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All his life it had been Erik’s dream to play for Bayern, much to his mother’s everlasting horror. But his mother’s from Gdańsk and when she was growing up they were worrying about eking out a living in a Soviet satellite to care much about football. When she got out of Poland to attend LMU and wound up saddled to an electrical engineer with an alarming devotion to Bayern, the same team his family had supported for over a hundred years, she might’ve known. Erik grew up with stories of great Bayern players like Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller alongside his mother’s Polish folktales of Dažbog and fireflowers. When Erik’s father’s job took them to Essen, he got picked up by RWE’s youth team by a scout that said he’d never seen a child his age with his ball handling skill. Then the dream of playing for Bayern gained a note of tangibility.

“It’s like sending him to boarding school. For football,” his mother said incredulously as they packed his possessions into a duffel. The tone of her voice informed everyone exactly what she thought of that concept.

“Exactly like,” Erik’s father replied, and gripped Erik’s shoulder comfortingly. Even Erik, who wanted to be the greatest footballer that ever lived, leading Bayern to UEFA cup victory after victory, still had some doubts.

He practiced six days a week, went through regular medical checkups and the whole battery of required tests. When he wasn’t on the field, he was getting the entire canon of German history and culture shoved into his head with a side dose of mathematics. It turned out he was more than passable at the mathematics, but this was not something he pointed out to his mother. He’d rather avoid the fatal diatribe that usually started with: “All my family members have been great intellectuals. My sister’s boys are going to be doctors, and my son is going to be a sporty man.”

If she’d hoped he’d grow out of it, she was wrong. Erik wanted it too much, too badly. He busted fingers and toes, sustained concussions and a cracked rib and a bad case of bronchitis after playing several games in the rain. Even through the punishment, the dream never faded. He was good. He was very, very good. And with all of his coaches praising him left and right as an extremely strong player, how could the dream flame out?

But then he got picked for BVB’s under 17 team, rather than Bayern’s, and so he swallowed that dream for a couple of years. Put it away where it would be safe until he needed it again. Erik was practical. Dortmund was a lot closer to Essen then Munich. And, as his father pointed out, responding to unvoiced fears, when he hit seventeen there would always be the under 19 team.

Seventeen came and went, and with it, a move to Hamburger SV’s reserve team. Even though he was called up for the German National Under 21 team the only year that Germany ever won an under 21 championship East or West, Bayern still wasn’t interested. Which was not to say that Erik wasn’t getting offers. He could easily stay with Hamburg’s first team or sign professional terms with FC Schalke, but that’s the thing about dreams. They don’t go away just because you’ve got other options.

It’s a surprise and a shock when a scout from Arsenal shows up at one of his practices with the possibility of a multi-million euro contract to play for their first team.

“Think about it,” the scout says in the ponderous, broad vowels of his East Anglian accent.

But Erik doesn’t have to think about it. If he can’t play for Bayern, then he’s done with the Bundesliga. He calls his parents up. His mother cries softly and, while his dad makes a big show of scoffing at an English team, he can hear the pride in both their voices.

Barely a month later he’s on a KLM flight from Fuhlsbüttel to Heathrow.

They get him set up in a sparsely furnished modern three-bedroom flat in Highbury. “Just until you find a place of your own,” they say, handing over the set of keys.

Erik takes them, glancing out the window at the cars roaring past on the wrong side of the road.

“Welcome to London, Lehnsherr,” they say with grins that he doesn’t return, “See you on the pitch on Monday.”

Erik spends the weekend catching up on reading. Aside from the holidays, Erik hasn’t had much of a break since the age of seven. It’s a bit disconcerting and he’s not altogether sure he likes it. But then he thinks about what exactly that means and is slightly depressed.

There had been all kinds of press when he was leaving, his transfer fee making headlines, his jersey number revealed as 26. He hadn’t given any interviews yet and the club had been content to let him wait until he was on English soil. But now that’s he’s here that’s all hanging over his head. As he’s brushing his teeth Sunday night he realizes he’s only left the apartment twice, both times to go to Tesco’s to pick up groceries.

His mother calls on Sunday. “Have you done any sight-seeing?”

“Nope, we saw it all when we came here two summers ago.”

“Mój Boże, Erik, we did not see the whole of London in a week long trip.”

“Enough of it,” Erik replies with a shrug his mother can probably hear.

His mother laughs. “I give up,” she says fondly. He’s never going to be the son who holds cocktail parties and can speak exhaustively about art, but she seems to have let that go at last.

*

It’s misty and gray the morning of Erik’s first practice, he forgoes wearing shorts for the navy track suit bottoms and red long-sleeved kit they supplied him with for inclement weather. They keep him a little late signing papers and going over details. He had his medical and ceremonial jersey unveiling a few days earlier. He hasn’t even met Wenger yet and, while Erik’s a pretty untried acquisition, he knows there’s no decision that Wenger doesn’t have a hand in. It’s odd. This wasn’t how he was used to doing things back in Germany.

Finally they clap him on the shoulder and tell him to hit the pitch.

The coaches are running the players through a scrimmage by the time he gets down to the first field. Wenger watches stoically from the sidelines, tall and sober in his own gray tracksuit. When Erik jogs over he finally looks away from a scrum at the half-line to meet his eyes.

“So, du bist der Junge auf den wir unsere ganze Hoffnung setzen,” Wenger says to him, his Strasbourg accent only barely coloring his pronunciation.

Erik shrugs and replies in French, “à moins que je suis la cible d'une blague.”

Wenger snorts. “You missed warm up. But stretch out and then grab a pinny.”

“Yessir,” Erik says, already bending to stretch out his hamstrings.

One of the coaches he hasn’t been introduced to watches him stretch for ten minutes before handing over a blue pinny. “Don’t worry, there’s lots of new blood around here.”

Erik blinks at him. The team’s youngest player isn’t even nineteen yet, and Gervinho just transferred from Lille two weeks ago. He wonders what it is about him that seems to inspire these Englishmen to keep giving him reassurances. “I’m sure I’ll be fine,” he says.

The coach blows his whistle through a terse nod and calls Vela off the pinny side so that Erik can take his place. The guys on his side shoot him cautious looks, ranging themselves for the throw-in that will put the ball back in play. Vermaelen gives him a quick grin and when the ball lands neatly at his feet, he shoots it up to Erik with a look that’s more challenge than anything.

Rosický bears down on him like a freight engine with Gervinho coming up the wing. A pass square to Ramsey is the obvious choice, they’re not expecting Erik to be fast enough to lead the ball up three quarters of the field to the goal himself, and that’s what makes him want to do it all the more.

He taps it on a diagonal past Rosický, sprinting around him to pick it up again. An alleyway opens up down the left side and Erik races up it quicker than anybody trying to catch him. He twirls past Bac, setting up for a mean cross to Chamakh who’s keeping pace with him towards the goal, and then suddenly he’s airborne, with no idea how his feet even left the earth.

He thuds to the ground indelicately and coughs, the wind knocked out of him. A shorter slighter player, back to Erik, clears the ball, sending a note-perfect ground pass back across the line to Gervinho. Erik’s already pulled himself up to his knees when the player, number 15, reaches out a hand to pull him to his feet.

“That was quite a run there. Almost a shame to ruin it,” he says with a wink, clapping Erik on the shoulder. His powerfully blue gaze makes him blink. Erik’s never really studied Arsenal’s line-up. After all, the last time they played Hamburg was in 2006 well before Erik’s time as a professional player. But in the weeks leading up to the move he tried to put together a crash course, going through stats and pictures. With his height and position Erik guesses he’s Charles Xavier.

Erik can’t help a sardonic laugh as he turns around to run back onsides. He was just knocked on his ass by a player known by the fans as “the professor.”
It’s a short jog to draw even with Chamakh, who’s waiting for a pass from their mids currently fighting it out in front of their goal. He shakes his head at Erik, lips pressed together in a smile he’s not trying hard to hide. He’s played against Chamakh before when he was playing for Bordeaux and Erik was called up from Hamburg’s reserve. He’s one of the few players on the entire team Erik has any playing experience with.

“I never saw him coming,” Erik offers with a shrug, switching to French.

“It’s because he’s so short,” Chamakh replies, leveling out his hand just barely above waist height. Erik laughs again. And then the ball is flying back up the field after a tremendous punt from Szczęsny.

For the rest of the scrimmage Erik doesn’t manage to set up a single shot with Xavier dogging him, the other defenders might as well not be there. His only goal of the game is a fluke header off a corner.

*

They pounce on him for his first interview as he’s coming off the field for the showers.

“How do you feel about playing for Arsenal?”

Erik’s had a lot of time to think of his answers. He’s not good at interviews, too reticent. “It’s a great honor, getting to play with great players like Fabregas, Arshavin, and Robin Van Persie. I’m enormously grateful for the opportunity,” he says by rote.

“How are you settling in to London?”

Erik shrugs and rubs at the back of his head. “I’ve been here for only a week, but I’m excited to explore the city.”

There’s a barrage of inane questions and comments fired at him so quickly it makes him dizzy. It’s a struggle not to roll his eyes and tell them to quit wasting his time. Finally they let him go, realizing he hasn’t got much to tell them, and he hits the showers with a relieved sigh.

Most of the players are already toweling off and changing back into street clothes when he gets there, but a handful are still under the spray. Erik settles himself on a bench, and there he sits, unlacing his cleats absently when he unwittingly gets an eyeful of Xavier’s cock. It’s huge, a thick stalk hanging flaccid between his legs.

Walcott turns around, about to say something to Erik when he catches Erik’s bewildered expression and follows it over to Charles as he winds a towel about his waist.

He snorts with laughter. “I see you’ve caught sight of the terror of the female population.”

“That is the largest cock I’ve ever seen on a man,” Erik says, shaking his head. He shrugs out of his jersey and starts shoving it in to the locker they’ve designated for him.

“What?” Charles asks, dropping the towel to pull on a pair of boxers, turning his head to glance at them when they don’t immediately answer.

“Just talking about the size of your junk,” Theo says cheerfully.

Charles groans, looking resigned rather than embarrassed. He shoots Erik a pointed look.

“I’m sorry--” Erik breaks off with a helpless laugh, “I couldn’t not stare.”

“Stare at what?” Eboué says, as he comes out of the toilet.

“Charles’ cock,” Theo supplies. Xavier chucks a roll of athletic gauze at him that Theo only just ducks.

“Hoho!” Eboué says, “so you’ve seen the monster!”

“I hate this conversation,” Xavier says to no one in particular. “I should really learn to love it, since we have to have it every two weeks.”

“Just be glad God felt sorry for making you a midget and a crap flirt,” Eboué says. Charles rolls his eyes skywards. Eboué claps Charles hard on the back and then turns to Erik, offering a hand. “I know we met out on the pitch, but Emmanuel.”

“Erik Lehnsherr,” Erik says, taking his hand.

“Has somebody been talking about Charles’ cock again?” A voice floats back from the shower area.

Charles, who’d finally pulled jeans on over his weapon of a penis, covers his face with his hands and groans. Everybody around him laughs uproariously.

“Don’t provoke him too hard,” Nicklas Bendtner, one of the strikers, says, “or we’ll spend the next week getting the crap slide-tackled out of us. But Charles, seriously, do the girls run away screaming when they see it?”

*

The sky has turned pink when they finally leave the locker rooms. There’s a truly fantastic array of cars in the parking lot. He supposes none of the players need to worry that much about the heavy taxes London imposes upon drivers. The guys who have family disappear quickly and Erik finds himself whisked away with the others to get himself a “proper pint.”

“I’m German,” Erik points out.

“Irregardless!” Theo says, thumping him solidly on the back.

“That’s not a word,” Erik says dryly.

Theo ignores him to call after Xavier as he hurries up the street, “Oy, Charles, where are you going?”

“My sister’s back in town. We’re having dinner and a movie,” Charles calls back over his shoulder. His eyes narrow in on Erik and he smiles. “Drink one for me.”

Theo groans and turns to Erik confidentially. “Raven Xavier is gorgeous. Tits like perfect handfuls.” He gestures with cupped hands in front of his chest. He then pitches his voice so that Xavier will hear him. “The worst thing is that Charles hides her from us like we’re diseased.”

Erik notes that Wilshere and Szczęsny agree vociferously.

Charles stops walking and rolls his eyes. “The worst thing is that you think it’s for her protection and not yours. Wenger would have my arse if my sister broke your legs.”

Theo hoots with laughter, leading them to a loud pub filled with people watching a Rugby match on the television. If any of the players are recognized, they’re ignored.

Rosický buys the first round and takes a seat across the table from Erik. “Do you remember me?” he asks, sliding Erik’s beer toward him.

“Of course I remember you,” Erik boggles at him. Erik was on BVB’s youth team the same time Rosický was playing for the professional side. They’ve never had a conversation, but Erik certainly got to see him play often enough. He narrows his eyes at the Czech player. “You remember me?”

Rosický shrugs. “No.”

“Ah, so that was just an exercise in narcissism them,” Erik says, taking a long draught of the beer.

“Wow!” Theo laughs and mimes shaking out his hand like it’s been burned.

Erik passes a surreptitious look around the players who are mostly not paying attention, and then clears his throat. “I appreciate the honesty.”

Rosický nods like he understands exactly what Erik means, even if Theo doesn’t. He turns away and starts up a conversation with Eastmond.

Erik ends up going home with a girl that night who blew Eastmond off after a series of bad lines.

When Erik shakes his head at him, Eastmond colors and says, “Well, you show me how it’s done then.”

Erik shrugs. He asks if he can buy her a drink and if she wants company, and when she says yes, he chats her up about the book she’s reading, a heavy text that she’s studying for Uni.

“I’m avoiding it though. I know I should be going over it, but I’ve been doing it for hours now.” She sighs. “You’re a welcome distraction.”

Erik raises a brow. He didn’t plan to go home with her, but he’s not one to turn down on opportunity so blatantly offered. As he follows her out, he tips an imaginary hat at Eastmond, who laughs good-naturedly.

He wakes up before her the next morning, casting about the room to find his clothes. He had a good time, although he’d thought unexpectedly of Charles when she was sucking him off. Probably because of his massive cock. He doesn’t let it bother him.

She wakes up as he’s pulling his jeans on.

She groans. “It’s so early.”

“Sorry,” he says, trying to find his shirt.

“Where are you off to at...” she reaches over to the bed stand to pick up the clock, “...5 am?”

“Practice.”

“Practice?”

He finds his shirt under her dress and pulls it on. “Football practice.”

She blinks at him uncomprehendingly. “You’re...not somebody famous are you?”

Erik laughs. “Not yet.”

He kisses her goodbye and tells her to go back to sleep. Before he’s even two steps away, she’s pulled the pillow down on top of her head and rolled over. He might as well not be there, but when he leaves the flat, he finds her number programmed into his phone. His third contact in the address book.

*

Practice is brutal. They’re trying to get Erik up to match readiness and Primorac, the first team coach, runs him hard. He pulls Charles and Mannone to work 2 on 1 with him.

“Hear you got laid last night,” Charles says, keeping pace with Erik as he tries to find a way through him and towards the goal. If he hadn’t played Charles before, he’d assume he could use the five inches and forty pounds he has on him, but after yesterday’s display, he’s perfectly aware that that’s not going to get him far. Charles is a wall.

Erik hums, finally seeing an opening, outpacing Charles and pounding a shot at the upper right corner. Mannone gets in front of it, but it was a good shot.

“Again,” Primorac calls.

Charles raises his brows at him and smiles. It’s a puckish expression, and Erik isn’t at all surprised when Charles manages to nutmeg him. He makes Erik chase him back and forth over the pitch, before passing sharply back to Mannone just as Erik draws close.

“So?” he says, waiting for Primorac to throw it in, backed pressed to Erik’s front to keep himself between Erik and the ball.

“Sooo...” Erik says, shifting to get past, but Charles stays on him, “English girls are built the same as German ones.”

“Hah, well, that’s a relief.” He laughs and darts forward for the ball, leaving Erik in his dust.

“Why are you so interested?” Erik asks on the next challenge, trying to fake Charles out. “That missile between your legs make it difficult?”

He whoops when he gets past Charles, who smiles like he doesn’t mind the gloating. After a while they slide into a groove, Erik’s not really playing against Charles so much as alongside him. It’s comfortable. He gets a few more shots on goal and then Primorac calls for 1 on 3.

Erik sinks to the ground and groans as Vermaelen jogs over. Everybody knows he and Charles are like an unbreakable unit. Primorac takes pity on him after every run he takes is turned back at the goal box and calls Ramsey over to even the odds. Something about the expectant challenge in Charles’ eyes and the extra player to back him fires him up. All athletes know this feeling. Like they’ve suddenly been turned on, put into gear after idling. He and Ramsey only break through the defense half the time, but that’s more than enough.

At the end of it, Vermaelen claps him on the shoulder and says something in Dutch to Van Persie that sounds like he's saying Erik's going to take his glory as the team heads in for the lockers. Van Persie turns his head and says, “Nog niet."

“Nun übertreib mal nicht,” he answers in German, confident they’ll understand him.

*

It’s not that long of a walk from practice back to his apartment and the grocery’s on the way. It’s a nice evening, pink clouds scudding across the sky. He gets the fright of his life when Charles pulls up next to him in a Maserati Quattroporte.

“Scheiße!” He presses a hand to his heart, nearly dropping his gym bag in the process.

Charles rolls down a window and leans over Vermaelen, who sits on the passenger side. “All right there, are you?”

“I forgot for a moment that you drive on this side of the road,” he says and shakes his head. “Did you need something?”

“I just wondered if you wanted a ride. Unless you’ve stashed your car somewhere clever.”

Erik considers. “I was planning on hitting the market actually. I don’t have anything in the pantry.”

Charles shrugs and trades a look with Vermaelen.

And that’s how Erik ends up at the Asda with two football stars. Charles speeds down an aisle in a shopping cart, stopping near the vegetables when he gets asked for an autograph. Erik makes a noise in the back of his throat. In this moment, he can’t believe Charles is a full two years older than him.

“Get out of the wagon, Charles,” Vermaelen says.

“Wagon? Love, we call this a trolley.”

They get recognized three more times and the last somebody even knows Erik. “Saw your interview on Youtube,” he says, clapping Erik on the shoulder. “Welcome to the Gunners.”

*

Somehow they end up back at Erik’s flat while he makes a Thai green curry.

“This is horrible,” Vermaelen says, puttering about, picking up the sterile knickknacks somebody picked out to liven up the place. “Hor-ri-ble!”

“Did they set you up with a flat?” Erik asks, stirring the vegetables in the cheap wok he dug out of one of the cabinets. He left Charles in charge of figuring out how to work the rusty-looking rice cooker.

“Mmm, no,” he takes a sip of the Leffe he insisted on paying for. “I had time to look for a flat before I came over.”

Erik doesn’t mind the place. It’s south-facing, gets good light. He foresees he’s rarely going to be home. It’ll do until he has a spare moment to go hunt one of his own down. “I don’t have much stuff. The only thing I miss is my bike.”

Charles furrows his brows at him.

“I’m trying to decide if I should have it sent over or just get a new one. There’s a dealership in the area. I checked.”

“Oh, oh, a motorbike!” Charles says and laughs. “I had this very funny image of you co-dependently attached to a Schwinn.”

Erik rolls his eyes.

They eat dinner and talk about what neighborhoods Erik should consider. Charles suggests Upper Street if he wants to be around a lot of young people and cool bars, and Highbury if he just wants to be close to the stadium.

“Charles lives in Kensington, because he’s an old man.”

Charles snorts. “It was also a damn sight closer to Raven’s school when she was still living at home.”

Old Man, Vermaelen mouths.

“You were living at home?” Erik asks.

“Not as such,” he says, carefully scooping up the last mouthful or rice. He looks up. “Raven and I were on our own.”

Erik stares at him. Charles clears his throat and starts picking up their plates. Erik and Vermaelen both protest, but Charles wave them off. “You cooked and you,” he wags a dishtowel at Vermaelen, “bought the beer. I’m glad to do it.”

“Well, thank you much.”

“Ah, there’s that German courtesy.”

Charles leaves with an invitation around to his in the next week. “Raven and I are terrible cooks, but there’s some bloody good takeout ‘round the corner.”

Erik surprises himself by saying yes.

*

Erik has his Arsenal debut just days later when he gets called in as a substitution for Van Persie in the seventy-second minute of their match against Newcastle. They’re playing a mediocre game, it’s tied 1-1, and Van Persie’s flagging. He manages to steal the ball from Peter Løvenkrands in his first minute and dances right around Marveux, who barrels at him from his right side.


He tips the ball off to Theo when Coloccini puts the pressure on, and Theo, speeding cannonball that he is, hammers in a shot on goal that slides right past Steve Harper’s fingers.

Theo dives at him. “Oh you beautiful creature, you!” he shouts, slapping him on the back. The rest of the forwards fall upon them, cheering and congratulating.

Erik scores his own goal with three minutes remaining after a delicate pass from Charles that he runs up the field. As he runs back to the half line he finds himself pointing exultantly at Charles, who nods back at him. It’s the fullest stadium he’s ever played for. He’s made it. It is, without qualification, one of the best moments of his life.

Afterwards, the press lauds him as a game-changer, clamoring to know how he feels. Erik finds himself not wanting to give that feeling away.

He just breathes in and shakes his head, smiling. The reporters laugh and write his reaction down.

When they get back, they go out for celebratory drinks and after five shots of tequila that he didn’t have to pay for, Erik leaves with a girl who knows exactly who he is. He feels eyes on him as he’s pushing past people for the door, and turns around. But when he looks, nobody’s watching, everyone rapt on Charles playing a game of bloody knuckles with a flinching Wilshere.

*

Erik wakes up on Sunday morning and leaves despite an offer of breakfast. At first he thinks he’s glad of the free time, but by two pm, he’s rattling around in his apartment, unable to think of what to do. He considers going to the cinema, but there’s nothing playing that he wants to see.

He ends up going for a jog out on the Heath, past groups of children playing footie and parents pushing their newborns in strollers. It’s a pretty day, and the activity relaxes him. He’s distracted by the light under the beeches, the green glow the whole world has, when a young dog, only a puppy, crosses his path chasing after a ball. The surprises of it forces him to quickly change direction. He skids over the dry-packed earth and falls.

“Christ, Amelia, no!” an American voice says quite distinctly. Erik pulls himself to his knees to see a girl of about eighteen very seriously chastising the retriever puppy, who isn’t paying attention at all. She spies Erik watching her and colors.

“I’m so sorry—she’s a bit of a rambunctious cow.” The puppy, Amelia, comes over to Erik and bumps him with her head.

Erik laughs and pulls himself to his feet, dusting his knees off.

“Raven?” a familiar voice calls through the trees.

She cups a hand around her mouth and calls back, “Over here, Charles.”

Charles breaks through the trees with two much larger dogs walking sedately at his heels. He only looks mildly surprised to see Erik, which is something, because Erik is astonished. “Did Amelia attack you then?”

“She did. Tossed me right off the road. Is it punish the dog or punish the master?”

Raven is baffled by their familiarity. She glances back and forth between them. “Do you two know each other?”

“And now I know with absolute certainty that you are lying to me when you say you watch my matches,” Charles replies with a laugh. “Erik and I are teammates.”

“Charles, you kick a ball around a field.”

Charles shoots Erik a look, one that clearly says, ‘See what I’m dealing with here?’ Strange that Charles has such a posh public school accent when Raven is so clearly American. Charles is an endless mystery.

Amelia nips Erik’s ankle and Erik unmanfully yelps. Raven bends down to rebuke the little beast while he peers at his ankle above his trainers. There’s no sign of broken skin, so at least he’s not going to have to get a full course of inoculations just because he decided to go running on the heath. Amelia has sheepishly run to hide behind Charles’ legs. He laughs and hoists her up into the air, holding her muzzle closed when she attempts to nip him.

“She’s very poorly behaved,” Raven says like Erik hadn’t noticed. “But she was found abandoned in a basement, hiding away like a little beast, and so we’ve been trying to civilize her.”

“What type of dog is she?” he asks. Charles chucks Amelia under the chin and chuckles when she licks his face.

“Yes, that’s how we show affection, isn’t it?” he says as she squirms in his arms.

“A keeshond, purebred. Don’t know anybody who’d pay so much money for a dog and then just abandon her.”

“People are not...good,” Erik says, struggling to find a word that adequately encompasses how he feels. He shrugs. “She’s a rescue?”

Raven nods. “So are Hero and Hippo.” She reaches down to card her fingers through one of the larger dog’s fur at the scruff of his neck. “Charles is rather fond of strays.”

“The dogs are Hero and Hippo? Hippo?” Erik asks blankly.

“Short for Herophilus and Hippocrates,” Charles says, setting Amelia down on her feet. She dashes off for the ball.

“Your dogs are called Herophilus, Hippocrates, and Amelia? That is terrible, Charles, really, really terrible.” He shudders dramatically. “I can only imagine what horror you would inflict upon a child.”

“Oh please,” Charles protests, “you’re supposed to be able to name your pets things you could never name a human. Like dragon or icicle.”

“Dragon or icicle? This gets worse and worse.”

Amelia starts harrying a couple of loutish-looking schoolboys who hurry to hide rolling papers and a lighter. Erik has to give them points for audacity—he would never have attempted to get high right here on the Heath, surrounded by respectable families, in broad daylight. Raven runs off, exasperated, calling Amelia’s name.

Erik winds up helping to exercise the dogs. He spends a good half hour trying to teach Amelia how to fetch properly, before giving up entirely after the eighth time she runs off into the woods with the ball. But Hero proves to be rather adept at dribbling.

“Don’t tell me you practice on your dogs,” he states, lying in the sunshine, with Amelia curled up at his side. Charles sits close by, forearms resting on his knees, watching as Raven laughingly plays a game of keep away with the two older dogs.

“I may have.”

“Your sister’s sweet,” he says, rolling to his side and propping his head on his hand. “I can see why you keep the guys away from her.”

“She wouldn’t have them anyway,” Charles says with a laugh. “She thinks we’re all boneheads.”

Charles plucks up a tuft of grass and breathes out. “She used to have a horrible crush on Jens Lehmann.”

“Jens Lehmann? The Jens Lehmann?”

Charles nods. “Did you know him?”

Erik shrugs. Yeah, he knew him. Hard to miss one of the best keepers in recent years. Not to mention he was from Erik’s hometown. “He was at BVB when I was coming up.”

“Mmm, and he was here when I was playing for the youth and reserve teams. She used to hang around a lot more back then and he was always kind to her...”

Erik waits for him to say more and when he doesn’t he clears his throat and offers, “That sounds not good.”

“I know, she was heartbroken when he left for Stuttgart.”

“He’s old. And married. And old!” Erik would never understand women. They didn’t make any sense. He supposes Jens Lehmann is attractive, but he also has three kids and a schoolteacher for a wife.

Charles looked down, his expression inscrutable. Erik had to wonder if he was thinking about something else entirely. “What did Woody Allen say? ‘The heart wants what the heart wants.’”

“Woody Allen? That American director who ended up married to his sixteen-year-old adopted daughter? So it’s particularly apt then.”

Charles snorted with laughter, collapsing back to the grass next to Erik.

*

Cesc goes and gets himself bought by Barcelona and throws everything into disarray. Eboué leaves the same week, and the mood in the locker room plummets. The fans are all upset. Wenger is even more stoically silent then usual. Erik hates this.

Charles plays off all during practice, until finally Vermaelen draws him aside and shakes him. Charles grips Vermaelen’s forearms and attempts to shrug him off, but Vermaelen doesn’t let go of his shoulders until Charles nods in answer to some unheard question.

“What’s that about?” he asks Theo, who stands at the half-line beside him.

“I think he blames himself. He didn’t get so much playing time until Eboué’s playing began to suffer.”

“But that’s ridiculous.”

Theo shrugs. Erik keeps an eye on Charles after that, but he’s got his head back in the game and he takes Chamakh out with a tremendous slide tackle to prove it.

*

With Nasri and Fabregas both gone, Erik makes the starting lineup for their match against Liverpool at Emirates. Their win against Udinese a few days earlier was wildly panned in the press as “nervous.” Erik had watched from the bench, wondering if he’d just signed for a losing team, until they pulled it back together. He knows if they’re outplayed tonight but somehow manage to score again everybody will think Arsenal is falling apart. Even a clean loss would be better. Erik hates this, this psychology of league play. He just wants to get out there and run until the entire crowd fades away and it’s just him and his team, moving like an engine firing on all cylinders.

And of course the press has to rub it in their faces that Fabregas won his game for Barcelona. Erik can’t help a little vicious glee that he didn’t get to start and he only played ten minutes. He figures that’s probably what the rest of Cesc’s season is going to look like. He earned it.

“He looked like a right twat in those pictures,” Jack says while they wait in the tunnel to go out on the pitch. It’s not very funny, but for some reason they all burst out laughing.

Liverpool hits like a hammer, getting the better of the midfield. They take an embarrassing run up the field that Szczęsny is helpless against—in the wrong corner of the goal and too far forward to intercept. Only Bacari’s fortunate sprint across the penalty box from behind the keeper saves it from going in. The replay on the Jumbotron makes it look like Bacari nearly scored on them himself, with the ball just inching past on the right side of the post. It’s brilliant and everybody is screaming and leaping on him for the miracle save.

The stands explode, and from there it’s like falling dominos. By half, they’ve scored twice. Van Persie once and Wilshere with the second. And then things start getting rough, rampant fouling, cards and free kicks awarded left and right. Liverpool refuses to lose to a shaky Arsenal. But they’re not shaky, not even a little. It’s almost like they needed somebody to come at them with everything they had in order to fight back.

And then Charles steals the ball from Andy Carroll. He directs a stunning smooth-sailing pass to Ramsey that looks like it’s going to be a successful run on goal, when everything is brought to a halt by the referees’ shrill whistles. Erik looks up at the Jumbotron and his mouth goes dry.

Charles is on the ground. Vermaelen holds Carroll away from him like he thinks he’s going to take a dive at Charles’ prone form. Lucas arrives at a run, slinging his teammate back.

The replay runs, showing Carroll whirling around and belting Charles across the cheekbone while he was still following through on his pass. He could see how it could be ascribed to a windmilling arm just happening to catch Charles as Carroll fought against momentum to turn around, and maybe that’s why the bastard thought he could get away with it. Charles pitches headfirst into the grass at a spine-crunching angle. Erik takes a knee as players across the field do likewise and wonders why his heart is pounding like he’s had too much caffeine.

The screen above them flashes back to real time, showing the trainers swarming him. Charles lies flat on his back, his head completely obscured by the people kneeling around him. Erik watches Charles’ arm raise up in the air, taped fingers reaching for a water bottle, and releases a breath.

Charles gets hauled unsteadily to his feet, cheek bleeding from a gash. Everybody cheers as he makes his way off the field, supported on one side by a trainer. When Erik catches a glimpse at Vermaelen’s face, he thinks it probably looks much like his own.

Theo remarks on it as they set up for their penalty shot. “You look like you’re going to fuck someone up right good.”

Erik shrugs. “Charles can take care of himself.”

Carroll gets sent off with a red card, and then it’s too fucking easy. Erik is almost peeved not to get a good parting shot at them. But Liverpool is a man down and one of their best players at that. They appear disheartened and after that it’s all over. Despite this Erik is only too happy to score the final goal of the night.

*

He gets Charles’ address from one of his teammates and takes the tube to Kensington. Charles’ flat is off a little fenced in square with a beautiful verdant garden. It’s only a stone’s throw from Harrods and Erik can easily see why people would want to live here, but it’s so adult. At least for what he expects for fellow footballers

He rings the doorbell and discovers that Charles’ flat isn’t so much a flat as a townhouse.

A tall guy around Erik’s age and dark circles bagging under his eyes answers the door and blinks. “Hello,” he says. Another American. “Are you on the soccer team?” Hero and Hippo bound for Erik and the door and Hank has to block it off with his body.

“Football,” he bends down to scratch Hero behind the ears. “Hello.”

The guy steps back from the door and gestures Erik inside amid wagging tail and joyful yips.

“Hank,” he says, offering his hand. “Hero, down.”

The dog doesn’t listen and Hank lets out a gusty sigh.

“Setz Dich hin,” Erik says firmly and Hero sits immediately. Erik nods and then shakes Hank’s hand. “Erik Lehnsherr. Is Charles’ all right?”

Hank breathes deep. “He’s a bit cranky. I had to wake him up every half hour.”

Erik winces. “Concussion?”

“Yeah. They were a bit worried because he doesn’t remember anything from when that thug,” Hank pauses when Erik raises his brows, “when that player hit him, until they dropped him off and put an icepack on his head. He thought he’d come to after being unconscious, but he was awake the entire time.”

“But he’s well now?”

“No, he’s not. He feels like he has the worst hangover of his life,” Charles says, coming down the stairs in nothing but a pair of gym shorts. He looks like death, a black row of stitches over the gash in his cheek. Hank mutters something under his breath, but when Erik looks at him in askance he doesn’t explain.

He leans on the banister and tries for a smile. “What brings you by, Erik?”

“Felt like the thing to do,” Erik replies. Now that he’s here, of course he’s not quite sure what to do with himself. They all stare at each other awkwardly. Erik clears his throat and says to Hank, “So you’re an American.”

Hank nods. “Here for study.”

“Don’t let him be modest. He’s a Rhodes Scholar. Just finished up a year at Oxford.” Charles says, “Hank, get me a water?”

“Don’t let who be modest?” Hank replies. “You could’ve been studying with me and instead you’re kicking a ball around a field. Get your own water.”

It’s so similar to Erik’s mother’s argument he nearly apologizes out of sheer reflex. Charles laughs and Hank looks a little chagrined. Erik gets the feeling such outbursts aren’t typical. Hank disappears into the back of the house.

“Hank is personally affronted by sport,” Charles explains. He pitches his voice louder for Hank to hear, “Although he shouldn’t because it’s currently keeping him in room and board until his funding gets approved.”

Erik stares past Charles, at the bookcases filled with what looks suspiciously like academic tomes. Perhaps he inherited them. “Could you have gone to Oxford, then?”

Charles stretches his arms above his head, cracking his neck, with a quiet exhale of relief. “Hank exaggerates.”

Something about the way Charles says it makes Erik think he’s not exaggerating at all.

“Do you want some coffee?”

Hank comes back with a water bottle and hands it to Charles wordlessly. “I’m going to sleep.”

“Interesting fellow,” Erik says.

Charles snorts. “He has a terrible crush on Raven that he thinks I don’t know about.”

“Where is she by the way?”

“Back in the States. Her new term’s starting in a week.”

“Ah.” Erik doesn’t know why this is so awkward. He likes Charles. Usually he feels easy with him. Easier than he ever feels with anybody else in fact.

Charles tilts his head and sighs, eyes blinking heavily. “Would you like some coffee? I’m not much company at the moment I’m afraid, but we can sit and watch telly.”

Erik shrugs. “Alright.”

Erik winds up making the coffee. Charles really does look quite terrible. They get through the first thirty minutes of a DVD when Charles falls asleep on his shoulder. He moves it, jarring Charles awake. “Am I allowed to let you sleep?”

“Yes,” Charles replies, groggily, digging his face into Erik’s arm. “Now shut up.”

*

On Tuesday after Charles has had his stitches out, he insists they check out some flats. There aren’t many people who are willing to meet them after practice, but Charles turns the charm on over the phone, and one by one people start folding.

Erik couldn’t care less as Charles walks about talking about sunlight and south-facing windows. He runs his hand under the taps and asks about the pipes and Erik observes the entire production in amused silence.

“What is it you like exactly?” Charles says.

Erik assumes he means in places to live and doesn’t know how to answer that question. “Honestly, I don’t care. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up. A home is just a place to lay your head down.”

Charles is silent and serious for long enough, that Erik looks at him. Charles smiles. “I guess we could see if London has any capsule hotels. Save the club some money.”

Erik shoves Charles in his side and is delighted when he yelps and jumps away. “You’re ticklish.” He goes to poke Charles again, but this time Charles intercepts his hand, holding him away.

“Terribly ticklish—now pick a sodding apartment listing so you can move out of that doctor’s office they’ve stuck you in.”

Erik doesn’t have a single thought about any of the places they look at until they find a two-room studio just under the eaves of an eighteenth-century building in Holborn. It’s sunny and cozy, and the owners say they have space if Erik gets a new bike. Charles clearly only has to look at Erik’s face to know exactly what he’s thinking, because he turns to them and says, “Definitely interested.”

“Are you...?” the man asks, pause laden with a question. His wife leans against him, looking up at him significantly, and he shakes himself. “I mean, it’s quite alright if you are.”

Erik tenses up with a raised eyebrow, what the hell is this guy insinuating? He only relaxes when Charles laughs. “No. Erik would probably live in a storage container if it had plumbing.” As if that’s any sort of explanation, but the couple seem to get it and don’t press any further.

“Maybe a caravan,” Erik says facetiously, going to the window to check out the view. He thinks about moving endlessly and shudders. A good portion of his life has been spent on the road, but then, he supposes that’s true of Charles too. More-so. From what he’s learned from Hank, until he was eleven, his parents divided his time between London and the States, hence Raven’s lazily articulated consonants and rhotic rs.

It’s inexplicable why he feels guilty for liking the apartment so much. A place of his own wouldn’t be a bad idea. His contract with the team ends a fair distance into the future, and if he isn’t put out on loan, he could probably, finally, be still. The room is silent while he contemplates a pedestrian walking into a Costa coffee. Charles is good at being still while the couple isn’t. He can hear their fidgeting.

He turns around and says, “I’ll take it.”

*

Erik has a nightmare before their next game against Udinese. Wenger has decided to play him tomorrow, and even though he’s played two matches already, he feels nervous. That’s what he thinks anyway, waking up covered in cold sweat, remembering his old days. Remembering Schmidt.

Sometimes in darker moments, when he can’t get into the groove, he thinks maybe Schmidt was right about him, and that’s why Erik isn’t playing for Bayern today. Too temperamental of a player. He feels sick with it and can barely settle down to get back to sleep.

It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy the next day. Erik has a terrible game. His one and only shot on goal clears the crossbar by a mile. Erik reaches for anger at his own impotence, something to fuel him, but it doesn’t come. He can’t keep it together. Wenger pulls him off ten minutes before the second half. The fans don’t cheer for him as he walks off.

“What the hell was that?” Pat Rice, a former Arsenal player himself as well as Wenger’s assistant manager, asks. The look he gives Erik is one of cool distaste—he waits for Erik to say something for himself, but he doesn’t have any explanation for him. Pat turns his back on him, saying, “Hit the showers.”

Charles, dressed in a crisp suit, finds him in the locker room, still in his kit, staring at the running tap in the shower stall. Erik can’t look at him. He very seriously contemplates drowning himself.

“What happened out there?” he asks softly.

“Just a bad game.”

“Erik, that was miserable.”

A rush of fury hits him and he shouts, “I know! All right! I know!” and punches his locker. It makes a horrible zinging thud against the metal and pain races straight to his brain like a hurled lance. He pulls his hand back and cradles it to his chest. He doesn’t think it’s broken, but it hurts like it is.

“Jesus!” Charles says, seizing Erik’s hand and pulling it to him. Erik makes a quiet grunt of distress, and Charles responds with a shushing noise, one that you’d give to a distraught child. The knuckles are abraded and red, already swelling.

Charles looks up from his hand with an exasperated look, and Erik feels profoundly like Amelia after she’s pissed on Charles’s Persian rug again. It’s more quelling than Charles’ obvious disappointment in his play. Erik sinks to the bench as Charles disappears for ice and a bandage.

“You’re lucky I didn’t tell Gary,” Charles says, when he comes back, referring to the team doctor. He places ice on Erik’s knuckles, unrelenting with the pressure when Erik hisses, wrapping plastic around his hand to keep it in place. He looks up when he’s done, expression stern. “How about you tell me what’s going on?”

“I reached for the anger, and it didn’t help.”

“What?” Charles stares at him.

“You know, the way you channel all your rage, all your powerlessness, all your fears into your playing.”

Charles looks at him. “Is that how you always play?”

Erik shrugs. “I don’t know any other way.”

“Erik, anger can make you—it has made you a deadly player, but you will never be consistent with it. Never.”

Erik makes a noise in the back of his throat and turns his back on him. Hurt for reasons he doesn’t entirely understand.

“No, listen to me,” Charles says, placing a hand on his shoulder. Erik shrugs it off. Charles sighs, but continues speaking, undeterred, “It isn’t possible to sustain anger and control at the same time, indefinitely. Believe me when I say I know.”

Erik’s shoulders slump. He repeats, “I don’t know...how to play any other way.”

“Yes, you do. I have seen it.”

Erik snorts. He begins stripping his kit off. When he turns around Charles looks away. “You should go back out there,” Erik says, voice clipped.

Charles nods, face resigned. He leaves without saying anything.

*

The gunners narrowly eke out a victory, so nobody is loudly lambasting Erik for ruining their streak in the press, even though he feels like they should be. When he shows up for practice, energy up, the players and coaching staff seem content to let it go. He plays well, running through the paces that Primorac puts him through, eager to prove he can do this.

Towards the end of the day, he catches up with Charles, who’s been practicing on a different field for the most part, trying to gain back what a week’s worth of sitting on a couch cost him. Charles smiles when he sees him, no sign of the frustration all over his face when they were in the locker room.

“Are you busy later?” Erik asks.

“I am actually,” Charles says apologetically. “I agreed to help Alex practice.”

“Alex?” Erik asks, not recognizing the name.

“Alex Summers. He’s on the reserve squad,” Charles explains. “He’s an up-and-coming striker.” Charles audibly pauses and then looks at Erik for a long moment. “Actually, if you’d be willing, I’m sure he could learn a lot from you too.”

Erik shrugs. “I don’t know if I’m any good at teaching.”

Charles rolls his eyes. “You’ll be fine.”

Alex is green, but good. He’s on the reserves at seventeen with a possibility to move up to the first team probably next season. Erik is more than a little impressed. He’s very aggressive even though he hasn’t quite grown into his shoulders yet. Even so, Charles frequently manages to use that against him.

“Alex, trying to muscle me out of the way isn’t always a practical strategy,” Charles says, after he’s stolen the ball away.

Erik laughs at Alex’s rolled eyes. “Employ the fake to good use,” he says, accepting a pass from Charles. He rolls the ball onto his cleat and pops it up, juggling it one footed. “I know you know how.”

“Show off,” Alex says. Erik lets the ball drop and sends it over to him with a fancy back heel pass that makes both Charles and Alex groan.

Pressed to prove himself after that, Alex demonstrates his not inconsiderable skill in footwork for the rest of the hour. Finally after he's run both Erik and Charles into the ground, they decide to call it quits. Erik has never laughed so hard in his life.

They go to the pub and order Alex a pint, and fish and chips for everybody.

“Do you still have that wanker staying over at yours?” Alex asks, taking a liberal sip of his Carling and then licking off the foam. Erik is surprised by the familiarity. He’d assumed Alex was just somebody Charles had run into on the fields one day and struck up a conversation. Charles can talk to anyone, even bitter old grannies on the tube. He never assumed that they had a relationship off the pitch. Raven was right. Charles really does take in strays. He wonders if he could be considered another one.

“Whoever can you possibly mean?” Charles asks, voice falsely innocent.

The mockery is patently obvious to Erik, but it Alex misses it entirely and rolls his eyes, grunting, “Hank!”

“Yes I know, love,” Charles replies. “I see sarcasm is lost on you. He’s still there. I don’t know why you dislike him so much.”

“It’s the way he’s always looking at Raven,” Alex says and shudders, like the mere thought of it is physically repugnant.

Erik eyes him. “Aren’t you a bit young for Raven?”

“What?” Alex goes bright red. “I don’t like Raven!”

Erik and Charles share a private glance of amusement, and then Charles deftly turns the subject to music, something Alex clearly knows a lot about. They listen to him wax lyrical about festival season, all the bands he's gonna see, how he's gonna wear his wrist band until it falls off. Despite his obvious boredom with the subject, Charles seems loath to stop him. Vermaelen is right. He really is like an old man, or maybe a proud father.

He snorts into his fist, and they both turn to look at him.

“You’re very strange, you know that?” Alex says when Erik refuses to volunteer an explanation.

Erik shrugs back, that's perfectly okay with him. Alex changes the subject and offers to make them both mix CDs since, according to him, they don’t have any taste.

*

After a particularly grueling practice, when the thought of dragging himself onto the tube all the way to Holborn is far too much to bear, Erik decides he needs a new bike. His previous bike had a been a sleek little Suzuki he bought used off a friend of a friend, but Erik has more money now, and while it might be the largest purchase he’s ever made, he’s going for a Ducati.

When he rolls up to practice the next day Charles whistles at him. “That is a sexy piece of machinery,” he says. Erik pushes his aviators down his nose and Charles grins. “You’re not bad either.”

Something about the way he says it makes Erik’s stomach drop out, but Charles is already turning away, heading into the lockers to suit up.

They go out that night, about half the team, to celebrate the fact that they keep making it despite the press prophesying their constant wrack and ruin. Erik finds himself in an argument about motorcycles with Bendtner, who Erik contends doesn’t know shit. When he looks up, Charles is being chatted up by one of the most beautiful women Erik’s ever seen. Tall, willowy, big blue eyes--she's unreal.

Theo follows his gaze. “Oh, here we go.”

“What?” Erik asks, sparing him a quick glance. Theo nods his head back at Charles.

The girl makes Charles laugh and she leans in, putting her hand on his arm.

“The dance has started,” Wilshere says with a laugh from Erik’s other side.

Erik doesn’t see anything particularly spectacular happening. Charles is flirting with a girl, and the girl is flirting with him. If Charles was a notorious womanizer, he’d certainly hid it well up to now.

Erik blinks when Charles carefully worms out from under the girl’s touch.

“Tragic,” Theo says.

The girl leans into Charles space a second time, pushing up against him, and Charles extricates himself yet again all without losing his smile. Erik watches, thunderstruck. Charles gives her a very friendly pat on the shoulder and then turns around and makes his way back to them.

“What was that?” Erik asks.

Wilshere snorts with laughter. “Charles always does that.”

“He’s waiting for ‘true love,’” Theo says with air quotes and all.

Charles pulls out a chair and straddles it backwards. “Are you maligning me?”

“Just explaining how you’re a complete pussy about women.”

“They’re not scary!” Theo adds. “Lovely, you know.”

“Did the first time go very poorly, Charles?” Wilshere teases. “It’s okay, I’m sure we can find another lady who likes ‘em short.”

“Leave it,” he says, sharply, “My sex life is no concern of yours.”

“We were just taking the piss, mate,” Theo says, eyes wide.

Charles snorts and gets to his feet, going to the bar. It’s only the second time Erik’s seen him annoyed, and the first time was because Erik had punched a metal locker.

“I don’t understand,” Wilshere says, pitching his voice low, “we’ve been teasing him about it for years.”

Erik looks back and forth between them.

“I’ve known Charles since I was fifteen, yeah?” he explains. “He used to tear through women, constantly going home with girls, but then it just stopped. For all we know, he’s been bloody celibate for the last three years.”

“Did you ever think something happened?” Erik asked.

“What like, like rape?” Theo asks, he looks thoughtful. “Can you rape a man?”

Wilshere cuffs him on the back of the head. “Idiot, I think he means Charles got burned by someone. Maybe that Moira girl or something.”

“Really? I thought she was a total lezzer!”

Erik rolls his eyes heavenward and gets up to let them argue. The conversation has given him an inexplicably desperate need for a smoke. He doesn't even know why he's on edge, but he goes out to bum one off somebody. He stops in surprise as soon as he sees that Charles is already out there, doing exactly that. Heedless of the passersby, he exhales a diaphanous cloud of smoke and watches it dissipate.

“Erik?”

Erik starts, he’d been completely unaware that Charles knew he was there. “I was just coming out to bum one of those, a...” tripping over himself, he snaps his fingers, searching for the right word, “a cigarette.”

Charles’s bottom lip quirks. “I had to do the same. Not much of a smoker I’m afraid.”

“Ah,” Erik says, “Give it here, I need a drag.”

Charles does with a laugh.

Erik watches the cars driving by on the street, the late night pedestrians laughing with their friends. When he glances at Charles, he’s fidgeting, rubbing at his eyebrow. When he catches Erik’s eyes, he blows out a breath.

“Listen, Erik, I think...I think there’s something you need to know.”

Erik presses a hand to his chest. “My god! You were raped! Theo was right.”

“What? No!” Charles bursts out laughing. “You shouldn’t joke about that.”

Erik shrugs and Charles laughter subsides. With a sigh that makes Erik’s gaze sharpen on him, he says, “I’m gay.”

Erik chokes on the smoke he’s inhaled, coughing desperately. “Sorry?”

“I like men.”

“Yes, Charles, I know what gay means!” He says, voice rough from hacking. He shakes his head. “I don’t—what?”

Charles purses his lips. “I’m not sure what part of that’s difficult to understand.”

“But Wilshere just said you were out with women all the time!”

Charles bites his lip, turning his head away. “It took me rather a long time to figure it out.”

“Gay?”

Charles looks at him like he’s a little boy proving slow at his lessons. He exhales through his nose and shakes his head with the bitterest smile Erik has ever seen on him. “Keep it,” he says of the cigarette still clenched in Erik’s fingers, before turning to walk off.

“Charles, wait, I’m not—I don’t have a problem with it. I was just...surprised?” he says, calling after him.

Charles doesn’t look back as he gives Erik the two-fingered salute. He rounds a corner and disappears while Erik wrestles with himself.

He doesn’t mind. He’s known gay men before, and even gay players. When Bayern captain Phillip Lahm had brought up the hypocrisy of homosexuality in the sport, much akin to don’t ask, don’t tell, a few weeks ago, some of the other players had looked at him like he could explain Lahm’s weird German notions. When it happened Erik had stared back, “What? It’s true, isn’t it?”

Looking back on it now, remembers Charles leaning against his locker, watching Erik intently, like his answer was very important. Suddenly he feels like shit.

“Fuck,” he says, the English swearword coming easily to his tongue. “Fuck fuck fuck.”

He’s only known Charles a couple of months, and obviously Charles had trusted him and considered him a good friend, because obviously the other boys don’t know, and he just shit all over it by acting like such an arsehole. And Erik doesn’t even know why it disquieted him so much to hear Charles was gay. He throws the cigarette aside and shuts his eyes. But that’s not true. He does know.

It’s because of how he feels about Charles himself.

*

He wakes up the next morning in the bathtub of some unknown bathroom, disoriented and groggy. His head is screaming and his stomach feels like somebody tried to shove the entire organ back up his throat. He groans and drags himself to his feet. He has to pause, grasping at the sink. Aside from a few missteps when he was barely sixteen, he’s never felt this ill in his entire life. Finally he manages to turn the tap for cold water with trembling fingers. It rushes out cool and mesmerizing over his hand and he stares at it running over his knuckles, rapt. It takes a minute to remember why he turned the tap on in the first place. Bending down to drink straight from it costs him an unfathomable amount of energy. With a groan, he plunges his head under the spray. Thoughts finally crystalize in his brain and he remembers he has to get on with his day.

Feeling like he does, just the thought of practice nearly makes him vomit. He pointedly doesn’t look at himself in the mirror. Somewhere, he managed to lose his shirt and one of his shoes. Outside the bathroom, he has to shield his eyes from the light pouring in the windows. There are people passed out all over the place and Chamakh is picking up trash and tossing it into a black bin bag. He nods at Erik when he sees him and Erik groans back. He dimly remembers coming back here after the bar closed to drink some more with the other guys. Ramsey steps out of the kitchen, in just his boxers, drinking what looks to be orange juice.

“Morning,” he says, grinning at Erik’s sorry state.

“What the hell happened,” he croaks weakly.

Ramsey laughs. “You challenged Andrei to a drinking game.”

Erik groans and drops his head. Never a good idea to challenge a Russian when there’s alcohol involved.

“It was brilliant,” Ramsey says, taking another long gulp of orange juice, “After you passed out, he got up all normal like and said ‘night, boys,’ and walked out. He’s a fucking robot, that one.” He laughs and disappears back into Chamakh’s kitchen.

Erik eventually makes it to practice after two showers, nearly a gallon of water, and eight different kinds of vitamins. It’s not nearly enough, but he feels like a semi-normal person. The rest of the team has not fared so well. They’re very lucky it’s a light practice today. Primorac and Wenger seem more interested in figuring out which players on the reserve team they’re going to bring up for the next game. Erik is incredibly thankful. What he is not happy about, only the other hand is that Charles is acting like everything is fine. It’s as if their conversation never happened and it only makes Erik feel that much worse.

Erik decides to talk to him after practice, offer another apology, but when it’s time to shower Erik doesn’t see him in the locker room at all. “Hey, anyone know where Charles is?” he addresses the team while tugging up his pants.

A player shrugs and points at the doors for the steam room. Erik hesitates, fingers clenched into fists. Don’t be a coward, he tells himself and blows out a breath. Another player looks at him strangely, but he doesn’t acknowledge him.

He pushes through the doors and hears the low susurrus of two voices and starts walking in that direction.

"I don't think this is working." Charles’ firm statement stops him in his tracks.

"Charles…"

Erik swallows.

"Thomas," Charles enunciates, mocking his tone. "I know I shouldn't have said anything."

"I don't think that. Don't put words in my mouth."

"I'm not a mental incompetent. You didn't manage to hide that expression from me as quick as you thought."

Erik leans back against the door. Is Charles in love with Vermaelen? Had he just confessed to him or had Vermaelen found out somehow? Jesus. He can’t explain the sinking feeling in his gut or the way his hand trembles as it hovered over the door. He looks over his shoulder guiltily. He shouldn't be eavesdropping on Charles like this, especially since he already has so much to apologize for.

The door yanks open under his palm, startling him. Song stares at him blankly, towel wrapped around his waist.

Erik clears his throat. "Er, sorry, spaced out."

Song nods, side-eying him before pushing past him for the steam room. Erik hears his murmured greetings as he passes Charles and Vermaelen and winces, going back into the locker room.

He thinks about it the entire time he's chopping vegetables for dinner. Charles is in love with Vermaelen. He feels horribly guilty all of a sudden. It must be hell. Complete and utter hell to be in love with somebody you saw every day, who would never, could never, return your feelings. Almost worse because as everybody knows Vermaelen does care for Charles. Just not the way he wants.

*

The press seems surprised when they make it into the fourth round of the Carling cup, even though they were playing a League 2 team, Shrewsbury. They keep bringing up that horrible defeat they suffered against Man U back in August. Frankly, Erik would’ve been more upset if they’d lost the Shrewsbury game than that one. Erik hadn’t been playing that time, and both Charles and Vermaelen had been on the disability list, so at least that loss was justifiable and reflected in no way upon him. And Man U could fucking play, which was not something he was altogether clear on with Shrewsbury.

They’re doing well though. Finally coming into their own as a team, filling in the holes where they suffered the most damage during the summer transfer window.

He is glad of their tie with BVB earlier in September. Losing would’ve been a blow to his ego worse than a Shrewsbury loss, especially when his father had managed to convince his mother to attend with him. Winning though, would’ve felt abruptly like betrayal. At the end of the match, he trades jerseys with Mario Götze, one of his oldest friends. They came up together through BVB’s youth academy. It’s the one moment in his entire professional career that he’s played up for the press.

He and Charles haven’t been spending as much time together, and when the invitation comes to go out with the boys to all of his old haunts, he doesn’t hesitate. As Mario talks about what he's been up to over beers, Erik realizes how long it’s really been since he’s spent time with him, nearly three years, ever since he left BVB for Hamburg. He’s not good at keeping in touch with the people he cares about. In a rare moment of sentiment, Erik apologizes for it. Mario punches him in the shoulder.

“I worried it was because I signed professional terms before you did,” Mario says quietly.

“Oh no, it’s because you were called up to the German national team before me, bastard!”

Mario laughs, reading the joke for what it is, and clinks their glasses together. “I think you can expect to be called up soon.”

“Is that word from up on high?” Erik jokes.

Mario meets his eyes, voice even. “Yes.”

Erik doesn’t know why, but knowing that soothes some deeply buried ache inside of him. “I hear Sven isn’t doing so well.”

“Yeah, no, after that loss to Australia, I don’t hold out much hope for his chances with Jogi,” he says, mentioning the head coach of the team.

“Where is Sven by the way? For that matter, where is everybody?” Erik asks, looking around the bar.

“Oh I told them I needed some alone time with you!” Mario says, teasing, voice drippingly sweet.

Erik swats at him. It shows a real change in his life that he’s comparing his oldest friends to his Arsenal teammates, rather than the other way around.

Mario laughs. “Actually, I think they have tickets for some Burlesque show. Löwe is pretty hard up for one of the dancers.”

“What, and he needs moral support?”

“Not everybody can be as self-assured as you,” Mario points out.

Erik grins into his beer.

“We’ll see them later, Julian says you still owe him a drink. Something about five years ago?” Mario shrugs

“I owe him a drink from when I was fifteen?”

“Ugh, god, I remember you then, you owe all of us for drinks for tolerating your moody arse.”

It was not a good time in his life. Schmidt was coaching them and running them all ragged, but he’d saved an extra special sort of nastiness for Erik—making him do extra conditioning in the rain, suspending him from play when he was having a good game, forcing him to work through injuries. The whole time he’d kept a constant litany of vicious sarcastic barbs that had nearly driven Erik to violence on a number of occasions.

He clears his throat. “I’ll buy you all a round to settle my debt.”

“Of course you will. From what I hear, you can afford it.”

“Now, now, that kind of talk about money is gauche.”

They go clubbing. It’s glorious: gorgeous women, alcohol, and good friends everywhere. Erik hasn’t been in such a good mood in forever. If he’s honest with himself, not since that night where Charles came out to him. After two hours of dancing to club standards, Erik finally has to sit down.

“You’re getting old,” Julian teases, collapsing next to him.

“Nah, I’m just not used to this anymore.”

“Oh lord, do you spend all your time going to tea parties and smoking cigars over inedible food?”

Erik laughs uproariously, more than is necessary, the image isn’t that funny. Yet, he can totally imagine Charles doing all of that.

“You are completely off your head!” Julian observes. “You barely had anything. Wenger must keep you on a tight leash.”

“Mmm,” Erik replies, rolling around in his seat to get comfortable.

“What’s up with him?” Mario asks, coming over with a girl on his arm.

“I think it’s time for him to go back to his hotel.”

“Nooo,” Erik tells him, shifting again. His jeans are constricting his movement. He wants them off. “I hate trousers.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him like this,” a new voice says.

Erik growls and squints. “Who is that? I ca-I can’t see! Soooo drunk.”

Mats Hummels walks into his line of sight.

“Oh you, I didn’t know you were here,” Erik says. “That was a really nice header today. Beautiful actually.”

“Excuse me while I die of coronary arrest,” Mario says, “Did Erik just compliment someone? You really are drunk.”

Julian snorts. “Erik, where is your hotel?”

“I don’t knowww,” he says. Somehow he finds himself slumped into the corner of his chair. His head is too heavy for his neck and he’s tired of holding it up anyway.

“Oh Christ,” Mario says. “Erik, give me your mobile phone.”

“No, dirty thief. Get your own,” He protests, batting Mario away from him. Julian sneaks it out of his pocket while he’s distracted.

“If you wanted my dick so badly, you could’ve asked,” Erik says sweetly.

“You?” Julian snorts. “You have an unnatural kinship to a great white shark.”

He pages through Erik’s contacts, randomly trying numbers. “Don’t call—don’t call my parents!”

“Wasn’t gonna. I remember your mother. All that Slavic rage!”

The first couple of numbers don’t pick up, but finally he dials somebody who answers. “Sind Sie Erik Kamerad?” he asks. The person on the other end of the line must answer in German, because Julian says, “Your accent is atrocious. Do you mind coming to get him? He doesn’t remember where his hotel is.”

“Who is it?” Erik asks, loudly, trying to use Mario’s arm to lever himself up.

Julian pulls the phone away from his ear and looks at the contact on the screen. “Charles.”

“Noooo, don’t make him get out of bed. He’s suffered enough.”

“Can you come quickly?” Julian asks Charles, shaking his head at Erik’s pitiful attempts to right himself.

Erik might be imagining it, but he’s pretty sure he hears laughter on the other end of the line.

When Charles arrives at the club, wrapped up in a coat and scarf like it’s the dead of winter, he takes one look at Erik and says, “Good lord, what did you give him? Grain alcohol?”

Mario holds him up with one arm and pats him on the chest with the other. “He just can’t keep up anymore.”

“Lies!” Erik shouts in German, brain not quite up to the switch between languages.

Charles accepts Erik’s weight and says a very polite thanks.

He waves a sloppy goodbye at the boys, and pointedly ignores the way they’re shaking their heads in amused disbelief at him. The cab ride back to the hotel is miserable. It’s too hot in the car and Erik is finally starting to the feel the negative effects of the vast quantity of alcohol he drank.

“If he’s going to puke, it’s extra,” the cabby says and when Erik starts cursing at him, it takes all of Charles’ powers of persuasion to keep the guy from dumping them on a random street corner and leaving.

Erik opens his mouth to say something and Charles covers his mouth with his hand. “Just shut up will you?”

“I’m sorry you’re in love with Vermaelen,” Erik says into the skin of Charles’ palm.

“What?” Charles asks and pulls his hand away.

“I’m sorry you’re in love with Vermaelen,” Erik repeats, head listing to Charles shoulder. “That must be very hard, since you get to see him naked every day. Very hard. I couldn’t do it.”

Charles looks at him like he’s crazy. Erik tries to comfort him some more and Charles shushes him. “Don’t worry about it,” he says softly. “I’m not unhappy.”

“This is good news,” Erik says, suddenly laughing uncontrollably. “I don’t like you unhappy.”

*

The hangover from that escapade is enough to put him off alcohol for life. He doesn’t make it to two practices while he’s in recovery. The only reason Wenger doesn’t suspend him is that he’s still riding high from all of Erik’s contributions to the team. Although he strongly suspects Charles interceded on his behalf.

They appear to be on an even footing again after that night. Erik doesn’t remember much besides puking up half his guts in his bathroom and insisting that he wanted Charles to be happy, but something about that misery eased the tension between them.

They start October off with a loss against the Hotspurs. The only thing that makes it bearable is that it’s not on their home turf. The fans take it very badly. The press keeps calling them an emotional team, unable to bear up against outside pressures. The mood in the locker room is at an all time low.

“Well, boys,” Charles announces, clearly fed up with the long faces and slammed locker doors, “better luck next time, eh?”

It occurs to Erik that Charles is going to make a great coach some day. Just that one statement, completely lacking in sentiment, seems to have turned the attitude of the entire dressing room around. It’s remarkable.

“You still working with Alex?” Erik asks after practice, walking Charles to his car.

“Hmm? Oh yes,” Charles replies. He gives Erik a look out of the corner of his eye. “But I think he’d really rather it were you.”

“Oh, stop!” Erik protests.

Charles shrugs, throwing his stuff into the backseat. “Just reporting the facts.”

Erik pauses, thrown. It hadn’t occurred to him that Alex would want to learn anything from him, or even that he had anything to teach.

Charles looks at him like he’s waiting for something, waiting for Erik to say something. When nothing is forthcoming, he clears his throat. “Would you like to run the dogs with me? I’ve been neglecting them lately.”

Poor Hero and Hippo. “Doesn’t Hank take care of them when you’re away?” he asks, even as he climbs into the passenger seat of Charles’ car.

“He walks them, but it’s hard to tear him away from his work for long.” Charles smiles ruefully. Erik snorts. “And…they miss me.” He says it simply without arrogance. It’s truth. Charles has that effect on everybody. Erik is not excluded from that group. If Vermaelen could love Charles, Erik thinks, he would.

Charles drives them back to his place to pick up the dogs. Hank gives Erik a nod when he steps inside and then goes back to frantically flipping through textbooks, like he was when they walked in. As he passes behind Hank’s chair, Charles ruffles his hair, like they aren’t close in age. Hank goes cross-eyed with annoyance and bats at his hand.

The dogs are happy to see Erik and it warms him. He has made a place here, in Charles’ life, intended or not.

“C’mon, before it gets cold out,” Charles says, herding them back towards the door.

The Maserati is too small for two adult men and two large dogs, but Charles walks in the opposite direction of where it’s parked and unlocks the door to a clunky and aged Renault.

“Classy,” Erik says, dryly.

“Hey, hey, how many Retrievers can claim a car just for themselves?” Charles protests. He bends down to chuck Hero under the chin.

By the time Charles has judged Hero and Hippo sufficiently exhausted, the sun has gone down. The Heath is quiet, mostly empty except for a few evening strollers. Erik pets a shameless Hero absent-mindedly. Charles has his back to him, eyes on the lit houses at the edge of the park.

“What are you thinking about?”

Charles turns his head. “Family.”

He shakes himself and then blows out a breath. “Let’s get the dogs home so we can eat.” He ignores Erik’s eyes on him.

It’s cold enough that Erik’s ears hurt, piercing and uncomfortable. “What are you doing for the holidays?”

“Raven has break, so she’ll be home. Alex and his brother usually join us, but Scott’s got a girlfriend now, so I think it might just be Alex.” At the look on Erik’s face he adds, “More orphans.”

“Ah, his brother doesn’t play?”

Charles snorts. “Scott? He’s an RAF pilot.” He shoos the dogs into the car and then says abruptly, “What are you doing?”

“Sorry?” Erik asks, blinking.

“For the holidays,” Charles laughs. He pushes Hero back when he tries to nose at Charles’ shoulder over the seat.

“My mother’s Jewish, but after living under communism for so long, only in the barest sense of the word.” He shrugs and twists to pet the begging Hero, sufficiently ensuring his expression is hidden. “She’s been hinting that she wants to go to Rio for Christmas, because my father’s family makes her crazy. I think I might send them.”

“You wouldn’t go with them?”

Erik shrugs again. He loves his parents. For years they were the only world outside of football, and now Erik is done with that and has some space from them, he’s realizing how suffocated he was.

“You know you’re welcome to join us?” Charles revs the engine when Erik sputters and tries to say he wasn’t fishing for an invitation. He does it again when Erik opens his mouth a second time. “Sorry, can’t hear you! This old jalopy, you know?”

Erik rolls his eyes, but smiles. “Yes, Charles, I would love to join you and your strays for the holidays.”

“Excellent!” Charles says, clapping the steering wheel. “Onward.”

*

“Who do you think you were in the last life?” Wilshere asks in practice, while they’re on their warm-up run.

It’s so cold it’s making his nose run and he swipes at it before answering. “I have never wasted thought on it.”

“I bet you were Ivan the Terrible,” Wilshere replies. Spinning to jog backwards, he says, “Well, Theo?”

“Denzel Washington.”

“What? He’s still alive!” Wilshere protests. Everybody around them laughs.

“Maybe I have always been Denzel Washington.”

“My mum wants a shag then,” Arshavin chimes in.

“If your mum looks as much like a donkey’s arse as you, she’ll have to wear a paper bag,” Theo replies and then takes off running, laughing uproariously, when Arshavin goes after him, chasing him in circles around the pitch.

When they break for stretching, Charles asks Wilshere what made him bring it up. “Who do you think you are, Jack?”

“I don’t know, Sir Francis Drake?”

“Have you ever been on a boat in your life?” Charles asks.

“Yes, I have!”

“Don’t worry, Jack, Charles is just upset because as we all know, he was Queen Victoria,” Erik says and jabs Charles in the side.

The other players snigger and nod.

“Not so,” Charles protests, jabbing back at him. “I was obviously Elizabeth I.”

“Keep dreaming!” Erik cries, not dodging fast enough when Charles lunges for him. They roll over the grass, scuffling, Erik laughing. Charles can’t win. Erik probably has two stone on him and a longer reach, but he’s surprisingly scrappy. The others egg them on, distracted from stretches and the drills they’re supposed to start.

“You’ve got him, Victoria, you bloody great trollop, just a little more now!” Theo calls. It throws Charles, he squawks in outrage, and Erik is able to roll them over so he can land a couple of pulled blows to Charles’ stomach.

“All right, all right,” Charles cries, breathless, cheeks full of color, warding Erik off with his hands. Erik stops and collapses against him, arm thrown across Charles’ sternum to hold him down. He rests his chin on it, pretending to settle himself comfortably when Charles lets out a loud ‘oomph.’

“What in the hells is going on here?” Primorac calls, breaking off to swear in Croatian at his disarrayed players. “What is this? Secondary school PE?”

Everybody scrambles into motion. Charles shoves Erik off, thrusting a judicious elbow into Erik’s side as he goes. “ ‘We are not amused,’” Charles says lowly, before taking off at a run for Vermaelen. Erik laughs, rubbing a palm over his ribs.

*

They played a beautiful game against Chelsea. Van Persie was on fire. The defense could’ve been a little tighter, but Vermaelen was saved as a substitute, after ligament damage in his ankle. It was no surprise that John Terry and Frank Lampard got some goals through. None of that mattered—it was football as it was meant to be played. When they went up against WBA a week later they didn’t allow a single goal. The press finally stopped writing up each match like it was a wonder they’d won.

Erik starts against Fulham and even though Vermaelen accidentally scores on their own goal, plunging morale, Erik turns it around and immediately scores an equalizer on Schwarzer. “You owe me one,” Erik mouths at him after passing around high-fives to all the other forwards. He doesn’t know when exactly, but at some point Vermaelen started driving him nuts. Maybe it’s just the fact that Charles is in love with him and he knows it, but Thomas is still all over him, like he isn’t getting Charles’ hopes up. And worse, Charles doesn’t seem to mind. It’s as if he’s willing to accept whatever scraps fall off the table. It makes Erik sick.

In the eighty-second minute Vermaelen scores again. This time on the correct goal. When Charles jumps on Thomas’s back, and Vermaelen runs him around the pitch piggy-back style, Erik has to look away.

“What’s eating you, mate?” Theo asks as they head back to the half for the kickoff. “Eight minutes left and we’ve got this one in the can.”

Erik summons up a smile. “Yeah, of course. I know.”

*

It’s very tense leading up to the match against Manchester City. Erik understands it’s very important for Wenger to pull out a win, after he lost three players in one transfer window to the team. For the rest it’s personal for the way their teammates cut and run and left the squad full of holes. Erik knows what it means when he’s starting again alongside Theo and Van Persie. They trust him to do this.

Manchester City has a good squad, and they can well afford it with the Arab oil money that’s been poured into the roster. They’ve been racking up huge leads, ones that their opponents only just manage to summon up the will to score against one or two times. They even beat Manchester United 6 to 1 only weeks after Manchester United slaughtered Arsenal.

It’s the first time Erik’s ever seen Charles more than mildly perturbed. Erik cooks him dinner the night before and eyeing his stash of hard liquor considers getting him drunk, even though it's just before the game. At some point, Charles notices the way Erik is dancing around him and puts his fork down with a sigh.

“I want to win this one,” he says evenly.

“Alright,” Erik offers, and leaves it alone.

Džeko scores for City in the first fifteen minutes. And then they start pounding on the goal, forcing nearly the entire team back over the line. It’s a mess. Erik’s just waiting for the Guardian headline: “Nervous Arsenal Falls Like Dominos.” Ten minutes later, and he’s earned his first yellow card of the season.

But then something changes. Samir Nasri makes a run on goal that looks like it’s going to blow right by everybody. And Charles just comes out of nowhere, slide tackling the ball out from under his former teammate’s feet. He gets the ball to Ramsey, who gets it to Erik. With City’s entire team pushed up to the half line, if he gives it everything he’s got to beat them back to the penalty box, it’s a clean shot on goal.

The ball tips off Erik’s foot and looks like it’s going just slightly too high, but then slams into the corner of the net just under the bar. Erik sinks to his knees as Theo and Ramsey leap on him in celebration.

After that it gets fierce, but they’re no longer shoved back onto their own end playing stand and block while Man City fires at will. Arteta, Ramsey, and Song do their best to hold the line, but Balotelli scores again off of a throw in.

Returning from the half, Van Persie ties it up, but goes down under a defender, and of all things, manages to dislocate an elbow.

“I swear he’s made of glass,” Charles says to Erik as they watch him get escorted off the field. When Erik turns to reply he finds Charles watching him seriously, blue eyes dark. Erik’s tired. They’re only sixty-six minutes in, but he feels ragged. Charles, if anything, looks worse, with mud streaked across his kit and a cut still bleeding on his thigh.

Chamakh takes Van Persie’s place and the free kick he was owed. Unfortunately, it bounces right off of Clichy’s shoulder, nowhere near the goal. But Arteta is on it, dribbling the ball up on the rebound. Chamakh and Erik have to run so that they’re back onside, but when Arteta passes it off to Theo, he makes a beautiful ground pass straight into the net that slides right past Hart’s fingertips.

And they have the lead. Nobody can believe it. The stands have exploded. Mancini paces back and forth in front of his players, furious, brows knit in a deep scowl. His benched players are all on their feet.

Predictably, it gets dirty after that. Not that it matters to Arsenal. They have their lead and they don’t need another goal. The defense soldiers on like the tackles and the diving aren’t happening to them. Charles gets to his feet after a particularly nasty fall with a grin and a shaken head. Erik knows he must be feeling the same heady exuberance that he is right now. They might just have this one, against all odds.

In the last three minutes, Silva makes a desperate attempt on goal that Vermaelen blasts up the field. Erik, idling at the line, picks up the ball. In a split second of indecision, he sees Balotelli bearing down on him. It would be easy to simply pass the ball off, run down the clock comfortably. But that’s not in his nature. There are only moments left on the clock and Erik is tired, but if Schmidt taught him anything, it was determination. He turns and drives down the center. They might not need the goal, but he’ll be damned if he lets the world think they only won this through sheer luck. Savić tries to take him from behind, but Erik stays on his feet. Hart comes too far out of the goal trying to stop him, giving him an open shot. It will be incredibly embarrassing if he misses such a great opportunity, he thinks, foot millimeters away from connecting with the ball one last time.

He doesn’t miss.

Erik lands at the center of a dog pile. Their bench is on their feet, running at the field. He catches Theo pointing at Nasri and then deliberately brushing off his shoulders. Erik grins so hard, his face could crack. And through it all there’s Charles, looking at him like he’s the only man in the stadium.

Erik swallows. “I think I love you,” he says without thinking when Charles turns his head. Charles smiles back at him, eyes crinkling at the corner

“I know I love you!” Ramsey jokes, shoving at his shoulder, breaking the moment.

*

There is so much arguing about which pub to go to in celebration that it nearly requires a coin-toss to settle. Erik doesn’t care where they go as long as he can get a beer that doesn’t have the familiar red and black of the Carling logo.

Wilshere ends up buying a bottle of the best whiskey they have in the place and forcing two fingers worth on everybody. Erik’s not the biggest fan of whiskey, but it goes down smooth and it brings a terrible flush to Charles’ cheeks.

“I’ve had more than you!” he protests when Erik points out. “Y’know, since I actually enjoy a good Scotch.”

“It’s quite all right if you can’t hold your drink,” Erik replies blithely, amused.

Charles swipes at him and Erik sloshes beer down his front when he tries to dodge. Maybe he’s a little more drunk than he realizes.

“Those knobs just couldn’t believe they’d lost!” Jack shouts, waving a pint around. He totters unsteadily on his feet. “Un-bloody-believable.”

Charles bites his lip to keep from cracking up. When Erik meets his gaze he loses it, guffawing into his tumbler.

“Acting like a win was their right!” Keiran chimes in. “Bloody poofs, the lot of them.”

Everybody cheers and raises their glasses. Charles flinches nearly imperceptibly, but Erik still catches it. And suddenly he’s fed up with it—this Anglo obsession with masculinity. That Erik was asked to explain why Philip Lahm thought gay men were treated reprehensibly in the sport. He’s done with it.

The confused way Charles watches his face go from amusement to Category 3 storm just makes him angrier.

“Cut it out,” he says, slamming his glass to the table. Erik is, at most times, quiet, and the sudden outburst astonishes the rest of the team.

“Cut…what out?” Kieran blinks blearily at him.

“Stop using gay to insult City!”

Andrei laughs uproariously. “He’s right. It’s an insult to ass bandits!”

Erik nearly kicks Andrei’s chair out from under him. Across the table, Vermaelen stares at him speculatively, chin on his fist. He seems almost amused by Erik’s outburst.

“You’re a bunch of scared little boys who are so afraid of being called less than a man by nearly everybody.” He shakes his head and pulls his coat off the back of his chair. “Your insecurity’s pathetic.”

Getting to the door is not as easy as he would like, but he keeps his head high and doesn’t look back when they call after him.

“You saying you like the cock then?” Kieran shouts, dissolving into giggles when Erik doesn’t answer.

*

Erik is roused from sleep by a heavy pounding on his door. He solidly considers pulling the pillow over his ears and waiting until whoever it is goes away, but it proves impossible to ignore.

“All right, all right, I’m coming,” he breaks off and starts cursing in German.

The door proves tricky for his sleep-addled state and it takes him a couple of tries to get the locks undone. When he finally pulls it open he is honestly surprised to see Charles staring back at him, bright eyed and rosy-cheeked.

“Jesus, what are you doing here?”

“You didn’t have to do that,” Charles says, pushing past him into the apartment. He shrugs off his jacket and throws it over the back of a chair.

“What? Open the door?” Erik says blearily, wiping at his eyes.

“No,” Charles says, surprised into a laugh. “You didn’t have to…you didn’t have to defend me.”

Erik doesn’t answer. The pantry is empty, but he’s convinced he must have coffee somewhere. “Do you want coffee?”

“Yes, sure, whatever,” Charles says, following him into the kitchen. Erik is weirdly conscious of how undressed he is in his boxers and bare feet compared to Charles. The easiest way to avoid thinking about it is to busy himself over making his antiquated second hand coffee maker sputter to life. He keeps his back turned to Charles’ penetrating blue eyes.

“You know, I have a question,” Erik says, peering into the top of the machine. “How do I make the lime scale go away?”

“Erik,” Charles says in the same voice he uses on Alex when he’s getting rambunctious. His fingertips are cold on Erik’s shoulder. “I just know what a difficult position you put yourself in by doing that, and I…I just wanted you to know that you didn’t have to do that for my sake.”

Erik pauses, hands on the counter top, and simply breathes for a moment. There’s a resolve that’s been steadily building in his stomach for weeks now, maybe even months, and he can’t ignore it any longer. He turns, coffee forgotten, and kisses Charles.

Charles doesn’t kiss back for a long fraught second, but then he hooks a finger into the waistband of Erik’s shorts and tugs him closer. The frigid fingers on Erik’s bed-warmed skin make him hiss. Charles smiles against his mouth, and it inspires Erik to back him into the counter. His lips are soft and practiced, but he kisses with a single-minded intensity that Erik has learned to expect of Charles in all aspects of his life.

When Erik pushes a bare thigh between his legs he groans and tugs at the hair at the nape of Erik’s neck. “Bed,” he says and punctuates it with a nip to Erik’s earlobe.

The growing hardness against his thigh is distracting though, he grinds up into it. It takes a firm push to his shoulders to remind him to Charles’ purpose. He backs off with a gusty sigh that makes Charles smile and leads him to the bedroom. When Erik sits at the foot of his bed, he remembers, with no little amusement, how Charles helped him pick it out. It reminds him of other more pressing things.

“Listen…” he starts and breaks off. “I know you’re in love with Vermaelen…”

Charles looks at him underneath his bangs and then unceremoniously drops to his knees. He stares at Erik like he's edible. Erik wonders if he's ever been looked at like that. It just makes him that much hotter. Even the veins leading to Erik's cock are distended underneath his skin, underscoring the erection his boxers hardly hide. But this is serious business. He shouldn't let Charles do this knowing what he knows.

“What?” Erik stutters when Charles shoulders his thighs open and extricates him from the shorts without even pushing them down.

Charles smiles and takes the head into his mouth, thumb pressing unerringly over the circumcision scar. Erik doesn’t know what to do with his hands and they flutter uselessly at his sides. Charles pulls off, swirling his tongue around the crown in a way that makes him groan. “Hands on the bed,” he says, voice gravelly, and then sucks him back down.

Erik does as he’s told, watching lips parted in wonder, as Charles fists him and licks over the vein on the underside at the same time. Lips moving up and down over him in a rhythm that seems to change every time Erik gets the hang of it. His fingers are protesting with how hard he’s got them dug into the mattress, but Charles doesn’t stop and he doesn’t let go. He can’t breathe. It’s extreme and unmeasurable and Erik’s sure he’s going to embarrass himself by spilling far, far too early. He can't stop his hips from jerking, trying to get more of that wet heat. Charles presses his other hand down over his abdomen, holding his hips to the bed.

His extraordinary eyes are lit with mischief and satisfaction at the state he’s reduced Erik too. In anybody else he’d find it galling.

“Fuck,” he says, head dropping back on his neck. Charles underlines the statement with a sharp kittenish lick to head, before pulling off to run his thumb over the sensitized skin. Erik shudders and when Charles blows a stream of cold air, he cries out. He grins before bending his head again, to take him deep.

“You’re going to kill me,” he says between harsh breaths. Charles merely hums, mouth tightening with suction around him. “I’m gonna…”

He comes so hard it hurts. The choked noises that usher past his lips are unavoidable, as are the full body shivers that wrack his body.

When he finally can see again he realizes, he's clutching at the hand Charles' placed on his abdomen, fingers laced togehter. It takes him a moment to relax his death grip, and another moment before Charles slides his hand away. He smiles with his eyes as he wipes at his swollen mouth with the back of his hand. Erik swallows hard.

He bites his lip and it makes Erik’s cock give a limp twitch. “Charles…”

“I know,” Charles says, rolling to his feet. “I’m not in love with Vermaelen, you daft twat.”

“Charles…” Erik tries again, but Charles hushes him. He can't quite believe what that means--what Charles is telling him.

Charles doesn't say anything else, he just strips off his t-shirt and unzips his jeans, pushing them down along with his boxers. Erik can’t help staring dry mouthed at Charles improbably huge cock as Charles runs a lazy fist over it, inflamed head disappearing through the circle of his fingers.

Charles curses, hissing as the edge of a nail catches at the underside of the glans, eyes bright as he meets Erik's gaze. Erik hooks a foot around his ankle, tripping Charles forward so that he falls on top of him.

“Oof,” he says as Erik rolls him over. “Everything always has to be done your way!”

Erik laughs and brushes a kiss over the swell of Charles’ cheek bone. “How does this work,” he whispers in Charles ear, shifting against him deliberately.

Charles’ breath catches. “That’s—that’s pretty good.”

“Like this?” Erik asks, thrusting his thigh against Charles’ erection. Charles arches his neck, teeth sunk into his lip. Erik takes that for the answer he needs and brings his mouth down over Charles’ pulse, mouthing along the stressed columns of muscle in his throat, tongue flickering out to taste his skin. Charles doesn’t make a sound beyond his faltering breaths, but the way his fingers tighten over Erik’s shoulders says it all. Erik smiles and continues to drive his thigh against Charles’ cock, precome creating a slick trail as the sticky head slides over the muscle.

Charles comes with a muttered word that sounds suspiciously like Erik’s name and accepts the deep kiss that Erik gives him with a boneless muted grace that only orgasm grants. Erik rolls off of him and Charles makes a content sound in the back of his throat.

“Practice tomorrow…” he says softly.

“Mm, wanna ride bitch on the bike?”

Charles snorts. “Not on your life.”

Erik yawns. “Pussy.”

At the amused smile and raised brows, Erik groans. “Shut up and go to sleep.”

Charles, in typical fashion, doesn’t listen to a word he says.

*

It’s tied one to one in double overtime. Everybody is exhausted. Erik’s leg is cramping something fierce, players are getting subbed off at a breakneck pace, but the Spurs aren’t giving an inch. The ball bounces back and forth over the half, neither side keeping control for long.

They lost the Carling Cup and the FA Cup and they’re only just managing to stay afloat for the UEFA Cup. But they’ll be damned if they let their longstanding rivals win this one on home turf. The ball ricochets out and Erik takes a second to breathe deep. He nearly misses it when Charles darts in to intercept the throw-in from Van Der Vaart. Erik has to summon up every last reserve to put on the burst of speed he needs to get back across the line. Charles’ passes it off to Song, who leaps over a slide-tackle, some how managing to keep dribbling up the pitch. Walcott drops square to accept the pass. He dodges around Livermore and then comes within striking distance. Erik keeps pace with him.

They both see at the same moment that there are too many people on D to score and so Theo feints and then taps it off to Erik. Erik doesn’t even think, the motion of his running becomes the step for his kick. He fires it off and prays. It drifts right over Friedel’s head and hits the net so hard it bounces out of the goal again. Erik yells himself hoarse.

When he turns around, arms to the sky, Charles is running at him, grin huge on his face. And this, Erik decides, is why he will never need Bayern. Charles jumps, hand on Erik’s shoulders, laughing and joyous. The fans are singing. When he comes back down to his feet, Erik can’t say what comes over him, but he leans in and plants one right on Charles’ mouth.

Charles pulls back, hands on Erik’s biceps, keeping it chaste. It’s nothing different than what the Italian and Spanish players get up to. But, as the entire team descends on top of them, they both know better.