Fandom: X-Men: First Class
Summary: Erik's always dreamed of playing football for Bayern, but it's Arsenal who comes calling. A soccer AU.
Notes: Thanks so much to shighola for listening to me rant and rave about this story. To my coworker Stephanie who put up with me working on this instead of doing my job. And, last but not least to rosekay, who provided a late night beta under extreme duress.
I’m going to pretend that Charles is the strong central back that Arsenal was looking to sign, and that Erik was signed instead of Oxlade-Chamberlain (or as shighola calls him Oxtail-Chamberpot). Hilariously Oxtail-Chamberpot ended up with the jersey I assigned Charles. That thief.
There’s some fudging of the timelines and match schedules, mostly because it didn’t suit my purposes to have Arsenal doing their Asia tour. It was my bloody fault to start writing this story during Arsenal’s summer transfer window.
Also, Arsenal’s actual training ground is 30 miles out of London. But that shit got too confusing. And they’re not playing as well as this story purports, especially with Wilshere out with the world’s worst injury, but who wants to read about Erik and Charles being CRAPPY soccer players.
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 great 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 reserves. 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’s sitting on a bench, unlacing his cleats absently when he unwittingly gets an eyeful of Xavier’s cock as he steps out of the shower. 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 doesn’t quite manage to duck.
“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 shakes 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?”
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 the 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 as they head 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, 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, harried, 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 lockers 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, 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 all gravy. 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 being awarded alike. 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. It could easily be ascribed to whirling arms 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 it’s all over. Erik is only too happy to score the final goal of the night.
He gets Charles’ address from one of the other players 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.
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. And 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. He 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.
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 a long moment. “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. 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, but Charles merely 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.
“Mmm, maybe a caravan,” Erik says facetiously, going to the window to check out the window. 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. Moreso. 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 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.
It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Erik has a terrible game. His one and only shot on goal clears the crossbar by a mile. Erik reaches for the 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.”
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 gives him an exasperated look, and Erik feels profoundly like Amelia after she’s piddled on Charles’s Persian rug again. It’s more quelling than Charles’ obvious disappointment in his playing. 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 when Erik hisses, wrapping plastic around his hand to keep it in place. He looks up at him 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.”
“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. “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.