leo: may 2008
He stands on the Bernabeu turf, and holds himself still so he doesn't collapse to the ground, and blinks hard so that he can pretend those aren't tears forming in his eyes.
He thinks -
He thinks, it used to be different. Easier.
But it's no longer 2005, he's not 17, and it's not so simple any more.
Everything's changed. Maybe Leo's changed too.
He's stood bruised all over in the mud at Stamford Bridge, with the baying of the angry crowd getting louder and louder, heard his name cursed with ugly words, and felt nothing but joy with the adrenalin singing through his veins.
He's cried and shouted at no one and not spoken for days while struggling with injuries that seemed like they'd never heal.
He's sat there numbed by the random cruelty of penalties in Berlin, deaf to the stadium-shaking delirious happiness of the German supporters, and clenched his hands so hard he broke skin just to save the tears for later.
(In Maracaibo, it was a lot easier. Losing doesn't become less painful, but as with anything in football, hiding grief gets easier with practise.
He got a lot more practise as time went on.)
He's held his arms out and taken in the cries of the Camp Nou, those hundred thousand voices forming his name like a scene out of a dream he's never dared to have.
He's made friends, lost friends, been happy and devastated and completely lost.
And he's -
He's not sure, any more, just what it is he's doing. Or rather, he plays and plays but it's not the same, not like it used to be. He's angry and frustrated like never before. It's not just losing - that's bad enough - but the way they're losing. Nothing's going right.
(Sometimes it feels like nothing's gone right since Paris. He only thinks that when he's really angry, so it can't be true, but the feeling's there.)
Leo tells the press that Barca's dressing room is just like any other dressing room. It's even true. Everybody has good days and bad days. It's just that the bad days have become more like bad weeks. Months.
When the news about Rijkaard breaks, he gets five text messages in the space of ten minutes from Cesc, on top of the three he'd sent asking if Leo was okay right after the game in Madrid. They swing wildly from excitement to worry and right back again.
The last one says: It's Pep, man. You don't understand how amazing this is.
You're right, Leo thinks. I don't.
kun: june 2008
As places to live go, Madrid's not bad. It's not Buenos Aires, but Kun's beginning to realize that nothing will come close anyway, so that's okay.
The fans are really great, except when they're not. Even then, there are the old guys with kind eyes who tell him that it's not his fault when they see him out and about the day after a major thrashing, and the way they always have his back when he's getting kicked around.
He's got no real complaints.
The only thing - the thing that's really just beginning to bother him this year, if only because everyone keeps bringing it up -
Atletico are really good at scoring goals. They play great football. But they seem to be fucking experts at throwing it all away when it really counts.
And he knows part of it has to be his fault, because it's not like he's one hundred percent for every minute of every game, but that's not something he can control. He just runs and dribbles and use every damn trick in the book and whatever happens, happens.
What really scares Kun, in the end - the thing that makes him change the channel whenever a Liga highlights show comes on TV -
What if it's not enough? What if what he is isn't enough?
cesc: july 2008
And here Cesc thought it was going to be a good summer, especially after the Euros.
He's not childish enough to stop speaking to Alex entirely, but he does consider the idea - deeply, and for some time - just to watch Alex squirm. God knows the idiot deserves it.
Eventually, when Cesc does open his mouth again, what comes out -
- is controlled. There's no hint of a whine in his voice.
Alex makes a series of increasingly incomprehensible hand gestures. By the end he just seems to be flailing his arms, and both Cesc's eyebrows are climbing into his hairline. Typical Alex. Except -
"Why don't you ask Mathieu? He'd explain it better."
There's the problem. If he asks Mathieu (that same question, for God's sake, why?) the explanation would probably make sense. Too much sense. Mathieu always does, even when Cesc completely disagrees with what he's saying - he's scary like that.
(It's probably a trick worth learning.)
"But next year - "
Alex just looks at him, his face sad like Cesc's never seen it (except, maybe, in Paris) and shakes his head. "No. No more 'next year'."
Cesc's beginning to hate those two words himself. They're not really any kind of comfort when everything falls apart. Like it's normal for a team full of ridiculously talented young players to have the exact solidarity and reliability of a house of cards. Or maybe it is.
But if he really believed that, he wouldn't be here. (And there's no way Cesc would quit on Arsene like they did.) So he doesn't. Simple as that.
leo: july 2008
Pre-season's in Scotland again, just like last year. The weather's still perfect, the people still friendly. A lot of things are different now, though. No Rijkaard. No Deco. Ronnie -
The space where Ronnie should be beside Leo feels empty in a way that aches like the twinge in his hamstring when it's trying to say that his body's broken again. Leo's not capable of acting like it doesn't hurt, and his old team mates have all learned to read his body language by now. So it's not really a surprise that Sylvinho's the first one to say Ronnie's name to him, a couple of days in, while the two of them are ducking into a tent for a water break during training.
"Leo, you know - with Ronnie, what he did - "
He knows what Sylvinho's trying to say, carefully picking the words to avoid stepping on his feelings. He's thankful for the consideration, and there's even a cold, hard, and useful part of him that agrees with the sentiment, deep down. But -
There's no way he can hear this right now. For the larger part of him, Ronnie will always be warmth and shelter and brilliance so natural and so extraordinary as to remain out of reach forever.
Leo dumps half a bottle's worth of water over his head, closing his eyes against the spray and to avoid Sylvinho's expression. "Please. Please don't."
His hands settle firmly on Leo's shoulders between one breath and the next, not pressing down. The warm, reassuring weight is -
It makes the next exhale easier.
* * *
The game's only a friendly, except Leo doesn't think that way. All games are the same -
He plays like he breathes.
Scoring is nice.
Loud crowds are good.
The bruises hurt.
- and the first time Leo pulls on the number 10, it feels like stealing his big brother's clothes. The shirt seems too big, which is nothing new, but this time it feels different, as if the fact that it comes to almost the middle of his thigh is supposed to mean something.
When Guardiola hands him the armband, though, the weight on his chest lifts, and the no. 10 becomes just another shirt. His shirt.
It still has to be earned, of course.
Leo's never backed down from a challenge, no matter how big or scary or -
Or how much it might hurt.
* * *
It's not like - he's usually a bit more professional than that. If Leo's going to let stupid things get to him, now's really not the time, since Guardiola somehow seems to know everything that's going on with the team, all at once, so he knows when Leo isn't one hundred percent even though he's spent most of his time sorting things out with Titi and then Samuel.
Then again, by the end of the first week, even the most thick-headed idiot in the press can tell something's not right. It's not everyday that Leo throws a fit in training, after all.
It's - it's embarrassing. He hates losing it, and the only thing worse is doing it in public, where it's just going to make things complicated for the whole team -
When Guardiola makes him stay back after training for the inevitable telling off, Leo can't even look him in the eye. It's an effort not to shrink back when Guardiola puts a gentle hand on his neck. The implied look up is - somehow - impossible to resist.
"I can't have you making everyone else worried and nervous. Tell me what's wrong."
There's something about the way Guardiola talks - not just absolute belief in whatever he's saying, although there's that too, but the sense that it's the truth.
It's more than tempting to go along with it - it's easy.
But. Leo doesn't trust easily, never has, and he doesn't like talking about himself. It's asking a hell of a lot, for him to tell this - this stranger what's really going on in his head.
(He's not Rijkaard. He's - he's not.)
"I don't - I'm just..."
One day, Leo will stop opening his mouth before he knows what to say. For now, he can only swallow back the rest of whatever was going to get blurted out, and breathe.
When he finally feels capable of looking at Guardiola's eyes instead of speaking to his chin, the gentle understanding in them almost makes him draw back.
"Tell me, and we'll deal with it."
The strange thing is Leo does actually believe him. Whatever's softening the steel in the man's voice at the edges is real.
Maybe that's good enough.
He takes a couple of deep, even breaths, rehearsing the words in his head. Guardiola's fingers flatten against his neck and his thumb strokes, very lightly, over the patch of skin there. It's strangely soothing. Makes it easier to talk.
"The Olympics. I. I want to go. I told the president ages ago, and now he." Things had been different back then, he know that.
(It was before everything went to pieces.)
But what's happened since then is just another part of the reason why he has to. "I need to - "
Guardiola nods, once. "Ah." His eyes lose their usual focus, and for a moment, it's as if he's left the room. Leo only realizes that he's been holding his breath when Guardiola nods again, sharply.
"You'll be in Beijing in time for the first game." It takes Leo a moment to realize that the sudden hammering is the beat of his heart, impossibly loud in his ears. His mouth's open again without checking with his brain first. Thankfully, Guardiola stops whatever would have come out by putting his other hand on Leo's shoulder. "It might take a while, and there'll be some complications along the way, but you'll be in Beijing. I can promise you that now."
It takes Leo a while to find words. "...thank you. Thank you. I don't know how to - "
When Guardiola smiles, he looks his age - like he could still be playing. "I want you to be happy, Leo. That's all. Trust me."
It's - still - a lot to ask for, but Leo can tell he's used to that.
* * *
Shanghai is unbearably hot, especially after Scotland. Leo's still happy to be here.
Or - maybe happy's not quite right. But this is where he needs to be, even if things are really complicated with the national team.
Thing is, Leo's entire family have been doing their best to keep him away from any Argentinian media that might mention his name for about two weeks. Usually it doesn't even bother him when people write stupid things, but his dad, Rodrigo and Matias - they know him. They knew this time it would get to him. So the effort is the kind of thing that makes Leo feel warm and really lucky.
He's online a lot, though, so it was never going to work.
It'd be better - he'd feel better, not as angry - if he could forget he read some of that. People can say what they like, and he really doesn't give a damn what most of them think...except.
People can say what they like, unless they accuse him of not caring.
Somehow, Leo's not Argentinian for them - or not Argentinian enough. And that's -
Well. He hates it.
Complaining about the media to Roman is probably one of those things Leo's not supposed to do, because of all that's going on. But he does anyway. Roman knows, better than anybody else, what it feels like.
And if talking to him in a public training session - letting the photographers take all the pictures they want of the two of them sitting together - feels a little like taunting the same people who've been writing lies about the two of them fighting for months? That's just fine.
Roman talks like Leo. Or maybe he means that the other way around. The point is, both of them mumble so quietly that the only way to have a conversation is to sit close.
(Sometimes, Leo stares at the frown lines etched into Roman's forehead and feels like he kind of maybe gets the guy.)
"They'll write anything, and it's not like you can change it. Let it be."
Normally he'd agree with that. But right now, it just seems like a step too far.
"I'm going to shut them up. I'm - Roman, come on, we're going to make them stop."
Roman heaves a long-suffering sigh, and - smiles, just a little. Enough.
The two of them - they're not friends, they'll probably never be friends, but there's - this. Understanding, sort of. Or more like a similar kind of focus.
It's not like Leo needs validation from anybody. But sometimes...sometimes, it's just nice to prove people wrong.
* * *
His dad calls with the bad news about the court judgment first. Barca haven't called yet, but that's only a matter of time. They'll want him to go back, and it's not as if he doesn't understand why, but.
Leo has to do this. That's just something they'll have to understand in return. Even Laporta has to see -
No, of course not.
When he's done laughing quietly to himself over that, he asks dad for Guardiola's number.
"I was wondering when you'd call," he says, when Leo's still trying to decide how to say hello. "How's Shanghai?"
"Really hot. Mister, you know why I'm - you know why."
Guardiola sighs. "I suppose I do. That's why I needed to talk to you, Leo. What do you want?"
That's the easiest question in the world, right now.
"I want to stay. Please let me stay."
There's a short pause, and Leo has just enough time to remember how much he hates phone calls before Guardiola replies.
"I promised, didn't I? Don't worry. Just stay put, I'll call when it's settled."
That's...a lot more than Leo ever thought he'd get. There's no maybe in there, no 'I have to ask the president'. He relaxes, just a little.
It's still not enough to stop him from clutching his phone too hard for the 5 hours it takes Guardiola to call back, though.
"It's done. You can stay."
Leo finds himself swallowing back a hello yet again, but this time with a very different feeling in his heart. It's the kind of gratitude he knows he'll always feel.
"Thank you. I won't forget what you did, mister."
Somehow, it's very easy to picture Guardiola's smile from the light tone of his voice. "See? I keep my promises. Enjoy it. Bring back a gold medal."
Leo grins. "You got it."
cesc: july 2008
Things change quickly in football. It's one of those facts of life that Cesc has always understood, just like the colour of the sky or how the game should be played. People come and go, and it's useless to try and hold on in the face of other things. Bigger things.
He's learnt that lesson enough times that it shouldn't even hurt any more. But somehow - somehow, it doesn't work out that way.
"No, no, you just swing the little one and press that big button to slide tackle. Here, like this. Dammit, Phil, it's not that hard."
Phil looks at his Wii remote like it's an alien contraption. "And I aim at one of your guys and press...A to pressure? This is far more complicated than the 2007 one we played on PS2."
"It's really accurate once you get the hang of it."
There's no hint of a pout in Cesc's voice, but there's certainly the possibility of one.
"So in the meantime, I'll just put up with you thrashing me?" Phil says reproachfully, but in his soft voice, it just sounds affectionate more than anything else.
Cesc can't help but smirk a little. "Well, you'll just have to get better fast. Don't want to make Maldini and Nesta look bad, do you?"
The little Nesta on screen actually has the ball, but Phil is clearly still trying to remember how to do a cross-field pass, which gives him - or, really, the little Cesc on screen - enough time to slide in and win possession.
"Oh. I was going to - never mind." Phil smiles self-depreciatingly. "I guess I'm just no good with change."
That's just the kind of thing he likes to say, but something about his tone this time - Cesc pauses the game.
"Hey, what's going on?"
They all joke about Phil getting frown lines far, far too early. There's a grain of truth in it - he's constantly worrying and stressing, not just about himself, like he was born a mother hen. Right now, he has the look of a man much older than he actually is, with the kind of doubt and anxiety that he shouldn't even know how to feel yet.
"You know. Arsene doesn't trust me any more." His voice is soft, but each word feels like an exploding firecracker to Cesc.
"No!" That's a shout. He's too worked up to be embarrassed about it. "That's not true. You know what the boss is like - he just wants us all to be successful."
First Mathieu, then Alex. He can't - not Phil too.
"Sure. Look at what happened against Liverpool, though. I don't - I'm not sure I trust myself any more. And the fans - " Phil cuts himself off with a vicious shake of the head.
"They'll come around."
"Maybe. I think...I need a change of scenery, just to get my head on straight again."
This is the thing about Phil: he really is the world's nicest guy, willing to put up with all kinds of shit for the sake of keeping the peace. But when he gets an idea into his head? That's it. And Cesc recognises that tone in his voice now, even if he doesn't want to.
What happened to the good old days, Phil? Beating Real in Madrid - remember that? Going to Paris?
He's not going to ask Phil to stay. It wouldn't be fair.
He's going to be mature about this. Professional. Because that's what he does. Never mind that his three best friends are leaving -
If the Euros taught him anything, it's that what he needs doesn't factor into it. Knowing what he can do, showing it on the pitch, and syncing it perfectly with what the other components of the team are doing - that's what it's really about.
Phil's always seen everything so clearly. It's going to be hard without him.
kun: august 2008
When the tabloids found out that Kun was dating Giannina and made an unbelievable fuss out of it, she sailed through it all as if wasn't happening while he freaked out. Just a little bit, mind. And he did it real quietly.
She had taken one look at his face and laughed. "You know it's only going to get worse, right? Buck up."
Kun's met all sorts of people since before he started playing for Independiente, but nobody else on earth is unshakable like Giannina. She's seen just about everything a couple of times over, after all, and none of it gets to her anymore. It's one of the many things he likes about her.
"She's cool. She'll keep you grounded," Osky had said after they all went out together that first time. And it's true. It's good to be reminded that as crazy as his life can be, it doesn't really mean anything. All he has to do is play football like he knows, and all the rest is just filler.
People can say what they like, but the truth is he's a good professional. Never parties too hard the day before morning training, never stays out too late the night before a game. He's not going to turn into one of those guys. It's just that his first year in Madrid was pretty fucking miserable. He likes having friends and family around, being surrounded by people-noise, and there was none of that.
So yeah, he reckons he's allowed to have a little fun sometimes, now that Madrid feels a little more like home. What was the point of trying so hard to make it as a professional if he can't enjoy the benefits at all?
All this means that 1) he reacts completely the wrong way when Gian tells him about the pregnancy and 2) she doesn't slap him or anything for it.
"....er." His mind goes completely blank and his mouth actually drops open. He probably looks like a gaping fish.
Gian rolls her eyes and bumps his shoulder, just a bit harder than she usually does. "God, you're an idiot. It's fine, don't worry. You're going to be a dad, it's all going to work out."
It's like when he first decided to come to Spain - he's scared and excited and maybe about to vibrate out of his skin any moment now. Except this time Gian is there with her arms to hold him together, and her laugh to keep him grounded.
"Oh wow, you're taking it so much worse than I did."
Sometimes, he kind of wants to punch himself. "No, no, I swear I'm happy, I swear. I'm just - "
Gian bites her lip. "Yeah. Me too," she says in a whisper, all quick, like the words are sneaking themselves out of her mouth. "But it's going to work out. You'll see."
* * *
Of course, she's right. It's still scary, but at least they don't have to worry about having enough money to provide for the baby or hire nannies when they need one, and both their families are completely delighted about the news.
The worst part might be the media insanity when they find out. And things at Atletico are just as crazy as ever, and -
Most of the time, it's okay. He just smiles and gets on with it. But sometimes - sometimes he thinks people only need to glance at him to know just how close he is to freaking out. That sometimes it seems like too much to take in.
* * *
At first, he thinks Shanghai will be good for him. Surely nobody there will care what he's going to name his kid, or if it was his fault Aguirre kept getting threatened with the sack last season.
He's wrong, and it really sucks for a few days, until Leo gets there and suddenly there aren't nearly as many people dying to ask Kun questions. It almost makes him wish that Leo would start talking to the Argentine media again.
Almost. Kun gets it - he'd be just as angry if he was getting the same treatment. And even if he didn't get it, he'd still support Leo over those guys. No matter how much they fawn over him, he knows who his real friends are.
At training, everyone's tiptoeing around Leo a little bit because of all the bullshit, but they really don't need to. He's just the same old Leo.
(The first thing he did when Kun went up to say hello at dinner was reach over and take off Kun's awesome sunglasses, rolling his eyes when Kun yelped in surprise.
"We're inside. There is no sun," he'd said over Kun's cries of mock-outrage, lips curving up in that weird little half-smile, as if a proper smile would be rude.)
Becoming a superstar hasn't changed him at all, so Kun figures nothing else is going to. He kind of envies that.
Leo came from the same place Kun did, where no one ever pulled their tackles and not cheating to win was reckless stupidity. He gets it, that it's not just a game - it's a meal ticket, it means you get beaten up less, it helps the family.
But Leo's struggles ended up different to Kun's. To him, happiness is still a game of football. Kun felt the same right up until he opened his eyes one day and really saw it - the first time someone offered him a Porsche or a house or even a girl if he'd just sign right here -
How every bit of it ends up tainted by the ugliness of the real world.
leo: august 2008
Leo steps out of the bathroom, wringing the wet strands of his hair together. It's getting long enough to be a bit inconvenient, and he's just thinking about getting it cut soon when he notices the background noise.
(A football game sounds pretty much the same everywhere.)
Kun's glaring at the TV, standing there with his back rigid and his fists clenched. As Leo watches, the no. 16 on screen in the blue and white strip misses another chance, right in front of goal. They both wince.
Most of the time, Leo forgets that Kun's so young, because he's got that confidence, that willingness to take on the world, the kind of thing that makes people look above age. But he's done a lot very quickly, and his world is a lot more complicated than Leo's, in a lot of ways.
These things add up. Leo knows that, even if he doesn't understand it. Carefully, he puts his hands on the stiff set of Kun's shoulders.
"Come on. Don't watch that, it never helps."
"I - I - " Kun cuts himself off viciously and takes a deep breath, holding it in for a long moment. His back tenses even more under Leo's hands.
Leo flinches back, arms dropping awkwardly to his sides. He can't help it – all the times they've stayed together, he's never made Kun more uncomfortable before. Whatever this is, it's new and it feels wrong.
"You can - you know you can tell me. Whatever's going on."
The words come out clipped and hurt-sounding. He knows that's not what Kun needs right now, but he can't help that either. If they can't talk to each other about this, who else is there?
Kun whips around to face him, and the look in his eyes stops Leo dead. The look in his eyes, and the brittle snap of his voice.
"What's wrong with me?"
This isn't - this isn't the guy Leo knows, the fearless, brilliant one, who only knows how to reach for more and better. The one who doesn't give a fuck about anything else.
"Nothing's wrong. It's just one game." And you don't need to me to tell you that, he wants to say, but that's not exactly helpful. "You know this stupid formation doesn't do us any favours. Don't beat yourself up over nothing."
"It's not nothing. I sucked in the first game too, don't even try and say I didn't. Bet you anything Batista's ready to drop me for the next game."
Times like these, Leo really hates not knowing what to say. It's not right for Kun to be like this, so he has to make it better, but empty reassurances just seem cheap. Kun doesn't need that from him.
Instinctively, he reaches out again, and this time Kun doesn't tense when Leo's hands land on his shoulders and pull him close, until his chest is pressed right up against Leo's and he can turn his head a little, feeling strands of Kun's hair brushing against his cheek.
Leo's never been good with words, anyway. He'll try, for Kun, because there's clearly something else going on and maybe he needs to tell someone about it. Maybe Leo'll even know what to say to make it better. It doesn't happen very often, but it's almost as satisfying as a goal in the Camp Nou when it does.
"Hey. Hey. So tell me what's really bothering you. It's not just the games."
Kun sighs into Leo's shoulder. "I wish. It's just…everything's changing. And. And I don't know."
"Not everything. We still get to play football for a living. That's pretty awesome."
And sometimes, stadiums full of people in a foreign country chant your name just so that the coach will think about putting you on the pitch. It's amazing and crazy, sure, but Leo can't imagine his life being anything else.
Kun lifts his face just enough for Leo to see him smile – not as brightly as he usually does, but at least it's a start. "It's not bad, yeah. And you – how do you do that, all the time? Make it all seem like no big deal?"
Leo watched Kun play for Independiente on his satellite TV back when he was just 15 years old. There are no babysitters in the Argentinean league – if you're old enough, you're good enough, and nobody will hold anything back when they're up against you. Kun went through all that and didn't just survive – he triumphed. He laughed and grinned and made grown men look like mean-spirited idiots.
"You've done it for longer."
"No. No, that's not the same at all," Kun says, and he sounds a bit frustrated.
Probably because they've had this conversation before, and Leo didn't get it then either. To him, there really is very little difference between a five-a-side game in the streets and a derby at the Monumental. It's only in the last couple of years that he's actually thought about why. (There's a reason for that, but he wants to be able to smile easily right now, so he's not going there.)
There are certain things that come with being an adult. Leo doesn't really like them, at least so far. Kun might be younger, but he's always been better at dealing with all that extra stuff.
People tell Leo that he's famous, a star, but he's never really understood what that's supposed to mean. They like his football, and that's nice. Kids smile at him on the street, and he smiles back. But in the end, he's only doing what he loves, as best as he can. Everything else only complicates things, and complicated things usually don't work out well.
"You know what it is? It's just you. The rest - it doesn't matter what everyone else expects, or anything else that's going on. Ignore all that."
Kun's laugh sounds like it had to fight its way out of his throat. But it's still a laugh. "You're gonna have to keep telling me that."
"Only until you believe it," Leo says, grinning. "Promise."
* * *
It's right before they have to play Brazil. The dressing room is buzzing, stifling hot, and Leo feels lighter than he has in weeks, because Kun's beaming like he used to, a hyperactive bundle of nerves next to him, barely sitting still through the team talk.
When they're ready to head out, Kun springs up like he's heading for the playground. "Come on, let's go and kick their ass."
They knock fists, and Kun gives him a hand up.
"It's about time we did." Leo smiles when he says it, but he's deadly serious. He takes a minute to meet Roman's eyes and nod, yeah, we know the game plan, let's do this, and then they're off.
* * *
Leo seriously doesn't care how they beat Brazil, as long as they do, but if he could choose, this is about perfect. He didn't get to score, but Kun got two, and that's almost as good, especially since he needed it more.
A superclasico always feels like a battle, which makes winning feel even better, and Leo's just standing there, listening to the chanting of the Beijing crowd and trying to cool down when he looks up and Ronnie's standing right there.
They spent a moment looking at each other, neither of them talking. There's an awkwardness that was never there before, and -
Then Ronnie opens his arms, Leo automatically steps in between, and everything feels right again.
"Congratulations, kid," Ronnie says in an undertone, sounding like he means it, and this is why. This is why Leo will always think of Ronnie the same way, no matter what happened last year and the year before that.
They pull apart enough to look each other in the eye. Leo knows what he's supposed to say here. He's done it enough for guys like Cesc and Gerard, he can do it again.
"Good luck. You'll be great in Milan, I know it."
Ronnie grins. That's one thing about him that's never changed – he still grins like that, exactly the same as the first time they met.
"Thanks, little brother."
* * *
Going into the final, Leo knows it's going to suck. It's so hot that they're being given official water breaks, and everybody's worn out from the tight schedule. If it's a good game it'll be a miracle.
Not that it matters. It's a final. No matter what they taught him at La Masia, finals are there to be won. The how isn't as important.
In the tunnel, he has to catch Kun's restless hands in his own and squeeze hard, just to feel him relax that tiny little bit, and smile into his eyes, just to see him grin back shakily.
"Hey, remember the last time we played Nigeria in a final? Some guy scored two goals, can't remember what his name was…"
Leo laughs. It comes out pretty loud, and he's not sorry. "But some other guy came on and he was the one who won the penalty that turned the game. Who was that?"
"A guy who thought he'd be taller in four years time. Shows what he knew."
Kun's clear, ringing voice carries, and everybody else laughs too. Ahead of him, even Roman's chuckling a bit.
It feels like they're just heading out for practice, not playing a big final. And that's just fine with Leo.
* * *
It's just a game. Just a game. Losing wouldn't be the end of the world.
Sometimes it's tempting to believe that, when he's hurt and angry. But it's not true. For Leo, at least, it's a game, but it's life too. He can't explain it any better than that.
He's fought to come here and play and win. And -
It's strange, the way the happiness takes him apart, down to the bones, in the end.
It feels like he's won more than a game, even more than a final. Something in him was wrong, off, and now it isn't.
He can't wait for the season to start.
cesc: september 2008
As much as Cesc tries to ignore it, training is a little weird without Mathieu and Alex and now Phil too. It's not like he can do anything about that, though, so he just puts his head down and gets on with it. Eventually it'll pass, because the club is bigger than any player, no matter how important they were. Hell, Titi left and they kept going fine. As long as Arsene is around, none of that really matters.
He doesn't care what anyone says - no one is going to make him stop believing in the way things work at this club. It's the right way, and it's possible to win trophies without compromising it.
It's also not all that different from what he was taught growing up. How quickly he took to the Arsenal way maybe has a bit to do with that.
He still keeps in touch with a few of the guys at Barca, mostly by text. Andres, Puyi and Xavi spent a lot of time with him during the Euros, and that was really nice, catching up on everything that was happening from the perspective of insiders. Cesc's entire family may be Barca socios, but there's no substitute for the kind of stories important members of the first team squad have to tell.
(And, all right, he's curious about Guardiola. Sue him, so is everybody else. Then there's Andres, who actually raises his voice when he's talking about the coming season, that's how excited he is.)
Cesc and Leo text sometimes, email each other rarely, and call whenever they feel like it. The whole thing depends a lot on how moody both of them are feeling at any one time, which in turn has a lot to do with how their teams are doing. The last time Leo actively contacted him was a couple of months back, a quick, terse text message about hating transfer windows, something like that. Cesc had texted back his complete agreement, and then they'd both been busy.
For the past month, about a fourth of his messages have been from Alex. Out of those, at least half seemed to have been sent either in a state of confusion or actual panic. Alex has trouble making his meaning come across sometimes, but this is ridiculous.
Cesc texted Leo two days ago, how's everything going? Alex settling okay?
He got back that evening: call you day after tomorrow.
Two days later, his phone rings right after dinner. "Hey, Leo? Give me a second - okay, talk. How's it going?"
Silence, and then Leo says, voice soft and quiet as ever, "your friend Alex is a weirdo."
Cesc almost chokes laughing. "What? What does that mean? Come on, he's new, don't give him grief."
"We're not. He's nice. Kind of - really, really awkward."
If Leo is calling him awkward – not that it's a surprise with Alex. "I know. Is Titi helping him along? The papers I looked at said he was."
"Sure. Titi's got to concentrate on getting better, though. A lot of things are different this season."
Not least that Ronaldinho and Deco are gone. Cesc thinks back to what it was like for him right after Titi left, and yeah, it has to be weird right now. But that's the way it works in football – the only constant thing is change. For the younger guys, all they can do is try and be good enough to step into the shoes of those who came before.
It's like the way Theo has been playing so far this season. The kid's just so talented, and exactly what they needed in the team. He's not Titi, but that doesn't matter for the purposes of the role he's filling.
There are other gaps, too, and sometimes Cesc feels them more keenly than ever, like he did at Birmingham last season. William's a great player, but everyone saw what happened then.
Ever since that day, people have been asking Cesc about the captaincy. He stalls and takes care not to sound like he's planning some sort of coup and says maybe in a couple of years.
Ultimately, though, age is just a number. No one knows that better than Cesc – well, maybe except the guy he's on the line with.
"Well, yeah. Don't worry, it'll work out."
"You too," Leo says in his sorry-I'm-rolling-my-eyes voice, which makes Cesc immediately picture the wry smile that goes with it. "Stop over-thinking everything."
That's the difference between them, right there.
Cesc laughs into his phone, only a little ruefully. "Someone has to."
leo: september 2008
Qualifiers are always rough games, but he likes that. It reminds him of playing on the streets as a kid, no rules or boundaries, laughing off whatever they called him because it didn't matter, nothing could touch him as long as he had the ball.
It's like when he first went to Barcelona. It was hard, because he wasn't allowed to play, and he didn't understand half the things they said in school, and his family were miserable. But he never thought of going back, looked at his dad like he was insane when he suggested it.
Even back then, Leo knew that wasn't the way he wanted to live. It's always been eyes on the goal, and no going backwards. Nothing else matters.
When the Paraguayan defender tries to wind him up by calling him every name in the book while he's stalking Leo all over the pitch, Leo has to fight not to laugh.
That kind of animosity is great. He can practically live off it. What's not working so well, when it comes to the national team - and it's making the Monumental crowd restless - is everything else.
kun: october 2008
Camp Nou is never a fun place to visit. Even with the noise turned down, it's just that big, and trying to defend against Barca makes it seem bigger, the pitch this endless stretch of space.
Leo had grinned and hugged Kun hard before Samuel Eto'o drew him away into their pre-game huddle. The next time their eyes meet, they're both getting into position for the kick-off, and Leo's giving him that flat look, the one Kun's never seen off the pitch. The one that means he's not thinking about anything other than kicking the other team's ass. Brutally, quickly if at all possible.
Kun steals a glance at Antonio's face and has to work not to wince at the uncertainty in his eyes. They've been on decent form lately, but this could still go badly wrong.
* * *
Seven minutes in, they're 2-0 down and Kun's getting kind of pissed. Yeah, he knew it might suck, but seriously?
He's just thinking that when Leo pulls the free-kick stunt to make it 3-0, and - Kun doesn't even know what's going on any more.
Sometimes he forgets that Leo's really a sneaky little bastard. It's far too easy to fall into thinking of him as guileless even when Kun knows differently. Can feel it in his bones, even, that the two of them are pretty much alike, at least when it comes to that.
They both know what it means to win. More important - what it means to lose.
* * *
He was wrong. The game didn't just go badly wrong – it was a fucking disaster. Then he had to sit next to Leo on the plane to Buenos Aires, and while Leo's not much of a gloater, Kun's just -
He's mad, and he can't help it. Eventually, he'll be able to look at Leo without seeing that free-kick stunt he pulled, and then he'll stop acting like a sore loser.
Leo lets him be for the first hour. They don't need to talk, haven't for years, but somehow this time it's uncomfortable, and he's not the only one feeling it because Leo keeps dying in his PSP game like he's having trouble focusing until he just gives up and uses it to nudge Kun in the arm.
"Is it safe to speak to you yet?"
"I - you're - " Kun gives up and just shakes his head.
"You're mad about the free kick, aren't you?"
Of fucking course he's – he bites back the urge to whine like an idiot, restricting himself to a nod.
"It wasn't even cheating," Leo says, nowhere near defensive or apologetic. He smiles, because he's not actually an asshole, and keeps talking in the same even, soft voice. "What, you're going to give me shit about doing that?"
No. Losing just sucks.
"Don't talk to me right now. Please."
Leo's smile doesn't crumble, although it takes him a moment of effort. "Okay. I get it. Okay."
cesc: november 2008
Cesc doesn't actually remember his first time at the Camp Nou very clearly. He was very young, and the thing that stayed with him, beyond the noise and colour of the crowd and the happy taste of victory, was the skinny figure at the centre of everything the men wearing blaugrana did.
Guardiola hadn't been wearing the number 4 or the armband yet, back then, although the way his legend has been shaped since makes it seem as though he was born with both those things. Generations of midfielders at La Masia were bought up on the same ideas, the same stories – be like him, on and off the pitch. Before Cesc, there had already been Xavi and Andres, the ones who chose and were chosen to stay, and de la Pena and Arteta, who didn't.
It's possible that a part of Cesc will always define himself in relation to that legacy. He was so happy when he got the number 4 at Arsenal, and not only for what it represented at the club, but also for his inner sixteen year old, who remembered pretty vividly the day he got a signed shirt and a message, a month into living in London.
And now – other than the colour of his shirt, the rest is exactly like he'd pictured in his first dreams of being a professional footballer. He'd really rather be handed the armband because the captain had retired in glory, not whatever's going on in William's head, but the rest is perfect.
"You're not worried at all? Honestly?"
Coming from anyone else, it might sound like teasing, but Leo's deadly serious.
He's been calling Leo more, mostly just because they have more to talk about with Alex at Barca and Guardiola in charge, so Cesc no longer has to wait five minutes for Leo to find something to say.
"Not really. I think – don't take this the wrong way, but I've been doing half the job for a while."
"Over-achiever," Leo says quietly, and now he is teasing.
Cesc wants to laugh. Leo should really not be allowed to accuse anybody else of that. "You say that like it's a bad thing. Come on, we're not just one of the guys, Leo. We're leaders. Somebody has to be."
"What was that?"
It's clearly Leo's 'I've checked out and am now humouring you' tone, but that's not why Cesc's asking.
After a moment, Leo's heavily-accented mumble drifts back down the line. "No, you're right. Sorry, I'm just…"
He trails off. Cesc doesn't need the rest of the sentence – hell, he gets it. Even amongst the guys who get called precocious, Leo's a special breed of weird. Always has been. He wouldn't want it any other way.
"Of course I'm right. I just had to get it through your thick skull," he says, and hopes that Leo can hear the grin behind the words.
Cesc is surprised into a laugh. "Rude! I can hear you rolling your eyes from here."
"You can not."
There's a pause, and then -
Leo's far too young to sound that long-suffering when he sighs. "We're just kids, Cesc."
And see, Cesc hates that.
"Not just kids. Look around. There's a job to be done and you can do it, so don't let anything stupid like age and seniority stop you."
Leo laughs. Not his quiet, almost apologetic-sounding laugh, but a sharp sound that Cesc's never heard from him before.
"Of course. When have I ever?"
leo: december 2008
The season's going great. He's tired, but it's a good tired, all the hard work and getting kicked around going toward something good – maybe something amazing, if they can keep it up.
Leo's not in the habit of lying to himself. He needs a break soon. There's no time, though, with all the big games this month.
Guardiola takes him aside a few days before the Valencia game.
"I want to rest you, but it's just not possible right now. So I need to trust that you'll tell me when you're not one hundred percent. Can you do that?"
Leo nods. "Don't worry, I'll last til Christmas."
The last part of that sentence, or at least I'll give everything trying doesn't need to be said out loud.
* * *
The Valencia game goes great. They win 4-0.
He plays like shit and comes off the pitch feeling like he doesn't deserve the massive standing ovation he got from the crowd.
Afterwards, he gives Titi a hug in the dressing room to congratulate him for the hat-trick and goes to sit in his little corner.
At least you sulk quietly, Deco had said to him, years and years ago, while messing up his hair and nudging him in the side.
(Leo didn't know a person could sulk any other way, but Deco had assured him that it was possible and that he knew from personal experience.)
The memory makes him ache, just for a second. When he opens his eyes, Gerard's looming there, staring, and then suddenly tugging Leo close.
His arms around Leo are a little too tight, but Leo doesn't mind. It's comforting. Even the fact that he can't quite breathe properly is comforting. He's missed this.
"Listen. It's okay if you're tired or hurt or just having a shitty day. You're not a machine."
I think I have to be is what he wants to say in reply. But he doesn't, because it would just make everybody else fret, and then Leo would end up feeling bad for always making people worry, and for needing things he shouldn't need.
Besides, there's nothing to worry about. He's fine.
It's not about everybody else demanding something different and better from him, although they've done that ever since they found out he could play. He's never settled for being just about good enough. He never will.
cesc: december 2008
Being injured sucks. He hasn't had that many long-term problems, which is sheer dumb luck as much as anything else, but right now it just means he's stupidly antsy and not used to sitting around as the main alternative to boring rehabilitation work.
His doctor is based in Barcelona, so he's spending a good chunk of his recovery time there. It's just as well – if he kept on hovering around Arsenal, Manuel or somebody else would have tried to kill him before long.
Going insane. So bored.
If anybody's going to know exactly what he means, it's Leo. Sure enough, he gets a reply within ten minutes.
Take a break. Don't look at football stuff.
Trying. I need to stop going online.
Five minutes later:
Come over. We can play games or something.
* * *
The last time Cesc saw Leo, he grinned obnoxiously and tweaked Leo's ear for about half a second before the guilt got to him. It felt too much like picking on someone way below his weight class. Okay, maybe that's a slight exaggeration. But the point is, Leo still looks pretty much the same as he did five years back, and actually, it's got nothing much to do with height.
People get jaded pretty quickly when they get to be a big-time professional at a really young age. It's hard to avoid, even for the most level-headed and well-prepared kids, and Cesc should know. He fights that battle all the damn time.
Leo, though, he's always had the same amount of armour, and not much gets past it.
He smiles at Cesc, and Cesc can't help but grin like an idiot back, and it's almost like nothing's changed, but of course that's nonsense. They're both grown-ups now, successful beyond their wildest dreams, even if some of the details don't quite fit with the way they imagined them back then.
leo: january 2009
Before the Copa game against Atletico, Guardiola tugs him aside and speaks quietly into his ear.
"They're going to see the team sheet and think we're vulnerable. Show them how wrong they are."
Leo can't help but grin. "Sure, mister."
The problem with playing Atletico is always the same – they're so unpredictable, especially at the Calderon. Or at least that's what Pep had said in the team talk. Leo doesn't think about it like that.
For him, it's more like this:
Right now, there are two, maybe three Atleti players in position - or already running - who might get in his way. Leo's got a stationary start, half way up the pitch. He's also got the ball.
A part of him lives for moments like these, when he goes past one defender, then another, and strikes the ball dead on, exactly where he wants to.
It comes back off the cross-bar with a ping, making the crowd gasp, but that's okay, because it falls to Andres, and Andres is going to get it to Leo again with a perfect pass, where he can skip past the keeper and finally, finally, put it in the net for his hat-trick.
There's something surreal about the applause when he comes off, something strange about his name being chanted by a crowd that's not his own.
The moment's almost too big to take in. If Leo was a different kind of person, maybe it would shake him.
kun: march 2009
Barca at the Calderon is a big deal, especially after the way they'd lost the Copa game, but as far as important dates go, it's not even on Kun's radar right now.
He's a dad.
It's the scariest thing that's ever happened to him, and the most exciting, all at the same time. One moment the words don't even sound right, and the next he's looking at Gian holding Benjamin and he can't stop smiling.
Leo called the day after the birth and let him ramble until he started to make enough sense for a conversation.
"Can I come see him when we play again?"
It's kind of funny - and very him - that Leo thinks he has to ask.
"Of course you can, idiot. When is it?"
"It's coming right up. I can't believe you forgot," Leo says half-jokingly, and Kun has to laugh.
Like Leo ever keeps track of who he's playing next. And for once in his life, Kun's brain isn't exactly in a football kind of place right now. He's a dad, for God's sake.
* * *
The game at the Calderon turns out amazing. Playing Barca can suck because they're good, but at the same time, being that attacking leaves gaps. When Atletico are in the mood, especially Kun and Diego, they're damn good at exploiting gaps.
So, yeah, between Kun and Diego they run Puyol and Marquez ragged and make Valdes look very silly, and it feels fantastic, like the best thing ever, especially with the roar of the crowd pounding his eardrums.
Down in his bones, he knows this is the way it's meant to be. Taking his God-given gift, and making it count.
* * *
Leo's a terrible loser, possibly the worst Kun knows, so he's not surprised when they miss each other after the game. It's almost three hours later when he gets a text message.
Sorry, had to go back to hotel. Team rules. Call me?
"Hi. It's three in the morning."
Leo sounds contrite but just as wide awake as Kun. That's the annoying thing about 10 PM kick-offs – after the game, they're either too buzzed or too pissed off to sleep, and that's hell on the nerves.
"Nah, I'm awake. So…"
"That was awesome. You were awesome," Leo says, all in a rush, less like it pains him to get the words out and more like he's embarrassed. He's probably blushing.
Kun's kind of flustered for no reason himself. "Thanks. So, er, are you going to come see Benjamin?"
"Probably won't get time. This season's insane."
"Tell me about it. You need to see him, though, he's - " Kun gropes for words. He's not actually sure how to describe the kid. His son, although that still sounds weird. "Oh God, Leo, I have a son!"
"What's it like?" Leo asks, almost reverently.
Truth is, both of them have known for a while already. That's the thing about big families - somehow, there are always little kids around. It wasn't that long ago that Leo was telling Barca that he was getting enough sleep even though he kept waking up during the night when his little nephew started crying.
If Kun thought the story was hilarious at the time, it was partly because he knew exactly what that was like.
That was the thing he missed the most in Madrid - that sense of being part of a family, with all the noise and warmth. Now he's got one of his own.
It's scary, yeah. He was out of his mind with it before the season started, especially at the Olympics when everybody couldn't stop asking him about Gian's pregnancy. He thought he'd gotten over that, just concentrating mindlessly on playing instead, but that's not how it works at all.
Leo acts like doubt is beneath him. No - more like it's something that happens to other people. Sometimes, watching him still makes Kun feel like he should try to become like that.
But he's got his own way. The uncertainty, the fear, the anger – everything he feels so strongly - it's useful. It carries him. It lets him do things he's never even thought of.
cesc: may 2009
Cesc spends a lot of time acting like he knows what he's doing. It's part of the job description, especially being captain in a team with a lot of young, inexperienced players. More often than not, he ends up wishing for an instruction manual, instead of far too many people giving him different advice.
So maybe he shouldn't have come onto the pitch at the end of a game and gotten mad at some idiots. Maybe he should have done it, but in a suit instead of a hoodie. (Seriously, people objecting to his taste in clothing - it would have been funny if it didn't end up landing him in trouble with the FA.) Cesc still thinks he did nothing wrong the day of the Hull game, but he's more careful these days. It's just not worth the bad press.
Overall, though, he thinks he's getting the hang of it.
Then they play United in the Champions League semi-final. The first leg doesn't go great, but Cesc goes around reminding everyone that they're going to kick ass in the second leg at home and that lifts the mood. Annoyingly, the way the media builds the game up as some sort of watershed moment - a test for Arsene's entire belief system – manages to undo most of his good work. Even Cesc himself gets a little uneasy, and he'd thought he was immune to that by now.
* * *
The game goes really, really badly. Almost like it was scripted by someone desperate to discredit Arsenal's entire operating philosophy.
If Gael had been fit, maybe it would never have been an issue. It wasn't really Kieran's fault, but Cesc had taken one look at him trying not to have a mental breakdown at half-time and felt, just for that moment, so damn old.
His own mistake had left Robin with no choice but to foul Ronaldo, leading to that damn free-kick. But the boss couldn't exactly take off every player who made an amateurish mistake, and this is why the people crowing about the failure of the Arsenal system are wrong.
Anyone can and probably will make a catastrophic blunder during their career. It's just harder to get over when it happens during a Champions League semi-final.
The next day, Leo somehow finds time to call him in the middle of the media frenzy over Barca's game against Chelsea that night.
"Are you...are you okay?"
Leo sounds really worried, which isn't surprising - a lot of the time, he doesn't get why Cesc stresses about the things he does, but when it comes to winning or losing, they speak the same language.
"You know me, I'm always okay," he replies automatically, fake-cheerful like he's been doing all day for everybody else from friends to reporters. It's working like a charm so far.
"Yeah. Yeah, I do. But - "
Leo does know Cesc, down to who he is on the inside, where nothing important has changed since he was just a kid with a ball, and that's why he doesn't buy Cesc's act. It's also why he doesn't push any further.
"It's you, Cesc. That's why...that's how I know you'll figure it out, what you have to do. Just...remember it's not you fault every time something goes wrong."
Cesc manages to produce a weak chuckle at that. "Easier said than done. There's a lot riding on me getting things right, you know?"
"Well, yeah. That's okay, though. You're good at getting it right." It's one of the weirdest things about Leo, still – he makes everything sound uncomplicated. "Anyway, I have to go. Bye, fearless leader."
The last part's delivered in a mumble, so quickly that he nearly misses it, and his laugh comes out abrupt and startled. "Hey! When did you get all sarcastic?"
"I wasn't being sarcastic," Leo insists, almost convincingly.
"Ooh, how disappointing. You've clearly been hanging around Gerard for too long. He's changed you."
Leo snorts. "I don't change that easily. You gonna watch tonight?"
He doesn't even have to think about that one. "Yeah, sure. Go kick ass."
leo: may 2009
He's been part of a lot of crazy games, and a few of them were even at Stamford Bridge, but nothing like what happened tonight. His body feels like the vibrating string of some instrument, a part of his brain got taken over by white noise as soon as Andres scored and he's pretty sure he's about to cry. He's not hugging people so much as walking into them and holding on really tightly until the next person taps on him the shoulder.
When Pep walks up, Leo throws himself at the man hard enough to knock him back a few steps.
They had talked one on one before the game about what the Champions League final meant to Leo, how he still felt like an idiot about his behaviour in Paris, how he desperately wanted a chance to write over that memory with something better.
" – and the worst part is, I thought about it later. How many people get to celebrate winning a Champions League final? I might never get another chance, and I acted like a complete asshole."
"Don't think about it like that. It's not whether you get another chance. No one's giving you anything. If you want it, you make it happen."
He buries his wet face in Pep's chest and tries not to shake.
"Come on," Pep says eventually, sounding a little choked up himself. "You can cry after you raise the trophy in Rome."
If this job was easy, everybody would be doing it.
He's 22, and captain of Arsenal. That doesn't happen by chance. It's the consequence of years of hard work, and it also means he owes a heavy debt to the club and the boss. People can make up whatever they want to about his alleged desires, he doesn't give a damn. This is what he really wants to do. That's not going to change, no matter what.
If he was still at Barca, they'd call him the next Xavi, maybe. Not a bad thing to be, all things considered. But not something uniquely his.
This is his own story, shaped by the choice he made all those years ago to follow the unbeaten path. And this is going to be the part that's worth retelling, over and over. He'll make sure of that.
That whole Next Maradona thing. Sometimes, it's like a weight around his neck. It got worse when he started going out with Gian, and sure, he knew that was going to happen, but it still sucked when it did. Then, with Benjamin, everything was just nuts.
All of that adds up and comes out the other side as the kind of suffocating pressure that he really doesn't need. Or at least Kun thought that at first, when it was really getting to him and it was all he could do to try and block it out when he was playing. But that's not who he is at all. It's better when he can take all of that bullshit and use it, make it part of the adrenaline rush of stepping onto the pitch, let it drive him to do more.
Maybe it's kind of sad that it took this long for him to figure it out, but some of the guys he knows have been living with the Next Maradona thing for years and years and still haven't, so he's not a total idiot -
Anyway, the point is. He's pretty sure it's okay to want to be more.
People can make comparisons and throw around superlatives, and it's not that he doesn't care about recognition. More that he doesn't care enough for it to matter.
This is what does:
Leo played his first game of football when he was five and decided right then that it was what he was meant to do. That he'd do anything for it.
He loves it when it's just him and the ball, the wide open spaces and the final destination. The dribble, the goal, the roar of the crowd.
But it's not just that any more. It's running with a destination in mind because he knows the pass is coming, chasing the other team's winger down the pitch, making connections happen and building something far bigger than him or anybody else. It ends with his hands holding up trophies bigger than he was when he started playing as if they weigh nothing at all.
The feeling of it is huge and a little scary. Something to get used to, maybe.
(He knows, now, how to become the person he needs to be.)