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Dry Season

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i.

Thock. Thock. Thock.

Right knee. Left. Ankle. Twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven touches in a row and he's only thirteen from his goal, his all-time record. He would have reached it yesterday, but his grandmother caught him trying to hide a potato from the restaurant kitchen inside his shirt and made his cousin Vera take him to play somewhere – "anywhere" – outside instead

Vera and her friends wanted to watch some of the boys from the neighborhood play football, anyway, so it was all right. There were too many of them to let him play, but Vera's friend Felipe said next time.

Knee again, a little too hard. Elbow. Head - he barely gets under it in time, and slows the wild rebound with the side of his calf. The hot sun picks out his shadow on the floor of the dusty courtyard, now an arm, now a leg – but he doesn't dare slacken his concentration enough to watch it. Thirty-eight, thirty-nine –

Out of the corner of his eye he catches a movement in the doorway and for a bare second his attention splits –

The orange soars in a perfect arc against the blue sky and bursts open on the sandstone, a starburst of vivid little flecks of fruit and streaks of juice, right at his grandmother's feet.

His grandmother doesn't use his full name often. She does now.

David, who has just counted to forty-one, barely hears it.


*

The call comes at night. It's quiet in David's room; he's not sure where Carlos went, maybe next door. Judging from the explosive laughter audible through the wall, it sounds like he'd be in plentiful company. Raúl stopped by earlier, and Sergio Ramos stuck his head in the door, Navas in tow, but David told them both he was waiting for a call. It's partly true.

When his mobile buzzes, he's prepared. "That's everything," Julio says without preamble. "The agreement's official. Congratulations."

"Thank you," David says, because he should, and remembers to add, "The same for your help."

He can almost see Julio shake his head. Julio has told him before that he's the only footballer in Spain to bother with courtesies to his agent, but David feels more awkward abandoning them. "No problem," Julio says, thick with the irony afforded by ten percent of a hefty transfer fee. "Anyway, they want to talk to you tomorrow – Mancini and maybe some others, preferably before the press release goes out. What time will you be training?"

"Um – " David has to think for a minute before he can remember what day it is " – around two? I think. Local time."

"So I'll tell them sometime in the morning, after nine, how about that?"

"That's fine."

"Great. Okay. Tomorrow then." And then, an afterthought, "Good luck."

David falls back on the bed and stares at the ceiling. An anticlimax, an observer might say, but it's not. It's neither climax nor anticlimax, triumph nor apathy: it's standing absolutely still, staring straight ahead, knowing if he dares to look down there's a gaping black hole beginning to open at his feet.



ii.

The last game. Not on the field, at least for David – that was two weeks ago – but last of the season, last for the team, last with –

The changing room reverberates with a low-key hum. Now and then, someone cuffs someone else on the shoulder, or calls out a joke. No giddiness, but satisfaction: a win to end the season and summer ahead.

Most of the team is eager to get back to the hotel and Alexis, the first to the shower, is already loitering at the end of the bench. When he catches David's eye, David flicks his head toward the door and scrunches his face – don't wait for me. Alexis shrugs, but turns to leave. Slowly, the rest of the players begin to drift out. David takes his time, unlacing his boots, arranging them with metrical precision. On the verge of removing his unsoiled shirt, his fingers skim the crest. He leaves it on.

Somehow, David isn't surprised when he and Villa are the only ones left.

Villa's sitting on the bench and testing – something – with his boots; as David watches, he laces them up, squeezes the toe, frowns, and unlaces them again.

David stands up and crosses the room.

Villa glances up. "Hey," he says, briefly, and returns to his examination. David sits on the bench, and watches for a minute as Villa resolves whatever doubt he'd had (if there had truly been one in the first place) to his satisfaction and moves on to neatly folding his kit and packing it away.

"So," David says after a minute, and can't hold back a wince at how uncertain his voice sounds, echoing in the empty room. He clears his throat. "So, I guess this is it. Isn't it?"

Villa's hands still. He sets down his bag and looks up.

"Here," he says. "Yeah."

"Barcelona?"

"I haven't signed anything," Villa says, which means yes.

"Good." David tries for a smile. He thinks it comes out all right. "You'll be good there."

For a long, drawn-out minute, Villa looks at him, like he's going to say something. He gives a little shake of the head, instead, mouth twisting, and looks back down, back up.

"You're not going to stay," he says. Not a question.

David's hands are itching to tuck back his hair, brush his nose. He clenches them at his sides and shakes his head.

No. He's not.

Villa suddenly surges to his feet. He shoulders his bag, turns toward the door and says, over his shoulder, "See you in Madrid."

It's a heartbeat, skipped, before David realizes Villa means next week, not next season. By the time he does, Villa's gone.

David pulls off his shirt.


*

He sees it in the papers, three days later.



iii.

Madrid's hazy with heat as they all meet in a clash of jostling arms, shouted insults. Raúl finds him quickly, taking the time to corral him in a headlock disguised as a hug. Xavi appears at his elbow to say hello in a quiet, deep voice and vanishes almost as suddenly. David looks around for Juan, and is reassured to see he's found Javi Martínez.

It's not that they haven't all been called up together since Raúl's transfer, but it's just a little surprising to see him so at ease with Arbeloa and Alonso, not to mention Ramos and his shadow. David sits with them and Juan and Javi at the opening lunch anyway. Four teams at one table, that's not bad.

He doesn't look, the entire morning. He very carefully doesn't look, but there's a painful consciousness tightening his chest, prickling between his shoulder blades, like there's a black hole in the room sucking all his awareness toward it.

It's not fair to think of them as a particular group and David knows it. He's heard stories about what national call ups used to be like, from Carlos and Casillas, and there's nothing of salt-wound partisan fractures in this team.

It's not fair, but a lot of things aren't fair.

He doesn't realize it's time to leave until the scraping of thirty-odd chairs jostles him from his thoughts, and he looks up to see everyone standing up around him. Ramos taps him on the head as he passes and says, "Come on, daydreamer," tossing David a white grin.

Sometimes – actually, a lot of the time – David envies Ramos his ease with, apparently, every person he's ever met. Judging by his face, Navas feels the same way.

As he's getting to his feet, someone collides with his shoulder and he stumbles, catching one hand on the table and rattling the empty plates.

A familiar voice says, "Sorry," and David's feet stutter for just a moment.

"No, it's nothing," he responds as carelessly as he can manage, smiling, and waves Villa toward the door. "See you out there."

Someone says Villa's name – Reina, looking at him expectantly, grinning. Villa turns to reply, an answering grin ready, and is absorbed into the group as seamlessly as if he'd never had anywhere else to be.

"Hey," Raúl says in his ear, "coming?"

So David goes.


*

That night, there's a message waiting from his agent.

The official announcement is at the end of the week.


*

They fly to Austria as Mourinho signs his contract in the Bernabeu. David's supposed to meet with Julio as soon as he gets back; in the meantime, stay in contact at all times, understand?

At dinner after the first win, they toast Carlos for his new record: most consecutive appearances without a loss. Puyol comes around to all the tables handing out porra sheets. David does his best to stay attentive, to laugh with the rest of the table.

It doesn't quite work. "Hey," Carlos says in a low voice, as they all break up after the meal. "No bad news?"

David shakes his head automatically – then stops. He glances up. Carlos' expression is calm and undemanding. David pushes a hand through his hair and says with difficulty, "You know I'm not – you know, right?"

Carlos says, "Ah." And then, "I thought maybe this would finally be the year, once Villa left." Somehow, he can manage to look sympathetic but not pitying. "Your choice?"

"I don't know," David says, with such force that he's taken by surprise. He bites his lip and clenches the hand still in his hair. "Sorry. Sorry. I just – don't know."

The nice thing about Carlos is that he never asks too many questions, like Where are you going? or But what's made you so upset today? Instead, he just gives David's shoulder a squeeze and says, "You know where to find me if you want to talk."

David dredges up a smile. "Thanks."

He tries his best to bury it for the rest of the trip. He thinks he does a reasonably good job; they win again, which helps.

He should have known getting by Casillas' eagle eye was too much to hope for. He corners David as skillfully as a sheepdog cutting a lamb from the rest of the flock. One moment David's trudging through the airport terminal, the next Casillas is in stride with him, a neat barrier from the rest of the team. David can't help but be a little impressed.

"How is your father?" is Casillas' deceptively mild opening shot.

"Oh - fine?" says David. He grimaces. "I mean, fine. He's well. He sends his regards to the team." His father has done nothing of the sort, but undoubtedly would if he knew Casillas were asking after him. His father is - there is no other word for it - a fan.

"And the rest of your family? Your mother?"

"They're all well. Everyone back home wishes they could see me, of course, but they're excited for the Cup - " Awareness of what he's actually saying slowly seeps in and David forces his mouth shut.

Casillas simply nods. "My grandparents, too," he says absently, before "And what about you?"

"Oh - fine," says David. He shrugs. "We rested a little with Valencia. This trip is good for us." Casillas seems to be listening with only half an ear, eyes on David's face. Abruptly, he stops. David follows suit.

"Listen," Casillas says. "Is everything all right?"

David hesitates. Casillas' gaze is intent. His brow is furrowed, and for the first time, David notices the fine lines at the corners of his eyes.

"I'm fine," David repeats. "Really. It's just, you know." He waves a hand vaguely, allowing to Casillas to infer he means – this, the cup, South Africa. He smiles, small but genuine, and Casillas returns it with interest. He's a good captain.

Casillas clasps his shoulder and gives him a little shake. "Well then," he says. His smile grows. "We'll have nothing to worry about, with you on the pitch. Except to hope that we don't draw Germany, eh?"

David groans – perhaps a little dry and strained – and puts a hand over his face. Casillas laughs and gives his shoulder one more pat before moving away.

Nothing to worry about. David rubs a hand over his eyes.


*

The heat's gotten even worse.

At the training grounds, the air is flat and still. The mere sight of the heavy veil of heat shimmering over the playing field makes David thirsty. His shoulders itch.

"Heads up, Silva!"

He looks up just in time. The ball comes arcing toward him and automatically he's setting his shoulders, backing up one, two steps – His head connects with a solid thwack and the ball traces a high parabola back to the little knot at the end of the pitch. Scattered applause.

Training, at least, is something he can do. He's dripping after the first half-hour. At the break, the coaching staff hands out tiny pre-packaged bottles of water so no one drinks too much in the heat.

Someone's voice rises over the pants and groans. "Bet the exiles miss England now. Eh, Torres?"

Torres says, seriously, "I never miss anywhere."

"He cries himself to sleep every night," Reina declares and amid the general guffaws even Torres cracks a grin. "It's a strange place, Liverpool, it makes you crazy in the head and you like it."

"Just like Barcelona," someone else cuts in sotto voce, and there's a chorus of ooohs. Valdes pounces on the culprit – Capdevila – and they scuffle briefly. (Capdevila has played for Espanyol and Atletico; Capdevila is from Lleida.)

"Listen to what Pepe said," Raúl advises him as they troop off the yellowing grass. This is the closest he's come to the subject since they began the campaign – by accident or design, David doesn't know. "Crazy in the head. You don't want that."

David wants to laugh, or say, Not so different from you. He's silent. He can't joke about this.


*

The air conditioning in Julio's office is on too high. Somewhere, a clock is ticking.

"You have plenty of options," Julio says. "There's no reason to worry. Benítez may still be interested, there are the English clubs..." He trails off.

If he won't mention it, David will. "So," he says, and clears his throat. "Then. Definitely not?" Oh, he hates the way his voice rises against his will, questioning, like he actually hopes.

Julio lets out a long breath. "No," he says. "I don't think so."

David nods, quickly, once. It's ridiculous to feel this way; it was hardly written in stone. He should know better.

Julio says, "I'll do my best for you. I guarantee it." What else would he say? David does his best to produce a polite half-smile anyway. "The club – " meaning Valencia " – is staying in touch." Julio's mouth turns up wryly. "Extremely regularly."

The surge of contradictory reactions clawing upward nearly takes David's breath away. "I see," he manages to say, after a minute.

"David." Julio leans forward. "I know you wanted to wrap this up as soon as possible, but the club isn't going to accept an offer easily. For your own sake, it might be best to wait. Besides – " He pauses. "Not that you need any other reasons, of course, but – it would be to your benefit if you made a good showing in the Cup."

David's immediate, instinctive reaction is a visceral and crashing No. He fights it down, and tries to reason. "Just something to think about," Julio says.

Outside, David leans against the concrete façade and ignores the heavy stream of passersby. Wait. He can wait. He'll have to wait.

If he does well in the Cup –

David takes a deep breath – two deep breaths – to quell the slow tide of apprehension swelling within him. He can handle the pressure: he knows he can, and he knows he's demonstrated it. He's earned his place. He's started in all the qualifiers. There's no reason to think anything will change now.

He puts a hand to the back of his neck and it comes away damp with sweat.

It's too hot.


*

Fourteen minutes into the next match, he scores.


*

In the rush of a game, it's all different. Blood pounding, the scent of cut grass and sweat filling his nostrils; nothing but here and there and there again. He sees the triangle as clearly as if it's chalked on the grass: Iniesta, to Xavi, to the gaping space where, suddenly, he's standing, the ball at his feet. He shoots.

There's no exultation, just a swift rush of pleasure, of a craftsman's satisfaction. This is what he can do.

Slapped hands with Iniesta and Alonso, a pleased congratulatory huddle. Then a heavy arm around his neck and a warmth at his back. Villa's crowing something in his ear.

Fourteen minutes in and two goals up: they're going to destroy Poland. On paper, this game counts for nothing. David doesn't care.

It always counts for something.



iv.

The call comes at night. It's the first clear evening after almost a week of rain and everyone's out in the streets, the boys (and some of the girls) with a ball and the couples with each other. Every so often someone dashing by skids to a halt and yells at David to come on, come in; he waves and smiles a little and shakes his head and sends the ball thudding once more against the wall. Natalia's looking after some of the little cousins, dancing Lara around in circles, and on the steps his father sits smoking, watching David.

"Head up, David," he says, and inside the house the phone rings.

His father twists around.

Footsteps, and then his grandmother standing in the doorway, Nano her silent shadow with one hand in his mouth and the other wrapped in her skirt. At the look on her face, his father straightens.

"No," she says to him, and then, "It's for you, David. Your club."

Inside, the tile is cool under his feet. He takes a deep breath and says, "Hello?"

When he goes back outside, his mother is there, too. She and his father are holding hands. There are tiny lines around his father's straight mouth. David thinks, dizzily, that he's probably expecting something entirely different. When he shuffles forward, his mother tries to smile at him; his grandmother doesn't, her black eyes never leaving his face.

David says, "Can I go to Valencia?"


*

It's the sunlight that persuades David's instincts that it really is winter in South Africa: cold and dry, sliding across the skin without penetrating it. They zip up their jackets and get to work.

Five days of group matches trickle by. Off the pitch, they shake hands, applaud, take pictures, play video games. David observes this all with interest from inside an airless bubble. On the pitch, he snaps into himself, hyper-aware, feeling every pounding footstep and gasp of air. His lungs burn. He runs.

Navas is training regularly on the wing. So is Pedro. They talk about the Canaries, a little. Pedro, David finds, didn't leave until he was 17, but he doesn't go back as often as David.

"I got lucky," he says matter-of-factly. "That Barcelona took me after only a season, that the Mister knew me from the reserves... Without that, I wouldn't be here. I owe Barcelona everything."

"Yes," David says. "So do I. To Valencia."

Julio calls again. "To keep you in the loop," he says. "The club's talking with Benítez and Mancini. Bad blood between those two, eh?"

"Mancini?" David says, questioning. He knows Mancini's not at Inter anymore, but –

"Manchester," and before David can register his surprise, "City."

"Oh," David says, and then, with an uncomfortable jolt, "Oh."

Del Bosque announces the final starting lineup in Durban, the night before the game. Somewhere deep in his chest, David feels a small, unreasonable burst of relief.

As they break up, David sneaks a glance at Torres. His arms are crossed and his mouth is set in short, unhappy line. As David watches, Miñano drifts over and puts a hand on his arm, leaning over to speak quietly in his ear.

"He won't give up until he's on the field in this tournament," someone says in his ear.

David starts. Villa's standing at his shoulder like he's been there all along. "Oh," David says intelligently. "Hi." He gropes for a normal response. "How are the girls?"

Villa doesn't say anything. Instead, he scrutinizes David, arms crossed over his chest and jaw set.

David's far too familiar with Villa's infamous basilisk stares to be unsettled by one now. Still, he's not expecting to hear Villa say, abruptly, "Are you still worrying over that transfer?"

David's mouth drops open. He fumbles for a response. "I – not really – yes. Is it that obvious?"

Villa runs a hand down the back of his head. "You're asking the wrong person." And then before David can respond, "You've got to forget about it. Trust me."

"I know," David says miserably. "I know. I just – I just wish – " that I knew already, that I never have to know, that I could go wherever I want, that Valencia never had to sell. He puts a hand over his face.

Something brushes his hair. "Never mind," Villa says gruffly. "Just focus. That's what's important now."

"I – yeah." David takes his hand away and smiles weakly. "Good luck to us. Tomorrow."

Villa shrugs, and then, suddenly, smiles. "We'll be fine," he says. "It's just another match."

David falls asleep with those words echoing in his ears.

Just another match.


*

It is just like another match.

They lose anyway.


*

Ten minutes after the goal, David is called off the field. Everything afterwards is a merciful blur.

The locker room is silent except for the rustle of clothing or low murmured commonplaces. On the bench, Casillas' eyes are locked on the ground. He's gripping his knees so tightly his knuckles are white.

Crash.

Every head turns. The locker door is still vibrating as Villa strides furiously from the room.

David's lip stings. When he touches a finger to it, it comes away smeared with red.



v.

The local boys are all right. The ones, like him, from outside are the worst, quick to sense their own weaknesses in their counterparts. At first David's too quiet for them to notice; then, after the first couple practices, they descend like locusts.

He starts to call every morning. Early, stealing out of the room as quietly as he can so his roommate doesn't wake up – so no one will notice, and have one more reason to mark him for attention. It's cold now, in the morning, or maybe the heat's just breaking down again – either way, David takes a sweatshirt with him down to the cold tile entryway, where he twists the cord around his hand as he counts the rings on the other end of the line.

"David," his grandmother always says, full of warmth, like it's a surprise.

"What's going on today?" he asks, and she tells him while he stands there shivering in the phone booth, shifting from bare foot to bare foot, blinking furiously and trying to keep the burning in his eyes and throat at bay.

"And you? How are you?" she asks him near the end, just before she has to return to the restaurant.

"The football is great," he replies. Truthfully, because it is. Always, always, the football is great.


*

The first session, afterwards, is sluggish and restrained. They're far beyond the level where a touch of pressure will send mistakes bubbling up through the cracks but though the surface is unmarked – touches smooth, passes complete – everything is subtly off, a split-second too slow. When David lunges, there's a weight hanging from his shoulders.

David is one of the last to leave the changing room for the bus. As the door swings shut behind him, a snatch of conversation resonates under the eaves of the building, and inadvertently, David glances over.

Torres' fists are clenched and his freckles jump out from his white face. "I can," he says, in a voice whose strained desperation is painful to hear. "I can. Please."

"Hmmm," is all that del Bosque says. It's not a no. David retreats quickly, before he can hear anything more.

Back at the hotel, Julio calls three times. On the third, David makes himself answer.

"Inter's out," Julio says without preamble. "It's going to have to be England."

It's what he's expected. Maybe he'll prefer England to Italy, if he has to leave. He asks, "Who?"

"Well," says Julio. "There's Chelsea."

"Chelsea," David repeats. London and Ancelotti. That – wouldn't be bad.

"They've been in talks. They're certainly a possibility. But they aren't quite – " Julio pauses. "Committed." Translation, unready to make a firm bid.

Then Julio says slowly, "Manchester are still very interested."

"Oh," David says, blankly.

"They're – actually, they're ready to make a firm offer. A considerable offer. They really are eager to have you." Translation, Valencia is eager to have them.

"Okay," David says, and, because he needs something to say, "Is there anything else?"

Julio says, "Not... definite."

Translation: Not that Valencia will accept.

David's almost surprised at the sand that creeps into his throat. "Okay," he says again, because there's really nothing else to say.

"Don't make any decisions yet," Julio says quickly. "I've been saying to the club what I said to you, if we can hold out until after the Cup – "

"I'm really sorry," David cuts in, "it's almost time for evening training. Should I call you back?"

"No, no, you concentrate. I'll be in touch." Before David can thank him, as he always does, the line is cut off.


*

Torres starts against Honduras. David's glad, if it means they win.

And they do, without Torres, and without him.


*

The next day, at training, del Bosque says, "Pedro, up front with Villa."


*

At the end of the session, del Bosque says, "Silva." His voice is as unreadable as ever. "Please stay and speak with me."

David can't keep his eyes from flicking to the others. Most of them don't hear, or pretend not to; Raúl, though, catches his eye and winks. David doesn't dare smile back. Instead, he waits obediently until they've all trickled off the pitch in twos and threes and wills his feet over to where del Bosque stands at the touchline, hands thrust in his pockets.

Del Bosque looks him over for an endless minute.

He says, finally, "I asked every member of the team to make a promise, did I not?"

David nods.

"To leave their clubs behind."

David nods, more slowly.

There is a long, long silence before he hears, "That is not what you've done, David."

David nods. And then, before he can help himself, "I know, I tried, but I couldn't – if I don't – I have to – " Tangled, he trips over his own words, and as soft and inexorable as ever, del Bosque says,

"I asked you to promise."

David holds his eyes, pleading, for a long minute. He tried – he tried

Del Bosque's expression is as immovable as granite. Slowly, under the weight of his heavy gaze, David feels the resistance drain from him. His shoulders fall. He tried, and failed.

"Yes," he says.

Another long minute. Then del Bosque nods, and says, "Enough." Before David can say anything, he turns away.

David's not sure how he gets across the field. When he comes to, he's standing before the door to the changing room with his hand on the doorknob. He snatches it away as if it burns. Faintly, he can hear a muffled clamor from within.

David's jaw aches. He grips his hair and tugs, hard enough to spark tears, then his hands slide from his hair and scrub over his face. He slams his fists into his thighs, just once.

Then he straightens up, takes a deep breath. Sets his shoulders. He twists his mouth in a smile, just to be sure he still can. He opens the door.


*

That night, he makes a phone call.


*

He hears from Julio again the moment the hardest is through. "They've reached an agreement. The club – they've done well. The terms are very good."

"Good," David says. Because, in the end, he wants that for them, the club that brought him here.

"Before we start with them – before I start negotiating for you – I want to hear it from you that you're sure. Because once we finalize something it's going to be hard to go back."

Suddenly he can't speak.

"David? You need to tell me that you're sure. You want this to go through."

David can't help it. His eyes close tightly, just for a minute, and then he takes a deep breath and opens them.

Says, "Yes."


*

They don't lose again.


*

The last training session is eerily calm, byproduct of an odd mixture of tension and self-conscious relaxation. They break up on a high note. The changing room is, by contrast, even louder and more high-strung than usual; the heightened atmosphere will no doubt remain for the rest of the evening, the last chance to blow off steam before the final.

Somewhere, so deep down that David was barely conscious of it, a tiny sliver of hope that he would be on the field tomorrow had persisted until the very end.

"You're going to be late," Villa says, and David looks up to see him framed in the doorway. The room is empty.

"Oh," David says, "oh. Sorry. Everyone must be waiting, I – "

Villa cuts right through him. "It's fine. Most of them are too keyed up to care."

David laughs a little, surprising himself. "I should have expected that, I guess."

They're both quiet for a moment. David wets his lips. Next time he sees David Villa, no matter what either of them believe, something will have changed. He wants desperately to speak, and has nothing to say.

Villa says abruptly, "You're going straight home after the presentation?"

David nods.

"Then England?"

David swallows hard. He nods again. Something's rising in his throat, fighting to get out, but his mouth is dry and empty.

"Well," Villa says, after a minute. "Don't stay in here too long." He's leaving, and he can't, David can't let it go like that –

The dam bursts and David hears his own strangled voice say, "Wait."

Villa turns.

"Good luck. Tomorrow. And next season." He's nearly choking on his own words as they tumble out. "It's been – I'm glad. I'm really glad I got to play with someone like you."

When he can bring himself to look up, for a moment – just a moment – Villa's face looks like someone's just laid him bare.

David stumbles to his feet. Something's crushing his chest. He stands there, dumb, waiting. He wants to hear something. He wants to hear anything. Good luck, or, I'll miss playing with you. Or, I'll miss you.

Villa's burning eyes look straight at him, pinning him to the wall, and Villa says, "See you in Madrid."

In the silent room, David rests his burning forehead gently against the cold metal locker and squeezes his eyes closed. He stays there for a while.



vi.

David can't even hear the crowd's roar any more. He can't hear anything but the sharp, shouted commands of his teammates, calling for the ball or for cover. There's still a fraction of a second's lag between hearing a name and recalling the face, lag he can't afford. Until he's been with the team longer, he'll try to make up for it with speed.

He whips around at the sound of his own name. Morientes sends the ball flying directly at him and he traps it with his chest, plays it around the man (badly) marking him and returns it to Morientes, now up the field. Then they're on the break, an arrowhead of white against the candy stripes of Atletico. The ball's back at his feet. Someone jams an elbow in his side, throwing their weight against him; he digs into the ground and heaves back, tapping the ball away and passing it off to the nearest white shirt. There's a flurry of movement in the center and he shakes off the defender, swings out wide – and that's when he sees, up ahead, the glaring gap in the corner.

He launches into a sprint, vaguely aware he's yelling at the top of his lungs. He hears his name again, more clearly, and swivels around. The ball lands at his feet, just as Atletico scramble into position. The shouts fade and David's eyes sweep the pitch, field of vision reduced to a single objective.

There, in the center. Just on the edge of a snarl of red stripes, David Villa jumps out at him, blazing white. David chips the ball high and watches it soar up, up –

It curves down at Villa's feet, and without a second of hesitation he fires it into the back of the net.

Everything blurs. Then David becomes aware his mouth is open in a triumphant yell and from across the field, Villa is hurtling toward him, face a study in pure exultation. Arms flung wide, he crashes into David with such staggering force that David stumbles backward, and David is laughing in surprise as he wraps his arms around Villa in return.

So this is Valencia.


*

It's colder here in August than Arguineguín has ever been in December. The sky is dull and heavy with clouds. On the empty pitch below, David shivers.

Slick with dew, the ball slips the last inch from David's hands to the center line. He straightens, and backs away. The air is thick with the smell of wet grass. He jogs forward –

The pulse of contact reverberates through his whole body as the ball sails sweetly through the air, a perfect, curving arc, into the high corner of the net.

David takes a deep breath and inhales the scent of rain.