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took the long way, because i knew you would be there

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You stand with him before the match. You already know that you won't be starting (and the worst part is that you've become accustomed to it, though that doesn't mean you'll stop fighting for a spot in the Startelf), so you treasure the little bits of time you still have with him before the international break ends and you both go back to your respective clubs.

Hey, he says, take a picture with me. He steps into you, his torso pressed against the length of your left arm, and places his right hand on your waist, holds his iphone up with his left hand. Ready? he asks, looking at you, and he presses the shutter after you say yes, but before you have time to muster a full smile.

Hey, what was that, you say afterward, and he smiles at you.

A memory, he replies. And even though this is far from the first time you've stood with him before a game, nor will it be anywhere near the last, you know what he means. He wanted, so he did, and now you'll always remember this, the pressure of his fingers on your waist, the solid warmth of his chest against your arm, his presence next to you welcome and long overdue, and his smile a beautiful thing to behold in the November cold.

It's moments like this that remind you just how you love him, helplessly, wholly, unwaveringly, until your heart feels like it wants to burst out of your chest like the first blossoms of spring.

+

You feel it as soon as it happens, but you don't signal to Jogi to sub you off. You've just come onto the pitch, and you're not ready to leave it just yet, not when you sat on the bench during the entire prestige-duel against Brasil only three months ago. You're not missing what little time you'll get in this one.

And even more selfishly, you're not going to give up what little time you have to be on the same side of the pitch as him. Seeing your back in front of me always makes me feel like I have nothing to worry about, he had confessed to you during the worst of the transfer drama, when you would often just sit next to him at the end of another long day, the lines of your bodies melding together, heat seeking heat, warmth begetting warmth. You knew he didn't need it, but want and need are two very different things, so you had said, in response, If my back's important to the best goalkeeper in the world, then I'll always try to have it before him.

So you won't let go of the few chances you get. And more than that, you just want to. I think we'll always be playing together, he had said, and you understood it for what it is, an admission of a desire.

It is yours as well. You love him, but you could not follow him to Bayern, even though he wanted, still wants, and so this is the only time left. You could not give him that, but you can at least give him (and yourself) this.

So you continue playing, and Germany triumphs over the Netherlands 3-0. It is a glorious, beautiful match, all the more so because you are a part of it, and after it's over, the two of you walk together for a while. The adrenaline from the match is still rushing through you, and that, combined with the high of achieving such a clear-cut win over rivals like the Dutch, leads to the two of you grinning at each other as you talk, exhilaration running through your veins. His hand is a welcome weight upon your shoulder, and when he eventually moves away, the space where he had been feels colder than it should.

But for the first time since he left Schalke, the separation doesn't sting like a wound still unhealed, tender and raw, but lingers, rather, bittersweet, bearable, and dwarfed by the ever present ache of love in your chest.

+

A ruptured knee ligament, you are told the next day. Oh. You hadn't expected it to be so severe.

Yet even in hindsight, you aren't sure you would have done anything different had you known during the match. Because as unfortunate as this is, it's not career-ending, and what's a little pain for love (and prestige)? People have sacrificed far more for far less. You'll just work hard at recovering so you can play again as soon as possible, the only thing you can do now to make up for what you did.

When he rings you in the early evening, you are not surprised. What were you thinking? he says immediately when you answer, without bothering to greet you. You can tell he is upset.

You close your eyes for a long moment. You had not meant for this.

He continues. A friendly isn't worth pushing yourself like that, even if it's one that's a prestige-duel. What if the injury had ended your career because you waited overnight before getting it examined? You hear what he does not say. What if we could no longer play together?

Because it's him, you say simply, I wanted to play with you. It is the only reason that matters between you two.

You hear the shudder in the breath he draws, counterpart to the aching coil in your heart. He says, finally, I'm not worth that., and you wish there were not the distance of a whole country between you.

Only there is, even when he's having a day off in Gelsenkirchen, and that's why you had willingly paid the price you did for a moment's selfishness. He had put you before his career first. Your knee injury is nothing compared to his determination to remain in Germany, something that meant he could transfer to only one club, one that he's spent his whole life despising.

He had sacrificed far more for far less, and the depth of his love for you never fails to draw out the ache of your own love for him, your chest forever too small for something that pervades every cell of your being.

You say, No, I'm the one who's not worth what you did. It's the first time you've acknowledged it, though the knowledge of it has been hanging between the two of you since he first said that he wants to stay in Germany, present behind every word you spoke to each other, every touch between you, heavy in the background of every moment of silence.

I didn't risk injury for you, he says quietly.

But what you did will follow you for the rest of your life, you say in response, because even forty years from now, there will be Schalkers calling him traitor, while no-one will remember that you had ruptured a knee ligament in a friendly for Germany, even if it was a prestige-duel against the Netherlands. And we both know I wouldn't have kept playing if it felt like a really bad injury.

Still, you shouldn't take chances like that, he says. He does not address the other thing you said because you both know that he cannot.

It's my choice to make, you tell him. Just like it was your choice to make, you do not need to say. Rather, you say, But thank you for worrying about me.

He laughs softly, helplessly. Take it easy, alright? I don't want to hear that you've made it worse during training.

You smile. I'll be careful. I don't want you to spend all your time worrying about me, you tease.

He laughs. You only wish. I'll talk to you later, yeah? Marcel came over for dinner, and it seems like the dishes are done now, so I shouldn't keep everyone waiting.

Alright then, you say, talk to you later. Good luck tomorrow night.

Thanks. Speak to you later, Benni, he says, his smile evident in his voice, and you manage to say, before he hangs up, You were worth it, and I would do it again.

You receive a text from him a moment later. Love you, it says simply. You can't keep from smiling as warmth spreads through your chest. It's not the first time you've seen those words from him, but you still can't help the sheer happiness you feel every time he reconfirms what exactly this thing between the two of you is. It feels less overwhelming when you are reminded that you aren't in this alone.

Love you too, you text back, heart soaring.

+

The next morning, you remember to update the status on your public facebook page, and while you're there, you go look at his public page as well. That's when you discover that he's posted the photo of you and him together before the match on there.

Sneaky bastard, you think fondly. You recognize it for the declaration it is, even if probably no-one else will, not even Wuppi or Kathrin.

You send him a facebook message. A bit rude of you to post that photo on here without even telling me first, don't you think?;-) You could have at least sent me a copy!!;-)

He texts you the photo an hour later, with the words I couldn't possibly deprive the world. beneath it.

You laugh. It's a good thing I'm so agreeable, then. How would the world cope otherwise?;-) you text back.

You receive a reply a few minutes later. It's not too hard when there are two people playing.

As if I could let you play by yourself. ;-) you text back, smiling.

Like I expected anything else. It would be too boring doing it alone. he replies a minute later. It wouldn't be worth it doing it alone, you know he means, and you feel that familiar warmth in your chest.

I'm going to watch you on tv tonight. Don't blow it by getting an easy question wrong. ;-) you tease him.

I won't. Can't have you bringing it up for the rest of our lives. he texts back a moment later. You smile softly at the way he so easily and assuredly trusts that the two of you will always be like this. It's been nearly half a year since he officially left Schalke, and yet the only real change is that the two of you no longer see each other almost every day. You've already encountered everything else before in some shape or form, and though it hasn't always been easy, they have all eventually paled before the strength of the love between you two.

You cannot imagine a world in which he does not set your heart alight.

12.03.03