“Cesc. Cesc, we need your help.” Sergio was urgent, eyes serious, but Gerard grinning behind him let Cesc know that whatever Sergio needed him for wasn’t particularly world-threatening.
“Why?” Cesc replied, warily.
“You speak the best English.”
They both knew that was a lie. Xabi spoke the best English. He was second, maybe, but Sergio telling him his was the best meant that both Sergio was attempting to flatter him and that Sergio wanted Cesc to do something that Xabi wouldn’t do. Which meant it had to be entertaining. “So?”
“So, you need to go extend our invitations to the Germans. They should come party with us.”
“They’re not going to want to party with us,” Cesc scoffed. “We kicked them out of the World Cup. And we beat them in the Euros. They’re not going to want to watch us celebrate.”
“Why not? When I lose, I want to party, so why shouldn’t they?” Sergio shrugged, looking unfazed. “Just ask them. Please?”
“Make sure you tell Schweinsteiger that Sergio invites him…personally.” Gerard waggled his eyebrows, letting no lack of innuendo into his tone.
“I do not!” Sergio protested. “But, you should make sure he gets the message.”
“Sergio loooooves Schweinsteiger…” Gerard cooed.
“I do not!” Sergio huffed.
“Sergio wants to fuuuuuuck Schweinsteiger…” Gerard said in that same sing-song tone.
“Would you shut-“
“Okay. Okay. I’ll ask, I’ll ask.” Cesc laughed. He was probably unable to say no to anyone at this point. He was going to be in a World Cup final.
“I knew you’d help.” Sergio beamed and kissed Cesc’s cheek. “Go, go, I don’t think they’ve left yet.”
Fondly, Cesc shook his head and headed out to the German dressing room. He managed to stop himself from whistling. He had about a zillion elated texts from Robin and he was going to be in a World Cup final.
He poked his head into the far more somber locker room of the Germans. It made him feel guilty. Xabi would have left them in peace, but he’s pretty sure that Xabi is a better person than he is. The Germans don’t notice him at first, wrapped up in their own soft conversations or silence. Cesc bit his lip and hovered by the doorframe.
It was Schweinsteiger who noticed him first. Cesc probably would have preferred Gomez, who seemed more reasonable about this kind of thing, but Schweinsteiger was good enough. “What do you want?” the German hissed.
“Uh.” Cesc started to reconsider saying yes to Sergio. “Ah. Sergio, he…wanted to invite you to our hotel. You all. If…if you want. For celebration.” He couldn’t help but wince at the thoughtlessness of his words. “You don’t have to.”
Schweinstieger huffed, then looked back at his teammates, and his face softened. “I’ll see who’s up for it.”
“Give me your phone, I’ll put everything on it.” Bastian moved away, then returned with the phone. Cesc quickly tapped a few buttons and handed it back to Bastian. “See you, maybe?”
“Yeah.” Bastian turned back to his teammates and Cesc scurried away, eager to get back to his own dressing room and actually celebrate.
* * * * *
Robin was already signed in by the time Cesc had Skype open, and Cesc barely had enough time to hit the buttons before Robin was crowing at him through the screen. “Cesc!”
“Hey!” Cesc beamed and blew a kiss to the screen.
“You did it!”
Cesc laughed. “I did nothing. Literally.”
“Details.” Robin grinned, bouncing in his chair. “You beat Germany!”
“I knew you’d be happy about that.”
“I have to be.” Robin laughed. “I am Dutch. We hate seeing them do well.”
“I am glad I could make you happy.”
“You always do, babe.” Robin grinned, and he looked the same as he did back when they’d first met, awkwardly handsome and charmingly self-confident. Robin had swept him up from the first. “But I’m just happy for you.”
“Aww, Robin.” Cesc looked down, slightly embarrassed, but pleased. “So how’s Sandton?”
“Boring.” Robin wrinkled his nose. “Bouchra likes it, she can go shopping and shit, but I’m bored.”
“You finished Gossip Girl?” Cesc straightened in his chair. “And?”
Robin sighed, rolled his eyes theatrically, and leaned forwards to launch into discussion with an eager Cesc. They normally watched the episodes together, but they’d been saving this season for something to watch during the World Cup. Cesc had finished it far faster and had been badgering Robin about it ever since. He’d missed actually having Robin there to discuss, and to make comments about the show as it played. He’d gotten used to so much about Robin that it was odd to not have them there. Somehow it all felt more serious than it had back at the Euros.
“I can’t wait for next season,” Cesc sighed. “So long!”
“They are so mean to us.” Robin pouted at the camera.
“You look cute when you do that.”
Robin grinned. “I’m just cute in general.”
“You are,” Cesc laughed.
“I miss you, though.”
“I miss you, too.” Cesc gently touched the computer screen with his fingertips. “It’s weird.”
“Yeah,” Robin agreed, nodding seriously. “But we’ll be back in London soon, yeah?
“Yeah.” It was surreal, that this would all come to an end, and they’d be back to home. He’d be seeing Robin every day instead of just through the screen.
“Can’t wait to kiss you again.” Robin’s grin turned cheeky. “And everything else. But you should go celebrate.”
“I want to talk to you more.”
“Nah, go party. Trust me, you don’t want to miss this stuff.”
“I thought you looked a little hungover,” Cesc teased.
“Hey, I hold it better than you.” Robin waved his hand. “Now go on, I want to tease you about your hangover tomorrow.”
“Love you,” Cesc murmured, heartfelt.
“Love you too.”
* * * * *
“You think I could get both of them?” Sergio asked, looking speculatively at Schweinsteiger and Podolski. The pair were deeply absorbed in each other, absently moving their hips to the music. Cesc had been surprised enough that they were even there, although they hadn’t been the only Germans to show up.
“Worth a shot,” Cesc said with a shrug, taking a sip of his beer, his second. He was behind the rest of the party. Carles was already stumbling and Sergio wasn’t even trying to pretend he hadn’t invited the Germans with the express purpose of getting into Schweinsteiger’s pants.
“That’s the attitude.” Sergio threw back the rest of his wine. “I can definitely take both of them.”
Cesc snickered into his beer, watching Sergio go up and attempt conversation, with Schweinsteiger at least. That would be worth watching, even more than Carles’ one-man show on the other side of the room.
“That is hopeless,” said a voice behind Cesc.
“Yeah?” Cesc turned, raising his eyebrows at Mario Gomez.
“Totally. Podolski he is very….possessive?” Mario wrinkled his brow in concentration. “He does not like anyone near Basti. Possessive, yes?”
“Yes, that’s the word.” Cesc looked back at Sergio, and Podolski looked to be proving Gomez right. He certainly didn’t look happy to see him.
“He didn’t want to come. But Basti did, so….” Mario shrugged. “He won’t leave him alone.”
“You don’t sound happy about that.” Cesc couldn’t resist gossip, whether it was about people he knew well or didn’t know at all.
“No, I wanted to come,” Mario looked quizzically at Cesc.
“Never mind.” Cesc shook his head. Mario spoke some English and some Spanish, but Cesc was never sure what anyone else understood when he talked. “How are you doing?”
“Okay. Been better.” Mario laughed as if he’d made a joke. “Not doing as well as Philipp, though…”
Mario pointed behind Cesc’s head, and Cesc turned. “Is that…”
“It’s one of your goalkeepers.”
Cesc giggled into his beer. “Victor. It’s Victor.” And it certainly was Victor Valdes, with Philipp Lahm on his lap, hand down the back of the German captain’s jeans, Lahm kissing him as if he was attempting to devour him.
“Ahhh.” Mario nodded, managing to inject a range of amusement and innuendo into the syllable. “Well, good. If anyone needs to get laid, it’s Philipp.”
“Is that why he came?”
“That’s why we all came.” Mario’s voice dropped slightly, becoming more suggestive as well as a clear invitiation.
“Makes sense.” Mario was the closest to Cesc’s type of all the Germans, and he couldn’t deny his appeal, but Cesc was loyal. He’d faced sterner tests than Mario Gomez. “Let me introduce you to everyone, then.”
Mario shrugged, taking the hint, but not looking too bothered at the rejection. “Sure.”
Cesc set off for Carles, who was the obvious center of the party, but he caught Fernando’s eye before he could get there. Fernando raised his eyebrows and tilted his head towards the somewhat distracted Mario. Cesc grinned. He was sick of hearing Fernando both talk about and try not to talk about Steven Gerrard.
“Mario, have you met Fernando?” Cesc asked with a grin.
“Only in newspapers.” Mario stepped forwards and extended his hand.
“It is nice to meet you in person,” Fernando said with a smile.
“In person is much better,” Mario all but purred.
Cesc stifled his laughter, but Fernando was still smiling, so he figured he did his good deed for the night. He’d earned whatever shots Carles would no doubt try to pour down his throat.
* * * * *
“Uugh,” Cesc mumbled into the computer, rubbing his face.
Robin laughed. “You look like shit.”
“Uugh,” Cesc repeated, pouting at the computer.
“Go sleep it off,” Robin told him, unable to keep the smugness entirely out of his voice. “You’ve never been able to hold liquor.”
“Shut up, arse.” Cesc stuck his tongue out. Robin could be such a jerk when he was right. He’d always been so smug about how easy it was for Cesc to get drunk. So competitive, that Robin.
* * * * *
The reality didn’t hit Cesc properly until they first started showing the game footage. There was Robin, lining up for a free kick as he did, and then the coaches started pointing and discussing and Cesc realized this was it. He’d be playing against Robin. He couldn’t remember actually playing against Robin for anything that counted, and this counted. This counted more than anything. If Robin wanted this half as much as he did, Cesc was sure he’d never wanted anything as much. The coaches continued to pick apart his game and noting how to shut him down.
One of them would go back to London bitterly disappointed, and it would be the other’s fault.
He loved Robin. Sarcastic, temperamental, overly competitive Robin, with the winning smile and atrocious taste in clothing. Robin had swept him off his feet, won him over with the charm and presence that was impossible to resist. Robin was loyal and protective and normally, he’d do anything for Cesc. He’d always been on Cesc’s side.
The thought of that changing disturbed Cesc more than he wanted to admit to himself. He was supposed to be mature enough to deal with this. He was a club captain. This was football. This was the kind of shit that happened.
“You okay?” Andres asked as they left the tactics session.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Cesc said, and since it was Andres, he didn’t ask more questions.
* * * * *
Iker sputtered just a moment after raising the water bottle to his lips, and Gerard and Cesc erupted into laughter. The salt had been Gerard’s idea, but Cesc had helped him steal it from lunch. It was the stupid sort of prank they’d done when they were kids in La Masia, and certainly it was stupider now that they were in their twenties, but it felt good anyway. Cesc had missed that kind of stupidity.
Gerard grinned and hugged Cesc to him, one-armed. “Good work, brother.”
Cesc laughed. “We make a fine team.”
“Always did. Always will.” There was a hint of a tease in Gerard’s voice, even more than usual. Cesc knew that Gerard was one of the tactics Barcelona was using to lure him, but he couldn’t deny the allure. He couldn’t do this at Arsenal. There, he’d long grown out of being able to put salt in water bottles.
“Yeah, yeah,” Cesc responded, as noncommittal as possible, grinning to soften it. He couldn’t joke like this at Arsenal. There was so much pressure. Not that there wasn’t here, but it wasn’t all his. He was just a part. He appreciated the responsibility he had at Arsenal, the seriousness of the manager, but it was equally seductive to not have it.
“Fuck, it’s cold out here.” Gerard huffed.
“It’s not that bad,” Cesc replied, rubbing his hands together.
“Yeah, it’s nice compared to England, yeah?”
“England’s not bad,” Cesc protested, but it was weaker than it had been earlier in the month. England had been receding since he’d arrived. It was cold and far away and Robin…Robin was an opponent now.
* * * * *
At night Cesc joined the card game in Carles’ room. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to talk to Robin, but he felt like he should be spending more time with his own teammates. He sent Robin a text message, getting just an “ok” back.
He knew how he’d have to cut out Robin, the thoughts and feelings he normally had for Robin. It was necessary. He needed to win and not be a liability to the team.
What hurt more was the thought that Robin needed to do the same thing.
* * * * *
They talked the next day, but it was tense, distracted. Robin tried to say something about Desperate Housewives, babbling to filling the space, but trailed off halfway through as he saw that Cesc wasn’t even looking at the camera any more. The silence that settled was oppressive.
“I should probably go to bed,” Robin said, finally, flicking his eyes to the camera. He looked so tense, somehow even more than he did when he was injured. “But, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” Cesc echoed, the weight of why he’d finally be seeing Robin again settling on his shoulders. Tomorrow, he was just opposition. “I love you,” he offered hopefully.
“I love you too,” Robin said flatly, and closed the program.
Cesc stared at the screen for a while before closing the laptop. He did love Robin. But he couldn’t deal with him right now. He didn’t feel tired enough to sleep yet, either.
Gerard was watching TV aimlessly when Cesc walked into his room, and moved over on the bed to make room for him. “’s boring, and nothing’s even in Spanish.”
“Not a lot of Spaniards around, probably,” Cesc sighed, resting his head on Gerard’s shoulder.
“I’m around. That’s enough.” Gerard ruffled Cesc’s hair.
“Yeah.” Cesc smiled. Trust Gerard to cheer him up without actually doing anything. They knew each other too well. Even if they’d lived away from each other longer than they’d lived near each other, some things were too entrenched to change. Gerard would always be his brother. “It’s all American TV anyway. Have you forgotten all your English?”
“I’m not into that crap like you are. Fuck, I’d rather watch the rugby highlights.”
Cesc laughed. “It’s not all crap!”
“You have the worst taste, I swear.” Gerard snorted. “We need to get you back to Spain and deprogram you.”
“Maybe.” Cesc grinned and briefly thought of Robin, but suppressed it. Not thinking of him these past few days had been surprisingly, guiltily pleasant. Everything was easier with the team when he wasn’t half in London.
“Maybe?” Gerard echoed, raising his eyebrows.
“I don’t know,” Cesc sighed, and he didn’t. His thoughts were too confused. He’d thought he was okay at subtleties, but he didn’t want to think any more. He just wanted to play football, win the next game and to hell with the rest of it.
Gerard shrugged and patted Cesc’s shoulder. “Rugby makes no fucking sense,” he said.
* * * * *
The tunnel was like any other tunnel, except it wasn’t. Cesc rolled his neck and stretched his arms and looked ahead of him. Red shirts on one side, orange on the other. He was towards the back, with the rest of the substitutes.
Cesc looked up. He wasn’t expecting to talk to Robin until the game was over. “Hey.”
“Just, uh…good luck.” Robin smiled, doing that shy duck of his head that Cesc always liked.
“Thanks.” Cesc adjusted the string of his shorts. “You too.”
“But not that much luck.”
Cesc wheezed out a laugh. “You too.”
“We’ll talk later?” Robin’s expression sobered.
“Promise.” Cesc touched Robin’s hand. He couldn’t abstract him away so easily when he was live and in front of him.
“Good.” Robin touched Cesc’s fingertips and exhaled, meeting his eyes once before walking away.
Cesc joined the lineup, focusing his eyes on the teammate ahead of him, deliberately not looking to the head of the Dutch line. He had a game to win. There was nothing more than that.