made an escape now. “I … I mean I get that you don’t want to talk to me about it. But. Do you – I mean, do you really think I can just stand here looking away with how you two are so obviously flirting with each other when you’ve got someone else at home?! That’s …”
He wants to say it’s cheating, but it sounds stupid even in his head. After all, he doesn’t really know anything about their personal relationships. Isn’t even sure if he isn’t imagining this. Manuel can feel the blood rising to his cheeks; out of pent up frustration, out of anger at himself and out of embarrassment; because what on earth was he even doing here?
Marc opens his mouth, but Manuel doesn’t even want to hear it. He only huffs one more time before turning around, sweeping out of the shower room.
As quickly as he can, he pulls on his sweatpants, ignoring everyone else, throwing on a shirt and making a beeline for the door.
When he finally reaches his room, he hangs the ‘do not disturb’ sign on his door handle, fumbling his pocket for his phone before going through his luggage to find his earphones. Manuel plugs them in, turning the music up to the loudest setting and drowning everything out.
When he wakes up again, it’s by firm knocking against his door. His music has stopped, the album probably having finished a while ago, and it’s dark outside; Manuel’s quick to conclude that he has actually managed to fall and stay asleep for apparently quite a while.
Grumbling under his breath, he gets up. His left arm feels numb because of the way he fell asleep on it, and he runs his right hand over his tired eyes before opening the door. He blames it on still being half asleep that he didn’t expect who’s standing outside. Manuel’s confronted with two pairs of blue eyes, and only with a second glance does he realize they’re holding hands.
Marc bites his lip. “Can we come inside?”
Manuel has the urge to slam the door in their faces, but he figures that’d be way too rude (even for him – and he has a track record of being a bit of an asshole when he’s pissed off) and resists the impulse.
Bernd pushes past him first, dragging the shorter goalie with him by his hand. He stops in front of the windows. Manuel can see the fire starting to rage in Bernd’s eyes.
“Why do you even think that our private life is any of your business? Also, confronting us under the shower?! Talk about inappropriate!”
Ah yes, now he’s fuming. Manuel winces. He then shrugs awkwardly, pointedly staring at the carpet because he doesn’t really know what else to do.
“I,” he croaks, “I just wanted to help,” realizing himself how stupid he sounds.
Marc puts his hand on Bernd’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze, taking a step forward. His smile is small, but surprisingly sincere.
“I’m sure you did. You’re a good guy, Manu.” The nickname sounds unfamiliar coming from him. “But,” now he looks almost amused, “you got it all wrong.”
Marc takes a deep breath. “Bernd and I have been together since France.” He falters. Manuel blanks. “We thought you already knew. I mean, Andi knows.”
For a moment, they all just stand there, unmoving. Manuel can only imagine how incredulous he must look. His voice is almost inaudible when he whispers a quiet “what.”
Bernd groans in annoyance before stalking up to Marc, lifting his chin. It seems like the youngest keeper didn’t expect the kiss either, keeping his eyes open in surprise, whereas Bernd closes his, letting himself go for a moment, wrapping an arm around his partner.
Manuel can’t help but feeling a bit satisfied when they separate; after all, he was right: they do make a beautiful couple. Even if he also can’t help but feel embarrassed that it has taken him years to finally connect the dots.
It takes a while until he musters up the courage to say his next few words. With a deep breath, he lifts his head, looking directly at his teammates. “I’m sorry. I, um. I probably should have just asked instead of making a fool out of myself.”
Marc grins, and with the way he grins at him, sharp-toothed and mischievous, Marc almost reminds him a bit of Thomas. “Don’t be. In the end, no one got hurt so who cares. Though Bernd was right – why are you so obsessed with our love life?”
Manuel blushes. “Um. I guess, I just noticed? And I don’t know why but it seemed like a good idea to bring you two together.”
“Would have been a decent idea, maybe, if we hadn’t already been dating for two years,” Bernd deadpans.
Marc sighs, casting his fellow back-up keeper a look. “Be nice, babe.”
Bernd only snorts, throwing his hand up. “I’m sorry! But don’t you think it’s kind of humourous that it’s him we get relationship advice – or something – from? I mean, nothing against you, Manu, but you wouldn’t recognize attraction if it hit you in the face with a stick.”
Manuel furrows his eyebrows. “What do you mean?”
“You and Müller!” Bernd exclaims.
“Me and Thomas, what about me and Thomas?” Manuel almost feels bad about asking when Bernd buries his face in his hands, clearly despairing at his captain’s ignorance by now.
Marc gently pats Bernd’s back. “He means ... I mean, do you really not know?”
“ What don’t I know?” If this conversation goes on like that, Manuel thinks, Bernd won’t be the only annoyed one for long.
Marc just laughs, a bit desperately, running a hand through his hair. Manuel frowns.
“You’ve been dancing around each other the whole training camp. And if I can trust Joshua’s word, also long before that. I mean, even the scene last night – when he wiped the crumbs off your chin. You looked like you were about to kiss! Or the catcalling. And how you reacted to it. You can’t tell me you didn’t notice that!”
Manuel blushes. “I didn’t,” he says with a small voice, almost feeling a bit choked.
Thomas, his thoughts scream. Thomas with his too-wide smile, his fascinating eyes, his wild mop of mousy brown curls. With his strong shoulders, booming laugh and his quick mouth. Lovely, wicked Thomas, who has always been there to support him. All of a sudden, it makes sense that he’s been noticing all these little things lately; how he’s been observing him closer than any of his other teammates, endeared by the younger one’s quirks.
“Well,” Marc’s smile is wiry, “then you know now. Do with that what you will, but as far as I can tell? You got a realistic chance … man,” he adds in an afterthought; winking at him as Bernd cackles in the background.
Manuel groans, and wishes for the ground to swallow him whole.
It’s the next day, after the second training session, that Andi asks him to go fetch some gear from where he deposited them on the other side of the pitch. Only, there’s no training gear to be found, and instead, there’s Thomas sitting on a bench. He’s got his elbows propped up on his knees, head resting in his hands, blinking up at the sky.
Manuel stops short.
The forward grins. “Manu, grüss dich !”
“What are you doing here?” Manuel can feel the gears in his head starting to turn.
Thomas waves his hand in a vague gesture. “Marc asked me to pick up his phone; he said he’d forgotten it here.”
There is no phone in sight, but even if there was, by the way Thomas smirks at him, he already knew it was a lie.
“So he couldn’t have come and get it himself?” Manuel’s mostly buying himself time, equally dreading and impatiently waiting for what’s going to happen next.
Thomas shrugs nonchalantly. He pats the spot next to him, inviting the older one to sit down. After only a short moment of hesitation, Manuel does.
“Isn’t this beautiful?” the younger asks, looking out at the landscape stretching out in front of them, still a bit of snow dusting the top of the mountains.
Manuel agrees, humming quietly, unable to tear his gaze away from his teammate’s features.
Thomas’ smile is different when he turns back to him. Less wide, almost a bit timid. (Almost. This is still Thomas Müller, after all.) Manuel prides himself in his steady nerves, but he flinches a bit when Thomas fingers brush against his own, bumping them together before carefully lifting Manuel’s hand, taking it in his.
“The most beautiful view of them all,” he says, looking directly into Manuel’s eyes.
The fluttering in the goalkeeper’s stomach erupts like a volcano, flooding him with a blazing happiness, intense in a way he has never experienced before. He almost has to stop himself from trembling.
They don’t kiss. Manuel fears it’s his own fault, too overwhelmed by his own feelings, feelings that he’s locked away for far too long. Instead, he lets his head drop heavily onto Thomas’ shoulders, pressing so close that he feels like they are merging into one.
Thomas wraps an arm around him, and just as Manuel closes his eyes with a sigh – content, comfortable and so, so happy – he feels lips being pressed onto his hair, a gentle hand caressing his neck.
And suddenly, he feels like he’s flying.