The first few days pass as if he was treading under water. Familiar city streets, the old smell that had been part of his childhood, a locker room he had known practically all of his life. He can’t pretend that he hasn’t been a part of this club before and there should be aspects to this – being with Marco all the time, seeing old friends more often – that should make his return feel less like failure.
But Mario has never lied to himself, even though he does lie in interviews all the time. This is not a success; this is his last chance; this is a return on his knees begging to be loved again by a crowd that was once his whole world when he was younger and so stupid and so impressionable by what Bayern promised to be.
He knows better now.
Now he just needs to make others believe that too.
The thing is that Mario can’t even remember the last time he wasn’t worried or stressed out or sick with panic before a match.
Somehow, paradoxically it was better in Munich than it is now. Marco not looking at him before and after each game made his own failure less stark against the dreams and hopes he once had.
There’s the injury at first when he comes back. Marco isn’t with him in Bad Ragaz and the days are long and at night, Mario falls in bed in the room he shares with Andre and does not manage to do much more than write a short text to Marco.
He promised himself that he wouldn’t remain at the sidelines again when he held up a jersey towards the Brazilian night sky ages ago. When he came back from Brazil and found a boyfriend that was devastated in ways he hadn’t picked up during the tournament, he promised himself that Marco would come first after that. It took them months to repair the loss of trust and then some hard talks about the truth they were facing all the time – in football, their careers, their teams, would always need to come first.
Now, after Mario’s dream crashed and burned, he thinks he made the wrong choice back then. Now, that Marco has learnt to be more selfish in the face of Mario’s own negligence towards him, they don’t seem to be as together as they used to be when they weren’t living in the same city but could fully focus on each other whenever they managed to visit.
When Mario was still in Munich, he craved the domesticity they only enjoyed on longer holidays. Getting up together in the morning, making coffee and breakfast, running on the weekends, cuddling up on the couch. He was yearning for it in a way that started to feel unbearable after the decision to return was made. He couldn’t wait for their life together to finally start.
In Dortmund, he sees less of Marco than ever before in their shared lives in the last years. There is therapy for Marco and training for Mario. There are too many things left unspoken between them from the times when they decided to not let a fight escalate over the phone. When he reaches out at night to wrap Marco in his arms, he is met with cold resistance and is told to go to sleep.
He moved in with Marco without really discussing it. They’ve been into each other ever since meeting for the first time. They’ve been together long before Marco even started playing for Dortmund. Mario didn’t even really think about getting his own place when he made the move back.
Marcel is over all the time and Robin, too. So are other friends of Marco that Mario has never met. They share stories of parties they went to together while Mario was in Munich and Marco laughs around them even on the days when he’d been crying three hours earlier about the unfairness of a career that will never take off, that is marred with injuries. Auba comes over and clings to Marco, laughing and joking and so do others of the team that Mario only met a few months prior. Mario sits at the sidelines and thinks he shouldn’t be this bitter; this, at least, is a reality he is used to.
When he can’t stand the hustle and bustle at home, he walks. Marco’s flat is at Phönix-See, as are so many others of their team members. It’s not easy to navigate his way there; fans are everywhere, waiting in front of Marco’s flat, walking around the lake hoping to meet one of their idols. Mario has long perfected the way of dressing and walking to be as unrecognizable as possible, but it doesn’t always work out.
There is this one day at the beginning of September when he can’t make his way home for hours, because a bigger crowd than usual makes it impossible to park his car. He calls Marco five times, finally calls the house phone. Marcel picks up. There’s music in the background and Mario can hear people chit-chatting. He hangs up without saying a word. He’s never felt this lonely before.
He drives and books a hotel room for the night, sits on the balcony and watches the sun go down. Marco calls him back for the first time a quarter to twelve. Mario doesn’t pick up until Marco calls again and again and again, starts texting him. Where the fuck are you, he writes. I’m really worried, Mario. I called everyone, no-one has seen you, pick the fuck up. He only replies once his phone starts lightening up with other calls and texts. I need a night for myself, he tells Marco and let’s his phone drop to the floor.
He is due to play his first game against RB a few days later but he can’t concentrate. Marco is set to make his comeback in November, if all goes well. Mario doesn’t want to stand on the pitch without him.
When he comes back to Marco’s flat after his night at the hotel, the house is quiet and there’s no one there expect for Marco. They stare at each other for a long time and then Marco gets up and leaves without a word.
Mario closes his eyes. He didn’t think that his world would end with a whisper not a bang.
He makes his way listlessly to their bedroom. He should probably pack. He realizes that he hasn’t even started to unpack for real; there are still boxes piled up in the corner of the room and more in the hallway. He starts crying once the thought enters his mind that the boxes are symbolic for his life right now.
Marco finds him like this when he comes back home 40 minutes later with Mario’s favorite pie from the corner shop. He balances the pie on one of the boxes and pulls Mario up with him, cradling him close. I love you, you idiot, he says, tell me what’s wrong.
And Mario talks. Once he has started, there’s no stopping the tide of loneliness that’s been a part of him for years. He’s not a talker; he is used to dealing with things himself, doesn’t open up, doesn’t discuss his inner life with anyone. It’s always been an issue between them; Marco pushing to be let in and Mario pushing to keep to himself.
He can’t deny that all he can feel is relief after he’s stopped talking. It probably helps that Marco has tugged him close and keeps pressing kisses to his head even after all those terrible words are out.
I bought a new place in the South when you told me that you would move back, he says. Wasn’t sure if that’s what you wanted though.
The relief would bring him to his knees if they wouldn’t lie on Marco’s bed anyway.
They do a lot of online shopping before moving. The place is gorgeous with big windows, airy and bright.
Marcel doesn’t get a key. Marco mentions it in passing, saying they’ll need to find someone else to water them when they are away if they want to buy plants. From the way he’s watching Mario though, Mario knows that he has thought about Mario’s rambling. Marcel never liked Mario and the rejection was two-sided for Mario as well. Marco stops inviting them to the same events.
After RB, Mario throws up in the toilettes of their changing room, throws up again in the same toilet 50 minutes later. The others are quicker with dressing, quicker with leaving for the bus. Mario doesn’t know what his problem is, but he feels jittery, feels restless, feels like a fucking stick figure fighting for balance. He chooses a place by himself in the plane, mindlessly looking at pictures on his phone. He throws up twice more in the tiny airplane toilet. In Dortmund, he stumbles out of the car driving him home, takes the stairs two at a time. Marco is sleepy and presses a kiss against his temple when he burrows against him in the dark of their bedroom.
He doesn’t tell Marco about it. A week later he doesn’t play against Darmstadt and is so fucking relieved he could cry.
The thing about Marco has always been that he is unbelievably dense unless something strikes his attention. Then it’s almost impossible to keep things from him, though Marco will never pry and asks. Instead, he slowly forms his opinion and then let’s out a statement like a time bomb.
After Wolfsburg and after Mario had spent ten minutes hyperventilating in one of the ugly green restrooms, Marco picks him up from the bus bringing them back to Dortmund. He doesn’t say much until they reach their home but picks up Marco’ travel bag from the trunk, refusing to hand it over before feeding Mario Spaghetti in their kitchen. You need to see someone regarding the anxiety, he says out of the blue.
They fight about it and the fight lasts for weeks. Mario is in the defense, quick with accusations and hurtful statements about Marco’s own questionable history of taking care of himself. Marco doesn’t rise to the bait, but Mario can tell that he is furious. It’s horrible and wrong and Mario spends days in the guest bedroom. He gains weight and he is always tired and he wakes up constantly with cramps in the middle of the night.
Something’s wrong with you, Marco says, when he finds him like this one night, curled up on their couch with ice pads on both shins. Mario shakes his head and doesn’t want to listen.
Things are mostly alright when Marco makes his comeback and it’s a glorious night. They celebrate and back in the hotel, their private party changes from kisses to something more quickly.
They haven’t had sex since before the European Championship.
They haven’t talked about it.
Mario has a panic attack just before Marco goes down on him.
Marco counts for him slowly while he tries to get his breath back and doesn’t touch him again for weeks. Mario starts seeing someone for the anxiety.
For Christmas and New Year’s, they both have to do the PR stunts, the fake pictures with their girlfriends and families when they are, in fact, on a tiny island in the South Indian Ocean for two weeks. It’s Marco’s belated welcome home present to Mario.
They hadn’t really discussed Scarlet, just as they never really discussed Ann-Kathrin. Looking at Marco’s pictures with her, which are so much less explicit than his own, he can’t fathom what Marco felt in the last years; he is engulfed by a dark, deep, irrational jealousy that makes him moody and irritable but most of all sad.
The island is paradise; they break up just before returning to Dortmund and Mario would pay to set it on fire.
As in any hard divorce, the team is forced to take sides. Mario soon finds himself in an exclusive pair with Andre while the rest of them rally around Marco. Andre is being as annoying as he’s always been, and Mario comes close to leaving during their trainings, consequences be damned. He has lost the ability to care.
The pain gets worse though Mario has a hard time knowing if it’s physical or psychological. He gains even more weight no matter how strictly he diets, no matter how many miles he runs a day. He doesn’t sleep well.
The diagnosis comes in February and Mario decides to take time off until he’s better, to completely disappear from the public eye. It’s a quiet reassurance to know that not all of this is due to the break-up, that at least some of it can be attributed to other factors.
It doesn’t help with the loneliness late at night when he’s so desperate he takes out an old jumper of Marco that he stole when moving out. He wraps the arms of the cloth around him, hugging himself with them and pretends that it’s Marco holding him close.
Marco calls him for the first time after the news statement breaks about Mario’s illness, after the team’s been briefed on this absence for the coming months. He sounds worried but the distance between them is too much to handle for Mario who finds some excuse to hang up. In the stillness of the apartment he rented he looks at the boxes lining his living room floor.
He still hasn’t unpacked.
Ann-Kathrin tells him to man up, to call Marco, to take action. Don’t let things happen to you, make them happen, she says.
There was a time before Bayern when Mario believed in this kind of shit.
Marco shows up at his door in March and Mario lets him in, because. Because. Marco’s been the most important part of his life since 2009. Mario knows there are people out there who wouldn’t be this heartbroken after months of dealing with their break-up. But. He can’t let go. He can’t move forward. He was always able to give and take and act when it came to Marco’s well-being, but could never do the same for himself. He can't believe it is truly over.
Just once, Marco had said, before he told Mario that he needed a break, I would like you to take the initiative to do something for yourself. Do I even still make you happy? I look at you and I have no idea what you want anymore.
Marco, on the other hand, has never been shy about chasing what he wanted.
In his flat, Marco stares at the boxed neatly lined up against the wall for a long time. Then he sighs deeply. Are you happy being back, he asks Mario and Mario looks away from him.
He can only text his answer late in the night.
I would never have come back if I knew it would mean losing you.
Of course, Marco is back at his place the next day. He looks at the boxes, then seems to make up his mind and goes straight to the kitchen and opens the empty fridge. Marco has been living on pizza from the shop downstairs but that was a secret nobody needed to know. Trust Marco to show that he still knows him best in a moment when Mario only wants to not be known by anyone.
He crosses his arms over his chest defensively when Marco turns around to look at him.
What do you want from me, he says and he sounds childish to his own ears. Their age difference really never mattered, not even back in 2009, because Mario had liked to imagine himself to be more mature and Marco had always been a gobshite anyway. Still, looking at Marco right now, Mario feels two years old.
I want you to feel better, Marco says.
They promise each other to not promise each other anything. Marco doesn’t take them to his flat immediately, instead drives out of the city, keeps driving until they reach a good place to sit and talk in the darkness with nothing surrounding them but open fields.
We need to talk things out now, he says quietly, we see each other every day. We can’t bottle it up and not talk about the hard things for the sake of not fighting. It worked before, but it doesn’t now. Mario agrees though he is scared to admit to the level of despair he has sunken to.
Something's wrong with me, Mario says. He is out of breath just admitting that much.
Nothing's wrong with you, Marco says softly, you're dealing with a lot. Cut yourself some slack.
I don't know what to do, Mario whispers and Marco takes his hand carefully. Just don't cut me out again, he says.
They don’t move back in with each other. Instead, they somehow spent most of their time at Mario’s place that Marco is slowly getting furnished. He buys more than one spoon for Mario’s kitchen. He shows up with groceries and toilet paper and laundry detergent with fresh linen und a second pillow.
Mario lets him do it even though to him it only means that Marco won’t ask him to move back in any time soon.
They don’t make anything official; neither of them has said anything about them being back together at all. Still, Mario receives a text on a rainy Friday from Marcel telling him to fuck off back to Munich, telling him to let Marco find his piece.
When Marco tries calling him later that day to hang out, he doesn’t pick up.
The truth is that he has always known that Marco was too good for him. Marco cared too much, Marco gave too much from himself, had too much patience for the myriad of complications that are Mario. He didn’t break up with Mario when he really deserved it after Mario’s shit move to Bayern. He consoled Mario throughout his whole time in Munich, took care of him even when his own career was hit by injury after injury. He made sure that Mario opened up as much as he could, made sure that Mario always had him to turn to when the pressure and the attention got too much.
Mario on the other hand barely managed to call him when he was playing the Euros and the World Cup and Marco was at home watching from the sidelines. It was not that he didn't care but he was struggling harder with all the different pressures around him, couldn't say fuck it to public opinion the way Marco did and mean it. Where Marco wasn't bothered at all, Mario was a mess.
Marco stops calling after Sunday.
The team bus gets bombed in April and nothing is the same afterwards. The team is quietly falling apart despite all psychological care. Players leave. Their coach leaves. Mario sits at home for pretty much all of it and tries to talk himself into believing that there is a point in getting better.
I talked to Marcel, Marco writes at the end of the month, I want to know what he said to you.
Mario can’t help himself and forwards the text. He should just once be the bigger man, but he knows that Marco never appreciates interference in his personal affairs and there is a tiny dark part in him that welcomes the hell Marcel will have to pay for this.
Marco is at his door twenty minutes later. They stare at each other for a moment when Mario opens. Don’t bother, Marco says when Mario makes a move to let him in. I just came to tell you that I can’t do all the work here. If things like this happen to you, you either talk to me and we find a way through it or we don’t. This is the last time I will build a bridge for you.
Mario has a hard time closing his door after Marco has left.
It takes him three days to write to Marco. He can’t bring himself to call. All he can hope for is that Marco will recognize it as the effort it is. He doesn’t make any further reference to what happened because he knows that that is not what Marco wants to hear. Marco wants a truth from him, something that Mario won’t say to anyone.
I’m in pain all the time, he writes, and I’m scared of both never getting better and getting better and going back out there.
I’ll be right beside you when you step back on the pitch, is the answer he receives. Mario blinks the tears forming suddenly away rapidly.
They fall into an easy sort of dating life for the next months. Mario’s keeping away from any and all social media, any events, anything besides recovery and spending days at home with Marco.
They are physical with each other, but they don’t do much more than making out. Mario knows that Marco is waiting for something though he is not yet quite sure for what.
Marco sometimes stays the for the night and Mario makes sure to stay awake once he has dropped off to sleep to watch his face in the soft shine of the street lamp outside, to breathe in his hair.
By May, they still haven’t progressed, have not gone forward, nor backward. Mario sometimes catches himself looking at Marco, wondering how a person he once knew best can become a stranger but not really, not fully. There are moments of awkwardness between them that were never there before. There are also moments when he feels just like he used to feel, when Marco laughs at his jokes the way he used to, when Mario feels as if they can make it. But then Mario doesn’t get invited to any of the family parties he usually went to with Marco. Marco doesn’t take him along for a short trip to Madrid with friends. He sees Marcel snapchatting the trip, an arm thrown over Marco’s shoulder and wants to weep.
He knows that Marco expects more from him. It takes him almost three hours to write a short, I'm really hurt you're never even asking me anymore to join you which in reality is a why the fuck do you still hang out with Marcel message.
You know we can't be public like that, Marco texts back. Mario tries not to look at his phone after but he sees another message from Marco and well. He cannot not look. And I know you're upset with Marcel and I was too, but we dealt with it and you know he's always been an important part of my life. Is it enough of a reassurance that I would rather have you here with?
Over the years, Mario became estranged from his own family for a number of different reasons that Mario doesn’t particularly want to recall. It didn’t matter so much back then; he had Marco’s family who loved him all the same.
When his birthday rolls around that year, the club had just confirmed that Marco was out for at least another six months. Marco called briefly to wish Mario a happy birthday, from some boat off the coast of Croatia for a trip with his friends that he disappeared on directly after the final. Mario manages to croak out a thank you, a I won’t keep you and then the connections is lost.
You sounded a bit strange, Marco writes later, sure you’re alright? What are you doing tonight?
Mario doesn’t want to reply but then he gets drunk by himself on a bottle of Bourbon Andre gave him as a pathetic housewarming gift. He can barely make out what he is writing and then passes out with this phone in his hand.
He wakes up with the hang-over of his life, 53 missed calls and just one single text message. Call me immediately, Marco writes, and Mario doesn’t want to read what he’s written, doesn’t want to know how he fucked it up this time.
He takes a shower and then makes himself open their chat. Being by myself, he reads, like I fucking always am. I am so fucking alone and so lonely and nobody cares, and I can’t keep doing this and I don’t know how to ask for help but I really, really need it or I’ll go crazy. I wish I would have never fallen in love with you or anyone or a stupid football.
I was drunk, he texts Marco, I’m sorry, and then shuts off his phone.
This is the stupidest game we ever played, Marco says three hours later when Mario had answered the door bell with the sinking suspicion that only one person would ring him up at today.
He wants to say what or how or something else, but Marco is already closing the space between them, is already kissing him, is already promising without words and Mario can’t do anything expect holding on.
You’ll start therapy for real this time, Marco says, not like you did last time. For all of these things you’ve written to me and all the things I know you haven't told me yet, while pinning Mario down on his bed while purposefully ignoring the erection that presses into his stomach. Mario, he says, when Mario can’t answer and Mario…
Anything, he says, please anything, just please don’t….leave me again, he wants to say, but it doesn’t come out, and Marco, as usual, saves him.
I won’t, Marco promised and then leans down to kiss him.
The sex is messy and uncoordinated, and Marco is so fucking gentle that Mario has no idea how to respond and when they come at exactly the same time, he’s pretty sure that he doesn’t deserve this. I think you do, Marco says and kisses him and Mario can't even care that he is apparently now talking loudly to himself.
Later, he cleans them both up, wiping a warm cloth softly over Mario’s sensitive skin with eyes so intent that Mario wants to turn away and hide his face. Instead, he decides not to be afraid for once. I love you, he says, because it's true and he could burst with it, burst with having Marco back like this, and Marco smiles his widest, crooked smile before kissing him again. I love you to, he whispers against the shell of Mario’s ear.
This has to be the shittiest apartment in Dortmund, he says later when the water won’t run hot no matter how they turn the knobs, I know a guy who could share some space with you. Mario swallow. I know a guy who doesn’t have a good track record with that in the last few months, he says without looking at Marco. I know a guy, Marco says, who knows a guy and has loved a guy for almost eight years and I think that’s enough of a base to build up on. Come home.
Mario moves back in the week after. This time he unpacks his stuff right away, sorting himself in next to Marco.
It’s not easy, but it works, because Marco doesn’t let Mario get away with not talking and Mario tries as hard as he can.
There are ups and downs, obviously.
Marcel calls Mario a nasty name in front of all of Marco’s friends one night and Mario wants to turn away, wants to disappear when Marco appears by his side, wraps an arm protectively over his shoulder. You want to repeat that, Marcel, he says calmly. Marcel doesn’t repeat it and Marco turns away with Mario then, sits down with him on one of the lawn chairs. I'm sorry, he says, and Marcel adds his own sorry later that night after some massive glaring from Marco. It just want what's best for Marco, Marcel says. Me too, Mario says, and Marcel sighs and says, I know it's been better between you but he was a real mess at the start of the year. I don't want that again. Me neither, Mario says, I'm trying really hard, and Marcel hugs him for a moment.
They are both injured for much of the season and it’s a bummer but at the same time it grants them the leniency to stay at home and watch movies, to make out for hours, to get really into cooking. When either one of them is in pain, they try to massage it away. Joint ice baths are a lot easier to handle, too.
Therapy isn’t exactly Mario’s favorite thing either and there are days when he gets back home too tired to do anything besides lying in bed, too spent from the truths he had to face about himself. Marco usually pets his hair on these days, feeds him his favorite food and doesn’t comment on anything that rambles out of Mario. It will get better, he says softly at the end of the day, I'm here. You're not doing this alone.
Mario gets fake-married to Ann-Kathrin and it pangs and stings a little to think that even this holy ceremony is taken from him like this. He knows that Marco doesn’t care about rings or the official commitment or the tax benefits, but Mario does, has always seen something holy in promising to stick it out with just this one person his whole life. He has always secretly dreamed of a quiet ceremony, of a vow he would read to Marco, of a place somewhere out of the city where they could be by themselves and maybe, very far in the future, raise a kid or two. Marco looks at him that evening and then calmly wraps his arms around Mario where he is washing their coffee cups in the sink. He slowly starts swaying them and then whispers, there’ll come a time and Mario can’t help but turn around and kiss and kiss and kiss him.
When he gets back on the pitch, Marco isn’t beside him but he’s there to pick him up later and to wrap himself around him when Mario can’t get to sleep due to the nervous energy running through him. It’s enough.
There was a time when not being called up for the World Cup would have shattered Mario.
That was before he almost lost what he held most dear; that was before the last year in which he got to see Marco pretty much every day, in which he didn’t exactly go forward with his career but gained other insights, other memories so much more valuable than playing another cup. The loneliness that has been with him for much of his live after leaving Dortmund; it's still there but less so, easier mitigated by a hug or a kiss from his favorite person in the world.
Will you hold up my jersey, he jokingly asks when Marco gets home that day. Marco snorts and herds him into their bathroom, in their flat they have lived in for over a year and Mario doesn’t think about football at all for the next hour. Life’s good.