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John was glad Walks had bit the bullet and suggested they all went round to his gaff for a few drinks while England played. Admittedly it didn’t really feel like Kyle’s place; he’d been renting here and there in the city centre, never satisfied with what he was getting for the extortionate amounts he was paying. There was still random boxes strewn about the place, IKEA furniture filling the void that was the characterless sixteenth-floor flat. John had told him time and time again to get a place in the apartment complex he’d been living in since January, but Kyle shrugged off the idea every time.

“I don’t care that you like it there, John. There’s no way I’m living in the same block of flats as Pep. I go home at the end of the day to get away from that crazy prick. You live there, Pep lives there, Bernardo, Mendy. I see enough of you lot at training.”

“I hardly even see them,” John scoffed. “Maybe once or twice a week if we pass each other on’t stairs. Not like we have fuckin’ sleepovers, Kyle.”

“Right. Well when I see Pep out of work, it freaks me out. I don’t know why, but it just does. Just can’t imagine him switching off, you know? Like, when he’s shagging his wife, there’s no way he gets turned on - by her. He’s gotta be thinking about Riyad cutting in on his left, or Rodri becoming his protege. The man’s insane, in’t he? Isn’t he, John?” 

Kyle was just going through an unsettled period. He was on and off with Annie, doing the same thing John had done last year with Millie. Their relationships drew so many similarities; they’d both known the girls since they were young lads, had both had kids with them, and had subsequently found them fall out of favour in the aftermath of the World Cup and Pep’s strive for perfection. Kyle was right about their coach being insane. After you’d been screamed at by him in the dressing room there was no chance you were going home and getting it up for anyone.

The main difference between his and Kyle’s relationships was that John had completely broken things off with Millie. Settling down, having a daughter - he’d been told it was meant to help. Not even just by Pep, but by his psychiatrist too. It was last summer that had done him in. Being away from home in a foreign country for so long had messed him up. And to lose one step away from the final - excruciating. He could’ve done more. He’d been to blame for that Mandzukic goal, losing him in the six-yard box. Like that, their chances of winning, gone.

Who was he kidding? France would’ve battered them. 

And those were the things he told his psychiatrist. He’d been reluctant to even see one; what was it Americans called them? Shrinks? He wasn’t sure why. But what he did know was that being twenty-five years old and seeing a psychiatrist just felt wrong. Vinnie had suggested that John give it a go, at least. John trusted Vinnie - maybe a little too much. He’d recommended a nice guy by the name of Callum who’d worked in the lower leagues for some time as a fitness coach before returning to uni to do his doctorate.

“I’m not like, depressed,” John had choked out in his second session. He’d diverted his eyes to the Christmas cards on Callum’s desk. Should John be giving him one? “I just have anxiety, I think. I mean, I dunno. You probably know better than I do, like.”

“You say you have days where you struggle to get out of bed, John. And you feel weaker than you ever have before, but physically, you’re alright? Better than alright, in fact.”

“Well, that’s what they all tell me at City.”

There’d been a long pause. John picked at the skin at the edge of his lips, that childish habit he couldn’t kick. He’d watched in horror as Callum wrote out a prescription and leant forward to hand it to him.

“I’d like you to start taking these, John.”

“But I’m not depressed, mate.”

“Why are you so certain about that? I know it’s not easy to accept. To accept that you have depression is almost as hard as battling it.”

John did nothing but laugh, helpless and confused. This felt so cliché, like he was playing a role on a cheap Netflix show. “What have I got to be depressed about? I’m luckier than almost everyone I know. My job is kicking a ball about. I’ve not really lost anyone, never had anything bad like that happen to me, have I?”

“Like we’ve discussed, yeah, you’re a confident person, John. A positive person. You still experience anxiety; anxiety and depression, unfortunately, are often interlinked. Think about it, yeah? If these sessions alone are helping you progress, then that’s great. If not, why not give the medication a go?”

It had taken a month for John to reach for the bottle. He’d held off for as long as he could. Leaving Millie and selling the soulless house he’d bought as a means for showing his appreciation to her had given him a boost, but it hadn’t lasted. Someone had very quickly caught his eye, and christ, had he been in denial over it.

He could pinpoint the exact moment. It was that Liverpool game - he’d let Salah rush past, and when the ball had hit the post John had booted it back at Eddy’s head. If he hadn’t made that clearance Hendo probably would’ve lifted the Premier League trophy, and John probably would’ve topped himself. Thank fuck for that 12mm difference, eh? Then in swooped the majestic, gracious gazelle. Leroy had torn down the wing, effortlessly gliding the ball into the bottom right. A scoreline of 2-1. In the run of things, it meant the title was theirs.

But even before that John was already caught on Leroy. Enraptured by the guy, in fact. It was funny, because John realised his taste in lads was evolving. It was the way Leroy spoke with that deep German edge, how delicately he moved on the ball, his rare grin that was reserved only for certain individuals, and the way the tattoo on his back was so terrible that it made John’s look almost tasteful. They’d naturally grown close over the Christmas period. Inside jokes, play-fighting, deliberately passing the ball to each other. Going out together. Leroy wing-manning John to find a suitable rebound. It was all so agonising - John didn’t want that blonde a few tables over. He wanted Leroy.

The one tiny hitch was that Leroy was straight. And in a very serious relationship. And had just had a beautiful little girl. So John never said anything, instead just silently crying himself to sleep at night. He took the pills that were supposed to make him feel better, and much to his surprise, they did. He could go to training without the fear of a sudden anxiety attack crippling him. His form improved. Even when another slight injury rolled around towards the end of the season he didn’t consider it the end of his career like he usually would’ve done. Perhaps the best thing was getting himself a new girlfriend, so he did - bye bye, thoughts of Sané.

Or so he thought. When there was all that talk of Leroy moving to Bayern John was torn. He would hardly have to think about the boy, but then he’d miss him severely, too. The torn ligaments in Leroy’s knee gifted twelve minutes into the Community Shield seemed a happy compromise. Almost like God had wanted to soften the blow for Stonesy, offering an ultimatum.

Absolutely fuck all of it mattered anyway, because John was meant to be straight. No-one had ever asked, and he would never admit the honest truth that was “well, if I like a lad, I like a lad, don’t I?”, but he’d fancied men on more than one occasion. He wasn’t ashamed by it. He was smarter than that. No, he was just jealous. Jealous of people who could live truthfully. He was a Premier League player. Fuck injuries - nothing could be more harmful than coming out as gay. 

“Dele and Eric are here, John. Get the door, would you?”

And there they stood out in the hallway, cradling spirits and food in their arms, clothed in plain black and grey trackies that no doubt cost a fortune. John let them in and they all loitered in the kitchen for a bit, ripping Dele for bringing Hennessy as if he was fucking Drake, and ravenously eating the Nando’s they’d picked up on the way. 

They’d agreed to do something together with the weekend off that they’d all found themselves given. It was international break, and despite their World Cup performances last summer this was the second time they’d found themselves without a spot in Southgate’s squad. Kyle’s omission was mind-boggling to John. Even if he wasn’t his best mate he’d have named him the best fullback in the world. It wasn’t like he’d been off form. No, it was down to that Wan-Bissaka to United bias. Maguire had become something bigger than he already was, too, just because United fans had made him that way. John told himself he wasn't envious.  

Dele and Eric were a bit different. Bar the moment of wonder that was Dele’s assist to Moura in the Champions League semis, both had been struggling for fitness and form. Watching lads undeniably worse than them rack up 5-0 wins in Euro qualifiers was painful, but doing it together kind of took the sting out of it.

“Just can’t wrap my head around it Kyle,” Dele frowned. “You’ve been playing really well.”

“Cheers, mate. Gareth just said he wanted to give the younger ones a chance, and I get it. Trent, I get. But Tripps?”

“Fuck Tripps, mate,” Dele sneered.

“Well, least you’ve got an excuse, Stonesy,” Eric shrugged in between mouthfuls of his rice.

John glanced up from the food on his plate, blinking at Eric through his blonde eyelashes. “What’s that?”

“Well you’ve been injured, haven’t you?” he responded, nodding down to John’s thigh.

“Oh, yeah. Always seem to be on the mend, me.”

He’d tried. He truly had. When it was confirmed that Aymeric would be out for half the season John had stood in front of the mirror and made a promise to himself to try his hardest to cement his place at the back. Their captain was gone; Vinnie had been City’s best ever centre-half and he’d taken John under his wing from the moment he'd arrived in Manchester. It was pretty common knowledge that Nico would’ve been sold in summer if Vincent hadn’t departed. Aymeric was Pep’s first choice, and rightfully so. He was consistent. That was what John lacked. Consistency and confidence.

His confidence was what had kept him away from the pitch. Not a muscular injury, as City had agreed to tell the press. Thoughts of breaking down in front of everyone plagued him at night. He was mortified by the idea of losing his head like he’d done before and nothing could be worse. He was twenty-five years old now and he felt so far from his peak that he wondered if this was his peak. Jesus Christ, there’d been talk of him being world-class a few years back. It was hilarious to him, and unbearable at the same time.

They all settled down in the living area and turned over to ITV. Dele and Eric sat on one sofa with Kyle and John on the other, bottles of unrecognisable alcohol laid out on the coffee table between them. Kyle was already at that stage of excitable drunk, leering at the TV when the pundits mentioned he and Dele being dropped. Dier and John were just afterthoughts.

The team were away in the Czech Republic, Raheem leading the line with Kane injured.

Dele rapped his palms against the fabric of the sofa as if to imitate a drum-roll. “Full-time predictions then?”

Eric’s eyes were set firmly on the TV, the corners of his mouth pulled back at the sight of Declan Rice. “Another four nil.”

“Na. No way are they keeping a clean sheet with that back four,” John protested, aware he was being cynical but not caring. “It’ll be a scrappy game but Raz is too good. Three-two, or something like that.” 

While John was right about it being scrappy, it seemed the pair had both predicted a lot more goals than there would actually be. It ended 1-1, a boring game really, with an extra two Sancho goals being ruled out for offside by VAR. It meant nothing to John. They’d qualify, and they’d go to the Euros next summer. Thinking about missing a call-up for that made him sick to his stomach. What did a lad have to do? He’d won the Premier League title for two years in a row, even if it was off the back of Sergio fucking Aguero. That was still something Joe Gomez had failed to do even behind Mo Salah.

The time on John’s phone read 23:02. He was pissed, and he’d been for about ten pisses as well. It seemed the other three were all in a similar state, Kyle howling at whatever had engrossed him in his phone, Dele and Dier sharing jokes between themselves as they kicked at one another’s feet.

John was bored, and when John got bored, he wanted attention. And when he was drunk, the desire was ten times greater. He cleared his throat and sat up, eyes trained on Dele and Eric. 

“Do you lot think Southgate is homophobic?”

Well, he’d done it now. It was like that demonstration they used to do in assembly at school with a tube of Colgate - once the toothpaste was out, there was no way of getting it back in.

Kyle hadn’t even noticed, still obliviously scrolling through his phone. But Dele and Eric had heard loud and clear. Their bodies had frozen, expressions fraught. Ah - they thought this was about them.

A weak laugh spilled out of Dele’s throat, but his shoulders were stiff. “Why the fuck would Gareth be homophobic?” he asked, glancing at Eric as if to helplessly call for back-up.

John took another swig. Was there anything else he could do other than run with this?

“Well, you two are gay,” he stated, nodding towards the couple on the opposite sofa. “You are gay, aren’t you?”

Outrage took ahold of Dele’s entire demeanour. “Who the fuck said we were gay?”

“Bi, then,” John shrugged, completely unfazed as he corrected himself.

Kyle’s ears had since pricked up. He just couldn’t resist taking the piss, that insufferable Mickey Mouse laugh ringing through the air.

“Are you having us on, Stonesy? Is this some sort of joke to—”

“Del,” Eric interjected, placing a cautious hand on Dele’s thigh. It worked instantly, Eric’s magic touch drawing Dele back to his place on the sofa. When the pair were satisfied there’d be no more kicking off, Eric sighed like he’d had this conversation a thousand times before. “John, mate. Where you going with this, bud?”

“Well, if you two are bi, and I’m bi, and Kyle’s bi—”

“Who the fuck are you talking about?” Kyle exclaimed, dramatically throwing himself to the other end of the sofa. “I’m not fucking gay.”

John threw his head back and laughed. “You’d fuck me though, wouldn’t you Walks?”

Kyle spluttered out some incoherent noises. “No, I fucking wouldn’t!”

“Well, you’re a just a fucking liar then,” John muttered under his breath, reaching for his drink.

The room would’ve been silent if it wasn’t for the post-match commentary on the TV. Kyle was reeling from John’s claims. Eric was starting to grasp what was going on. And Dele… well, John figured Del probably needed it spelling out for him still.

“Hang on—”

The sound of Kyle’s whiny voice was rubbing John the wrong way. “What, Walks?”

You’re not even fucking bisexual!”

John sat up straight, deliberately pushing his shoulders out to make himself look bigger than he knew he was. “Yes I fucking am, Kyle.”

“No you’re— how? Since when?” Kyle was making a meal of this, fighting to get his words out. “John, are you being— you’ve never even shagged a lad!”

“And you’ve never slept with Margot Robbie, but you still fuckin’ would, would’t you?”

It was about as solid a comparison as ‘how do you know Santa’s not real if you’ve never seen him’, but John knew Kyle wouldn’t argue against it. 

“So Stonesy’s bi,” Eric declared. He sounded as if he’d known already, or had at least suspected. John supposed those heated times they’d wrestled on the hotel beds when they were part of the under 21’s hadn’t been lost on either of them. “Is this you coming out, lad?”

John hadn’t actually thought of it as coming out. Maybe that was intentional - making a joke of it all to alleviate the seriousness of what he was doing. It was mental how a Diazepam and half a bottle of Hennessy completely took the edge off. Or perhaps it was just being around people he trusted. Kyle was his best mate. Dele and Dier were in the shit as much as he was - wasted potential, overrated because they were English, injured all the time, gay. Who better to come out to?

“I’ve only told you three, yeah,” John admitted. “But seriously, I… don’t say a word, boys. Please.”

“No, we wouldn’t. Me and Del have pretty much kept it to ourselves too,” Eric nodded, confirming what John had known for some time. “Some of our family know, but…”

Dele raised his head, subdued since his slight outburst. “Can’t be out, can we?” he grunted, resting his cheek against Eric’s shoulder.

Eric’s hand ran it’s way into Dele’s hair, rubbing soothing motions over his crown. “Some time soon. We will some time soon,” he murmured.

John was too exhausted to ask if Eric was being serious or just saying those things for Dele’s benefit. In some ways he was glad he had no one to love; he couldn’t imagine being scared to walk to the corner shop with his boyfriend, or to dance with them in the club. It was terrifying enough to do the job they did with the amount of abuse they received just for conceding a goal. John didn’t need the world to know, at least not yet. But that was the point Dele and Eric had got to, and it seemed to be eating them alive. 

“Who was it,” Eric asked, a hint of a smirk ghosting over his lips, “that made you realise?”

John had to smile with Eric. God, that feeling of having a weight lifted off his shoulders was contagious. “Suppose I’ve always known. Just never acted on it. Been with Millie for years, haven’t I? Never really thought about anyone else, except—”

“Don’t— don’t say what I think you’re going to say!”

A huge groan ravaged through John’s body. He snapped his head to glare at Kyle who was on the edge of the sofa, hands raised behind his head.

“What now, Walks?”

“Don’t you fucking say it’s Barkley! Tell me it’s anyone but Barkley.”

John’s stomach churned at the thought. He’d never viewed Ross romantically. If anything, being friends with Ross was to cover up the fact he was gay. That lad would definitely spit on John if he ever found out. How he hadn’t been dropped from the England squad John would never know.

“No, it’s not fucking Ross,” John scowled. “Eugh.”

Dele had an undeniable gleam in his eye. “I’m saying… Pickford.”

“I’m not sure which one’s worse. Do I lack class or something?” John asked, somewhat offended by each guess.

“No, it’s not Pickford,” Eric answered for him. “It’s someone at City, isn’t it mate?”

Kyle deliberately froze up beside John, pulling a face that signified disgust. John threw a glance over his shoulder and sneered, knowing Kyle would be the obvious assumption made by anyone.

“Don’t fucking flatter yourself, Walks.”

“Oh?” Kyle scoffed, playing up to the insult. “And what if I am bi?”

“Then that’s a conversation you two should have some other time,” Eric suggested, ever the peace-maker.

“Fair enough,” Kyle mumbled, wringing his hands.

If John wasn’t the level of drunk where he couldn’t see properly, his anxiety would be through the roof.

“Leroy.” The name passed his lips as if it was a made-up word. It felt so foreign on his tongue, and he felt guilty that he’d even thought about him in the ways that he had. “It was Leroy.”

“What was Leroy, mate?” Kyle asked.

“Of course it was,” Dele groaned, shaking his head to himself. “Everyone loves Leroy.”

“Fell for Leroy, didn’t I?” John sighed, hiding his face behind his hands. “But he’s got a girl and a kid.”

Kyle tutted. “Not to mention he’s probably straight as a needle, John.”

“The first boy that breaks your heart is always straight,” Eric nodded.

Dele started laughing to himself, remembering how they’d got here. “So you think Gareth is homophobic because none of us have got a call-up?”

“Yep. And Lingard’s been dropped,” John declared. He was going out on a whim here, but it fit with the profile. “Grealish can’t get a call-up.”

“Grealish is shit,” Dele protested. “Gay, and shit.”

“Fit though, in’t he?”

Eric was shaking his head to himself. “Gareth doesn’t have a vendetta against us because we’re gay.”

“No?” 

“Can’t be for that reason. Winksy’s been called up.”

They all erupted in laughter, thoroughly in agreement.

“And Chilwell,” Kyle added. “There’s something about Chilwell. And it’s not just his awful veneers.”

John found himself taking a deep breath in, his grin still extended from ear to ear. “So what we’re saying is that half of us are gay?”

“Seems that way,” Dele smirked.

“Statistically speaking, too,” Eric agreed, gripping his boyfriend’s waist. 

John’s head was up in the clouds. “I love you lads,” he beamed, neck lulling against the back of the sofa.

“Fuck off, John,” Dele murmured.

John watched as his friend closed his eyes and settled his face into the crook of Eric’s neck. That would be him, soon, John thought. He’d fall in love one day and have it reciprocated; of course he would. He’d get called up to the England squad again and he'd go to the Euros. He could be City’s captain if he wanted to be.

Maybe he should drop Grealish a text.