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Distance Isn't the Only Thing Between Us

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Thunder rumbled as lightning streaked across the sky. The lights of the city of Gelsenkirchen twinkled in the distance as he looked across them from the balcony of his hotel room. He couldn’t wait for the team to leave in the morning. He always felt like that any time Bayern played Schalke. He couldn’t wait to leave and nor could he wait for them to leave any time they came down to Bavaria.

Manuel’s fingers played with the label on the bottle of the beer he had forgotten he was drinking. The door to the room was half-open behind him and there was only the soft glow of the light beside the bed to light up the room and his way back in should he decide to get up and go in. He was enjoying the cold night air too much though, the sound of the city and the rain. The feel of it nearby; so close that if he reached out the drops would touch his fingers.

He didn’t move though. It was odd to be staying in a hotel in the city you grew up in instead of at your parents’ house, or at another relative’s for that matter. Or a friend. Lover. It was odd indeed.

Manuel felt another twinge of conflicting emotions stir in him again. Happiness for Benedikt scoring a goal, annoyance that it wasn’t really a fair goal, despair that Bayern wasn’t going to win (though that came later) and he had failed them in preventing it, and rage that it had been allowed and shouldn’t have been. Benedikt. Of all the people on the Schalke team, it had to be him.

After the match, the changing rooms, and cleaning up, Benny had tried to see him, but Manuel had pretended like he hadn’t heard him. Instead he’d stayed with the team and returned to the hotel. If he thought back about it, and God knew he had, he could swear he saw a disappointed and hurt look on Benedikt’s face at being ignored. On the bus ride to the hotel, Philipp had told him it wasn’t his fault and that he’d done well. Thomas had tried to make him smile (and had succeeded). Pep had commended him on another well-done job.

Still, they didn’t understand.

They didn’t understand how important this game more than any other was to him. They didn’t understand how vital it was they win and win well, decisively at that. He needed it in this game. He had done well, up till now, at proving that he was one of the best keepers in Germany. This summer he’d proven that he was one of the best in the world. But there was something that still rested inside of him that wanted the people of his hometown to realize that he was good enough, even if he wasn’t playing for Schalke anymore. He wanted to make his family, his city, his country proud. Allowing a goal here to get by wasn’t going to help him do that.

The fact that it was his first love, the captain of their boyhood club, that did it… That hurt more than it should have.

Manu thought he’d done a half-decent job of keeping his focus during the rest of the match after the goal, despite the fact he wanted to personally tackle Benny and have that goal disallowed. It wasn’t going to happen, no matter how many times he, or the rest of his teammates, protested. The match had finished and everyone had gone their separate ways.

Right up to now. He sat alone and looked at the city and remembered a hundred memories of his earlier years, when he was just a schoolboy and wanted to be Jens Lehmann. He could remember with great happiness when he started playing football for school and how he made friends, although he was still very shy about it, on the team. He remembered his teddy bear hidden in his schoolbag that he would have to excuse himself to the bathroom, just so he could hug it once in a while. He wasn’t an outgoing eccentric the way Thomas was and he never would be.

He wasn’t quite sure how he became the captain of Schalke; he didn’t think of himself as a leader of men. He wasn’t brave or courageous the way Fips or even Bastian could be. He didn’t like shouting or giving orders; he liked books and staying at home to watch films and snuggle under a blanket. He didn’t like attention or being someone who made the decisions.

Despite this, somehow, he was in that position and got Schalke to do fairly well through the season that year. The players looked up to him. Benny looked up to him. And that made all the difference.

When the night air became too chilly, Manuel heaved a sigh and stood up. He was tired and he could probably sleep if he went to lay down and actually tried to sleep. He still found himself in that phase where he didn’t quite want to go yet, as if something was waiting to happen before he would rest peacefully. Manuel moved over to the room and shut the door to the balcony and pulled the curtain closed; he did spare one last long glass at the city beyond and the sparkling lights.

He turned back and started across the room when a knock came on his door. He swore in his mind. If Thomas was going to pester him again for some Nutella, he thought he’d strangle him. Actually, he would strangle him. It would definitely happen.

The temptation to ignore the knock was very strong, but then again it could be important. He debated with himself for a moment. Maybe Philipp wanted to go over something? Maybe Dante wanted a late-night snack and a chat? Maybe it was soon-to-be-dead Thomas asking for a delicious treat again? Manuel sighed and went to go answer it without looking to see who it was.

He froze instantaneously when he saw the blond Schalke captain in front of him. He probably got a stupid look on his face, wide-eyes and half-open mouth. He didn’t care.

Benny was wearing a dark grey hoodie, pulled up around his face. The water drops from the rain had stained part of it black. He was wearing a dark pair of jeans and his hands were shoved into the pockets and Manuel’s throat suddenly grew dry, especially after Benedikt pushed the hood off the top of his head.

“Manu.” Benedikt said softly and gave him a shy half-smile. Manuel recognized that look; it was his way of asking for permission, asking if this was okay.

“Benny.” Manuel spoke just as quietly and stepped back to let him in. After all, it would look rather odd to have one former Schalke-player talking to a current one in a corridor at nearly one in the morning. As Benedikt walked into the hotel room, Manuel wondered why he’d called him by his nickname. Were they still close enough to allow that? Was it just a reaction caused by Benny calling him by ‘Manu’ instead? Did he want to still be able to call him Benny?

“I tried to see you earlier, ask you out for a beer.” Benedikt started quietly, looking around at the fairly-clean room. There was his kit bag by the door. “I don’t think you heard me.”

Benedikt looked back at him then, and their eyes met. He was kindly giving Manuel an excuse, a polite way to say that he acknowledged being ignored and hadn’t approved. Manuel only had to take the slack of the rope and agree. It would be smoothing the footprints in the sand with the ocean’s wave; a way to cover a blemish of untruth without hurt feelings. It would be a respectful, polite way to acknowledge the situation without acknowledging really doing so.

Manuel had never been dishonest.

“I heard you.”

Benedikt nodded slowly and something hardened in his eyes. Manuel suspected it was a wall of caution going up inside of him, a warning to keep whatever it was he wanted to do or say at bay and let this be a short meeting.

“Well…you really must have wanted to get on then.” Benedikt said and then paused, as if trying to determine if he really wanted to say the rest of whatever it was he was going to say. Soon, Manuel realized what the internal debate was. “The Duck I know would’ve stayed to see his friend and speak with him. I guess you have changed.”

Benny wasn’t one to do passive-aggressive anything. If he had something to say, generally he just came out with it, although he could be nice about it, not blunt or overly complicated. Benedikt just had a way to politely say what it was that needed to be said. Usually. This time he had been short with his tone, cutting with a remark they both knew wasn’t true. There wasn’t anything exceptionally pressing that he’d had to do after the game. If he really wanted to he could’ve asked Pep and probably could’ve managed to go anywhere with Benedikt afterwards (he’d done it before).

They watched one another from the few feet between them for a few heartbeats after Benedikt stopped speaking. Something very uncomfortably like sentiment was creeping its way into Manuel’s scope of emotion. His fingers began to itch to pull Benedikt to him and hold onto him like the way they used to before…before anything and everything else had happened. The desire was there, oh yes, but he refused it. Besides, Benedikt had turned away and moved to the balcony to open the curtain and look out as Manuel had done earlier.

“I haven’t changed.” Manuel formed and replied. He’d waited too long but he had needed to say something.

“Trying to convince me or yourself?” Benedikt asked, looking over his shoulder with a raised eyebrow.

Aggravation stirred in him now and Manuel stopped with the slack-jawed expression he felt like he’d been having since Benny showed up in the first place.

“I haven’t, but you certainly have!” Manuel crossed his arms over his chest. He saw Benny’s eyes narrow a little bit and he pushed ahead. “Why did you come here? To trade insulting comments to one another or was it for some other purpose, Captain?”

Benedikt turned away from the window and took a few steps in his direction again. He seemed to have his own battle of aggravation going on internally. Manuel really didn’t want to get into a fight; the tired part of his mind reminded him that he did need to get some sleep eventually. Now wasn’t the time though, Benedikt looked mad.

“I came here to see my friend. The one that ignored me earlier and refused to see me because he was too busy spending time with his new friends at his new club and forgetting where he came from!”

Manuel’s mouth opened in shock again and he stared at Benedikt before he recovered quickly enough to close off his expression altogether.

“How can you say that to me? You know what I went through!” Manuel was shaking his head as his fists clenched by his sides. “Get out, just get out. If that’s what you really think, then you are no friend of mine!”

He was standing by the door (he didn’t remember moving) and his hand was on the doorknob, more than ready to jerk it open and show Benedikt out into the corridor. How could he do this? How could he say that? Benedikt realized he’d gone too far and his face crunched into a look of guilty remorse.

“I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant. I don’t think that, Manu. Not really.” Benedikt’s tone had softened drastically and the look on his face was genuine. But Manuel was upset now.

“How do I know you mean that instead? Poisoned apples from a poisoned tree.”

Benedikt shook his head and heaved out a great sigh. How could it have been a few short months ago they had been happy together in Brazil? How could it have been only a few years ago they had been in love with one another so deeply?

“Why did you turn away from me earlier?” Benedikt asked, moving a little closer but still not close enough.

Manuel shrugged a shoulder, hand coming off the doorknob as his arms crossed over his chest again. “I don’t know.” He didn’t have a good reason. “I was tired.”

“Tired…” Benedikt replied with a small nod before looking at him, another half-smile back on his face. “I’m not sorry about the goal.”

Manuel shook his head. “I know you aren’t. I wish it had been cleaner if it had to be at all.”

They shared a look of agreement and Benedikt swallowed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean what I said. Of course you haven’t forgotten where you are from.”

“Why did you say that then?” Manuel asked.

Benedikt shook his head. Just as Manuel hadn’t had a good answer for his actions earlier, Benedikt didn’t have one now. Manuel decided to let him off that hook by placing him onto another.

Again he asked, softly. “Why did you come tonight?”

“I wanted to see you.” Benedikt said and moved closer again. He looked uncomfortable, as if Manuel really would throw him out after the argument they’d had. Manuel thought he was fully justified if he really wanted to push it. Then Benedikt spoke again. “I miss you when you’re gone.”

That was the end of it. Manuel moved across the much-shorter distance that separated them now and he put his arm around Benedikt while his other hand pulled him closer for a kiss. Benny was all too happy to return it and pressed closer so that their chests were touching. Manuel wasn’t sure who it was but one of them groaned into the kiss.

Benedikt’s hands were all over him and Manuel suddenly didn’t feel tired anymore. At least, not enough to stop. Not enough to send Benedikt away.

“Stay?” He asked against the other man’s lips and he felt Benny nod.

Manuel smiled, the first time since Thomas had done so earlier, and he pulled his boyfriend, his first true, and only real, love closer before laying both of them down on the bed. It was going to be a long night indeed, but this was one of the better ways of spending it. At least he wasn’t alone. The fact that it was Benny of all people with him made Manuel feel better. Things would be all right.