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now you’re just somebody that I used to know

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The game ended just a few minutes ago and Matteo is furious: his only wish is to go back to the dressing room and punch that asshole in the face.

And yet here he is - sweaty and pissed of, still on the sidelines for the post-game interviews - answering usual questions with usual words: “We tied but it was a good team performance”, he says, “We played well but unfortunately we didn’t score.”
Basically, the same old stuff every football player tells when a draw is worse than a defeat.

Matteo clenches his fists when he hears the last question: “Matteo, the missed assist from Locatelli would have been a sure goal for you! Do you think he really didn’t see you?”

He takes a deep breath before answering, he can’t insult him and say everything that goes through his mind right now on camera, “I’m sure he didn’t! Certainly he only wanted the team to win, too.” And after saying goodbye to the press he finally walks away towards the dressing room.

Inside his teammates are unusually quiet, this draw means they must win the next two games to qualify and the fear of failing floats in the air.

While taking off his shoes, Matteo sees the door open and the object of his rage enter head-down. Immediately Matteo gets up with his feet covered only in his socks, he really wants to slam him up against the wall.

He doesn’t, but he approaches him threateningly: “You should’ve passed me the ball, now we wouldn’t be hanging in balance in the group.”

The surprise on Manuel’s face soon turns into mockery, “You wouldn’t have scored”, he grins, like he doesn’t care that his prima Donna act can cost them the qualification.

The urge to punch him makes Matteo’s fingers itch, “Of course I would! I was right in front of the net!”

“So was I”, Manuel interrupts him, “And like I said I didn’t see yo-“

“You saw me well enough! You looked at me before shooting!”

It’s true. In the last minute of the game Manuel took the ball away from the opponent player and counterattacked. Matteo immediately followed him, ready to go in and score if Manuel couldn’t. But that wasn’t the case: Manuel looked at Matteo standing a few centimetres behind him and - despite the goalkeeper coming his way - he shot. A shot that was in fact easily blocked.

Matteo stayed still for a moment, then, when he saw Manuel cover his eyes with his hands, he screamed: “For fuck’s sake, Manuel!”

He doesn’t know if Manuel heard him, the yelling of the fans - and their swearing - were too loud.

“Okay listen, you only scored twice this season and when was your last goal for the National team? You would have missed it! We all know it”, Manuel says shrugging.

He always knew how much the lack of goals is a sore spot for Matteo and still he doesn’t hesitate to rub it in his face.

“Go fuck yourse-“, Matteo is about to say, but Giorgio Chiellini stops him.

“Okay guys, please calm down”, Giorgio says when he figures out that the situation isn’t going to a good place. “Loca, you should have passed it, but now what is done is done. You learned your lesson”, he pushes Manuel away from Matteo’s fury, a fight is the last thing the team needs right now.

“Yeah uagliù, I do it sometimes, too! It happens when you have the ball on your feet and you want to score. This is how it goes on the field”, speaks Ciro Immobile who just got out of the shower, still with a towel wrapped around his hips.

Giorgio puts a hand on Matteo’s shoulder, “Teo, take a cold shower and relax”, he says to him and then turns towards the rest of the team, “Cmon, we’re gonna win the next ones!”

Matteo is still upset but remains silent. Maybe his teammates are right, the game is over and get himself ill over it won’t change anything. He looks at Manuel one last time and then goes back to prepare for his shower.

But he can still feel Manuel’s eyes on his back, like many small pins pricking his nape: it makes him shiver but Matteo doesn’t dare to ask himself why.

•••

On the bus there’s the most absolute peace: all players are sleeping or listening to music. There’s also who is using his phone, maybe chatting with his loved ones.

Matteo does neither of the three things: he is just too focused on overthinking everything.

He knew Manuel Locatelli since they were teens, they spent together the last year in the youth system of Milan and got along very well: they had similar interests, so it was natural for them to be friends and always be together.

But then Matteo went to Lecce and he lost all contacts with Manuel. He tried to text him at first but when the few replies he got were monosyllabic or just stupid emoji, Matteo gave up.

Manuel was his friend and he cared about him, but Matteo wasn’t the first one to let go of their friendship.

Then they met again in the Under-21 and Manuel looked like a different person: little was left of the insecure and awkward boy he used to be. Manuel, now grown up, was confident and full of himself, he acted like anything was due to him just because he was talented.

Several times Matteo tried to make him change his attitude but he found himself in front of a wall made of arrogance and insolence: Matteo just hated it.

And now in the Major National Team things aren’t different: Matteo tries to be friendly but Manuel always ends up fighting him for some stupid reason.

Matteo always wonders what he did to be treated this way but he never found an answer. Maybe Manuel just decided that he can’t stand him, that their friendship wasn’t worth it. And Matteo can live with that. What he can’t handle is Manuel’s constant need to diminish his football skills.

Several times Manuel teased him for being a mediocre player, only a replacement for their injured teammates.

Those are just childish words, Matteo is aware of that. But he can’t help feeling hurt and disappointed when Manuel - a person that he used to trust - spokes them.

His thoughts are interrupted when the bus arrives into Coverciano’s gates and everybody starts to collect their things to go down.

Once inside the reassignment of the rooms begins. Needless to say, Matteo ends up sharing a room with Manuel by decision of captain Chiellini, “For the good of the team”, he says smiling.

So they head towards their room, Manuel always a few steps ahead of Matteo, ignoring him. Matteo is fine with it, he’d rather being ignored for the rest of the training camp than teased by his smirk and his sharp jokes.

They spent about forty-five minutes like that, both on their phone lying on their respective bed ignoring each other, when Matteo’s phone starts ringing. It’s his girlfriend who, just like she does every night, is calling him.

They are in a long distance relationship and lately with the pandemic it’s hard to keep it alive. It’s hard specially because their issues actually began when they were close to each other in the same city.

Matteo loves her, he really does. Together they experienced so much and shared a lot of things, she is his first fan together with his family and friends. It’s just that he isn’t sure to still being in love with her, maybe he’s just carrying around a relationship that should have ended long ago.

“Ciao bimba, how are you?”

They talk for a while: she compliments him for the game even though she says she’s sorry for the draw and for his missed opportunity to score.

Matteo knows she doesn’t care at all about football, she’s only saying that to please him and it should make him happy. Instead he is bothered by the fake grief he hears in her voice. He is bothered by those daily calls that now don’t make him as happy as they used to.

And most of all, he is bothered by the man staring at him from the moment he picked up the phone. The ignoring phase it’s over, now he starts to tormenting him. Matteo hangs up and turns towards Manuel, “Why are you looking at me?”, he asks.

Manuel doesn’t answer him, instead he asks in return: “Do you really call her bimba?”

“It’s none of your fucking business.”

“I mean, I saw her on Instagram. She doesn’t look like a baby girl at all”, Manuel shrugs, a mischievous smile plastered on his face.

Matteo is livid, how dare he say something like that to him. “Don’t you try speak about my girlfriend”, Matteo knits his brows.

Manuel looks at him serious, it’s like his deep dark eyes are seeing right through Matteo’s, peering into his soul. But then malice comes back on his face, “Don’t worry, it’s not her I’m interested in”. Manuel licks his lips and, like nothing happened, goes back to focus on his phone.

What the hell was that? Matteo is bewildered: was Manuel… flirting with him? A blush creeps on his face while his heart rate is suddenly spiking.

Fuck, he’s acting like a stupid teenager.

He doesn’t want to deal with Manuel and his idiocy. “Fuck you”, Matteo grumbles before grabbing his journal from the nightstand and running away from the room, slamming the door behind him. How he wishes he could slam against the same door that head full of honey-coloured curls.

He goes downstairs in the common hall and chooses an isolated table, needing to be alone with his own thoughts, and starts writing.

He likes writing, it helps him to express feelings and emotions that he doesn’t really know how to put into words.

He usually writes about anything: common things like his training days and games with his club, his confused feelings towards his girlfriend and about his thoughts on life in general. Last but not least, about his most extraordinary adventures with the National team, diari di bordo he likes to call them.

But right now he is writing of Manuel. It came natural to him just as he laid the pen on the paper, like a flow of conscience coming right from his hand. He writes about that boy that used to be like a brother to him and now turned out to be a stranger, about how he doesn’t know how to stop their constant conflicts.

Then he ends up writing of his beauty, of his roisy full lips and his well groomed beard, his dark eyes that Matteo isn’t able to look into without feeling a blush on his cheeks. His curls that look so soft and the way his hair frames his face making him look like an angel.

Sometimes Matteo lets himself be carried away by his thoughts while writing, Manuel’s words from before must have played with his head. He immediately cancels the last part scribbling on the page, he can’t allow himself to have a crush on one of his male teammates. Even more if that man is a piece of crap like Manuel.

His inner struggle stops when Nicolò Barella approaches him, almost catching him by surprise, “Hey, what are you doing here?” Nicolò sits in front of him and puts his elbows on the table.

Immediately Matteo closes the notebook. “I was just writing something”, he answers vague, he can’t really say to Nicolò who his actual inspiration is. So he asks in turn: “What about you?”

“I was FaceTiming the girls”, Nicolò says showing the phone still in his hand. Just talking about his daughters lights up his whole face, the unconditional love Nicolò feels for them makes his eyes shine. Matteo smiles seeing his friend like this.

“So, did you calm down or are you still sharpening your claws?” Nicolò teases him. Many times Nicolò joked that when pissed off, Matteo looks as intimidating as an angry kitten. And that despite his always furred brows that can make him look like a serial killer.

Matteo rolls his eyes and exhales, “Maybe it’s true, I may have overreacted.”

“Yeah, you did”, Nicolò nods and lays his chin on his hand closed in a fist, “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“If it was me not passing you the ball, would’ve you been mad in the same way?” he presses. They’ve been friends for a long time, Nicolò knows him and all his soft spots. Matteo doesn’t answer and his silence is enough for him.

“Yeah, just like I thought”, Nicolò straightens up his back, ready for a serious discussion, “Listen, I know you two have a tough relationship but-“

“It’s not a tough relationship, it’s just him who hates me”, Matteo cannot but cut him off.

“Well, that’s fair”, Nicolò admits rubbing his eyes, “And I don’t really know why he acts like that with you…”

“Because he is an asshole!”

Nicolò laughs at that but then goes back to being serious, “Cmon Teo, it’s true he acts like a dick sometimes but he isn’t a bad person, you know him.”

Shaking his head reassigned, Matteo speaks: “I used to, now I don’t even know who he is anymore.”

“I’m not saying he didn’t change since you are no longer friends”, Nicolò starts, “All I’m saying is that I’m sure his is just a bad boy act. But that it’s not who he really is!”

Matteo doesn’t really know what to answer, so he stays silent and waits for him to continue.

“I don’t know the reason why he treats you like that, and knowing that boy it could totally be a shitty reason. But surely he doesn’t do it just because he hates you”, Nicolò lays back on his chair, looking really proud of his little speech.

Matteo thinks about it for some time. He never thought of Manuel like an awful person - he never was - and sometimes he also believes that his has to be just a stupid way to make himself look worse than he really is.

But then Manuel comes out with his annoying teasing and his crooked grin and Matteo doesn’t know what to think anymore. The only thing he knows for sure is that Manuel’s ambiguous behaviour is really messing with his head.

His phone vibrates in his trackies to signal a new message. Matteo pulls it out and frowns when he read the Caller ID, Manuel Locatelli is written on the display. It can’t be a good sign.

They never texted each other since they met again and it happening right now, after their recent fights, makes Matteo suspicious.

Where are you, bimbohe wrote, like it was normal to call him with the pet name Matteo uses for his girlfriend.

Matteo doesn’t know why but his stupid text is making him so angry. Maybe it’s because after Nicolò’s words he really considered to get close to Manuel again and see if they were right.

And here he is, providing himself for the annoying asshole he really is.

Matteo leaves him on read and puts his phone back in his pocket. He is exhausted and not in the mood to play whatever game Manuel is playing. He goes back talking with Nicolò who thankfully changes the topic of the conversation and starts saying something about next games.

While he’s telling him of the last retreat Matteo couldn’t participate due to injury, Nicolò moves his eyes to his right and nods his head indicating something. Or someone.

Matteo feels two hands coming to rest on his shoulders, warm through the fabric of his dark green t-shirt, “You’re here! I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

He would recognise that voice anywhere. Manuel is practically plastered against his back and has whispered those words right into his hear. He can feel Manuel's lips just grazing his skin, his warm breaths making goosebumps appear all over his body and leaving shivers going down his spine.

Matteo imposes himself to not pay attention to his body reaction, he was just taken aback by Manuel’s sudden appearance. So he shakes himself free of his hands and gets up, needing to put as much distance as he can between them. “Just leave me alone, Manuel”, Matteo says putting his notebook in his free pocket and goes away, without sparing Manuel a glance.

But Manuel doesn’t seem to be okay with that. He grabs Matteo’s wrist and pulls him back, “What’s wrong with you?”

Matteo can’t stand to be so close to him. The grip on his wrist is burning his skin and the smell of his cologne inebriates his senses. “Let me go immediately”, Matteo growls between his teeth.

This is not the right place to cause a scene. Not when Nicolò is still there watching them and anyone can walk in at any moment.

Manuel looks at him confused, it’s like he doesn’t know what he did to make Matteo so angry. Is he really that dumb or is he just pretending?

“Are you still upset about the game? I thought we solved it”, he asks.

“We didn’t solve anything! We didn’t even talked about it!” Matteo draws back his arm freeing himself from Manuel’s hand.

“What? We talked in the dressing room right after the game! Everyone said you were wrong”, Manuel says with an harsh tone, daring him to contrast his version of events. “I can’t believe you’re still angry about a stupid assist. What are you, six years old?” now he is starting to lose patience.

“I’m not angry about it, okay? I’m angry about your fucked-up behaviour!” Matteo screams getting closer to Manuel. “What do you want from me, Manuel? What the fuck you want?”

“What do I want from you? What the fuck are you even talking about, Matteo?” Manuel raises his voice too.

Nicolò, who until now has been silent, decides to try to calm things down when he sees other people approaching the scene drawn by their screams, “Okay, guys, let’s just calm down! We’re all taking it too far!”

“No! You stay out of this”, Matteo turns towards him abruptly and Nicolò holds his arms up in a gesture of surrender.

“And don’t you play dumb with me! Your puppy eyes might work with others but they have no effect on me!” Matteo looks back at Manuel and points a finger at his chest.

Manuel takes a step forward and now just a few centimetres separate their noses, his shit eating grin is still on his face, “Do you really believe that? I don’t think I have zero effect on you”, he speaks with a soothing voice.

Those words hit hard and go deep. Matteo is speechless. Never in all their fights Manuel had said something about a possible attraction Matteo could feel towards him. But, also, he never tried to flirt with him like he did before in the room. Not even when they were friends.

Unfortunately for him, Manuel is anything but stupid. He must have noticed the blush on Matteo’s face when he ran away from their room. He can tell himself all the lies he wants, but he feels something for Manuel and now Manuel seems to have noticed it too.

Matteo doesn’t know what to say, he doesn’t know how to react, but when he notices other people watching all this he realises that he can’t shut up anymore.

“Who the fuck you think you are? You are not the center of this fucking Universe, Manuel!” Matteo is furious, livid, so the words that leave his mouth come out like a yelling.

“Keep your voice down”, Manuel mouths.

“Don’t you dare to tell me what to do! I’m tired of your bullshits, I’ve had enough of your teasing!” Matteo knows his face is getting red and he can feel the vein in his neck pulsing hard, but he doesn’t care.

He suffered Manuel’s insults all those years, always trying to be the adult between them and don’t encourage him too much with their bickering. But now he is tired to always be the responsible one, he just wants to scream at Manuel and put him in his place.

“You have to stop playing with me! You have to stop with your stupid jokes! You think I am a shitty player? I don’t fucking care! You can say anything about me and my work on the field, but try to say something like that again and I’ll break you face!” he’s screaming so loud that his throat is scratchy.

But he doesn’t care right now, he feels better doing it, he feels lighter, “The truth is you’re just an asshole who thinks he’s better than all of us!”

Nicolò is now standing next to him, ready to step in if one of them throws the first punch.

But Manuel seems frozen by his burst of rage, he surely didn’t expect that from Matteo. Then his eyes soften and he raises a hand to gently caress Matteo’s arm, getting close to him like he would with a scared animal, “Pessi”.

That stupid nickname opens a hole in Matteo’s heart. He hasn’t heard that in years, everyone just calls him Teo or Pess, only Manuel called him Pessi: he used to say that it was because they were special for each other. He moves away from Manuel’s hand, he can’t let himself be fooled by his sweet tone and his delicate touch.

Manuel must think he is weak and fragile, but he is wrong. Matteo never felt so determined like he does now, “Don’t you ever say something like that again”, he commands again with a firm voice. Then he turns his back at him and goes away without raising his eyes from the ground.

He knows there are other people there but he doesn’t want to look at them, too scared by the expressions he could find on their faces.

Once he is out of the hall, he proceeds at brisk pace towards his room. He knows that running like a fool for the hallways won’t help him go unnoticed but he rather be seen like that than crying like the stupid idiot he is.

Because he knows he’s going to cry, he can feel the tears already wetting his eyes and the sobs starting to leave his lips and he doesn’t want anyone to see him like that.

When he arrives in the room he falls on the ground and burst into tears. He doesn’t know what the others saw or heard, but he knows his voice must have reached all the training center.

God, gossips spread fast within the walls of Coverciano. By now everybody might know about the stupid mental breakdown he just had. Maybe he had done nothing but confirm Manuel’s words, maybe now everyone thinks Matteo is in love with him.

He was serious when he said that he can’t have a crush on Manuel, it’s something that could really ruin his career.

No one except his sister and his bestfriend know about his bisexuality: it’s not like he ever had any experience with boys, so there’s not much to talk about, but he has always felt physical attraction for some of his teammates - Manuel included - especially when he was just a teenager boy still discovering his sexuality and was always surrounded by half naked men.

But he never tried to make a move on it, he never even dared to flirt with any men - neither inside nor outside the dressing room - always too scared of their reaction. For him they were just beautiful bodies to discreetly check out and then remember when seeking pleasure in his shower.

Growing up, he learned to held back his desires towards men, always keeping himself busy with football and only focusing on the women occupying his bed and his thoughts.

So from years now, he keeps hidden this side of him. He knows it’s not right, he knows that being bisexual is not something to be ashamed of. But, unfortunately, homophobia in football is still a very present issue, romantic relationship between two men are not welcomed with management and sadly with many fans.

It’s a toxic environment, he is aware of that. But football is what he loves most, the only thing that can really make him feel alive. And he won’t let anything ruin it.

And with Manuel now, he feels like an insecure boy pining for his teammate all over again. He doesn’t know how he would deal with him - and with the rest of the team if they heard their conversation - but Matteo doesn’t want to think about it now. Tears are still streaming down his face so going ahead with his whining is not the right thing to do right now.

Matteo gets up and puts his AirPods in his ears wanting to stop his thoughts. He goes to bed still wearing the team’s suit and falls asleep lulled by the music.

•••

When he wakes up, his head is pounding hard. Crying yourself to sleep is never a good idea.

He turns off the alarm still ringing from his phone and only when he touches with his fingertips the earbuds on his nightstand, he realises they aren’t in his ears anymore. Maybe he took them off during the night and now he doesn’t remember it, so he doesn’t pay too much attention to it.

What he notices though is that Manuel isn’t back: his bed looks immaculate like it was the night before. Matteo knows he shouldn’t be worried about him but deep in his heart he can’t help to wonder where he slept and if he is okay right now. He must really suffer from the Red Cross Syndrome.

Needing to take a shower, he gets up and goes into the bathroom. While washing his teeth he is almost startled by the figure in the mirror: his hair is tousled and his eyes are so puffy and red that he looks like he didn’t sleep at all.

After he was showered and dressed, Matteo goes to grabs his things before going downstairs. Next to his phone, on the nightstand, there is a little piece of paper folded over a few times that he didn’t see before.

It’s Manuel’s handwriting, he immediately recognises it.

 

You’re right when you say I’m just an asshole who thinks to be the best.
I’m sorry for yesterday, I’m sorry for everything.
I’ll try to stay out of your way as much as possible.
-Manuel

 

Matteo looks at it dumbfounded, he has to read it several times to fully understand its meaning.

He doesn’t really know what to think about it, why Manuel should write something like that to him when he always treated him like shit?

And he feels like a fool because he is so enchanted with Manuel that just a stupid note can make his heart slam in his chest.

He hasn’t forgot what happened last night and mostly what happened all those years, but he is so confused right now that he doesn’t even understand what he is really feeling.

It’s late and his stomach is growling, he hasn’t eaten anything since yesterday afternoon before the game. So he folds back the note and puts it between the pages of his journal - he surely has to study it better later.

Downstairs all his teammates are already sitting with their food in front of them. He didn’t notice it, but he must have passed a lot of time rereading Manuel’s note.

He goes to fill his plate a little afraid of seeing them giving him bad looks or whispering something to each other, but actually nobody really looks at him, too sleepy or focused on eating. And the few who acknowledge his presence just smile or wave at him.

He doesn’t really know what he was preoccupied of, this people feel more like a family than a team. They would never dare to say something bad about him which could ruin his career.

The only two people staring at him are Manuel and Nicolò, and they’re actually murmuring something to each other. Manuel may think to be subtle with his quick glances towards him but, honestly, Matteo can feel his eyes on him even when he’s turned to choose his food.

He tries to do anything with a slowness disarming because the only empty sets are too close to Manuel and he doesn’t want to be close to him, but by now his plate is full and his tea is ready in the streaming mug.

Just when he gathered all his courage to sits on the furthest chair from Manuel, Nicolò looks at Matteo and then gets closer to Manuel, repeatedly nudging his side with his elbow.

God, do they really think they’re being discreet?

Manuel also lifts his eyes on Matteo and, after nodding to whatever Nicolò is saying to his ear, gets up from the table and goes away from the canteen keeping his head down.

He doesn’t know if this is Manuel’s way to keep his distance like he promised, but he is so confused by all this. He sits next to Nicolò and starts eating while others talk about something he can’t really make himself care about.

It’s all so crazy and mind-blowing: Nicolò who just a few minutes ago was surely talking about him with Manuel, now is all smiles chatting next to him.

Matteo would have laugh if the situation wasn’t so tragic at his own expense.
He really isn’t the kind of person who turns a blind eye so he decides to talk with Nicolò. “Where did he go?” Matteo asks, head pointed at the direction Manuel went.

Nicolò looks surprised at first but then answers him wary, don’t knowing how much Matteo want to talk with him about Manuel, “In your room to take a shower.”

What, why didn’t he shower when he left him the note?

“And where did he sleep tonight?”
Again, he shouldn’t care but he can’t live with the thought of Manuel sleeping on a uncomfortable couch in the hall. Here he goes again with his rescue complex.

Nicolò hides a smile bringing the fork to his mouth, those two can pretend to hate each other all they want, but he can see their true feelings right on their faces.

“In my room. Basto and I listened to his paranoia all night long and now I’m dying for sleep”, Nicolò yawns as to prove his point.

Matteo doesn’t know if he believes him. Nicolò is really a good friend so this could be a lie to save Manuel’s ass. He turns his head looking for Bastoni and when he finds him almost sleeping on his coffee cup, Matteo can’t help to feel guilty.

Because of them and their dramas, now Nicolò and Alessandro must go through a day of training on no sleep.

Is not really his fault - at least is more Manuel’s - but he can only think that he really owns them a favour.

“Did he apologise?” Nicolò asks when he sees him lost in his thoughts.

“Yeah, kind of. Did you told him to?”

Nicolò shakes his head energetically, “Nope. It was his idea, like it was also not speaking to you at all today. He just kept saying something like He would never forgive me now”, he shrugs, mocking Manuel’s Lombard accent.

To put an end to their loud chatter, Mimmo Berardi - who didn’t look interested in their conversation before - raises his head from the eggs he was greedily eating, “Listen, I don’t know what goes through that empty curly head. But I saw your fight yesterday and I really think you two need to talk.”

•••

The walk back to the room is full of doubt and uncertainties. Matteo doesn’t really know what to say to him: should he start the conversation or just shut his mouth and let Manuel do the talk this time? Or maybe, even better, he should just turn back and ignore the problem until it goes away.

He arrives at the door a lot earlier that he wanted and there’s nothing left to do other then open it. And when he does it he is surprised to see Manuel half naked wearing only his pants, his curls still wet and a mess on his head. He looks like he just came out of one of his wet dreams.

Matteo’s eyes runs on his body, from his shoulders and down his abdomen, following the happy trail of hair that disappears under the elastic of his boxers. His bottom lip is trapped between his teeth.

Open-mouthed, Manuel is too stunned to notice the hungry look Matteo is giving him. Matteo clears his throat, more to get an hold on himself than anything else, “Hi”, he says.

It’s the most stupid thing ever to say, but he couldn’t think about anything better.

Manuel runs a hand through his hair - a gesture he always does when he’s nervous - and quickly puts on his t-shirt, “I’m sorry, I didn’t think you’d be back here. I’m gonna leave now”, he murmurs pointing a thumb towards the door.

It’s now or never, Matteo thinks.

This time it’s him stopping Manuel by his wrist, “Wait Manuel, I want to talk with you”. He goes to sit cross-legged on his bed and waits for Manuel to join him.

Matteo pats on the bed, “Let’s sit down and talk, okay? For real, this time”.

Complying, Manuel sits down in front of him, with his legs on each side of the bed and a guilty expression on his face. He knows that he must starts, he wants to, so he takes a deep breath and says: “I really meant what I wrote. I’m sorry for how I treated you, you don’t deserve it.”

“So why did you do it, Manuel? We used to be so close at Milan, you were one of my bestfriends”, Matteo can’t stop himself from saying.

“You were too, but then you left me”, Manuel bites his lips. He’s holding back his tears, Matteo can see it.

“I didn’t left you! It was you who just cut me out of your life!” shaking his head, Matteo defends himself.

“I know it now. But I was five-teen and I lost my bestfriend, what was I supposed to do?”

I was just six-teen too! You should at least have answered my text! Matteo wants to say it, he wants to scream it. But he can’t, they promised to have an actual conversation.

“Why didn’t you text me back?” he calmly asks instead.

Manuel shakes his head and a single tear comes out his left eye, he immediately wipes it away, “I didn’t know what to do. When you left I was devastated! I couldn’t think, I couldn’t focus, I could barely play! It felt like they ripped my chest open and pulled out a part of my heart.”

Now he’s fully crying and a few sobs come out of his mouth. Matteo really wants to comfort him, to hold him and wipe his tears, but he knows if he touches him then he won’t be able to pull away.

“You aren’t supposed to feel like that for a friend, Matte. I just thought that, maybe, distancing myself from you would’ve helped me to miss you a little less”, Manuel sniffles, covering his face with his hands.

It’s the same thing that happened to him too. Many times Matteo tried to convince himself that what he felt for Manuel was wrong, that having a crush on his male bestfriend was sick and wicked. He can’t really blame Manuel for turning from him and trying to forget him, even if that hurt them both.

Matteo can’t stay still anymore, he feels a knot in his stomach just by looking at him like that. He takes Manuel’s hands away and puts his own hand on his cheek, sweetly caressing his face, “I missed you so much, Manu”, now some tears are wetting his face, too. Manuel smiles and leans towards his touch, pressing a kiss to Matteo’s palm.

They stay like that for a moment, then Manuel starts talking again: “When I saw you here, after your call-up, I didn’t know how to face you. I thought you would hate me for how I ignored you. But you’re too good for it, you just looked at me with your beautiful smile and I knew I was fucked again, I just never stopped loving you! My heart felt like puzzled together, like you were the missing piece.”

Matteo’s heart skips a beat when he hears those words come from Manuel’s lips. Only in his more hopeful daydreams he dared to believe that his feelings for Manuel were mutual: deep down inside, Matteo had always longed to hear those words from him, heartfelt and given freely.

Only then Manuel seems to realise what he just said, he closes his eyes scared of Matteo’s reaction. He knows Matteo is smart and sensible, he won’t be mad at Manuel just because his sexuality or for his feelings for him. But it mustn’t be easy when your once bestfriend confesses his unrequited love for you. He really doesn’t know what to expect from him.

Little does he know that Matteo is scared just the same. He traces a last circle on his cheekbone and lowers his hand to grab Manuel’s one, giving it a little squeeze.

Still with his eyes closed, Manuel speaks softly, “I’m not proud of my behaviour but I thought that if we just started being friends again then I would have ended up heartbroken again”

Manuel lowers his gaze and sulkily starts pulling on a loose thread in the pattern of the comforter. It’s easier to talk to him without looking at his eyes, it helps Manuel to focus only on his thoughts, “I’m really sorry for how I treated you, you didn’t deserve it and I felt like the worst man in the world when I mocked your way of playing or anything else about you.”

Then he looks up, needing Matteo to look into his eyes and understand he really means what he’s saying, “You’re not a shitty player, Pessi! You’re so good and elegant and beautiful, I can’t take my eyes off you every time you’re on the field. You distract me even when I’m playing!”

Matteo can’t stop smiling, Manuel is so sorry about what he said to him that now he’s smothering him with praises and he is just so cute.

He doesn’t know what they’ll do in the future, he doesn’t know how they’ll deal with this thing between them.

The only thing Matteo is absolutely sure about is that he really wants to kiss him and make up for all the time they had wasted. So he does it. He takes Manuel’s head between his hands and crashes their mouths in a kiss they both had wanted for so long.

The sweet brushing of their lips gets more passionate when Manuel touches Matteo’s lips with his tongue, asking him for permission, and Matteo parts them immediately, closing his eyes to fully enjoy it.

Their tongues find each other rapidly, sending chills running down both their backs. Matteo feels his heart threatening to burst in his chest, blushing for both the heat he feels and his stomach doing backflips. He moves his hands and buries them in Manuel’s still wet hair, pulling on the short strands.

Manuel’s heart is running wild as well, Matteo can feel it through the fabric of the white t-shirt he is holding tight in his fist, right up to his heart.

When they pull away for lack of breath, Manuel leans forward to touch Matteo’s forehead with his, while they both have a lovely smile on their swollen lips, “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that”, he says breathless.

“Trust me, I feel the same way”, Matteo grins, immediately leaning in for a deep kiss, feeling the beginnings of a beard burn on his face, not that he really cares about it now.

•••

Two days after their first kiss and all was just perfect. They tried to spend every moment together and still it wasn’t enough, Matteo doesn’t even want to think about how awful his days are going to be when the international break ends and him and Manuel will have to say goodbye to each other.

They live all time in their little bubble of intimacy, always focused on the other even when other people are there. It’s not an usual thing for Matteo, he is almost scared of their way of always looking out for each other, of the ache they constantly feel to be close and close and closer, to touch the other even when they are in the middle of the field surrounded by twenty other players and watched by thousands of people.

As cliché as it may sound, it’s like every time they are together they are the only ones in the room.

Things seems to get better even for the team: yesterday they played the second game of the break and they finally won. Matteo even managed to score a goal which was very well celebrated when Manuel got on his knees in front of him last night just after they got in their room.

They didn’t have training that morning, only some recovery after yesterday’s game.

Let’s just say that working out in gym is not that easy when you’ve face-to-face with the man of your dreams who shamelessly flirts with you. Several times Matteo has lost count of his exercises and had to start again when Manuel walked by swinging his hips. Or when he dropped his towel on the ground over and over, and every time he was bending to pick it up with his ass in the air right in front of Matteo.

Manuel has not mercy for him.

Not to mention the pool, where Matteo had to hold back some curses when he saw Manuel get out of the water wearing only his soaking wet white briefs, the fabric so stuck to his skin leaving little room for his imagination.

Then they had lunch sitting next to each other, with their legs so close they’re practically pressed together. Manuel sometimes placed one hand on Matteo’s thigh and stroked him while he continued to eat with the other one.

Nicolò watched them from the other side of the table with a smirk on his face. He knows them so well and still they think they can fool him. He noticed something was up with them when those two entered the hall a few days ago with a matching big smile on both their flushed faces.

Matteo and Manuel separated after lunch, when Matteo went towards the conference room for a meeting with the press while Manuel headed back to their room for a few hours’ rest.

Unfortunately - well, not for Matteo - the conference was delayed. So now he’s excitingly walking to their room, happy to finally come back to Manuel and spend some alone time with him behind closed doors, without the fear of getting caught. Matteo surely has to make him pay for all his teasing of this morning.

Or at least that’s what Matteo believed, because when he opens the door he is not welcomed by Manuel’s figure lying on the bed as he thought he would: he only hears his laugh. Manuel is in the bathroom, he figures out, hidden behind the door left ajar so Matteo can’t see him. But he hears his voice again, he’s obviously talking on the phone with someone.

Matteo doesn’t mean to eavesdrop, but Manuel is right there and his voice it’s loud and clear, “Yeah, can’t wait to take you there then”, he says and starts giggling again.

He doesn’t know who Manuel is talking to, but he feels his stomach clench. A strange feeling makes his way inside him.

“Okay, I have to go now. I love you, bye” and he blows a kiss through the phone.

After hearing that Matteo feels paralysed, for a few seconds he stops breathing. He feels like those words ripped his heart.

Manuel has someone in his life and he had no idea.

Sure, Matteo has a girlfriend as well, but Manuel knew about it from the beginning and more than once after what happened between them, Matteo had thought that it was finally time to end his relationship.

He just hadn’t done it yet because it felt unfair to him to end such an important relationship over the phone. He had not replied to her calls and texts, though. Both because he felt guilty and out of respect for that thing with Manuel.

He feels like a complete idiot. He wanted to leave his girlfriend and Manuel said he loved his.

Matteo can’t believe he used him that way, like a little toy to play with and then throw away in the trash once satisfied.

He sits on the armchair because he feels so weak he can’t even stand. How could he have been so stupid? How could he have believed that Manuel could really care about him? Did he really believe he could turn out to be the perfect boy in just a few days?

Of course they can’t be together, they are two fucking football players! Living always separated and far from each other, the only time they would be together are spare days they would have to spend closed in their own houses, away from anyone else.

To events, dinner parties, games where other players brings their wives and girlfriends, they would have to go on their own.

Manuel never wanted anything serious from him, he just wanted someone to have fun with here at Coverciano. Someone to fuck before coming back home to his girlfriend.

Matteo isn’t not enough, he never was and he’ll never be.

“Hey, you’re already here. What about your conference?”, Manuel comes out of the bathroom, surprised to see him already in the room.

Matteo curls his lips, biting the inside of his cheek to hold back the tears. He just wants to flop down on bed and sob himself to sleep, but he can’t. He can’t make a fool of himself - no more than he already has - and he doesn’t want Manuel to see him crying, he can’t have the satisfaction to see him so desperate after he just broke his heart.

“Delayed by two hours”, he says cold, he can’t stand to look him in the face.

Having him there, in front of himself, without the chance of holding him or kissing him, knowing he didn’t even had the courage to tell him he was nothing more than a body to him, is like getting stabbed again and again by a sharp blade.

It hurts and Matteo can’t do anything to stop it.

Manuel smiles, a naughty look on his face, “Thanks God. I wanted to kiss you all morning”, he takes a few steps towards him and Matteo feels sick to his stomach.

How can he do it? How can he still play so well with him when he was all sweet-talking with his girlfriend just a minute ago?

“Stop, don’t come any closer”, Matteo puts his arms in front of his body, wanting to create a barrier between them.

Manuel’s eyes widen but he stops, standing motionless a few meters from him, “What? Why?”

Rage builds inside Matteo and he has to put it in good use. Now he must use all the rage, the disappointment, the repulsion he feels. If he listens to his heart and his true feelings, Matteo knows that - as vulnerable as he is right now - he’d do the mistake of falling back into Manuel’s arms just to feel good enough for him, even if only for a few days.

“This thing between us was a mistake, we shouldn’t have done it”, Matteo says and he is proud of himself: his voice never once trembled. Instead, his hands are shaking ever since he heard those words come out of Manuel’s mouth, so he keeps them closed in fists, hidden in his shorts pockets.

If someone has to put an end to that story, it has to be him. Matteo can’t bear to have him only here at Coverciano and then see him smiling and happy to live his daily life with someone who isn’t himself. Or, even worse, he can’t handle Manuel’s rejection if one day he’ll regret cheating on his girlfriend.

Manuel is stunned, he looks at him open-mouthed trying to figure out if Matteo is joking or if he really means what he just said. Then reality seems to hit him in the face, Matteo is more serious than he’s ever been.

“No, no, please Matteo don’t say that”, Manuel shakes his head and puts his hands in his curls, tugging them slightly. He looks miserable.

He rushes up to Matteo and kneels down between his spread thighs so they can be face to face, digging his fingers into the flesh of his legs.

Their faces are so close that Manuel’s warm breath tickles his skin. No matter how mad or disappointed he can be, Manuel’s lips are so beautiful they look drawn on his face by the most talented painter. God, how he would like to taste them again.

Those same lips that until a few minutes ago were saying I love you to someone else. Matteo needs to forget: forget his caresses, his kisses, his sweet words. He needs to swallow down his feelings, bury the love he feels for him.

Manuel loves his girlfriend. Game over. And he’s out of the game with his heart broken.

“How can you say that? It wasn’t a mistake for me, everything about it was so beautiful. It was perfect! You… You looked so happy before! What happened to you? What made you change your mind?” some tears are wetting his eyes but Manuel does nothing to hold them back, he leaves them streaming down his face.

He should really ditch his football career and become an actor. Looking at him so desperate, it really seems like he cares about Matteo, looks like he’s the one who just got his heart broken.

Or perhaps he really cares, maybe he really is pained because his little toy was taken out of his hands just when he was starting to have fun with it.

“I didn’t change my mind, I just realised that we made a mistake”, Matteo just wants to stop it, he wants to save what remains of his pride and go away. He must definitely pray Nicolò or Chicco - or anyone else who agrees - to switch rooms with him, he could never sleep here with Manuel, he can barely stand to be around him now.

Manuel sniffles, tears are blurring his sight so he tries to wipe them, “And when did you realise it, when I sucked you off yesterday night or when we were making out this same morning after waking up?” Manuel raises his voice and spits out words as if they are poison. He looks very angry at first but then his rage turns into desperation, “Why did you lead me on, Matteo? Is this your way of getting back at me for what I put you through?”

It’s unbelievable, how can he turn the table like this? If he wasn’t so destroyed, Matteo would have been impressed by his ability to play the victim.

“I led you on? What the fuck are you saying Manuel? How can you say something like that?” Matteo screams while a single tears streams down his cheek.

“I heard your call, okay? You have a fucking girlfriend, Manuel! You told you love her, after everything that happened between us! And here I thought about breaking up with my girlfriend because I’m falling for you”, he tries to compose himself but tears keeps falling down from his eyes. He bite hard on his bottom lip, but he can’t stop his crying, doesn’t matter how much he tries to.

Manuel looks perplexed for a bit, but then he starts laughing while he slumps on Matteo, leaning his head on his chest.

If this is another game of his, Matteo is not okay with it. He tries to take off, shoving him by his shoulders, “What the fuck are you laughing at?”

Manuel raises his head and looks directly into his eyes. A smile lights up his whole face, he wets his lips, “It was my mum on the phone before, dumbass.”

“Yeah, sure.”

Matteo doesn’t believe him, it’s obvious. That sounded like a lie even to his own ears.

“It’s true, I swear! Wait!” Manuel gets up and runs around the room, coming back after a few seconds with his phone, “Look! Check my recent calls”, he defends himself placing it in front of his face.

Matteo doesn’t even look at it, he just drops back on the armchair covering his face. He alone had created a misunderstanding hurting both Manuel and himself. He really feels like a dumbass, he should have at least asked Manuel who was he talking to before getting carried away by his stupid pride.

“I’m sorry for doubting you. It’s just that I heard you talking about some place and saying you love her, I guess I panicked”, he gives him a sheepish look, knowing he’d fucked it up.

Manuel, however, doesn’t look to be mad at him. He just smiles shaking his head, “My mum was telling me about this museum in Turin she’d like to visit and I want to take her there when she comes to visit me next week”. He gets closer and give him a peck on the lips, “You’re cute when you’re jealous, but please don’t be so dramatic over it next time.”

“Sorry”, Matteo presses his lips on the little mole on his right cheek, kissing his tears away and then goes on peppering his face with kisses. Manuel laughs scrunching up his nose and leans his head down to kiss him. How he had missed those lips.

They kiss for a while, but it’s a little uncomfortable with Matteo sitted on the armchair and Manuel still standing, so Matteo grabs him by the back of his thighs and makes him sit on top of himself with Manuel’s legs straddling his hips and his own hands finding their place on Manuel’s waist.

Manuel moans when Matteo runs his fingers through his hair, it’s so good he feels his stomach flutter. It’s new, he never liked when someone touched his hair. But Matteo’s hands are so beautiful and soft and big, Manuel would let anything done to him by those hands.

When they pull apart, they stay for a while gazing lovingly at each other and Matteo nuzzles their noses a few times.

A sweet flush rises on Manuel’s cheekbones when Matteo starts stroking his hair, softly pulling them back from his face and giving him some kisses on his hairline.

“Did you really mean it when you said you’re falling for me and want to break up with your girlfriend?” Manuel asks holding him closely with their foreheads touching.

Matteo just nods, a big smile on his lips. His brown eyes sparkle, two adorable dimples make their way on his face: Manuel looks at him in adoration, enraptured by the beauty of the man who had his heart since they were teens.

“You’re so beautiful", Manuel whispers and then leans up, seeking a kiss Matteo can’t refuse him.

Manuel’s kisses are like a drug and soon he got addicted to them.

“You’re beautiful too”, Matteo says smiling between their kisses.

“You know, I always thought you were a mama’s boy”, he jokes, wanting to tease him a little.

Manuel pushes out his bottom lip, pouting like a child would, “Shut up”, he smiles and hides his face in the crook of his neck, covering his blush.

He nibbles on Matteo’s jawline before lifting his head and locking his neck in his arms “You said we have just two hours?”

“Yeah, then I have to go to the conference”, Matteo nods, his eyes closed as he leans his head back as Manuel’s lips touches his neck, leaving kisses and bites to any skin that's available to him.

“Then we have already wasted too much time”, Manuel leans forward and their lips meet again in a greedy kiss.

Making the best out of that time is just what they do.