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Doppelpass

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(March 2019)

 

Marc stared at the bottle of sleeping pills.

 

“Take one, put a glass of water next to your bed and set two alarms, you can’t be late for training.” The team doctor had instructed.

 

He took two out.  He knew one wouldn’t work; he had woken up hyperventilating after 5 hours last night.  He needed at least 8 hours of sleep.  So, two tablets.

 

It’s ok.  It’s probably nothing.  Marc told himself.  He had read somewhere that these feelings were not uncommon among team sport players. The daily contact, shared rooms and shared emotions; like soldiers in combat, right?  Though he has never been in the army, certainly the intensity of winning and losing matches is similar?  You went through these situations together and became emotionally vulnerable.  Marc continued to reason with himself.

 

Except the two of them haven’t gone through that many matches together and in the 10 years of professional football career, Marc had never felt remotely attracted to any teammate like... like now.

 

Holding a cup of water in one hand, he was about to put the pills in his mouth, but instead he threw the cup against the bathroom wall.  It bounced, cracked and fell on the floor, water splashed all over the generic hotel bathmat.  

 

Of course, they’d put plastic cups in hotel rooms for footballers, in case they trash the room.

 

Marc flushed away the pills in the toilet.

 

No one could help him.  Nothing would work.  Not even if he had 8 hours of sleep.  

 

Because Marc would wake up and still want to sleep with the new left winger in his team.

 

******

 

(Two Months ago - January 2019)

 

Marc Borgmann remembered the first time he saw Kay Engel in person.

 

Technically, it was Engel’s back that he saw.  Shoulders shaking, Engel was laughing at something coach Herrlich had just said to him, probably the same joke about the dead tree, he told that to every newcomer.

 

Engel had a silvery laugh.  Light and pleasant.  Infectious.

 

Marc was about to walk over there to introduce himself when Larsen pushed his back to hurry him to move forward.  Marc stumbled.  

 

And at the exact moment Kay Engel turned his head and looked directly at Marc.

 

He quirked his lip.  A smile.  A wry one. 

 

Smartass.  Marc thought.

 

******

 

“I heard he was training as a sprinter before they found out he can also play football when he’s 17, a late starter.” said Larsen, who stood on Marc’s right, by the sideline.

 

“Most likely his parents found out pro football makes more money than track and field.” Limpinski said, standing on Marc’s left side.

 

Marc glanced over.  There he is.

 

“I think he should be an actor.” Anna, the team nutritionist said, appeared out of nowhere behind them.

 

All three of them turned and glared at her.  She shrugged. “My daughter said he’s the latest football players pin-ups.” She winked at Marc, “you are in top 10 too, Marc.”

 

Marc snorted disgustingly.

 

“That’s why female fans are bad news for the game.” Limpinski muttered sourly.  Anna only laughed harder, “nothing wrong with a bit eye-candy for us.”

 

“You didn’t find them bad news when they flock to you in clubs.” Larsen reminded Limpinski.

 

Marc ignored their banter.  His gaze returned to the blond-haired figure in the middle of the field.

 

It was all Ackermann’s fault, of course.  The idiot had to perform an overhead kick right in the middle of three defenders in the 6-yard box.  Not only the ball didn’t go in, he fell down in an awkward angle and broke his already injury-prone ankle.  Now he’d be out for god knows how long.  Three months if he’s lucky, probably four months including back to fitness training.  Right before winter break, half season has gone, it would be over by the time he recovered.

 

Stupid Ackermann, fucking made of glass.  Marc cursed quietly to himself.  He thought this was their season.  Second in the league table with just 3 points behind.  If they beat Bayern Munich when they play each other, they could overtake the league leaders on goal difference.

 

Marc worried.  They could not afford to lose the momentum.  This might be his best chance to win the league title, his childhood dream.  What he had been working so hard for.  Something his father never managed to do in his career.

 

Fucking Ackermann.  Now my league title dream is pinned on a rookie.

 

Coach Herrlich had no choice but to buy an attacking player in the mid-season transfer market, when everyone knew we were desperate.  €12 million.

 

€12 million transfer fee for Kay Engel.  He scored 20 goals and made 12 assists in 42 matches in all competitions last season for FC St. Pauli.  A 0.78 per match, that’s a great ratio for an attacking winger in a league two team.  It was common knowledge that, he would be in Bundesliga 1 soon.

 

Not everyone was convinced though, including Marc.  League 2 football was miles below league 1, Kay Engel might soon realise it takes more than running fast to get past defence at top level.

 

Marc watched as Engel finishing his warm-ups and started doing short sprints, under the approving gaze of their fitness trainer.  Then Coach Herrlich, animated as usual, pulled Engel to his side, pushed a ball into Engel’s arms and started pointing to the markings on the pitch, on doubt directing him where and how to make passes.  Engel dribbled the ball and started running at high speed, zigzagging between the markings, while keeping the ball.  Herrlich ran alongside Engel but was left behind in less than two seconds. 

 

When Engel returned, still had the ball with him, Herrlich ruffled his hair and gave him a thumbs up.  

 

Christ.  It’s like they adopted a new puppy.  Marc wanted to roll his eyes. 

He’s a fast runner, that’s for sure.  Probably a lot faster than Ackermann... his first touch on the ball? Not bad... but is he only playing with his left foot? Christ.  Not another one-footed leftie genius.  He observed Kay Engel’s training with a critical eye.

 

Marc liked to do link-up play with Ackermann.  After three seasons, they knew each other’s play well, he knew Ackermann’s movements like his own, know how he find spaces between defenders, Marc could pass him the ball almost without looking.  

 

Ackermann was solid and reliable.  And Marc like that. 

 

Engel was not even from around here.  He’s an unknown from a lower league who was trying to impress.  He’s a potential liability; he represents change. 

 

And Marc did not like change.

 

“Marc?” Coach Herrlich waved at him. “Come on.  I want you to start training in pair with Kay, you two need to able to read each other.”

 

Marc jogged over and tilted his head up by way of greeting.  Engel returned a smile.  The same damn wry one again. 

 

What’s the matter with this guy?

 

They practised passing the ball back and forth between each other, with kicks, headers, shoulders, chests, anyway to keep the ball.  After a while, Marc began to notice Engel favouring his left foot.  Well, he does usually play as a left winger.  It’s not a big deal. In fact, left footed players were rarer, so it was good that the team have one to play in his natural position. But for some reason, it irritated Marc.

 

“You should practise your right foot too. You can’t be predictable as a winger.” Marc said to him.

 

“I can play with both.” Engel replied without looking up, concentrating on controlling the ball.

 

“Is that so?  Then why are you only using your left foot?”

 

“No reason.  I want to train my left foot today.”

 

Marc stopped the ball with his foot and said, “show me.” Then he kicked the ball to Engel’s right side.

 

“No.” Engel frowned.  He turned sideways and kicked the ball back to Marc with his left foot. 

 

Marc kicked the ball higher this time and it bounced over Engel.  Engel moved a few steps back to catch the ball first with his head, held the ball down with his chest, then kicked it with his left foot again, all done with effortless flair.

 

Marc had no idea why he did what he did next, but when the ball returned to him, he deliberately aimed it at Engel’s face, and kicked it even harder this time. 

 

The ball hit squarely on Engel’s face.

 

Before the ball even hit the ground, Marc found himself pushed down onto the pitch.

 

“What’s your problem? Arsehole!” Engel shouted at him. Fists raised.

 

Shocked.  Marc was still processing what he had done himself, it took him a second to get up and went right up to Engel.  He pushed Engel’s shoulder and shouted back, “Are you crazy?  You fucking idiot!”

 

“HEY HEY HEY!” Coach Herrlich got between them in a flash.  “What the hell are you two doing?” He eyed Marc then looked at Engel. “If one of you gets injured as well, I’m going to fucking kill both of you.”

 

By then the rest of the team were surrounding and looking at them.  Marc and Engel just stared at each other.  Marc lowered his gaze first.  Scheiße. Maybe I’m more stressed than I thought.

 

When he looked back up again.  He saw Engel watching him with a peculiar expression.  The damn wry smile was back, but there was also something else, something playful.  His lip curled in a way that look more curious than annoyed, like Marc was a damn puzzle for him to solve... Mortified by his own outburst, Marc flicked up a glance at Engel and saw the red marks he inflicted on the right side of his face.  Engel was one of those people who was blessed with good skin, even after getting hit in the face, he still looked like he ready to step out from a magazine.  Marc averted his eyes.

 

Ugh.  Shut up.  Marc cursed himself.

 

Coach Herrlich pointed to Engel’s face.  “Go get that check with Dr. Greenberg.  Make sure your nose is not bleeding.”

 

Engel looked at Marc one last time before he walked off the pitch.

 

Coach Herrlich turned to Marc and studied him closely.  “I didn’t expect this from you, Marc.  I know you’re upset with Ackermann, but we need Kay to fit in the team pronto.” He said gravely. 

 

Marc felt thoroughly embarrassed already, he’s been promoted to team captain since Frank got injured, he needed to show he’s a leader.  He mumbled an apology,

 

Herrlich put his hand on Marc’s shoulder.  “You can assert your authority in the game, posturing during training has no place in my team.  Give the guy a warm welcome, ok?”

 

 

Chapter Text

“Marc Borgmann, central midfielder of FC Duisburg, aged 27.  Married to Bettina Borgmann, they have one young son, Jonas, aged 3.  Marc Borgmann comes from a football family.  His father, Wolfgang Borgmann, was a central defender for FC Duisburg and had a moderate successful playing career.  Marc played in junior team of FC Duisburg since he was 15, he was promoted to senior team when he was 18 and has been a regular first team member for the last 6 seasons... blah blah blah...” Britt’s crystal clear voice filled Kay’s newly painted living room.

 

“He was voted ‘Breakthrough Midfielder of the Year’ by Kicker magazine when he was 22,” Britt rolled her eyes and continued to read out loud, “came 2nd in ‘German Footballer of the Year’ last year.  He replaced Frank Richter as FC Duisburg captain this season after Richter was sidelined with an injury... blah blah blah...”

 

She finally looked up from the laptop.  “Kay honey, this dude is the most predictable, boring as shit footballer I’ve ever seen... well, read about.” She closed Kay’s laptop and asked. “Why are you googling him?”

 

Kay grabbed his laptop away from Britt.  “Why are you looking at my personal stuff again? Boundaries, Britt.  We have set boundaries.”

 

Britt stood on tiptoes and wrapped her arms around Kay’s neck, “your avoidance tactics don’t work on me.  Come on, dish!  What’s going on?  Why do we care about boring Marc Borgmann?”

 

Kay chuckled. “We?  It’s not a ‘we’ matter... this doesn’t concern you.” He flicked his fingers on Britt’s forehead.  Britt swatted his hand.

 

Why do I care about boring Marc Borgmann?

 

Kay wanted to work that out too.  It’s daunting enough that he was the new guy joining an established team in the middle of season; Kay came from league 2, some of his new teammates probably never even bothered to watch St Pauli games.  He’s practically the new kid from wrong side of the tracks, joining a fancy new school.

 

So Kay wasn’t totally surprised by Marc Borgmann’s hostile attitude, he wanted to assert his authority, Kay got that.  Didn’t mean Kay had to roll over just because he’s new.  He had dealt with men who liked to assert authority over him his entire life, he’s not scared of a football captain.

 

Kay was surprised of what had followed - that somehow when he gazed into Marc Borgmann’s deep blue eyes, hooded blue eyes, something funny happened to him and Kay was almost certain Marc felt it too... He wouldn’t say it was instant attraction - Because that would be crazy and I’m not crazy; I’m not some dumb teenager who believes in that crap.  And because it will be bad news.  Very bad news.

 

But Kay did feel some instant, odd connection.  With Marc Borgmann.  His new team captain.  The guy who was tipped to win “German Footballer of the Year” this season.  Could Mr. German Footballer actually bat for the other side?

 

So yeah, he googled Marc Borgmann.  Tried to find out more about him.  Of course, he knew who Marc Borgmann was - anyone who followed Bundesliga knew him, but Kay had never paid attention to anything personal about the man, he’s not on social media himself and neither does Marc, Kay soon discovered.  When he opened the Wikipedia page on Marc Borgmann, he barely made it to the second paragraph, then he stopped reading.  Married with a young son - ok, whatever connection he felt, Kay needed to file it under ‘never to be mentioned again’.

 

Rubbing her forehead, Britt said, “he’s the new team captain, isn’t he?”

 

Kay nodded distractingly.  “He was being a dick the other day, so I want to know what his deal is,” he said.  He didn’t want to lie to Britt, he almost never lied to her, but Britt didn’t need to know about what Kay had just filed and locked in his vault.

 

“He what?” Britt frowned.  “What did he do?”

 

Kay shrugged. “Kicked the ball to my face because I wouldn’t play with my right foot.”

 

“What a dick.  He probably felt threatened by you.  These small-town hicks.” Britt said disgustingly.

 

Kay had to laugh.  Britt still hasn’t forgiven Kay for leaving Hamburg to move to Duisburg. 

 

“Duisburg is not a small town, just a bit run down.” He reminded her.

 

“It’s certainly not Hamburg.”

 

“You know you don’t have to move here as well.  I don’t need a babysitter.” Kay couldn’t help bringing up the issue.

 

Britt has just moved to a rental in the same area, 10 minutes’ walk from Kay’s new home.  They have never lived more than a mile away from each other since Kay was born.  Both born in Hamburg, their parents had lived next door to each other for years until Kay had actually moved in with Britt’s parents... 

 

If Kay was honest with himself, Britt and her parents were his real family.

 

“What?  And give up my part-time job as your beard?” Britt exclaimed in mockery, widened her expressive eyes.

 

Kay winced and turned away.  He hated that stupid word. 

 

Britt softened her voice, “it’s not hardship for me, you know?  Papa wouldn’t have agreed to this transfer deal if I can’t be here with you.  And my boss is happy that I’m now living closer to the head office in Cologne.” Britt worked as editor for an international publisher, she has always been able to work from home, wherever she lived. 

 

She added carefully, “now that you are in the top league, it will be even more noticeable if you’re never seen with a girlfriend...”

 

Tell me something I don’t know.  Kay thought.

 

Gay footballers, they don’t exist, according to history.  Ok, Thomas Hitzlsperger came out five years ago, but only after he retired.  Actively playing gay professional footballers?  Kay didn’t even know what football clubs would do with them because no one has dared to test it.

 

He tried to remember why and who convinced him it was a good idea to become a professional football player while wanting to have sex with men.  Oh right, it was Britt and Britt’s father, who was also Kay’s agent.  And Kay himself, because he wanted to be financially independent in the fastest way and football was his ticket.

 

Being joined at the hip since Grundschule, people just assume Britt was his childhood girlfriend.  Why wouldn’t they? If Kay has learned anything about adults, it’s that people always believe what they want to believe.

 

Sometimes Kay thought Britt got a kick out of claiming that they have an open relationship, just to shock and provoke fellow footballers’ wives and girlfriends.  The mischievous side of him couldn’t wait to see the look on the new set of wives and girlfriends here when they meet Britt.

 

But the fact remains, if Kay couldn’t come out in Hamburg, playing in league 2, there’s no way he could do that with this team in Duisburg.

 

It’s ok.  Kay had a job he liked, his hand and vacations to no-football-land countries to get laid.  That had to be enough.  For now.

 

“Erm.  Since we are talking about being in Bundesliga 1, you haven’t heard from your father since you joined Duisburg, have you?  He must know by now.”  Britt’s question pulled Kay’s mind out of one problem to another. 

 

He shook his head slowly.  No, his father hasn’t contacted him.  Hasn’t for nearly 6 months.  But any day now, Kay would expect a phone call from him...

 

Britt looked relieved.  She took Kay’s hand into hers and suggested carefully, “You know it’s ok if you don’t want to see him.  Let me handle it when he calls.”

 

Kay simply nodded.  Not trusting himself to give her a definite answer.

 

 

******

 

Kay was expecting more cold shoulder from Marc Borgmann, maybe other teammates too, if they were following the captain’s lead, at least until the second half of the season has started.  

 

So when he found Marc Borgmann waiting for him at the parking lot before the morning training session, he was expecting trouble.

 

As Kay locked his Saab with the car fob, he heard Marc greeted him with a gruff “Good morning”.  Kay slowed his walk, he nodded back with a “Good morning” but kept his distance.

 

Marc cleared his throat, his eyes veered to Kay’s left side before he mumbled, “I want to apologize for last week.  It was... unnecessary and unhelpful.”

 

Ok, this is a surprise.  Kay noticed a slight spasm of Marc’s left shoulder, he’s obviously not comfortable with the apology, which meant it was Coach Herrlich who had asked him to do it. 

 

At least that meant Coach Herrlich had authority over his star players, Kay mentally filed this information away.  Marc was already in full FC Duisburg apparel from head to toe.  Kay learned that he’s a local boy, going from youth team to senior, never played for another club.  Geez, maybe he even sleeps in FC Duisburg pajamas.

 

“It’s ok.  No harm done.” Kay touched his nose consciously before he said, “I shouldn’t have pushed you.” Returning the peace offering.  Despite 12 hours ago Kay was plotting with Britt for different ways to prank Borgmann, while finishing off a tub of ice-cream decorated with Kinder Choco-bons together.

 

Kay shook his head, the memory made him smile.  Britt was right, he needed her here.  

 

When he looked back up again, Marc was staring at him, just like last week after their argument.  Clean-cut and classically handsome, Marc was “your mother is going to love him” kind of husband material.  His brow furrowed, his intense blue eyes turned a shade darker, like he wanted to take a swing at or... plant a kiss on Kay.  Scheiße.  I don’t need this.

 

Kay flashed him another grin and said, “I’ll go change.  See you at warm-ups.”

 

******

 

It didn’t take Kay long to figure out the dynamics and hierarchy in the team. 

 

Frank Richter, veteran defender and original team captain still commanded respect among the players even though he’s injured and expected to retire end of the season.  Marc Borgmann was his best friend and chosen successor, well-liked by everyone.  And then there was Arne Larsen, the team’s Swedish striker, nice guy; he was the first one to shake Kay’s hand in the first team meeting.  The team clown was Gregor Limpinski, 1st choice goalkeeper; he’s loud, crude and aggressive, an embodiment of toxic masculinity.  Kay made sure to laugh at his jokes and stay the hell away from him off the pitch. 

 

The rest of the pack looked to Marc or Frank to lead.  Not hard to navigate then, as long as I don’t piss off Marc Borgmann.

 

“I heard everyone in St. Pauli is a leftie, is it true?” Someone said that to Kay’s back, while he was walking to the fitness trainer’s office.  They have just finished first part of training; everyone was either going to the canteen or to the rec room to play pool.

 

Kay turned around and saw Julian Müller behind him.  He was FC Duisburg’s reserved winger, same position as Kay.  When Ackermann was injured, Müller played two league games without scoring any goal or making assist; he must have been disappointed that Coach Herrlich decided to buy a new winger instead.

 

Judging by Müller’s tone, Kay figured the term ‘leftie’ means liberal or commie to Müller’s tiny brain, instead of... being gay.  

 

Kay decided to play dumb. “Nah.  Most of them are right footed.”

 

Müller looked like he’s racking his brain out to come up with something clever or insulting, but Marc suddenly appeared next to them.

 

“Julian, why are you still here? B team training just started.” Marc used his stern captain voice.

 

Acknowledging Marc with a nod, Müller left without looking at Kay.

 

They both stood to watch Müller go.  When Marc turned to face him, he had a small frown between his eyes, he asked, “did he give you trouble?”

 

Kay just shrugged and said, “strange kid.”

 

Marc’s mouth twitched, “he’s same age as you, he just doesn’t have your left foot.”

 

“What? Just my left foot?” Kay pretended to be offended.

 

“Well, as I recall, someone refused to let me see your right foot.” Marc drawled.

 

Ha. Someone has got a sense of humour after all. 

 

Kay grinned and raised his right foot in a kicking motion, “trust me, I am saving the best for the last. I’ll show you.”

 

Marc snorted and shook his head. “I can’t wait,” he said, holding Kay’s gaze, a rueful smile began to appear.

 

The smile transformed Marc’s face.  There’s gentleness around the corners of his mouth, his blue eyes playful and kind, his chiseled cheekbones... he looked - charming.

 

Captain charming. Kay told that joke to himself in his mind.

 

And Kay suddenly realised they’ve been staring at each other since Müller left; he dropped his gaze immediately and saw something like discomfort flashed across Marc’s face. 

 

Jesus, that’s why I filed it under never to be mentioned again.

Chapter Text

Marc had just turned the key in the ignition when he noticed a white Saab 900 convertible two rows down in the mostly deserted parking lot.  That’s Kay Engel’s car, he remembered.  No one in the team drove such an old car, it’s not even an expensive classic car.  Everyone had the latest Mercedes, BMW or Porsche, including Marc’s own Audi Q7.

 

Marc looked over and saw Kay standing next to his Saab, mobile in hand, waiting. Looked like car trouble.  He hesitated for a few seconds and drove his car next to the Saab.

 

“Something wrong with the car?” 

 

Kay startled, like he just noticed Marc. He nodded and rubbed the back of his neck, his blond buzzcut hair still wet from the shower.  Does this guy have any sense?  Why didn’t he dry his hair? Walking around in deep winter with wet hair, if he catches a cold and can’t play this weekend...

 

Marc said, “get in, I’ll give you a lift.”

 

“I have to wait for the tow...”

 

“The security guard can take care of that.  Get in before you catch a cold.”

 

After giving the security guard instructions and his car key, Kay got into Marc’s car without further protest. Marc noticed the tapings on Kay’s hands and fingers. 

 

“What are those for?”

 

Kay shrugged.  “I stayed behind to practise Kickboxing.”

 

“You what?”

 

“Coach Herrlich and the fitness trainer know.” Kay said defensively, no doubt detecting the disapproval in Marc’s voice.  “I train two times a week for years.”

 

“How does that help playing football?”

 

“It doesn’t.” Kay shrugged again, like that explained it.  Kay Engel was only 3 years younger than Marc, but sometimes Marc felt like Engel was from Mars. He didn’t know if it was a Hamburg thing or a league 2 thing.

 

“Not everything has to be about football.” Kay added, there’s a tinge of mockery in it.

 

“If you have time, you should practise kicking the ball with your right foot.” Marc shook his head.  They paid €12 million transfer fee to St. Pauli, and this guy wasn’t even 100% focus on the sport he’s paid to do.

 

“You seem obsessed with my right foot.” Kay narrowed his eyes and leaned closer to Marc, with a shit-eating grin on his face. 

 

Marc snorted.  Not giving Kay the satisfaction with a reply. He’s obsessed alright and not just about his right foot.  Marc shifted uncomfortably in his seat.  It’s alright, he’s just worried about the game this weekend, he needed Kay Engel to perform, Marc’s league title hope depended on this damn kid.  And that made Marc nervous.  When Kay leaned in earlier, he could smell the shampoo the blond man used.  Something like apple? Green apple?

 

Green apple scent?  Shut up... He forced himself to focus on the road.

 

Marc decided to change the subject. “What’s with the Saab?”

 

“The usual, sometimes the engine gets flooded when it’s cold...”

 

“I meant why are you driving an old banger like that?  Didn’t they give you a big pay rise when you joined?” Marc sighed.

 

“I like my Saab.”

 

He’s really from Mars. 

 

“Is this some kind of a hippy thing?  You are a damn hippy, aren’t you?”

 

Kay laughed.  That crisp, delightful and infectious laugh again, like he didn’t have a care in the world, like the first time Marc met him.

 

When he finally stopped laughing, he said, “actually Saab is most popular among architects.” Deadpanned.

 

Marc took his eyes off the road to glare at him for a half a second, “smart ass,” he muttered. 

 

But they both started laughing.

 

It didn’t surprise Marc when Kay gave him direction to a newly restored apartment building, in a residential neighbourhood not too far from city centre.  Most of the football team actually live outside Duisburg.  As a former industrial town, luxury city living wasn’t one of Duisburg’s selling points.

 

Marc lived in the suburb in a 4-bedroom modernist house he commissioned to build three years ago just before Jonas was born, complete with swimming pool and a huge garden.

 

“Don’t tell me you live in a tiny studio apartment with your Bundesliga player salary.” Marc stopped the car and looked up to the building. 

 

“I live with 2 underwear models in the penthouse.” Kay said with a slight curl to his mouth, like he’s waiting for Marc to be outraged.  When Marc only glared at him, Kay grinned, “Nee... It’s just a two bedroom, but IT IS on the top floor.”

 

Marc just shook his head.

 

Just before he got out of the car, Kay turned to Marc and mumbled, “thanks.” Suddenly looking shy.

 

Marc shrugged. “It’s nothing,” he said.  Then just before Kay closed the car door, Marc found himself leaning over the window and asking, “erm, do you need a ride tomorrow morning?  I mean... it’s kind of on my way anyway...”

 

Kay turned to look at him with those big pale blue eyes of his.  Marc noticed for the first time the slightly unusual shape of Kay’s eyes.  Symmetric and framed with dense long lashes.

 

Marc watched Kay’s eyes widened, hesitated for half a second before he nodded with a smile, “thanks.  That would be great.”

 

Relieved that his impulse offer wasn’t rebuffed, Marc simply dropped a cool “see you tomorrow.”

 

Marc watched Kay get into the building then started his car.  As he slowly merged into the after-five o’clock rush hour traffic on the autobahn, he had an unsettling feeling in his stomach.  Kay’s building was not on his way, in fact, he would have to make a 20 minutes detour if he was to play chauffeur to the new left winger.

 

The question he didn’t want to ask himself was - why did feel the need to lie to make the offer? So that Kay wouldn’t turn it down?

 

*****

 

“Marc?  Kay would be your roommate until Frank is back.”

 

Coach Herrlich dropped this bomb before the team was about to depart for their away game journey.

 

Marc glared at Frank.  “It’s all your fault.”

 

Frank sniggered.  He was in still clutches after his knee surgery.  He hobbled to the training ground today to help kick start the 2nd part of the season.  A gesture more symbolic than practical, everyone knew the season would be over by the time he recovered.  Marc has become the team captain on and off the pitch now.

 

“I heard you’ve taken the St. Pauli guy under your wings anyway.” Frank teased.

 

Marc snorted.

 

The league season restarted with an away game to Leipzig, which involved staying in hotel for two nights.  Marc’s default roommate was Frank, except Frank was still injured.

 

“Coach Herrlich wants me to get along with him.” Marc reasoned.

 

“I watched some of his St. Pauli games on YouTube before Duisburg decided to buy him.  He’s fast and selfless, can assist and score goals. He was wasted in league 2.”

 

“If he’s so good, why did he stay in League 2 for so long?” Marc didn’t know why he felt the need to rebuke, he’s seen him train, he knew Kay was good.

 

“Who knows? He’s comfortable in Hamburg and St Pauli fans loved him, so he stayed until it was too much money for St. Pauli to turn down.  Not everyone wants to win footballer of the year.” Frank clapped his shoulder.  “Come on, I want to say hello to everyone before the team coach leaves.”

 

After playing chauffeur for two days, Marc decided he has done enough as team captain.  Kay had car trouble, he helped, that’s all.  He shouldn’t be favouring one team member, really, so this was a good time to keep some distance.

 

Or at least that’s what he told himself.  It had nothing to do with watching Kay get into his car with a small smile and a thank you; it had nothing to do with watching Kay fiddle with his car radio looking for a channel called ‘Star FM from Hell’; and it most definitely had nothing to do with how much Marc looked forward to making that 20-minute detour.

 

Kay got his old banger of a car back, Marc reckoned he could put an end to this. 

 

Except Coach Herrlich had other idea.

 

******

 

It was nearly 10pm when Marc heard the hotel room door opening.  He had just gotten off the phone with Bettina when he saw Kay Engel walk into the room in a heavy hoodie and jogging bottoms. 

 

“Hey.” Kay greeted Marc.  His face flushed and his hair sweaty.

 

“Where did you go?” Marc frowned.  When Kay wasn’t in the room, Marc had just assumed that he was playing video games with other teammates somewhere else, so many of them were addicted to Fortnite.  The night before a game, old guards like Marc and a few others usually retired to their bedroom after 9pm, catching up with their families online, have an early night in.

 

“Oh.  I just went for a run.” Kay grinned, “it’s handy the park is so close...” his smile slipped when he saw the scowl on Marc’s face.

 

“If you injure yourself with this kind of unnecessary exercise...” Marc waved his hand, didn’t bother to finish his sentence.  I’m sick of sounding like a damn parent.  Let this league 2 lunatic do whatever he wants.

 

“It clears my head.  Running outside.” Kay shrugged.  “It’s not the same as a treadmill.”

 

His first Bundesliga 1 league game.  Coach Herrlich already hinted in the pre-match press conference that Kay would play tomorrow, in the first team, not as a substitute. 

 

Marc softened his voice, “nervous?”

 

Kay smiled ruefully. “A little.”

 

“Ignore the media, don’t overthink it and you’ll be fine.” Marc offered.

 

Kay studied Marc quietly with a faint smile.  Then he stood up straighter and did a mock salute. “Aye aye, Captain.”

 

“Smart ass.” Marc threw a towel to Kay’s face.

 

******

 

The closeness.  The green apple scent which has become familiar.  Marc’s heart beats so ferociously in his chest, it’s amazing that Kay can’t ’ hear it.  Despite sitting next to Marc, Kay seems oblivious to his struggles, he leans over to Marc’s seat to mess around with the car’s digital radio. 

 

“Do you like Godspeed You! Black Emperor?” Kay turns to ask him.

 

Marc wants to ask if it’s the name of a band or a video game... but he is interrupted by the sounds of laboured breathing, strangling sounds, like someone is struggling to cry for help.  Marc looks around but cannot identify where the sounds come from and when he turns back, Kay has disappeared...

 

Marc opened his eye.  It was a dream.

 

But the sounds were still here.  They got louder and... closer.  Marc blinked into the pitch darkness in front of him.  He shook his head slightly and blindly reached for the switch for the reading lamp.

 

Kay was thrashing and turning in his bed, he wasn’t shouting anymore but mumbling fast and urgently, like he’s pleading, bargaining with someone. 

 

But Marc couldn’t make out what he was saying, he got up and stood next to Kay’s bed.  “Hey...” he gently touched Kay’s shoulder.  Kay’s eyes were closed, sweats gathering on his forehead.  Marc shook his shoulder again, raised his voice.  “Hey, hey, Kay!  You’re dreaming!  Hey, wake up!”

 

Kay’s forearm lurched out and hit Marc under his chin. 

 

“Ouch! Scheiße!” Marc exclaimed, touching his jaw.

 

Kay’s eyes suddenly opened.  He was looking at Marc dazedly, still breathing hard.

 

“Don’t kill me. You were having a nightmare.” Marc said.  He plopped back down to his own bed. 

 

For a second, Kay just looked at him like he didn’t understand.  Then he exhaled slowly, brushing his hair.  “Scheiße... I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s ok...” Marc said, still rubbing his jaw.  Now he believed the guy really knew kickboxing.

 

At least Kay had the decency to look properly embarrassed, he apologised again, “I’m sorry.  I hadn’t had one like this for a long time.”

 

“You mean this is a regular thing for you?”

 

“No! I mean not since... I hadn’t had one for years. I used to have night terrors when I was a kid.” Kay explained.  Then he said sheepishly, “maybe I’m more nervous about the game than I thought.”

 

Marc sighed.  “And I guess the outdoor running bullshit to clear your head didn’t work?”

 

At least that got him a smile from Kay.  Marc glanced at the hotel digital clock, 2am.  Team breakfast started at 8:30am, guess they still have time. “Can you go back to sleep?”

 

Kay shrugged. “I can after a while, maybe I can read.”  He sat up a little and reached for a book on the nightstand.

 

Marc turned on the tv. “From my experience, TV usually works better.”  He used the remote to start flipping through channels.

 

“Hey, that’s Tatort with the Dresden team, I remember this episode.” Kay said.

 

Marc lowered the tv volume.  He shook his head, “you just had a nightmare and you want to watch a tv show about crime scenes.”

 

“Watching Tatort relaxes me.”

 

“Murder story relaxes you?”

 

Kay said hesitantly, “we can watch something else...”

 

“I like it.  Let’s watch it.” Marc said quickly, playing down the fact that Tatort was the only TV show he followed.

 

“It’s reassuring when crimes get solved, don’t you think?”

 

Marc flicked a glance at Kay, he was wearing a black t-shirt with a skeleton and the word ‘TOOL’ on it, another band or movie Marc has never heard of. 

 

“Smart ass.” Marc muttered. 

 

Then they settled down in their own bed to watch the Tatort rerun.  At the beginning, Kay was commenting and giving away the plot, so Marc told him to quit it.  

 

After half an hour, Marc heard soft snoring coming from Kay’s side; he turned off the tv.  Under the dimmed light, there was no traces of nightmare on Kay’s face, Marc looked at the cut glass jawline, dusted with blond stubble.  The fluttery feelings in his stomach he’s been ignoring returned, feelings dangerously close to happiness.

 

He cautiously reached over and switched off the lamp.

 

 

Chapter Text

“Great team work today.  We were in control for most of the game, could have scored more goals, but we won, that’s the most important thing.” 

 

Kay watched Marc give the standard answer to the tv sports reporters in front of a sponsorship board.  They had initially wanted to interview Kay as well, but Coach Herrlich was still shielding him from media interviews.  

 

“Let the captain speak for the team.” He had told the media.

 

“Are you happy with your Doppelpass play with Kay Engel? You two seem to be able to read each other well, is he a better partner for you than Ackermann?” One reporter asked Marc.

 

Marc shook his head.  “We practise a lot, there is no need to compare, I work well with everyone in the team,” he said with a stern voice.  Though he seemed to have glanced at Kay with a faint smile before he answered.

 

Your imagination. Your wishful imagination.  Kay told himself.

 

Four games, three wins and one draw.  Kay scored one goal and made two assists, he couldn’t have asked for a better start.  They were still 3 points behind league leaders Bayern Munich, in second position.  

 

Marc was playing down their partnership in front of the media, but everyone in the team blew a collective sigh of relief when Kay fitted into the team almost effortlessly.  It surprised even Kay himself, how well he linked up with Marc on the pitch.  They played like they’ve been playing together for years, not just four weeks.

 

As usual, Kay soaked in one of the whirlpools while other players showered and get dressed.  It’s an effective method he has adopted since St. Pauli.  In away games, he would just hang around someplace else until there were only few players left in the shower room.  Not that Kay would have any problem taking shower with a roomful of guys, just as a precaution, in case anyone ever heard any rumours about him.  He wouldn’t want to give people reasons to accuse him.  

 

No one ever questioned it, they just assumed he liked to take his sweet time.  Why wouldn’t they?  People always see what they want to see.

 

So it was a surprise when Marc came into the whirlpool room and asked, “what’s with you and soaking? Why are you always here?”

 

“What’s with the twenty questions?” Kay retorted playfully, buying time.  Now that he knew under his stern exterior, Marc Borgmann actually had a sense of humour, Kay enjoyed teasing him.  “I am from a poor league 2 team, all these luxurious facilities fascinate me.” 

 

Marc snorted, his default reaction to most things, Kay has noticed.  Then Marc got into a separate pool next to his.

 

“You played well today.” Marc said after a few minutes of silence; his head tilted back, eyes closed.

 

Good that there was plenty of steam in the room.  Kay blushed at the unexpected approval .  He took the opportunity to study Marc’s face.  Everyone was in high spirits after a win, Marc celebrated as much as the next guy, but it was usually short-lived, when they train the next day, the scowl, the seriousness would be back on his face.  

 

So Kay was happy to see Marc in this rare relaxed state, his handsome face looking softer, tension free.  The same look he had when they just chilled and watched Tatort reruns on tv in their hotel room, which has become a regular thing.  

 

Kay knew he’s playing with fire.

 

My damned thoughts were full of him and had been since that night when I woke up from a nightmare in the hotel room.  Maybe even earlier... scheiße.

 

Of course this was a bad idea but he couldn’t seem to stop himself.  He cared too much about Marc’s reactions; he wanted to see Marc all the time; wanted to make Marc smile. 

 

The feelings that he should have locked in the vault, were getting stronger instead.  

 

******

 

(23 February, 2019 - Away game: Wolfsburg v FC Duisburg)

 

Kay twisted and turned, tried to get rid of Wolfsburg’s big defender, Thomas Albrecht.  The mountain size full back has been marking him the whole game.  Cleverly fouling Kay just enough not to get a yellow card but enough to disrupt Kay’s play.

 

Still 0:0 at 88th minute, they only have a few minutes left to win the game and snatch 3 points from this boring defensive game. 

 

Kay looked to the centre of the pitch and saw Marc won the second ball with an easy header.  Marc ran and carried the ball for a few yards, he glanced at Kay on the left, the tip of his tongue sticking out at the corner of his mouth - an unspoken communication between them - and Kay turned and ran forward, accelerating at great pace; he ran past Albrecht and into the penalty box.

 

Marc kicked the ball long and hard, it flew right over Albrecht’s head, who was still chasing Kay.  The ball dropped right in front of Kay, he nabbed the ball down with his left foot, then shot with his right foot into the far corner of the net.

 

The whole stadium erupted.  

 

Kay slided on his knees on the pitch towards the travelled Duisburg fans near the corner flag in celebration, before his teammates crowded onto him from behind.  Larsen kissed his head, “fucking ace! Kay!” He shouted.  Kay turned and saw Marc smiling just behind Larsen, he reached over to ruffle Kay’s short hair.  When they finally dispersed, Marc put his arm around Kay’s shoulders and whispered, “right foot, huh?” 

 

Kay grinned.  Wanting to kiss Marc so badly at that moment.  Luckily, the referee started hurrying them to restart the game in the centre.

 

They held on to the narrow lead for the remaining few minutes and won the game 0:1.

 

******

 

“So your tummy hurts, huh? Mama said you ate a bag of sweets.”

 

Kay opened the hotel room door to the sweetest scene he has ever seen - Marc video chatting with his 3-year-old son.  He walked close to the wall so he wouldn’t disturb the father and son.  

 

“Kai Engel! He scored!” Marc’s son Jonas spotted Kay and exclaimed.

 

“Yes, he did and we won because of him.” Marc answered his son, he grabbed Kay’s wrist as he walked past, pointing to the screen on his iPad and mouthed, “say hi.”

 

Kay stared at Marc’s hand on his wrist, the wedding band glistening under the spotlights in the room.  Kay looked into the screen and smiled. “Hi Jonas!” 

 

“Hi Kai!” 

 

Kay waved at Jonas on the screen.  And Jonas started giggling.

 

Marc smiled, finally released his wrist; he turned back to his son.  “Alright.  It’s late.  You need to go to bed. Give the iPad back to Mama.”

 

Kay saw Bettina Borgmann appeared on the screen.  According to Britt, she was different from other footballers’ wives, most of them were models, actresses or childhood sweethearts.  Bettina met Marc in a hospital where she was training as a nurse.  “She’s pretty and grounded, parents are both teachers.  Aka, THE GOOD GIRL.” Britt had told Kay, when they were reading the google search results on Marc.

 

He heard Marc talking about taking a dog named Axel to a behavioural specialist with his wife.  Kay shook his head, he got up and went to the bathroom to shave, also to give Marc some privacy.  He rubbed the part of his wrist where Marc had held him.  Scheiße.  Looking at his refection on the bathroom mirror, he whispered to himself, “put it in the vault.”

 

When he came out 5 minutes later.  Marc was looking at the room service menu.

 

“You haven’t eaten?” Kay asked.

 

For evening games, they usually have a light meal three hours before the game.  Since they won tonight and there was no training for the next two days, most players had gone to bars or clubs to celebrate.  Kay had stayed in a bar with Larsen and a few others until some of them started flirting with football groupies, Kay reckoned it was time for him to make up some excuse and go back to the hotel.

 

Marc grinned.  He’s in a good mood and looking uncharacteristically mischievous.  “I found a new Tatort episode on a streaming service here, we can order some food, a few beers and watch it?  What do you say?”

 

Kay had already had a few beers at the bar, but vault or no vault, he knew he couldn’t say no to Marc, not when he looked so happy. “Which Tatort team?” He pretended to consider the suggestion.

 

“The Münster team, Thiel and Börne.”

 

“Your favourite.” Kay preferred the Dresden team himself.

 

Marc’s grin grew bigger.

 

The location of the TV was facing Marc’s bed, Kay sat on the edge of the bed, sipping his beer and reaching for the club-sandwiches and french fries Marc had put in the middle. 

 

“Something’s not right.  He’s not the real killer.” Marc commented half way through.

 

“I think he is.  The question is why.  He’s lying about something.”

 

“Like what?  You think he’s doing it to protect someone?” Marc speculated.  He was leaning against the bed’s headboard, beer bottle in hand, looking chilled and relaxed.

 

Kay flicked a glance at Marc.  Kay had a theory about the plot, he thought the killer was protecting his male lover, that was his big secret and why he had to kill.  But Kay wasn’t sure if he wanted to share it with Marc, so instead, he just said, “I didn’t expect this episode to be so gruesome.  Usually the Dresden cases are darker.”

 

“Are you going to have nightmares afterwards?”  Marc teased.

 

“Fuck off.” Kay threw a french fry at Marc.  It dropped on Marc’s lap, who picked it up and put it in his mouth, smiling.

 

During a commercial break, Marc suddenly asked Kay, “how did you know I was going to do a long piercing pass to you tonight?”

 

Unlike baseball, signs communication between football players only works in set-pieces.  When the ball is in play, it all depends on how well the players know or read each other’s move.

 

Kay thought for a second before he said, “it’s just a guess.” He shrugged, “plus your tongue was sticking out from the corner of your mouth.  You always do that when you are about to do a piercing pass.”

 

“I always do what?” Marc’s eyes widened, threw a french fry at Kay.

 

Kay rolled his eyes and made an exaggerated demonstration with his tongue. “In fact, you always do that whenever you are trying to concentrate on something.”

 

Marc burst out laughing.  “I most definitely do not look like this,” he retorted and threw more french fries at Kay.

 

Kay ducked away with a smirk on his face.

 

After Tatort, they changed to another channel to watch a football highlights programme.  When tv pundits pointed out the flawless pass between Marc and Kay, Marc turned to him with a gentle smile and approval in his eyes .  Kay swallowed and returned a meek smile.  Already buzzed, Kay opened another bottle of beer  - shit, I’d need more alcohol for this. 

 

Marc continued to comment on various other Bundesliga teams, on their tactics, their team selection.  After his sixth or seventh bottle of beer that evening, Kay hazily thought how Marc would make a fine football manager someday...

 

The last thing Kay remembered, he was lying on his stomach in front, facing the tv; feeling dizzy and sleepy, he could hear Marc’s deep and soothing voice behind him, murmuring commentary on other league games.  Kay thought he should get up and go to his own bed but he also wanted to stay here, be close to Marc, and let Marc’s voice lure him to sleep...

 

******

 

“Hop on,” Marc says. 

 

I climb onto the passenger seat of his Audi.  The car smells of expensive leather; hint of his cologne hung in the air. Or maybe it’s his aftershave.  

 

Instead of starting the car, Marc reaches out and grabs my hand.  “Come here, I want to tell you a secret,“ he whispers.  I lean over and his hand touches the back of my neck, his mouth inches close to mine.  I can smell beer in his breath, mingled with his cologne, it’s intoxicating... 

 

I part my lips... 

 

Suddenly it all changed.  

 

His eyes closed, Kay could sense the same breath now breathing down the back of his neck.  Still sleepy, he moved slightly, sinking deeper into the pillow, his back felt warm and tucked-in, two strong arms holding him from behind.  Then he felt a tug around his waist and the flex of a hip, he was being pulled back into an embrace, and something hard was poking just below his lower back... 

 

Without thinking, Kay pushed back against it. And someone uttered a low moan behind him, he held Kay tighter and started rutting against his back.  

 

Kay opened his eyes.  

 

The first thing he noticed was that he’s not in his own bed because he’s looking at it.  The second thing was it’s Marc who had his arms around his chest and waist.  And lastly, it’s definitely Marc’s hard-on that Kay’s been rubbing against.

 

Scheiße, scheiße, scheiße. Fully awake now, Kay’s mind raced.

 

Kay lay completely still.  He’s afraid to wake up Marc; but he also needed Marc to wake up and release him.  Kay shifted his hips slowly, tried to roll to the edge of the bed.  

 

“Hmmm...” Marc groaned.  His rubbed his face against Kay’s nape.  For one second, he actually tightened his hold on Kay, like a child clinging onto his stuffed teddy.  

 

And then everything stopped.  

 

Kay could identify the exact moment Marc woke up; he could feel the sudden stillness behind him, the two-second delay, he could see realisation hit Marc’s face like he had eyes on his back.

 

“What...” Marc quietly exclaimed.  His body still glued to Kay’s, but he pulled back his head.  “Scheiße.” Marc finally rolled away gingerly.

 

Kay decided the best way to avoid a gay-freakout from Marc was to feign sleep, so he closed his eyes and buried his face onto the pillow.  He could feel Marc’s gaze burning a hole at his back.  

 

After a minute, Marc got up, went to the bathroom.  Kay could hear water splashing sounds coming from it.  When Marc came back out, he slipped into the other empty bed. 

 

 

Chapter Text

Nothing happened.

 

Marc clung to the thought that nothing had actually happened. 

 

Yet. 

 

Damn it, nothing is going to happen.  He told himself for the 100th times.

 

That incriminating morning, Marc had pretended to sleep for another 15 minutes before he made a big production of waking up in “the other bed”.  When Kay woke up, Marc had already gotten dressed, he threw out a “team breakfast in 10 minutes”; hadn’t even waited for Kay’s reply and fled downstairs.

 

Kay hasn’t said anything, but somehow Marc knew Kay knew.  It was the way he looked at Marc afterwards.  The thoughtful, careful way he looked at Marc, like he was waiting for Marc to say something.

 

Scheiße.  How did I get so drunk I start humping my roommate?  Marc told the joke to himself.  Tried to file the incident as one of his drunken antics.  Except he hadn’t been so drunk that he forgot he had been gazing at Kay’s sleeping form; had pulled the duvet up to cover the blond man; had laid down next to him, telling himself it was just for a minute, then he’d get up; had fallen asleep next to him; had been dreaming about him; had gotten hard and...

 

Had wanted to fuck Kay Engel... FUCK!

 

Marc squeezed his eyes shut, but the thought appeared behind his eyelids like skywriting.  Thoughts he shouldn’t be having about Kay.  About a man!  Marc broke out in sweats, his chest constricted.  

 

FUCK!

 

He didn’t understand.  

 

Marc didn’t understand how he went from enjoying Kay’s easy company to fantasising what Kay’s hands and mouth could do to him.  Marc never had so much fun just watching tv with someone.  No, not just fun... he felt... relaxed, content... happy.  He started to look forward to away games, to sharing a room with Kay, knowing after the game, they would have these moments.  

 

And Kay... if Kay knew what Marc has been thinking about him.  Marc vaguely remembered Larsen or Frank mentioned Kay has a girlfriend, she’s the daughter of his agent, got quite a reputation among other players’ wives and girlfriends too.  For what, Marc didn’t remember and hadn’t cared to find out.  

 

But Marc also remembered that moment when he was at the threshold of consciousness, he had felt Kay responding, pushing back against him, the shot of arousal it stirred.  

 

Could Kay be...?

 

Marc closed down that train of thoughts.

 

That afternoon, Marc returned home to his wife and son, vowed to himself to banish all thoughts of Kay.  

 

He had two days before training restart.  

 

“So, shall we book that time slot?  5pm next Monday, can you make it?” 

 

“Huh?” Marc turned to Bettina. “For what?”

 

She shook her head. “To take your out of control dog, Axel, to the behavioural specialist.  He’s fully booked for the next three weeks, except for that slot.”

 

“I need to be there?” 

 

Bettina frowned, “I thought we’ve talked about it last night.  The specialist needs everyone who will walk the dog to attend.  Did you hear a word i said?” She smiled, “you are always like this after a win.  Nothing gets through you except more football.”

 

And Tatort episodes.  And Kay Engel.  Marc thought. Scheiße.

 

That night, he paid special attention when he made love to Bettina.  Spent extra time touching, stroking and patting her feminine body, reminding himself what had fascinated, attracted him before.  Satisfied and reassured when he found his body slowly responding to hers.  

 

Bettina, who was well aware of all the temptations pro footballers face everyday, has always made sure she stayed in shape.  She was wearing a new lace and satin lingerie slip that night, Marc’s extra effort hasn’t gone unnoticed by her, she purred as Marc kissed her along her collarbone, stopping just above her breasts.

 

Marc’s hands roamed all over her soft and plump skin, he could feel his arousal building, not instantly on fire like when they first met, but slowly and steadily, yes, he’s getting there, getting hard, just be patient.  

 

I can still do this, I still love a woman’s body.  He thought... but maybe... if he could just... Marc closed his eyes.  And immediately he saw Kay, with that half playful, half coy smile he seems to reserve for Marc only - and forget about slow and steady, his cock became rock hard before he exhaled his next breath.  

 

There’s no going back now, Marc rolled Bettina over, entered her from behind and started picking up pace.  Spurred on by Marc’s sudden urgency, Bettina reciprocated with equal enthusiasm.  Gripping her hips, Marc’s mind sifted through images and sounds, tried to kick Kay out of his mind, but failing miserably.  Instead, he has opened the floodgate, now Kay was everywhere.  His pale blue eyes in his mind, his fine blond hair tingling Marc’s fingertips, his infectious laugh buzzing in his ears... Marc felt his heart leap to his throat, he came powerfully with the image of Kay’s backside from that morning behind his eyelids.

 

Spent, Marc fell forward and held Bettina’s shoulders tight in his arms, nuzzled into her hair.  And he smelled green apple shampoo...

 

FUCK.

 

******

 

Before Marc could get a hold of his “indecent thoughts” about his teammate, things got worse.

 

(1 March 2019 - FC Duisburg v. Freiburg)

 

“What the hell was that?” Coach Herrlich roared during the half time team talk.

 

He was referring to the pass Marc had made to Larsen, or had tried to.  Before the ball was intercepted by a Freiburg defender, which had led to a dangerous counter attack from Freiburg.

 

Marc couldn’t believe they were only 1 goal down at half time; they could have been 3 goals down.  They were playing awful today.  Well, not the whole team.  Just Marc.  

 

“What did I say about making use of the width of the pitch?  Go wide.  Look to your left and right side.  We are making it too easy for them to defend.” Coach Herrlich hasn’t finished, he turned to Kay, “and you! Running like a headless chicken.  Making futile runs on the left when you should be helping Larsen to find space in the penalty area.”

 

Marc snuck a glance at Kay and saw hurt flashed across his face.  The honeymoon period was over.  Coach Herrlich had never criticised Kay in front of the team until today.  

 

And Marc’s stomach dropped.  He felt guilty as hell.  He knew Kay played like this today because of him.  Kay was making those wild runs on the left expecting Marc to pass him the ball, or make a doppelpass play like they always do, but Marc has been avoiding him the whole game.  Not even making eye-contact, let alone making play.

 

“Fucking hell.  We don’t have the luxury to drop points against mid-table teams like Freiburg if we want to be champions. Come on, guys, we can do this!” Herrlich clapped his hands, gathering everyone in a circle.   

 

Stick and carrot.  Coach Herrlich’s old school approach.  It worked because he genuinely cared about his players’ development.  He’s also a shrewd tactician.  If Marc ever got into coaching, he’d hope to study under Herrlich.  

 

Only if Herrlich didn’t strangle Marc with his bare hands first after today’s game.

 

Marc was substituted at the 75th minute.  For the first time in his professional life, he was relieved to be asked to leave the pitch.  He’s dragging the team down today.  

 

“What the fuck, Marc?  You look like shit.” Frank whisper-shouted at him from the row behind, as soon as he sat down on the bench.  Marc turned and glared at his best friend, he had the sudden urge to shout at Frank.  It was all his bloody fault!  If he hadn’t gotten injured, then Kay wouldn’t have become Marc’s roommate, then Marc wouldn’t have found out they like the same tv show... then Marc wouldn’t have suddenly wondered what it’s like to kiss Kay Engel.

 

Marc tried to put his attention back on the game in front. Having avoided looking at Kay all day, his eyes found the blond figure immediately.  Kay has just won the ball from near the centre circle, he sprinted, charging forward on the left, agilely turned and tricked two Freiburg defenders, looking so... fucking beautiful.  

 

FUCK... Marc muttered to himself defeatedly.

 

The much needed equaliser came very late at 89th minute.  Kay made a long 20-yard pass with his left foot to Larsen and the Swede scored at close range.

 

Marc exhaled a sigh of relief.

 

By then, the 1:1 game result almost seemed like a win, but no one was celebrating.  Everyone knew they were damn lucky to have gotten a point today.

 

Marc didn’t recall what gibberish nonsense he gave at the post match interviews, he got out of it as soon as he could.   

 

He saw Larsen talking to Kay just outside the Player Recovery room. Marc nodded at them and risked a look at Kay.  Kay was staring at him with a peculiar expression.  A mix of hurt, bewilderment and defiance. 

 

He knew something’s wrong.   Of course he knew. Judging by how he always beat Marc in guessing “whodunit” when they watch Tatort, Kay would definitely notice Marc has been avoiding him like Kay had the plague this whole week.

 

“Are you ok?  You look like shit.” It was Larsen.  

 

Why do people keep telling me this?  That’s just rude.  

 

Marc ignored Larsen’s remark and walked towards Kay, wanting to say something, to explain, but Coach Herrlich’s voice boomed behind him.  

 

“Marc, my office.”

 

Marc followed Herrlich under the sympathetic gaze of Larsen; Kay kept his face blank.

 

First thing Herrlich said wasn’t what Marc was expecting. 

 

“Löw was watching the game in the VIP box today.  He asked me what’s wrong with you.  I made up some excuse about you having food poisoning yesterday, serious enough to affect your play, but totally recoverable for next game. ”

 

Marc blanched.  Löw was the German national team manager.

 

“If you lose your first team place in the national team, you can forget about Player of the Year.  You won’t even get into top 3 this time if this carries on.”

 

Marc was chagrined; he could only nod.  

 

“The national team is not my concern, but this team and the league title are.  So whatever’s bothering you, it’s my business too. So, fess up.”

 

This question, Marc has been expecting since he was substituted.  He decided to go with a partial lie.  

 

“I am having a bit of a... marital problem. I haven’t been sleeping well.” I’m sorry, Bettina. Marc apologised in his mind.  At least the last part was completely true. 

 

Herrlich frowned, but his eyes became softer.  No doubt relieved to hear it was a marital problem rather than drinking, drug or gambling problems, all common among professional football players.  

 

“Does Bettina know? She kicked you out?”

 

Marc was startled by the questions; he could only shake his head in negation. 

 

Herrlich clapped Marc’s shoulder. “In that case, whoever she is, have fun as long as she’s legal but make sure you always go home to your family.  Ok?” He said to Marc.  “You are this close to your first league title and Player of the Year.  No woman is worth losing these for.”

 

If Herrlich wasn’t so good at football, he could switch to jumping to conclusions.  Marc was certain Herrlich wouldn’t tell him to go have fun if he knew who Marc’s object of desire was.

 

“Go see Dr. Greenberg, he will solve your sleeping problem.  Your... er... marital problem doesn’t leave this office, understand?”

 

Marc nodded and got up.

 

“And Marc?  Don’t take it out on Kay.  Pass him the ball.  He can read your move really well.”

 

Isn’t that the problem exactly.

 

******

 

(8 March 2019)

 

“Take one, put a glass of water next to your bed and set two alarms, you can’t be late for training.” The team doctor had instructed.

 

Marc flushed away the sleeping pills in the toilet.

 

No one could help him.  Nothing would work.  Not even if he had 8 hours of sleep.  Because Marc would wake up and still want to sleep with Kay Engel.

 

He stayed in the bathroom, listening to Kay moving around in the hotel room they shared.  Neither of them asked to change roommate because there was no good excuse they could give to Coach Herrlich.  

 

They have been walking on egg shells around each other the past two weeks.  Kay hasn’t said much but he hasn’t been avoiding Marc.  Marc was alternate between feeling mortified - what Kay must think of him now - and feeling weirdly hopeful that maybe... just maybe he wasn’t alone in his feelings.

 

Feelings that haven’t lessen despite Marc’s conscious effort to keep his distance.  Everytime their bodies accidentally brushed each other during training, Marc could feel Kay everywhere, even through two layers of jerseys, his body tingled all over. 

 

This can’t go on.  I also cannot hide in the bathroom all night. 

 

Marc heard the sound of the door closing.  After a minute, he came out of the bathroom.  Kay has left the room.

 

There was another Tatort rerun on tv, it was the Dresden team.  Kay’s favourite.  Marc turned off the tv and lay down in bed.  

 

Sleep wouldn’t come.  When the room’s digital alarm clock showed 01:00, Marc finally got up and changed into his gym clothes.

 

24-hour gym access in the hotel, for the insomniac footballers.

 

Expecting an empty gym all for himself, Marc heard the sound of exercise machine running as he pushed open the door.  A lone figure was sweating and pounding away on the treadmill.  

 

Kay.

 

Marc had about 10 seconds to back out of the room before Kay noticed him, but he stood rooted to the ground.  He couldn’t take his eyes off Kay; couldn’t stop staring at Kay’s exposed biceps, toned and lean, glistening with sweats; a look of intense concentration on Kay’s perfect profile.  

 

As Marc stepped closer, casting a shadow under the spotlights, Kay finally turned to glance at him.  Without missing a step in his run, Kay continued to look at Marc.  

 

Marc won the staring contest.

 

Kay torn his gaze away.  He turned off the treadmill and stepped off it.  The dark grey towel around his neck began to collect the dripping sweats.  His face flushed, his breathing heavy and loud in the quiet room.  

 

Marc didn’t even realise he was inches close to Kay until his own hand reached out and touched Kay’s blond stubble; feeling the roughness under his fingertips, his nerve-endings vibrated with electricity.

 

Kay stepped into his space.  Their locked gazes deepened and fell into each other.  Marc swore he could hear both their heartbeats thumping in his ears.  Finally, Kay licked his lips, his head tilted to the side as he pressed his mouth on Marc’s.  

 

Marc’s arms went around the blond man who has been monopolising his dreams and waking hours.  The sensations of Kay surrounding him, heating every inch of his skin.  With liquid fire surged in his veins, Marc parted his lips, welcoming Kay’s tongue.

 

Chapter Text

Kay blinked awake. There was a sliver of dusty sunlight streaming through an opening of the curtains. He’s sleeping in Marc’s bed and staring at his own again. This is fast becoming a habit.

Marc’s brown hair turned a shade reddish under the sunlight, highlighting the golden hue, his face tension-free, he looked younger, almost innocent.

Marc stirred next to him. Kay could feel him nuzzling the hollow of Kay’s neck, not waking up yet, just finding a more comfortable position. His leg lazily rubbing Kay’s under the comforter.

Kay could see the trail of discarded clothes near the door. For one moment, he panicked. Have we locked the door? His sleep-addled brain tried to retrace the steps from his memory. Remembering the urgency of their kiss in the gym, the way Marc grabbed his neck and crushed their mouths together - an act that somehow seemed both shocking and inevitable.

He remembered following Marc back to their room. The maddening need to touch each other while they stood together inside the lift, the longest walk in the hotel hallway. Marc, so nervous, he dropped the room key card twice before he could open the door.

Kay remembered kicking the door close with his leg, a sound of clicking barely registered in his ears before he found himself being pushed against the door. Marc’s kisses were hot, sloppy and open mouthed.

They staggered into the shower together, shedding clothes along the way. Marc was eager, his hands roamed all over Kay’s wet skin, anywhere he could reach but seemed unsure about the next step. Kay knew it would be up to him. Under the hot streaming downpour, he went down on his knees and took Marc in his mouth.

“Oh god... holy... fuck...” Marc groaned deeply while his hands moved to grabbed Kay’s hair. Kay sucked and used his tongue in long, slow strokes. After a few seconds, Marc grew bolder and began to fuck Kay’s mouth. Gently first, then the rhythm became more frantic; pushing himself harder into Kay’s mouth. Holding onto Marc’s hips for his dear life, Kay could feel Marc’s legs shaking, like electricity humming. Feeling Marc’s building orgasm in his mouth, Kay started stroking himself in a race for release.

They hadn’t bothered to dry themselves, stumbling onto the same bed, lying tangled in bedsheets together; they had fallen into a dreamless sleep.

And now.

Kay worried his lip. They hadn’t said anything to each other the whole time. Not in the gym, not in the shower, not in bed. As if spoken words would break whatever trance they were in.

And strictly speaking, they hadn’t fucked last night. Kay gave Marc a blow job, that’s all. Marc could still claim he’s just a straight guy getting some head from a guy. Who’d say no to blow jobs? Kay, on the other hand, had no such convenient truth to fall back on. He’s gay and now Marc knew.

Kay had seen straight or bi-curious guys use such excuses, had gotten black eyes over such excuses. He could tell Marc had no gay experience before last night, there was no guarantee how he would react once daylight has reappeared and reality set in.

Scheiße, why did I let my dick rule my life again?

Suddenly, Kay wanted to get up and sleep in his own bed. The room has two beds for a reason, footballers are not supposed to be sleeping in the same bed.

He gingerly untangled himself from Marc’s hold.

“Mmmm...”

Kay turned and saw Marc rubbing his eyes, naked as a jaybird and looking sexy as hell with his bed hair. Marc shielded his eyes from the single beam of sunlight, he squinted.

“Hey...” Marc said. Sleep still in his voice.

Already halfway out of the bed, Kay asked cautiously, “hey. Everything’s ok?”

Marc nodded stiffly.

Kay could see uncertainty written all over Marc’s face; he swallowed and got up, but Marc caught his wrist.

“Did you like...?” Marc didn’t finish the question but like when they made a Doppelpass, Kay knew where Marc was going with it.

“Schön war’s.” (It was very nice) Kay answered.

Marc has visibly relaxed a fraction, with a faint smile on his face.

He was worried I didn’t like it? Kay felt a sudden rush of affection. Before he could overthink it, he leaned back closer to Marc and kissed him on the lips. Just a dry one. But their lips had a mind of their own, they lingered, the kiss deepened and went on until they both had to take a breath. Kay felt giddy as his mind registered that he’s kissing Marc in daylight and they were both sober.

But the giddiness was short-lived when they heard rapid knocking on the door and someone asking aloud, “housekeeping.”

Marc jerked away from him so quick he almost threw Kay off the bed, his body stiffened in an instant, cheeks inflamed.

“Coming.” Kay replied calmly, his eyes staying on Marc. Then he got up to answer the door, telling the cleaners to come back in half an hour.

Of course, Kay was in no position to say anything to Marc, he was in the closet himself. Paranoia came with the territory. But still, it stung. Kay forgot how much he hated this part of being a football player.

Whatever spell Marc was under seemed to have broken as well; when Kay returned, Marc already had his undershorts on, he mumbled, “we should get ready. I don’t want to miss the team breakfast.”

Back to reality then.

With effort, Kay averted his eyes. He simply nodded. “Go ahead. You can use the bathroom first.” Suddenly feeling naked both inside and out, Kay began to pick up the discarded clothes and get dressed.

For appearances’ sake, Kay pulled and fluffed up the comforter and pillow on the unused bed - you never know what people would notice.

The he heard the bathroom door opened and noticed a stillness behind him. When Kay finally turned around, Marc was just behind him, looking slightly abashed.

Kay raised his eyebrows questioningly. Marc eyed the door for a moment, then stepped closer, his hand went up to touch the side of Kay’s face. “Can I kiss you again?”

 

******

 

“Would it be too controversial if I sleep with your teammate Larsen?” Britt asked. She’s sitting on Kay’s kitchen counter, her tanned and toned legs swinging under the black pencil skirt.

Kay coughed, nearly spewed his coffee. “What did you say?”

“Arne Larsen. That Swede is HOT.”

“I’d rather you don’t. He has an equally hot Swedish girlfriend, by the way.”

“Which one? The one that looks like the actress from the Dragon Tattoo?” She tilted her head, tried to recall meeting her last week at Frank Richter’s house party. All the first team players and their partners were there. “She’s alright, I guess. Ok. Larsen is safe.” Britt shrugged.

Kay snorted. “Your self-confidence can move mountains.”

He knew Britt was only joking, sometimes they liked to play this game where Britt pretended to plan to steal one of Kay’s teammates. Usually triggered by an obnoxious girlfriend or wife who had been rude to her.  

Britt watched Kay closely, then she asked slowly, “how about Marc Borgmann? Is he off-limit too?”

Kay stiffened.

“Why? I thought you said he’s boring.” He said carefully, not looking at Britt.

“Now I find him broodingly handsome.”

Kay turned away, sipping his coffee. “He has a wife.”

“Well... that doesn’t seem to stop you.”

“What?” Kay whipped his head around, “How did you...”

Britt’s eyes widened.

Kay shut up instantly.

Goddamn Britt. She was just taking a wild guess until Kay fell right into it.

“Oh my god, Kay...” Britt got off from the kitchen counter, her hands went to Kay’s cheeks. “I knew it! When you stopped bitching about him, I knew something must have happened. And this Marc dude was throwing me these weird, unfriendly glances at the party like I’ve killed his puppy. Jesus, so... what? He’s gay too?”

Wouldn’t Kay like to know that too.

After the “gym” incident three weeks ago, Marc and Kay have embarked on a relationship that Kay would categorise as “sex buddies on the road”. They would keep their friendly but professional distance on training ground, before and after a home game. Stealing glances were all they did.

But when they were away from Duisburg, when they were in their shared hotel room... things turned unprofessional the second the door was closed and locked. Kay has never been in a relationship like this. It was all very strange... and confusing... and addictive.

Actually, no, it wasn’t a relationship. They just had sex. Sometimes.

Sometimes my ass, more like twice, three times a day. They were insatiable for each other on those away game days. They were doing it everywhere like they were christening the whole room; behind the door, in the shower, on the floor, in their bed. And it wasn’t just sex, like two nights ago, in the middle of watching Tatort in bed, Marc had suddenly grabbed his head and pulled him in for a hungry, bruising kiss that turned into a marathon necking session, leaving love bites on Kay’s neck and shoulders.

If their secret affair was bleeding into their professional relationship, so far it only had a positive impact. Marc was on fire in games, commanding control of the team on the pitch, his link-up plays with Kay have been flawless. They were both playing some of their career-best football the last few weeks.

“How serious is this, Kay?” More questions from Britt. Having gotten over the shock, a tinge of worry in her voice now.

Ignoring the question which he had no answer for, Kay asked instead, “how did you... how did you know?” He thought he had hidden it well - that they have both been very careful.

Britt smirked, “you’ve been walking around with a silly grin on your face for weeks now, K. I know you must be getting some, I just didn’t know he’s so nearby! So... is he... any good?”

Jesus, only Britt could make Kay blush like a tomato. “Please. I am not letting myself be featured in your gay porn fantasy. No way I am telling you something so private.”

Britt rolled her eyes. “I think Marc Borgmann’s prudishness is rubbing off on you.”

“Hey, you don’t know him.” Kay frowned.

Britt’s eyes sharpened at that. She made a theatrical walk around Kay and softly exclaimed, “oh my god. You are serious about him, aren’t you?”

When Kay didn’t immediately answer. Britt added, “has he always been in the closet?”

Kay shook his head. “I think... I think I’m his first.”

“You think?”

“We haven’t really been talking about it.” Kay admitted uneasily.

“Oh Kay... are you sure...” Britt’s face clearly showed what she was about to say, so Kay cut in first, “no, he’s not like Lutz.”

Lutz Keller. A past mistake. Kay shook off the memory. Water under the bridge.

Upon seeing Britt’s unconvinced expression, Kay explained, “I think Marc has finally developed the instinct to spot other gay men, even though he had no idea he was doing it.”

They both let that sunk in.

“A late bloomer,” she commented. “And you are afraid to bring it out in the open?” It did not come out as a question.

Kay nodded reluctantly. The fact was, he’s afraid if he ever breathes the word ‘gay’ in front of Marc, he’d bolt so fast that Kay might never see him again.

 

******

 

“I am happy you have someone; you deserve some fun and love, K. But I will burn down Marc Borgmann’s mansion if he turns out to be another Lutz Keller.” Britt had left this warning before she left.

Not a message Kay would relay to Marc anytime soon.

The talk with Britt has left Kay feeling both relieved and uneasy. He had to tell someone about this and Britt was the only person who would understand and he could trust. At the same time, the reminder of Kay’s brief affair with Lutz Keller - his one and only ex-boyfriend - a term Lutz would probably dispute - was a warning Kay could not ignore.

He knew he needed to talk to Marc soon. But that day was not today. Not when Marc was smiling at him from across the training field.

This was a rarity because when there were other people around, Marc has always kept himself in check, making sure he wasn’t looking at Kay too often, not paying too much attention to Kay.

Kay returned the smile tentatively, feeling like they were a couple of high schoolers, passing notes in class. He was just wondering what brought this on when coach Herrlich asked Kay to come to his office.

Herrlich was also in a good mood, has been since Marc has returned to form and both have been playing kick-ass football and scoring goals. Kay tried to imagine Herrlich’s face if he ever found out the secret of their magnificent form and had to stop himself from laughing out loud.

“Kay. Have you ever been to Budapest?” Herrlich asked.

When Kay shook his head blankly, Herrlich patted his back hard with his massive hand, “well, you need to pack. You will be going there with the German national team! Löw just phoned me and wanted me to tell you the good news. You just got drafted!”

“Wha... really?” Kay stammered.

Herrlich nodded. “You are going to Budapest for the international friendly game against Hungary in a week. Löw will announce his squad to the press later today.”

Kay was still in cloud nine when he walked to the parking lot, trying to come up with creative ways to break the good news to Britt and her father, Oskar, also Kay’s agent. They are going to freak out!

“Hey Kay.”

He looked up and saw Marc calling him from inside his Audi, it was parked not too far from Kay’s Saab.

Kay walked over there and leaned on the car window, “hey, how come you are still here?” No one was on the training ground anymore by the time he left Herrlich’s office.

Marc didn’t answer him though, he had a long look around the quiet parking lot before he said, “get in.”

Kay raised his eyebrows. Marc was smiling, he touched Kay’s forearm briefly, tilted his head and whispered, “come on”.

Kay quickly went around to the passenger side and got in; Marc closed the dark tinted car windows immediately. And before Kay could ask him what’s going on, Marc gripped him by the lapels of his jacket, crushed his mouth onto Kay’s and kissed him. Hot and urgent.

Kay swallowed the unformed sentence and returned the kiss with equal force. Their tongues making long sweeps inside each other’s mouth, biting clacks of their teeth. Marc grasped and pulled at whatever part of Kay he could get a hold of; he moved his mouth close to Kay’s ear, “I’ve been dying to kiss you all day.”

His heart rate rocketed, Kay pulled back a little, gazing at Marc before he went in for another kiss, slower, more tender this time. Whatever reason that caused Marc to throw caution to the wind, Kay didn’t need to know, he just wanted to enjoy the moment.

When they finally pulled apart, Marc licked his lips and said, “so? You are going to Budapest with me?”

Kay grinned widely, “how...?”

“Löw called me last night to ask about you, so I know he wants to draft you. When Herrlich called you to his office, I just knew! I am so happy for you.”

Seeing how excited Marc about the news did something to Kay… he felt like the wildly spinning compass inside him has suddenly found its true north.

And Kay knew he’s in deeper trouble than he had thought.

Chapter Text

“Yes, and two bowls of jasmine rice, please.” Kay told the Chinese waiter as he wrote down their order.

 

Marc took in the red paper lanterns stringing up above tables, the large picture frames with giant Chinese calligraphy on them.  When Kay turned to face him again, Marc shook his head.

 

“What?” asked Kay.  He arched his eyebrow.

 

“Only you would suggest to have Chinese food in Budapest.”

 

“Did you know that Budapest has some of the best Chinese restaurants in this region?  This Sichuan restaurant is the bomb... or so I’ve read.” Kay enthused.  

 

Kay’s smile was so broad that Marc found himself smiling back in spite of himself.  

 

They made excuses to get out of the celebratory team dinner after the 1-4 win over host team Hungary.  The national team consisted mainly players from Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, so Marc has always been a bit of an outsider anyway, he’d rather spend more time with Kay alone.  

 

Marc had room services and sex in his mind, had been thinking about it all day, throughout the whole game until Kay suggested they go out to eat.

 

“Let’s go out.  I want to see Budapest.  I’ve been reading reviews of some restaurants” Kay had said.

 

A suggestion which Marc would admit, had freaked him out a little.  

 

But teammates hangout with each other all the time, it’s not a big deal.  Kay and I are the only Duisburg players in the national team this time, it’s only natural we share the room and hang out, right?

 

Not to mention, these days, Marc found it hard to say no to Kay, not that Kay has made many demands.  

 

Life has been good... Marc wished he had paid more attention in school, so he could describe it better... he has never been so... the word he was looking for was happy, but somehow it seemed inadequate.  

 

Because Marc knew happiness; he had experienced it a few times - the first match he played for FC Duisburg; when Bettina said yes; when Jonas was born; when he saw the pride in his father’s eyes... he knew what happiness felt like.  

 

When he’s with Kay, it’s more than that.  It’s something akin to awakening, like two pieces of loose, jangling parts finally clicked into place; they fit so well, so right, he wondered how he could have functioned without before.  Everything seemed different and yet everything made sense.  It was scary, mystifying and exhilarating all rolled into one.

 

The tight knot in his stomach from a month ago unclenched and vanished since that night.  Life was near perfect, right now.  It was football, Kay, his family - in that order.  And sometimes not in that order... sometimes there was only one in his mind. 

 

“Dig in!” Kay grinned at Marc, holding the chopstick between his thumb and forefinger like a pro.  

 

Marc looked at the steaming colourful dishes in front of him.  At least he knew Kung Pao chicken.  The rest were unknown to him, some flat noodles in what appeared to be a bowl of chilli oil, a tofu dish with mince meat on top and some fried green beans.  He copied the way Kay was holding the chopsticks and tried to pick up a piece of chicken, it promptly dropped on the table. 

 

“Do you want to ask for fork and knife?” Kay pretended to draw the waiter’s attention.

 

Marc glared at him and said, “I know how to use chopsticks, the German way.” He changed back to his non-authentic way to hold chopsticks - like one would hold a pen - picked up some chopped vegetables and put them in Kay’s bowl.

 

Kay whistled with approval, grinning widely.  Not bothered to hide how happy he was.

 

Marc was kind of glad that Budapest didn’t seem to be football crazy.  No one bothered them on the street, they were just two crazy German tourists walking around, having Chinese food in a beautiful foreign city.    

 

The food was a bit too spicy for Marc’s liking, but Kay seemed to enjoy them, and Marc enjoy watching him.  He watched Kay’s mouth chew, his hands hold the chopsticks, and remembered what it had felt like... what those hands and mouth had done to him... that first time Kay let Marc fuck him, the incredible tightness of him around his cock, drawing unnamed desire and want Marc hadn’t known existed... Kay’s hands grabbing his hip to push back hard, his breathing ragged and raw; “harder... oh god... Marc...“ his mouth uttering Marc’s name in ecstasy.

 

Suddenly, Marc felt tight in his jeans.

 

Marc shifted a little in his seat, decided to find a different subject.  “So... what do your parents think about you being in the German national team?  Are they very proud?”

 

Kay’s hand froze mid-air, holding a piece of chicken with the chopsticks.  He stared at Marc.  Something shifted in his eyes before he lowered his lashes.  He put the piece of chicken in his mouth, chewed and swallowed, like he’s considering what to say.  

 

Marc knew right away he must have asked the wrong thing.  

 

Finally Kay said slowly, “Truth is, I don’t know.  I haven’t seen my mother since I was 10.  And my father hasn’t called me since last summer.”

 

Scheiße.  Marc thought.  Kay never mentioned his parents, I should have known.  What an idiot.

 

“I am sorry. I didn’t know.” 

 

Kay shrugged. “How could you know?  It’s ok, it was a long time ago.  My Oma is happy for me, she lives in Mannheim though. Anyway, Oskar and Britt are my family.”

 

Marc knew Oskar was Kay’s agent and his daughter, Britt was Kay’s girlfriend... or she was in the public eye.  Marc never asked Kay directly, because it’s a can of worms he wasn’t sure he’s ready to open.  

 

Secretly he was relieved that Kay has basically just admitted that Britt was a sister to him.  Marc couldn’t work out that beautiful and fiery woman when he met her at Frank’s party, she seemed to enjoy the fact that other wives and girlfriends made a point to exclude her.  Definitely a character.

 

Marc didn’t need to know more.  They were having amazing sex - more than amazing.  For Marc, it’s mind blowing.  It was like he has discovered sex all over again.

 

He remembered the hormone-aided infatuation he had once felt for Bettina, how he couldn’t wait to make love to her.  But as soon as the sex was done, he couldn’t wait to go back to his true love - football.  Yeah, sex was great, but football was better.  With Kay though, it was like Marc has the best of both worlds.  Now he could have Kay, and then play football where Kay was also a part of.  In fact, Kay has made football even better for Marc.

 

So why make it complicated?  Plus Kay seemed happy - which was also very important to Marc.

 

“Do you want to do more tourist thing after dinner?  You’d love the night view here.” Marc asked.  He was thinking of taking Kay to LEO, a swanky rooftop bar he knew with an amazing view of Budapest city skyline.

 

Kay’s pale blue eyes twinkling, he suggested, “or we can go back to our hotel room and have a different view.“ He kicked Marc’s leg under the table and gave him one of his trademark smart ass grins.  Marc fought the urge to kiss it off of his face.

 

******

 

(3 April - home game - FC Duisburg v Fortuna Düsseldorf)

 

“Come on! Come on!” Marc clapped his hands and gathered his teammates in single file.  All the players from home and away teams were inside the stadium tunnel, getting ready to start the game.

 

League leaders Bayern Munich just lost to Borussia Dortmund half an hour ago, if FC Duisburg won today, they would overtake Bayern at the top of the league table.  With 7 games to go, today was crunch time for their title dream.  Marc was all pumped up for the game and he was expecting to win, Fortuna Düsseldorf just got promoted from league 2 this season, they did ok, a few places above relegation zone, not much for them to fight for.  

 

Komm schon, komm schon... he muttered to himself.  

 

Then Marc heard a familiar voice talking - Kay.  He glanced back to the end of the line and saw Düsseldorf’s central defender, Oliver Rimmer hugging Kay.  They laughed and fist bumped a couple of times.  Looking chummy and familiar with each other.  

 

Marc tried to remember what he knew about Oliver Rimmer, he was promoted from league 2 together with the Düsseldorf team this season.  Maybe they knew each other when they both played in the lower league... is Rimmer from Hamburg originally?  How come they are such good friends? 

 

Marc took one last look at the two - they were still talking, Rimmer’s hand was resting on the side of Kay’s neck.  Marc torn his eyes away, he rolled his neck and shoulders, tried to refocus on getting ready for the game.  He could ask Kay about Rimmer later.  Yes, that’s it.  This can wait.

 

Friends with Rimmer or not, Kay showed no mercy to Düsseldorf’s defence, he made a lethal pass from the left side of the pitch to Larsen and their team was 1:0 up in the first half.  

 

Marc knew a 1:0 lead was not safe, they needed a 2nd goal to finish off the game and get all three points.  Before the 2nd half started, Marc told Kay to look for his sign to make a doppelpass play they’ve been practising the last two weeks.  Kay smiled, “you mean to look out for your tongue signal?” he teased.  And Marc nearly swallowed his tongue at that.

 

In the end, they didn’t need to.  Larsen was fouled in the penalty area, they were awarded a penalty-kick at 80th minute, Marc stepped up to score and made it 2:0.  The game ended with this score line 12 minutes later.

 

Top of the league table, finally.  Marc looked over to the family and club official area and found his father clapping his hands and beaming at him.  He has worked 27 years for this.  It’s in their hands to win the title now, it’s so close, Marc could taste it.  He waved back at his father.

 

It wasn’t time for popping champagne yet, but everyone was shouting, patting each other’s back and planning ways to celebrate.  Marc sought out Kay  in the whirlpool room, but Kay wasn’t there; he went back to the dressing room and saw Kay had changed into jeans and a midnight blue wool sweater already, his hair still damp with that green apple scent.

 

“Oh.  You are leaving already?” Marc asked, tried to ignore how good Kay look in that sweater.

 

Kay nodded, “yeah.  I am going to have a drink with Olly.  He wants to catch up.” 

 

“Oliver Rimmer?”

 

“Uh-huh.  We were from the same academy in Hamburg.” 

 

We?  “Mmm. Ok.” Marc nodded ambivalently. 

 

Kay arched his eyebrow.  But what else could Marc say?  What did Marc want to say anyway?

 

“Have fun.” Marc finally said.

 

Kay threw him a final glance before he walked away.

 

******

 

“Coach Herrlich made a shrewd deal buying Engel from league 2.  I’m afraid Ackermann will lose his place when he recovers. What do you think, Marc?”

 

Marc checked his watch.  8pm.  If they are only having a drink after the game.  Kay should be home by now.  Unless they decided to have dinner together too.

 

“Marc?” Wolfgang Borgmann called his name again.

 

“Huh?  Sorry!  I... “ Marc tried to make up an excuse, but his mind went blank.  

 

“He must be tired.” Bettina gently rubbed his shoulder.  “He has been worried about today’s game for a week.  Nothing could relax him.  Believe me, I’ve tried.” She joked.  

 

They were having dinner with Marc’s parents in a local restaurant.  Wolfgang Borgmann liked to visit his old club and watch his only son play whenever he could.   

 

“I am more worried about Dortmund not able to take points off  Bayern today; I knew Marc would beat Düsseldorf.” His father gave Marc’s shoulder a shake, the usual vote of confidence.

 

“Enough football talk.” Marc’s mother complained.  “Are we still on for an outdoor party for Marc’s birthday?”

 

“If the weather holds up, yes.  I have hired marquee tents from the catering company, just in case.” Bettina answered her before she turned to Marc, “by the way, do you have Kay Engel’s WhatsApp number? We are doing a group invite.” 

 

“Kay is not on WhatsApp.” Marc said. Right, maybe I can text him.

 

“Another one too cool to be on social media?  You two are made for each other.”

 

Marc snapped his head up at that.  But there was no sarcasm in Bettina’s eyes, a splinter of guilt sprang up inside of him.  “Not sure if he’s the birthday party type of person.” He mumbled.

 

“He went to Frank’s party, didn’t he?  His girlfriend was a riot, kind of a surprise since Kay is so quiet.  Opposites attract, I suppose.” Bettina laughed. 

 

Bet he is chatting just fine with ‘Olly’ at the moment.  Scheiße. What’s wrong with me?  Marc rubbed his forehead.  

 

Finally he excused himself to go to the bathroom and texted Kay

 

>>Making fun of Rimmer’s poor defending today?<< He typed.

 

Marc waited for a few minutes.  When Kay didn’t text back, he put his mobile back in his pocket and returned to the table.

 

By the time they left the restaurant, Kay still hasn’t texted him back.

 

Marc said good night to his parents and drove home with Bettina.  He checked his watch again when he waited outside for the Uber they ordered for the babysitter.  9:30pm, still no text.

 

He went in the house and told Bettina, “I am going out to have a drink with Stefan.  Don’t wait up.”

 

“Now?” She frowned.

 

“Yeah, it’s about the Puma sponsorship deal.  They are at a bar in the city.” Marc’s agent was in negotiation with the Puma brand for a lucrative sponsorship deal.

 

“Guess now is networking hours. Don’t drink if you are driving.” She shook her head and disappeared into Jonas’s room.

 

35 minutes later, Marc parked his Audi in a guest spot outside Kay’s building.  He keyed in the entry code he remembered from when he played chauffeur months ago.  They haven’t changed it.

 

There were only two apartments on the top floor.  Marc eyed the other door for a moment, then pressed the doorbell on Kay’s.

 

No answer.  Marc’s stomach dropped.  Fucking Oliver Rimmer.  He knocked on the door.

 

Finally after a few knocks, the door was opened.  

 

Kay was wearing a white bathrobe, his face and hair damp, he smelled faintly of that green apple scent again.  “Marc?” 

 

Marc went in and closed the door.

 

“What happened.  Why are you...” Kay began.

 

“Why didn’t you answer my fucking text?”

 

“What text?” Kay’s brow furrowed.  He retrieved his jeans from the back of the sofa and took out his mobile.  He read the text and chuckled. “I was taking a bath.  And no I didn’t make fun of Olly.”

 

By then Marc was feeling like a complete fool.  He glared at Kay. “You and your soaking.”

 

“Which you have rudely interrupted.” Kay retorted playfully.  But the smirk on his face was quickly wiped off when Marc attacked his mouth, his hands went to unknot the tie on Kay’s bathrobe and let it drop on the floor.

 

“Fuck... I want you so bad,” Marc growled. “It’s not even funny... “ he kissed Kay’s jawline, then his neck, sucking on the tender spot the neck meets the shoulder, where he favoured.  “Distracting me when we are supposed to win games.”

 

Kay tilted his head back to give Marc better access, his hands busy working on the button and zipper on Marc’s jeans.  “Oh yeah?” He roughly pulled down the jeans and grabbed Marc’s cock in his hand.  “Show me...” Kay breathed out the challenge next to Marc’s ear.  

 

Marc’s cock became rock hard in an instant.  He pulled away, then pushed and flipped Kay around, bending him over on the back of the sofa.  His hands caressed the perfectly round and firm butt, his eyes drank it in, then moved to the dip on his back, the lean biceps and forearms, there were a few droplets of soapy water from the bath still clang onto the smooth skin.  If possible, the sight made Marc even harder.

 

“Jesus... what are you waiting for?” Kay ground out, his voice getting unsteady.

 

“Impatient...” Marc smiled, vastly enjoyed getting Kay worked up.  He leaned forward and whispered into Kay’s ear, “where’s the lube, baby?”

 

The endearment just slipped out but Kay seemed to like it, he pushed back against Marc.  “Just do it.  I don’t need it.” He gritted out.

 

That went straight to Marc’s cock.  He grabbed both sides of Kay’s hips, aligned himself to his backside and gently pushed in.  Painfully slow because Marc was not an idiot, he wasn’t going to risk hurting Kay.  

 

“So good...” Marc murmured as he bottomed out.  He began to move his hips, slowly and steadily.  “Oh fuck...” Kay’s breath caught, it came out in a stuttering gasp.  It felt incredible, Marc was mindful of every pull and tug, each sparking a new sensation unknown to him until Kay entered his life.

 

“Marc...” Kay moaned. 

 

“Yeah, baby?”

 

Kay grabbed one of Marc’s hands and moved it to his cock, already hard and slippery with precum.  Marc gave it a squeeze and started to stroke it, faster and faster; feeling the veins grazing his palm; feeling his own orgasm building.  He wouldn’t be able to hold on much longer. 

 

Bossy even when he’s pressed between Marc and the sofa, Kay pushed back, his hands holding the back of Marc’s thighs.  Tight.  He twisted his hips and the extra friction was all it took.

 

“Holy... fuck...” Marc shouted, panting, as the orgasm throbbed and hummed through him.  He gave Kay’s cock one last pull, Kay’s body stiffened and a second later, he came powerfully in Marc’s hand.

 

Marc bent down and dropped kisses on Kay’s back, touching a sheen of moisture, not sure if it was from the bath or sweat.  Both trying to catch their breath.

 

This was not what Marc had planned before the game today.  Marc quietly acknowledged this to himself when they lay down on the sofa together.  

 

Kay, wrapped in his bathrobe again, looking lazy and pliable.  “I like this surprise visit.” He told Marc.  “Whatever triggered it.” That damn wry smile back on his face.

 

Of course Kay has figured out Marc was a jealous and irrational idiot - something Marc didn’t want to examine too closely.  

 

The fact was, Marc surprised himself too and he’s afraid he might have reached a point of no return.

Chapter Text

Kay knew Marc was rich, but the two-storey Bauhaus style house in front of him looked like something out of “Architectural Digest”.

 

Straight line white concrete walls with large teak wood framed windows, the spacious and minimalist design. It’s huge too, two sides surrounded by trees, it had a large green space in front and a long and narrow infinity pool at the back. Tranquil and stylish.

 

“Holy fuck, this house put Jennifer Aniston’s LA home to shame.” Britt exclaimed quietly.

 

“What? Who?” Kay asked distractingly, his eyes trying to locate Marc. Everyone from the Duisburg team was here and coach Herrlich, they were all milling around the garden; catering staff among them holding trays of drinks and nibbles. It was a fucking high society garden party.

 

Why did I say yes to the invite? Marc probably doesn’t even want me here. He remembered Marc had mentioned at least twice last week that “it’s ok if you don’t come to the party”. Right. Because it will be super awkward to have your wife and your male lover eating hors d’oeuvre together.

 

“Never mind, K.” Britt rolled her eyes. She pulled Kay forward by his hand, “come on, let’s crash the party.”

 

Bettina greeted them in a yellow sundress and white denim jacket, she had a wide floppy hat on and nude coloured sandals, like it was mid-summer, not mid-April. Kay gave her the birthday present, she said thank you but directed him to a large table on the left with a mountain of gift boxes. Kay didn’t write down his name on the box, but he’s certain Marc would know the gift was from him.

 

Britt saw the group of footballer wives and girlfriends gawking at them; she sighed and announced, “ugh. I need some prosecco to get through this. You want one?”

 

Kay shook his head and said, “I’ll have a club soda, I don’t want to get drunk here.”

 

Britt patted his cheek, “wise choice. You don’t want to get tipsy and spill your dirty secrets by accident.” Kay glared at her, but she just laughed and went to search for drinks.

 

Kay hung out with Frank, Larsen and a few other teammates for a while, Frank did most of the talking. They were talking about some ex-Duisburg players that Kay wasn’t familiar with.

 

Kay liked to go clubbing sometimes, dancing to loud techno music, people-watching, but he didn’t understand parties like this, the forced friendliness, forced conversation, it’s tiring. But pretending to be straight was a full-time job when you played in Bundesliga 1.

 

Bored. He glanced over and saw Marc standing at the other end of the garden with coach Herrlich and his father, Wolfgang Borgmann. Unlike many other retired footballers, who succumbed to various vices like alcohol or gambling, Borgmann senior was still in good physical shape in his late fifties and well-respected. Herrlich used to be in the same team with Marc’s father for one season, he was a rookie when Wolfgang Borgmann was about to retire. FC Duisburg’s fortune improved after Wolfgang’s retirement. Kay knew one of the reasons why Marc wanted to win the league title was for his father, to fulfil a dream that had escaped his father.  

 

He made minimum effort to join in the conversation about - football, golf, fortnite, and then more football. Jesus, don’t these guys have anything else in their lives other than sports and video games?

 

When Britt came back to his side, Kay grabbed her arm, “want a cigarette break?”

 

“You don’t smoke.”

 

“No, but I can watch you smoke.”

 

Britt was giggling at Kay’s desperation when a small figure ran at full speed towards them.

“Kay Engel!” Jonas smashed into Kay, his hands grabbing the hem of Kay’s bomber jacket.

 

“Hi there, little guy.” Kay crouched down to say hi.

 

“You are the only other player he recognises apart from Frank.” Bettina said behind them. She picked up her son into her arms and smiled indulgently. “Whenever we watch the game, he’s always going: Papa passed the ball to Kay Engel.”

 

“You want to play football like your Papa then?” Kay asked little Jonas, who nodded enthusiastically.

 

“Like his Papa and like his Opa, right?” Britt said. She bent down to brush Jonas’ hair and ear like he’s a puppy.

 

“Yes, it’s a Borgmann profession, I’m afraid.” Bettina chuckled. “I couldn’t get a word in when three generations of football players are in the house. That’s why we hope the next one will be a little girl, this house needs more female presence.” Bettina said, shaking her head.

 

Both Kay and Britt froze. Kay wasn’t sure if he was breathing. Britt darted a quick glance at him before she asked Bettina with fake cheerfulness, “oh my, are you pregnant?”

 

“Oh no, no... but we are trying.” Bettina beamed.

 

Kay didn’t know why it had never crossed his mind that Marc would still be sleeping with his wife. Of course he is, she’s his bloody wife! Kay mentally scolded himself. It shouldn’t be a surprise, he should have known, even expected it. But he just blocked it out, never asked Marc about it, because... because they were just fucking, he had no right to ask Marc for anything.

 

But Jesus, where the hell does Marc find the energy to fuck his wife when we’ve been fucking like bunnies? Especially since... since Kay has given Marc a key to his apartment and Marc has been spending a couple of hours there every day after training. They were no longer just “sex buddies on the road”; now they were “sex buddies home and away”.

 

No, he couldn’t face Bettina now. Kay could hear his heart throbbing in his ears; he turned his face away. At least Bettina seemed oblivious to his sudden distress. Britt moved her body to the left to shield Kay partially, she asked Bettina, changing the subject, “by the way, I love your house! Modernist Bauhaus, my favourite! I am actually editing a book about new modernist buildings in Germany...”

 

Kay walked away as soon as he saw Britt has gotten Bettina’s full attention. Scheiße, I owe Britt one for this. He glanced over, saw Marc chatting with his teammates and their plus-ones in the front garden and Kay wanted to throw up; he turned and walked to the back of the house.

 

There was a good size back garden there as well. How big is this million-euro house? He could still hear faint conversation drifting from the front garden, but not too loud.   Alone at last.

 

Or maybe not. A brown male Malinois dog was looking at Kay and making growling noise. It was just posturing though, because the dog was wearing a muzzle.

 

“You must be Axel. You poor guy.” Kay remembered Marc mentioned his dog’s name. They have probably put the muzzle on because there were children around today.  

 

Axel the dog was still watching and snarling at Kay, his front paws raised, moving back and forth, his tail down and ears back.

 

Kay sat down next to the dog on the grass, turning sideways and not looking at Axel directly. “I know you are just scared. You don’t have to. I mean no harm.” He continued to talk to the dog in a soothing voice, “bet you don’t like having so many strangers around. Me either. Though I do know them and most of them are ok, I am just not in the mood to socialise.”

 

After a couple of minutes, Axel seemed to have given up on the growling, he moved back and forth, then eventually sat back down, close to Kay but not looking at the human.

 

Kay turned to Axel, he slowly reached out his hand, palm up and placed it in front of Axel’s nose. The dog hesitated for a second, then started sniffing his hand with his nose behind the muzzle. “See? Now we are getting to know each other. I’m Kay, by the way,” he told Axel in a low voice.

 

Axel continued to sniff Kay’s hand, then moved on to sniff his crossed legs. Kay carefully placed his hand behind the dog’s ear and gently rub it. “You like that, don’t you?”

 

Axel seemed to acknowledge this by placing his head on Kay’s thigh. Kay chuckled lightly and began to rub Axel behind his ears.

 

“Kay? What are you... how did you...”?

 

Marc.

 

Kay didn’t even hear him approaching. His eyes wide; he was staring at Kay and the dog like they have both just landed on earth from Mars.

 

“How did you get Axel to...” Marc couldn’t seem to recover from the shock.

 

“What’s wrong with the dog?” Kay asked.

 

Marc rubbed the back of his neck. “I am not sure. Last December I visited an animal shelter for a PR function for the football club, the staff there said he had some trauma, but he looked like a good family dog, so I took him home. But he is depressed and quite aggressive sometimes. Jonas can’t play with him, we can’t even take him out for a walk. We’ve been trying to get a specialist to train him.”

 

Kay didn’t say anything at first, still patting the dog. Marc took a look around and sat down next to him.

 

“I think he just has trust issues. Someone probably has abused him before. He needs to get to know you first before he will walk with you.” Kay commented. Axel seemed to know Kay was talking about him. He looked up and then rest his head on his thigh again. “It’s quite common with dogs in shelters.”

 

“How come you know so much about dogs?” Marc bumped his shoulder.

 

“My father was a vet.”

 

Maybe he still is, I don’t know. Kay thought. “Anyway, we used to foster dogs to get them ready for adoption.”

 

Marc just nodded slowly, seemed unsure what to say. Kay watched his profile; he knew Marc found it uncomfortable whenever they touched on details of their personal life. They had sex, tatort and football together, but that was all. Anything else in Marc’s life was not Kay’s business.

 

He was reminded again that Marc was trying to have another baby with his wife. And I just gave him a key to my apartment. This is something out of a tragicomedy. Kay could imagine Marc facing two widely diverged roads and choosing the safer, more travelled one without a second thought.

 

“You are good with animals. You are the first person Axel sits close to willingly,” said Marc. He was still looking at Kay, smiling faintly. But why does he act like this means a lot to him? That I mean a lot to him? Kay looked away, his heart heavy all of a sudden.

 

“What’s wrong?” Marc asked, his smile vanished, looking concerned. “Why did you just leave the party and sit here with my dog all by yourself… are you not feeling well?”

 

“Is this a one-off thing for you?” Kay blurted out. His hand still patting Axel.

 

“One-off?” Marc parroted. His brows furrowed, looking baffled.

 

Oh, fuck it.

 

“Scheiße... forget it.” Kay let go of Axel and got up. But Marc quickly grabbed his wrist. “Wait!” He turned it and laced his fingers with Kay’s.

 

Kay stared at their entwined fingers. This was new. Occasionally in the heat of the moment during sex, they would hold hands. Hell, they would grasp at any part of the other’s body. But hand holding and entwined fingers outside of bed? That would be too relationship-like.

 

But here they were, when Kay was second guessing what was the point of their affair, Marc pulled him back in, fingers interlocking, face tilting upward, waiting for a kiss from Kay.

 

And Kay obliged. He bent down and kissed Marc on the lips. His tongue probed the corner of Marc’s mouth and slipped in without protest. Kay’s other hand went to the side of Marc’s neck and their kiss deepened. Kay closed his eyes, savouring the moment. At the back of his mind, he knew they were taking a stupid risk. Anyone could walk in on them any second. But he didn’t care, at that moment, everyone and the world could get lost for all he cared.

 

Marc licked his lips when they finally pulled apart, his eyes gentle and smiling; only then did he risk a look around. Seeing the coast was still clear, Marc kissed Kay’s hand again before he let it go.

 

This can’t be just about sex. It can’t be. Kay argued with himself. Marc might not realise it now; maybe subconsciously he didn’t want to admit it, but this thing, this thing between them...

 

I am in love with you, Marc Borgmann. Kay secretly made the declaration in his own mind.

 

But when he opened his mouth, when he looked at Marc, he only said, “happy birthday.”

 

******

 

Call it sixth sense, when Kay saw the unknown number on his mobile’s screen, he knew who was calling him.

 

“Hallo.”

 

“Kay?”

 

Bullshit. He knew but his heart still jumped upon hearing his father’s voice.

 

“Papa?”

 

Silence at the other end. Then sounds of throat clearing. “Kay, how are you? Are you in Duisburg now?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Silence again. “I saw you on tv the other day.   The Hungary v Germany game. You almost scored on your debut.”

 

“Yeah.” Kay grabbed his mobile tighter. He could feel his hand shaking.

 

“Well, I just want to say I am happy for you. Top league and now a national team player.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

“You looked good. On TV.”

 

“Uh-huh.”

 

“Is Oskar still your agent? He’s in the big league too now.”

 

“Yes, he is.”

 

“Good. Good. He’s a good man.”

 

Kay took a deep breath, then asked, “where are you?”

 

Silence.

 

“Papa?”

 

“I am in Wiesbaden. You know Therapiedorf Villa?”

 

Kay was not familiar with the name, but he knew it was a rehab centre. “How long have you been there?”

 

“Almost three months now. I like it here. They even let me look after their therapy dogs, like having a part time job.” There was a hint of smile in his father’s voice, for a moment there, he sounded... stable, healthy.

 

Three months. Kay did a quick calculation in his mind and knew at least his father didn’t spend all the money Kay gave him last time on drugs; that halfway through, he checked himself into a rehab. Repeating the cycle.

 

“That’s very good, Papa.” Kay tried to maintain a steady voice.

 

“How about you? Are you seeing anyone? Breaking some poor guy’s heart?”

 

Despite all his other problems, Kristian Engel has always been supportive of his son’s sexuality.

 

“As you know, there is no gay football player.” Kay repeated the same joke he always shared with his father.

 

“Those hateful homophobes. Don’t let them dictate your life.”

 

“I won’t...” And for one crazy second, Kay thought of mentioning Marc to his father, but his sanity returned just in time, he said, “it’s just for the time being.”

 

“Good. Good. I know you are a smart guy. You always have been.” After that, his father seemed to have run out of things to say. “Erm, I have to go... I will call you again when I can. You take care, my boy.”

 

“You too, Papa.”

 

Kay waited until his father hung up.

 

I should call Britt. Should let her know. That was their ‘protocol’. But Kay already knew what Britt would say. She would tell him not to get his hopes up yet; that one healthy sounding phone-call didn’t mean he has turned a corner; that no one could help his father except himself. And all of these would be true.

 

But at that moment, Kay didn’t want to hear the truth.

 

He called Marc.

 

After four rings, Marc finally picked up. “Hallo.”

 

“Hey. It’s me.”

 

Light chuckle at the other end, “I know, I saw your name. What’s up?” Marc sounded relaxed, happy.

 

My drug-addict father just called me, and I want you to come over and make me forget everything, just for a few hours.

 

But Kay only whispered, “nothing. I miss you.”

 

Muffled sound at the other end. Like Marc was covering his phone with his hand.

 

Then Kay heard some commotion at the background. A female voice calling, “Marc? Come on, we’re going to be late for brunch.”

 

Then Marc yelled back, “coming! Give me a minute.”

 

Football players calendar - on a training-free day - brunch with friends and family on a Monday.

 

“Hey... I have to go. I’ll call you later?” Marc answered, almost a whisper.

 

“Sure.”

 

Kay tried to hide the dejection in his voice, but he could sense a second of hesitation before Marc said, “hey... maybe I can drop by later this afternoon. Will you be home?”

 

It’s stupid and dangerous to be so affected by a single person’s words, but Kay felt his mood instantly lifted.

 

“Yeah. See you later.”

Chapter Text

“So thoughtful of coach Herrlich to give us a yearly membership in that private club in Switzerland, that can be our holiday destination this summer?” Bettina commented, sorting out the birthday gifts from last week’s party.  

 

“I bet coach didn’t come up with it, it’s his wife,” said Marc. He was sitting on the sofa watching a football programme, Bettina always handled his presents because Marc found it strange to still be receiving birthday presents like he was 5...  

 

“What is this?” Bettina frowned, holding up a hard-case of ‘Tatort Classics - the complete boxset from 1990-1999’.

 

Marc glanced over.  His eyes zoomed in on the dvd boxset, he bit his bottom lip, tried to suppress a grin.  “It’s a DVD boxset.” He simply answered.

 

“I can see that.  But it’s incomplete, 5 out of 10 discs are missing.  We don’t even have a dvd player anymore. Who would give you such a thing?”

 

In his mind, Marc was already imagining barging to Kay’s place and demanding to have the rest of the discs back; Kay would refuse with that wry smile of his, so Marc would have to use force... maybe his mouth... scheiße, bloody Kay Engel got him all riled up even when he’s not here.  The smile he tried to suppress won the battle, he didn’t need a mirror to know he’s grinning like an idiot. 

 

“No idea.  Could be a prank from any of the guys.” He said nonchalant, turning his attention back to the tv.  

 

“I don’t see what’s so funny about it.” Bettina muttered as she put down the boxset.  “By the way, how did you get Axel to walk with you now?  Last time he still wouldn’t leave our garden.”

 

“Kay gave me some tips.  He used to foster dogs.”

 

Bettina wasn’t interested in that though, but the mention of Kay’s name seemed to have given her an opportunity, she said coolly, “what an odd couple, he and his girlfriend.”

 

“What do you mean?” Marc asked warily, his guard went up but his eyes stayed on the tv.  

 

“I heard some nasty gossip about her.”

 

“Like what?” 

 

“The girls say they have an open relationship.”

 

Marc gave a put-upon sigh, “those vindictive women, it’s only because Britt is different, she is independent and actually has a job. They are just jealous.  Even if she and Kay do have an open relationship, so what?” He couldn’t stop the irritation in his voice, hearing people bad-mouthing Britt was like they were verbally assaulting Kay too.  

 

But Bettina thought otherwise.  “They are not vindictive women, they are our friends; your teammates’ partners.” She watched Marc thoughtfully, “do you find her attractive then? You find her independence... sexy?” She said sexy like it’s a dirty word.

 

“WHAT?” Marc exclaimed, finally looking directly at his wife, “are you crazy?” 

 

“I am crazy?  You are the one acting all weird.  I saw you.  You were avoiding her at the party while sneaking glances at her.”

 

Fuck!  How fucked up is this? Marc was avoiding Britt because she’s the only person at the party who knew about him and Kay and... also she’s so close to Kay, Marc was afraid... now that he knew Kay didn’t have a sexual relationship with her, Marc was afraid Britt wouldn’t like him.  He was nervous, for fuck’s sake, it’s like meeting Kay’s family. 

 

“Bettina, please stop this crazy talk.  I am not attracted to any other woman.” 

 

Which is true.  Marc told himself.

 

Bettina just kept staring at him, gauging him.  

 

Scheiße, of course she would catch on something is not right. Marc hasn’t been intimated with her for weeks... early on, he could still... perform... at least he could if he just thought about Kay... but lately... lately he only wanted Kay; would go to sleep thinking about him, waking up with Kay as his first thought.  In fact, he felt like he was cheating on Kay if he slept with his wife.  Fuck.

 

“And Kay was acting weird too.  I don’t know what’s going on with this couple, both of them are not normal.”

 

And what is normal?  Marc bit down on the inside of his cheek to keep in any smartass comments.

 

“Give the guy a break, he’s a rookie playing for his first big club and we are about to win the league title.  We are all on edge.” Marc said eventually, rubbing his temple.

 

That seemed to have placated Bettina a little.  The chase for the league title has been put on a pedestal in the Borgmann family; nothing and no one was allowed to stop it from happening.

 

******

 

Marc could hear faint guitar music as soon as he stepped off the lift.  He knew Kay couldn’t hear the doorbell; he took the key out from his jeans’ pocket.  

 

“Woof!” Axel was getting excited, his tongue out, tail wagging.  First this dog hadn’t wanted to move an inch when they’d tried to walk him, now he was running ahead of Marc every time.  More training needed.

 

“Shh... you are supposed to be a surprise.” Kay knew Marc was coming, but he wasn’t expecting his furry friend.

 

But Axel wasn’t listening, he continued to pant excitingly, it’s like he could smell his human friend from outside.  “I know, he has this effect on people.  And dogs, apparently.” Marc muttered as he inserted the key and turned the knob.

 

Axel ran inside as soon as the door was opened.  Marc didn’t see Kay right away, but he followed Axel and soon found Kay hitting a red punchbag in the guest room.  He’s wearing a pair of gym shorts and another black band t-shirt with the name “kokomo” on it.  

 

“Woof!” Axel charged onto Kay.

 

“Hey!” Kay crouched down just in time to absorb the impact of Axel, who started licking Kay’s face.  This fucking dog is behaving 100% like his owner.

 

“What are you doing here?” Kay was rubbing Axel’s ears, he looked up at Marc, smiling broadly.

 

Kay seemed to have returned to his usual chilled and easy-going self.  That day when he suddenly called Marc and indirectly asked him to come over... Marc had known something was bothering him; it was telling in the desperate way Kay had kissed him, the way he had laid down on his stomach in bed, writhing and verbally begging Marc to fuck him.  Sex between them has always been intense, but there had been something extra that day.  It was like Kay had wanted Marc to take him away, to escape something.  

 

Marc had obliged but he hadn’t asked why; had filed the incident under the enigma called Kay Engel in his mind.  Maybe... maybe someday I will ask him.

 

“Axel let you walk him now?” Kay asked.  

 

“Huh.  We are best friends now, we found the best dog trainer,” answered Marc with a smile.

 

“Maybe I should have charged you.  How much did you pay that behavioural expert?” Kay stood up and stepped closer, invading Marc’s space.

 

Marc reached for the back of Kay’s neck and kissed him, worrying his lower lip with his teeth.  Kay returned the kiss with ardour, his hand slipped inside Marc’s sweater, rubbing his flat stomach.  

 

“Sex or classic Tatort on DVD?” Kay murmured against his ears.

 

Marc huffed out a laugh.  In retribution, he got Kay in a headlock and poked his finger in his ribs.  Kay yelped and twisted.  Unfortunately, Marc forgot Kay practised kickboxing, he turned and got out under Marc’s hold easily, backing Marc against the wall in the process, holding him in place with his body. “Sneaky bastard.” Kay accused Marc, but he was smirking.

 

“You are the one with no manners, holding half of my birthday present hostage.” Marc retorted.  Kay threw his head back laughing.  Marc saw his chance to turn the tables and grabbed it—he ran his fingers up and down Kay’s sides to tickle him.  Kay shrieked and jumped.  That’s it.  Marc flipped him around, so they traded positions;  now Marc pressed against him with his body, his hands pinning Kay’s arms above his head.  Kay’s breath whooshed out audibly as Marc held him securely in place. 

 

But Kay didn’t seem to mind conceding complete control to Marc, his eyes dilated, his mouth slightly swollen from the kiss and the bite.  

 

Jesus... Marc swallowed and muttered, “think I’ll take the sex option.” 

 

******

 

“You are tired too?” Marc asked Axel quietly.  The dog was lying comfortably on the carpet at a corner of the room, yawning.

 

It had taken Marc a few minutes to stop feeling self conscious - to make out in bed with Kay under the watchful eyes of his own dog.  Axel had followed them into Kay’s bedroom and refused to leave.  After a fierce negotiation between two humans and one brown Malinois, they had made a compromise to let the dog sit at the bedroom corner.   

 

Marc went back to bed and carefully slipped in beside a sleeping Kay.  His power nap - that’s what Kay called his tendency to fall asleep soon after sex, usually only for 10 minutes or so.  Marc had gotten up to clean up in the bathroom, by the time he’d come back with a warm cloth, he’d found Kay snoring lightly into his pillow already.

 

He gently wiped Kay’s backside with the cloth, his blond lover didn’t even stir.  Marc let his fingers ghosted over Kay’s tight muscle and smooth skin, his eyes roaming alongside.  Never enough.

 

What do you call this part of the body? Marc’s gaze settled on the little dip just below the adam’s apple, where the lower neck meets the chest.  Kay has a beautiful neckline, Marc always wanted to kiss his shoulder blade, to nuzzle his face into this little dip, before the kiss journey travelled down to Kay’s chest, dusted with barely-there blond hair.  Marc inhaled the now familiar scent, clean sweat and remnant smell of a fruit flavoured soap... Kay loves fruity scents.  Marc  lay back down and let out a happy sigh.

 

More than two months now, Marc kept expecting the intensity between them to wane, to settle, to become routine-like, but the sheer strength of the desire he had for Kay still scared him shitless sometimes. 

 

Marc remembered meeting Bettina the first time at a hospital; how lovely and precious she had looked.  Marc had wanted her the moment she glanced at him under her lashes while putting bandages on his injured wrist.  He had fought off competition from a doctor she was dating at the time and brought home his prize.  Marc remembered one of the first thoughts he had back then was: his parents are going to love her.

 

His gaze returned to Kay and Marc’s breath hitched.  He couldn’t imagine introducing Kay to his parents as anything other than his teammate.  

 

That thought spoiled his mood suddenly.  He also needed to go home.  He had told Bettina he was taking Axel to a dog trainer recommended by Kay.  

 

Marc hasn’t dared to examine how easily and readily he lied.  How lies and deceit have become part of his life now.

 

******

 

“In your face, Gregor.  In your face!” Larsen yelled, taunting their goalkeeper Gregor Limpinski after he scored the goal.

 

Marc laughed along with few other teammates standing on the sideline, he watched Larsen jumped onto Kay’s back, in piggybacking style to celebrate.  They had orchestrated a clever Doppelpass, 4 passes between them, Kay jumped over Limpinski’s desperate last attempt to stop him, before he passed the ball back to Larsen, who smashed it into the top corner effortlessly.  Limpinski was punching the ground, hopping mad; he did not like to be humiliated, even in training sessions.

 

Kay got Larsen off his back, he looked over and winked at Marc.  Marc returned a smile.

 

“Marc!” He turned around and saw Herrlich calling him.  Herrlich gestured with a tilt of his head, “my office.”

 

Marc glanced at Kay once last time then jogged over to Herrlich.  Good timing.  He wanted to discuss tomorrow’s game, he had some new ideas for set-pieces he wanted to run through Herrlich.  

 

FC Duisburg were two games away from winning the title, tomorrow’s and next weekend against 2nd place Bayern Munich.  If they won both games, they would be crowned Champions in Bayern Munich’s home turf.  Marc’s father would even travel to Munich to watch the game.

 

His mind was full of trophy holding images as he walked into Herrlich’s office.

 

“Close the door.” Herrlich told Marc.

 

Marc closed it and began to say, “Bayern Leverkusen’s defence has been weak since their goalie - “

 

“I want you to watch something.” Herrlich interjected.

 

“Huh? What?” Marc said.  Dumbfounded.  

 

Herrlich didn’t explain, he pressed something on his laptop, then moved the laptop, so Marc could see the screen as well.

 

It was an unedited video footage of Marc and Kay playing the “Don’t get distracted” game, they filmed it together last week; it was content for FC Duisburg’s YouTube channel, for their fans.  Every big football team produced these social media content now, it was part of marketing and players were contractually obliged to participate.  

 

Marc usually wasn’t too thrilled about making these fanclub stuff, he’d rather kick a ball for 100 minutes than being interviewed for silly questions.  But he had a good time playing that ‘Don’t Get Distracted’ game with Kay in front of the camera.

 

The game requires you to memorise a long and complicated sentence while the other player tries to distract you, to get you to make mistake when repeating the sentence.

 

Kay had beaten Marc mercilessly at this game.  Marc couldn’t concentrate at all, he was laughing and giggling when Kay kept getting in his face, repeating Marc’s name.

 

But what does this video has to do with tomorrow’s game?  Marc still puzzled as the video clip played out on the laptop screen.

 

“I am deleting this video.  It won’t go on the club’s YouTube channel,” Herrlich told him.

 

Marc looked at him blankly.

 

Herrlich looked skyward for a second, then he said, “Marc, you need to be very careful with this.  You understand?”

 

“What are you saying... I don’t understand...” Marc began to say.  He still had no idea what’s going on but his heart started galloping.

 

“Kay is your marital problem,  isn’t he?” Herrlich finally put him out of his misery and went straight to the point.

 

Startled.  Marc shook his head, he spluttered, “no... no... you are mistaken.  Kay and I are just friends... he...”

 

“I saw you two kissed at your party.” Herrlich talked over Marc’s harrumphing. 

 

Marc froze.  He stared at Herrlich.  For a split second, he still considered denying it, but Herrlich’s expression showed he had zero doubt he knew what he had witnessed.

 

Exhaling slowly, Herrlich continued, “you are not the first gay footballer I’ve coached...”

 

“I am not gay!” Marc protested.

 

Herrlich frowned, but the outburst didn’t seem to faze him at all, he said smoothly, “ok, so you two are not the first footballers I know who... let’s say, have feelings for each other.” 

 

He watched Marc and waited for his reaction, when Marc didn’t deny this, he continued, “don’t worry, I have no interest to expose you or bench either of you.  In fact, you two play so well together, selfishly, whatever you two are doing, I hope you continue.”

 

Marc looked up at that.

 

Herrlich chuckled without mirth, “I’m not a bigot, Marc.  I have family members who are gay and I love them.  It’s not my business what you two do in private.” He took a deep breath.  

 

Marc could feel a ‘but’ coming.  Of course there is a but!  

 

“The only reason I am asking you to be discreet is because others are talking... not that they know for sure, I don’t think.  But some staff are starting to notice, they noticed Kay get into your car sometimes; they noticed the way you look at Kay, harmless jokes are made... and I’m sorry but you look like you want to kiss Kay on the spot in that video.”

 

Herrlich met Marc’s eyes squarely.  

 

Marc refused to meet his eyes.  Finally, after a few seconds, he gave up pretence, Marc mumbled, “we tried to be careful... I didn’t know we were so obvious.”

 

Herrlich sighed like he was expecting an answer exactly like that.  “Marc, I have to ask.  Is this a long term thing?”

 

Marc thought for a moment.  Two or three vastly different answers flashed through his mind, none of them seemed desirable to him.  In the end, he only said, “I don’t know.”

 

Somehow Herrlich seemed satisfied with the unhelpful answer.  “I need to ask you for a favour - whatever you decide, please wait til the end of the season.  Win the league title first.  Otherwise, whatever decision you make, you’ll come to regret it.”

 

Marc could only nod.

 

“Keep it low-key, don’t draw attention outside the pitch.  Two more games, that’s all.”

 

Marc bit his bottom lip, he had to ask, “... what about Kay?  Are you talking to him as well?”

 

Herrlich shook his head, “his first few months in Bundesliga 1?  That kid has enough pressure on his plate.  I am not jeopardising his current form.  You will have to control the situation at your end.  I am not asking you to stop seeing him.  That’s between you two, just don’t give me a headline no one wants.” He looked at Marc meaningfully, “don’t lose your sight at the prize.”

 

Marc nodded again.  He rubbed his palms on his tracksuit bottoms, waiting for Herrlich to release him from this hellish conversation.

 

“That’s all.  Get some good rest. Big game tomorrow.”

 

That’s the exit line he needed.  Marc mumbled a thank you and got up.  Wondering if his relationship with Herrlich has just been changed forever.

 

But just before he opened the door, his heart stopped, he suddenly remembered something.

 

“You... you didn’t tell my father, did you?” Herrlich respected his father and has been a family friend since Marc was a toddler.

 

For the first time that day, Herrlich had a stony expression. He said slowly, “I don’t like lying to your father, so don’t give me a reason to.”

 

And just like that, like a message delivered from the ether, his father’s voice popped up in Marc’s head: I believe in you.  I know you will make me proud, son. 

Chapter Text

There was a Chinese proverb Kay once read inside a fortune-cookie: Good Things Come in Pairs.  Kay reckoned what the Chinese didn’t know was, bad things also come in pairs.  

 

Two things happened today.  His father wanted to see him; Marc started giving him the cold shoulder.

 

The first thing he has been expecting; the second thing he has been dreading.  Or maybe it was the other way around, Kay couldn’t decide.  

 

He lay in bed, recalling the conversation he had with Marc earlier today after training: 

 

“So... see you later? My place?” Kay asked, when he caught up with Marc at the car park.

 

Kay hadn’t had a chance to talk to Marc since last Saturday’s home win against Bayern Leverkusen.  There were always people around them.  Marc had gone to celebrate with Frank and his family and Larsen had dragged Kay to a bar with a few other younger players.  They didn’t meet on Sunday but Kay hasn’t noticed anything unusual.  Except that Marc had been quieter at training today.

 

Marc slowed his walk, he glanced around, then took a step back to keep the distance. “I can’t today, “ he paused, then added, “actually, I don’t think I have time at all this week.”

 

Kay arched his eyebrow, he studied Marc’s face.  Marc was a great team leader but he’s a terrible poker player.  Kay masked his niggling doubt in a joke, he chuckled and said, “why, you are adopting the Tim Meyer method? Abstaining from sex before a big game?” 

 

It was well documented and reported that the then German national team doctor,  Tim Meyer had advised players not to have sexual activities during Euro 2004, citing that lovemaking involves too much physical and emotional strain, and that could drain players, preventing them from giving their all on the field.

 

Marc didn’t seem to find it funny.  He winced at the word “sex”.  Clearing his throat, Marc watched Kay carefully and said, “I want to concentrate on the this weekend’s Bayern game.  We have to travel to Munich, non-stop team meetings, match analysis and strategies, my plate is full and so is yours.”

 

It was a well rehearsed excuse, Kay noticed.  For most of his life, Kay has heard so many lies and excuses from his father, he has become an expert in spotting them.  He knew Marc had been saying it in his head over and over until he could say it without any particular emotion; like it’s completely reasonable that they should stop seeing each other - at least this week - for the sake of the league title.

 

Kay nodded.  No but; no why.  His default reaction when facing such excuses.  Marc’s shoulder spasmed, one of his tell-tale signs of distress.  Whatever caused Marc to have a change of heart, Kay knew at least it hasn’t been easy for him.

 

Maybe Bettina had said something; maybe as the season coming to an end, things have become too real, too... intense for Marc; maybe after more than two months of “experiment”, no matter how good it had been, Marc has decided he’s not gay - or could not be gay - after all.

 

Kay turned to lie on his back, looking up at the ceiling.  Of course, he’s jumping to conclusion.  Marc had only said he couldn’t see him this week, maybe it was really the pressure of the crucial game.  After all, Marc did also send him a text on Sunday about a Tatort rerun on tv (>>it’s not the brother?<<) Hope sprung up in Kay’s heart.  He refused to believe it; he refused to believe Marc would walk away just like that.

 

And Marc wasn’t wrong when he said Kay’s plate was full too.  Kay had returned home without Marc and found a phone message from his father.

 

“Kay?  They are giving me a week off from the centre, the treatment is going so well this time... I really feel like my old self, working with animals again help too.  Anyway, I am thinking... maybe I can come visit you?  I haven’t seen you since last summer.  It will be good to catch up with your old man, no?  You’ll let me know?  I know you must be busy with the league... call the centre and let me know?  I can’t wait to see you...”

 

******

 

“As you all know, Duisburg haven’t beaten Bayern Munich away in Munich for more than 15 years.  If we win this weekend, not only will we win the league title, we will win it in style, make history... “ Herrlich stepped up his effort to whip up excitement among players.  

 

As if they needed more.  Half of the city of Duisburg would be glued to their tv, the other half probably would travel to Munich.  

 

Kay glanced over at Marc, who was sitting in the front near Herrlich, like an apt pupil.   Marc hasn’t texted him the last few days, since he pulled that ‘Tim Meyer no sex please’ stunt on Monday.  So no sex means no text too? Did Dr Meyer say don’t text your boyfriend before a big game too? 

 

Kay looked down at his own hands, he was excited about the league title too, half a year ago he wouldn’t have dreamt to be in a team challenging for the title.  But in the end, it was still just a medal around your neck and a picture taken with a trophy.  It’s a bonus; a very nice bonus on top of a lucrative career, but that was all for Kay.  For Marc, it’s his life goal.  And his loyalty to his childhood football club, Marc could have moved to Bayern Munich two seasons ago when he was on the rise, but he chose to stay in Duisburg, because winning the league title was not enough, he wanted to win it with FC Duisburg.

 

 “Kay?” Herrlich’s voice shook Kay out of his personal analysis of Marc Borgmann

 

“Yes, coach.” 

 

“I was saying that the Bayern defenders will target you, they will try to foul you, to disrupt you, or to frustrate you so much that you foul them back and get a yellow card.  So you need to be smart! Draw them out, so Larsen can get more space.  Got it?”

 

Kay nodded.  “Got it.”

 

“They will have to catch both of us first!” Larsen joked, he put his arm around Kay’s shoulders, “right?” 

 

Kay returned a smile.  Larsen has been training with Kay to improve his running, getting tips on some start techniques.  Apart from Marc, Larsen was the only other Duisburg player Kay could call a friend.  

 

Even the injured Ackermann and Frank has come to the meeting for moral support.  Credit to Ackermann, even when facing future competition for a place in the team, the first thing he did was a pat on Kay’s shoulder and a bear hug.  “Well done, rookie.  I am glad I became better looking and have a better left foot in the 2nd half of the season.  We will win this thing.”  

 

The meeting ended in a lot of “let’s do this” and “come on”.  

 

“Kay?” Coach Herrlich called him as players began to empty the room.

 

Kay passed Marc as he walked over to Herrlich’s desk, but Marc kept his eyes down and left without acknowledging him.

 

“I got you the ticket for the Bayern game you asked for, in the name of Kristian Engel? He can get the ticket from the stadium box-office before the game.  I got him a good seat in the family area.” Herrlich explained.

 

Kay nodded. “Thank you.  I know it’s short notice.” 

 

“Don’t be silly.  We always have extra tickets for friends and family.  Is this for your father?” asked Herrlich.

 

“Yes.  He’s going to travel to Munich.”

 

“Good!  We need all the support we can get.  Let him see you make history.”

 

I hope so too.  Kay thought.  This would make meeting his father a more pleasant affair if there’s something to celebrate.

 

The importance of the game meant the football club was willing to splash out to charter a plane to fly the team to Munich, instead of a 5-hour train journey.  They would arrive Munich before 11am on match day, have light training in the afternoon, then game time at 7pm.  

 

Kay was relieved to find out he’s still sharing a room with Marc on this trip.  Already dressed in their training outfits for the flight, they had half an hour to get settled in their room, then team meeting and team lunch, something their team nutritionist has designed.  No slip-up, they prepared down to the last detail.

 

“Where’s your suitcase?” Kay frowned at Marc’s only luggage - a small leather backpack, when they got into their room.

 

Marc’s nose actually turned pink, he dropped the backpack on the floor and sat down on one of the beds.  “Bettina and my parents are staying in Sofitel tonight, I will go join them there after the game.  I mean, they will be at the game too, so we will all celebrate together first... that is, if we win...” he started to scramble.

 

Of course, family time after the possible epic win.  Kay just stared at him.  After a few seconds when Marc didn’t offer more, Kay asked quietly, “is everything ok between us, Marc?”

 

“Of course,” said Marc right away.  “I have to stay with them since they are here, that’s all, but only after the game.”

 

“Then why are you avoiding me in the training centre this whole week?”

 

Silence.  But Kay wasn’t letting him off easily, he decided to let Marc stew.

 

"I'm worried people start to think something's up," Marc said finally.

 

“Something’s up with what?”

 

“With us!” Marc hissed.  “I can’t deal with this right now, Ok?” He sighed, “I can’t get distracted.  WE can’t get distracted.  

 

“Did someone say something?” Kay tried to stay calm and reasonable.  

 

“No!” Marc stuck his fingers into his hair.  “Anyway, I think we’ve been too comfortable around each other.  There are eyes everywhere.  People notice things.”

 

Of course we are comfortable, that’s part of why we want to be together.  “They just think we are friends,” said Kay.  He really thought Marc was worrying over nothing.

 

“Even so, I don’t want to give people ideas.”

 

Kay huffed. “How much further into the closet should we be then?”

 

“There is no closet.” Marc said quietly, word by word.

 

Ok, so this is what it’s really about.  Kay’s jaw moved, his hands on his hips.  “I am not your fucking girlfriend.  We sleep together and swap spit, I’d say it’s a freaking giant closet.”

 

Marc’s face hardened. "Don't, Kay." His voice icy.

 

Don’t what? Don’t be gay? Don’t hope to be able to kiss you, to hold your hand in public at some point in the future? Kay swallowed what he really wanted to say.  He didn’t want to argue with Marc before this game; he was also afraid of hearing the answer.

 

He unpacked in silence and left for team meeting without waiting for Marc.

 

******

(11 May - away game - Bayern Munich v FC Duisburg)

 

“This is a fucking nightmare,”  Kay swore under his breath as he narrowly jumped over another tackle from Banovic, Bayern’s Serbian defender, who has been following Kay like an annoying dark shadow.

 

Just as Coach Herrlich had predicted, Bayern was targeting Kay in this game, not only to disrupt his play, at times, it felt like they were out to injure him with lots of sneaky elbowing, late tackles.  The only thing stopping Kay from losing his temper was Herrlich’s warning about getting yellow card.  

 

It was 1:1 with 12 minutes to go, Kay knew Herrlich would make changes soon to break the deadlock. He didn’t want to give Herrlich a reason to substitute him; he needed to stay in this game, especially when his father was watching.  

 

Kay looked over to the centre circle and met Marc’s gaze.  It was no more than half of a second but Marc’s eyes flicked to the left.  Kay pretended to go right, tricked Banovic, then turned around and ran on the left as quickly as he could.  He heard Banovic cursed loudly as he changed direction and stumbled.  Kay sprinted ahead, he knew exactly where Marc was going to deliver the pass to; it would be way high up near the corner flag.  Kay got to the ball well before Banovic, he could see Bayern’s goalkeeper turned to face him, expecting Kay to make a pass to the near post, where Larsen was fighting for space among two Bayern defenders.

 

Without checking Marc’s location, Kay instead made a fast and low through pass back to the centre of the 18-yard box, knowing Marc would be running into the empty space there.  And sure enough Marc was unmarked and exactly where Kay wanted him to be, Marc hit the ball with his first touch directly in front of the goal.  The kick was so powerful, even though Bayern’s goalkeeper caught the ball with his fingertips, it still went to the back of the net.

 

The cheers and yells in the stadium were deafening.  The Duisburg away fans started throwing toilet rolls and confetti to the pitch and on the stands, while referees were waiting for VAR confirmation to validate the goal.  Kay had no doubt they got the goal they needed.

 

Marc seemed to think so, he ran towards Kay and grabbed the back of his neck, for one insane moment, Kay thought Marc was going to kiss him right then and there, but he merely pressed his forehead against Kay’s.  Close-up, Kay saw Marc close his eyes, tension drained from his face.  When he opened his eyes again, Marc flashed him a smile so bright that Kay forgot all about their argument, or Marc’s strange behaviour the past week.  At that moment, it was just the two of them achieving something amazing together.

 

Larsen and a few others Duisburg players joined them, while all the coaching staff jumped and ran on the sideline to celebrate.  Herrlich started shouting at them, pointing to his watch - it’s not over yet, 10 more minutes.  He indicated.  He wanted the team to focus and see the game through.  

 

Bayern Munich came all out to look for an equaliser, it was all or nothing for them now.  Marc, back in confident team captain mode after scoring the possible title winning goal; he was barking orders, getting players to organise defence, even Kay and Larsen had to drop back to help.  

 

In the 87th minute, Bayern got a corner kick.  Kay positioned himself on the edge of the penalty area, ready to intercept any pass comes his way.  When Limpinski punched out Bayern’s striker’s header with his left hand, the ball flew over everyone and dropped in front of Kay, he started to chase it, but Banovic, Kay’s nemesis all evening, had the same idea.  Kay got to the ball first with his left foot; Banovic, coming in from the back, made a last ditch sliding tackle, missed the ball and stepped hard on Kay’s ankle.

 

Kay knew it was bad before he fell and hit the ground.  He could hear the referee’s loud whistle and saw multiple pairs of legs surrounding him.  Limpinski was shouting for medical staff to get in.  Kay was trying to sit up, when he saw Marc’s anguished face in front of him, “scheiße, that brute! I’ll fucking kill him.” 

 

Kay winced, the pain was awful, but it didn’t feel like an ankle sprain, it’s probably just a contusion, but he knew he couldn’t stay on.  He looked up to Marc, “tell Herrlich to sub me out.  I can’t walk, let alone play.” Marc nodded, he quickly brushed Kay’s hair before he stood up and gave a signal to Herrlich.

 

Kay hobbled out of the pitch with his arms around two staff.  He watched the remaining few minutes of the game on the tv monitor inside the recovery room, while the team doctor checked his injury.  

 

Banovic recieved his second yellow card for the tackle and got sent off, playing with 10 men, all the Bayern players knew the game was up.  Duisburg held on to 1:2 scoreline and won the league title with one game to spare.

 

Kay watched on tv as Marc dropped down on his knees, his hands covering his face in elation, when the final whistle blew.

 

The team doctor turned to him, “congratulations.  You are now a champion.”

Chapter Text

Lying flat on the pitch of the world famous Allianz Arena, Marc could feel the wetness of the grass, moisture began seeping into his jersey, mingled with sweats.  It must have been drizzling for awhile now, Marc hadn’t even noticed it.

 

Still catching his breath, his heart still beating too fast, Marc knew he should get up, go celebrate with his team, shake hands with dejected Bayern players, be an example; but he just needed a few more seconds alone.  He closed his eyes and felt the blinding spotlights behind his eyelids.  And he saw Kay.  Smiling at him with his sparkling pale blue eyes after that winning goal.  Marc couldn’t help but smile back.

 

“We did it! We did it!” 

 

Someone was shouting and pulling him up.  Marc opened his eyes as he stood up.  Frank’s hands now on both sides of Marc’s face, still shouting, “we fucking did it!”

 

Marc put his arm around Frank’s shoulders, they joined the rest of the team, jogging the length of the pitch, waving, thanking and applauding their fans; shouting “we are the champions” into cameras and at anyone who walked past them. 

 

His usual stern and serious father now alternating between clapping and fist-pumping in the front row of the family area, Marc waved at him and Wolfgang Borgmann returned a thumbs up.  Bettina and Frank’s wife Claudia squeezed past the crowd to get to them.   Bettina rushed over and wrapped her arms around Marc’s neck, she planted several kisses on his cheek right in front of the tv camera of SKY sports.   Marc held and kissed her back on autopilot, he felt like he was walking around in a beautiful haze.

 

Several microphones thrusted in front of him, Marc could barely make out their questions.  He said thank you to the team and staff, said everything he had practised and rehearsed so many times in his mind, until the reporters moved on to other players. With Bettina still in his arms, his eyes began to look for Kay among the crowd on the pitch.  

 

Is he still in the recovery room?

 

All the staff, players and some of their families were on the pitch, the officials were busy setting up a podium for the trophy presentation.  Herrlich, losing his usual calm composure, gave him the biggest bear hug, “well done, Marc! Fucking well done!” he was shouting so loud, Marc could hear ringing in his ears. 

 

He finally spotted Kay.  He was standing on the side of the pitch with an underarm crutch on his right side, talking to Larsen and his girlfriend.  Marc exhaled a sigh of relief when he saw the cold compress bandage on Kay’s ankle, it probably meant he didn’t sprain his ligament, just a bruised ankle.

 

“We’ve booked a table at the restaurant in the hotel.  Frank and Herrlich will join us too,” said Bettina.

 

“Uh-huh. Ok.” 

 

Marc kept watching Kay, hoping he would look his way, but Kay was looking at the family area, seemed to be searching for something.  Or someone.

 

******

 

“One down.  Two to go.  Prost!” Wolfgang raised his glass.

 

“Prost!” Everyone clinked the glasses.

 

“Which two?” Bettina asked.

 

“German footballer of the year, then Champions League final next season?” Frank ventured a guess, he patted Marc’s shoulder, “Marc Borgmann vs Lionel Messi, oder?”, laughing heartily.

 

“Damn right.  It’s been awhile since FC Duisburg won a European silverware.” Wolfgang nodded.    

 

Marc’s mother, Inge, rolled her eyes and teased, “he just wanted to remind all of you that last time was him winning the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup.  I swear he watches that videotape more than our wedding.”

 

“Or Star Wars.” Herrlich offered.  Everybody laughed.

 

Marc had watched that video plenty of times as well, he had no memories of watching cartoons or movies with Wolfgang Borgmann, it was always football.  Matches or documentaries.  

 

“The club filmed the whole thing, we got cameras in the stadium tunnel, the dressing room, the coach, the charter plane.  They are going to edit it into a 80-minute programme.  Plenty of close up shots of Marc, I’m sure.” Herrlich revealed.  

 

“Aww... a movie star.” Bettina squeezed his hand on the table.  She has been in high spirits all day, Marc had wondered if she has been drinking cocktails with Claudia, but no, she was sober, just happy for Marc, apparently.

 

Or maybe she was relieved.  They came close to winning it the last few seasons, but never as promising as this season.  The last few months haven’t been easy on her.  She must be glad that the chase was finally over.

 

Like Marc.

 

After coming out of the fog of thundering cheers and applauds, that had been Marc’s first conscious reaction - relief.  Like someone has lifted up the big boulder sitting on his chest.

 

Like he could finally breath again.

 

No, no, no, that’s not fair.  Marc thought.  It wasn’t just pressure, he wanted to win the league because he’s ambitious, he’s driven.  It’s what every professional footballer aspires to.  It’s a validation of his talent, his hardwork.  So, not all pressure, maybe just some part of it.  Yes, a big part, maybe, but not the sole reason.

 

And I earned it, so I should enjoy it.

 

Happy with his own conclusion, Marc returned his attention to his family and friends.  The topic has moved on to Marc’s chances for Player of the Year.  His biggest rivals on that award would be Marco Reus from Dortmund and Toni Kroos from Real Madrid, but winning the league title for Duisburg for the first time in 12 years has tipped it in Marc’s favour.  

 

Marc didn’t really care about personal accolades like Player of the Year, he firmly believed football is a team sport, but the pride in his father’s eyes makes it worthwhile.  And his agent agreed too as the award would lead to more sponsorship deals.

 

Coach Herrlich hasn’t mentioned his affair with Kay again after THAT talk, so Marc was taken aback when they were both in the men’s room, Herrlich suddenly asked, “is everything’s ok between you and Kay?” Herrlich waited until the other customer has left the bathroom.

 

Marc nodded with a twitch. “Sure. Everything’s fine.  I’m trying to be... you know... careful.” Though he found it extremely awkward talking about this with his coach, at the same time, Herrlich’s unfazed reaction also offered him... hope.  “Why? Is something wrong?” Marc asked.  Suddenly worried maybe his father has asked Herrlich...

 

Herrlich shook his head, “just that Kay looked funny when I saw him after the ceremony... like he’s nervous, upset.” Herrlich continued to wash his hands, meeting Marc’s eyes in the mirror, “I thought maybe you two had an argument.” His brow furrowed, “he should be celebrating, his father came all the way to see him and everything.”

 

His father? The one who hasn’t spoken to Kay since last summer?

 

Marc immediately had a bad feeling about it.  Kay had only mentioned his father that one time in Budapest, but Marc knew there was no good reason for son and father not talking for months.  

 

And why hasn’t Kay mention it? Sure, like I haven’t been avoiding him all week.  Scheiße...

 

Herrlich seemed to interpret his troubled expression for something else, he squeezed Marc’s shoulder, his voice full of understanding, “enjoy your hard earned victory tonight.  Leave your problems for another day, huh?”

 

Marc returned to the table, but as always, once thoughts about Kay have entered his mind, he couldn’t concentrate on anything else.  The urge to call or text Kay was so strong, he had to put his mobile in his jacket pocket, so he wouldn’t be fiddling with it.  

 

Wolfgang Borgmann started talking about his other passion - golf - with Frank and Herrlich.  All three of them played the sport regularly, Frank being the latest novice.  For some mysterious reason, footballers all tend to take up golf, especially after they retired.  In fact, Marc’s father has bought him a set of expensive golf clubs as birthday present this year, fully expecting Marc to follow his steps - even for his auxiliary sport choice.

 

Marc quietly listened to their chat, sipping a glass of champagne, courtesy of the hotel they were staying at.  His jovial mood slowly dissipating.

 

At the end of the evening, Marc overheard Frank telling Claudia that he would go back to the team’s hotel to celebrate with the guys.  Claudia, not entirely happy about it, but let him go.  

 

Marc seized the chance to tell Bettina, “me too.  I got a text from Larsen, they are still at the hotel bar terrorising Bavarians, I am going to join them for a bit.  Don’t wait up.”

 

Bettina sighed, “ok, but don’t forget your room key, I am not getting up at 3am to open the door for you.” She pouted.

 

******

 

Marc opened the door to their room.  He could see Kay’s backpack and his FC Duisburg kits on the lounge chair, but there was no sign of Kay.  

 

The sliding door to the balcony was open.  The rain has stopped an hour ago, the temperature was just below 15C.  Marc could feel a rush of cool and fresh night air hitting his face as he stepped out to the balcony.

 

He saw Kay hunched over in a chair facing the night sky, wearing a pair of faded jeans and a black hoodie, holding a bottle of beer. He looked up at Marc and quickly wiped his eyes on the crook of his arm. “Hey, I thought you are staying with your family tonight?” Kay asked, his voice a croak.  

 

Marc couldn’t look away from his red-rimmed eyes.  He sat down on the other chair and touched Kay’s chin with his hand, “what’s wrong?  Your ankle hurt?”

 

Kay moved away from his touch, he shook his head. “It doesn’t hurt anymore after Dr Greenberg gave me a painkiller shot.”

 

Marc  noticed a mobile phone on the small table in front, and for a second, his self-centred mind thought Kay maybe was upset because Marc didn’t call him.  Then he remembered Herrlich mentioned Kay’s father was at the game.

 

“How did it go with your father?”

 

Kay frowned; he looked surprised.  

 

“Herrlich told me he got you a ticket.” Marc explained.

 

Kay snorted.  He took a big gulp of beer, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, looking straight ahead at the Munich night sky.

 

When Marc thought he wasn’t going to answer, Kay finally said, “he was a no-show.” He shook his head.  “Of course I should have known.  I don’t know what I was thinking, getting him a ticket.”

 

You were thinking your father should watch you play the most important game of your career.  A pang of sadness seized Marc. “Are you sure... maybe the securities didn’t let him...” Marc stopped, he knew such chances were slim, but he wanted to... what?  Give false hope to Kay?

 

Not like Kay was buying it anyway.  “I sent him money for the trip, you know? He probably has already spent it on drugs.” Kay told him without inflection.

 

Marc froze.  Not the reason he was expecting at all. Fuck.

 

Kay rubbed both hands over his face. “My father is a drug addict.  He has been since I was 13 or maybe 12... I don’t remember.” He shrugged.  

 

“Shit... Kay...” Marc had no idea.  

 

Kay didn’t say anything for a while.  Marc looked at him, feeling completely out of his depth for the first time in his life.

 

“Of course he has some clean periods.” Kay finally looked at Marc again.  “You wonder why I still drive that Saab?  He bought it for me when I was 17, well, it was a broken second hand but I loved it.” A faint sad smile appeared on his face, “he was clean for almost a year that time and we fixed the car together.”

 

Kay shook his head again, “but they never last.  He always relapses.  Drugs always win.” 

 

Marc touched the side of Kay’s face, relieved when Kay didn’t pull away.  He gently caressed Kay’s cheek with the knuckles of his hand, hoping to soothe away the sadness.

 

“This time he called me and said ‘treatment is going so well, I can’t wait to see you’, nothing I haven’t heard before, but still I... it’s stupid, right?” Kay said.

 

Marc leaned over to kiss the side of his head, he could feel Kay’s body shivering.  “Fuck him.  He doesn’t deserves you.”

 

“I shouldn’t believe him, shouldn’t care, but I can’t stop.” Kay nuzzled his face against Marc’s mouth, accepting the little comfort he offered.  

 

“But... yeah...” Kay sat up straight again, hardened his voice, “fuck him, right?” He turned back to the night view, his eyes shining.

 

At that moment, Marc just wanted to go find Kay’s father and punch him senseless; how could he take away the joy from his son’s night of celebration? Marc wanted nothing more than to ease the pain hidden behind Kay’s defiance.

 

After a few minutes, Kay cleared his throat, he turned to Marc and asked, “aren’t you going back to your hotel?”

 

Marc shook his head.  He glanced at the cold-compress wrap on Kay’s ankle and took Kay’s hand in his.  “Come on, I have an idea.”

 

******

 

“This is an innovative way to take a bath.” Kay smiled, leaning back against Marc’s chest in the bathtub.  His injured ankle resting on the edge of the tub, elevated on top of two folded towels with ice cubes inside.

 

“I tried it a few times at home when I needed a cold compress on my foot but also wanted a hot soak for my body muscles.” Marc said.  He gently washed Kay’s hair with a hand towel, feeling a bit smug for his ingenious invention and happy to put a smile back on Kay’s face.

 

Thankfully the bathtub was large enough for them to sit together chest to back.  Marc kissed Kay’s shoulder blade, coughed when soapy bubbles got into his mouth, he tried to spit them out.  Kay cupped more soapy water in his hands, turned and poured it over Marc’s face, shaking his shoulders with laughter.  “Romantic.” He teased.  Marc wound both arms around Kay’s waist, ready to tickle him, “I seem to remember you have this romantic weakness...”

 

“Don’t. You. Dare.” Kay warned. 

 

Marc brushed a finger along his stomach, his mouth next to Kay’s ear, “are you sorry now?”

 

“I’m injured is what I am.” Kay retorted.  

 

Marc ran more fingers along the side of his body.  “Hey!” Kay yelped and thrashed.  Water spilled over the tub.  Kay caught the towel his ankle was resting on just in time.  He put it back in place.

 

“Stop messing around and let me enjoy the soak.” He glared at Marc.  But happily leaned back against him again.

 

“Your wish is my command,” murmured Marc against his ear.  He’s enjoying it immensely, better than any celebration he had tonight with the others.  That feeling returned, the one that Marc couldn’t find words to describe.  Something more than happiness, a once in a lifetime something.

 

He couldn’t bring Kay’s father to him, but he could make Kay forget the pain his father caused for a few hours.

 

They both quieted down and just enjoyed the soak for awhile.  Marc felt his eyelids dropping when Kay suddenly asked, “Marc? What’s going to happen next week?”

 

Marc knew right away what Kay was referring to.  He knew he couldn’t keep this from Kay anymore, especially now they’ve won the league, pressure would be off.

 

“Coach knows about us.” Marc said.  He held Kay’s hands in front, knowing Kay would react.

 

“What?  How did you...” Kay turned to look at him.

 

“He called me to his office the day before the Leverkusen game.”

 

“Fuck... “ Kay cursed quietly.  “Fuck... what is he going to do?”

 

“Nothing,” Marc held Kay’s hands tighter.  “Herrlich doesn’t care as long as we win the league and we did... but we need to be more careful.  He said some staff are cracking jokes about how close we are.”

 

Kay didn’t say anything, his head resting on Marc’s shoulder.  Marc could see the two deep lines between his eyebrows.  “That’s why you were avoiding me this week.”

 

Marc only nodded.

 

After another minute, Kay asked slowly, “do you still want to...”

 

“Yes.” Marc answered right away.  He kissed the top of Kay’s head.  “I... I don’t know what’s going to happen... I don’t have a plan.  But I don’t want to stop.” He gazed into Kay’s eyes, “this.  I don’t want to stop this.”

Chapter Text

(Marc)

 

Marc stared at his mobile.  At the text from Bettina and the time on his phone, almost 2am.  He typed >>sorry, still in the bar<<, his finger hovered over the send icon.  Then he glanced at the opened bathroom door, Kay was brushing his teeth, humming a tune Marc didn’t recognise.   

 

Marc deleted the text and put the mobile on silent mode.  He threw it on the side table and went into the bathroom.

 

“You look pretty sexy standing on one leg,” said Marc, putting his hands on Kay’s shoulders.  Kay spat out the foam, turned and kissed Marc on the lips.  “Should I just stand on both legs? I don’t want to put pressure on it. I don’t feel any pain, but I don’t know if it’s just the painkiller numbing it.”

 

“I can carry you.” Marc attempted to half-lift him up and over his shoulder before he staggered back and hit the back of the bathroom counter.  “Damn, you are heavy.” He aborted the attempt and let Kay down. 

 

“Fuck off.  I will kill you if you re-injure me.” Kay laughed and pushed Marc away.

 

But Marc pulled him right back into his arms, he pressed a kiss in the curve of Kay’s neck, could feel the Kay’s minty breath near his ear.  Marc looked at their reflection in the bathroom mirror - Kay relaxing and leaning onto him, Marc making long strokes with his hand on Kay’s back.  And he thought how perfect this moment was, wished they could just stay like this forever.  Marc kissed his neck again, “come on, you are sleeping on your feet like a horse.”

 

They got into bed together.  Marc took the pillows from the other bed to elevate Kay’s ankle on them.  He lay down next to Kay and slowly exhaled.  “I don’t know about you, but I am wiped.”

 

Kay turned to him, “what, no celebratory sex?”

 

Marc arched his eyebrow, “is that all you think about?  Or am I that irresistible?”

 

Kay snorted, “I think too much winning has got into your head, Mr Champion.”

 

Marc thought of saying something smartass but he’s too busy looking at Kay’s face - the sadness no longer lurking in his eyes, a wry smile playing at the corner of his mouth - a beautiful sight.  

 

“Let’s go to sleep.” He touched the back of Kay’s neck.  “We still have the parade in Duisburg to attend tomorrow afternoon.”

 

Kay nodded.  Looking shy suddenly.  Marc felt a bit awkward as well, this was not their usual playbook - they usually fell asleep in bed together after sex, whereas this felt like they were a married couple, getting ready for bed.  Marc decided not to overthink it and lay his head on the crook of Kay’s neck, his arm around Kay’s waist.  Kay pulled the duvet over them.  

 

In less than 10 minutes, they were both fast asleep.

 

The thumping sound was getting louder and louder.  At first Marc thought someone was hammering on the wall next door.  He wanted to tell them to quit it.  

 

By the time Kay stirred next to him, Marc was squinting into the darkened room, feeling disorientated.  The only light from the alarm clock said 3:30am.

 

More hammering... no, knocking.  “Marc!  Open the door!”

 

Mar opened his eyes.  It’s Frank.  Fuck!

 

“What the hell...” Kay was muttering, his eyes still closed.

 

Marc pulled back the duvet.  He shook Kay’s shoulders, quietly shouting, “Kay!  Wake up!”

 

The knocking continued.  “I know you are in there.” Frank shouted.  Followed by the sounds of giggling.  

 

Marc was suddenly wide awake.  Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

 

He reached for the bathrobe on the floor and quickly put it on.  Turning back to Kay, he whispered, “don’t get up.  Pretend you are sleeping.  I’ll deal with him.”

 

Before he heard Kay’s response, Marc was up and rushed to the door.  He opened the door a crack.  

 

“Frank.  What the fuck?”

 

A red faced, very drunk Frank Richter was sticking his head in, “let me in.” He was holding a bottle of champagne in one hand and started pushing the door with his shoulder.

 

Marc blocked the door with his body, “what are you doing here? Go back to your goddamn room.”

 

Frank slurring his words, “come on, Gregor has got his girlfriend in the room.”

 

“Go back to your wife then.”

 

Frank shook his head, “too late.  I just need a place to sit and finish this champagne.  Kay wouldn’t mind.”

 

Marc’s heart jumped at the mention of Kay’s name, he loosened his grip on the door for just a fraction and suddenly Frank pushed the door again, he dug his head and got in under Marc’s arm.

 

Marc shouted behind him, “Frank!”

 

“Hey! Kay!” Frank walked into the room.  He raised the bottle of champagne to Kay and started singing, “we are the champions, we are the champions, no time for losers... cos we are the champ...” Marc pushed him into a lounge chair and cut him off. 

 

“Ouch.” Frank sat down with a thump, took a gulp from the champagne bottle.  “Come on, let’s celebrate!  What are you doing?  Sleeping?  You two are younger...” 

 

Kay was sitting in the middle of the bed - their bed, he looked between Marc and Frank, his eyes wide.  Thankfully they had both gone to bed with their boxer-briefs, he turned to Marc again, question clearly in his eyes - what are we going to do?

 

Frank was too drunk to notice the frantic expression on both their faces, but he left Marc with no choice.

 

He shook Frank’s arm.  “Let’s call a cab and go back to our hotel.” Marc sighed and glanced at Kay, who did a minuscule nod.

 

Frank giggled.  “Ha.  I’ve always known you are whipped! Bettina got a short leash on you.” he patted Marc’s face, then pointed to Kay, “he’s the smart one.  No wife, just a hot girlfriend... Kay, you don’t mind me saying it, right?  Your girlfriend is hot... she’s... “ he burped and never bothered to finish his sentence.

 

“Shut up, Frank.” Marc picked up his jeans and shirts and started putting them on.  He said to Kay, “can you call the reception to get us a taxi?”

 

Kay was on the phone when Marc noticed Frank was staring at ‘the other bed’.  The one that has not been touched.  Frank’s brow furrowed, like he’s solving a difficult maths problem, then his eyes drifted to Kay’s shirtless back.  He rubbed his forehead, blinked a few times.

 

“They said taxi will be here in 3 minutes.” Kay told them.

 

Marc turned Frank around to face him, patted his face.  “Come on. Leave your champagne here.  We need to go.  Now!”

 

Kay walked them to the door, his eyes darting between Marc and Frank before he said, “see you both on the plane.”

 

Frank gave Kay a big hug, slurring his words again, “you did good tonight, rookie.... you’ll be a big star next season... ‘CAUSE WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS!” before Marc pushed him out of the door. 

 

Marc simply nodded, not trusting himself to look at Kay.  He kept telling himself: It’s ok, Frank is too drunk to think clearly, he probably won’t even remember anything tomorrow.

 

******

 

(Kay)

 

Kay stared at Marc’s back - five rows down inside the charter plane, where he was sitting in the front with Frank.  Kay knew Marc was going back to his avoidance tactics.  At least this time I know why he’s doing it.  

 

Kay understood.  He also thought it was... unnecessary.  If anything, it would draw more attention, everyone knew they were partners on the pitch and roommates on the road, they should be close.  The way Kay sees it, the more you act like you have something to hide, the more people want to find out what you are trying to hide.

 

Their own little celebration cut short.  Kay barely slept for another 2 hours last night after Marc left with Frank.  When morning came, Kay woke up to an empty room, with a winning medal on the side table.  The mess they created in the bathroom served as a reminder of the tender moments he shared with Marc, ones that Kay would cling onto as life savers.  Despite what Marc had said, Kay wasn’t sure what they had could survive intense pressure and scrutiny.  After all, Marc had a lot to lose and Kay had little to offer. 

 

Ups and downs.  Looks like it’s a downhill ride today.  Kay thought to himself.  But it’s a roller coaster ride he didn’t want to get off.  

 

They landed at Duisburg and deplaned under cheers and dozens of cameras from the media.  They posed for even more team pictures with the trophy for the media on the tarmac.  Kay was ready to escape inside the reception area, when a few reporters started asking Marc to pose with Kay, “the winning pair” they called them.  

 

Kay could sense a moment of hesitation from Marc, but Larsen saved them both by jumping in between them, shouting, “hey, it’s a winning trio!  I scored too!” He put his arms around Kay and Marc and cameras began flashing.  

 

Larsen winked at Kay.  “Nobody puts Arne in a corner,“ he joked, which Kay replied dryly, “your cultural reference is too ancient for me.” That drew a guffaw from Marc as well, he smiled at Kay for the first time that morning.

 

OK, maybe not all downhill today. 

 

Herrlich was still shielding Kay from individual interviews, so he and a few other younger players were escorted by club officials to the reception area inside.

 

Kay spotted Britt and Oskar waiting.  Britt ran over and almost jumped onto him, only changed course when Kay tapped on the single crutch he’s still holding under his arm.  She kissed him on both cheeks.  “Fucking Bundesliga title winning Kay Engel!”, exclaimed Britt, to anyone within a 5 meter radius.  

 

Kay laughed and kissed her back.  “I thought literature editors should know more words than swear words”, he quipped, nodding to Oskar Rebmann behind, “Oskar, you came too.” 

 

“Of course.  Not everyday I can be related to a winning team.” Oskar gave him a fatherly hug, “well done, Kay.  I’m so proud of you.” Words that Kay thought he would have gotten from his own father.  His heart filled with ache and mirth at the same time.  

 

Britt gave him a meaningful look.  And Kay knew he’s giving himself away again.  Britt always knew.  Sometimes it felt like they were twins.  Kay felt guilty keeping her in the dark about his father making contact and his disastrous attempt to meet him in Munich.  Kay nodded at her, silently promised he would tell her everything later.

 

******

 

Kay signed another autograph for a father and son before they got into Britt’s apartment building.

 

It wasn’t a novelty for Kay, he was famous on a smaller scale in Hamburg too, especially in the St Pauli area, but of course, once the city won the league title, suddenly everyone was a football fan.

 

“Your flying under the radar days are officially over. You’ve gone mainstream.  A sell-out.” Britt elbowed him.  Kay elbowed her right back and flopped down on her sectional sofa. “I’m not a sell-out.” 

 

It was great to be back in Duisburg, the presence of Britt and Oskar always anchored Kay, has been since Kay had sleep-overs at Britt’s house; where he could pretend he had a normal family.  

 

Oskar was making his favourite dish - cheese spätzle - in the kitchen, Kay’s stomach rumbled just from the smell.  He missed this.  His surrogate family life. 

 

“My boss asked me if you have given right to anyone for your biography and can one of our own star writers tempt you.” Britt rolled her eyes.  

 

“Are they interested in a coming out story?” Kay chuckled.

 

Britt sat up straight.  “You want to come out?”

 

Kay glanced at the kitchen and met Oskar’s raised eyebrows.  “Joking.” He covered his eyes with his hand.  “I am not crazy.  I want to play football for another few years.”

 

Oskar nodded, he simply said, “I don’t need to tell you that we will support you whatever decision you make, whenever you want to make them.”

 

No, they didn’t need to remind him.  Oskar only became Kay’s agent because this was the only way Kay would feel in control and protected.  Kay was Oskar’s only client and he was only doing it on the side of his commercial law practice.  

 

Oskar began cutting the spätzle into small pieces and directly into a pot of salted boiling water.  He said casually, “Bayern Munich sent someone to probe if you’d consider a move to another club in the summer.”

 

“What?” Kay sat up straight as well.  

 

“Bayern-fucking-Munich?” Britt spat it out like poison.

 

Oskar shook his head at his foul-mouthed daughter, “by law, they are not allowed to approach you directly, it’s an offence.  They need to go to FC Duisburg directly.  So it’s just a chat, a 3rd party person testing the water for them.” 

 

Kay frowned, “you think Herrlich will sell me?”  

 

“He wouldn’t want to.  You practically won the league for them.  But if Bayern throws enough money at them, which is their usual tactic, then it’s not impossible.”

 

“Why would they want me?  They have Kingsley Coman.  He’s younger and have more top league experience than me.”

 

“They’ve been monitoring you for awhile, by the sound of it.” Oskar’s eyes turned gentler, “don’t sell yourself short, Kay.  It’s not just Bayern... I got interest from overseas too.” 

 

“Like where?  Barcelona?” Britt chimed in.

 

“Few clubs from the English Premier league... Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool has sent a scout last month.  Jürgen Klopp is still following Bundesliga closely.  If you are to go to England... under a German manager would be ideal...” 

 

“I don’t want to leave Duisburg.” Kay said.  Maybe a bit too quickly.  

 

Was it bad that Kay’s first thought was Marc?  The idea of leaving Marc to go to another team, another city... the idea of not seeing him.  Kay felt like he’s about to break out in cold sweat.

 

Britt wrapped her arm around his shoulders, “K... don’t panic.  It’s all just talk.  You know how these things are.”

 

Oskar watched the two of them, he asked Kay slowly, “is there a reason why you don’t want to leave Duisburg?  I remember you didn’t really want to come here when they first signed you.”

 

“He’s in love, Papa.” Britt rolled her eyes.

 

“Britt!” Kay warned.

 

“But you are!  You don’t want to leave because of Marc Borgmann and the guy is trying for a baby with his wife... it’s time you think for yourself, K...” Britt met Kay’s gaze head on.

 

“Shut up, Britt!  It’s none of your business.”

 

“Hey hey... stop bickering like two kids, you two.” Oskar turned off the stove, he drained the spätzle into a big bowl before he walked to the living room.  He watched Kay closely.  “Is it true?  I didn’t even know Marc Borgmann is gay.” 

 

“You and the rest of the world.” Kay mumbled.

 

Britt pursed her lips, “K, this guy wants to win everything he can win in the footballing world.  He’s not going to jeopardise that for anything.  Not his wife, not you!”

 

The silence practically had its own heartbeat.  Kay’s jaw moved.  

 

Oskar kept his calm composure; he said to his daughter gently, “Bri, I need to talk to Kay alone.”

 

Britt was probably already regretting her brutal outburst, she went to her room without protest.  

 

Kay looked up at Oskar.  

 

“Don’t worry about the transfer.  You signed a two-year contract, legally they can’t force you to move.  Like Britt said, it’s all just talk at this stage.” He sat down next to Kay on the sofa.

 

Kay nodded. “Britt is exaggerating.  It’s not just because of Marc...” 

 

But Oskar interrupted him, “I got a call from Therapiedorf Villa.” He paused, watching Kay’s reaction.  “You know he’s there, don’t you?” 

 

The change of subject so sharp and abrupt, Kay felt his face warmed up.  He had promised Oskar and Britt before that he would tell them when his father contacted him.

 

Kay didn’t need to answer.  He knew Oskar already knew.

 

“Kristian gave them my phone number as emergency contact.” Oskar sighed.  “Anyway, they called and said Kristian left the centre without authorisation two days ago.  He was there under court order this time, so he can’t just leave.  They caught him trying to board a train to Munich.”

 

“I sent him money to go there.” Kay said, looking at Oskar.  “I am sorry I didn’t tell you... I thought... he told me he was doing well,“ he added.  But his heart also leapt, two opposite emotions fighting inside of him - the bad news was that his father lied to him again, the good news was that he did try to go see Kay in Munich.

 

“I spoke to your father on the phone this morning.  I told him if he finished this treatment, we will all go see him.” Oskar put his hand on the side of Kay’s neck, “no more hiding things from me, deal?”

 

Kay nodded.  Feeling like an anxious 15 year-old again.  He put his head on Oskar’s shoulder, something he hasn’t done for a long time.  He didn’t know where he would have been without the Rebmanns.

 

“Now, tell me a bit about Marc Borgmann.” Oskar asked.

Chapter Text

“The early bird catches the worm,” Kay yawns, rubbing his eyes.

 

“Team breakfast in 10 minutes, you sleepyhead.” I try to sound stern.

 

Kay pulls back the comforter, his hand rubbing his stomach lazily before moving inside his boxer-briefs.

 

“Kay...” I warn him.

 

The warning has zero effect. Kay smirks, “I thought we have time for something fun first...” Kay reaches out and pulls me back onto bed. We fight for dominance for a minute. I complain verbally and pretend to be exasperated, and then Kay gets on top and straddles me, smiles down at me...

 

Marc reread the two sentences for the 5th time, he has been reading the same page for the last 10 minutes. This had started happening more frequently. He’d be doing some mundane task - checking his emails, walking Axel, reading a book and then - out of nowhere - Kay would appear inside his head, scattered memories of time they spent together, and his face or chest would burn up like he’s running a fever.

 

Marc gave up and closed his book. Axel was lying on the grass next to his chair, he looked up at Marc.   I miss him too, buddy. He silently answered Axel.

 

Herrlich gave everyone two days off after the victory last Saturday. Training resumed on Wednesday for the final game of the season, a home game against Hannover 96 who already knew they were going to relegate. Easy game. Herrlich would even put Frank in starting line-up, a symbolic farewell game before he retired.

 

Marc hasn’t seen Kay since the victory parade, the ankle contusion would take a few days to heal, Kay would miss the last league game.

 

Four days. He hasn’t seen him for four days. Ridiculous because it felt like weeks, months. It’s ridiculous. It’s... dangerous to feel this way.

 

They texted each other every day, but somehow that was worse, it only made Marc wanted to go see him. And he couldn’t... not when he felt eyes on him everywhere.

 

But maybe it’s a good thing. With summer break coming, he wouldn’t be able to see Kay for at least three weeks before pre-season training started. I need to get used to it, maybe it’s a good thing. Like hitting a reset button. An excuse Marc didn’t even believe as he tried to convince himself.

 

He glanced over at the other end of the back garden; watched Bettina supervising the workers to get their swimming pool ready. With league football season ending this weekend and summer approaching, she’s preparing to spend some family time outdoors. Marc knew soon she would demand Marc to spend more time at home, would want to discuss, about their holiday plan, about the little brother or sister for Jonas that she wanted since Jonas was two, about getting their home life back to normal - she would want her husband back.

 

His mobile rang. His heart jumped. Hoping it was Kay. It was his father. Wolfgang Borgmann wanted to set up a dinner plan with Marc tomorrow night, something about meeting a network TV executive for a programme about FC Duisburg history. Marc was only listening half-heartedly; midway through, his mind drifted to Kay’s father - the one who made Kay sad on a day when he should feel cherished, loved.

 

When he ended the call with his father, Marc got up. As if on cue, Axel followed him, tail wagging.

 

“I am taking Axel to the dog park.” He told Bettina.

 

She shielded her eyes from the sun with her hand and asked, “why don’t you just walk him in the woodland behind the house? The dog park is half an hour away and it stinks.”

 

He shrugged. “I want Axel to socialise with other dogs.” I want him to socialise with one particular human.

 

Bettina watched him quietly, her eyes searching his face, like she was looking for clues. Or was it all just in Marc’s guilty mind. Whatever it was that she was looking for, she gave up after a few seconds and said instead, “in that case, why don’t you pick up Jonas from his playdate on your way back?”

 

******

 

“Fuck, that’s it,” Kay muttered near Marc’s ear, he squeezed his eyes shut in ecstasy, “oh fuck... Marc... oh fuck...”

 

Kay was getting close; Marc knew all the tell-tale signs now. How Kay would grab Marc’s hips ever tighter, sometimes leaving bruises; how Kay would bury his face in his arm or in the pillow depends on their position of the day; how he would start whimpering, muttering unintelligible words, mixed with Marc’s name.

 

Marc’s own stomach sparked with electricity; his balls tightened in warning. He stared down at Kay touching himself, watched his cock disappearing and reappearing through his fist, the sight never ceased to fascinate Marc. In the same heartbeat, he thrust hard inside Kay again, whose body went taunt then shuddered; Marc moved his hand to cover Kay’s; one stroke, that’s all it took, sending both of them to the finishing line.

 

“The magic button.” Marc smiled into Kay’s ear.

 

Kay chuckled. He turned and kissed Marc leisurely, nuzzling against his face like a lazy cat. A big cat. “Now you know all my secret buttons.”

 

“You mean like this one?” Marc’s fingers brushed over one of Kay’s nipples, pinching it. “Aaaaahh...” Kay panted into the crook of Marc’s neck; another shiver ran through his body. Who knew men would enjoy that too? It was like Kay has made Marc relearn sex all over again.

 

Marc rolled on top of Kay, wanted to try other “buttons” when he detected someone licking his feet.

 

“Wha...? Axel!” Marc jumped off. Glaring at his own dog, who has snuck into the room and now sitting at the foot of the bed.

 

Kay lift his head up to look; then burst out laughing, “I think he figures out how to turn the doorknob.”

 

“Deal with him. He only listens to you. And stop laughing!” Marc himself laughed as soon as he said that.

 

“Looks who’s talking!” Kay retorted while burying his face in the pillow to suppress a chuckle. “Ok ok... I’ll stop,” he lifted his head and wiped the corner of his eye. “Axel! Down.”

 

When Axel wouldn’t move. Kay whistled to get his attention. “Down!” He pointed to the room’s corner. Axel looked at Kay, then slowly jumped off the bed. He looked back at Kay.

 

“Good boy. There. Go!” Kay pointed to the cushion at corner again and Axel finally walked over there and lay itself down.

 

“I swear this dog just wants to move here.” Marc grabbed the back the Kay’s neck, “come here.” He kissed him again, “guess you are the alpha dog in the house.”

 

“Damn right!”

 

Marc snorted. He got up to fetch a clean towel from the bathroom. On his way back he saw an unused ticket of that game in Munich on the bedside table – the one Kay’s father didn’t use.

 

Marc didn’t want to spoil Kay’s good mood and his own, but he felt he have to ask. “Have you heard from your father since?” Marc gave Kay the towel.

 

Kay nodded, colour in his cheeks rising. “Not directly. But Oskar called him. He did try to go to Munich... but the bad news is he’s in a rehab centre under court order... so... yeah... he still has a long way to go,” he sighed.

 

Marc quietly digested the news. He could sense the hope in Kay’s voice, could tell any scrap of evidence of his father’s affection still meant a lot to him.

 

“Britt said I have selective memory... but I remember he was funny and sweet and kind before he got ill - with the addiction, “said Kay. He had that sad smile on his face again, like that night in the hotel balcony.

 

Marc knew he needed to tread carefully here; he didn’t trust the person who had made Kay so sad just a few days ago. “Was he the one who teach you how to play football?” He asked.

 

“Nee... he was never really into sports.” Kay paused. “My gym teacher found out I can run fast and play football. It was Oskar who got me into football academy. He also came to most of my games... by then, my father wasn’t interested in anything except drugs...”

 

And yet, you still want him to see you winning medal, want him to be proud of you. Marc thought to himself.

 

He thought of his own childhood, the constant presence of Wolfgang Borgmann. In fact, almost the exact opposite of Kay’s; Marc was showered with too much attention... too much pressure... influence from his father. Everyone in the football club knew Marc ever since he was a toddler, ever since he had first showed his football potential, there was never any doubt that he would follow his father’s footsteps.

 

Two fathers who are polar opposites; and yet, both sons still do their damnedest to please them.

 

******

 

“Listen to this: Lewandowski says: I want Kay Engel in our team,” Larsen bumped Kay’s shoulder, reading aloud from the sports page of Süddeutsche Zeitung on his mobile, “Bayern Munich star striker heaps praises on FC Duisburg left winger.”

 

Marc watched Kay roll his eyes but make no comment as he unwrapped the cold compress on his ankle. The swell has subsided, he came in today to do some light exercise.

 

This was the last official training, tomorrow they would play the last league game and then the season would be over. They would get three weeks holiday before pre-season training started, plus some friendly matches overseas.

 

Marc was not looking forward to the end of the football season. Not the holiday, not to all the transfer talks which would dominate sports headlines for the next three months.

 

So, Bayern Munich wants Kay. He didn’t see that coming. Usually Bayern would wait for a player to grow into his game for a few seasons before they poach him away. No way Herrlich would let him go, right?

 

“Clickbait news. No offence to Kay, but we have the best defensive record this season, they should try to sign Karsten. Or me,” said Limpinski, glanced at Kay.

 

“That’s what they always do, how many players they have snatched from Dortmund over the years? I hate that club,” said Karsten Haas, the team’s right back.

 

“Like you won’t go if they come calling.” Frank laughed.

 

“You will?”

 

“I am a hundred years old; no one would poach me.” Frank said proudly, he wrapped his arm around Marc’s shoulder, “and Marc here is not for sale, right? Marc?”

 

Marc sneered, “why would anyone want to go there now? We are the current champions, not Bayern.”

 

That got a few “stimmt!” shouts from the team. Marc glanced and saw the bemused expression on Kay’s face. Nee. Kay is not going to leave. He felt a bit better.

 

All banter and trash talk ceased when Herrlich walked into the dressing room.

 

“Ok! Everybody out! The trainers are waiting outside on the pitch already. No slacking. We still have a game to play. To win.” Herrlich barked out the order.

 

He dropped his hand on Marc’s shoulder to keep him from leaving, as others filed out. Herrlich then turned to Kay, “indoor and upper body training for you only today, ok?” He paused then cleared his throat, “And erm... I need to speak to you two after training. 2pm. My office.” Then he left.

 

Marc and Kay looked at each other.

 

Herrlich’s cryptic message has made sure Marc lost all his concentration during practice. His mind ran through different scenarios. If Herrlich was seeing both me and Kay together, that could only mean one thing - their affair. But why? Herrlich had seemed ok with it, at least he had stayed away from it. Then what changed? Marc’s mind went round in circles and he couldn’t shake the fear that someone else knows. His father? No, that’s not it. His father would have come to Marc directly. Then who?

 

Marc walked into Herrlich’s office before 2pm. To his surprise, Kay was already there; he has already showered and changed, he was leaning against a metal file cabinet, his fingers kept pulling the string on his black hoodie... scheiße, Kay looks shellshocked.

 

“What’s wrong?” Marc asked. He wasn’t sure he was directing it to Kay or Herrlich.

 

“Sit down, Marc.” Herrlich ordered. Kay’s eyes were staring straight ahead, not looking at Marc.

 

Marc remained standing on the same spot, his eyes never leaving Kay.

 

Finally, Herrlich gave up. “Kay, you don’t mind Marc being here, right? I can talk to the two of you separately, if you want,” he asked Kay quietly.

 

Kay shook his head slightly, then he cleared his voice, made his decision clear, “no, I don’t mind.”

 

“What the hell is going on?” Marc raised his voice, getting anxious again. He looked between Herrlich and Kay, who still hasn’t looked at Marc directly.

 

Herrlich was in no hurry though, he sat down behind his desk and asked Marc, “did you read about the photo leak of Finn Mayer this week?”

 

“Finn Mayer? The tennis player?” Marc replied, still baffled. “I don’t know the details… Frank or Gregor mentioned someone stole something from a computer and there were sex videos or something. I wasn’t paying attention.” Getting more confused. What does Finn Mayer have to do with me? Or Kay?

 

Herrlich nodded, “Mayer was dating his physiotherapist. Apparently, the sports doctor took his computer to some shop to repair and someone made copies of photos and videos on his hard drive. They found Finn Mayer, among a few other athletes in these videos and photos, and tried to sell them to the tabloids.”

 

There were gay rumours about Finn Mayer but Marc never paid attention to gossip; now Marc remembered hearing about a super-injunction the other day, Mayer was the highest profile and first one out of the bag, there were speculations about the identities of other sports personalities involved. Marc had thought nothing of it, football players got into so much trouble, super-injunction was an everyday thing in their world.

 

“The police investigating the case has notified the club yesterday and we are now also applying for the super injunction, so the photos won’t go out.” Herrlich continued.

 

“But why? Who...” Marc asked, feeling more and more uneasy.

 

“It was me.” Kay suddenly said. Looking at Marc now, “I was in those photos.”

 

Marc just stared at him. “What are you on about? Who the hell is this doctor?”

 

“Lutz Keller.” That was Herrlich, “he actually has a good reputation in the field, runs a successful sports medical practice in Hamburg.”

 

The name meant nothing to Marc. He just kept looking at Kay, “who is this Keller person to you?” He felt like he was underwater, waves rushing into his ears.

 

Kay looked skyward then dropped his head, “I had a bad calf injury when I was 21, Lutz was my physio doctor... then… we dated for a while.”

 

“Dated?” Marc said like he didn’t understand the meaning of the word. “What was on those photos?” He took a step closer to Kay, continued, “what? Like a sex tape? Photos of you two having sex? Naked photos? Dick pics? WHAT?” Marc shouted.

 

“MARC! Enough!” Herrlich shook his head, “that’s Kay’s business alone.”

 

Kay replied calmly, “I didn’t even know he took them. He must have taken them when I was sleeping in his house.”

 

And that makes it ok? Marc swallowed his bitterness.

 

“Marc! Kay is a victim here. And this is not why I asked you to come here. ,” said Herrlich, he seemed surprised by Marc’s outburst, “I need to know if you two have such things on your phones or computers or whatever... because we need to get on top of this.” He looked like he has aged 5 years in the last few minutes.

 

Marc shook his head, “No! I am not stupid.” His eyes throwing daggers at Kay.

 

Herrlich turned to Kay, who was meeting Marc’s accusing gaze head on. Kay shook his head as well.

 

Exhaling a sigh of relief, Herrlich softened his voice, “the club’s lawyer only knows about the photo leak, and naked photos alone don’t suggest his sexuality. For all we know, Keller could be a creep taking naked photos of his patients. No one except me knows about you two, OK? That hasn’t changed. So, before you make any decision, please talk to me.”

 

When neither of them replied. Herrlich got out of his chair. “I will leave you two here to talk. This doesn’t leave here, I won’t allow it to affect the team. Understand?”

 

It was a full minute after Herrlich left before Kay said tentatively, “Marc... I...”

 

“How many of these ex-boyfriends you have out there?” Marc asked, he was looking at the floor.

 

Kay’s brow furrowed, “no, just Lutz. I mean I messed around with other guys sometimes in clubs or when I was away on holidays... “

 

"Mess around." Marc echoed. “With random guys.” He said with a tinge of disgust he didn’t bother to hide.

 

Kay stood up straighter. “I am sorry I have a sex life before I met you! Yes, I slept with other men before we met, is that a problem?”

 

“Some man you slept with! Why did you allow him to take pictures like that? Are you completely daft? How stupid are you to trust someone like that?” Marc roared, his voice shaking.

 

“I thought I was in love, ok? I thought I loved him!” Kay roared back.

 

Bullseye. A shot in the heart. Marc felt the ground beneath him shake.

 

But Kay wasn’t finished, the punches kept coming. “At least he’s not sleeping with me while trying to make baby with his wife!”

 

Marc whipped his head around. “What the hell are you talking about?”

 

‘Fuck off, Marc!” Kay turned away.

 

Marc spun him around, “no, what are you saying?”

 

“Bettina said you two are trying to have another baby.” Kay spat out.

 

Marc struggled to comprehend, “what? Where…?”

Nothing made sense to him today. Not the naked photos of Kay by some random doctor, not Kay having a fucking boyfriend, not Kay saying he had loved some guy. None of it made sense. Marc felt like he’s trapped in a nightmare he couldn’t wake up from.

 

And now it threatened his family too. The old fear, the one he’s been ignoring resurfaced its ugly face; he narrowed his eyes, “did you say something to my wife?”

 

Pin drop silence followed.

 

Too late. Too late. Marc regretted it the moment he said it.

 

Kay shook his arm out of Marc’s hold, he stared at Marc. Within a few seconds, his expression turned from disbelief, to heartbreak, then defiance. “Is that all you have to say?”

 

Without waiting for Marc’s response, Kay turned and stormed out of the room.

 

Chapter Text

“I am so sorry, Kay. I swear I didn’t even remember the photos were in my laptop. I... I didn’t mean to, I mean I never meant to hurt you. It’s just something I like to do, like a souvenir, a memento of our time together, you understand? Finn is not talking to me now... and people are cancelling their appointments. My reputation is ruined... Kay... if you...”

 

Kay clicked off and stopped listening to the message Lutz Keller left on his mobile.

 

He hasn’t thought about Lutz for a while; he has learnt that time really heals wound. Kay still felt embarrassed for himself whenever he thought of his youthful naivety, mistaking infatuation as deep affection, passionate sex as true love. He really did think he was in love with Lutz, everything was intense and a matter of life and death when you were that age, until his first relationship crashed and burned. But the hurt he had once felt when Lutz ended their affair, now seemed like a lifetime ago. Wounds healed; pain forgotten.

 

I am too busy with my new wound. Kay thought. Inflicted by someone else but caused by own stupidity again.

 

Let it go, Kay told himself. You know this is going to happen from the get-go; you know Marc will protect his world first and foremost, the one where you don’t belong.   Kay knew all these, but the hurt was too fresh, too shocking.

 

He didn’t have to listen to Lutz’s message again. Oskar has already replied to him unofficially, advising Lutz not to make further contact with Kay and that they reserved the right to file civil lawsuit against him if there were further leaks.

 

It was tempting to skip going to the last league game. Kay wasn’t sure if his acting talent could pull off acting normal around Marc.   He made a compromise, skipped the dressing room visit, just sat with Britt on a row further up with other backroom staff.

 

Britt has been unusually quiet. She knew about Lutz’s photo leak, of course, Kay could tell she’s been restraining herself from saying ‘I told you so’ since yesterday.

 

“It’s ok. You can tell me. Get it out of your system.” Kay bumped her shoulder.

 

“Huh? What? About that loser Lutz?” She curled her lip in disgust. “The only news for me is he’s fucking computer illiterate. Who doesn’t password-protect stuff like that?” Then she got right in Kay’s face, “although I didn’t know you are into that kind of things.”

 

Kay pushed her away playfully, “hardly. I didn’t even know he took them! Anyway, they were just photos of me sleeping... naked. I don’t know why he wants to do such things.”

 

“That guy is a commitment-phobe and a creep,” she shuddered. “So, what did Marc say?”

 

Kay didn’t tell her what happened. He hardly wanted to revisit it himself. To buy time, he just muttered, “nothing.” And turned the table, “what you are up to these days? You haven’t been around much. Something you are not telling me?”

 

To his surprise, Britt hesitated, and her eyes veered away, looking guilty.

 

“Britt...” Kay bumped her shoulder again, harder this time. “Dish!”

 

“Stop it!” She pushed him away, pursed her lips, “I am kind of seeing someone...”

 

Kay gaped, “what? Who? When?”

 

“Shh...” Britt looked around. “Keep your voice down, HONEY!” She emphasised the endearment as if anyone around them was listening.

 

But Kay didn’t care. He knew Britt dated sometimes, that’s what their open relationship pretence was for. He cocked his head, a shadow of a smirk on his face, “oh... you really like this one this time, don’t you? Who is he?”

 

Britt pretended to be exasperated. Then she leaned closer to Kay, holding his arm and whispered, “his name is Erik, he’s Danish, new junior editor and he works for me.”

 

“Uh-huh. I see a sexual harassment lawsuit coming.” Kay sniggered.

 

“Fuck off, K.” She said, but there was no heat in it. “He came on to me. Persistently!” Britt lowered her voice.

 

“Confident. I like that.” Kay nodded approvingly, “can I meet him?”

 

Britt grimaced, “that’s the thing. He follows football and knows who you are and naturally, he is under the impression that you are my boyfriend.”

 

“And what you did you tell him?”

 

“The usual. That we have an open relationship.”

 

“And...?”

 

Britt didn’t reply. Turned her gaze on the pitch. The game was about to start. The players were shaking hands with the officials on the pitch, getting into positions.

 

“Marc looked like shit.” Britt frowned. She turned to Kay, muttered, “and you are sitting over here instead of behind the dugout with your team... what happened?”

 

You wouldn’t think Marc Borgmann had just won the league title last week, judging by that dark cloud over his head and the sour expression on his face. Or maybe this is just his default expression, Kay mused.

 

He remembered Marc’s unsmiling, stern face when he first met him, everything Kay said Marc would answer with an arrogant snort. That also seemed like a lifetime ago. Before he discovered the softer side, the caring side of Marc; the love he had showered Kay with, barely 48 hours ago. Kay’s heart sank. Suddenly, that helpless feeling he had fought so hard during his youth returned, he didn’t know where he stood with Marc anymore. Marc hasn’t called or texted him after Kay stormed out of Herrlich’s office.

 

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t have a plan. But I don’t want to stop. I don’t want to stop this.”

 

Maybe his plan is to go back to his wife, his safe heteronormative life, once they hit a roadblock. Relegating Kay to an abnormal blip in his life. Kay shook his head slightly, tried to rein in the downward spiral in his mind.

 

“K... did something happen between you two?” Britt’s concerned voice jolted him out of his depressive thought.

 

“Nothing.” Kay replied. There was no point ruining Britt’s mood, she’s in a new relationship and Kay wanted nothing but happiness for her. “We are going to be apart for three weeks, so...” Kay reassured her with a partial lie.

 

Britt nodded understandably, she inserted her hand into his, “are you still planning to go to L.A. for holiday? That was the go-get-laid plan before Marc happened. One you don’t need anymore?” She wiggled her eyebrows.

 

Kay snorted. He had more sex in the last few months than his entire adult years combined. “Larsen invited me to go to his holiday home in Sweden, he owns a villa on a private island.”

 

Britt whistled. “I know I should have seduced this Swede.”

 

“I haven’t said yes. Unless you want to come as well? He invited both of us,” asked Kay.

 

When the anticipated emphatic YES response didn’t happen, Kay watched Britt closely, “what’s up, Britt? You have a lot of incomplete sentences today.”

 

Kay watched in wonder as colour started to stain Britt’s cheeks. If he hasn’t been so preoccupied by thoughts of Marc and his father, Kay would have detected Britt’s unusual behaviour earlier.

 

“It’s Erik, isn’t it?” He probed.

 

Britt put her head on Kay’s shoulder, “I am sorry, K... I think I might have to quit my part time job,” she sighed. Of course, Kay knew right away what part time job she was talking about.

 

“A-ha... Britt is finally in love.”

 

“Shut...” Britt was in the middle of telling Kay to stop the teasing, then she narrowed her eyes, “you don’t mind? What are you going to do?”

 

Kay wrapped his arm around her, “don’t worry. I’ll be fine. We’ve talked about this before, haven’t we? When the time comes, gay footballers are allowed to break up with their fake girlfriends.”

 

“But... the timing sucks! That stupid Lutz has to pull this stunt now, there’s going to be pressure on you. These things always find a way to get out, super injunction or not. And if you break up with me now...” Britt worried.

 

“Let them talk.” Kay shrugged. “They can’t prove anything. I am not going to let it affect your life. Not when you finally found a poor guy who’s willing to put up with your brilliant personality.”

 

“Fuck off, K.” She flipped him off.

 

Kay chuckled and pinched Britt’s cheek the way he did when they were 8 years old. A bittersweet feeling bloomed inside him. He’s going to miss Britt, but Kay would never mess up Britt’s relationship just to save his career, that’s not even a question.

 

His eyes returned to the football pitch. To the figure with the captain armband. Marc was shouting at Julian Müller who missed a pass from Marc and the ball got intercepted by a Hannover 96 player. Müller played as left winger today because Kay was injured.

 

Marc had mentioned he would go to Switzerland for holiday with Frank and their families, to some exclusive resort. They were going to be apart for at least two weeks, if not the whole of three weeks.

 

Or forever. If... Marc decided to end things.

 

Two days ago, when lying in bed with Marc, with only sounds of their even breathing and Axel’s occasional whines filling the room, the dream had seemed within reach: a future of them living together - openly - somewhere no one cared they used to play football. They would take long walks with Axel in the woods and maybe Jonas could live with them too... all they had to do was wait for a few years, when Marc was ready to retire. Kay liked playing football, but he could also give it up in a heartbeat if it meant he could live openly with Marc. There was no contest.

 

A day later, Kay was brought back to earth. He knew he shouldn’t have brought up Bettina. Or how he had felt about Lutz. Marc was spooked enough with Herrlich knowing; the photo leak scandal could prove to be too much.

 

But Kay didn’t want to tip-toe around Marc forever, he had done enough of tiptoeing in his life - around his father, around teachers, around teammates, around coaches.

 

Is it too much to dream, at least, to hope that one day it will be more than a secret?

 

******

 

The final match was an anti-climax 0-0 draw. Home fans said farewell to Frank with a minute-long standing ovation.  

 

Kay walked down to the pitch to join the others as Frank made his speech. They all took turn to wish him luck. Kay had sent Britt home first - no need for her to endure more gawking from other wives.

 

Kay was waiting for Limpinski to finish his multiple fist bumps and emotional shouts when he felt a stillness behind him.

 

He turned and there he was - Marc staring at him with an unreadable expression.

 

“Hey, Marc,” said Kay, keeping his voice neutral. He glanced at Bettina standing two meters away behind them, her attention on Jonas, who’s wearing a FC Duisburg jersey with his father’s number at the back, kicking a kid’s size football.

 

As a tradition, players’ families would join everyone on the football pitch, the league title and Frank’s retirement have turned this into a party this year. Kay planned to stay for a glass of sparkling wine and then make excuses to leave.

 

Kay looked back at Marc. Marc didn’t return the greeting; his gaze moved to Kay’s lips.

 

Careful, Marc.

 

Kay cleared his throat, veered his gaze away.

 

“Didn’t see you earlier. Thought you didn’t come.” Marc asked in a low voice, the blue in his eyes looked particularly intense today, like cornflower blue.

 

Kay heard the unspoken question - Are you avoiding me?

 

“I was sitting over there with Britt.” Kay pointed with his chin.

 

Marc nodded but said nothing further. Kay didn’t remember the two of them ever run out things to say to each other.

 

“Hey Kay!” Frank extracted himself from Limpinski’s monologue and walked over to where he’s standing. He gave Kay a big hug, “My lucky rookie star! I wish I had the chance to play a game with you. You won me this league medal!”

 

Kay smiled, “want to cancel the retirement party and play another season? Half of my medal belongs to you too.”

 

Frank laughed heartily, “thank you but my old man’s knee says no.” He turned to Marc. “See, Marc? Humble and selfless, this kid! Your perfect partner. Don’t let him run off to Bayern Munich, you hear me?”

 

“I won’t” Marc answered. His eyes stayed on Kay.

 

“Come on,” Frank stood between them and put his arms around them, “the Missus are getting impatient. Let’s get some prosecco and mingle.”

 

But Marc said, “I got a little knock on my shoulder earlier, let me put a cool patch on it first. I’ll join you in a bit.” He looked at Kay, “how about your ankle?”

 

Kay’s ankle was fine. He wasn’t even using the cold compress anymore; he flicked up a glance at Marc and said, “I’ll come with you, I need a new one.”

 

Maybe Frank was looking at them funny; maybe he had simply shrugged, neither Kay nor Marc had waited for his response before they began to walk inside.

 

Marc was taking long strides, walking two steps ahead of him; Kay’s heart was pounding. Nothing was discussed between them but they both walked past the medical room, turned a corner and went straight to the whirlpool area, inside there was a small changing room they both knew would be empty.

 

The door closed with a thud. Marc swiftly pushed the handle in place. Locked and alone together, Marc gripped Kay by the front of his sweater, at the same moment Kay reached for him. Kay fell back against the wall and took Marc with him. The kiss was hard and hungry. They bit and sucked; hands grabbing hair and clothes in desperation. Marc’s body pressed impossibly tight against Kay. When they finally pulled away for air, their eyes roamed each other’s faces, drinking the other in.

 

Marc rolled his forehead against Kay’s, “I don’t know what got into me,” he whispered; pain in his voice.

 

Kay reached for Marc’s hand, squeezing his fingers. "I wasn’t in love with Lutz, I only thought I was...” his eyes meeting Marc’s, before he could stop himself, Kay said, “I love you, Marc...”

 

Marc’s mouth was on his before he finished the sentence. They went at the kiss with such force, Kay knew his lips were all swollen, he felt a copper taste on his tongue, but couldn’t tell if it’s his or Marc’s blood.

 

Finally, Marc pulled from the kiss, panting as he looked around, he had a mild panicked look in his eyes. For one moment, Kay thought maybe Marc was having second thoughts, that despite what happened a second ago, he had a family just outside this door and he couldn’t be in love with Kay. With a man.

 

But Marc closed his eyes, seemingly trying to get his breathing even, he whispered softly against Kay’s ear, “baby…” he sighed. His forehead back against Kay’s, “shit… we need to get out of here.”

 

Out of this room? Or out of this situation? Kay thought. Wishful thinking.

 

It’s just that inside that small room, Marc was holding his hand with such tenderness that it damn near broke Kay’s heart, because he knew once the door opened, when they stepped back into the real world, where footballers weren’t supposed to love each other, it would be all over.

 

And all too soon, Marc pushed the lock handle, his hand slid free from Kay’s.

 

When they rejoined everyone outside, some players were playing with their children, kicking a few balls on the field while authorised reporters snapping pictures away. Marc picked up Jonas in his arms and ran out onto the pitch to join the others without a backward glance. Kay saw Bettina talking to Frank and Claudia, he touched his lips self-consciously. Conflicting feelings coursing through his mind. Of course, he had to open his mouth and made a love declaration, on the same day Marc was playing family for the camera.

 

Kay didn’t even bother to finish his prosecco, he made small talk with Larsen and Karsten for a few minutes, then he slipped out when he thought no one was looking.

 

“Kay.”

 

He turned back and saw Marc jogging towards him. He stopped a few yards from Kay. “You are leaving already?”

 

Kay nodded. Hoping he has managed to put on a reassuring expression. “Enjoy your holiday. See you in three weeks.”

 

He watched Marc took a step closer, halted. Marc’s mouth moved but whatever he wanted to say, he changed his mind. In the end, he simply gave a jerky nod that reminded Kay one of Marc’s nervous tics. Then he turned and walked back inside.

 

In the distance, Kay saw Bettina watching.

 

Kay got into his Saab. He pressed his burning forehead to steering wheel and shut his eyes, willing his heartbeat to slow down. It’s going to be a long three weeks.

Chapter Text

“Papa, look! Kay Engel.”  

 

Jonas was shaking his shoulders.  “What?” Marc opened his eyes, his heart quickened at Kay’s name.  He pushed his sunglasses up to look at his son.

 

“Here. Kay.” Jonas’s chubby finger pointing, dripping pool water onto the cover of the Kicker magazine on the small table next to Frank’s lounge chair.

 

Oh right. Frank bought a copy from the Zurich airport when they arrived.  Marc looked at Kay’s picture on the cover.  The headline asked - Is Kay Engel the missing piece Bayern Munich need to restore dominance?

 

“Looks like Bayern is going all out to get him,” Frank commented next to Marc.  

 

“More like Kicker is trying to sell more copies.  The club would be stupid to sell him so soon.” More like they should never, if Marc has any say.  The headline made Marc angry, he usually ignored these transfer rumours, especially when it was still early days in the transfer window.  

 

Marc knew most of these rumours go nowhere in the end, just agents try to drum up interest for their players.  Bayern Munich had tried to sign Marc two years ago, which his agent had skilfully used as leverage to negotiate a better 3-year contract with FC Duisburg.

 

“Your contract is up end of next season, isn’t it?  They probably want you to sign a new one fairly soon.  Has your agent started negotiation yet?” Frank sat up and drank a full glass of peach mimosa like it was diet coke.  

 

Marc shook his head.  He hasn’t even thought about it.  The last few months, there were only two things on his mind: the league title and Kay Engel.

 

“My agent reminded me of that few weeks ago but I don’t want to think about it yet, “ said Marc.

 

“Your agent probably want to stir up some interest from other clubs, just so you will have more leverage.  Loyalty costs money too, make sure you let Duisburg’s board of directors know.” Frank began strategising, “maybe Bayern would want to buy both of you, a direct import of the Borgmann-Engel-Doppelpass!  How does that sound?” Frank seemed very pleased with the slogan he came up.

 

“Looks like you have got your new career sorted.  New Jerry Maguire.” 

 

Frank guffawed loudly.  “Oh man, I like that.  I like that.”

 

Marc shook his head, his eyes drifted back to the cover of the magazine, the photo was taken just after Kay scored, his smile so bright, so infectious... Marc wanted to return it.

 

>>In northern Sweden *freezing emoji* *fishing emoji*<<

 

Marc thought of Kay’s text he got an hour ago.  Kay has accepted Larsen’s invite, to stay in his villa on an island in northern Sweden. 

 

Marc wasn’t jealous of Larsen.  He knew it was only friendship between them.  The word he was looking for was envy.  Marc envied the easy closeness between them; he envied that Larsen wouldn’t have to think twice before he plants a sloppy kiss on Kay’s head or his cheek when he scores; how Larsen would drape his arm around Kay without having to look around first.  Though sometimes Marc did wonder if Kay found Larsen attractive, even if only on an aesthetic level. 

 

The most puzzling part was, until then, Marc had never considered himself the jealous type.  When he first met Bettina, she was going out with a doctor in the same hospital.  For a few weeks, Bettina was dating both of them.  Rather than getting angry or jealous, Marc had seen it as a challenge, like a football game.  He had devised a game plan and had enjoyed the eventual win.  But with Kay...

 

Fuck.  Better not go there.  After he first learned about the photo leak scandal, that night Marc had feverishly googled Lutz Keller on his laptop; looking at picture after picture of the handsome physiotherapist; imagining how those lips and hands have once upon a time, touched Kay’s body; kisses and touches welcomed by Kay.  That had been what killed Marc the most, that Kay said he had loved the guy.  That night, Marc felt there was acid churning in his stomach.

 

But Marc didn’t have to worry about Larsen or the ghost of Kay’s romantic past, because Kay loved him.  He said so...

 

“I love you, Marc...” 

 

Marc’s skin tingled all over whenever he thought of that.  A declaration which Marc didn’t return.  But how could Marc answer that?  When every time he saw Kay, it’s like he’s been hit by a great wave and got swept away to the sea; he could barely keep himself from drowning.

 

 He laughed at his futile attempt to keep his thoughts about Kay at bay, at least during this family holiday.  It lasted only for a few days.  He texted Kay when he woke up this morning. 

 

>>hey. where are u?<<

 

Innocuous.  What he really wanted to text was  >>wish you were here<<.

 

******

 

“There’s no summer here.  It’s brutal.”

 

“Thought you are from Hamburg, you are practically Scandinavian.” Marc teased.

 

“The only thing we have in common is the love for fish.  Though I prefer eating them than catching them... oh wait.” Marc heard Kay answering someone in the background with a shout before he returned to Marc, “hey, I have to go, we are going on YET another boat trip.”

 

“OK.  Don’t say hi to Larsen for me. Tschüss.” Marc joked.  

 

He heard Kay’s silvery laugh at the other end of phone line before he finally clicked off.  Marc walked back inside his suite from the balcony, a smile still on his face.  

 

“What’s so funny?” 

 

Startled; Marc looked up from his mobile and found Bettina sitting on the lounge chair in the room.  He thought he was alone.  Bettina was supposed to be in the spa with Claudia this afternoon.

 

Caught by surprise, Marc simply shrugged.  Changing the subject immediately, he asked, “why are you here?  Thought you booked a spa appointment.” He carefully put his mobile in his jeans.

 

Two could play this game.  Bettina ignored his question as well.  “Who was on the phone?”

 

Marc shrugged again and the lie came out without a hitch, “Larsen, a few guys from the team have joined him in his villa in Sweden.” One guy I really cared about.

 

Bettina didn’t react at first.  She got up from the lounge chair.  She’s wearing a simple white linen dress, her face fresh with no make-up, hair tied in a loose pony-tail; she looked almost like when they had first met five years ago.

 

“I booked a Couple Massage for us this afternoon, I told you twice the last two days.”

 

That got Marc’s attention fast.  There was something in her voice he couldn’t quite put his finger on.  She didn’t sound angry, in fact, she sounded almost curious.

 

“You did? Scheiße... I am sorry... I thought you - “

 

Bettina cut him off softly, “what’s going on, Marc?”

 

“What do you mean?” Marc asked slowly, still trying to gauge Bettina’s mood.

 

“Something’s going on with you.” Bettina said.  Her eyes sharp; her voice low but clear.

 

“Bettina...” Marc did not like where it’s going.

 

“I don’t know exactly what.  But you haven’t been yourself for months.” Bettina shook her head.  ““You don’t talk to me.  You don’t tell me things.”

 

Marc turned his face away.  There was no rule book for the matter of the heart, he finally realised.  Truth was Marc couldn’t recall the last time he sought out Bettina for her opinions, or have a discussion with her about anything apart from their household affairs.

 

Bettina didn’t seem to be expecting a response, she got up, walked closer to Marc, “don’t get defensive.  I know it’s not just you.  I am responsible too.”

 

What?  Marc looked back at her.  

 

Bettina acknowledged his surprise with a small nod, “that time when you said other wives and girlfriends hate Kay’s girlfriend because she’s a professional, you - “

 

“Bettina!  I am not having an affair with Britt.” Marc sighed, rubbing his forehead.  Not this again!

 

“Will you let me finish?” Bettina said sharply.  Irritation simmering under the facade, it must have taken her a lot to stay calm.

 

Marc shut up.

 

“No, I don’t think you are having an affair with her.  Because I know you.” Bettina reached out her hand and gently rest it on Marc’s cheek.  “I can tell you really like Kay, so whatever crazy relationship those two have, you would never sleep with his girlfriend.  That’s just not who you are.” 

 

Marc’s heart gave one of those thumping backfires.  This was not what he has been expecting at all.  He watched Bettina closely, wanting to make sure he was hearing it right, paralysed with equal amount of relief and guilt.  

 

Bettina bit her lip, “and I get what you mean, about her.  I have been thinking...” she trailed, her voice shook slightly, “I think I’ve changed too myself.  People around us, this whole culture... I think we let it changed who we are as a couple.”

 

“Bettina, you know I never see you as one of them,” Marc said quickly.  This, at least, was true from his heart.  “You are not like them.  You are not a gold digger or whatever football groupie some players married to.” 

 

Bettina nodded.  “I believe you.  But I still think that environment... it can be toxic sometimes and it hasn’t been good for us.  For our marriage.  You know what I mean?” She frowned.  “I think I let it get into my head sometimes, trying to be the top girl among the girls.  That’s not who I am.” 

 

On a rational level, Marc understood what she was saying.  While there was some truth in it, the idea that Bettina thought his behaviour, his distance was a result of that, of her doing; he couldn’t bear it.  He was the one who cheated.  He’s the one who has been destroying their marriage.

 

Bettina took Mar’s hand, her fingers twisting Marc’s wedding band, “Claudia was telling me how relieved she is now that Frank is no longer a pro footballer.  I know how important football is to you, I married you with my eyes open, I support you because I know we share the same dreams and ideas, for our family.”

 

Marc drew Bettina into his arms, his hand brushing her soft reddish brown hair, trying to offer her comfort, reassurance that everything would be fine; at the same time, his heart and mind went the opposite direction, filled with disquiet and uneasiness.  God, what a mess I’ve made.

 

Bettina clung onto him, her voice croaky, “this holiday. This is our chance. I want us to be away from that environment: the football club, the players and wives, the gossip.  I want us to go back to where we started; I want to see if there’s still an ‘us’ without all these trappings.”

 

******

 

It was a quarter past midnight by the time Marc said good night to Frank and left the hotel bar.  

 

He went into Jonas’s room first.  He kissed the top of his son’s head, careful not to wake him up; made sure the blankets are tucked in.  Marc spent a few minutes there just looking at his son, waiting for a moment of peace the sight of his son always evoked.  But it didn’t come.

 

When he finally entered their suite, Bettina was already in bed.  Marc looked at her sleeping form, the even rise and fall of her chest.  She had a faint frown line between her brows, not deep, just a hint of it.

 

Much like the atmosphere after their talk.  Nothing has been resolved but like two responsible adults, they have both acknowledged there was a problem. Bettina was visibly more relaxed after the talk, maybe she just needed to get it off her chest; maybe she thought they were taking the vital first step.

 

Marc on the other hand, was at a loss.  

 

His mobile vibrated, a single light source glowing in the dark.  He has gotten a new message and he could guess who has texted him.  Marc quietly opened the door to the balcony; he leaned against the railing and took a few deep breaths.  The whole day he was shaking with a sense of trepidation.  A fireball of conflicting emotions in his stomach - guilt, fear, longing and desire.  The few glasses of whisky he had earlier in the bar threatened to come up.  

 

Marc waited for another few minutes, for his hands to stop shaking.  When he finally opened the message, Marc saw a breathtaking photo of the midnight sun in northern Sweden.  

 

Kay captioned the photo with the text - >>wish you were here<<

Chapter Text

“Kay? We are ready.” Larsen’s girlfriend, Heike, raised her hand in the universal ‘come on, hurry up’ sign.

 

This was the last day of their stay in the villa, Larsen was taking them back to Stockholm, first by boat, then by car. They were going via a scenic route, so they would have a mini road trip before they fly back to Germany.

 

Kay checked his mobile for messages one last time. Still nothing.

 

Well, not nothing. Britt has sent him five text messages and forwarded four funny tweets to him this morning. But nothing from Marc. Nothing since three days ago. The last contact Marc had made was a phone call, then Kay had sent him a picture of the Midnight Sun, after that, nothing.

 

Kay knew better than to call Marc to ask. He will call me if he wants to. He thought. It wasn’t Kay who initiated these texts and chats during this holiday, he had been fully expecting Marc to be radio-silent for the three-week break.

 

And then suddenly, Marc had to text him, asking where Kay was, teasing and joking with him on the phone; had to make him happy; only to retreat back without warning.

 

So, the roller-coaster ride continued.

 

Kay shook his head. He picked up the luggage bag, hastened his steps to join the group.

 

Larsen took his bag from him and put it in at the back of his BMW X7. He flicked a glance at Kay and frowned, “what’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing.” Kay replied without hesitation. He was startled by Larsen’s question; wondering if his emotions were so plain to see.

 

No, I’m fine. Kay muttered to himself. Oskar used to say everything is about managing expectations. Be rational, be kind, lower your expectations and you won’t get hurt as much. Though Oskar was talking about how to handle Kay’s father’s drug addiction.

 

Larsen gave him one of those ‘I don’t believe you but ok’ look. He gave Kay the car key, “want to drive this beast?”

 

“It’s not a beast. It’s an overpriced van.” Kay snorted.

 

Larsen chuckled, “whatever. You are driving.” He dropped the key in Kay’s hand.

 

“Where’s everybody?” Kay got to the driver’s side. Karsten and Larsen’s girlfriend were supposed to be leaving today as well.

 

“Louis and my brothers are staying in the villa for another week. I am lending my vintage Porsche 911S and my girlfriend to Karsten for an afternoon. We will meet up with them in Umea, we are all going to my parents’ house. You’ll love it there.”

 

“Cos it’s warmer or there will be Swedish meatballs?” Kay joked.

 

Larsen had him in a headlock in a second before releasing him. “Come on, I’ll ride shotgun and show you the route. We need to catch up with Karsten before he ran away with my car and my girlfriend.” He got into the passenger seat.

 

The BMW had so many new luxury and tech features and Larsen wanted to show every single one of them to Kay. He welcomed the distraction. Whatever was happening with Marc, Kay didn’t regret going on this trip, Larsen was good company. Easy going, dry sense of humour, nothing seemed to faze him.  

 

The open road, the greenery, sunshine and a light breeze, Kay began to relax, decided to push the longing and the hurt aside for another day. Plenty of time to lick his wound in the coming days.

 

They stopped for lunch at a small seaside restaurant, about an hour away from Larsen’s hometown. The owner recognised Larsen either from the Swedish national team or from the past, he gave Larsen a thumbs up but left them alone.

 

Kay was getting ready to dig into some fried herrings when his mobile vibrated in his pocket. His heart leapt; he hated how easily his resolve dissolved with that tiny alert.

 

“Sorry, I have to take this.” He mumbled an apology and got up, walking quickly to the edge of the terrace before he took the call.

 

It was Oskar - asking if Kay had time to come up to Hamburg before the start of pre-season training.

 

The crushing disappointment was so slicing, Kay barely registered the question. It took him two seconds to steady his thoughts, he replied with fake cheerfulness, “of course. I will drive up this weekend, let’s go out for dinner. I promised Britt I’ll treat her to Haerlin if we win the league.”

 

When he returned to the table, Larsen handed him a glass of beer and dropped the bomb causally, “did Marc finally call?”

 

Kay nearly dropped the glass. He recovered. Gripping the glass tightly, he took a sip to buy time. All the while, Larsen was looking at him with a kind smile; he wasn’t teasing.

 

“It’s not Marc,” said Kay plainly. He was waiting for his heartbeat to speed up, to get into a fight or flight mode. The “why would I be waiting for Marc to call” lie was on the tip of his tongue. Maybe it was Larsen’s reassuring gentleness; maybe it was the cool sea breeze lulled him into a sense of peace; whatever it was, Kay felt strangely calm. Or perhaps it was just numbness.

 

Not waiting for Kay to elaborate, Larsen started the delicate process of peeling shell off a shrimp and dipped it in a lemon and olive oil dip. He said, “Let me make an educated guess: Marc has stopped calling you.”

 

Kay picked up his fork and started stabbing into the herring fillets, “I wasn’t even expecting him to contact me this holiday, he started texting me and calling me last week. Then just as sudden, it all stopped again. I don’t know what the fuck he wants.”

 

Kay winced. Painfully aware that now he sounded like a whiney high schooler with pimples on his face. He added urgently, “you can’t tell anyone... Marc...” Paused. Kay exhaled slowly, “I don’t have to explain it to you.”

 

Larsen smiled, “don’t worry. You two aren’t that obvious. I mean people make jokes about how Marc has adopted you, but they aren’t making that kind of leap. I wasn’t sure myself until last week, “he shrugged, “your mood shifts according to messages on your mobile.”

 

So much for not being obvious.

 

“Herrlich knows. But it doesn’t bother him.” Kay blurted out. He hadn’t realised how much he needed to say it out loud.

 

Larsen nodded, “Herrlich is a good man.” He watched Kay closely before leaning closer, he spoke in a low voice, “let me guess again - Marc says he’s not ready to come out.”

 

Kay stared at Larsen. The saddest thing was he couldn’t bear to tell Larsen that Marc didn’t consider himself gay.

 

Kay shook his head, “not his fault. I am not ready either. Not when I still want to play football. I don’t blame him for that.” He felt the need to defend.

 

“He can divorce his wife without coming out.” Larsen said matter-of-factly. His eyes challenging Kay, like he could smell bullshit a mile away. He added calmly, “I hope I am wrong. But it looks like he’s jerking you around. And he will continue to do so until he gets tired of you or until you push him too far, then he will break it off.”

 

When Kay didn’t reply, Larsen moved away, he sighed, “he’s never going to introduce you as his boyfriend to Wolfgang Borgmann. This much I know.”

 

Out of everything Larsen had said, the bit about Wolfgang Borgmann was the one that hit Kay the hardest. He wanted to tell Larsen to fuck off; that he didn’t know Marc at all; that Kay knew it wasn’t a game to Marc; and Kay loved him. But he couldn’t, because Kay had the same thought.

 

“I am not some damsel in distress for you to rescue, Arne. I can take care of myself.” Kay retorted coolly. Larsen didn’t need to know how he has just shattered Kay’s dream in pieces.

 

Seemingly in no hurry, Larsen peeled another shrimp before he shook his head. “It wasn’t you I am worried about. You know who you are, and you are resilient, I can tell...” he paused. A sad smile on his face, he added, “it’s Marc I’m worried about. I’ve never met a more driven person than Marc Borgmann. Everything in his life is about setting goals and meeting them. But this? He has no idea how much it hurts until it’s too late.”

 

******

 

“Let’s see... shall we go for the ‘small flavour treatment’ or splash on the ‘palate party” tasting menu?” Britt asked behind the one-page menu.

 

“Take whichever is pricier. Let your rich and handsome fake boyfriend treat you to some Michelin Stars goodness one last time before you settle for your bookish boy-toy.” Kay quipped.

 

“Erik is not bookish!” Britt complained.

 

“That’s the part you have a problem with?” Kay raised his eyebrow.

 

“He’s not a fake boyfriend, that’s the part I am focusing on.”

 

“Cradle-robber.”

 

“Kay Engel!”

 

“Hey, stop, you two.” Oskar waved his hand, “and keep your voice down.” His voice stern, “you don’t know who’s listening.”

 

“Papa,” Britt pouted, that’s her usual weapon against her father, has been since she was six. Kay shut up because it wasn’t like Oskar to complain, usually he found it amusing when Kay and Britt fought like children.

 

“Something’s wrong?” Kay asked.

 

Oskar’s voice softened again. “Nothing for you to worry about. I have a few things I want to discuss with you. But let’s eat first.”

 

Britt looked between Oskar and Kay, with a finger on her lip, she said, “Palate Party with wine pairing for three?”

 

Kay rolled his eyes and nodded.

 

Kay hadn’t realised how much he missed Hamburg. Hard to notice that when your life has been one giant whirlwind the last few months, when every spare moment of your time was spent on missing something else. Not a city; missing someone... no, I am not going to think about Marc this weekend. He put aside time for his family, I should do the same.

 

Maybe he should have visited his hometown more. Hamburg was like his old security blanket - familiar, comfy and safe. Plus, Oskar was still here, his surrogate father for the past 10 years.

 

The mini courses from the tasting menu kept them busy for nearly two hours, they focused on the fancy food and let Britt rambling on all sorts of topics. Kay learned that Erik has already met Oskar, he’s curious to meet the guy.

 

“You should have brought him along tonight.” Kay said.

 

Britt huffed, “he’s still under the impression that you are my famous ex, you can be intimidating.”

 

Kay paused. He put down his fork and knife, “you know you can tell him the truth. I don’t mind. If you trust him, I trust him.”

 

Oskar cut in, “Kay, you know it’s not just about you anymore, you need to think about Marc as well.”

 

Kay lowered his head. He hadn’t thought of that.

 

Britt touched his hand on the table, “how’s Marc, anyway?”

 

“He’s fine,” Kay replied automatically. “I think,” he added. Couldn’t help it.

 

Of course, Britt picked up on that right away, she sniffled but didn’t say anything, because Oskar was there. They all went back to silently work on their Petit Fours.

 

Finally, over a glass of dessert wine, Oskar delivered the news. “Two things. First, Bayern Munich has made an offer to Duisburg for you. €20m. Duisburg’s sporting director told me they’ve turned it down.”

 

“That doesn’t mean anything. They could be waiting for Bayern to offer more,” Britt frowned. She was a quick learner when it comes to football transfer market.

 

“Do I have any say in this?” Kay asked.

 

“Of course! You signed a two-year-contract, you are in the driving seat. No one can force you go.” Oskar reassured him.

 

Except lately Kay didn’t feel like he’s in control of anything in his life. Wearily, he asked, “what’s the second news?”

 

Oskar sat up straighter. “Hamburg police notified me last week that they’ve suspended one of their own. A policemen had tried to send some of the pictures to the media from the evidence file of the case,” he sighed, “the good news is he was stopped in time; the bad news is he has given some names to a reporter. So, expect some rumours and gossip come your way. I am sure your club’s lawyer and Herrlich are aware of the situation too.” He threw his napkin away, “damn nosy people.”

 

Kay didn’t know what to say. If Herrlich knew, he probably has warned Marc already. Maybe that’s why Marc hasn’t contacted me. Could it be that?

 

“But like you said before, naked picture means nothing. It only means that Lutz is a creep.” Britt tried to look on the bright side.

 

Kay laughed bitterly, “you know that’s not how gossip works, it’s the lack of proof that makes it juicier, people’s imagination can run wild, make up their own conclusion.”

 

He’s not worried about it, not for himself; Kay has been preparing for a day like this since he joined St. Pauli. But in his heart, he knew, this could be the final straw for Marc.

 

“Stay focus. Don’t comment, don’t get provoked. This too, shall pass, once they find another scandal,” Oskar advised. “Your pre-season training starting next week?”

 

Kay nodded. He couldn’t manage a response. Suddenly he wasn’t so looking forward to rejoining his teammates.

 

Britt grabbed his hand on the table, “I’ll fucking write a book to expose all their dirty laundry if any of them say mean things to you.”

 

“I like that your go-to-method is a literary one,” Kay teased half-heartedly, giving her a hug.

 

Oskar looked on with a contemplative expression. “I have one more news, Kay,” he began carefully, “your father’s treatment will be completed end of June, that’s after Duisburg’s overseas training trip in Spain?”

 

Kay nodded to acknowledge it; he couldn’t remember the exact date of the trip but knew it was around that time; his heart sped up. Please, at least give me this one piece of good news.

 

“He’s doing well. I’ve spoken to his therapist at the centre. He will make a recommendation and the judge will decide if he can go home. We can all go see him before that happen. If we can prove he has good support at home, it will help his case. Sounds good?”

 

Sounds like a repeat of his life for the past 10 years. Kay thought. But as long as they didn’t find his father lying somewhere unconscious after an overdose, he’d take it as good news.

 

Outside the restaurant, while waiting for the valet to bring his Saab, Kay quietly asked Oskar, “how long do you think it will last this time, even if they release him?” It was, of course, a rhetorical question. He knew Oskar wouldn’t know. No one could. This wasn’t even the first time his father was ordered to go to rehab under court order.

 

“We do what we can. That’s all you can do, Kay. The rest is up to him.” Oskar said.

 

******

 

Kay drove back to Duisburg on Sunday afternoon. By then, he has given up hope on hearing from Marc and began to wonder which Marc would greet him tomorrow. The Tatort-watching-Marc or the after-the-photo-leak-Marc.

 

He was casusally looking at houses on real estate websites, telling himself that he wasn’t getting his hopes up, but there’s no harm being prepared, right? If his father needed a place to stay, maybe it would help to secure his release... a house is better than an apartment, better if it’s a bit more remote than in the city... maybe we can adopt a dog, he will have someone to look after and will take his mind off...

 

His mobile started ringing. Kay grabbed it next to his laptop without looking, thinking it was Britt. She had called him three times already tonight about the Tatort Hamburg episode on TV.

 

“I know you are only watching it because of Til Schweiger.” Kay answered the call.

 

“Kay?” Marc asked hesitantly.

 

“Hi, Marc.” Kay answered after two seconds.

 

Now that Marc knew he didn’t get the wrong number, he seemed to have run out of things to say.

 

“Hey... erm... I want to go to your place tomorrow after training,” Marc finally said. A pause. “We should talk,” he added belatedly.

 

No explanation of why he hadn’t called last week, no trace of the playfulness from their last phone call.

 

Kay mirrored his tone and simply said, “okay.”

 

The silence stretched out for so long Kay thought maybe Marc just forgot to press the off button on his phone.

 

“Right. See you tomorrow.” Marc’s voice returned.

 

If Mar’s voice sounded muffled and throaty, it could be entirely Kay’s own imagination; he knew nothing good ever comes of a we-should-talk opening.

Chapter Text

“Who knows what other skeletons he has in his closet?”

 

Gregor Limpinski’s grating voice slowly filtered into Marc’s ears. No, not just Gregor, he could hear two other voices, just outside the door. Marc was barely 5 minutes into his breathing exercise, usually he’d be able to block out background noise, but today... today he had a lot on his mind.

 

Marc gave up and opened his eyes.

 

Gregor Limpinski and the two reserved goalkeepers walked into the dressing room, still talking, each holding their mobile phone.

 

“Look, here’s Marc. Ask him.” Limpinski jogged over to the long bench where Marc was sitting.

 

Marc has got in earlier today, hoping to gather his thoughts before he had to face Kay. First time after three weeks. Kay had sounded detached and cautious over the phone last night. He must be angry, Marc thought. And this afternoon…

 

He shook his head, tried to focus on the task in hand as team captain. First day of pre-season training. They were just going to do stretches, some running and light exercises, it’s more about getting the team together, building team morale, more than physical preparation for games.

 

“Ask me what?” Marc got up.

 

“The new blind item on ‘Footie Journal,’” said Limpinski. Sticking his mobile to Marc’s face. “Have you read it?”

 

The football gossip blog, written by anonymous contributors. Marc never read that garbage. He didn’t have to, everyone else would read and relay it to him.

 

Limpinski raised his eyebrow, “we are betting the blind item this week is much closer to home.”

 

Marc pushed the mobile away, annoyed. “I don’t have time for gossip.”

 

Nothing pleased Limpinski more than a clueless or defensive response to the bait he set, he read the paragraph out-loud, “while the alleged naked photos never materialised on social media, a credible source told Footie Journal that one of the sport personalities involved in the scandal is a rising star in Bundesliga 1, the footballer allegedly had an affair with the physiotherapist who took these salacious photos. Hint: the blind item is a wave-making rookie.” He put down his mobile, a smirk on his ruddy face, “well, that doctor is based in Hamburg, now tell me if this isn’t referring to Kay Engel? Come on, Marc, you must know. You’ve adopted the rookie.”

 

There were many ways Marc could have handled this. And normally he would have picked the best way to deal with Gregor Limpinski, but hearing Kay’s name has thrown him into a panic mode.

 

Face flushed; Marc picked the worst response. “I don’t know what you are talking about. Kay is my teammate, just like you are one too.” He was so grateful he’s holding a towel in his hand. He dug his fingernails into the towel.

 

“Ohhh... look at Marc, all flustered. Hey, did Engel hit on - “

 

Limpinski’s trolling was abruptly stopped as a group of players walked into the dressing room, including Kay.

 

After a bunch of high-fives and fist-bumps, everyone went back to getting ready for warm up exercises.

 

Kay was wearing his football kits already, he bent down to adjust his shoes laces. When he stood up again, he seemed to sense a stillness in the atmosphere, his brow furrowed. He flicked a quick glance at Marc.

 

Marc looked away.

 

With his back facing everyone, Marc listened in alarm as Limpinski asked, “hey Kay, heard you broke up with your hot girlfriend, is it true?”

 

Not taking the bait, Kay shrugged. He turned back to his locker.

 

That didn’t discourage Limpinski. “Huh. Did she break up with you because she found out about your old boyfriend?”

 

With that question, everyone suddenly stopped what they were doing. Marc stood frozen with fear, watching the scene unfold

 

At first Kay didn’t react at all, as if he hadn’t heard the question. Several pair of eyes were burning a hole on his back. Kay closed his locker with a bang and turned. He curled his lip in derision and said to Limpinski, “you seem obsessed with other people’s boyfriends. You know there’s a term for that? It’s called latent homosexual.”

 

It actually took Limpinski a second or two to react, like he didn’t understand the term. Then all of a sudden, his face turned beetroot red, he clenched his fist and shouted, “fuck you, Kay! You are the fucking Schwul! You stay the hell away from me.”

 

“Oh woah woah... easy, Gregor.”

 

That was Arne Larsen. He put his arm around Kay’s shoulders and said to Limpinski, “didn’t know you were interested. Sorry you missed the orgy party we had in my villa last week, Gregor. Next time. I promise.” He crossed his fingers, feigning solemnity.

 

Outwitted, Limpinski doubled down on his insult. “You can fuck off too, you Swedish pervert.”

 

Then Karsten joined in, wrapping his arms around Kay’s waist, batting his eyelashes provocatively, “oh no, I don’t want Gregor’s ugly ass to join us. We have high standards.”

 

Everyone burst out laughing, shaking their head. At least he knew when to quit, Limpinski huffed and muttered, “arsehole northerners” and left the room.

 

Of course, no one was taking Larsen’s claim seriously, he could kiss Kay on the spot and still laugh it off as a joke. Defuse the situation with humour. Even if there were players who might believe the rumours, nobody actually wanted it out in the open. No one except shit-stirrer like Limpinski.

 

Kay chuckled, he pushed Karsten and Larsen away playfully, “Let go of me, you lunatics.”

 

And Larsen could do all these for Kay because he had nothing to hide.

 

Unlike Marc.

 

By the time Herrlich entered the dressing room, the incident was already forgotten by most.

 

Marc finally allowed himself to look at Kay. He and Larsen were talking in low voices among themselves. Kay had a small smile on his face as he listened, Larsen finished whatever he was saying and ruffled Kay’s hair in a brotherly manner.

 

But Marc also noticed how Kay’s smile slipped from his face the moment he turned away from Larsen.

 

******

 

Tonight.

 

That thought kept playing in his mind over and over.  

 

Tonight.

 

Marc made the drive to Kay’s Apartment in mostly contemplative silence, with the radio so low he could barely hear it. He knew after this trip, by tonight, his world would change forever.

 

He used his key to get into the apartment, knowing Kay would arrive at least 15 minutes later than him - he was in the Players’ Recovery room with other players when Marc left.

 

Marc looked around the sleek and modern looking apartment, the charcoal grey sofa where they had made love when the bedroom seemed too far away. Kay didn’t have a lot of furniture, the living room consisted of a L-shape sofa with chaise lounge, a TV bench, a shear style sheepskin rug underneath an IKEA coffee table. There were a few photo frames and a poster of world map on the wall. That was all. Kay still lived like someone who was in transit - a visitor - in Duisburg. And perhaps, in Marc’s life too.

 

He picked up the light blue throw resting on the side of the sofa and inhaled. It smelled like Kay. A mix of unmistakable male musk and the fruity scent from Kay’s preferred body wash. Marc closed his eyes and remembered they were cuddling on the sofa together to watch Tatort, the throw partially covering their bodies, Kay spouting his theories about the murder plot. The sound and the image of that memory so close, so vivid, suddenly Marc wasn’t so sure if he could go through with this.

 

The decision, formed out of guilt, supported by Marc’s single mindedness, has always been on shaky ground. He knew it would hurt like nothing before, but it would be ok, eventually. He and Kay have only been together for barely three months; he has been with Bettina for five years, they have Jonas... there’s no comparison. There shouldn’t be. And it wasn’t fair to keep stringing Kay along, not when Marc knew he wasn’t going to leave Bettina, not after Kay had told him that he -

 

Marc took a deep breath.

 

He opened the balcony door to escape outside, the light and muggy June breeze did nothing to cool down his feverish mind.

 

After the talk with Bettina, he had done what he saw as the only way. He had to give it a try, to save his marriage. He owed her that much. In the remaining days of their holiday, Marc had tried to focus, to remember what being with Bettina had felt like - the comfort of familiarity, of certainty; the bliss of family life; and more importantly, Marc knows who he is when he’s with Bettina.

 

No more danger of his heart fluttering so bad the heart rhythm was out of sync; no more giant waves washing over him.

 

The past month, one thing after another: Herrlich seeing them kissing, the photo leak and the talk with Bettina… Marc realised he’s flying too close to the sun. He’s been reckless and restless.

 

He has to stop this. This free falling. Restart.

 

Marc heard the door open. He went back inside.

 

Kay closed the front door and turned. He glanced at Marc once, walked a few steps forward and dropped his gym bag in the foyer.

 

Marc stood motionless. With all the commotions Limpinski had caused this morning, Marc hadn’t had a good look at Kay at the training centre. Despite holidaying in northern Sweden, Kay has gotten a tan, his blond buzzcut seemed to have gotten a trim too; he looked sun-kissed, healthy and beautiful.

 

Staring at Kay, at that moment, Marc couldn’t remember a single line he had prepared to say. He couldn’t read the expression on Kay’s face. No signs of the familiar smile that always greeted Marc, in fact, there was a steely gleam in Kay’s eyes. Without a word, Kay started walking to his bedroom.

 

“Kay.” said Marc belatedly. He could do nothing but follow.

 

The bedroom had a west facing window, the late afternoon sunlight streaming through the slats of the half-open venetian blinds, casting shadows on the wall. There was a small red handcrafted Dala Horse on the nightstand, a souvenir from Sweden, Kay had mentioned buying it in one of their phone calls. Marc suspected Kay bought it as a gift for his father.

 

Marc stood leaning against the bedroom door frame, he watched Kay kicking off his sneakers and socks, his fingers started unbuttoning his shirt; Kay shrugged it off and moved on to his jeans’s button and zipper, in one smooth movement, he took both his jeans and boxer-briefs off.

 

“Kay…” Marc said, straightened himself. It was intended to be a warning but came out whiny and needy in Marc’s ears; his throat becoming dry; he couldn’t take his eyes off the body he knew every inch intimately for the last few months.

 

Ignoring the stunned expression on Marc’s face, Kay walked up to him. His eyes never leaving Marc’s face, he jutted his chin towards the bed. “Come on, let’s fuck. That’s what you come here for, right? I want you to fuck me one last time. Then we will be teammates and nothing more.” Kay delivered the invitation without inflection before he took Marc’s hand and led him to the bed.

 

Of course he knows. Kay always knows. Marc wanted to lie, to deny it. That they weren’t breaking up.

 

“No... I am not here to - ” Marc answered weakly, his voice shook. But even as the negative words came out of his mouth, his hands were moving to grab hold of Kay’s waist, his feet moving forward against his will.

 

They fell onto bed. Kay’s fingers were already working on Marc’s jeans, pulling them off roughly, then he tugged Marc’s shirt off impatiently. Marc tried to put a hand on Kay’s chest to slow him down, but Kay was having none of it, he kissed Marc hard, all teeth and tongue; he pressed himself against Marc wantonly, making Marc dizzy with want.

 

“Come on,” Kay murmured near the corner of Marc’s mouth, “I know you want to.” He rolled his hips and ran his hands over the expanse of Marc’s wide back.

 

Marc answered with a suppressed growl and then he was grabbing the back of Kay’s head and kissing him. Bruising kisses that would leave marks. Marc could taste the juicy fruit chewing gum on Kay’s tongue, the one Marc had teased him about.

 

Kay grunted and wrapped his legs around Marc’s waist, pulling him even closer. Chest to chest, face to face. Marc ran his hands along Kay’s thighs, hoping Kay wouldn’t notice how unsteady they were. He pulled away a little, one hand caressing Kay’s buttocks, the other reaching for the tube of lube on the nightstand, but Kay was quicker.

 

He handed the tube to Marc, something close to determination in his eyes when he looked up at Marc.

 

When he finally pushed inside of Kay, he looked down and saw Kay’s eyes were closed, his head thrown back against the pillow, exposing the smooth and creamy neckline, untouched by the sun. Marc wanted to kiss it, to bite it, to possess it. Whimpering, Kay’s back arching off the bed as Marc began to pick up speed. Marc’s hand kept stroking Kay’s thighs, running down his side, he couldn’t get enough of Kay.

 

Marc knew he wasn’t going to last, but he didn’t want it to end. For after this, there would be no more.

 

This sexual position always did something to Marc, when he could see Kay’s face as he moved in and out of his body, could feel the intensity charging through both of them, clear as day on their faces. How badly both of them wanted this.

 

But this time, Kay was different. He was grunting and demanding, his body moving shamelessly against Marc’s without inhibition but he wasn’t looking at Marc, wasn’t saying his name. It was rough and intense. They were having sex, nothing more. This was what Kay was telling him.

 

The fact that Kay meant this as a goodbye only breaks Marc’s heart more.

 

Marc couldn’t stand it. He thrust hard a few more times, he grabbed Kay’s thighs so tight he knew there would be bruises tomorrow, he wanted to shout, to tell Kay it shouldn’t be like this, even if it’s Marc’s own choice.

 

Kay came first with a pained moan, his fingers digging into Marc’s back as his body tensed with waves of pleasure that swept through him. He fell back on the bed, looking spent and sweaty, and beautiful...

 

Marc shuddered and came with a stifled groan, “Kay...” he whispered, couldn’t help it. Kay was covering his eyes with his arm, his breath ragged. Marc didn’t trust himself to speak, he rolled off Kay slowly.

 

The silence followed was deafening.

 

They stayed lying in bed side by side; Marc letting the heat emitting from Kay’s arm and shoulder warm his body one last time. After what seemed like an eternity, Kay got up. He walked to the en-suite bathroom without looking at Marc.

 

“We need to talk.” Marc said to Kay’s back, he felt wrecked.

 

Kay stood still. “If the outcome is the same, you don’t have to explain it to me,” he said without turning. Then before he closed the bathroom door, he said, “I think you should leave.”

 

Marc waited but Kay didn’t come out again. He finally got up and get dressed.

 

Inside the elevator, hands shaking, Marc pressed the button before his feverish forehead touched the cool metal surface. He closed his eyes and breathed. And breathed.

 

I’ve done it.

 

Then why did he feel like he’s not just giving up Kay, but his world?

Chapter Text

Marc woke up the next day determined to do something proactive. He was frying bacons, onions and eggs on the stove when Bettina walked into the kitchen.

 

Smiling, Bettina wrapped her arms around him from behind and asked, “Hmmm... your famous Farmer’s omelette. I haven’t had this treat for a while.” She went to prepare coffee for herself and tea for Marc.

 

“You were up early. Did you sleep well?” She asked.

 

Terrible.

 

Marc has hardly gotten any sleep until 3am, when he gave up, snuck into the bathroom and took half of a sleeping pill from the ones Dr Greenberg gave him months ago, when he couldn’t sleep for the same reason.

 

Marc nodded and lied, “very well, I always sleep better when I am training.” He scooped up the omelettes and put them on two large plates with sausages and white asparagus.

 

He looked at his wife, noticing her new look: the relaxed shoulders, the permanent faint smile at the corner of her mouth. Bettina was glowing. Gone were the supercilious demeanour she got from hanging around footballers’ wives, back were her kind and loving nature. The change in her so swift, so stark, only made Marc feeling guiltier. All she had needed was her husband’s affection and attention, for him to be there for her.

 

“Let me help you.” Bettina took one of the plates from him. Marc noticed Bettina has gotten a tan and some light freckles over her nose bridge and arms; she looked radiant.

 

His mind briefly drifted to the image of the other sun-kissed arms he had touched yesterday, no freckles, just endless golden skin... Marc shook his head to get rid of the memory.

 

“Come on, let’s eat.” He took the breakfast tray and coffee mugs to the patio.

 

Bettina gave him a kiss and sat down next to him. She watched him over the rim of the coffee mug. “How’s everyone?”

 

Marc was cutting into his omelette, he paused. Calm down. She’s not asking about Kay. “Fine. Still high from the league title.” He forced a smile.

 

“You are all going to a training camp in Marbella this Friday or next Monday?”

 

“Next Monday until Friday,” answered Marc. One of FC Duisburg’s traditions was to have pre-season training session in a warm weather country. This year was Spain.

 

“Good. Then we can still spend the weekend in my parents’ house? Like we planned?”

 

“Sure...” Marc was distracted. Bettina’s question reminded him of a to-do-task he has yet to do - to tell Herrlich he wants to change roommate. Marc couldn’t... he couldn’t be alone with Kay in a room, not the way they parted yesterday. Not yet. Maybe in a few months... when his heart wasn’t like a twisted vine.

 

His mobile rang.

 

“Hey, Stefan.” It was Marc’s agent.

 

Marc already knew the purpose of the call; Stefan has been urging him to start the contract negotiation with FC Duisburg for weeks. “You just won them the league title, they’ll give you whatever you want.” He kept saying this and waiting for Marc to give him the go-ahead. Marc himself has never wanted to go anywhere else, but Stefan and his father both believe a little competition from other clubs would work in their favour.

 

“Great! I’ll send our terms to Duisburg this week to kick start the process.” Stefan sounded ecstatic. “By the way, my contact at Bayern confirmed that they’ve made a hush-hush-offer for Kay Engel, 20-million, Duisburg turned it down. You are a close mate with him? Do you know if he’s interested at all? Bayern is willing to go higher if he’s willing, he still has 2 years left on his contract, but that shouldn’t be a problem... and of course, Bayern also asked about you... I will make sure Duisburg hear about this...”

 

Marc has stopped listening. Kay, of course, didn’t tell him about Bayern’s offer. Why would he? When Marc just abruptly ended things?

 

There was a small voice in Marc’s head that said, maybe Kay going to Bayern was for the best. For Kay’s career, for Marc’s... sanity. But every time Marc imagined not able to see Kay every day, even from a distance, it just sliced him in half.

 

How long am I going to feel like this? A month? Three months?

 

“Err... Marc? So, can you ask Kay about it? I want to do that as a favour to my contact in Bayern,” said Stefan.

 

“Oh right. Erm... Last I heard he wasn’t interested.” Marc hoped that’s true.

 

Stefan ended the call with a promise to set up a meeting with Marc and Duisburg’s Sports Director and Marc’s father. Of course, Wolfgang Borgmann would want to have a say. He practically strong-armed Duisburg to give Marc a 40% pay rise last time the contract was renewed.

 

“I heard that Kay has broken up with his girlfriend. Did he meet someone in Sweden?” Bettina jokingly asked when Marc returned to his chair.

 

That’s what Limpinski was taunting Kay with yesterday. Marc had no idea. So, it’s true? Britt no longer pretended to be Kay’s girlfriend? Why would Kay do that when the photo-leak scandal was still flying around? Staring at his cup of tea, suddenly he couldn’t breathe.

 

“Honey, are you ok? You looked a bit green.” Bettina reached over to cup his face.

 

Marc shook his head. “I am fine. Just not looking forward to the contract negotiation, you know I hate all the games and posturing involved.”

 

Bettina rubbed his shoulder, nodding understandably.

 

Marc swallowed. So, he has stopped cheating on his wife, but the lies continued.

 

******

 

There was a General Patton quote Marc’s father liked to use: “You must be single-minded. Drive for the one thing on which you have decided.”

 

Marc has made the decision, he had to stay with it.

 

The week continued and a new normal set in.

 

Marc and Kay would greet each other with a simple nod when they see each other in training centre. They would train together as a pair or in a group; would exchange light banter or jokes as a group; Kay would still make those runs along the left-hand side; could still read Marc’s movements like the palm of his hand. It wasn’t any different from before when they were being careful, but Marc knew. He knew there was no secret smile, no lingering gaze for just a fraction too long, no promise of something sweet and intimate after training.

 

The new normal also included Larsen chaperoning Kay whenever he could. The two of them, sometimes with Karsten seemed inseparable after their holiday in Sweden, the latter was probably only following Larsen’s approach. But Marc had no doubt that Larsen knew the true nature of his relationship with Kay.

 

This was confirmed when Marc asked Herrlich to assign someone else as his roommate.

 

“I already did.” Herrlich sounded surprised, like he thought Marc knew. He closed his laptop and leaned forward on his desk. “Kay asked if he could room with Larsen from now on and I approved it.”

 

“When was that?” Marc asked in a monotone.

 

“Monday afternoon.”

 

Marc nodded. It was right after first day of training, before he met Marc in his apartment.

 

Herrlich watched Marc closely. “I take it that you two are... not together anymore?” He asked carefully.

 

Marc barely nodded. Though he was planning to tell Herrlich, he had no intention to discuss his relationship with his football coach.

 

“Didn’t seem to be affecting your partnership on the pitch so far. I trust you both are professionals.” Herrlich cleared his throat, said, “anyway, I’ve decided not to assign a new roommate to you. As captain, you can have your own room. I prefer it to be seen as a perk to you, rather than a request to switch roommate. Understand?”

 

“Understood.” Marc replied. To Herrlich, harmony among the team was paramount, he has already given Limpinski a lecture after he found out about the dressing room incident.

 

The heaviness in his heart when he left Herrlich’s office had no justification. One task off his to-do list, Herrlich even solved the optics problem of switching roommate for him. No one would question it. Things were happening as he planned. There was no reason why it hurt so much knowing Kay had already given up on Marc even before...

 

He returned to the pitch to resume team training. Kay was practising a doppelpass with Larsen near the penalty box. Larsen’s speed has improved after Kay gave him some pointers on how to accelerate, the pair has become a handful to a lot of defenders trying to keep up with them. Limpinski was cursing because Larsen has beaten him twice at the near post.

 

Marc jogged over there to join them. Larsen glanced at him, kicked the ball to him and suggested, “come on, Marc, start from midfield, you, me and Kay, let’s do a two-part doppelpass.” He winked. “We can beat Karsten and Gregor all day long.”

 

It will be ok. We are all professionals. I just need to give it time. Like a mantra, Marc kept repeating it in his head.

 

Late afternoon that day, Marc found himself alone in the house. He had forgotten Bettina has already gone to her parents’ house with Jonas for the weekend. Marc was supposed to join them tomorrow.

 

“Hallo, Herr Borgmann. I’ve done the dishes and the laundry, if there’s nothing else, I’ll go now,” asked Lida, their part-time cleaner.

 

“Of course. Have a good weekend.”

 

Lida walked past him, then turned around, “oh, I found some small things in some pockets while sorting the laundry. I’ve put them in a small plate on the kitchen counter. And today’s post is there as well.”

 

“Alright. Thank you.” Marc watched her go, then went to the kitchen area near the back of the house. Opening a bottle of beer, he began to go through the post. Bills, flyers, fashion magazines, kindergarten prospectus, Marc remembered the discussion of enrolling Jonas in an international school, maybe this kindergarten was from same group.

 

He threw the flyers away and put the rest of the post aside for Bettina, he found a yellow post-it note on the fridge: Remember to take Axel with you tomorrow to my parent’s place, Bettina xxx

 

Axel wandered into the kitchen just as Marc was reading the note, Marc patted the dog absently while sipping his beer. But Axel seemed restless, he kept going back and forth between Marc and the door.

 

Marc crouched down and said to Axel, “let me finish this beer and then we will go for a walk, ok?” He rubbed behind the dog’s ears.

 

When he put the empty beer in the recycle bin in the kitchen, he noticed a small ceramic plate on the countertop. Things Lida found in their laundry.

 

The plate was filled with a mix of coins, crumpled paper and receipts, but the first thing Marc saw was the key. The shiny metal glinted under the kitchen’s spotlights.

 

He had intended to give the key back to Kay that day.

 

Marc picked up the key. Kay had attached the key with a keychain with a blue and white Tatort logo.

 

“In case you want to come in when I am taking a bath,” teases Kay. Opening his palm, the single key reflecting the afternoon sun.

 

Marc stares at it for a second, heart pounding; just when he reaches for it, Kay closes his palm. They laugh.

 

Then Kay opens his hand again. His eyes dancing, smiling so wide Marc can do nothing but return it. Marc picks up the key.

 

Barely two months ago, the memory so fresh Marc could still feel the warmth of the late afternoon sun on his back in Kay’s balcony. He curled his fingers around the key, the sharp edges biting into his flesh.

 

“We will be teammates and nothing more.”

 

He threw the key across the kitchen, it bounced off the glass splash-back and fell back on the granite countertop, hardly made a scratch. The only thing shattered was inside Marc; he slid down on the kitchen floor, his hands rubbing his face.

 

“Scheiße!” he shouted loudly in the quiet kitchen, hitting his knee in frustration. “Scheiße!” He sniffed, wiped his nose with his sleeves, tried to hold back the threatening tears.

 

Marc felt a wet tongue licking the side of his face, he opened his eyes and saw Axel whining, raising one of his front paws to touch Marc’s knee.

 

“I know, I know...” Marc nuzzled his face into Axel’s thick fur, murmured, “I miss him too.”

Chapter Text

Kay walked around the living room. It has a dual aspect design with windows on front and back of the room, airy, lot of light. One side of the windows are floor to ceiling, open to the garden outside.

 

Lot of fresh air. Greenery and fresh air, that must be good, right?

 

The white painted walls with dark grey accent ceiling reminded him of his childhood home in the suburb of Hamburg... Britt would scold him; Oskar would tell him not to make rash decision. But what’s the harm of being prepared? Even if his father didn’t get released, Kay could still live here by himself, there was a break clause in his current apartment after 6 months, he could give notice any time.

 

“So, the owners are only interested in short term rental, is that correct?” Kay asked the real estate agent, who has been staring at him since she greeted him by the door.

 

When she didn’t answer, Kay raised his eyebrow.

 

She shook her head. “Oh sorry. Yes, they are relocating to Vienna for a year, so short-term lease only, even month-by-month if you prefer.”

 

“That’s perfect,” said Kay. Because he didn’t know where he might be in 2 months when football season restarted. He just needed an appropriate house to show the judge.

 

“I am sorry. I don’t watch football myself, so I didn’t recognise your name, but are you who I think you are?” The estate agent asked. Anna, that’s her name.

 

Kay turned on his charm with a smile. “Who do you think I am?”

 

Anna’s eyes twinkled. “You played alongside Marc Borgmann, right? He’s our local boy, even non-football fans know him.”

 

Of course, you do. Another reminder that Duisburg was Marc’s town and Kay was the outsider. His smile slipped just a little, he nodded, said, “yes, that’s me.”

 

“This will work in your favour, if you are interested to rent it. Everyone loves to be able to say their tenant is a football star.”

 

“Let me think about it.” Kay said noncommittally.

 

He decided to walk around the neighbourhood a bit more after he said goodbye to Anna and promised to give her an answer in a few days. It was a 20 minutes’ drive to the city, but he would be closer to FC Duisburg’s training centre from here. He noticed the nearby forest and thought maybe he could start running in the morning again, if the club’s fitness trainer agreed. His father used to run with him when he was younger, during those scattered periods when he was clean.

 

Yes, trees, fresh air. What’s not to love? And away from city temptations.

 

Kay was only a few minutes into the woodland when he was suddenly body slammed by something.

 

By someone. A dog.

 

“Hey, what are you doing here?” Kay recovered from the impact and caught Axel’s front paws on his chest to steady the dog, but he couldn’t stop the onslaught of kisses from Axel. His tail wagging so hard, Kay’s afraid it’s going to fall off.

 

Kay was also keenly aware that Marc must be nearby.

 

“Axel!” A loud shout from the distance.

 

Then there he was. Coming out of the shadows of the trees were Marc and Bettina. They were holding hands, taking a stroll in the forest.

 

“Oh hey! Kay.” Bettina saw him first. Or maybe Marc did first, but he didn’t say anything. He was looking at Kay like he’s seen a ghost.

 

Marc was wearing a navy-blue polo tee shirt and black jeans, which made his blue eyes like a pair of sapphires. His jawline set and rigid. Kay didn’t think he was happy to see him here.

 

“Marc! Look who’s here.” Bettina turned to Marc, her hand pulling Marc closer.

 

Kay got Axel off his chest and stood straight. He said, “Hi Bettina.” Then added belatedly, “hi Marc.”

 

Marc still hasn’t uttered a word.

 

Come on. Kay briefly closed his eyes, willed his heart to stop beating so fast.

 

I was doing so well. Kay has been keeping himself busy trying to secure a suitable place for his father’s court date; telling himself he didn’t have time to lick wounds. Larsen has been a godsend to keep things looking normal and professional during training.

 

I was doing so well. But now one look at Marc outside the protected training ground, Kay was brought back to that moment, when he was hiding in the bathroom, tears streaming down his cheeks, waiting for the sound of the front door closing.

 

“Woof! Woof!” Axel began to run between Kay and Marc. The dog went back and forth looking at Marc and Kay, like a ball boy in a tennis court.

 

Bettina’s chuckle filled the empty air. She said, “Marc mentioned you are good with dogs, now I finally believe it. I’ve never seen Axel so excited to see anyone. It’s like one of those YouTube videos when a veteran comes home from abroad and their dog goes insane.” More giggles. Kay’s eyes strayed reluctantly to her hands; she was holding onto the Marc’s arm with both hands.   The diamond on her ring caught the sun.

 

Kay looked away, curling his own fingers.  

 

Axel, apparently, didn’t get the memo that his owner no longer hangs out with Kay, when Marc and Kay didn’t move closer to each other, he began to make small whining and whimpering sounds and sniff around Kay’s shoes, going restless.

 

“What are you doing here?” Marc asked finally. He sounded... curious, dream-like. Maybe he thinks he is dreaming. Maybe he thinks he’s having a nightmare, Kay thought.

 

“I was looking at a rental property here earlier, just checking out the neighbourhood.”

 

“You are thinking of moving here?” Bettina enthused. “It’s a great neighbourhood to raise family. I grew up around here. My parents still live down the road.” She winked, “are you moving here alone or with someone...?”

 

Marc visibly tensed up.

 

No, it wasn’t Kay’s imagination, Marc’s eyes sharpened, he even took a step closer.

 

With effort, Kay shifted his gaze back to Bettina. “I am just looking. My father might move here - ”

 

“Your father?” Marc asked, he sounded like someone was strangling him.

 

Kay nodded but gave no further explanation. “I... I should go.” He turned to Bettina, “enjoy your weekend.”

 

“You too.” Bettina smiled. “Let me know if you want some recommendations, I know this area well.” She offered.

 

“Thanks.” Kay nodded. Mentally crossed out this house on his list to consider.

 

Axel was still pacing nervously, his whimpers sounded nearly hysterical.

 

Kay crouched down and rubbed the back of Axel’s ears. I miss you, buddy, but I am afraid this is goodbye. He communicated to Axel silently. Kay whistled once sharply to get Axel’s attention. “Go!” He ordered sternly, pointing to Marc’s direction.  

 

Axel moved towards Marc, paused halfway, looked at Kay again.

 

“Go!” Kay said again.

 

Finally, Axel ran back to Marc.

 

“Good boy.” Kay said. “Good boy.” He murmured to himself. Straightened up, he caught a glimpse of the bitter smile on Marc’s face before he turned and walked away.

 

******

 

“What are we here for, exactly? PR or training?” Kay plopped down on the hotel bed. The soft bedding and low humming sound from the air-conditioner threatened to lull him to an afternoon nap.

 

They arrived in Marbella this afternoon for a week’s training.

 

“Both. We need to help the club to keep the fans entertained when there’s no football on TV.” Larsen said without looking at him. He’s still reading the team schedule for today.

 

“This is all new to me. St. Pauli didn’t have the money to go on these overseas trips.”

 

“The training will be light. The PR stuff hopefully will be fun. It’s more of a team building exercise...” Larsen trailed, then his eyebrows shot up. “Oh... looks like we are doing the ‘Quiz Taxi’ with Marc tomorrow afternoon.”

 

Kay sat up on the bed right away. “What? What quiz taxi?”

 

“A quiz-game. They will film us riding in a taxi, someone, probably someone from PR will ask us football questions, it’s a competition between teams. I almost won last year! This time, me, you and Marc are in the same team.”

 

When Kay didn’t say anything, Larsen sat down on his bed, “do you want to change team?”

 

“No. It’s fine. I am not avoiding him.”

 

“That’s the spirit.” Larsen punched Kay’s shoulder. “Though you never told me what happened.”

 

“Marc dumped me, that’s what happened.” Kay replied flippantly but turned his face away.

 

“Did he say why?”

 

“What does it matter? Maybe like you said, he broke it off when he got tired of me.”

 

“I doubt it. Marc clearly isn’t over you,” said Larsen with the confidence of man who would bet a million dollars on it.

 

Kay didn’t believe Marc got tired of him either, but he was clearly at the bottom of Marc’s list of priority. When Limpinski made that little dig in the dressing room, the fear on Marc’s face said it all - he’s never going to be ready, maybe he had never even considered it. To Marc, this thing between them had always had an end date. When things got difficult, he cut him loose...

 

Kay rubbed his temple. “I don’t need to hear this kind of talk, Arne. He made a decision. I accepted it. End of story.”

 

Don’t make it harder for me. Don’t make me hope again.

 

******

 

Marc didn’t look too thrilled to be on the same team as Kay either for the filming of the Quiz-taxi game.

 

The yellow taxi has 4 seats at the back facing each other, Marc got into the car after Kay and took the opposite seat. Larsen got in, glanced at both of them, then sat down next to Kay. “Move, Blondie. Give me some space.”

 

“Hey, I told you not to call me that.”

 

“Oh yeah? Tell that to those Japanese football magazines who nicknamed you the new ‘Blond Bomber’. Personally, I think Blondie is catchier.”

 

“That’s Jürgen Klinsmann’s nickname overseas. Der Blonder Bomber.” Marc offered. He glanced at Kay.

 

“Really? Thought his nickname is just Klinsi?” Larsen asked.

 

“We called him ‘Flipper’ in Hamburg,” said Kay. “Because he used to fall down on football pitch like a dolphin.”

 

“When he played in England, they called him a ‘Diver’ there, then in his first press conference, he asked the reporters to recommend a good diving school. After that joke, they all loved him.” Marc continued to offer his encyclopaedic football knowledge.

 

“Oh yeah, I remember that. He’s very theatrical.” Larsen leaned closer to Kay, “See? Marc knows everything about football, we are going to win.”

 

Kay rolled his eyes. Larsen liked to win, a trait shared by most football players, including Marc. He snuck a glance at Marc, just as the same time he looked up, they held each other’s gaze for a second. Then he saw Marc’s gaze moved to his lips...

 

Kay averted his eyes.

 

The crew set up the camera inside and outside the taxi, the director told them, “don’t worry about the microphones, just talk and act normal, we will edit out anything that can’t be used.” Then off they went, driving around on a sunny country road with no traffic.

 

Act normal.

 

“Where are the other teams’ cars?” Kay stuck his head outside the windows.

 

“Around. Don’t worry. There are no other cars.” Larsen explained, he put his arm behind Kay’s seat in a protective gesture. “They closed this route to let us film. No way the football club would risk us getting injured in a stupid car accident. Right, Marc?”

 

Marc nodded to assent, but his eyes were resting on Larsen’s fingers curled around Kay’s bicep.

 

Kay knew being flirtatious was Larsen’s default setting to everyone, so he never took anything he did seriously. But he was also keenly aware that Larsen was doing it deliberately, to get a rise out of Marc. Why did Larsen want to rile up Marc, Kay had no idea.

 

The only important thing was that Larsen has been a good friend to him, has been since Kay moved to Duisburg. What he did for Kay in the dressing room, that gave Kay hope that coming out in the world of pro football may not be impossible, if there were more Larsens and less Limpinskis in the world.

 

Kay saw Marc’s adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed and shifted his gaze away.

 

But once the game started, Marc seemed to recover, getting all competitive and serious again. Halfway through, between Marc and Larsen, they got 8 out 10 questions correct, tied with Limpinski’s team. Marc was even relaxed enough to make fun of Kay when he was dithering over a multiple-choice question.

 

“When in doubt, always pick option B. Haven’t you heard of that?” Marc teased.

 

Kay huffed, “is that how you passed your Abitur?”

 

They were still on the same points as Limpinski’s team with one question left.

 

“Which Tatort movie did German national team manager Joachim Löw make a guest appearance?” Larsen read out the last question from the card.

 

“Im Abseits!” Marc and Kay shouted the answer at the same time well before time-out whistle blew.

 

And they won. Larsen was busy making faces and taunting the other team in front of the camera.

 

Marc shifted in his seat, his gaze caught Kay’s, and his mouth curved into a rueful smile. Like they were sharing a secret.

 

For one moment, Kay almost forgot they weren’t together anymore, and they weren’t going back to their hotel room together after this.

 

******

 

Kay could still feel the heat in the night air. After a non-summer summer holiday in northern Sweden, he’s finally getting some hot weather.

 

Impossible to run fast for too long under this oppressive heat, Kay slowed down his pace to a recovery run, he could see the back entrance of the hotel in the distance.

 

He has slowed down to walking speed when he reached the back garden of the hotel. Only a few ground lights with soft diffused light illuminating the grass, in an otherwise, pitch black garden.

 

“Kay.”

 

He turned around but saw no one.

 

Marc stepped out from the shadow of a tree. He walked a few steps closer to Kay before he stopped.

 

“Shit. You scared me. Quit jumping out from the tree.”

 

Marc seemed to find it funny, but his smile didn’t reach his eyes. “I went to your room, Larsen said you went out. I figured you’re doing your night run in the park.”

 

“No prize for getting it right for this one,” Kay chuckled. He hoped the laugh sounded convincing enough to hide the lump blocking his throat.

 

But the joke seemed to have flown right over Marc’s head anyway, he was looking at Kay like he’s trying to decide if it’s safe to talk to him.

 

“Are you really thinking of renting that place?” Marc finally asked after a pause.

 

At first, Kay didn’t even know what Marc was referring to. Then he remembered. Realisation swept over him, as Kay felt something close to humiliation. This was why Marc was waiting for him in the dark.

 

Unbelievable. To think that earlier in the Quiz-taxi car, Kay had thought maybe after a few months, he could be friends with Marc. Like real friends. Not pretending to act normal for appearances’ sake; when in fact, Marc was worried Kay was about to commit the crime of moving too close his wife’s family.

 

Kay shook his head in disgust. “Don’t worry, Marc. I am not moving next door to your in-laws.” He walked past Marc.

 

Marc grabbed his forearm. “What? No!” He pulled Kay around to face him, but Kay shook him off.

 

Marc let go of his arm right away. “That’s not what I meant...” he swallowed.

 

Kay saw Marc’s stricken face, contorted with hurt. He exhaled slowly and softened his voice, “then what do you mean?”

 

Marc’s eyes made a quick sweep of the dark and quiet garden, he said quietly, “you said the house is for your father... I was just wondering what happened.”

 

Kay just stared at him. It wasn’t an excuse, Marc looked concerned. Like he really cared.

 

“You mentioned he was in rehab under court order. Have they released him?” Marc said when Kay didn’t answer.

 

The truth was Kay went ahead to search for rental properties without telling Britt or Oskar. He knew he was making the same mistake he made before - getting his hopes up, thinking that this would be it. This time it would stick; his father would stay clean.

 

“Not yet. But his court date is in two weeks... it will help his case if we can prove he has support. Hopefully a decent address and a son will do.”

 

Kay didn’t know why he’s telling Marc all these when he should discuss this with Oskar instead.

 

“That sounds promising, no?” Marc smiled kindly. Under the moonlight, Marc’s eyes looked black and fathomless.

 

Kay shrugged. Tried to remain noncommittal.

 

“You should rent that place. That’s a good area. Quiet, lot of green space and fresh air. Good for recovery.” Marc encouraged. His voice warm and sincere.

 

Kay smiled ruefully.

 

“What?”

 

“That’s exactly what I thought when I was looking at the house.”

 

Marc flashed him a genuine smile this time. They just stood looking at each other, breathing in the rose-scented night-air, forgetting everything that had happened the past week for just a few moments.

 

Then came the sound of a mobile ringtone. And the magic was broken.

 

Marc took out the mobile from his jeans pocket, glanced at it and turned away. “Hey. I am outside. I’ll call you back in a minute.” He said quietly into his mobile before putting it back in this pocket.

 

Kay pulled himself together, said stoically, “it’s late. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He walked past Marc.

 

“Good night.”

 

He heard Marc said behind him.

 

Chapter Text

Marc closed his eyes and turned to face the wall. The water rained down on his back. He was conscious of the intimate smell of Kay’s shower gel. That familiar fruity scent that Marc had often teased Kay about:

 

“It’s kind of a girly scent, don’t you think?”

 

“Fuck you. Leave my shower gel alone.”

 

Kay was three shower-stands away from him. Marc could hear his laughter; Larsen was cracking some in-jokes about their Sweden trip that only Kay and Karsten would get.

 

Marc was wary about Larsen these days. The Swede knew too much, and he seemed determined to make Marc uncomfortable. Marc wondered how much Kay confided in him. He imagined Kay lying in his hotel bed, the TV on low volume, telling Larsen what a disappointment Marc has turned out to be; that Marc was cowardice; and Larsen would offer comfort words and his sage Scandinavian advice. And Kay would tell Larsen what a good friend he has been...

 

When Marc went their room to look for Kay few nights ago, Larsen opened the door in his boxer-briefs and a mini bottle of Absolut vodka in hand.

 

“Why are you always half-naked?” Marc frowned.

 

Larsen rubbed his bare chest, smirked. “Why. We are in Spain. It’s 35 degrees outside.”

 

Marc ignored him. He mumbled, “can you get Kay for me?”

 

“He’s in the shower, I am about to join him.” Larsen took a sip from his vodka. “To cool off, you know?” He added with deliberate provocation.

 

Marc stared at him. Of course, he knew Larsen was talking bullshit, but still that image just popped into his head unwittingly.

 

“I don’t believe a word you said, and I am sick of your games, Arne. Just tell Kay I’m here.” Marc said through gritted teeth.

 

Larsen laughed. A finger pointing at Marc’s face. “But you did. You bought it for half a second,” said Larsen triumphantly. Then he stopped laughing long enough to say, “Kay is not here. He went out in his running shoes.”

 

Marc still didn’t believe there was anything sexual between Larsen and Kay. Nee. Larsen is just being a little shit, enjoying the spectacle of riling me up. Marc thought. But the fear was there. If not Larsen, sooner or later, it would be someone else. Someone who wasn’t a coward.

 

And it troubled him that Kay obviously trusted the Swede. And that... that should have been Marc.

 

Marc berated himself quietly. The level of audacity and selfishness. That Marc still wanted Kay to trust him, after what he did; still wanted Kay to... to what? Not sleep with anyone until Marc had gotten over him? Until it’s bearable for Marc?

 

That talk with Kay in the hotel garden two nights ago, Marc could hear the hope in Kay’s voice, his careful plan to reunite with his father. But he could also sense the doubt and vulnerability underneath the nonchalant facade. And that had almost been Marc’s undoing. And if Bettina hadn’t called him at the moment...

 

A wave of longing rolled through him. The knowledge of how deep his feelings for Kay ran, made Marc feel helpless. Out of control. Ironic, because that was part of the reason why he ended things with Kay - to get back in control of his life.

 

He shut off the shower and grabbed the towel on the rack. Marc glanced at the rest of the team, most of them still horsing around. Karsten produced a water gun out of nowhere and started squirting water to everyone’s face. Kay threw some soap suds on Karsten’s face for revenge and went back to shampooing his hair.

 

That green apple scent lingered in Marc’s mind as he walked out of the shower room.

 

******

 

Marc found himself sitting in the back garden of the hotel again.

 

Still not sleeping well, sometimes he’d take half of a sleeping pill, but tonight he thought he could try some fresh night air. And if Kay happened to go out for a run...

 

“Don’t worry, I heard even Herrlich is there. Some Spanish football big-wig having a party there.”

 

“Did someone say pool party?”

 

He heard conversation in German and English. A group of Marc’s teammates walked past him. He got up from the bench just in time to see Limpinski carrying two cases of beers.

 

“Marc! Roof top pool party at the hotel next door. Coming?” Karsten jogged over to him. Tonight was the last day of this trip, that meant no training session tomorrow, for young football players that meant parties, alcohol and video games.

 

Limpinski chimed in, “Come on Marc. We need to have some Duisburg representations here. Don’t leave me alone with these Nordic jackasses.”

 

Marc took a curious look at the group of overgrown boy-men and spotted Larsen chatting with others at the back, already looking tipsy.

 

He shook his head. “Wait til your wives and girlfriends see you all on Instagram,” said Marc half-jokingly, eyeing Larsen the whole time.

 

Finally, the Swede glanced at him and walked in slow and deliberate steps towards him, with glee on his face. Larsen leaned close to Marc and said in a low voice, “waiting for Kay?”

 

So close, Marc could smell the vodka on his breath, he wanted to step back but Larsen put his arm around him. “Didn’t know you are secretly a romantic...” he let out a string of drunken giggles. “Here, take my key. Kay is in the room, said he has to do some paperwork.” He discreetly thrust his room card into Marc’s hand.

 

Marc watched Larsen walked to join the others, clutching the room card tightly in his hand. His mind going 100 miles per hour.

 

The debate inside his head was short and blurry. Marc got into the elevator in autopilot. When he was outside Kay’s room, he decided to knock.

 

“Arne, enough of the vodka jello... I need to...” Kay opened the door after two knocks. He stared at Marc.

 

“Hey.” Marc said, rubbing the back of his neck.

 

Kay didn’t say anything - not even a ‘what are you doing here’ - which was a relief because he didn’t have an answer for that. Marc added hastily, “saw Larsen downstairs, he said you are not going to the party.”

 

“Looks like you aren’t either.” Kay answered. He eyed Marc for another second before he moved aside. Marc went in.

 

There were a few empty packets of vodka jello on the floor, must have been 36 shots in there.

 

“Larsen?” Marc asked incredulously, pointing to the packets.

 

“I had a few too, but yeah, he eats them like candies.”

 

“He looks a bit tipsy. Didn’t know you can get drunk from them.” Marc shook his head.

 

“Arne would eat broccoli if they are dipped in vodka.” Kay smiled faintly, affectionately. Indulgently. Marc has never been so jealous of Arne Larsen.

 

The room was a lot more chaotic than when Marc was sharing a room with Kay. He took a subconscious glance at the two beds, both looked messy and slept in. Marc pushed back the comforter and sat on the edge of one of the beds.

 

Kay opened the mini-bar fridge and took out two bottles of beer. He handed one to Marc, took a sip from his own and went to sit in front of the writing desk.

 

Marc looked at Kay’s back. He was wearing one of his old band t-shirts, the round collar frayed from years of washing; the black cotton tee contrasting with his unblemished pale skin. Marc remembered waking up and kissing the soft golden hair on Kay’s nape of neck in the morning, his hands wrapped around his waist...

 

A lifetime ago.

 

Six weeks ago, if one had to get technical, since he had last woken up in bed with Kay.

 

Marc swallowed the beer too quickly; he covered his mouth and stifled the cough. Peering over his shoulders, he saw Kay’s laptop was opened with a Word document on the screen.

 

“What are you working on?” Marc asked.

 

Kay turned; his lips pressed together. “I am writing a letter to the judge for my father’s hearing,” he grimaced. “Oskar would have a look but he wants me to write it first, so it’s more personal.”

 

Marc remembered Kay had mentioned his father’s court date is next week.

 

“What’s the letter for?”

 

“The way Oskar explains it, it’s something between a character reference and a pleading letter. I will read it in front of the judge.” Kay rubbed his temples.

 

Marc got up from bed. “Are you nervous about it?” He asked. How could he not be? Marc’s hands automatically went to Kay’s shoulders, to give him a reassuring rub but he stopped himself just in time and put them in his jeans pockets instead.

 

“Speech writing is not really my forte.”

 

“Can I have a look?” Marc offered.

 

Kay hesitated for a beat, then moved the laptop slightly to the right. Marc leaned closer to the screen, his hand grabbing the corner of the desk for support; he could feel Kay watching him. Marc started to read.

 

It was actually quite well written. Kay talked about his childhood, his father’s love for animals, how he taught Kay to look after foster dogs; that he was funny and kind. And how his father tried to fight the addiction for years, despite setbacks, relapses, he always tried to get back up.

 

“I think it’s really good.” Marc said.

 

“Yeah?” Kay said skeptically. “You don’t think it sounds like a cliched sob story?”

 

Marc turned to look at Kay, this time he didn’t stop his hand from brushing the side of Kay’s face. “I think it’s personal and hopeful. Maybe you can also say how it will affect you. How much you look forward to live with him?”

 

Kay nodded and mumbled a thank you. Colour rose on his cheeks, he looked uncomfortable or maybe embarrassed, Marc wasn’t sure.

 

Marc watched him save the document and close the laptop. Something was still bothering him, Marc could tell.

 

He hazarded a guess. “You are having second thoughts about living with your father?”

 

Kay seemed surprise by the question, but Marc could tell he guessed right. He looked skyward and shook his head. “What if I am making it worse for him?”

 

“How could you make it worse?”

 

Kay took a sip of his beer. “He hasn’t been happy since my mother left...” he lowered his eyes. “Sometimes I think seeing me makes him sad.”

 

“Why would he?” Marc was still perplexed.

 

Kay wiped the corner of his mouth with his wrist, his eyes fixed on a spot on the desk. Perhaps debating if he should tell Marc more.

 

Marc waited. He didn’t want to push.

 

“My mother never wanted to have me.”

 

Kay just let that sentence hang in the air; then he shrugged and said, “it’s the truth. She didn’t want to have children. And then they had me... I guess maybe some people are just not made for that. She was unhappy for years... and then one day, she just left.”

 

Kay wasn’t waiting for a response; his brow furrowed, gathering his thoughts. “Britt said I blocked it out, but I don’t remember much about her. She was away a lot. Even when she was there, she was distant. Oskar told me she had depression, but maybe he was just saying it to make me feel better.”

 

Marc shook his head. No... no... no.

 

“Kay, you can’t think that you are responsible for...” Marc stuttered. Horrified. He couldn’t even get the words out. It’s preposterous.  

 

But Kay shook his head too, “you don’t understand. When she left, it destroyed him. He really loves her. And... I know... I shouldn’t... Oskar spent years try to get this out of my head, but I can’t help but think maybe seeing me is painful for him.”

 

“Argh... scheiße.” Marc pulled him into his arms and was relieved that Kay let him. Marc tightened his hold. He said next to Kay’s ear, fiercely, “no, he doesn’t! There’s no way! Trust me, I am a father, I know. I would never blame my child for that. No.”

 

Kay rested his head on Marc’s shoulder.

 

Marc put his hand on Kay’s back and began to rub in circles, he murmured, “didn’t you say he staged that great escape, in order to see you play in Munich? How can he not be happy to see you?”

 

Instead of answering, Kay wrapped his arms around Marc’s waist, his body soft and pliable in his arms. Encouraged. Marc moved his lips to kiss the side of Kay’s head, his face, offering small comforts. He had the sudden urge to say fuck it all; he was ready to do anything to take away his hurt.

 

It was quite a while before Kay finally pulled away. “Jeez. Listen to me blabbing.” Kay tried to joke and sniffed, looking thoroughly embarrassed.

 

They locked gazes. Not long ago, they were able to communicate just by looking into each other’s eyes: a long pass, a run into the penalty area, a kiss on his sensitive spot; they were in sync on and off the football pitch.

 

But now, Marc had no idea where they go from here.

 

“Marc, what are we doing here?” Kay asked quietly, his pale blue eyes stayed on Marc’s, direct and unblinking.

 

“I don’t know.” Marc admitted.

 

If Kay was disappointed with the answer, he wasn’t letting it show.

 

“You never let me explain,” said Marc. His brain hurt from the memory of that afternoon; it was the worst day of his life. The way they ended things. His heart felt bruised.

 

Kay reached up and squeezed the back of his neck. He let out a long sigh. “So? You want to say your piece and have closure?”

 

Do I? Marc thought. No, that’s not what I want. I want...

 

“I care about you. A lot.” I am crazy about you. “But I have a responsibility to Bettina, to my family... she... she thought it was her fault that we aren’t happy... and I just. I can’t. I have to...”

 

Fuck! This is hard.

 

“It’s okay. I understand,” said Kay, interrupting. Maybe he thought he was helping Marc. “I am working through it myself. I’ll be okay...” Kay added unemotionally.

 

Fuck! Marc couldn’t.

 

“No, you don’t understand.” Marc shook his head. “I can’t stop thinking about you... I can’t sleep... I am jealous of Larsen...“ he laughed bitterly. Defeated.

 

A pause. Marc stepped close to Kay, cupping his face. “I don’t know what I am going to do.” He pleaded.

 

Kay covered Marc’s hands with his, he leaned in and kissed Marc on the lips. Just a featherlight kiss, the first one since that awful afternoon, and Marc could feel his stomach fluttering; it’s like oxygen to his starving lung.

 

They held on to each other like this until Marc felt the wetness on his fingers, it could be his own; could be Kay’s.

 

Kay blinked and a tear rolled down on his cheek. “Marc, you can’t make everyone happy.”

Chapter Text

(Marc)

 

Marc was staring at the Greek worry-beads in Stefan’s hand. His half-Greek agent kept flipping it back and forth between his fingers, making smacking loud sounds.

 

How could this thing be a relaxing pastime to anyone? Marc wondered. His father didn’t seem to be bothered by it, he was talking and laughing with Stefan, from the state of the German national team to whether Bayern Munich should cash in on Lewandowski before he became too old.

 

The barbecue party/meeting was arranged by Wolfgang Borgmann, he wanted to have an update from Stefan about Marc’s contract negotiation with FC Duisburg and have men’s only party.

 

Marc asked Frank to join them, in case the party-meeting overran.

 

“How was Marbella? Heard there was a big pool party with topless models.” Frank wiggled his eyebrows. Still in close contact with a few Duisburg players, he still got all the juicy gossip.

 

Marc shrugged. “I didn’t go.”

 

“I saw a photo of Larsen and Karsten skinny dipping with two brunettes in the pool, that tells me everything I need to know!”

 

Marc wasn’t aware of the photo; he was too busy trying to stay close to his favourite blond that night.

 

“Marc, you can’t make everyone happy.”

 

Marc gently wiped away that single teardrop on Kay’s face with his fingertip. Looking into Kay’s glassy eyes, Marc knew his admission without a decision has only added misery to Kay.

 

Kay slowly pulled away; he huffed out a laugh and sniffed hard, couldn’t wait to put up a brave front again. Back to ‘we are teammates’ mode. He thanked Marc for his help with the letter, then pretended he had to call Oskar.

 

That night Marc went back to his room alone, gazing out the wall of windows overlooking the moonlit ocean. He knew Kay was leaving a small gap open for him, but there was no going back to the way things were.

 

He has missed out a large chunk of what Frank has been saying by the time he returned his attention.

 

“Limpinski got a black eye from a fight. Herrlich has confiscated everyone’s mobiles until we landed back in Germany,” said Marc, thinking they were still talking about the pool party. He could swear everyone in his team was a fucking idiot.

 

“I heard.” Frank sniggered. “Ah... I miss the lads and the fun.”

 

Marc knew he did. “Sick of infinite holiday already?” asked Marc.

 

“Claudia is coming up with a different thing to learn together every day. I am glad to have an excuse to get out today.”

 

Marc smiled. He missed Frank in the team. Sometimes he wondered if Frank hadn’t gotten injured and Kay hadn’t been assigned to be his new roommate... would the two of them have still gotten together? Would he still have been blissfully unaware what it was like to be with a man...

 

But no, those few months with Kay. Marc didn’t regret it. Not one bit.

 

“... from what I heard, Bayern is having doubt about him. There are concerns about those rumours...”

 

Marc caught the end of Stefan’s conversation with his father. He sat up in his garden chair. “Who are you talking about?”

 

Stefan looked surprised. He turned to Marc, said, “Kay Engel. My Bayern contact told me they’ve put their pursue on hold. Apparently, one of the directors heard about Engel’s involvement in that Finn Mayer photo-leak... you know the one with the sports doctor? They are afraid Engel is a scandal time bomb.”

 

“What involvement? Isn’t Engel your roommate, Marc?” asked Wolfgang Borgmann.

 

Marc’s heart started hammering. He shook his head, said in dull tone, “not anymore. I have my own room.”

 

“Finn Mayer has come out, as you all know. Well, he had to, after the leak. His photos and videos were leaked first, no amount of super injunction can put those back in the bag. I know his agent is now looking for LGBT brands for sponsorship deals...” Stefan looked positively impressed, he thought that was genius crisis management.

 

“Kay Engel is gay?” Marc’s father raised his eyebrows.

 

Stefan shrugged. “Not that anyone can prove it. Shame. Duisburg could have made a handsome profit selling him. Bayern would have up their bid to 30 million. That’s an 18 million profit in six months.”

 

Marc had to bite down on the inside of his cheek to keep in any rude comments.

 

Wolfgang Borgmann agreed. “No doubt. He’s gifted. Well, not leadership material like Marc, but he’s a natural athlete, has good instincts too. Herrlich told me at first, he didn’t even want to move to Duisburg. What’s the matter with him? Who doesn’t want to play at the highest level? He doesn’t seem to have ambition.”

 

“Maybe football is not his whole world.” Marc said, “maybe that’s good thing.” He couldn’t help to add.

 

Wolfgang’s displease was plain to see. He said sternly, “ambition is what separates a great player from a good player. Gifted players who don’t bother to advance their career will always be just that - gifted. Without success, that means nothing.”

 

Marc had nothing to say to that. He knew this speech well. His father has been saying this for years; has drilled this into Marc’s head since he was in the junior team.

 

“Although it’s unfair to have this kind of rumour hanging over Engel,” said Wolfgang Borgmann, shaking his head. “He could lose sponsorships over it.”

 

Stefan took a sip of his beer, “not sure if it’s just rumour. I know a reporter who’ve seen the photos before the super-injunction. He said they are very intimate photos.”

 

Marc clenched and unclenched his fists.

 

Oblivious to Marc’s distress, Stefan continued to gossip, “he is convinced that Engel was sleeping with that doctor, that he probably has other lovers. Maybe he is a risk.”

 

“Enough!” Marc barked out the order. “You shut up about Kay! Not another word.” He gave Stefan a murderous look, eyes blazing.

 

Stefan froze. Marc was shocked by his own outburst. He was not close to Stefan, but he was still a friend. Marc has never spoken to him like that.

 

“Marc!” His father warned, his brow furrowed. “What’s the matter with you? We are all just having a harmless chat here.”

 

“Fucking gossiping is what we are doing.” Marc scowled. Still angry.

 

Stefan looked thoroughly mortified. He stammered, “hey... sorry Marc, I forgot he’s your mate. I didn’t mean anything disrespectful.”

 

When Marc finally got his temper and heart rate under control, he glanced and noticed Frank has been staring at him and he hadn’t said a word the whole time.

 

Wolfgang Borgmann sighed, “a shame if Engel really is of that inclination. I have nothing against gay people, even knew a few players like that in my days, but they never...”

 

“I’ll go get more beers.” Marc excused himself and got up.

 

******

 

They didn’t speak for the first 5 minutes. Marc shifted uncomfortably in the passenger seat.

 

Finally, Frank spared him a glance, chuckled without mirth, said, “took me long enough to make sense of that unused bed I saw that night. You looked like you were about to have a heart attack.”

 

Marc blinked out the windscreen, shocked speechless.

 

Frank knew. He connected the dots. Marc’s heart sank

 

It was only after three in the afternoon when they left Marc’s parents’ house. Everyone was a little tensed after Marc’s uncharacteristic outburst. Stefan had made a quick update about the contract negotiation progress and stayed behind to discuss a potential tv pundit post with Wolfgang.

 

“Don’t worry. You know I won’t say anything,” Frank reassured him.

 

They drove in silence for a while. Finally, Marc found his voice, clinging onto bare thread of calm. “I ended it,” he told Frank without inflection. “After Switzerland.”

 

Frank nodded, seemed to be considering how to respond. Marc had to give him credit that his best friend didn’t take offence, didn’t ask why Marc had kept it from him. He was relieved Frank wasn’t… disgusted.

 

“Remember that English kid Liam? Liam Mitchell? Who were with us for just one season before Herrlich took over?” Frank asked out of the blue.

 

Marc frowned; wasn’t sure why Frank mentioned a player from four seasons ago. “Yes, he was 18 when he joined us, never got a regular place in the first team,” he replied.

 

FC Duisburg had signed Liam Mitchell from Southampton for a bargain, he was supposed to be some sort of young sensation, touted as England’s future hope. After an unsuccessful spell in Bundesliga, he had returned to English Premier League, after two seasons, had been relegated to irrelevancy.

 

“Yep. The rumour has it that he was in the closet and coach Brandt found out, never gave the kid a chance,” said Frank, watching Marc carefully.

 

Marc had no idea Liam was gay. But he could easily imagine such treatment under a coach like Werner Brandt - stoic, conservative and inflexible. Kay and he have been lucky that it was Herrlich who spotted them kissing.

 

“I know how impossible it is to be gay and play football.” Marc said dejectedly. He took a second to absorb what he has just admitted. Until now, he hasn’t used that word to describe himself.

 

Frank threw him a quick glance before returning to the road in front. “Is that what you are? You are gay, all this time?”

 

Am I?

 

“I don’t know.” Marc shook his head. His favourite answer to a lot of questions these days. He added frustratingly, “I... I don’t think so. I’ve never...” he trailed. “It was only Kay.”

 

And still the only man Marc ever wanted. But he couldn’t imagine saying that to Frank; he had never imagined he would have this conversation with Frank.

 

“Maybe it’s just a one-time thing, uh? Kay is a handsome guy, I can see some guys may be curious… tempted... not that I understand it. What I mean is... you were so in love with Bettina.” Frank attempted to figure it out. Perhaps more to himself than to Marc.

 

Marc licked his lips nervously. Frank just hit the core and he didn’t even know it.

 

I was. Past tense.

 

“Claudia said Bettina was happier these days. Said you are making an effort to work on your marriage.”

 

Marc nodded, not meeting Frank’s eyes. He should be happy. That was the result he was looking for, wasn’t it?

 

Silence filled the air inside the car while they drove for another mile.

 

Then Frank asked, “but are you happy?”

 

******

 

(Kay)

 

“Stop fidgeting. It will be fine.” Britt grabbed his hand on his lap.

 

They are at the visitors’ lounge of Therapiedorf Villa. Oskar has arranged with the administrator there to have an hour of family visit before Kristian Engel’s court appearance.

 

Kay’s stomach squirmed with a mix of worry and razor-sharp anticipation. This was the 4th rehab centre Kay’s father has been in for treatment, the 2nd one under court order. He tried to keep the feeling of déjà vu at bay.

 

The rehab centre is in the suburb of Wiesbaden. A massive old building with acres of green space surrounding it. The sunlit visitors lounge had doors accessing outdoor garden, they had an open-door policy, patients were allowed to go outside but they had to report to reception twice a day and attend required rehabilitation sessions.

 

“There he is,” said Oskar.

 

Kay looked up and saw his father walking towards them. He stood up.

 

Despite years of drug use, Kristian Engel’s high cheekbones and well-defined jawline have helped to preserve his good looks. Kay’s blond hair and pale blue eyes were taken after his mother. Clean shaven and dressed in dark grey shirt, Kristian Engel’s shoulder length wavy light brown hair was kept tidy with a tie at the back, his big hazel eyes were clear and alert.

 

Kay exhaled a small sigh. His father looked healthy. In fact, it was the healthiest he has looked in a few years. But still, he couldn’t relax. Not yet.

 

“Oskar, my friend.” Kristian hugged Oskar first. He nodded to Britt, who stood next to her father.

 

“Good to see you again, Mr Engel.” Britt greeted him coolly. Kay knew his father wasn’t Britt’s favourite person in the world.

 

But Kristian barely registered Britt’s cool reception, his eyes shifted to Kay. He smiled widely.

 

Kay could tell his father wanted to give him a hug. But no, he’s not ready yet. Kay walked closer to him but kept his arms on his sides, he said, “Papa.”

 

Kristian looked him up and down, seemed satisfied. “Still keeping your hair so short? You are not training as a sprinter anymore.”

 

Kay returned a weak smile.

 

Oskar got the legal stuff out of the way first, telling Kay’s father what to expect and what to say later in court.

 

“Kay will also address the judge today,” he told Kristian Engel. But his father shook his head, “are you sure this is a good idea? I don’t want people to know Kay has me as a father.”

 

“Papa...” Kay began.

 

“There’s no press in the court hearing. Believe it or not, sports reporters have better things to write. So don’t worry.” Oskar said in his usual gentle, reassuring tone. Then he gestured Britt to follow him. “Come on, Britt, let’s go get some coffee.”

 

Britt kissed Kay on the cheek. “I’ll see you later, K. Alright?” She asked meaningfully. Kay returned a nod with more bravado than he felt.

 

Then it was just him and his father.

 

He could feel Kristian Engel’s gaze on him. “Do you want to sit in the garden for a bit?” Kay suggested.

 

Kristian followed his son outside. They found a quiet spot away from the main building, with a single wooden bench.

 

Kay sat down on the bench and stretched his long legs out, he looked around the unfamiliar surroundings.

 

“I am sorry about Munich,” his father said before he sat down next to Kay.

 

Kay nodded. So many things had happened that night, his father’s lie by omission and no-show now seemed a distant past. Marc had helped to ease his pain that night. “It’s okay. But you should have told me the truth,” Kay said quietly.

 

“I know,” Kristian said. “I just... I really wished I could be there.” He touched the back of his neck, in a carbon-copy way as Kay. “At least they let me watch the game’s highlights a day later on TV when I told my therapist my son won the Bundesliga league title. I am so proud of you.”

 

“You don’t even follow football.” Kay reminded him.

 

“I do now. Though you probably have to tell me again what the offside rules are.”

 

Kay smiled faintly. Their eye contact held. He knew his father was trying, but years of disappointments has taught Kay how fast things could change again. Nothing ever felt safe or certain to him. Except Britt and Oskar.

 

“Feels like not long ago you were still a skinny kid chasing football in the back garden with the dogs we fostered,” Kristian said wistfully, looking nostalgic. “Do you still get nightmares? I remember you had them when you were a kid. Your mother used to be so worried.”

 

Except Kay didn’t remember his mother worrying about him. It had always been his father who rushed into his room when he had night terrors.

 

Kay shook his head. The last time he had one, Marc was in the room with him and they watched Tatort rerun together afterwards, those early days. Nothing but innocent quickened pulses and stealing glances. The budding beginning of their short affair. Even though Marc never uttered the word, for a while, Kay had felt loved. Safe.

 

But good times never last long, not for Kay. Without warning, tears began to roll down on his cheek.

 

It took his father a second to realise what was happening. Alarmed; he grabbed Kay’s arm; his face etched with worry. “What’s the matter? Did something happen?”

 

Kay couldn’t speak. He kept shaking his head, but the tears kept coming. Scheiße. Ever since that night Marc went to his room, it’s like a fucking dam has broken. Now he just cried on cue like a goddamn schoolgirl.

 

Fuck.

 

His father pressed, “did someone hurt you? Come on, Kay, tell me. You can tell me.”

 

Kay turned his face away, wiped the nose on his sleeves. Sniffed and cleared his throat, fighting to get his composure back. His father reached out his hand and brushed his hair with such tenderness, like when he was 8... or even younger, when his mother was still there, when drugs were meant for headaches and tummy aches only in their house.

 

He’s tired of this repeated song and dance.

 

“I miss her too, Papa.” Kay said, wiped his nose again and faced his father.

 

Kristian Engel’s hand stopped. Of course, he knew whom Kay was referring to.

 

Kay closed his eyes, hardened his voice. “I miss her too, but she’s never coming back. You hear me? And it’s ok.” His voice choked.

 

His father pulled him into his arms. “We are okay, just the two of us, aren’t we?” Kay murmured.

 

Kristian said nothing, he just kept brushing Kay’s hair in slow strokes.

 

All of a sudden, Kay felt the fight drained out of him and he was bone tired. Not just for today, but the cumulative months prior - the impasse with Marc; the fear and hope he pinned on his father; lies he had to tell to keep playing football. Love and happiness; heartbreak and hurt...

 

He dropped his head on his father’s shoulder for the first time in 7 years, and said, “I wish we can just move back to Hamburg together, or somewhere new. Forget everything. No football, no drugs. Starting over.”

 

Chapter Text

(Marc)

 

“Good episode?”

 

“Huh?” Marc looked up and saw Bettina walked into the TV room. “Err... good what?” Marc asked. He pushed his mobile behind his back on the sofa.

 

“Tatort. Is it a good one tonight?” She watched Marc with mild amusement. “Aren’t you watching it?” Her voice held a hint of... curiosity?

 

“Uh-huh. Yeah, it’s alright,” Marc answered. “Nothing spectacular but better than most.” He felt the need to expand his answer.

 

Bettina didn’t seem to care one way or the other, though her eyes were still watching him. Marc felt the vibration of his mobile on his back, he nearly jumped.

 

Scheiße.

 

He had no reason to feel guilty, he wasn’t cheating on Bettina. This was completely innocent and harmless. Marc shifted a little on the sofa and pretended to return his attention to the TV screen.

 

Bettina stood by the door frame for another second. “I am drawing a bath for Jonas. Don’t fall asleep here,” she reminded him and left before Marc could respond.

 

He fished out the mobile from behind and read the notification: new text message from Kay Engel.

 

Finally.

 

Marc quietly exhaled a breath he’s been holding and swiped to open the message.

 

>>noooo........! it’s the brother in law<<

 

He smiled slowly to himself. Like opening present on Christmas Eve when he was a kid.

 

Marc quickly typed his reply. >>but he has no motive<<

 

******

 

Isn’t it supposed to be better by now? That I should be missing him less, not more?

 

Marc had gotten tired of waiting. Tired of waiting for that aching mass in his chest to ease. So, he gave in. Because he needed to breathe again.

 

At the beginning, Marc had just wanted to keep an eye on Kay; wanted Kay to know he still have a friend in him. Especially after Kay had told him his father had been released and had moved in with Kay.

 

In case Kay needs someone to talk to. Marc had told himself.

 

The new football season would start in two weeks, training has gotten intense in the last month. They had a hectic training schedule with friendly matches lined up. There was no time and no place at the training centre for them to talk in private, so Marc began to text Kay since the beginning of July, after Kay came back from Wiesbaden.

 

Just occasionally. A few times a day... sometimes more... when it’s necessary... whenever Kay replied.

 

That was the difficult part - Kay didn’t always reply and sometimes even when he did it was hours later. And Marc would wonder where he had been? What had he been doing and with whom.

 

Sometimes Marc would refuse to look at his phone, hoping Kay had messaged him. Hoping he hadn’t.

 

At times it was torturous; sometimes it was the highlight of his day.

 

Most of their text exchange was innocuous: teasing banter, funny incidents at training, Tatort movie on Sundays. But when Marc sensed something wasn’t quite right, he would probe; usually Kay would change the subject or simply not answer.

 

A few times though, after some coaxing, Kay would tell him what’s been bothering him. Usually had to do with his father. And Marc treasured moments like these the most and yearned he could physically be there for him.

 

What’s stopping you? He asked himself.

 

“But are you happy?” Frank had asked.

 

Lying in bed at night, next to a sleeping Bettina, Marc’s mind still occupied by Kay; wondering if Kay was thinking of him too at that moment.

 

Is this still cheating? Just in a different form?

 

******

 

(Kay)

 

Kay heard the familiar “ting” sound of the new text message alert just as he put down his mobile on the hotel nightstand. He glanced at it: new text message from Marc Borgmann. And decided it to leave it for now.

 

Larsen, shrewd as ever, has seen through him right away. “Answer him. You know it’s killing him when you don’t.” He rolled his eyes and shook his head at the same time, perhaps fed up with the drama.

 

“It’s nothing. He’s probably just bored now he has no roommate.” Kay explained, unconvincingly even to his own ears.

 

“Marc is a master of self-denial. Looks like it’s rubbing off on you too,” Larsen said coolly. Never wasted a good exit line, he did a mock salute to Kay, threw out a “Later!” and left the room.

 

Kay knew texting with Marc was, of course, a bad idea. But like with a lot of things, when it comes to Marc, his heart won the internal battle over his mind.

 

The texting started right after Kay had gotten back from the court appearance in Wiesbaden. Freshly reunited with his father, Kay faced a daily battle between trust and paranoia. Britt and Oskar had been there ready to help, but Kay had turned them down. They’ve done enough for the Engels.

 

Then came Marc’s text. A simple >>i heard. happy for you<<

 

It had warmed his heart way more than it should have. Almost unfairly so.

 

Kay had texted back. And Marc had replied almost immediately. Back and forth. Then suddenly, they were in contact every day.

 

They would talk about training, the new signings Duisburg had made in the summer, about Tatort; sometimes Marc would ask about his father and Kay would tell him how they’ve been following therapist’s advice - to avoid triggers, build new habits... through this whirlwind of change, with all the small steps carrying Kay’s fragile hopes, it was Marc’s text messages that offered Kay solace and happiness.

 

Is it a sign of weakness for me to give in to this? To accept these little things that Marc feels safe to offer?

 

What they wouldn’t talk about was Bettina; or whether Kay was seeing anyone. Or how much they miss each other.

 

Kay busied himself with unpacking before he finally picked up the mobile and read the text message.

 

>>know any good dog dessert? asking for a friend<< Marc attached a picture of Axel licking his paw under the message.

 

Looking at Axel’s big black nose and brown button eyes, Kay couldn’t help but smile; he typed >>remember that time Axel ate half a jar of peanut butter?<<

 

His finger was hovering over the send icon before he remembered that incident had happened in his old apartment. They had been kissing and making out on the sofa, ready to tear each other’s clothes off when Axel had wandered into the kitchen, knocked over an open jar of peanut butter and helped himself with it.

 

He retyped the message >>peanut butter? *smiling emoji*<< and pressed send. Then put away his mobile/temptation for now.

 

Marc wanted Kay in his life, that much was clear. But in what capacity? The texting has only further muddled the water between them. They were more than teammates; they were friends who didn’t see each other outside work; they were lovers only in their separate dreams.

 

Kay knew they were simply prolonging the inevitable, but like watching a slow train wreck, he was powerless to stop it.

 

******

 

(Bettina)

 

11:30pm. Bettina walked into the TV room and found Marc sleeping on the large sectional sofa. This happened a lot lately.

 

She gingerly sat down beside him, studied his face. He looked relaxed, the bags under his eyes were gone. Bettina hadn’t said anything, but she knew Marc had been taking sleeping pills, around the time he had returned to training. Bettina had seen the bottle, the half-split pills. She knew Marc had pretended to sleep, then got up in the middle of night to go to the bathroom, came back and slept for the remaining few hours.

 

Then a week or so after he got back from Spain, he changed again. He seemed to be sleeping better but his mood varied, looking preoccupied one minute, a silly grin on his face the next. And he never left his mobile alone.

 

Bettina stared at him for a few moments before she shifted her gaze to the mobile next to his hand. Marc had fallen asleep holding the phone and it had dropped from his hand.

 

She picked it up and sat down on the other end of the sofa. She had never done it before; had thought she wasn’t this kind of wife; she tried an old password she knew Marc had used before. It was Jonas’ birthday.

 

The password still worked.

 

There was one unseen notification - a new text message from Kay Engel.

 

She swiped to open it.

 

>>goodnight<<

 

That was it.

 

Except it wasn’t. She strolled up and found message after message. Long and short. Every day. Several times a day.

 

There was nothing scandalous about them, they weren’t organising secret meet-ups, no photo exchange except a few of Axel; they were just series of mundane conversations. When Bettina read further up, she found some conversations about Kay’s father, Marc offering not so much advice, but support... comfort... reassurance.

 

They sounded nothing like the Marc she knew, they were the strangest things Bettina has ever read.

 

******

 

(Marc)

 

(16 August 2019, Home Game: FC Duisburg v FC Augsburg)

 

Marc watched Larsen standing at the centre of the pitch, the ball under his foot, waiting for the game to start. Back in his element, his domain. Marc took a deep breath, observing his surroundings, fans unfolding new banners proclaiming the club’s league title holder status, chanting and singing, flashes of cameras from the media. They could not ask for better atmosphere for a season opening game.

 

But the jolt of excitement Marc used to feel before every game didn’t come. He was more wired than excited, like he’s facing a difficult task, not defending a title he had fought so hard for his entire life.

 

It’s just nerves. He told himself. I will get back into the fighting-for-a-win mindset soon enough.

 

Standing to his left on the edge of the centre circle was Kay. He was rolling his head left and right, mumbling something. Marc recognised this was Kay’s way of psyching himself up for the game; he smiled, finally felt a tremor of excitement.

 

Marc clapped his hands one last time to encourage his teammates and the game started.

 

Augsburg was playing a defensive game plan; they had to. With Kay and Larsen’s partnership up front on top of Marc’s doppelpass play with Kay, most weaker teams just played to stop them from scoring.

 

Herrlich wanted a quick start, hoping to get one goal before Augsburg’s defence got into shape, so they sliced into Augsburg’s five-men defensive line as soon as the opening whistle blew.

 

It wasn’t working. The whole first half, Larsen only had two half chances, both off target. Augsburg’s defence fought for every ball and early. Marc knew they were wasting time holding possession of the ball in midfield without making any real threats.

 

Kay was closely marked by Augsburg’s newly signed Spanish defender, Jose Ramos, known to be quick on his feet and cunning. Every time he made a tackle on Kay, he would fall down even harder on the ground himself, feigning injury, playing victim. It’s dirty play. Marc could tell Kay was barely able to keep his cool.

 

Just before half-time, Ramos made another reckless tackle from behind to get the ball from Kay. Both players fell down. Marc watched Kay try to get up, when Ramos started to say something to him. Suddenly Kay whipped his head around, he thrust his finger inches close to Ramos’s face, talked back to him angrily. Marc couldn’t hear what they were saying, he ran over there immediately, just as Larsen pulled Kay away. Ramos just laughed, sneering shamelessly.

 

The referee finally gave Ramos a yellow card and a verbal warning to Kay.

 

“What’s wrong? What did he say?” Marc asked, touching Kay’s shoulder. Larsen looked at Marc and shook his head - not now - was what Larsen trying to communicate.

 

“Nothing.” Kay mumbled, he barely looked at Marc before quickly ran back to his position.

 

In the 2nd half, Herrlich changed tactics, he pushed Karsten up to attack from his right back position, while Kay dropped back to help with defence, to confuse Augsburg’s defence set up.

 

Karsten was not a natural attacking full back, but he worked well with Marc in midfield and Augsburg couldn’t respond quick enough to the sudden change. 10 minutes into the 2nd half, Karsten made a pass to Larsen from the right, Augsburg’s defender was forced to bring down Larsen right outside the penalty area. They were rewarded a free-kick, Marc curved the ball over the 5-men wall and into the top corner, just under the bar.

 

1-0.

 

After that, it became easier, Augsburg needed to come out to look for an equaliser to get at least one point. Herrlich made a signal to the team to switch to counter-attack mode.

 

Duisburg doubled their score line when Kay got the ball from Limpinski’s goal-kick and made a swift counter-attack, he ran so fast, Ramos tried to pull his shirt from behind but Kay shook him off, he passed the ball to Larsen just before the 6-yard box. The Swede beat the goalkeeper at the near post effortlessly. A well-executed counterattack.

 

The game ended with 2-0 with fans still singing well after the final whistle had blown. Business as usual. Marc breathed a sigh of relief.

 

He gave the obligatory press interviews, praising his teammates, their fans, like he had done hundred times before. But the whole time, he was itching to go find Kay, wanted to know what happened between him and Ramos on the pitch earlier.

 

Walking back to the dressing room, Marc found a handful of his teammates were still there, but Kay wasn’t. After a moment of hesitation, he asked Larsen, “where’s Kay? He left?”

 

The Swede shrugged. “I guess so, he said his father’s here and went to look for him.”

 

Marc nodded. At least with Larsen, he had no need to pretend, so he just asked outright, “do you know what Ramos said to Kay?”

 

Larsen stopped packing for a second. He looked around first to make sure no one else was listening in. Marc had a sinking feeling - if even Larsen was spooked - it must be bad.

 

“Ramos said he wants Kay to suck his cock. Said he heard Kay’s good at it.” Larsen relayed the insult with disdain in his voice. “Didn’t know that dickhead speaks English.”

 

Fucking hell. Marc’s face blanched. They just couldn’t get rid of these damn rumours.

 

“Don’t mention this to Herrlich, okay? Kay doesn’t want to draw attention. I promised him I won’t say anything,” Larsen raised his eyebrow.

 

Marc barely managed a nod before he ran out of the dressing room.

 

He found Kay near the exit to the staff carpark. A slim built man with shoulder-length sandy brown hair was talking to him.

 

Marc stopped a few meters behind them. He waited for Kay to notice him while taking in Kristian Engel. He looked thin, like someone who was recovering from a long-term illness. Handsome but with deep lines on his face, he looked older than his age, Marc reckoned he should be around 50 years old, a few years younger than his own father.

 

It was Kristian who spotted him first. He turned his head and flashed him a kind smile. Marc noticed he had the same eye-shape and jawline as Kay. Like an older version of Kay but in different colours. Marc returned a reluctant smile.

 

Kay looked surprised to see him, “hey, Marc.” He scratched his blond stubble in a nervous manner before he made the introduction. “Papa, this is Marc, our team captain.... Marc, this is my father.”

 

“Nice to meet you, Mr Engel.” Marc said, slightly dazed. What he knew about Kristian Engel has made this encounter seemed surreal to Marc. He couldn’t reconcile this frail, kind looking man in front of him with the drug addict father who had inflicted so much pain on Kay. Even if he hadn’t done it on purpose.

 

“Of course. Even I know who Marc Borgmann is,” Kristian Engel said easily, “Call me Kristian, thank you for looking after Kay, he said you helped him a lot when he moved here.”

 

Marc’s strained smile turned genuine. He wondered if Kay had told his father the truth about their relationship. He was surprised to find that he wished, he wanted Kay to tell his father about him.

 

But what is the truth? That they had a brief affair? That Marc broke up with his son? And now Marc wants to... what?

 

Marc shifted his gaze to Kay, who was looking at him with an unreadable expression. He looked uncomfortable. Like he just wanted to get out of here.

 

Fucking Ramos. Marc wanted to strangle the Spaniard.

 

“Kay, I want to - “ Marc began to say.

 

“Marc, there you are!” It was Herrlich. He jogged over to where they were. “Hey, Kay.” Herrlich said belatedly, looking between the three of them.

 

“Hi Coach. This is my father, Kristian Engel.”

 

Marc watched with increasing frustration as Kay made the introduction again, sounding polite but tired.

 

Herrlich looked too happy to notice anything unusual, he nodded to Kay’s father in greeting, “nice to meet you, Mr Engel. Kay played so well today.” Then he patted Marc’s shoulder loudly, “Marc here too. And I have some great news! Marc has just been shortlisted for Player of the Year. It has just been announced. It’s between Marc, Toni Kroos and Marco Reus.”

 

Kay looked at Marc, finally broke into a grin, “congratulations. I think this is your year.”

 

“Kay’s quite right! And I called it at the beginning of the year, didn’t I?” Herrlich laughed, looking very pleased with himself.

 

“Come on, Marc. The chairman wants to see you.” Herrlich hurried.

 

Kay glanced at Marc one last time before he said goodbye to both of them.

 

Herrlich patted his shoulder again to get his attention, “why don’t you go get changed first and join us in my office?”

 

Marc nodded but didn’t say anything.

 

He watched Kay’s back slowly disappearing in sight as he walked further away with his father.

 

In the deserted dressing room, as he changed into his shirt and suit jacket, Marc suddenly realised he hasn’t thought about the Player of the Year award for a long time. He didn’t feel anything; in fact, he couldn’t care less about it.

 

Chapter Text

(Marc)

 

Marc grabbed the car key from the bowl on the console table. Behind him, Axel was panting, his tail wagging, moving back and forth.

 

He thought I was taking him to see Kay. Axel had learned that leash+car key meant going to Kay’s apartment. Marc crouched down to rub the back of his ears, he murmured, “sorry, buddy. We can’t go there anymore.”

 

No longer an excuse, these days Marc actually took Axel to the dog park.

 

“Marc?”

 

It was Bettina.

 

“Hey. I’m taking Axel to the dog park, I’ll be back well before dinner.”

 

She didn’t react to that. Her gaze was on Axel, who was still wagging and jumping, way too excited. Marc tried to remember what Kay had suggested to calm Axel down before a walk.

 

“I want to talk to you,” said Bettina, but her eyes were still on Axel.

 

“Now?” Marc cocked his head, he added, “what about?”

 

She finally turned her gaze back on him, “not now. After dinner. Have fun at the park.” She went back to the living room.

 

The dog park was half an hour’s drive. The route passed through Bettina’s parents’ area, also where Kay’s new home was. Marc slowed down his car and peered at the small house in yellow and terracotta, Kay’s white Saab was the only car on the driveway.

 

Kay had mentioned his father’s driver’s licence was still suspended after a drug-driving offence, so he mostly stayed in the area or waited for Kay.

 

>>better this way for now. he doesn’t need the temptation<< Kay had told him. Marc could feel the caution and hesitation behind the words.

 

The season was going well, Duisburg won 3 and drew 1 in the first month. Problem was Bayern Munich and Redbull Leipzig were also doing well. Marc knew this season might be a tight three-horse race, if not four, with Dortmund not far behind in 4th place on the league table.

 

Kay hadn’t mentioned the Ramos incident to him. Marc didn’t push but he started paying extra attention during the games in the weeks followed. He couldn’t shake the feeling that it wouldn’t be an isolated incident; once the label was attached, such rumours never truly went away.

 

Marc worried it’s affecting Kay’s career already. Kay hadn’t been included in the national team squad for the coming European Championship qualifying match. In front of the press, Herrlich had played it down, claiming Kay was a newcomer to an established national team, but off the record, he had admitted to Marc he was troubled by the decision - “maybe Löw wants to avoid controversy” - he had told Marc.

 

Kay didn’t seem too bothered by it. From what Marc could gather, this was Kay’s life now - star footballer on the weekends, guardian of his own father for rest of the time.

 

“He’d better not disappoint Kay again, I won’t take kindly to that.” Marc told Axel, who was riding shotgun next to him.

 

He felt weak with the want to give in, to stop and get out of the car. But he knew Kay wouldn’t like a surprise visit like this. Marc glanced at the house one last time before he finally pressed the gas pedal.

 

******

 

>>gotta go. hippy meditation therapy with papa *shrugging emoji*<<

 

Marc smiled as he typed >>very zen *snigger emoji*<<

He pressed send and put his mobile in his pocket. Despite the playfulness, Marc had a feeling that Kay’s mood wasn’t as sunny as his text; hasn’t been for days. He absently worried his bottom lip as he walked.

 

“Marc, do you want to join me outside?”

 

Marc looked up and saw Bettina standing by the door to the back garden.

 

Right. She wants to talk.

 

Of course, it had completely slipped his mind. If Bettina’s expression was anything to go by, she knew he had forgotten too.

 

“Sorry. Yes, I’m coming.” Hands in pockets, Marc walked to the back garden.

 

Marc sat down on the lounge chair next to Bettina. He belatedly noticed she had a new haircut. A stylish long choppy bob with light brown highlights. Marc hasn’t seen her around the house much lately. Jonas started preschool just two weeks ago at the beginning of September, they had a fun day getting him settled on the first day. A rare family day for the three of them during football season.

 

“Nice haircut. I like it,” he ventured.

 

“Thank you,” Bettina smiled faintly, touching the tips of her hair. “You know what they say about women changing their hair.”

 

No, Marc didn’t know. He looked at her blankly, waiting for her explanation.

 

“When she wants to make changes,” said Bettina, then her gaze moved to the reflection of the moon in the swimming pool, “or when she breaks up with someone.”

 

She said that in such a light and gentle voice, like she’s telling a self-deprecating joke.

 

Marc might be insensitive, but he was not dense. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, forcing himself to look at her.

 

“What happened to us, Marc?” She asked, her voice still gentle.

 

“What do you - “

 

“You used to tell me everything. Your dreams, your worries. You used to confide in me.”

 

Marc watched her closely and realised she has changed. In more ways than a new haircut. There’s something... new about her. Maybe it wasn’t even new, but Marc hasn’t REALLY looked at her for weeks.

 

“Bettina... I don’t know what you mean...” Marc said. His last attempt to delay the inevitable. She knows. She knows. His mind acknowledged this before his words.

 

Bettina returned her gaze to him. “I know you were with someone else,” she said. Her brow furrowed, “or you still are.”

 

When Marc didn’t respond to that, she said, “you broke it off, didn’t you? After Switzerland. I can see the changes.” She nodded, more to herself.

 

“For a couple of weeks, I was so full of hope. I thought we can rebuild this. You were trying. I could tell.” Bettina continued.

 

Marc met her eyes, expecting to see accusation but instead saw clarity in them. He nodded slowly. Didn’t want to insult her further by denying it.

 

“I’m sorry I cheated on you. You... didn’t deserve this.” He closed his eyes briefly, an image of Kay in all his sunny glory flashed behind his eyelids. “But it’s over. I am not... I...” he bit down on his lower lip.

 

“But you are still in love with him.”

 

Marc looked up at her sharply.

 

He couldn’t make out what he saw in her eyes, something between pity and kindness.

 

“You were with Kay, weren’t you?” Her voice crystal clear.

 

She chuckled without mirth, “years of worrying about young models and other players’ girlfriends... then there he is. Your real partner on and off the pitch.” Looking at Marc’s stunned face, she waved her hand and said, “it was your damn dog who gave you away. Axel was practically crying when he realised Kay was not coming with us.” Shaking her head, “then things started to add up. All those dog park trips you took; you were going to see him.”

 

Marc could hear his own heartbeat drumming loud and wildly in his ears, like he’s standing on the edge of something. An unknown. He didn’t know if he jumped, he would dive into an abyss or a pool of cool water.

 

“I don’t know how it happened.” Marc managed to squeeze out, rubbing his hands on his laps. “You know I have never cheated on you before... before Kay...” god, it feels so surreal saying his name out loud. He swallowed and continued, “even if you can’t forgive me, please at least know that I never meant to hurt you. I tried... I want this to work.” He waved his hand between them.

 

But Bettina seemed way past that. She frowned, “have you... have you always been attracted to men?” Her voice shook slightly. This was the only time she showed any kind of anxiety.

 

Marc shook his head immediately, “no.” This, at least he could be sure of. “Only Kay. I am just as surprised.”

 

Probably the wrong thing to say.

 

Bettina snorted. “Surprised. But that didn’t stop you from going ahead to sleep with him and treating me like a fool.”

 

Perversely, Marc was almost relieved that Bettina finally showed some anger. He watched her profile. “I loved you. That wasn’t a lie. Our marriage is not a lie,” he said urgently.

 

“Loved,” she said simply. Quietly acknowledging the past tense applied to that verb. Marc felt a sharp pain in his chest.

 

Her eyes were red-rimmed, but her voice was still strong, “I realised something too.” She paused. “When I finally figured out what’s been going on, I was angry. Make no mistake of that.” She flicked a quick glance at Marc and veered away again.

 

She stopped for a few seconds. Her words careful and deliberate, she said, “but I also feel relieved... that it wasn’t me. I didn’t cause this. For a while, I thought I have ruined my marriage by becoming someone I used to despise.” She lowered her eyelashes, “turns out it was out of my hands.”

 

They sat wordlessly next to each other. Different emotions coursed through Marc - guilt, sadness, numbness and admiration, he had married a strong woman.

 

And Marc knew then and there. She would not be anyone’s safety net, not a backup choice. That he has lost her.

 

“What are we going to do?” He asked her quietly.

 

With her eyes closed, she pinched the bridge of her nose, getting ready to deliver his sentence, or to release him from his misery. “For a start, you should move to the guest bedroom.”

 

******

 

(Kay)

 

Kay opened his locker. Something fell out. He caught it with his hand just in time.

 

It’s a large tube of K-Y gel.

 

Sounds of pushing and sniggering filtered through rows of lockers, from the far end of the dressing room, where reserved team’s lockers were located. Without needing to turn around, Kay knew Julian Müller was one of the players laughing. Hell, most likely he was the one putting that thing in his locker.

 

This was the 3rd time in the last four weeks. Last week it was a rubber dildo. Müller seemed to know Kay’s kickboxing training schedule; he knew when Kay would stay behind, alone in the dressing room without his teammates. Because Müller was a chicken little shit who wouldn’t dare to do this in front of certain senior players, namely Larsen and Marc.

 

Kay took a shallow breath and schooled his face into a blank expression. He wouldn’t give the arsehole the satisfaction of any attention; he calmly threw the tube in the bin, zipped up his backpack and closed his locker.

 

Kay left the dressing room without sparing a glance at anyone. As soon as he has turned a corner, he quickened his steps, trying hard to control his anger.

 

He smashed into a wall... a chest. Marc.

 

“Hey,” Marc grabbed both of his shoulders to steady him. “Where are you...” Marc took one look at him and tensed up. He lifted Kay’s chin, “what happened?”

 

Kay swatted away his hand.

 

“Hey Kay! Hope you find it useful.” Müller shouted from inside the dressing room. More laughs followed.

 

“What the fuck?!” Marc pushed forward but Kay grabbed his bicep to pull him back.

 

“DON’T!” Kay warned. “Marc...” Kay said in a low voice.

 

Marc was eyeing the entrance to the dressing room, his chest rising and falling. Kay could tell he still wanted to go in to confront Müller. And Julian Müller would be scared shitless when it happened, no one wanted to mess with Marc, especially players in B team. But Marc couldn’t protect Kay forever. Especially not over this issue.

 

Finally, Marc returned his gaze back to Kay. “Tell me what happened,” said Marc, his tone non-negotiable.

 

Kay realised he was still holding Marc’s bicep; he dropped his hand. And looked away.

 

“Kay!”

 

“Marc, let it go.”

 

“No.”

 

Kay was slightly taken aback by Marc’s stern voice. He took note of the bags under Marc’s eyes, like he hadn’t had much sleep. Kay exhaled slowly, quietly considering.

 

Marc’s expression didn’t change, his eyes didn’t leave him.

 

“Ok. But not here.” Kay conceded. They began to walk towards the carpark.

 

Kay hadn’t been inside Marc’s car for months. The mix scent of leather and Marc’s cologne was familiar and strange all at once. All those texts they have been exchanging felt more intimate than their physical distance. Kay sat up straight and rigidly in his seat.

 

Marc licked his lip, “let’s drive somewhere, I’ll take you back later to get your car?” He suggested.

 

Kay nodded.

 

They drove in silence for about five minutes, then Marc parked his Audi on a quiet road near a woodland. There were no houses, no other cars around.

 

Marc turned off the engine, but his eyes stayed ahead on the road.

 

“You know how it works... it will only make it worse. I don’t want to be the centre of attention. Not for this.” Kay broke the silence.

 

Marc looked upward, his hands still gripping the steering wheel. “What did that shithead Julian do?”

 

“Just pranks. He put stuff in my locker when he knows no other first team players will be there. He’s a chickenshit.”

 

“What stuff?” Marc’s voice dangerous.

 

Stuff that would actually be useful if they aren’t poisoned gifts from that arsehole. Kay thought distractingly. But he bet Marc wouldn’t see the funny side of it.

 

“Dildo, K-Y gel, cock-ring... things his tiny brain thinks are exclusively for gay sex... I don’t have the heart to educate him.” Kay shrugged.

 

Marc took a sharp breath. He hit the dashboard hard. “Fucking juvenile shithead,” he muttered. “We need to tell Herrlich.”

 

“Absolutely not!” Kay said emphatically. “I told you. Leave it alone. I can deal with it myself. You think this is the first time it happened to me? The more you complain, the more they enjoy it.”

 

“But he shouldn’t get away with it!” Marc’s face twisted in a grimace of pain, he said urgently, “let me talk to him. He wouldn’t dare...”

 

“No, I am not dragging you into this. Trust me, you don’t want to draw this kind of attention to yourself. Actually, you should stay away from me.” Kay hissed.

 

Marc opened his mouth, then closed it again. He looked wounded. Head bent and shoulders up, like he’s trying to get his temper under control. Something else was up, Kay thought. Marc looked like he’s about to explode.

 

When Marc dropped his gaze back to Kay, his eyelashes were damp, then suddenly he reached over and drew Kay into a tight embrace.

 

“I am not letting you deal with this by yourself,” Marc said fiercely against Kay’s hair. He held Kay even tighter, “I love you.”

 

Kay stilled. He slowly pulled back to look at Marc; it was like someone has sucked all the air out of his lung. He felt lightheaded.

 

“What about...” Kay wanted to ask.

 

“We are separating. Bettina and I.” Marc swallowed. His face was flushed and his voice shaky.

 

“How...?” Kay asked dumbly. At a loss.

 

“She figured it out. And I admitted it,” Marc said, more determined this time. “I wanted to tell you today, before I found out that shithead - “

 

Kay launched himself back to Marc, covering Marc’s mouth with his. Hot, burning, gasping for air kisses, his fingers spread along Marc’s jawline, holding him in place, he kissed Marc like a starving man getting his first bite. Marc wound his arm around the back of his neck, deepening the kiss, to get closer, to get inside each other’s skin, impossibly close.

 

Kay lowered his hand to bunch up Marc’s shirt, he slipped his hand inside, fingers tracing the taut muscle and hot skin. Marc moaned against his ear and it went straight to Kay’s cock. His hand moved further down, unbuttoned Marc’s jeans and reached inside; he gave Marc’s cock a gentle squeeze.

 

“Oh...” Marc sounded strangled. He began to kiss Kay’s face thoroughly, his tongue sweeping his stubble, sloppy and hot. Kay tilted his head back compliantly, his hand kept applying pressure on Marc’s cock, pulling and stroking. Marc pressed his head on Kay’s shoulder as Kay made another delicious pull. His head turned and he bit down hard on Kay’s shoulder joint.

 

Kay felt the pain and the pleasure spread through him at the same time. “Marc...” he murmured. That seemed to have a special effect on Marc, he frantically unzipped Kay’s jeans to release the straining cock. Pleasure plucked at Kay’s nerves as Marc rubbed his thumb over the head.

 

Kay hissed a startled intake of breath through his teeth as Marc worked on him. They grappled in a clumsy embrace, foreheads resting on each other’s shoulder, their hands working ferociously on each other, in a game they both would win.

 

Before long, Marc came powerfully first in Kay’s hand. Kay closed his eyes, he could feel his balls tightened, the fire in his stomach ready to burn. He muffled a shout of Marc’s name against his shoulder and began to come. Marc kept milking it, whispering sweet nothings against his ear until there was no more.

 

When Kay opened his eyes again, Marc was grinning at him, face wet and hair plastered to his forehead. He looked like the happiest fool in the world. Kay was sure he looked the same; he returned a bright smile. Marc pulled him in again for another kiss.

 

Kay still had hundreds of questions and thousands of worries, but he pushed them all away for now; wanted to just, live in this moment.

 

They cleaned up as best as they could. The car smelled like sex, and leather, and Marc’s lingering cologne, Kay noticed happily.

 

He slumped on Marc’s shoulder; his face pressed against the hollow of his neck. This still seemed unreal to him.

 

“You mean it?” Kay asked, cringing at the doubt and neediness in his own voice.

 

But Marc seemed to know exactly what he meant. He held Kay’s hand on his lap tight. “Yes, I mean it. I love you. And I think you already knew.”

 

Chapter Text

(Marc)

 

Room 330. No other teammate was around. Marc knocked quietly on the hotel room door.

 

After two seconds, Larsen opened the door in his jogging bottoms and nothing else. A smirk on his face.

 

“I think you guys should come up with a secret knock,” he drawled.

 

Marc glared at him, feigning annoyance. “And you should remember to pack some shirts.” He walked into the room without waiting for an invite.

 

Larsen laughed behind him, “oh. Are you worried that Kay won’t be able to resist my shirtless Scandinavian charm?”

 

“Piss off, Arne,” said Marc. But he was grinning. Larsen has been relentless in his teasing lately.

 

Small price to pay when Larsen was the only teammate Marc did not have to hide what was going on.

 

“Where’s Kay?”

 

Larsen jutted with his chin to the open sliding door to the balcony.

 

Marc could barely make out Kay’s silhouette in the dark, he walked up behind him.

 

“Hey,” Kay turned his head, his voice warm and intimate.

 

Marc wanted to bask in the warmth. He wrapped his arms around Kay’s waist. “First time to Prague?” He asked. Dropping his chin on Kay’s shoulder, he closed his eyes briefly, quietly inhaling the familiar fruity scent on Kay’s neck. The best scent in the world.

 

He could feel the smile on Kay’s face. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Kay whispered. The balcony had a view of Prague’s old town.

 

They were here to play a Champions League group match tomorrow night against the local champion, Slavia Prague.

 

“Wish we had time to do some sightseeing,” Kay said regrettably. Marc knew the regret had more to do with not be able to walk down the street together, than checking out tourist spots in Prague.

 

“We’ll travel together to all these cities when this is all over.” Marc solemnly promised. A subject they had briefly touched on - their future - after they have gotten back together.

 

Problem was they had no idea when this would be all over. The hiding business.

 

Kay wasn’t pushing him, but Marc could see the caution in his eyes. He had no interest to be another disappointment in Kay Engel’s life... but at the same time, the idea of living openly with Kay - even when they were talking about a few years down the line - made Marc squirmed with anxiety.

 

Don’t think about it. Not now. Marc scolded himself. They had a game to play tomorrow, FC Duisburg’s return to the European powerhouse league; and Kay was with him, Marc didn’t want to spoil it with a detailed life plan.

 

He kissed the side of Kay’s face, brushing his face against the blond stubble, but Kay pulled away, he said in a low voice, “hey, we are outside.”

 

Kay was right, of course, even though it’s pitch black in the balcony and there was no light around them. Marc pulled him back to a dark corner, shielded by a few huge pot plants, before he pressed his mouth against Kay’s. His demanding tongue pushing between Kay’s startled lips, his fingers gripping Kay’s jawline. The kiss and the touch have possessiveness written all over them. Having deprived of touch for months, Marc couldn’t seem to get enough.

 

Kay kissed back, gentler, slower, taking his time. His fingers carding through Marc’s hair. They continued to snog leisurely in the dark. Marc could feel the smile at the corner of his mouth, he pulled back a little. “Something funny?”

 

He could make out a wry smile on Kay’s face. “You know Larsen would make fun of us for the rest of this trip, right?”

 

Marc took out two mini bottles of vodka from his pockets and held them up. “I came bearing gifts.”

 

Kay laughed.

 

Holding on to his waist, Marc swayed Kay from side to side, murmured, “want to sleep in my room tonight?”

 

Kay snorted and said, “thought you are abstaining from sex before a big game?” The old excuse Marc had once used.

 

“Please. We can beat Slavia Prague with 10 men,” Marc rolled his eyes.

 

Kay frowned. “Is that why Herrlich told me he will let Ackermann start in my position tomorrow? An easier game?”

 

“He said that?” Marc didn’t know.

 

“Well, it makes sense to ease him back into the team after the long recovery, don’t you think?”

 

Marc’s brows knotted together. “You don’t mind?”

 

Kay shook his head. “With Champions league, we have to play a lot of games this season. Herrlich is smart to rotate players.”

 

Marc nodded. He hoped Herrlich really did it for rotation, not because of the stupid rumours still hanging around Kay.

 

“Ahem... gentlemen.”

 

They both turned to the throat clearing sound. Larsen was standing by the sliding door in a fluffy hotel bathrobe and a mini vodka bottle in hand.

 

“I gather I will be sleeping alone tonight? Good. I want to have FaceTime sex with Heike,” he announced.

 

Marc rolled his eyes. But of course, Kay found it hilarious. “Let’s not waste time then. I’ll gather some stuff and go,” he said and went back in.

 

Larsen looked at Marc, that smirk never left his face.

 

Marc didn’t bother to say anything. He took out two bottles of vodka from his pocket and handed them over to Larsen.

 

“Ha! My rewards.” He took them, bowed mockingly and drawled, “bet you regret switching roommate hastily.”

 

Marc answered quietly, “I regret more than that.”

 

******

 

Marc had the best sleep.

 

His head resting on Kay’s nape, his lips touching the smooth and strong shoulder, his hand on Kay’s hip. The best position to sleep.

 

Without opening his eyes, he gently rubbed along the back of Kay’s slender thigh. Kay shifted back sleepily, his butt pushing enticingly against Marc’s morning erection.

 

Suddenly Marc was wide awake.

 

Kicking the comforter off, he ran his hand up the backs of Kay’s thighs to the firm curve of his backside, drinking the sight in.   Marc leaned in and kissed Kay’s earlobe, worrying it with his front teeth, biting it gently. The soft moan escaped from Kay’s mouth went straight to his cock, Marc flexed his leg and rolled half on top of Kay.

 

Sex in the morning in their hotel room. Something Marc had done without for months.

 

Marc’s hand reached over for the half-squeezed tube of lube on the nightstand. Kay pushed up one of his legs, welcoming Marc’s warm finger, his face pressed deeper into his pillow to stifle a groan, his body went taut as Marc inserted a lube coated finger.

 

He pulled away just long enough to slick lube on his already hard cock. Kay made a strangled noise of pleasure as Marc rocked into him in slow, steady thrusts. Marc aligned their bodies so that they met, sliding against each other. Their breathing heavy but unified.

 

So tight... so good. “God,” Marc gasped. He resisted the urge to bite and suckle on Kay’s neck which he loved to do and knew it would drive Kay wild, but it would not be wise to leave visible love-bites on a game day.

 

One day. One day they would be able to do whatever they want. Fuck in whichever way they want.

 

Marc closed his eyes, concentrated on the sensation, the intensity he’s experiencing in that moment. Like a never-ending long fuse that kept burning, getting hotter and hotter, the delicious frictions between their bodies made him tingle all over.

 

Still two hours to team breakfast, they had all the time in the world. Marc wanted to draw it out as long as he could, but he could feel the pressure mounting, he pulled out slowly, before slamming back in one long thrust, both their breathing turned ragged.

 

Never one to be passive, Kay pushed his hips back to meet the thrusts, bringing Marc deeper inside him. “Fuck... Kay,” Marc gripped Kay’s hip tighter, hung on to control. Kay directed Marc’s hand to his own cock, joint hands working together, pulling and squeezing. He craned his neck back to kiss Marc, a whimper echoed inside Marc’s mouth, as Kay started to come in short bursts.

 

Marc knew he couldn’t hold out much longer, he rolled Kay to lie on his stomach, pulled him up by his hips and thrust hard for a few times, wanting to fuck Kay into the mattress. Marc went still, felt the pulse of orgasm coursing through him. He gasped breathlessly before he came powerfully deep inside of Kay.

 

Falling face down, Marc stretched himself over Kay’s back, licking a kiss on the back of the neck, his heart throbbing away. Pulling out carefully, he could feel his own semen seeping down between Kay’s thighs; feelings of possessiveness returned, sending a shiver down his spine.

 

So much for a take-it-slow morning sex.

 

“Jesus, Marc. I think you wrecked me for tonight’s game. Good that I am not in the starting line-up,” Kay panted, but he was smiling.

 

“Scheiße... I didn’t mean to get so rough.” Marc said apologetically. He finally let go of Kay, rolled away.

 

Kay turned to face Marc, his face bright with sweat. With his own semen on his stomach and Marc’s between his legs, he smelled like sex; he’s the most beautiful thing Marc has ever seen.

 

Kay leaned over to kiss him and Marc let the momentum carried Kay on top of him, they continued to kiss and rub their face against each other, their bodies sticky with sweat and come.

 

Finally, Kay rested his head on Marc’s chest and sighed, “I should take a shower and get ready. I need go back to my room before everyone is up.” Then he got up and began to pick up his clothes.

 

Marc lay lazily in bed, not quite ready to get up and enjoying the view of his boyfriend.

 

My boyfriend. He tested the sound of the term in his mind. Instead of the anticipated anxiety, he felt giddy. Because Kay was his.

 

The mobile beeped when Kay walked out of the shower. Drying his hair with the towel with one hand, he read the text message.

 

Marc knew instantly something was wrong when Kay suddenly dropped the towel on the floor. He sat up straight in bed and asked, “what’s wrong? Who sent you a message?”

 

“Britt.” Kay answered automatically. His eyes still on his phone, like he was re-reading the message.

 

“And?”

 

Kay didn’t answer at first. He put his mobile away and continued to get dressed. He looked slightly shellshocked.

 

When he sat down on the edge of the bed to put on his sneakers, Marc wrapped his arms around his shoulders from behind, he asked carefully, “is it about your father?”

 

“Huh?” Kay turned around, looking puzzled. “No... no...” he said quickly. A pause. Then he grimaced, “it’s Lutz. Britt said he and Finn Mayer are doing a live interview on NDR tonight.”

 

NDR is a regional TV channel for the Hamburg and Bremen area.

 

“What the fuck for? And why are they doing it together?” Marc couldn’t believe it.

 

Kay rubbed his temple with his fingers. “The TV programme’s director invites them to talk about LGBT representation in sports,” Kay said without inflection, like he’s repeating the text message verbatim. “Britt said the two of them have gotten back together,” he added.

 

“Isn’t there a super-injunction?” He cried. He didn’t understand why this damn scandal kept coming back.

 

Kay shook his head. “The injunction is to forbid the media from publishing the leaked photos, Lutz is allowed to talk and give names if he wants to, although Oskar warned him of a defamation lawsuit if he talks about me,” Kay chuckled bitterly, “but that only works if he’s lying about our past relationship.”

 

“You think he will mention you?”

 

Kay lifted one of his shoulders. “I don’t think so, he won’t out someone like that...” he frowned. “But then turns out I don’t really know him, do I?”

 

He sounded so shocked and so dejected; Marc couldn’t stand it. He felt hapless, which he hated; it wasn’t something he could make it go away. He pulled Kay into his arms.

 

“And I have to tell Herrlich,” Kay still sounded dazed.

 

Marc hadn’t told Herrlich he’s back with Kay. He planned to, just never found the right time. Things at home have been strange, to say the least. He and Bettina were practically living separate lives in the same house. In fact, Marc hardly saw her at home, only around dinner time would they be sitting down together with Jonas. Marc wasn’t looking forward to telling his parents about the separation either, which was something he needed to discuss with Bettina...

 

Marc’s emotions jumped from one end to the other extreme every day. But the elation of being with Kay again far surpassed any awkwardness he faced at home.

 

“We will deal with it, whatever happens,” Marc said.

 

One thing at a time.

 

******

 

The TV programme was on at 8pm, right in the middle of their game. They beat the home team 2-3. Herrlich wasn’t happy with the late and narrow win, but they got three points and that’s what mattered in group stage.

 

It should have been an easy game, but Marc knew he hadn’t been 100% tonight. Everyone just thought that because he had to work with Ackermann again and it would take time to readjust; but Marc’s mind had been torn between concentrating on the game and what’s installed for Kay, for them, in a few hours’ time. He had found his eyes drifting to Kay throughout the whole game, who had been sitting on the substitute bench, eyes downcast, looking uncharacteristically subdue.

 

At the 75th minute, at 2-2, Herrlich had subbed Ackermann out and put Kay back on. Kay had given Marc a reassuring smile as he ran onto the pitch. But Marc knew him well enough to tell that he was doing it for Marc’s benefit.

 

“Coach says attack through the middle, I’ll draw their defence out to the left,” Kay had told Marc in a low voice before getting into position.

 

The plan had worked. Two of the four defenders from the Prague team were busy keeping pace with Kay. Larsen dropped back to receive a pass from Marc through the middle and scored at the 85th minute.

 

A late win would usually electrify the fans and the team, but to Marc, they had merely snatched a win over a team which they should have comfortably beaten.

 

Marc and Herrlich were fielding post-match questions with the travelled German press when someone suddenly shouted from the back.

 

“Coach Herrlich, what’s your reason for not starting Kay Engel tonight? Is he not in good form?”

 

Herrlich gave the standard answer, “Ackermann has more European experience. I thought it’s a good opportunity for him to get some proper game time after the injury. Nothing to do with Kay’s form. He’s brilliant, as you can see when I brought him on.”

 

“So, his form hasn’t been affected by the rumours?”

 

Marc stared at the reporter who asked that question - an unfamiliar face, he wondered if he’s even a football reporter.

 

Herrlich’s voice was stern when he answered, “I don’t know what rumours you are referring to. If you don’t have a football question for me, I suggest you let others do their job.”

 

The post-match press conference ended soon after.

 

Marc had given Herrlich a heads up before the game, he hadn’t explained in full, just told him he and Kay needed to see him after the game.

 

“Marc, come see me in my room at 10 tonight,” Herrlich turned to Marc and said in a low voice. His expression unreadable. “With Kay,” he added.

 

Kay told him that Britt hadn’t texted after the show ended, he considered that a good sign. If Lutz Keller had outright named Kay, Oskar and Britt would have contacted them. It would have been all over social media.

 

Just before 10pm, when they stood outside Herrlich’s hotel room, Kay turned to him and said, “if he outed me, it’s okay if you want to keep your - “

 

“Shut up, Kay,” Marc talked over him. He looked around before he grabbed Kay’s wrist, rubbing his thumb over the pulse point. “I told you I am not letting you handle this by yourself,” said Marc, holding Kay’s gaze.

 

The door to the room opened.

 

Herrlich glanced between them, shaking his head, he said, “I said meet me in the room, not you two having your own meeting outside.” His gaze shifted to Marc’s hand on Kay’s.

 

“Come in.”

 

They both walked in. Herrlich was the only one who got a junior suite hotel room with a small office inside. His laptop was opened on the large writing desk, with the NDRmediathek app on the screen.

 

“How much do you know?” Marc said to Herrlich’s back with more bravado than he felt.

 

“You two just confirmed the final details for me,” Herrlich said. “Sit down.”

 

Marc and Kay sat down on the small two-seat sofa. Herrlich opened the mini fridge and got two bottles of beer out, he looked at them. Kay shook his head; Marc took one bottle. He just wanted to have something in his hand.

 

When Herrlich finally sat down opposite them, Marc was thoroughly flustered, he blurted out, “Bettina and I are separating. I... I think you should know.”

 

Herrlich’s widened eyes indicated that this was news to him, but he got over his surprise quickly. He held Marc’s gaze for a second, like he’s seeing Marc with new eyes.

 

“I assume that means you two are back together. Again,” he asked calmly.

 

Marc hasn’t missed the ‘long suffering’ tone in Herrlich’s voice; he could imagine Coach must think both of them are lovesick idiots.

 

“Yes.” Marc decided to keep the answer short, but he moved closer to Kay subconsciously.

 

Herrlich nodded thoughtfully, “you know I don’t care about that. Though I’d prefer if you and Bettina keep the separation news from the press for as long as you can.” He watched Marc closely, “and I need to warn you. I have a duty to report your marital status to the club, they’d want that information for your contract renewal.”

 

Marc nodded slowly. Honestly, he hadn’t thought about how it might affect his own contract negotiation.

 

“OK,” Herrlich sighed before he continued, “the next thing. The Lutz Keller interview.”

 

Kay visibly tensed up next to Marc.

 

“I watched it online before you two came over,” Herrlich began. He glanced at Kay. “The good news is the interview focused mainly on Finn Mayer and other LGBT players in the tennis world. The bad news is, Lutz Keller took this opportunity to emphasise that he never took inappropriate photos of his patients, that all four, including Finn Mayer, were romantically involved with him at some point.”

 

All three of them were silent for a few seconds.

 

“Huh,” Kay snorted, he shook his head. “Funny, because I don’t remember Lutz ever mentioned the word romance to me.”

 

“He’s trying to save his medical practice and salvage his reputation,” Herrlich said.

 

“He took naked photos of Kay without permission, we should sue him!” Marc snapped.

 

Herrlich shook his head. “Not if you want to draw even more attention to Kay. We need to be smart. Ride out the storm.”

 

“What if some reporter asked me point-blank?” Kay asked quietly.

 

Herrlich side-stepped the question. “We’ll limit your interaction with the press.” He turned to Marc, “if they asked you, you said no comment. Keep it short. Don’t get angry, don’t try to be a smartass, got it?”

 

Marc nodded. He hated Lutz Keller so much, fucking guy broke Kay’s heart and now brought him all these troubles; he hated all the nosy reporters; he hated how Kay had to hide. They had to hide.

 

“Be careful in the next few weeks. Like I said, don’t get provoked - even from your own teammates,” Herrlich said, sounding a little sad. The reality. He cleared his throat and offered his final advice, “keep a low profile, both of you. I don’t need to tell you what’s at stake here.”

 

And Marc wondered: what’s exactly at stake here? Kay’s career? His own career? Their relationship?

Chapter Text

Trust someone like Lutz to leave me a phone message with a ‘sorry-not-sorry’ apology after he landed me even more troubles.

 

There were three other messages on his mobile from unknown numbers. Reporters? Kay thought. He switched the phone to silent mode, put it face down on the nightstand and lay down in bed.

 

Oskar had phoned him earlier, said Kay’s name was trending on Twitter in the Lower Saxony region, his home state, the next day after Finn Mayer and Lutz Keller’s TV interview was broadcasted. It has revived the rumours which had died down few months ago.

 

While there were people - mostly women and gay men - who said Kay would be even hotter if he was really gay and there were support from fans of his old club, St. Pauli, but overall, the twitter sphere was dominated by a lot of shower and dressing room jokes, memes.

 

People were as predictable as Kay had anticipated.

 

At least no one mentions Marc’s name... yet. Kay worried his lower lip.

 

Marc and he had left Herrlich’s hotel room in a subdued mood. Kay had insisted to stay in his own room with Larsen that night, Marc had wanted to argue but had relented in the end.

 

He rolled to the side of the bed and stared at a photo frame he hung on the wall - a photo of him, Marc and Larsen posing with their medals around their necks, the league champions trophy in front, grinning into the camera.

 

Marc has been nothing but supportive since they got back together. It was like Bettina had freed him from whatever invisible shackles he was chained to. In fact, things had been so good, Kay felt like they were tempting fate.

 

And right on cue, Lutz showed up.

 

Kay was torn. He wasn’t sure if Marc truly understood the implications and subsequent fallout, if they were outed; Kay wished he had more faith in him, but Marc was used to getting what he wanted; used to have things going his way.

 

What would Marc do when things were being taken away from him?

 

Kay was about to turn off the reading lamp when he noticed a shadow moving under his bedroom door.

 

“Papa?” He called out.

 

His father opened the door to a small gap and stuck his head in.

 

“Sorry, I saw your light was still on.”

 

“Yeah. I am still up.”

 

“Can’t sleep?”

 

Kay nodded. He hesitated for a second before he offered, “want to keep me company for a bit?”

 

He knew his father had problem sleeping sometimes. Insomnia was quite common among patients who were recovering from addiction. Drug addiction, in particular, was difficult because they would try to avoid using medication to deal with the problem. So, his father would get up to do some mindfulness-based techniques they had taught him in the rehab centre - breathing exercise, meditation, even yoga, until he felt relaxed enough to go back to bed.

 

Kristian Engel smiled and entered the room. Kay sat up crossed legs in bed as his father sat down next to him.

 

Living under the same roof with his father again has been strange, but Kay didn’t regret it. He saw his father beginning to gain back some weight; colours returning to his cheeks. They got along, cooking and eating together, doing meditation; he even started to teach his father basic kickboxing.

 

No mention of drugs, no mention of Kay’s mother; their conversation was mostly pleasant but cursory. Once lost, trust was not something that could be rebuilt in a few months. But they were adjusting well; they were alright.

 

“Lutz Keller is an asshole. Never liked him when you two were going out.”

 

His father had met Lutz, during that small window of time when he was clean, and Kay thought Lutz was his boyfriend.

 

Kay reckoned Oskar must have been in contact with his father. He smiled sourly, “I agree.”

 

“How bad is the situation?”

 

“Nothing I can’t handle.” Kay glanced over at his father, who was watching him intently.

 

“Kay, listen to me.”

 

Kay waited.

 

“You don’t have to stay in that world. Oskar said you’ve been saving up. You can go back to university, like we talked about.”

 

“I was 19. Things have changed,” Kay said.

 

“Because you want to play football?”

 

Kay shrugged. “I do, I like playing football... but I can also give it up if I have to. But it’s... it’s complicated,” he explained weakly.

 

His father looked over at the photo frame on the wall, at Marc. “Because you are worried about the other boy?”

 

Kay followed his line of sight, he smiled ruefully, “he’s not a boy.” He nodded, “but yeah, football is his life.”

 

“He seems very much in love with you.”

 

Kay huffed but he felt his face warming up, “you’ve only met him once.”

 

“I can tell. The way he looks at you. He can’t fool people.”

 

“Maybe that is a problem,” said Kay quietly.

 

His father’s brow furrowed, he asked carefully, “you think he won’t come out for you?”

 

“I don’t want him to come out for me. It has to be his decision,” Kay lowered his eyes.

 

Kristian Engel put his arm around his son, “if you love someone, you won’t see it as something you do for them. Sometimes sacrifice is the ultimate display of love.”

 

******

 

(October 2019 - DFB Pokal second round - VfL Bochum vs FC Duisburg - away game)

 

Unlike a lot of footballers, Kay was not superstitious. But the day started badly, like a bad omen.

 

On their way to Bochum for the DFB Pokal (German Cup) game against local rival from league 2, their coach broke down on A40 autobahn. It caused them an hour delay. Then 10 minutes after they got to the stadium, Herrlich called Kay and Marc into the match officials’ meeting room. The Captain and the Coach of VfL Bochum were also there.

 

“It could be nothing, but we received a threat today,” said Daniel Brych, the main referee of the match.

 

“What kind of threat?” Marc asked warily, his face already darkened.

 

The rest of them all looked at Kay.

 

“A fringe group of Bochum’s Ultras posted some threats on their twitter account two hours ago. The threats are not specific, but they are aiming at Engel, saying he should watch out. The usual. They’ve made this kind of threats before, they never materialised. They probably just want to weaken your team formation. They see Engel as one of your star players.” VfL Bochum’s coach grimaced.

 

“Calling them Ultras is too polite. They are neo-Nazis,” Herrlich said angrily.

 

“But of course, we are still taking precautions. We’ve informed the local police. Security have been tightened,” referee Brych tried to reassure. “But it’s up to you if you want to change your team line-up. The team sheet says Engel is playing today?”

 

Herrlich rubbed his forehead, before he could say anything, Marc jumped the gun and said, “put Ackermann on.”

 

“Marc!” Kay warned sharply. “That’s not for you to decide.”

 

“You are not playing!” Marc shouted. They just stared at each other.

 

“Quit it, you two! And let me think,” Herrlich glared at them. Then he turned to the officials and Bochum’s Coach, he said, “Kay stays on the team sheet as substitute, I will put Ackermann in the starting line-up. And I want extra security near our technical area.”

 

Brych nodded, “of course. We will change the team sheets now. You can go ahead with your team meeting and warm up. We are not allowing fans inside the stadium until 20 minutes before the game today.”

 

Marc looked like he still wanted to argue with Herrlich who shut him down again with another glare.

 

Kay felt numb. What everyone didn’t say out-loud was that the threats were made to him not because, or at least not only because he was a star player, but because of the gay rumours.

 

 

Despite all the problems, the match started on time. Full attendance for a local derby between two old rivals. VfL Bochum fans were naturally envious of their neighbour FC Duisburg’s progress in recent years. They may not be competing at the same level, but every time they met, the match always got ugly.

 

Kay sat in the technical area with other teammates on the substitute bench. Herrlich hadn’t disclosed the threats to the team, tried to keep a sense of normalcy, which Kay appreciated.

 

The numbness he had felt earlier has transformed into anxiety. He rubbed his hands together, tried to stop the shaking, the premonition that this was the beginning of the end. Not for his life. Unlike Marc, he didn’t think the threat was real, but just the existence of it meant he would never have a normal life again; he would always have to watch over his shoulder, at every game.

 

He glanced over at the pitch and his eyes found Marc immediately. His lean and athletic body agilely running between Bochum players, holding possession of the ball but they were not attacking smoothly. Kay could tell he was getting frustrated; this was another game when Duisburg had to break down a tight defence.

 

VfL Bochum had a game plan: to disrupt Marc’s passes and provoke Duisburg players into retaliation with rough tackles. And it’s working. The Referee has already issued three yellow cards in the first 40 minutes of the game. Two for Bochum players, one for Ackermann for arguing. Even Herrlich got up from his seat to complain to the 4th official about some of the tackles.

 

Marc has been in a foul brooding mood since that meeting, he was not happy that Herrlich didn’t lock Kay in a secure room until the match was over. Marc’s high handed, caveman-like reaction had raised a few eyebrows in that meeting, Kay thought uneasily. The last thing he wanted was for this thing to bleed over to Marc as well.

 

I need to talk to him.

 

He tried to put his attention back on the match. Bochum’s centre back, Luca Schulz was chasing Marc just outside Bochum’s penalty area, when Marc tricked him with a dummy move, by feigning to pass to Larsen but suddenly changed direction and pass it to Karsten instead. Schulz looked like a complete fool and he wasn’t letting it go. He made a late tackle on Marc long after the ball had already left Marc’s foot. The referee blew the whistle on the foul.

 

Kay’s heart nearly stopped as he saw Marc falling down on the pitch, rubbing his left calf. But before the medical team reached him, Marc got up and ran straight to Schulz. Even from a distance, Kay could see Marc’s eyes were blazing. This was the 3rd time Schulz made a hard tackle on Marc in the game. He tried to push Schulz’s chest but was stopped just in time by Larsen, who practically had to push and turn Marc away.

 

Kay couldn’t believe the referee only gave Schulz another verbal warning.

 

The game continued in a toxic atmosphere well into the second half. More yellow cards were dispensed, the fouls and disruptions made all the players on edge, highly strung. By then, both Herrlich and Kay have forgotten about the threats, there was a war unfolding in front of them on the pitch.

 

When there was about 15 minutes left in the game, Herrlich told Kay to warm up and get ready to go in. Kay knew Herrlich needed to take Ackermann off before the left winger got another yellow card or re-injured himself.

 

Kay took off his jacket and began to jog along the side of the pitch, doing basic stretching exercise to warm up.

 

He was standing near the corner flag when it happened.

 

In Kay’s mind, from the moment Schulz was body-checking Marc on the left flank of the pitch, everything seemed to be in slow motion.

 

Both Marc and Schulz were only meters away from Kay, fighting for the ball near the corner. Marc had the ball under his foot, tried to turn and make a pass to Larsen, Schulz knew he couldn’t get the ball from Marc with his foot, so he blocked, and body slammed Marc once. Hard. Marc lost the ball. And it rolled over the sideline, stopped in front of Kay.

 

Schulz ran over and tried to grab the ball for a sneaky throw-in before the referee could call out for his foul on Marc. But Kay was quicker. He picked up the ball and put it out of Schulz’s reach.

 

The referee blew a whistle for the foul, but Schulz still went after Kay. “Give me the ball, you faggot!” He hissed.

 

Kay didn’t know why he was so shocked at that moment. He had been called worse before, it was the hatred in Schulz’s eyes that floored him.

 

He stood frozen on the spot, still holding the ball, when Marc suddenly pushed Schulz with both hands from behind. Caught completely by surprise, Schulz lost his footing and the momentum carried him forward quickly, he flipped and fell over the advertising board behind Kay. The loud crashing sound was deafening.

 

“Who’s the faggot now, huh?” Marc shouted behind Schulz.

 

In less than half a second, it became chaos.

 

Everyone was rushing over. Players from both sides charged against each other. The referee blew the whistle several times, officials getting onto the pitch. Staff from both teams also ran over there, some tried to pull players away, some joined in the fight. Larsen used his body to keep Marc away from several Bochum players, his hand grabbing the back of Karten’s shirt to reign him in.

 

Kay was being led away by the Duisburg assistant coach when the referee showed Marc a straight red card.

 

No no no no... Kay’s mind raced. Marc had never received a red card in all the years of his football career. It was something he has always been proud of.

 

Kay got out under the assistant coach’s arms, he ran back to Marc, who was still arguing with Referee Brych near the corner flag, his finger pointing inches close to Brych’s face. Shit, this is going from bad to worse. Kay put his hands on Marc’s shoulders, tried to pull him away.

 

“Marc! Leave it! Marc, stop...”

 

Kay stopped abruptly. He felt a sharp pain on his back. Wind seemed to be rushing into his ears, making a roaring sound. The sensation was so foreign, at first, he wondered if he was dreaming. He saw Marc turning to look at him; he saw Marc’s expression changing from disbelief to horror; he saw Marc grabbing him just before he fell down sideways.

 

Several things happened at the same time.

 

“Kay!!”

 

Marc’s cry so distraught, it drowned out everything else, it was the only sound Kay could hear. One moment he was still Marc’s arms, the next moment Marc was being pulled away. Kay could see several pairs of football boots surrounding him; he knew he was lying on the ground; someone had rolled him sideways.

 

The pain at his back has intensified, Kay closed his eyes, suddenly he found it hard to breathe, painful to breathe, like something was lodging in his chest. He felt... lightheaded.

 

A paramedic was pressing something on his back, he could hear him talking to the others, “check if there’s any other wounds. Quick!”

 

Before Kay lost his consciousness, the last thing he remembered was a distant sound of Marc’s cry.

 

Someone had stabbed him in the back.

Chapter Text

 

The overhead lights in the hospital corridor cast a murky greenish haze on everything.

 

Marc looks from one end of the corridor to the other. He cannot remember how long he’s been sitting on the white plastic chair, or why he is alone here. Where’s everybody?

 

Then a door opens at the end and a doctor in surgical scrubs comes out. Marc forces himself to stand up and walk over there but the corridor seems to become longer and longer, his heart begins to gallop.

 

Just as sudden, he is standing in front of the doctor.

 

“I am sorry. We did everything we could,” the doctor says.

 

“But he was fine...it can’t be!” Marc argues, he doesn’t understand.

 

“I am sorry. He lost too much blood. It’s too late,” the doctor continues in a calm voice.

 

“No! No! It’s not too late... I need to tell him... Take me to him!” Marc grabs the front of the doctor’s scrubs.

 

“Mr Borgmann, you need to calm down...”

 

 

 

“Marc? Marc?”

 

Someone was shaking his shoulder.

 

Marc jerked and opened his eyes. Herrlich’s bloodshot eyes met his, he touched his arm, “are you okay?”

 

Disoriented. For a second, Marc tried to look for the doctor he was speaking to... it’s a dream, of course it is, Kay is fine... he swallowed, the dream still lingered at the seam of his consciousness.

 

“Can I see him?” Marc asked. Kay had come out of the surgery two hours ago, but only his father was allowed to see him first.

 

“Kay’s sleeping,” Herrlich paused squeezing drops into his eyes. “I just convinced his father to go home first. You look like you should too.”

 

Marc and a few teammates, including Larsen, had arrived at the hospital after giving statements to the police. The longest two hours of Marc’s life; he was going out of his mind. He was only saved by Herrlich’s timely update from the hospital. But he had refused to go home like everyone else. Not until he could see Kay.

 

Marc shook his head. “I won’t wake him up. I just want to see him.”

 

Herrlich watched his face for a moment before he nodded, “Okay, but just for a minute.”

 

Kay was lying on his side, there are two large pillows buffering him on both sides. His face was pale, but he looked restful; if it weren’t for the bandage around his upper back and the breathing tube in his nose, one could think he’s just taking a nap.

 

Marc exhaled the breath he’s been holding.

 

He had to see it to believe it. They had told him Kay’s injury wasn’t life-threatening, that the surgery was to repair damaged tissues and a small puncture in his lung, but there was no way Marc would leave the hospital without seeing Kay.

 

They had found the weapon. It was a boning knife, sharp and long. A single wound, it was small but deep. Herrlich said another an inch, it would have seriously damaged Kay’s lung from the back.

 

The perpetrator had been caught on the spot and being held by the police. A local man in his early 30s. No one had more details yet. Some reported that the man had a history of mental illness, but that has not been verified. VfL Bochum was quick to distance themselves; the Ultras who had posted those threats on Twitter claimed they were not responsible.

 

Marc couldn’t bring himself to care about any of that. Kay was okay. That’s all the news he needed.

 

“I am sorry I didn’t pull him off the team tonight,” Herrlich said soberly.

 

Marc walked closer to the bed, he held Kay’s hand lying on the side, rubbing the wrist with his thumb. Kay didn’t even stir, he seemed totally out.

 

“No one really thought this would happen,” he said to Herrlich, eyes still on Kay.

 

He didn’t blame Herrlich. Marc just wished he had seen it coming, instead of arguing with the referee over the red card, it was futile and stupid; he used to scold teammates for doing the exact same thing. But Marc was seeing red, rational thinking had left his brain after Schulz calling Kay names.

 

“The German Football League will hold a meeting tomorrow. I need to be there. Go home. You can come back tomorrow; I’ve put your name on the visitor list.” Herrlich’s voice was raspy.

 

Marc summoned a tired smile and said, “thank you.” But he wasn’t moving.

 

As if his coach could read his mind, Herrlich turned to face the door to give him some time, Marc leaned over, his hand brushing the short blond hair, he kissed Kay’s forehead and whispered, “see you tomorrow, baby.”

 

******

 

Marc tiptoed into the kitchen. It was barely 7 o’clock in the morning, he tried to keep the noise at minimum, to not wake up Bettina. He needed to get to the hospital early; before the media or other teammates arrived.

 

Turning on the coffee machine with blurry eyes, he leaned against the kitchen counter, rubbing his tired eyes. He was drawn to the newspaper their maid left on the counter.

 

Marc squinted at the picture of himself on the front page of the Westdeutsche Zeitung.

 

It’s a black and white picture of Marc sitting hunched over on the ground, head bent on his knees, there was blood smear on the side of his face, transferred from his bloody hands - Kay’s blood, when he was holding him, trying to stem the bleeding before paramedics pulled him away. The photo was taken after Kay had been taken into an ambulance. Only Herrlich had been allowed to follow.

 

Marc looked wrecked, devastated in that photo.

 

He read the screaming headlines - Football World in Shock: horror in Bochum.

 

“How is he?”

 

Marc looked up to the sight of Bettina walking into the kitchen in jeans and a white top.

 

No need to ask whom she was referring to. “He’s okay. Out of surgery.” Marc replied quickly, keeping his answer short. He knew he still hasn’t fully absorbed the impact of what had happened yesterday; the ebb and flow of post-shock, his mood swinging from quiescent to overwrought. Marc thought the only way to have some sense of control was to focus on one thing only - that Kay was alright.

 

She nodded. “You looked like death warmed over,” she coolly commented.

 

I probably do, Marc reckoned. He got up after just four hours of sleep. And they weren’t restful four hours, he had woken several times during the night, gulping and drenched in sweat, after dreams of the attack, one time he was too late, way too late; the other time, he couldn’t find Kay in the crowd, he shouted and shouted Kay’s name... to no avail. Bloody nightmares.

 

Bettina began to bring out two coffee mugs, milk and sugar. Marc followed suit and they worked together quietly for a minute to prepare coffee and toast for breakfast.

 

To Marc, it was strange and comforting at the same time, as they sat down by the kitchen counter, like remnants of an old routine.

 

Bettina glanced at the photo in the newspaper while taking a sip from her coffee. “Do they know the reason for the attack yet?” She asked.

 

Marc lifted one of his shoulders. They didn’t know if it was really related to the earlier threats, so he didn’t want to alarm Bettina.

 

Her brow furrowed. “Do you think it’s a hate crime? Because Kay’s gay?”

 

“We don’t know yet,” Marc hedged. “But it’s a possibility,” he conceded.

 

She didn’t say anything at first. Then she said quietly, “you need to be careful.”

 

“I will. I am.”

 

She met his gaze, “are you going back to the hospital?”

 

Marc nodded. “I will drop by his house to give his father a lift and pack some clothes.”

 

This conversation about Kay and him with Bettina was getting weirder and weirder.

 

“Pack some front opening clothes with zippers or buttons, he can’t raise his arms high if he has a back injury,” Bettina suggested. Her nurse instinct kicked in.

 

“I will. Thank you.” Marc answered. There was something disarming about seeing Bettina in her element again. Then he suddenly noticed something.

 

“Why are you up so early? I thought Jonas’s preschool class starts at 9?”

 

“Lida will take him to school today. I have a class this morning.”

 

“Class?” Marc parroted like an idiot.

 

“I am taking some pre-med courses. My nursing degree plus finishing these courses will qualify me for medical school.”

 

“You want to go back to university? To study to be a doctor?”

 

She nodded. “That has always been my plan back then. Nursing school was a stepping stone, to see if I can hack it,” she glanced over at him, “then you happened and we had Jonas and all the footballer’s wives...” she waved her hand in a dismissive way.

 

Marc didn’t know why he was so surprised by this. He tried to remember when was the last time he really thought about her as an individual, her own person, not his wife, not Jonas’s mother, but a woman he once loved. The truth was he hasn’t. Hasn’t for a long time. Maybe even before Kay entered his life.

 

He stared at his cup of coffee, lost for words. They had briefly talked about their living arrangement. Marc planned to move out when the football season reached the winter-break in December. The one-year separation requirement could still be met even if they both lived at the same address, there was no real rush for him to move out. Their house was certainly big enough and Marc wanted to live with Jonas for as long as possible, before they agreed on future custody arrangement. So far, their separation has been amicable.

 

“By the way, your father called last night after he saw the news. Did you turn off your mobile?”

 

“No, but I left it in my backpack during the game. Then I just forgot about it. It probably ran out of battery,” Marc frowned. Recalling himself walking out of the stadium like a zombie; he was sure Larsen had been the one getting him into a car to the hospital together. And Herrlich had to call Larsen’s mobile instead from the hospital.

 

Bettina looked at him with a hint of sympathy. “Your parents are coming over for dinner tonight, he wants to talk to you.”

 

******

 

When Marc spotted his father’s BMW X5 on his driveway, his good mood from spending all day at the hospital with Kay evaporated.

 

“Go home and get some sleep. Or you will be stealing my pillows.” Kay had joked before sending Marc away, with Larsen sniggering behind him.

 

The painkillers were doing their job, Kay had been in and out of sleep all day, but when he was awake, he seemed to be in good spirits. But Marc knew. Under the apparent cheerfulness, doubts and worries were lurking behind Kay’s eyes; Marc just wanted to be alone with him... but it would have to wait.

 

Herrlich was suspending team training for two days. Marc had spent the whole day at the hospital, keeping Kay’s father company, making sure his teammates not crowding into the room all at once. Nobody questioned why he’s there all the time.

 

“Nobody would, not after this barbaric insanity. This shit is sobering,” Larsen had told Marc.

 

This might buy them a short reprieve.

 

But now, he had things he needed to deal with. Marc parked his car and turned off the engine. He sat in his car for a few seconds, gathering his thoughts before he climbed out of the car.

 

Wolfgang Borgmann was waiting for him by the entrance; he must have heard the car. Marc gave his father a subdued, small nod.

 

“Engel’s injury is not too serious, I heard,” Wolfgang said as they walked into the living room together.

 

“The wound is small but deep and they stopped the bleeding quickly,” Marc answered. Mentally thanking whichever god was looking after Kay yesterday.

 

His mother was already sitting down with Jonas, while Bettina was setting the table, she flicked a quick glance to Marc. Again, with sympathy in her eyes. Under different circumstances, Marc would find it almost ironic that his estranged wife was now his ally.

 

“Let’s eat first,” Marc sighed.

 

The peace and quiet lasted only half an hour. After Jonas has finished his meal and asked to be excused, Marc’s mother began to express her concern over the security in a lot of Bundesliga 2 stadiums.

 

“That poor man. They say there were threats made against him that day. Is it true?”

 

Marc gave a tight nod. “Herrlich put Kay on substitute bench because of that.”

 

“What on earth they have against him?” His mother was appalled. But she didn’t seem to be expect Marc to have the answer.

 

Marc’s eyes met Bettina’s, her expression was a mix of resigned and impartial. They were both sensing the storm rolling in.

 

Of course, his father jumped on the chance to ask Marc - about his red card. Something that had completely slipped Marc’s mind among all the chaos.

 

“Why the hell did you push Schulz like that? You know you could have seriously injured him? Are you out of your mind?” Wolfgang not mincing his words.

 

It was stupid, for sure. Marc wasn’t sure if he regretted doing it. He certainly regretted the sequence of events followed after that, but he couldn’t let Schulz get away with that homophobic stunt.

 

But Marc knew there was no point telling his father any of that.

 

“You are facing a three-match-ban, and that’s just the minimum! They can increase it to a five or six-match ban if Schulz’s injured. You are seriously jeopardising Duisburg’s chance to retain the league title. Now with Engel out of action for god knows how long. What a mess! All for a spat with a league 2 defender... I just don’t understand.” Wolfgang kept shaking his head.

 

“Ackermann can play left wing until Kay comes back,” Marc said wearily, just to placate his father for a while.

 

Marc’s answer has somehow made it worse. “Ackermann is not as good and he’s injury-prone!” His father retorted. The rant continued. Wolfgang Borgmann clenched his fist on the table, getting even angrier, “you pulled this stunt right in the middle of your contract negotiation. What were you thinking? We need to sit down with Stefan, come up with a new strategy.”

 

“I don’t have time for the contract negotiation. Not now,” Marc said, barely managed to keep his voice down. Let. It. Go. He told himself.

 

“No time? You always have time for damage control,” his father raised his voice, looking more irritated with Marc by the second. “And you can forget about Player of the Year! No one will give it to a player who have a 5-match ban in that season.”

 

“I DON’T FUCKING CARE!” Marc roared. Finally snapped.

 

Everyone stopped. For a few seconds, no one said anything.

 

“Marc!” His father warned sharply.

 

“For fuck’s sake, Kay is still in the hospital! I don’t care about the league title; I don’t care about pay-rise or the fucking award!”

 

Fuck it. He thought. Marc stood up from his chair, his body shaking.

 

“Marc...” that was Inge Borgmann. “Don’t talk to your father like that. Why don’t you sit down? There’s no need to get so upset over - ”

 

But his father was glowering at him suspiciously. “You know I’ve heard some rumours the other day. When I asked Herrlich, he was being very evasive.”

 

Wolfgang Borgmann paused. He looked over at Bettina, said gently, “will you two excuse us, I want to talk to Marc alone.”

 

“No, Bettina stays. Whatever you want to tell me, she has the right to know,” Marc said calmly, even though he could feel his heartbeat in his throat.

 

It took a lot to faze Wolfgang Borgmann, but his father was taken aback. He said slowly, “Okay, if that’s what you want.” He narrowed his eyes and asked accusingly, “what the hell is going on with you and Kay Engel?”

 

A year ago, Marc would never have imagined having such a conversation with his father. That free falling, staring down at the abyss feeling was back, Marc tried to contain the fear sitting in his stomach. The truth will out, whether he was afraid or not.

 

Marc closed his eyes briefly and said, “Kay is very important to me,” he paused. Then he threw a quick glance at Bettina, who returned a minuscule nod. “Bettina and I are separating.”

 

“Marc!” His mother cried. She seemed to have lost the ability to form words other than repeating names. “Bettina?” She helplessly looked at Bettina.

 

Bettina’s eyes have made the confirmation for his mother. “We were going to tell you two,” she said simply.

 

Wolfgang Borgmann was still staring at his son; his hands in tight fists by his side, his expression changed from suspicious to chagrined

 

“Inge, we are leaving,” Wolfgang finally said.

 

******

 

That night, Marc sat alone in the back garden.

 

When Axel wandered over and lay his head on Marc’s thigh, he suddenly remembered he was sitting on the bench where Kay had first met Axel at Marc’s birthday party, where they had kissed in secret.

 

He gently scratched the back of Axel’s neck, murmuring, “he’s going to be fine. We are going to be fine. You’ll see.”

Chapter Text

(Kay)

 

The older, stocky detective named Guido shifted awkwardly with a notepad in hand.

 

“So, you didn’t hear any chants or verbal abuse directing at you before the attack?”

 

“What do you mean? Fans are always chanting.” And spouting abuse, that’s in some fans’ DNA. Kay thought.

 

“Any specific kind? That you know it’s aiming at you?” His poker face was so bad he could barely hide his... disgust? Probably just discomfiture.

 

“No,” Kay replied without inflection. “In any case, I wasn’t paying attention. There was a fight going on between players, everyone was trying to break that up.”

 

“Have you ever seen this man?” Guido’s partner, a younger, petite female detective named Sabine handed over a photo.

 

Kay stared at the mugshot of a man in his 30s, with rash-like red blotches on his face. Looks like seborrheic dermatitis, Kay knew dogs get them too.

 

“Is he the man who stabbed me?” He asked, still looking at the photo.

 

“His name is Roland Berger. A lifelong FC Duisburg fan. He’s the suspect, yes. He’s not familiar to you?” Sabine repeated the question.

 

Kay shook his head. A fan of his own team attacked him? Really?

 

“He admitted that he has been stalking you for a month.”

 

“What?” Kay frowned. “How...? Like follow me home?”

 

Sabine took back the photo, and said, “he was following you from the training centre. He drives a blue Volkswagen Polo. You didn’t notice any suspicious car?”

 

Kay shook his head again. There must be hundreds of blue VW Polos on the road. “So, he knows where I live?”

 

Sabine nodded.

 

“He said he noticed different men going to your house.” That was Guido. “He wrote them down and took pictures.”

 

There was something unfriendly. No, not just unfriendly, Guido’s tone was contemptuous.

 

“I live with my father and my agent Oskar come visit us a lot. And they are two different men,” Kay answered. Meeting Guido’s eyes.

 

“And Marc Borgmann?”

 

“He’s our team captain,” Kay kept his voice neutral.

 

“According to Berger’s notes, he’s going to your house every day.”

 

Definitely not every day, but Kay said nothing. He wasn’t going to volunteer anything extra to Guido.

 

Sabine shot a quick look at her male work partner, seemingly disapproved of his implied hostility, said softly, “we are trying to establish if this is a hate crime.”

 

Kay gave them a blank stare. “Against what? Footballers?”

 

“Mr Engel...” Guido said exasperated.

 

But Sabine talked over him, “Roland Berger refused to say why he wanted to attack you, he just said you shouldn’t play football. But we have reasons to believe that he was under the impression you are gay and that he holds negative view of the LGBTQ community.”

 

Kay shouldn’t be surprised, that was his first thought - that he was attacked because he was gay - but to hear it out loud, it still shook him. All the years he thought he had prepared himself for it, had thought he wouldn’t be hurt by it, at least not mentally. His heart squeezed tight, the ugliness and unfairness of it made him fume with rage.

 

“Whom I sleep with shouldn’t matter here. I can’t control what people think I do or don’t do,” Kay said, his eyes looking straight at the wall.

 

Once Marc’s name has been brought up, Kay knew he needed to tread carefully. It was blatantly clear that they were looking for confirmation of his relationship with Marc, at least Guido was.

 

“That is true,” Sabine conceded. “Roland Berger also has a history of mental illness; he was diagnosed with certain personality disorder.”

 

“He’s also active in the incel community,” Guido added the extra information with glee.

 

“What?” Kay frowned. He thought he had heard of this term, but not entirely sure what it means.

 

“They are men who practise involuntary celibacy,” Sabine explained patiently, “they tend to hate women and sometimes gay men as well.”

 

Great. “Sounds like an awesome bunch,” Kay grimaced. “He can’t get laid, so he decided to stalk and stab me?”

 

Guido chuckled before he could stop himself, his posture relaxed. Kay looked at him. At least now he thinks I am a comedian.  

 

Kay knew the Police was trying to gauge if they could get his co-operation to add hate crime on top of either ‘attempted murder’ or ‘aggravated assault’ charge. And to do that, Kay would almost definitely have to come out.

 

It’s not like they don’t know already. Kay had no illusion that he could still keep his sexuality under-wrapped, even if he didn’t confirm it, it’s a done deal in most people’s mind.

 

And he’s okay with it. A small part of him even welcomed it. If only Marc wouldn’t become the collateral casualty...

 

“The State Prosecutor hasn’t decided what charges, we are still gathering evidence. If there’s anything you or anyone else wish to add...” Sabine said, her clear green eyes met his. “Please contact us.” She handed Kay her name card.

 

“Thank you,” Kay took it.

 

The ‘anyone else’ she was referring to was clearly Marc. And Kay knew then and there, it’d be best to keep quiet.

 

Marc was standing outside when the two detectives were leaving, Kay saw him stepping aside to give way. A gentle smile on his face, he said hello to them. Kay couldn’t hear what Guido was saying in return, Marc’s face reddened but he didn’t say anything.

 

“Hey.” He walked up to side of the bed. It was a busy hospital and any member of their team would drop by, so they were keeping a respectable distance.

 

“Hey yourself,” Kay returned, summoning a smile. The conversation with the detectives still playing on his mind.

 

Dressed in a dark grey suede jacket, black jeans and slip-on sneakers, Marc looked handsome and relaxed today, he even smelled faintly of his usual cologne. A stark contrast to the tired red-rimmed eyes that had greeted Kay when he woke up the morning after the attack.

 

“What are you doing here?” Kay asked groggily. For a moment, he forgot where he was.

 

Marc croaked a sound between laughing and crying. “Shouldn’t you be asking where you are, in this situation?” He was holding Kay’s hand in bed. Kay had the impression that he’s been holding it for a while.

 

Kay struggled to fight the fogginess in his brain. “You looked like shit,” he teased hoarsely. His throat felt raw.

 

Marc barked out a laugh, drops of tears spilled out; relief flooded his face. “More like you scared the shit out of me,” he sniffed; his eyes tender and serious, “don’t do this again, baby.” He leaned in and pressed his forehead against Kay’s.

 

Kay looked over Marc’s shoulders and saw his father standing a few feet behind with a faint smile.

 

Better. Marc looked much better today.

 

“What did the detective say to you?” Kay didn’t know if Guido had a problem with celebrities or gay men. Or both.

 

Marc shrugged, “he said it’s nice to see a football captain looking after his teammate. Think he’s a Duisburg fan?”

 

Uh-huh. Don’t think Guido is a fan of anything. Kay thought. He considered telling Marc about the conversation he had with the police, that they were probing about their relationship. More like prying. It’s none of their business.

 

Kay decided to go with half of the facts.

 

“The man who stabbed me. He has mental illness issues.”

 

Marc’s first reaction was dismay. “So? A crazy person, that’s it?”

 

“They want to slap a hate crime charge on him but that means...” Kay trailed off.

 

Marc nodded stoically and finished the sentence for him, “stoking the fire for the rumours.”

 

“I don’t think people think they are rumours anymore.” Kay said quietly and forced himself to look at Marc directly but afraid to see his reaction.

 

Marc seemed to hesitate. He said brusquely, “let them talk. Like Herrlich said we just have to ride it out.” He put his hand on top Kay’s on the bed railing, ramping up positivity in his tone, “Larsen said even Gregor was upset about the attack, everyone in Bundesliga is outraged and calling for players protection and tighter security.”

 

Usually Kay was the optimistic one between them, but maybe years of being an alpha male in the football world made Marc think he’s untouchable. Although Kay could also tell there was something... unsettling in his eyes,

 

Before Kay could pinpoint what it was, Marc changed the subject and said, “DFB postponed our league match with Wolfsburg this weekend. I guess it’s only fair. We are only restarting training this afternoon.”

 

Kay nodded absently. Football matches seemed very far away from him at the moment. Whenever he thought of the sport the last few days, his first thought was Marc, his safety. In fact, that seemed to be his only thought.

 

The doctor hasn’t given him a timeline, physically, the injury would require a few months to recover and bring him back to match-ready fitness level; but Kay also needed to go through counselling, to make sure he didn’t suffer any form of post-traumatic stress.

 

It could be a long way back for him.

 

In the afternoon, after the results of the last chest screen came back clear, the doctor gave the go-ahead to discharge Kay. He quickly left a message to Marc and Herrlich and began to pack.

 

“Marc gave me a ride this morning. Let me tell the nurse station to call a taxi,” Kay’s father said, getting up from the armchair.

 

“Not so fast. Wait til they’ve finished the paperwork.” Kay quickly stuffed the pain medication the doctor gave him earlier into his gym bag. He glanced at his father. Feeling guilty that he was still checking for any tell-tale signs that Kristian might be using again. The size of his pupils, body weight, his physical coordination - everything he had learned to look for in a relapse.

 

More than eight months clean now. His father’s clear hazel eyes met his. Maybe knowing what his son was doing.

 

“Kay, it’s ok. I don’t mind. It’s probably a good idea I don’t know where you put the painkillers.”

 

“They are just ibuprofen. I told them I don’t need any form of opioid painkillers.”

 

Kristian Engel nodded. They both quickly moved on to something else.

 

“Marc told me he wanted to take his dog to our house, to keep your company while you recuperate at home.”

 

Kay grinned. “You’ll love Axel. He’s a rescued dog. Smart and gentle. Maybe you can teach him some tricks.”

 

“Actually, that is your speciality. You’re good with animals.” His father mirrored Kay’s smile, but his tone turned serious, “Marc is serious about this, isn’t he?”

 

“He and his wife are getting a divorce,” Kay blurted out; he didn’t know why he suddenly felt the need to defend Marc. Or to get his father’s approval.

 

There was a long pause before Kristian finally asked, “but you two still have to hide?”

 

“As long as we still want to play top league football,” Kay zipped up his gym bag and sat back down on the bed. “At least that’s what we’ve talked about.”

 

His father sat beside him. “But is that what you want? To wait until you are both ready to retire?”

 

Is it? Kay ran his hand through his short blond hair, sighed, “I don’t know anymore... I mean, shit hit the fan already, now even the police are asking about our relationship. I don’t know how long I can keep doing this.”

 

What Kay didn’t say was - what if I never feel safe playing again? Then what? What if next time the target is Marc?

 

“It’s your life, Kay. I am in no position to tell you how to live it, but this is no joke. This should be a wake-up call for both of you.”

 

“But Marc has a lot to lose. It’s not fair to expect him to - “

 

“Give up his career for love?”

 

Kay nodded slowly. “Not just his career, his legacy, his lifelong dreams. I can’t ask him to do that.”

 

They sat quietly together.

 

“I know why you’re torn about this,” his father sighed. “You want him to give that up without you asking.”

 

Or what if I ask and he says no. Kay couldn’t stop the bleak thought sneaking in. Like a fast-coming tide, the day he had to ask Marc to choose might come quicker than they had hoped.

 

“It’s not easy when your happiness is depending on the action of one person.” His father said quietly.

 

Kay swallowed an unexpected lump lodged in his throat. His mother had left them when he was eight years old. Kay only had hazy memories of his mother, but he remembered vividly how devastated his father was. He was never the same again.

 

******

 

(Marc)

 

Marc heard sounds of conversation when Herrlich’s wife, Hanna, led the way into a huge living room. He recognised the voices immediately.

 

Marc walked into the living room and found Herrlich, his agent, Stefan and his father sitting on the sofa.

 

So, this is what an ambush looks like.

 

“What’s going on?” Marc asked, looking at Herrlich, who had asked him to come to his house for dinner and an informal chat. Marc had thought maybe Herrlich was helping Duisburg’s board to get him to renew his contract.

 

Perhaps it was about his contract - but at his father’s request.

 

“Marc, what kind of greeting is that?” Wolfgang scowled. Didn’t take long for his father to lose his temper. Marc hasn’t spoken to his parents since they left his house few nights ago. Stefan had left messages on his phone a few times, but Marc hasn’t been in the mood to get in touch.

 

“The kind of greeting when I am being ambushed,” Marc retorted.

 

“Marc,” Herrlich scratched the side of his beard. “Please sit down,” he said and moved to seat next to Wolfgang, so he could sit between the father and son.

 

“We have received confirmation from the Duisburg board yesterday about your new contract,” Stefan said gravely, his hands clasped in front, like he’s delivering bad news. He licked his lips and began, “They agreed to our terms to increase your salary to €200,000 per week, that would make you one of the highest paid domestic players, just behind Marco Reus, plus other performance bonus and incentives...”

 

Marc knew this tone. There was more. He asked, “but?”

 

Stefan glanced quickly over at Wolfgang and Herrlich before he said, “they expressed concern about your recent behaviour on the pitch and also the speculations over your relationship with certain team members... they want reassurance from...”

 

Team members? More like one particular member. “They want me to tell them I am not gay, is that it?” Marc interjected.

 

“Marc,” Herrlich joined in calmly, “they are not horrible people. They just don’t want a big distraction to the club. They want clarity, they want the focus to be back on the team, not on the private lives of a few players.”

 

“Huh. I want that too,” Marc shook his head, “it’s not like Kay and I ask for any of this. He got stabbed! Have they forgotten that already? What do they want us to do?”

 

“You certainly brought this on yourself,” Wolfgang said; he turned to Marc, his ruddy face twisted into a scowl. “I don’t care who you sleep with. I am not a dinosaur like you think. But to have a fling with your own teammate? This could derail your career. What were you - “

 

“It’s not a fling,” Marc said. Surprising himself with how calm he sounded.

 

The silence followed told Marc what he didn’t say out loud was heard by the three men anyway.

 

Wolfgang Borgmann watched his son closely, the frustration was clear in his voice. “Don’t you get it? No one cares if you two are bloody in love. You can’t have a career in the top league while playing house with your male teammate. This is not women’s football, and you are not playing in league two in a small country. They invested millions in you, in Kay too. They don’t want the club to turn into a laughingstock. The rival fans and the media will eat you alive.”

 

Marc’s gaze jerked away, his jaw worked, but nothing came out. Of course, he understood all of it. He couldn’t even argue, not when he recalled he had said similar things to Kay when they talked about waiting for a few years. It’s just that...

 

Herrlich stood up and walked next to the window, he sounded resigned when he said, “the police concluded that the attack on Kay was triggered by the gay rumours. The club and the league can condemn all they want, but no club has experience how to handle it. And the stabbing tells us the danger is real.”

 

All of them were silent for a moment or two, taking in the enormity of the situation. Marc’s mind ground round and round like a carousel, images of Kay, of himself on the pitch, their hopes and dreams, flashing in front of his eyes.

 

Stefan, who has been quiet, said tentatively, “Marc, before you arrived, I was telling your father and Herrlich about a possible solution,” he laughed nervously, “not exactly a solution, but a distraction to take away the current distraction, so to speak...”

 

Marc’s brows knotted together, losing patience. “Just spit it out, Stefan.”

 

“Well, since the news about you separation from your wife is out...”

 

At Marc’s raised eyebrows, Stefan paused. He looked between Marc and Wolfgang.

 

Marc felt the rug pulled out from under him; he flicked a quick glance at his father’s impassive face, knowing instantly he was responsible for the leak. The betrayal so sharp and painful, he had to bite his bottom lip to keep from screaming.

 

Colour rising in his cheeks, but Stefan ploughed on, “we can leak to the media that you have been seeing someone. We already have a minor celebrity in mind, you might have seen her in last year’s ‘Germany’s Next Topmodel’ tv show...”

 

Marc pressed both palms against his face. He couldn’t believe what he’s hearing. They’ve all gone batshit crazy. He dropped his hands. “You are all crazy,” he said. “You are joking. No one would believe it. It’s... it’s beyond ridiculous!”

 

Wolfgang’s lips thinned, he said disdainfully, “trust me, people would believe what they want to believe, you just need to give them something they want to hear. You think you and Kay are the only players who ever got involved?”

 

******

 

Marc found himself alone in the back garden again. This time, even Axel was leaving him alone.

 

He took out his mobile and called the most frequently used number.

 

“Hey. Did I wake you?” It was only 10pm, but Kay has been sleeping on and off these days. Marc pressed the phone close to his ears, like he could hear Kay’s breathing this way.

 

“No, I slept so much during the day, now I can’t.” Kay’s voice was soft and alert. No signs of sleep. “Maybe I will put a Tatort DVD on,” he joked.

 

Marc grinned, “that will only make you binge the entire boxset again.”

 

Kay chuckled. Then he cleared his throat, a twinge of concern in his voice, “what’s up? You can’t sleep too?”

 

There was so much Marc wanted to say to him. He shook his head even though he knew Kay couldn’t see him. “Nah, just miss hearing your voice.” He settled for that.

 

Somehow that confession brought a sense of heaviness between them.

 

“I miss you too...” Kay trailed off. After a few seconds, Marc could hear him exhaling slowly before he said, “Marc, we need to talk.”

 

“I know.”

 

Kay seemed to be considering what to say, then he asked, “can you come over tomorrow after training?”

 

“Sure, I can do that,” Marc answered with more gusto than he felt. He had some idea of what Kay planned to talk about. The fluttering in this stomach a confusing mix of fear and excitement.

 

“I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Marc...” Kay paused. “You know whatever happens, my feelings for you won’t change.”

 

Marc stared at the light reflecting in the swimming pool, his heart was full, and his head was clear. He whispered into his phone, “I love you. See you tomorrow.”

 

After he hung up, Marc sat still on the bench, basked in his solitude for a few moments, feeling strangely comforting.

 

Mind made up. Marc called Arne Larsen.

Chapter Text

(Kay)

 

“Come over here!” Larsen yelled at them from the garden.

 

Marc sighed exasperatedly and rolled his eyes for the hundredth time, but he threw a quick grin at Kay, before he gave up resistance. He put his hand on Kay’s small back and they walked to the garden together.

 

“Don’t walk too fast, no sudden movement,” Marc reminded him.

 

“Yes, doc,” Kay batted his lashes.

 

“I’ll kick your arse if you pull open your wound,” Marc changed to intimidation tactics.

 

“I’d like to see you try,” Kay raised one of his eyebrows, but he leaned into Marc’s hold. The steady hand on his back felt like a warm balm on his skin. Kay tried not to show it, but the wound was still in throbbing pain, partly because he didn’t want to take painkillers unless it got too bad.

 

“C’moooon, you two!” Larsen hurried them. He was standing in the middle of the garden, holding up his phone at various directions and angles.

 

“What the hell are you doing?” Kay asked.

 

“It’s a light meter app, I am looking for the area with the best light. Natural light. That is the secret of my insta,” Larsen said and began tapping furiously on his mobile.

 

“Arne, stop messing around, just take the damn photo. But I don’t want anything too...” Marc paused, looking like a fish out of water. “I mean, we are not doing kissing selfies,” he clarified.

 

“It’s not a selfie if I am the one holding the camera for you. Amateur.” Larsen shook his head at Marc and winked at Kay, clearly relishing his new director’s role.

 

Kay and Marc stood around in the garden with hands on their side, waiting for Larsen to direct them, feeling self-conscious and stupid.

 

“I am beginning to think this is a bad idea,” Marc mumbled next to him, then he turned to face Kay, eyes looking directly into his, “hey, I don’t mean the coming out part,” he quickly added. “I am sure of that. Just the bringing in Arne Larsen part.”

 

Coming out. Kay repeated the words in his mind. Followed by more surreal collection of words: we are coming out together.

 

******

 

(An hour before)

 

When Marc showed up at his house with Larsen in tow, Kay thought something bad had happened during training. His heart lurched instantly. An emergency or someone got hurt. But no, it was something else entirely.

 

Something unexpected.

 

The gut-wrenching speech Kay had prepared died in his mouth when Marc explained what he planned to do.

 

“I am sick of them trying to control my life.” Marc said. “I need to get on top of this, we need to; before they force us into doing something even more awful.”

 

“But... what... what about your career? No other club will touch you after this,” Kay spluttered. If Duisburg doesn’t try to get rid of us first.

 

“It’s a risk I have to take,” Marc admitted. He shared a glance with Larsen, his co-conspirator, and said, “Even if that means the end of my playing career...” his voice hitched at the word ‘end’, but he continued, “I am okay with it.” His voice unwavering and determined once again.

 

“Marc, you are making a rash decision here... you don’t have to do this, there’s no need for you take this risk...” Kay had no idea why he tried to reason. This was what he wanted, what he had secretly hoped Marc would agree to. But still... he couldn’t imagine Marc would just throw all of that away.

 

“What happened to waiting for a few years? You want to play football!”

 

“I do. But not at any cost,” Marc held his gaze. “And they kind of force my hand, I have to take action before it’s too late.”

 

“What do you mean? Who - ” Kay frowned. Getting more and more confused.

 

But Marc wasn’t answering his question; he grabbed both sides of Kay’s shoulders. “Listen,” Marc said slowly, searching Kay’s face. “I know what you were planning to tell me today - “

 

“Marc.”

 

“- I know you want to come out yourself and you want me to distant myself from you. And then what? We see each other once a month behind everyone’s back?” He paused. A shake of his head. “Stop trying to be a martyr, I won’t have it. It’s actually insulting that you think I’d just let you bear the brunt of it. That’s very little faith you have in me, Kay Engel.”

 

Kay met Marc’s steely gaze. His heart stuttered. Kay opened this mouth, his voice shook, but he forced himself to talk past it, “but what if you become the target next time?”

 

There. He finally blurted out his biggest fear.

 

Marc stilled. He thought for a moment and said quietly, “I don’t want to be a target, but if they are going to come at us, then we just have to be prepared. I know what I’ve said, and I know you were staying quiet because of me, but we can’t be slaves to our own fear. You weren’t out and you still got attacked! I can’t bear it.” Marc twisted his face. “Fuck them. If those cowards want to hurt me, I can deal with them if I know I'm going home to you, and we don’t have to hide, that’s all I need.”

 

After the longest speech Kay has ever heard him talk, Marc was breathing hard.

 

Could we really do this? Kay began to think; to dream. Out in the open and the hell with everyone.

 

Kay had planned to come out himself and end his contract with Duisburg after this season, or whatever would be left of the season after his recovery. Then he could get out of the spotlight, quit football. Take the pressure off Marc; people get bored and Kay would become old news. And maybe in a couple of years, when Marc was ready, they could... that was the part that he had wanted to talk about with Marc. It wasn’t ideal but…

 

And now...

 

Looking up from under his lashes, Kay pretended to narrow his eyes and asked, “who are you and what you have done to Marc Borgmann?”

 

“Ha!” Marc gave out a rueful smile, clearly relieved that the tension was broken. He pulled Kay into his arms. “I am still the same, just smarter,” he quipped, kissing Kay’s hair. “We’ll be okay, as long as we are together. Everything else is secondary.”

 

“Ahem.” Someone was clearing their throat.

 

They both turned to look at Larsen.

 

“Marc is smart, case in point, he has come to me for advice,” Larsen seemed to have developed a permanent smirk on his face.

 

Marc huffed. “I asked for your help because neither Kay nor I are on social media. And you have 7 million followers on your Instagram.”

 

“And my artistic sensitivity.”

 

“That’s the plan? We will use Arne’s Insta to come out?” Kay asked, looking between them. This still seemed surreal to him.

 

“I think Marc is smart to do this,” Larsen said in a more serious tone. “You get to control your narrative. Coming out with a bang! And since it’s my Insta, that shows the world you get the teammates’ support already. Then we get the fans and the LGBTQ community on board. This way, you tie Duisburg’s hands, they can’t risk negative publicity.” Larsen talked like a professional PR guru.

 

“That is - if the public reacts positively,” Kay winced. Sorry but he wasn’t feeling so hot about football fans after being stabbed by one.

 

Larsen waved his hand. “Everyone is a little nasty online sometimes, but everyone also loves to be seen as cool. I’ll make sure you have the best coming out ever.”

 

******

 

“I am holding the phone higher because downward angle is a lot more flattering.” Larsen explained.

 

“I am good looking in whatever angle,” Kay drawled.

 

“Yeah yeah yeah, that only shows you don’t know anything about photography,” Larsen said. “Now pretend I am not around and just do your own things, have a chat, drink your coffee, do some lovey dovey stuff, but stay in this area with the best light,” he looked up from his phone and pointed at Marc, “and relax your shoulders, you look like you want to hit something.”

 

“More like someone...” Marc mumbled. He looked like he wanted to punch Larsen for sure.

 

Kay sniggered. He turned to look at Marc’s profile, searching for signs of discomfort, hesitation or second thoughts on his face but found only openness and something else... Kay tilted his head a little, the word he was looking for was so close, he almost caught it... oh yes, he knew what it was.

 

Free. Marc looks free.

 

******

 

In the end, Larsen’s art direction paid off. Out of more than a dozen photos, he picked three for them to choose.

 

“I like this one,” Kay pointed at the last one as Larsen stopped scrolling through the photos on his mobile.

 

All three heads hovered above the small screen.

 

Marc studied the photo, he leaned back a little, looking at Kay. “Me too,” he said.

 

The photo was taken from behind them, showing only their profiles. Marc was whispering something in Kay’s ear, his hand resting on Kay’s nape and back, just above the stab wound, gentle and affectionate. Kay was wearing a white linen shirt, the bandage just about visible under the thin fabric. They were both smiling. A ray of hazy afternoon sunshine escaped through the small gap between their bodies.

 

It was a very lovely photo. Thoughtful and intimate. Nothing too demonstrative, but no one would think they were just platonic friends, they looked very much in love in it.

 

“Excellent choice!” Larsen exclaimed.

 

“What are you going to write on it?” Kay was curious. They have given Larsen the liberty to write the caption for the photo.

 

Larsen didn’t answer. He stared at the photo for a few more seconds, then started typing on his phone.

 

He showed it to them.

 

>>Undefeated<<

 

Then underneath the caption - >>I am chilling with my favourite couple this afternoon. They have a message for you all: love heals all wounds.<<

 

Larsen raised his eyebrow, waiting for their response.

 

“It’s perfect,” Marc said.

 

******

 

They have all put their mobiles away after Larsen posted the photo on his Instagram. “We will check the damage after lunch,” Larsen joked. And they went inside to have a late lunch with Kay’s father.

 

“Oh my god, you father made Grünkohl!” Larsen ran inside, following the scent of stewed kale and fried potatoes, served with smoked sausages.

 

Kay pulled at Marc’s shirt sleeve. “Hmm?” Marc turned and asked.

 

“Thank you,” Kay whispered, his eyes downturned. Not trusting himself to look at Marc at the moment.

 

Marc took his hand and laced their fingers together. “I think we should start doing this more often,” he said, jutting his chin to their hands.

 

“And this,” Kay answered with a kiss on Marc’s still open mouth.

 

Marc welcomed it. He palmed Kay’s cheek with the other hand deepened the kiss in no time. It’s Kay’s favourite kind of kisses - unhurried, lingering and full of possibility.

 

They kissed standing on the threshold of the door, much like the threshold of a new beginning of their lives.

 

Until they heard Larsen shouting from inside. “C’moooon, you two! I am starving.”

 

Kay barely picked up his knife and fork when the landline telephone in the living room started ringing. He already knew who that would be.

 

His father read his mind. “Probably Britt,” he announced.

 

The call already went to voicemail by the time Kay reached it. Britt’s shrill voice came out from the phone speaker the same time Kay saw her caller ID on the screen.

 

“Kay-fucking-Engel, pick up the phone!”

 

Kay picked up the phone and said, “everyone can hear you, Britt.” He glanced over and saw his father and Marc shared a secret smile.

 

“Oh my god. I can’t believe you do this to me!! You couldn’t give me a warning when I visited you at the hospital? And it should be me doing this, not your new - ” Kay was sure he wouldn’t need to relay her message to others.

 

“It wasn’t my plan - “

 

“- Swedish BFF. I am going to kill you - “

 

“Britt, it wasn’t my idea - “

 

“ - and oh my god, I can’t believe Marc came out too! All is forgiven. But you two owe me an exclusive.”

 

Kay tried to get a word in. “Britt!”

 

She paused. Then came a sound between laughing and sobbing. “Now you make me cry. I am so happy for you, K!”

 

“We will have dinner and talk soon, okay? Bring Erik with you.”

 

Britt accepted the invitation with a croaky “Of course”, Kay listened to her alternating between grumbling and rejoicing for a few more minutes before he could finally have enough time to say, “tell Oskar I will call him later, okay? I have to go.”

 

Kay put down the receiver and unplugged the phone for now.

 

******

 

(Marc)

 

Marc could see the number 18 flashing next to the voicemail icon on his mobile; he wondered how many of them were from his father. He couldn’t lie, he got a kick out of that, knowing he has spoiled Wolfgang Borgmann’s plan, but also a sense of apprehension - his whole adult life, he has never directly gone against his father.

 

The only person he had contacted after the Instagram post went out was Bettina. Giving her a heads up of what’s coming. She had sounded calm on the phone, she simply replied “ok” without inflection. When she sensed that Marc was trying to say he’s sorry, she interrupted and said, “good luck, Marc. You’re going to need it.”

 

That went a long way to reassure him that he has made the right decision, that this wasn’t going to hurt her further.

 

Marc looked over at the lounge chairs in the garden, where Kay and Larsen were hunched over a small table in front of Kay’s laptop, they were still checking the responses on Instagram. Marc noticed Kay was still favouring his unharmed right side, but his posture was relaxed, his lips upturned forming a small smile. Just this sight was enough proof for Marc - that he has made the right decision.

 

They had checked the responses together after lunch. Larsen had noticed immediately that the post scored a record number of LIKES for his account. And he had a lot of new followers in the last hour.

 

The responses have been a mix of shock (OMG, WHAT???), jubilation (Congrats! Hearts and kisses! I am crying!), disbelief (It’s fake, this joke has gone too far) to marriage proposals (you two are super hot! Marry me!), a few offered to have their baby... then there were also some offensive jokes and name callings, but they were in the minority. And no threats, so far.

 

Some of their teammates have responded as well. All positive. Karsten sent five rows of heart emojis; Ackermann wished them good luck; even Gregor Limpinski left them a comment >>these guys have guts. respect<<

 

It’s only been a few hours. Marc wasn’t naive to believe that this was it, that they’ve passed the test and came out of it unscathed. When they wake up tomorrow, it could be a different picture. But he would gladly take the win...

 

“Marc, come here! Check out who left a comment just now,” Kay shouted, waving him to come over. His eyes still on the laptop.

 

“What?” Marc asked before he reached them. He slowed down as he saw the expression of their faces. Both Larsen and Kay looked like they’ve been hypnotised.

 

Dazed. Larsen turned the laptop to face him. Marc leaned closer and squinted. At first, he didn’t know where to look; his eyes scrolled up and down on the screen, still a lot of OMGs, Congratulations and more emojis than he has ever seen. Then he saw one account name with a blue tick next to it.

 

>>Bravo! It’s about time. I applaud your courage. An important first step for many.<<

 

The comment was posted by the ‘bundeskanzlerin’ account.

 

Angela Merkel has left them a comment.

Chapter Text

(Frank)

 

(Three months later)

 

Frank got out of his car and was about to press the doorbell when Kay opened the door.

 

“Hey Frank, you made it,” Kay greeted him with a smile.

 

“Hey, I am not late, am I?” Frank asked. Then came a loud barking sound from behind.

 

Kay turned his back and ordered, “Axel, aus!” Marc’s dog, Axel, immediately halted his run and stayed still.

 

Kay has grown out his hair a little, no longer a buzzcut like a cadet, his soft blond hair cut in low taper fade on the sides and messy in the middle. Frank hasn’t seen Kay for a couple of months - well, except in magazines and newspapers. Their joint coming-out had created a media storm lasted for weeks. Kay’s previous rental house was under-sieged by reporters.

 

He looked good. Fit and... well, beautiful. Do people call men beautiful? But Frank couldn’t think of another word, more than handsome; Kay was the head-turning kind. Frank had no problem acknowledging that - having had a few months to get over the shock that his best friend had fallen in love with a man and come out.

 

And no signs of injury anymore. Frank had heard some rumours... he still couldn’t believe Kay wanted to stop playing football.

 

Frank looked at Kay’s back and thought if he had Kay’s left foot and his speed, he would play for another two years.

 

Kay turned back to him and said, “not at all. Larsen just got here. Still 20 minutes to the game.” He led the way to the living room. Axel started following behind them. “You found your way here okay?”

 

Frank nodded and smiled. “You forgot I’ve been to this house before,” he answered and tried to walk past Axel.

 

“Oh yes, of course you’ve been here. You two have been friends since forever.” Kay palmed his forehead.

 

At the beginning of the football season winter-break, Marc has moved back to his old house, the one he used to live in before he and Bettina got married. Frank used to call it ‘The Official Duisburg Bachelors’ mansion’, a lot of young players used to gather here to play pool and party, with girls, alcohol, and whatnots. Hell, even I was young back then. Those were the days.

 

Now Marc lived here with Kay. And Kay’s father in the annex next to the main house; it used to be the pool house.

 

Frank knew stranger things have happened, but how his best friend’s life has been transformed in the past year was right up there with... sighting of UFO. Not that Frank has seen any himself.

 

“Woof! Woof!”

 

Frank jumped at the dog’s barking and was brought back to present.

 

“You are not afraid of dogs, are you?” Kay asked with a twinge of challenge.

 

Frank puffed his chest a little. “Of course not. We have a Maltipoo at home... I mean Claudia has,” Frank explained while tried not to squirm when Axel began to sniff his shoes, then his jeans.... Hell, this Belgian dog looks intimidating.

 

Kay laughed. “Don’t worry, Axel is a softie. Even Jonas can play with him now. He won’t bite.” He winked and added, “unless I ask him to.”

 

“Axel, komm! Stop bothering Frank,” Kay ordered. He turned to Frank, “They are in the kitchen. I am taking Axel to my father, so we can watch the game in peace.”

 

The dog ran back to Kay like he has won the lottery, didn’t bother to give Frank a backward glance.

 

The house hasn’t changed much from Frank’s memory. Marc had been renting it for years to a Swedish footballer who played for Düsseldorf Fortuna. He got the house back after the Swede got transferred to a Spanish team in the summer. So, it still looked like a footballer’s house - mega-size TV, house gym, swimming pool.

 

He found Marc and Larsen standing near the open plan kitchen, looking at something. Larsen was wheezing and laughing.

 

“What’s so funny?” Frank tried to peek over Marc’s shoulders.

 

“Hey Frank,” Marc turned to him.

 

Larsen stopped laughing for a second to acknowledge Frank, then he pointed to a large oil painting leaning against the wall and burst out laughing again.

 

Frank stepped closer to have a look. “What the hell...” He had to rub his eyes. “Is that...” Frank couldn’t believe it; he turned to Marc and Larsen.

 

“Yes, it’s him.” They both nodded. Larsen wanted to laugh again.

 

It was large painting of the Swedish player who used to live in this house. Sitting in some sort of Game of Thrones type of large stone chair, he’s holding a large sword in front... naked. His reproductive organs just about being obstructed by the sword. It was so bad, so crass, it’s pure entertainment.

 

“Wow.” Frank was speechless.

 

“I know, right? He is posing like a king... a naked king.”

 

“Safe to say, he’s gayer than me.” Marc drawled.

 

“I have to agree. Just imagine the amount of money he spent to commission such a masterpiece.” Larsen started sniggering again.

 

“Why is it still here? He didn’t take it with him when he moved out?” Frank didn’t want to look but he also couldn’t stop looking at it.

 

“He probably completely forgot its existence. Kay found it in the garden shack yesterday. We had a good laugh.” Marc shook his head. “Footballers buy the most ridiculous things sometimes.”

 

Frank agreed. Marc and he have always been the sensible ones. No silly extravagant lifestyle, they invested their earnings well. The average football player’s career length was only 8 years. They have both been fairly lucky with injuries, Frank had played until he’s 33, Marc looked like he could still have another 5 years in top league.

 

Although Herrlich had told Frank that Marc was still indecisive about renewing his contract - that was one thing he wanted to find out today - among a few other things. He needed to talk to Marc alone later.

 

There were beers, bratwurst, cheese, and pretzels on the table in front of the TV. Bundesliga was still in winter-break, matches would restart next weekend. Marc thought it was a good time to watch ‘El Clásico’ (Barcelona v Real Madrid) together before they returned to their own football madness.

 

Frank looked around the living room. It was comfy and functional, but definitely lacking a certain... woman’s touch. Or maybe Frank was just projecting, he couldn’t be sure. The immature part of him was rejoicing the fact that now he had a man-cave to hang out with his friends again, without their wives.

 

He glanced over at Kay, he was sitting next to Marc on the large sofa, putting his feet up on an ottoman. Both of them with a beer in hand, their eyes on the TV screen, listening to the pre-match team news. They weren’t acting any differently in front of others than before.

 

If Frank didn’t know, he would have thought they were just mates hanging out... until he noticed Marc had one of his arms around Kay’s back, his fingers leisurely carding through the blond hair. It looked so natural; Frank was certain Marc didn’t even notice he was doing it; he probably did it every time they sat together.

 

Ugh. Maybe not a man-cave for me after all. Frank thought.

 

“Stop staring,” Larsen said to him, keeping his voice low. “Get used to it. They are still acting like a pair of newly-weds, you know?” He bumped Frank’s shoulders. This time he didn’t bother to keep his voice down.

 

“Shut up, Arne,” Kay threw a handful of Erdnuss flips at Larsen, who retaliated by throwing back a handful of Haribo gummies. Missed. The gummies fell in the bowl with the dipping curry sauce, splashing it everywhere.

 

“HEY!” Marc sat up straighter, shouted, “you two are worse than Jonas.” He got up.

 

Frank took the chance to follow Marc to the kitchen.

 

“Fucking teenagers. Both of them,” Marc muttered, but there’s a ghost of a smile on his lips. He wet a towel under the tap.

 

“How is your father? Have you talked to him lately?” Frank tried to sound causal, leaning against the kitchen counter.

 

Marc stilled. His hands bracing the kitchen sink; the smile’s gone. “No. Have you?” He asked.

 

“Indirectly.” Frank shrugged. He wasn’t exactly comfortable being a go-between. “He asked Herrlich and Herrlich asked me when I told him I am coming here today.”

 

“Great.”

 

“You know you can’t avoid him forever.”

 

Marc turned to face him, “I am not avoiding him. I just don’t want to see him. He acted all accepting and supportive in front of the media. Then he went around and tried to get Duisburg to sell Kay!”

 

Frank winced; he had heard of that through the grapevine. Borgmann senior had a good relationship with his old club and the board respected him, but Frank didn’t think he had the kind of power to influence the club’s transfer decisions. The old man must have been desperate.

 

“I see my mother sometimes and Bettina let them see Jonas. That’s all I can tolerate at the moment.” Marc rubbed his forehead.

 

“What about your contract?”

 

Marc narrowed his eyes and asked, “how many people sent you here today?”

 

“Just Herrlich about your father. But come on, I want to know too.”

 

Marc blew out a breath. “I haven’t decided,” he said. “And that’s the truth.”

 

“What’s their offer?”

 

“They offer a very good pay-rise, but only a one-year-contract,” Marc said.

 

“One year? And Herrlich agrees?” That didn’t make sense. After the title win last season, Duisburg had been dying to tie Marc with the club for several years.

 

Marc just looked at him, his dark brows rose, willing Frank to get the message.

 

Frank thought for a minute. Large salary but only one-year contract was a unique offer almost only offered to star players who were older, when a club wanted to squeeze the last bit of brilliance out of that player. Not for a top attacking midfielder in his prime age like Marc - unless, they didn’t want Marc to play for them in a year’s time.

 

He said slowly, “they want you to stay for another year, if you play well, they might still be able to sell you at a good price before the contract is up; if you don’t play well, the risk to them is low. Either way, they buy themselves a year’s time to find your replacement.”

 

Marc nodded. “You only got one thing wrong. They aren’t worried about me playing badly, they are worried the our-captain-is-gay thing might eventually be too much for the club to handle.”

 

“But there hasn’t been any problem...” Frank trailed off when he saw the expression on Marc’s face.

 

“There are problems?”

 

Marc grunted. “You know how it is. Let’s just say not everyone is as cool with it as they claim to be.”

 

Yes, Frank knew. He understood Marc’s unspoken message - everyone gives their blessing in front of him or the media, some really mean it, some are only following popular opinion. Frank could imagine the uneasiness in the dressing room, the whispers never stop. Limpinski had told him that assholes like Julian Müller was asking for separate shower rooms, though he was quickly scolded and disciplined by Herrlich. And then there’re rival teams and fans who might not be making a lot of noise now, not so soon after the Chancellor herself gave her support; but give it time, they would rear its ugly head.

 

It took decades to educate clubs and fans about racism in football and there were still incidents; Frank was afraid homophobia was an even harder problem to tackle.

 

“What’s your plan then?” Frank asked. He felt an unnamed anger on behalf of his best friend. Marc was still the same player. Same top-class player. Nothing has changed; Duisburg was second on the league table for god’s sake. But just because Marc wanted to be with the person he loved, the world he lived in was going to make sure he failed.

 

Frank hoped he’s wrong; he tried to sound positive. “Duisburg might change their tune again if you win Player of the Year this month. I read the op-ed in Kicker magazine by Manuel Neuer, he’s championing you for the award. You have important friends in the national team on your side.”

 

Marc’s mouth twitched in a faint smile. “I read it too. You are right. There are a lot of good guys,” he sighed. “Actually, I haven’t thought about the contract that much. I still have until March to decide. I am not in a hurry.”

 

Frank was not convinced. Football and Marc were inseparable since birth. He wanted to pry more, but the sudden commotion in the living room drew their attention.

 

“Come on! That’s a penalty! Where’s the VAR?” Larsen grumbled loudly.

 

“No way! That’s a Schwalbe! Not even a good one. Looks like the kind of dive you’d do,” Kay said, clearly trying to antagonise Larsen.

 

“Fuck you! I never dive! Marc! Your boyfriend is being a dick.”

 

Marc flicked up a glance at Frank. “Let’s go. We are missing the game.”

 

******

 

TV commentator 1: Half-time. Barcelona 1: Real Madrid 1. We will have half time analysis coming up in just a minute. But here is some local news first. We have just heard that the court has a ruling on the intermediate proceedings regarding the stabbing incident at Bochum stadium back in October last year.

 

TV commentator 2: Yes, I believe we all remember Kay Engel from FC Duisburg was attacked and injured in the incident. That has been a huge shock in the football world.

 

TV commentator 1: And now the court has decided that there is enough evidence to make a conviction and will open the main proceedings. The charges are ‘gefährlicher Körperverletzung’ (grievous bodily harm) and ‘Hassverbrechen’ (hate crimes). Now we all know Engel is still recovering from the injury, we don’t know when he will...

 

They were all quiet for a minute.

 

“I don’t know much about German laws. Do you need to testify in court?” Larsen asked, turning serious for once.

 

They all looked at Kay, who has been staring straight at the TV. He pursed his lips. “Probably. The police and the public prosecutor have been keeping me updated.”

 

Marc said nothing; his face turned stony, though Frank noticed his hand was gently rubbing Kay’s thigh on the sofa.

 

Frank asked quietly, “Herrlich mentioned you are still seeing a counsellor, does it help?”

 

Kay nodded noncommittally. “Some,” he said simply.

 

Marc’s eyes stayed on Kay, but he was talking to Frank and Larsen, “we haven’t told you two, but Oskar is in talk with Duisburg about terminating Kay’s contract earlier by mutual consent. Duisburg is receptive to the suggestion.”

 

So, the rumour is true. Kay is quitting football.

 

“Of course, they would agree,” Larsen said, his lip curled into in a sneer. “They are lucky that you are not suing them for failing to provide protection.”

 

“It wasn’t Herrlich’s fault. I wanted to play that day,” Kay said.

 

“That’s not the point,” Larsen argued. “They have the duty to ensure players’ safety.”

 

Frank frowned. “Is that why?” He eyed Kay gloomily. “You don’t feel safe?”

 

“That’s part of it...”

 

But Marc interrupted, “Kay thinks it will help me if we are not playing together. Less media interest, less hostile reception, even though I’ve told him it’s stupid. If people have a problem with us in the same team, they could go fuck themselves.”

 

Frank could tell he has touched on a subject Marc and Kay have been arguing about. And Kay didn’t want to transfer to another team, because they wanted to have a life together.

 

“It’s not stupid! And it’s not just because of that,” Kay huffed. “The truth is... I am not like you guys. I don’t live and breathe football.” He paused. His eyes met theirs. “Plus... I need to be there for my father. He’s at a critical stage of kicking his addiction for good... I want to concentrate on getting him better. And you all know the secret of winning is absolute conviction. If I can’t give my 100%, I shouldn’t be in the team.”

 

Frank opened his mouth to point out that even a 80% Kay Engel would be more lethal than Ackermann on a good day, that it would be Duisburg’s loss to let him go - but then he spotted the loving way Marc was looking at Kay - he decided to keep the opinion to himself. Anyway, Kay was just trying to do the noble thing.

 

The sobering subject has suddenly made all of them a little bit on edge. Then just as sudden, Larsen leaned back on the sofa, putting his feet up on the coffee table and proclaimed, “and now gentlemen, that makes me the fastest attacking player in the team, thank you very much.”

 

******

 

(Marc)

 

“Do that again.”

 

“What? This?”

 

Kay licked and suckled on a soft spot just below Marc’s ear.

 

“Ahhh... yes. Again.” Marc closed his eyes. Honestly, he could happily fall asleep with Kay’s mouth on him like this.

 

Kay kissed him gain. Marc could feel his smile behind the kiss.

 

Then he felt Kay’s body stiffen, a loud and distinct high pitch screaming noise came through their windows facing the garden. Kay’s hand tightened on Marc’s on his stomach.

 

“What’s the matter?” Marc muttered. He was halfway to sleep. A full day dealing with a hyperactive Larsen and Frank’s Spanish inquisition has left him extremely tired. More hard work than football games.

 

Another loud scream. “Do you hear that? Shit. What the hell is that?” Kay asked.

 

Marc finally opened his eyes; he lay still and tried to listen. He knew Kay wouldn’t admit it, but he’s been jumpier about strange noises ever since they found out about that crazy stalker-attempted-murderer. Marc wanted to kill that bastard just for causing this.

 

There. Again. The screeching sounds.

 

Marc raised his head. He thought for a second. Then he fell back on his pillow and said finally, “red foxes.” Tried to keep the amusement from his voice.

 

“What? Foxes? Are you serious?”

 

“Red foxes are one of the most common wildlife in Germany. Haven’t they taught you that in school?” Marc deadpanned.

 

“I know that!” Kay answered indignantly. “But what are they doing in your garden?”

 

Our garden,” Marc corrected automatically. He was still trying to get Kay to see that it’s not Marc’s generosity to live here together with his father - but that’s another battle for another day - he added, “baby, they are just having sex.”

 

“It sounds like they are killing each other,” Kay shuddered.

 

And right on cue, another scream, followed by a screaming reply.

 

Kay grimaced.

 

Marc started to shake and laugh; he buried his face into the hollow of Kay’s neck. “You’ve led a sheltered life, you big city boy.”

 

“Oh yeah?” Now that he knew the danger was from some sex-crazed foxes and not a stalker, Kay rolled onto his side, looking at Marc with his bright eyes. “Well, this city boy knows a thing or two about human sex though...” he said and started nibbling and biting Marc’s jawline, his tongue licking the underside of his jaw and neck, blowing warm air, making Marc all hot and breathless again, even though they had just fucked in the shower less than an hour ago...

 

“Jesus Kay... we are never going to get any sleep, if you keep this up,” Marc complained but his body said otherwise; he wound his arm around Kay’s waist, pulling him closer.

 

Kay answered him with a quick laugh and another kiss on his shoulder blade.

 

*Ding*

 

They both went still.

 

“Yours?” Marc asked.

 

Kay reluctantly reached for his phone; in case it was from his father.

 

Marc felt his eyelids closing.

 

When Kay didn’t make any sound for a few seconds, Marc asked, “what is it?”

 

Kay turned to face him again, holding his phone. He had a solemn look on his face. Marc shook off his sleepiness, he sat up a little, fully alert now. “What?”

 

Kay bent down to kiss him on the lips. “Congratulations, baby. You won.” He showed his phone to Marc. It was a news alert.

 

“You are the Player of the Year, they just announced it.” Kay said softly, his pale blue eyes twinkling.

 

Marc took over the phone and stared at the headline on the screen.

 

He exhaled slowly. This is it. His brain slowly caught on. One of his childhood dreams, a goal he has set his sight on since he started his professional career. Marc tried to sort out all the different emotions coursing through him all at once. The elation he has been expecting was there, but rather than coming in a rush, it was a calm, steady flow; another emotion had a more powerful presence, the sense of accomplishment; he felt like he has finally finished a chapter of his life. A good chapter ending on a high note.

 

And at that same moment, Marc also realised something else.

 

He realised the happiest moment he had today wasn’t when he learned he has fulfilled his lifelong goal, it was when he was lying next to Kay, listening to foxes having screaming sex outside.

 

Chapter Text

(Excerpt from “Der Ausgestoßene” Magazine)

 

Five years ago. A small bomb was dropped in the world of football. On a popular Instagram account, two professional footballers from the league title winning team FC Duisburg have declared to the world that they were in love.

 

They had the then German Chancellor, Angela Merkel’s blessing, their teammates’ support and the world media’s attention. They were supposed to be the first of many to come.

 

But within a year, one of them switched his playing career to coaching; the other one has completely quitted football.

 

Five years later, they are still together. Marc Borgmann is a record smashing football manager; Kay Engel is a final-year veterinary medicine student.

 

In the only interview they have ever given together, Marc Borgmann and Kay Engel talk to Der Ausgestossene magazine about why they made those decisions, if they have any regrets and for Marc, what does it feel like to return to 1. Bundesliga with St. Pauli.

 

***

 

Arriving at their Hamburg home in the picturesque district Blankenese, a brown Malinois greets me at the gate, he barks to alert its owners of my arrival.

 

I look up and see the former German national left winger, Kay Engel, walks up to open the gate for me.

 

“Don’t worry, he’s just excited, he’s a friendly dog,” Engel reassures. He flashes me a bright smile while rubbing the dog’s short fur behind the ears.

 

I nod dumbly, temporarily lost the ability to speak. It’s not every day I get to meet the person who was featured on a poster in my dorm room at university. Kay Engel was responsible for a lot of gay men becoming football fans when he came out, including this out and proud journalism student. But the love affair was short-lived. Engel never played another professional football match after the stabbing incident at Bochum Stadium.

 

Lean and athletic, Engel’s physique now resembles more of a middle-distance runner. He is still only 29 years old, still very handsome and still very unavailable.

 

Over the years, there have been offers from domestic and overseas football clubs to lure him out of retirement. But Engel has set his eyes on a new challenge, he started his veterinary medicine degree four years ago.

 

I ask him about his degree course, and he answers with the same enthusiasm he once had for football.

 

“Must have been a drastic change of scenery for you,” I tell him. He smiles faintly and says, “actually Marc has more adjustments to do, he follows me to my home turf after all.”

 

Of course, Hamburg is his hometown. St Pauli is Kay Engel’s old club before he was famously brought in by FC Duisburg in mid-season from League 2; the same season Duisburg won their first league title in 12 years. A miraculous season many Duisburg fans are still relishing today.

 

“Did you have a say in Marc being appointed by St Pauli?”

 

He seems surprised by the question. “Not really. The club reached out to me when they wanted to set up a meeting with Marc. But that’s my only contribution. It was Marc who convinced them he’s the right man for the job.”

 

At the age of 32, these days, Marc Borgmann is better known for being the youngest football manager ever to lead a promoted team to 1. Bundesliga. He was appointed as St Pauli’s U19 manager at the age of 29 while he was writing the term paper for his Pro Licence, a requirement for all Bundesliga managers. The next year, he became St Pauli’s first team manager. It took Borgmann less than three seasons to take the club back to the top league in more than a decade. He is constantly being compared to Nagelsmann, another successful young manager in their early 30s.

 

But if one adds Borgmann’s sexuality into the equation - then Marc Borgmann is breaking all kinds of records. But nobody wants to constantly bring up the word ‘gay’, not when it comes to football.

 

Marc is waiting for us in the living room. Dressed in an indigo denim shirt with pearl snaps and black jeans, he gives me a firm handshake and a curt nod. Unlike his partner, Marc’s handsome face is intense and exudes authority. Must be a football manager thing.

 

There are two seconds of awkwardness when I try to direct Marc to sit next to Kay on the sofa. “For the camera,” I explain while setting up a tripod and lighting equipment.

 

Marc hesitates before he gets up and moves to sit next to Kay, his posture straight and rigid. I worry he might be a hard one to crack. Kay seems to have read my mind, he bumps Marc’s shoulders and signals him to sit closer, Marc grumbles something under his breath, but his eyes have visibly softened. Kay grins and rests his arm on the cushion behind Marc.

 

I am curious about their relationship dynamics.

 

Word among the gay community is that Marc wears the gay label rather reluctantly; he once said in an interview that Kay is the only man who has ever caught his eyes. When I ask him about that claim, he sighs exasperatedly, “it was taken out of context. I said Kay is the only man I’ve ever been in a relationship with. I also had serious relationships with women before. These are just facts.”

 

“So, you are attracted to both men and women?”

 

Marc shrugs. “I guess. You don’t choose who you fall in love with. I am attracted to Kay as a person.”

 

“Maybe you are pansexual then?” I venture.

 

Puzzled. Marc turns to Kay, who is laughing so hard, his shoulders are shaking.

 

“Call me whatever you like.” Marc gives up.

 

Has his sexuality ever caused him any problem in his new football management career?

 

Back in his element, Marc answers firmly and quickly, “No, St Pauli knew what it would involve when they hired me. I have their full support. From the team and their fans as well.”

 

“If there’s one football club you can trust to handle this issue fairly, it will be St Pauli,” Kay adds.

 

That unavoidably brings up the subject of their former club, FC Duisburg.

 

“Many said you were forced out of Duisburg because of homophobia in the club.”

 

Marc is prepared for this question, he begins, “I am glad you asked, I’d like to set the record straight. I wasn’t forced out. They had offered me a new contract, but at the end of that season, I decided to leave the club because at that time, both of us wanted a change, a break from the status quo,” he stops and takes Kay’s hand in his.

 

As on cue, Kay takes over and explains, “my father was struggling... so we decided to move to Hamburg where he would have more support. A new start for all three of us, so to speak.” He chuckles and that breaks the tension in the air instantly. “And since Marc eats and drinks football, within a month, he decided to become a football coach.”

 

“And it has worked out well for all of us,” Marc finishes.

 

I was told by Marc before the interview that Kay’s father is a no-go-subject, unless Kay brings it up. Kay is, understandably, very protective of his father, and Marc is very protective of Kay.

 

The million-dollar question is, do either of them regret their playing career was cut short by these decisions? Marc, after all, has won the prestigious Player of the Year award just 5 months before he retired.

 

“I would be lying if I tell you I don’t miss playing and winning games,” Marc laments, “it hasn’t been an easy decision, but my priorities have changed. Now I still enjoy winning games, but from a different position. It’s just as fulfilling.”

 

“Come on, it must be satisfying to see that FC Duisburg hasn’t won the league title again since you left.” I try to stir up trouble.

 

Marc gives me a non-committal shrug. Not taking my bait.

 

“I knew he would be a good manager someday when I first met him,” Kay claims. “We used to be roommates in away games, he would never miss any football programme and would talk my ears off about tactics and game plan...”

 

“You mean while you were sleeping and snoring...” Marc allows a rare glimpse of his funny side.

 

“You don’t miss playing?” I turn to Kay.

 

Kay thinks for a moment and shakes his head. “Not professional football. I still play with my mates in the uni’s team, that’s enough to scratch the occasional itch.”

 

“Any new doppelpass partner in that team?”

 

Kay directs a mischievous grin at Marc. “Nope. That’s a unique partnership that can’t be replicated.”

 

Marc and Kay, of course, was famous for their doppelpass play back in their days. A football critic once commented the two simply complement each other. Kay has natural talent, polished under Marc’s discipline and leadership, while Marc’s skills and football intelligence find the perfect partner in Kay. Little did people know; their partnership goes beyond football pitch.

 

Their joint coming-out five years ago shocked and ignited the football world. Many thought other gay footballers would soon follow suit, but that didn’t quite happen. While a few players came out in lower divisions, they remained the only top league active footballers who have come out. Are they disappointed that their effort didn’t have a bigger effect?

 

“That wasn’t why we came out,” Marc said. “Each player’s situation is different, there’s no right or wrong way.” He added diplomatically.

 

“It’s not our job to change the world. We did what we thought was right for us. All I can say is, we didn’t quit playing because we didn’t have support. We did. Marc was voted Player of the Year after we came out. That’s something. That’s progress. And I hope that gives other closeted players hope,” Kay explains eloquently.

 

Their story certainly didn’t end there. Especially for Marc, who will be returning to 1. Bundesliga in August with St. Pauli.

 

“Are you nervous?” I ask him.

 

“Yes, but not for the reason you are thinking. My sexuality plays no part in my coaching and management, so it shouldn’t be a talking point. I am excited. I want to do great things with St. Pauli, with my team.”

 

At this point, Kay suddenly turns the tables and put me under scrutiny.

 

“You are from Hamburg, right? Are you a St. Pauli or Hamburg SV fan?”

 

Flustered under the mesmerising gaze of his clear blue eyes; I open my mouth, ready to tell a white lie; but at his knowing smirk, I lose my nerve and blurt, “of course... Saint... erm... Hamburg...”

 

Damn it!

 

“See? I told you.” Kay whispers to Marc; he seems delighted at catching me off guard.

 

Marc finds it amusing too but keeps his composure. “We shall see you at the derby game then,” he said, suppressing an indulgent smile.

 

“Kay, do you go to St Pauli games?” I quickly change the subject.

 

“Sure,” Kay answers easily, “whenever I find the time.”

 

“Kay’s vet degree course is no joke. He’s busier than me,” Marc smiles, with pride in his voice.

 

He touches briefly on the fact now he’s surrounded by doctors of all kinds. His ex-wife, Bettina, who is the mother of his 8-year-old son, Jonas, is doing her doctor residency in a Lübeck hospital. Marc shows great admiration for his ex-wife, who he shares joint custody.

 

The subject of Marc’s family is another minefield. He and his father, respected retired footballer, Wolfgang Borgmann, had a not-so-public fallout after his coming out. Borgmann senior remains influential in local football scene and is a regular football commentator on TV channels. What does he think of his son’s career change? And more importantly, what does he think of Kay?

 

“He wishes we both have played longer, especially for the national team.” Marc shrugs. “We don’t always agree on things, but I know he did what he thought was good for me. I am sure my relationship with my father is no different than a lot of men who look up to their father.”

 

But that’s as far as Marc is willing to say on the subject and we are getting close to the end of the interview.

 

Kay shows me around the house, and we talk about non-football matters, like his celebrity-student status at uni, what TV shows the two of them watch together (Football programmes, Tatort and more football programmes). When I mention I used to be a 400m sprinter in school, we talk about new trends and running techniques. I almost forgot that Kay used to be a sprinter himself.

 

“I still run every other day, though now I enjoy middle to long distance running,” he says.

 

Just before I finish packing my camera equipment and notebooks, Marc pulls me aside and reminds me not to disclose the location where Kay runs in the magazine.

 

“I don’t need to remind you of the stalker case,” he said. His eyes serious and leaves no room for discussion. For one second, I feel like I am one of his St. Pauli players, ready to agree with whatever coach has to say.

 

Football is still a big part of Marc Borgmann’s life, but there is no doubt who is at the top of his priorities.

 

******

 

(Marc)

 

(Two months later - FC Duisburg v FC St. Pauli - 90 minutes before game)

 

Marc stood in front of the stadium tunnel entrance; he spotted the two figures on the pitch. Shoulders shaking, Kay was laughing at something Herrlich had just said to him.

 

Déjà vu.

 

Kay’s infectious, silvery laugh now a familiar, comforting sound to Marc’s ears.

 

Arne Larsen appeared behind him. “Anna still thinks Kay should be an actor,” he said to Marc.

 

“Anna still works here?” Marc raised his brows. He remembered the motherly team nutritionist.

 

“A lot has changed. A lot has remained the same,” Larsen the philosopher said coolly. Duisburg had a new coach, Herrlich has been promoted to be a board member; only five of his old teammates were still in the first team, including Larsen and Karsten.

 

Marc nodded.

 

Kay has joined him on this trip and seemed to be enjoying his own reunion. Marc didn’t quite know what to expect today, returning to the FC Duisburg stadium as manager of the opposing team. He used to worship this ground. The glory and the dream. This was where it all began, everything that defined Marc Borgmann started here. He quietly reminisced.

 

“Look!” Larsen tapped his shoulder.

 

Marc followed the direction Larsen was pointing at and saw a group of home fans unfurling a giant banner on the stadium’s terrace area.

 

It had Marc and Kay’s face on both ends and the words ‘Danke für die Meisterschaft’ (Thank you for the Championship) in the middle.

 

Herrlich was looking at the banner as well, with his arm around Kay’s shoulders.

 

“The prodigal sons return,” Larsen the poet commented.

 

Marc smiled. He looked towards Kay, at the exact moment Kay turned his head and met his gaze.

 

Kay quirked his lip.  A smile.  A wry one. 

 

Yes, it all starts here. Marc thought.

 

 

The End