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The first view on Castle Schlössel when you've climbed the steep path.

 

Home.

He's back. Back at home.

Marco is staring at his pictures, unable to avert his eyes.

He's become so mature. Even more after the year he had to spend far away. So far away from everything he considers home. His real home.

Marco is staring at his pictures, pictures someone else was so kind (gleeful?) to send him.

He's back home and he looks so happy. Happy to be back where he belongs.

Happy without Marco.

Marco is staring at his pictures, and his throat is tight with emotions.

He's become so mature, he's a real man now. Not the young boy he's once been anymore.

He's broader, and he somehow looks taller than Marco remembers, too. The exaltation and curiosity about everything new and exciting have faded to quiet self-confidence, but the sparks are still there in his beautiful eyes, especially when he's smiling like he's smiling on the pictures Marco can't tear his eyes away from.

He's still the Erik Marco has once loved. The Erik Marco still loves so much.

Marco is the older one, but Erik has always been the one who knew exactly what he wanted and what's good for him. He's never made the same stupid mistakes Marco has made when he was too young to know what's good for him.

They have both struggled with injuries far too often and for far too long, and Erik was the one who had to leave their beloved club because of those damn injuries in the end, knowing that he needed to leave if he ever wanted to get a real chance to play football again. Football is Erik's second true love next to his home, and Marco can't help but wonder where this left him in the line of things Erik truly loves.

The career of a footballer is short enough, and Erik didn't have much of a choice if he didn't want to give up his career and his dreams far too soon.

All Marco could do was to watch him pack his things and walk out his life. They never really broke up with each other, but both knew that it was the end nevertheless, the distance between them and the time schedules of their jobs being obstacles too big to overcome them and work something out that would allow them to stay together.

They'd already struggled before this big change, struggled with their injuries and their respective long and painful rehabs, with their frustration, with the need to keep their relationship in the closet and with so many other things as well, and Marco told himself again and again that it was better that way and that they would have broken up some day soon anyway.

And now he's back, and Marco can't deceive himself any longer.

He stares at Erik's pictures and knows that he's still in love with him. He still loves him, and this will probably never change. A proverb says that home is where the heart is, but Marco's heart is torn in two as he looks at the Erik smiling at him from the screen of his smartphone. He doesn't really smile at him of course, he's just smiling into the camera, but Marco wants to believe that he's smiling at him so badly.

His heart is torn in two because it has two homes. The one home is the town where he grew up and where he's playing for the best club in the world, Dortmund. But his other real home has always been Erik, the beautiful and sparkling boy Marco fell in love with head over heels before he even knew what was happening to him. The Erik who is a mature young man now and smiling so happily because he's finally back at home again.

Has Dortmund ever really felt like home to Erik? Has Marco ever been Erik's home like Erik was his? Marco can't help but wonder about these questions, and he's afraid of the answer.

He still remembers so clearly how he fell in love with Erik. It all started with a heated quarrel and a discussion about home.

It was after the World Cup, back then, five years ago, when Erik came back as a champion. Marco had missed the World Cup, forced to pull out of the National Team in the very last minute. Erik had been so young, so excited, and they'd had so much fun together in the training camp until the cruel god of football cursed Marco with an injury, the first one of many injuries that would follow after.

Erik was brave enough to visit Marco after his return to Germany, still young and naive enough to think that he could perhaps cheer him up with his visit. Marco didn't want to be cheered up, and he was cruel and mean and insulted Erik in every possible way because he was so hurt and frustrated and jealous that Erik was a world champion with only twenty-two and he himself was not.

Marco doesn't really remember all of the things he said to Erik to hurt him in the vain and stupid hope that he would feel better afterwards, but there must have been some rather mean insults about Erik's beloved home which couldn't be a real home to anybody, a place that could never truly be loved as a real home because it was just a small and meaningless village in the middle of nowhere and not a proper and big city like Dortmund. He must have said something cruel like Erik not really being worthy to call Dortmund his new home as the stupid and clumsy hick he was.

Marco doesn't remember what he threw at Erik in his own hurt and despair, but he still remembers how Erik looked at him, his cheeks glowing pink in his otherwise pale face, his beautiful hazel-green eyes dark with disbelief, deep hurt and rightful fury.

“I can see now that it was a mistake to come here. Don't worry, I won't do that again!” he growled, his voice choked with the tears he didn't want to cry in front of Marco. He turned around to leave, and Marco only managed to grab his arm and pull him back before Erik could storm out of his flat - because the prospect of being alone was suddenly much scarier than anything else Marco had ever been afraid of.

“Where are you going?” he cried out, and Erik turned around to glare at him as he tried to pull his wrist out of Marco's tight grip. “Back home! To the stupid and boring small village where I grew up in the middle of nowhere as the stupid and boring clumsy Pfälzer hick I am in your opinion! Not that you sophisticated citizen of such a fashionable metropolis like Dortmund will have to endure my unwanted company any longer!” Erik was hurt too, tears of anger and humiliation shining in his eyes, and Marco felt a sudden lump in his throat, hating himself for hurting him as much as he'd hated Erik for being a world champion only minutes ago.

“I'm sorry, Erik, please. I didn't mean it like that. I only wanted to lash out and hurt you...” he said, but Erik was still trying to get away from him, and Marco felt sick with self-loathing that he had taken his anger and frustration out like that on the only one who'd been brave enough to come to him and offer friendship, understanding and comfort.

“Mission accomplished, you were pretty successful with that, Reus. You can be proud of yourself,” Erik ground out, turning his head away to hide his tears from him.

“I'm sorry, Erik. I'm sure that your home is beautiful,” he said halfheartedly, flinching at Erik's scornful snort. “Yeah, of course.”

“I really mean that!” Marco objected, even though he didn't, because no home could be as beautiful and a real home like his own beloved city was.

Erik stopped his attempts to pull out of his grip, slowly turning his head again to look at him with narrowed eyes. “Do you know what? If you really think so, then come with me. We have a week left before we have to be back at training, enough time for me to show you my home and all the wondrous things you can find there!”

It was a clear challenge to make Marco admit that he'd been lying, and Marco could see by the look in Erik's eyes that the younger one didn't think that Marco would agree and actually come with him. Marco hadn't thought that he would agree either, and he was surprised about the words that came out of his words when he heard himself say: “Why not? Better than sitting around here and dwelling in self-pity, right?”

Erik gulped for air, looking almost shocked, but the smile spreading out on his beautiful face reached his eyes, and the prospect of being stuck in the middle of nowhere for a week wasn't as scary as it actually should have been when Erik grinned at him with sparkling eyes.

“Okay, but I don't want to hear any complaints or mocking remarks about us Pfälzer hicks!”

“I won't, scout's honor!” Marco said, grinning back, and two hours later he found himself sitting in Erik's car with a hastily packed bag, heading down south and feeling something akin to joy and anticipation for the first time since he'd lain on the pitch screaming in pain and the doctors had told him that he would miss the World Cup.

He was still hurting and mourning his loss, but there was another shy feeling blooming in his heart, a feeling Marco hadn't had a name for back then, a feeling that was so close to home and yet so different from it: love.

 

***

 

Erik's parents welcomed Marco like a long-missed second son, and Marco didn't have time to mull over missed chances or dwell in self-pity during that fateful week he spent at Erik's home for the first time. The village where Erik had grown up was small but beautiful, the people living there and in the entire region known as the Pfälzer Forest were friendly and welcomed Marco warmly, and the beauty of the green mountains and sunny valleys of the uplands that were Erik's home was simply breathtaking.

Erik had been serious when he'd said that he wanted to show Marco his home, and he stuck to his word and did show Marco around, driving them from one place to the other all day long. If Marco had thought that Erik had only meant his village when he'd talked about his home, then he was put right quickly, and his mind was soon spinning with all the things he learned and the many different places they visited.

Erik drove them to Pirmasens and they had stupid fun in the Dynamikum. Marco had never been fond of physics in particular, but he thought that he'd have paid much better attention to his classes if they had been similar to what the Dynamikum presented. He met Erik's childhood friends and bathed in their unobtrusive admiration and kind interest, he enjoyed the Pfälzer dishes he got to eat in the various picturesque restaurants that could be found in each village much more than he actually should considering his diet plan, and he had fun visiting the small public swimming pool where Erik had spent the summer vacations when he'd been a teenager.

Marco didn't even complain when Erik dragged him to all the wondrous places he'd mentioned, most of them either some huge bizarre rocks that looked like stony giants from another fantasy world or enchanted ruins of former mighty castles.

They visited the Dahner castle group and the famous imperial Castle Trifels of course, which were the tourist attractions of the region, but Erik also showed him the less famous and known ruins of the castles that lay hidden in the thick forests like Castle Scharfeneck or Castle Falkenstein, waiting for the fairy tale princes and knights to rouse them from their slumber again and save the beautiful princesses and maids waiting there for their rescue.

Marco wouldn't have been surprised to stumble over a sleeping dragon even, and when the week was almost over, he'd fallen in love with Erik's home and felt a lump in his throat at the thought of having to leave again.

Erik didn't say anything, just watched him thoughtfully when he thought that Marco wasn't looking, and Marco was deeply grateful that he didn't feel the need to gloat over his success and Marco's sudden fascination for 'stupid and boring villages in the middle of nowhere' and their 'hick-like inhabitants'.

It was the last day of their short holidays and Erik had decided to take him to another two famous castle ruins that were actually rather intact and also offered food and cool beverages in their castle taverns. Castle Landeck and Castle Madenburg were sitting on top of two green mountains that bordered the Rhine plain, and they had a breathtaking view over the plain up to Karlsruhe and Mannheim from where they were sitting on one of the wooden benches in the large courtyard of Castle Landeck, sipping from their cola and enjoying their tartes flambée.

“Thank you for bringing me here and showing me your home, Erik. I can see why you're loving it so much,” Marco said quietly, and Erik looked up from his plate, his genuine happy smile taking Marco's breath away. “You're welcome, Marco. I'm glad that you like my home. I know that it's not comparable to Dortmund and the Ruhr area, to chic cities like Düsseldorf, but it's my home, and I love it.”

“It's perfect, Erik,” Marco said, and he really meant it. The next larger cities were kilometers away, but Marco would never make any mocking remarks about Erik's home in the future again, not after having gotten the chance to see it through Erik's eyes and visit all the beautiful and enchanted places that made Erik's home so special.

“I know that you've probably seen more castles in one week than you ever wanted to visit in your whole life, but there's one ruin left not so far away from here. It's small and unobtrusive, but it's one of the oldest castles of the Pfälzer Forest – similar to the one near Pirmasens I showed you – and it's one of my favorites, perhaps because only few people find their way there.”

Marco could see how much it meant to Erik to show him those ruins, and he had to ball his hands to keep himself from reaching out for Erik to touch him. “I'd love to visit this castle, Erik,” he said, and he would have walked twenty kilometers happily and without complaining just to see Erik smile at him like he did now.

It was less than two kilometers they had to walk to get to Castle 'Schlössel', how the ancient castle had been named because no one remembered its real ancient name, and Marco could see why Erik loved this place so much. The ruins lay hidden in the thick forest, a small clearing between the trees where the sun was shining onto the damaged reddish walls, and Marco imagined brave knights in their armors defending their home against the attackers when he let his fingers travel over the rough sandstone of the walls that were left from the once proud castle.

“Aw, Marco come over here! Look at this cute lizard!” Erik called him, and Marco made his way to him to crouch down beside him and watch the small reptile that was taking a sunbath on the walls which some unknown and long-gone knights and ladies had once called their home.

“There's another one!” he said, pointing at another lizard that was sitting in between grass and flowers, smiling at Erik, and when their eyes met, Marco suddenly knew the name of the strange feeling that made his heart flip whenever Erik smiled at him.

Love.

He'd fallen in love with Erik while he'd climbed the steep paths of Erik's home to visit another castle or weird rock formation, fallen in love with him while he'd listened to Erik's explanations that showed his deep love for his beautiful home so vividly, fallen in love with him when he'd looked into his hazel-green eyes, sparkling with happiness about being back where he still belonged.

Marco didn't know whether or not he'd ever loved his own home Dortmund as much as Erik loved his, but he knew for sure that he loved Erik with every fiber of his being, and he unconsciously leaned in, gravitating towards the beautiful young man until their lips touched for the first time. Erik stared at him with big eyes, but he kissed him back with the same passion Marco felt, and Marco's last coherent thought was that he'd never felt at home like he did now, crouching in the middle of the ruins of Castle Schlössel with Erik in his arms and their lips pressed together in a first shy and yet ardent kiss.

They kissed for a rather long time before Erik pulled back to look at him with swollen lips and sparkling eyes, and they kissed again afterwards, forgetting everything around them. The sun was shining down on them, and the lizards were crawling over the red sandstone and flitting through the long grass, and they were alone just like Erik had said, Castle Schlössel not magnificent and important enough to draw attention to the tourists that came to visit the much bigger ruins like Castle Trifels, Landeck or Madenburg.

But for Marco it was the most beautiful castle in the world now, because it was the castle where he and Erik had kissed for the first time, the symbol of their blooming love.

They drove back to Erik's home without speaking, quietly holding hands in the privacy of Erik's car where no one would see them holding hands, and they shared more kisses in the shelter of Erik's childhood bedroom later that night, exploring each other with their lips and hands in a first shy encounter, the sweetness of their first time being clumsy but eager lovers still lingering in Marco's memory.

The magic of their first summer and the week they had spent in the Pfälzer Forest when Marco had fallen in love with Erik and Erik's home vanished soon enough, suffocated in the maelstrom of reality and everything that came with it, their demanding jobs, the injuries they'd suffered so many times and the necessity to keep their love a secret until nothing was left of it.

Marco let Erik go without another word when Erik had to leave Dortmund, telling himself that he would get used to the loss of his second home how he'd gotten used to so many painful things, and he'd been pretty good at deceiving himself for as long as Erik was still far away enough and with an ocean between them.

 

Humans are no longer living in Castle Schlössel, but lizards still do... ;-)

 

***

 

But lying to himself is not possible any longer, not now with Erik being back home.

Back at home, but not back in Marco's arms. Marco misses him so much, his throat too tight with emotions to breathe. Erik's pictures are all that are left of him for Marco, and they are not enough. Marco wants – needs – to feel close to him, and there is only one place where he can do that, where he can feel close to Erik again for at least a short precious moment.

He packs his bag like he did five years ago, and he's soon driving down south, to the place where he kissed Erik for the first time: Castle Schlössel.

Marco still remembers the way there, even though it has been five years ago and only one time that he'd actually visited this place. He doesn't even need to look at his navigation system, the voice of the device a distant sound within all the other noises his car is making as it's racing over the hot tarmac.

He has no clue where he'll sleep tonight, but he doesn't care about it either. There is something inside him that he cannot fight, a strange urge that tells him to go back to where it all started, and Marco clenches his sweaty hands around the steering wheel and doesn't stop until he reaches the parking lot near the steep path that leads upwards to the ruins hidden somewhere in the shadows of the tall trees. It's insanely hot, and the dusty street is as deserted as the small overgrown path itself, no human being with their common sense still intact is spending the day outside the house or not in close company to the next swimming pool in the burning heat of the late June day.

What does it tell about him that he rather wants to visit the ruins of an unimportant and long forgotten castle instead of staying in his nice and cool house with the pool in the garden? Marco can't really explain his need to come here, but it has something to do with the feeling of home he'd lost when he lost Erik to the cruelty real life is far too often.

The place is empty when Marco finally reaches it, his shirt clinging wetly to his back and his eyes stinging with the sweat that is dripping from his forehead.

Empty except for the cute lizards that are still there, dwelling in the warmth of the sun.

Marco wants to believe that they are the same lizards he'd watched together with Erik five years ago on a similar hot and sunny Saturday afternoon. It's already getting late, the sun slowly setting over the canopies of the trees, and Marco feels tired down to his bones all of a sudden. His foolish heart had missed a beat when he'd stepped onto the meadow between the walls, hoping for the tiniest second that Erik would be there, waiting for him.

He didn't of course. Erik is most likely enjoying himself with his friends, and he surely has better things to do than dwell in old memories.

Marco slides down on one of the walls to sit in the grass and watch the lizards flitting over the hot red ashlars, and his heart is aching, but there is also something else, the faintest feeling of home and familiarity. He can see Erik's face in his memory when he closes his eyes, the face of the younger Erik, the beautiful boy with the sparkling smile.

He takes his smartphone and looks into the camera to take a picture of himself. There isn't much to see except for his sweaty face, the wall behind his head and a small grayish lizard sitting on the edge of it, but it has to be enough. He types three words under the photo before he presses the send-button with trembling fingers, watching the two small ticks appear that tell him that his message has been delivered.

Marco stares at the screen and watches the two ticks turn blue when Erik reads his message.

The message that is a picture of him before a red stone wall together with three words.

'Do you remember?'

If Erik remembers and still loves him, he will find him.

Marco closes his eyes and waits.

 

***

 

Marco must have dozen off, and he startles awake with a gasp when someone touches his arm. He blinks up against the red ball of the sinking sun and right into Erik's face.

He found him. Erik really came to him, knowing what Marco was trying to tell him. He remembered, and he stopped doing what he was doing when he got the message to meet him. He climbed into his car and drove here because he remembered and knew why Marco had come here.

Maybe Erik does not only remember, maybe he still loves him too. Marco hopes that Erik still does. That he's still home to Erik as much as Erik is still home to him. He looks up at him, waiting for Erik to tell him that it's not too late, that there's still a chance left.

The other one is crouching before him, regarding him with a guarded but also hopeful expression. He's not the young boy any longer, excited and curious about everybody and everything, he's a young man now, mature and cautious because of the painful lessons life has taught him over the past five years.

But he's still Erik, and his new maturity makes him even more attractive and desirable.

“I didn't think that you would still remember, Marco,” Erik speaks up at last, his voice controlled like his expression.

“I do. Always have.” Marco says, hoping that Erik will see the truth in his eyes.

“Why did you come here, Marco?” Erik wants to know, still cautious, still not daring to believe what Marco's eyes are telling him.

“I had to come here. Had to find out if you still remembered, Erik. If you'd still come here as well.”

“I did.” Erik's Adam's apple is moving as he swallows thickly. “But why, Marco? They're just some stupid old walls in the middle of nowhere, built by some unsophisticated Pfälzer hicks.” But there's a smile lurking around the corners of Erik's full pink lips, and there are sparks dancing in his beautiful hazel-green eyes. Eyes Marco has missed looking into them so much.

“They're much more than that,” he says simply, “they're home. You are home, Erik.”

Erik's smile breaks free, and Marco reaches out to pull Erik close to him and kiss him, their first kiss after more than a year tasting as sweet as their first kiss ever they shared here between the ruins of Castle Schlössel tasted.

Marco inhales deeply Erik's wonderful scent, the mixture of his aftershave and sun-kissed skin that is still the same as it was when Erik was twenty-two and showed Marco his beautiful home for the first time. Erik feels so perfect in his arms, and being allowed to kiss him again feels like both heaven on earth and home. Their tongues are dancing around each other, greeting one another tenderly after the long time they couldn't be together, and Marco wants to cry and laugh at the same time.

They're still alone, the shadows growing longer, and their kisses become more and more heated quickly. Hands are roaming over warm skin, and Marco pushes Erik's shirt up to let his ardent lips travel over the landscape of Erik's chiseled torso. He has gained muscles on all the right places, and Marco licks up the thin traces of salty sweat from Erik's warm flesh, his mind clouded with lust and the ecstasy of finally being home again, feeling whole and complete again for the first time in what feels like an entire lifetime. They move over to a hidden spot behind some bushes where they'll be hidden from the eyes of a possible late stroller, undressing each other with hasty impatience.

They use their shirts and shorts as a blanket, and Marco pulls Erik over his body and his head down for another deep kiss, spreading his legs in wordless invitation. It's been so long since they've made love, and Castle Schlössel is the perfect place for their reunion and be close again.

Erik spits onto his fingers and hums softly into his mouth to distract Marco from the burn of the first intrusion of his fingers. He hasn't forgotten what Marco likes and needs over the long year of their separation, and he still remembers so well how to drive him crazy with his fingers and his kisses.

It doesn't take long until Marco is trembling beneath him with pure want, fearing that he will go insane if he can't feel Erik deep inside him any time soon. “I'm ready, Erik, I'm so ready for you!” he grinds out, and Erik slicks himself up with more spit and takes him with one deep thrust, silencing Marco's hoarse cry of ecstasy with his mouth.

“Fuck, you feel so good inside me, so good, my handsome knight,” he gasps, and Erik chuckles and looks down at him with dark-green eyes full of love and passion. Handsome knight was the nick name Marco gave him when Erik took him to his favorite castles, telling him the stories he'd imagined and told himself when he'd been a small boy, stories about him being a brave knight who protected Richard the Lionheart during his captivity in Castle Trifels and fought against the robber baron of Castle Drachenfels. Marco could see Erik dressed with a shining armor easily, and he wants to believe that Erik has once been a tough and honorable knight who lived in Castle Schlössel, fighting for honor and justice.

“I'm still your handsome knight, am I not?” Erik whispers against his lips, and Marco smiles up at him and arches his back to feel him deeper inside his body. “Always, love. You'll always be my handsome knight, Erik,” he promises him, and Erik swallows and gently presses his forehead against Marco's. “You'll always be my home, Marco,” he breathes against Marco's lips, and they seal their promises with a kiss when Erik begins to move, the passion between them burning higher and higher, illuminating the dark sky like the sun and the moon together.

They make love under the stars, and the earth stops moving for a moment when they come together, holding each other tight, and the soft rustling noises of the leaves dancing in the soft breeze of the early night are the only sounds audible when they lay in each other's arms afterwards to savor the afterglow of their shared passion and love.

Marco can see a small lizard that has fallen into its usual rigidity during the night when he gazes around, and his heart is swelling at the sheer beauty of the moment.

“I love you, Erik,” he says into the darkness, and Erik sighs in his arms and presses a kiss onto his naked shoulder. “I love you too, Marco. I was so homesick. Homesick for my home here, and I was homesick for you.”

“I was homesick too, Erik. Homesick for you. I'm so happy that you came back home.”

Erik lifts his head to look down at him, and Marco can feel his gaze upon his face through the darkness. “I needed to come home. The last year in England was important, but it made me realize what matters the most to me. If everything goes right, then I'm going to Frankfurt. They're a great club, and I'll be not far away from home – from my two homes, my beloved Pfälzer Forest and you, Marco.”

Marco's heart speeds up, and he pulls Erik's head down for a passionate kiss. “Oh Erik,” is all he can croak out, but Erik seems to understand him, because he kisses him back and pulls him close to let him cry on his shoulder.

Frankfurt is not Dortmund, and Erik won't be as close as Marco would like him to be, but it's close enough, and they'll have a real chance to be together. Marco is already looking forward to visiting Erik in Frankfurt or in the small village where he grew up and where his family and his friends are still living, and he's sure that Erik will visit him in Dortmund as well. The distance is even manageable for short impromptu visits, and having two homes is not as bad as Marco thought it to be at first.

They get up some time later, driving to Erik's childhood home where Erik's parents welcome him like a long-missed second son, and Marco falls asleep in Erik's arms in his childhood bedroom with a smile on his face, dreaming of handsome knights and a future together with the man he loves.

Home is where the heart is, and Marco's home will always be where Erik is, whether it may be in a big and chick metropolis or in a small village in the middle of nowhere.

Love is what makes a place a real home, and Marco's real home will always be in Erik's arms.

 

What's left of Castle Schlössel after centuries...