It is a familiar thing, standing between the posts.
Ralf knows how high he has to stretch to touch the crossbar, and it’s exactly the same in Chemnitz, in Gelsenkirchen, in Madrid.
When he was younger, he used to hold his hands towards the sky, looked through the triangle shaped by his fingers and felt how he grew into it, closer to the crossbar inch by inch and day by day.
In a way, the goal is not his home. He only has the honour to guard it for the people screaming behind him, sore throats with blue-white scarves.
And so Ralf stands guard, waiting, watching, working. On a bad day, his palms and his knees burn. On a good day, he has time to stretch to the crossbar as he watches Naldo score.
When you’re wearing your gloves, the world is in your hands.
Sometimes goals can be spotted minutes in the making, and Ralf can scream at the defenders as loud as his lungs let him, the ball will inevitably hit the net as if it’s meant to in that very moment.
At other times, Ralf knows it’s all his own fault. He thinks this without self-pity, it’s the split seconds you think too long that decide the match. It’s alike for every player, but the last bit of hope dies at the keeper’s hands.
The analysts cut the scene for Ralf, play it, rewind it, repeat it until he even sees the scene in slow-motion in his sleep.
In the dream, time stops and the ball never goes in. Ralf nudges it and it falls out of the air onto the pitch between motionless feet. It’s an echoing sound in the full, but frozen stadium, and it feels easier to start again when he wakes up.
When you’re wearing your gloves, you can bear the responsibility.
Saving a penalty is --
He cannot finish this sentence, in the same way he cannot say, football is --
Saving a penalty is a gasp for air after a minute of holding your breath just before he’s about to black out. It’s Bene grabbing his arm, yelling at him, and Ralf yelling back over the sound of his blood drumming in his ears.
It’s a gamble, it’s seeing the opponents walk away with hanging shoulders, and it’s knowing you haven’t won, but you haven’t fucking lost either.
It’s like those dreams, stopping a ball that was already in the net. It’s Leon standing at the edge of the penalty box, looking at Ralf with half a grin.
It’s a choice the goalkeeper makes, held up against the choice that the penalty-taker makes.
But here is the thing: the statistics are about the penalties you save, not the ones you don’t.
When you’re wearing your gloves, you can be invincible.
Leon moves like he’s taller than he imagines himself to be. He tries to cram himself into the seats on the bus that don’t offer much leg room, and his arms are constantly swinging into Ralf’s personal space when he’s talking to him.
Leon is easy-going, laughs loudly showing his crooked teeth and loves to send snaps back and forth with Max.
He’s not like that with a football at his feet.
On the pitch he’s exactly as tall as he needs to be, determined and strong. The kind of man they tell you to look out for. Or maybe they don’t tell you, because it’s nothing you don’t know already.
Ralf watches Leon score in Russia in the summer. Leon slides over the grass on his knees with his arms spread wide and all but says, Get used to this.
Next year, there’s going to be another summer, another Russia. Ralf knows he will be watching from the couch again, but he can handle it better if it’s also Leon he can watch.
After the Confed Cup, Leon starts talking about the World Cup more often in a quiet and serious voice. “I need to prove myself,” he says, and Ralf swallows the sour taste of what that means in the football world that puts a price tag behind your name. Instead Ralf nods, smiles and lets Leon lean against him.
There is no victory as bittersweet as this. No victory crept up on him like this, filled him up with doubt, foreign and exciting like the feeling of gloves not yet worn-in.
Ralf knows the size of a football field by heart, he’s walked its length a thousand times, even as a goalkeeper. But it feels longer and seems to stretch into eternity when Leon scores at the other end of the pitch.
Ralf runs, pushed by teammates, hands curled into fists. He follows the roar in the stadium and suddenly there’s Leon jumping into his arms, holding himself steady with a grip on Ralf’s jersey. Ralf props him up, arms under Leon’s thighs, and Leon looks down at him, bright eyes. Ralf all but thinks, Get used to it.
He sets Leon down, carefully takes Leon’s face between his hands and presses a kiss to his forehead.
When you’re wearing your gloves, it’s a celebration. It’s a ritual, no skin touching skin, a safe barrier.
Or: When you’re wearing your gloves, you’re allowed to touch him.
Ralf doesn’t talk about it.
Bene still figures it out.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that he can see through Ralf - as a captain, as a defender, as somebody who has kissed Manuel’s hands.
The open secret is that you can still see the tiredness in Bene’s eyes, at a loss for words after love made Manuel hesitate less than loyalty did, and that neither made him change his mind.
“It’s not like that,” Ralf says, and Bene replies, “How would you know?”
Ralf knows the same way he knows whether to jump left or right when the ball is coming at him. Instinct is not always right, but as a goalkeeper, it’s the cold pull in his guts he learns to trust.
However, he also knows there is a curse on royal blue, where princes are built, crowned and sent away.
(And: Nobody imagines leaving, until the day they want to leave. How would he know?)
Ralf tightens the velcro on his gloves and anchors his feet to the earth. Bene says, days later, “Just don’t forget to let him go.”
When you’re wearing your gloves, you wish you weren’t.
Ralf becomes captain, and it’s not as sudden as the papers make it out to be. There had been talks, too many. Too many instances of Bene trying to mask the anger on his face.
There is no crown that goes along with the armband. And if there is, Bene takes it with him to Turin.
Leon and he are vice-captain and captain now. One of them will leave.
Nobody tells him this, but it’s a glass he sees tipping over the edge of the table in slow-motion, and no matter how quickly he holds his hands out, he can only catch shards.
Ralf thinks, I am not Manuel, and, I came back, but he can’t help but dwell on the implications of that.
Incredibly, they climb the table, people start making jokes about Schalke and the championship again, and Ralf kisses Leon on a rainy day.
He kisses Leon because he likes the way Leon’s wet hair peeks out from under the hood he pulled over his head to shield from the weather. Because Leon comments on Ralf’s beard and grins at him mischievously, because Leon smells of coffee, because they’re the last two people at the parking site and Leon leans against Ralf’s car with his hands in his pockets.
He kisses him because Leon is still here, not in Munich yet or in Liverpool or anywhere else where the height of the crossbar is the same as it is here.
The wondrous thing: Leon kisses back, and he tastes like coffee, too.
He lifts his hand up to Ralf’s neck and pulls him closer so that he traps himself flush against the car. Ralf opens his mouth, and Leon, always trying to prove himself, makes a desperate noise and swipes his tongue over Ralf’s lips.
“Take me home,” Leon says against Ralf’s skin, voice small and hoarse, and Ralf understands what he means.
“Okay,” Ralf replies, hands shaking when he unlocks the car. “God. Okay, okay.”
During the car ride Leon stares at the road ahead and breathes heavily, fingers curled around the bunched-up training jacket in his lap.
At Ralf’s house, he discards the jacket quickly when the door closes behind them, and his shoes follow soon.
Leon mumbles something, almost blushes, but it’s muffled to Ralf as Leon hurriedly fumbles with the buttons of Ralf’s shirt.
They manouvre to the bedroom, somehow, blindly, with their hands under the other’s shirts.
Ralf could learn this, too, how far down he has to bend to press a kiss to Leon’s collarbone.
He could learn it by heart so it wouldn’t matter where he’d do it, in a lockerroom at Schalke or in an anonymous café in London, always exactly the same.
Leon climbs over Ralf on the bed, and for a moment they both stare at each other in the half-dark.
Ralf thinks, Stay -- but doesn’t dare saying it, and only steadies himself with a hand on Leon’s shoulder when Leon slides his hand into his shorts.
Leon jerks his wrist up and down Ralf’s cock, but he’s rutting against Ralf desperately and clawing at his chest like he’s the one falling apart. He whines at the touch of Ralf’s hand then and slumps down, eyes closed, flushed and beautiful.
They hold each other when they come, not in the way a king and his first knight would, and Ralf falls asleep with Leon’s arm across his chest.
“Your wife,” Leon says drowsily the next morning, drawing his hand through his ungelled, unruly curls. But it doesn’t sound like a real objection as he picks Ralf’s shirt off the floor and pulls it over his head.
Leon also doesn’t question the two cups of coffee that Nadine put on the table for them before she discreetly went for a morning jog and left them alone.
Ralf leans against the counter and watches Leon sip from his cup and slowly wake up properly.
It’s supposed to be a good year for them at Schalke.
Ralf knows how the story goes.
As they say: If you love something, let it go. And if it doesn’t come back, it succeeded at another club.
It’s an improbable thing, standing between the posts.
There are twenty-two men on the pitch, and only two are goalkeepers.
There are twenty-two men on the pitch, and only two are captains.
Ralf feels Leon’s eyes on him all the way from the coin toss back to the goal. When he returns the look, Leon startles, smiles and turns away.
It’s an improbable thing.