1. Gerard Pique
Their mother sat her down when Carlos left for the academy and told her she had to expect things to change. Carlos was going to make new friends, he was going to be busy and having fun and playing all the football he wanted (all the football she wanted, too, but that wasn't his fault and she loved him too much to hate him) and he wasn't going to have time for her anymore. Mama tried to put it more nicely than that, but Cesca wasn't stupid. So she said, "Okay," and "I understand," and "yes, I know," and went to the room that had been theirs but now was just hers and cried, because Carlos was her best friend in the world and it was awful enough already that he was gone without being told that he wasn't going to miss her like she missed him.
She was going to be good, though. She did understand and she knew her mother was only trying to look out for her. So when Carlos called and said, "You're coming to see me this weekend, right?" she said, "Yeah, maybe, if Mama can drive me, I guess."
Really, she should have known better. It was Carlos, after all; he always got what he wanted in the end. He cried until she put Mom on the phone, and then he cried until Mama gave the phone to their father, and then he threw the mother of all tantrums until they promised Cesca would be there to see him on Saturday morning. "You little monster," she whispered when she finally had the phone back and had tucked herself away in her room where their parents wouldn't overhear her.
"Hey, it worked, didn't it?" Carlos said cheerfully. "Wow, my throat hurts now. I haven't had to scream like that in months. You're going to love it here, Cesca. Everybody's great at football. I can't wait to introduce you to everyone."
"Okay," she said.
"I mean, you want to come, right?" Carlos asked, suddenly uncertain. "It's - I want to show you everything."
"Of course I want to come," she said. He was the one who'd been crying for almost half an hour. She didn't know why her throat was tight, too.
"Okay, good." Somebody said something to Carlos that she couldn't hear properly, and he suddenly sighed. "Cesca, I gotta go, somebody else wants the phone. I'll see you soon. Love you. Bye."
"Love you too," she said to the dial-tone.
The drive to Barcelona on Saturday morning was almost intolerable; they had to get up way too early and her mother's mouth was set in a thin line the whole way. Cesca sat in the back and stared out the window, pretending she couldn't tell her parents were fighting again. She forgot all about it as soon as she got out of the car and Carlos came barreling out into the street, yelling her name. "You came!"
"Hi," she said, laughing.
"Hi Mama hi Papa see you later c'mon Cesca," Carlos said, all in one breath, and dragged her away. "You have to see my room, you can see Camp Nou from the window, it's amazing, my roommates are really nice except the guy in the bunk above me snores and somebody's socks smell awful, I don't know who it is yet but when I do I'm going to stick them under his pillow so he'll know how the rest of us feel, hey, Victor, wait up! Geri!"
Cesca almost fell over when Carlos came to a sudden screeching halt beside two other boys. They all looked about the same age, one of them a little taller than Carlos, pretty much the same size as Cesca; the other towered over them all. "Hey, Carlos," the taller one said. He had blue eyes and a big goofy smile, and Cesca was inclined to like him immediately without really knowing why. "What's up?"
"This is my sister Cesca," Carlos said. "Cesca, this is Geri, and that's Victor. I'm going to show her my room and then we're going to go play outside, do you guys want to come?"
Geri's nose wrinkled. "What, like, football? Carlos, c'mon."
"Do you even know how to play?" Victor asked. "I mean, no offense, but I don't want to play with a girl."
Cesca jerked her chin up, but before she could punch either of them, Carlos had grabbed her hand and was squeezing so hard she thought he might break her fingers. "That's okay," he said. "She's on my team anyway. We're going to kick your ass."
"Cesca!" Carlos yelled, waving to get her attention. "Finally," he added when she ran over to him. "Geri's going to be so mad we made him wait, come on! He's got a new game and he promised he wouldn't start it until we get to his grandfather's but you're late, come on, come on - "
"Wait, who's that?" Cesca asked, pointing. She knew all of Carlos' dormmates, she thought, but she didn't recognize the kid sitting in the corner.
"That's Leo," Carlos said. "He's new this year, he's from Argentina. I think he's mute or something, he doesn't talk to anybody. He just sits there with his gameboy. He's really good, though."
Cesca kicked him. "Don't be a jackass, he's got to be like eight or something. I can't believe they took a kid that little in the dorms. You should be nice."
"No, he's, I don't know, he's got a medical thing that - he's our age, he just doesn't grow as quick or something? He's so fast, though," Carlos added, sounding vaguely envious. "In practice you can't even foul him."
"So why isn't anybody sitting with him?" There were kids running all over with footballs and others huddled in clumps with cards or videogames, and some with their parents too - a typical weekend at La Masia - but it was like the little mop-top was invisible or a leper. He just looked focused on his gameboy, not lonely, but Cesca still felt bad for him.
"I told you, he doesn't talk to anybody. It's not - oh, for god's sake, Cesca, we're already late, don't - "
"Well, I'm going to talk to him," Cesca said, and marched over. "Hi," she added.
"Hi," the kid mumbled, after a moment. He didn't look up.
"I'm Cesca," she went on, undeterred. "I'm Carlos' sister, Carlos Fabregas. What's your name?"
"Leo." His eyes flickered up, then back down to his gameboy. "Leo Messi." Cesca waited, but nothing more seemed to be forthcoming. She was about to give up and go back to Carlos when Leo suddenly volunteered, "I have a sister too."
He had a kind of funny accent, Cesca thought. It took a moment for her to process what he was saying. "Oh! Is she here? Does she play football too?"
"She's in Argentina," Leo said. "With our mom."
"Your mom's in another country?" Cesca asked, horrified. "Don't you miss her?" Leo's head ducked even further down. He didn't say anything, but he was mashing the keys of his gameboy with unnecessary force. "Oh. Sorry," Cesca said awkwardly. "Look, Carlos and I are going over to Geri's grandfather's house to play videogames, so you should come with us, okay? Victor's with his parents this weekend and we need a fourth so we can play two-on-two later."
Leo looked up, and she finally saw his face. He looked ordinary enough - brown eyes, kind of chubby cheeks, nothing especially distinctive - except for the sudden interest lighting up his entire expression. "You play football?"
"Yeah, of course." Cesca rolled her eyes and reached down to grab his gameboy out of his hands, so he had to chase her when she ran back to Carlos. "Come on already, it's going to be fun!"
2. Philippe Senderos
If Phil had a defining characteristic, it was that he was really, really freakishly nice. In their first day living in England, he helped Cesca and Carlos move into Noreen's, kept up a running translation of everything anybody said to them, and after dinner he offered to switch rooms with them, because they needed the extra space more than he did. Carlos liked and trusted him right away, because Carlos liked and trusted pretty much everyone, but it only took a little while longer for Cesca; he was like some sort of superhumanly kind alien, smiling at her at this disgusting hour of the morning as he gave directions so she could drive him and Carlos to practice, but maybe she liked that about him.
"No, I'm just Swiss," he said in Spanish, still smiling. "Turn left here, we're almost there. Are you sure you're not going to be bored just watching us practice? You could, I don't know, I think there's shops and stuff you could go to."
"Cesca doesn't like shopping," Carlos said sleepily from the backseat. Cesca eyed him in the rear-view mirror; he had his eyes shut, but his knees were jittering up and down. If she told him not to be nervous he would only make a face and tell her not to be stupid, so she didn't.
"I could like shopping," she said instead. She deliberately loosened her death-grip on the steering wheel, watched the other cars carefully as she switched on her turn signal. She hadn't had time to get used to driving on the wrong side of the road yet. "What do you know, you brat."
"Not as much as you like football," Carlos said. He was, as usual, obnoxiously right.
"Oh, you like to watch? Or do you play?" Phil asked, and because she could already tell he was too nice to ever deliberately hurt somebody's feelings, she only wanted to break his nose a little bit. Carlos opened his eyes and sat forward, his hands hovering awkwardly behind her shoulders; he couldn't hold her arms back when she was driving the car.
"I brought my English book," she said calmly. She heard Carlos sigh and relax back in his seat. Phil would never know how close to sudden messy death he had come. "I can study, if your practice isn't interesting."
It was pretty interesting, after all. Carlos got tackled so hard she was afraid he was going to break something, but she sat and watched, and he got right back up again. They played differently here, she thought. Not like Spain at all. But football was football, and nobody was going to teach her, but she was going to learn.
"Cescaaaa," Carlos complained. "Cesca, I'm bored. Play with me."
Cesca looked up at him - he was on the couch, she was on the living room floor - and rolled her eyes. "If we play any more Playstation we're going to go blind," she said. She was working on her English exercises, which was about as boring as it got, but she wasn't whining.
"So we'll go outside," Carlos said. "Come on, please? I'll show you a trick I learned in training last week."
"Okay, fine," she gave in. She could do her English later, and Carlos wasn't around to play against much since they'd moved. "Go get a ball, I'll put on my shoes."
Carlos bounced off the couch, all smiles. "Phil!" he yelled. "We're going to go kick a ball around in the park, do you want to come?" Noreen shouted up at him to keep his voice down and stop banging around the house, which he ignored as usual.
Phil poked his head out of his bedroom. He'd probably been reading; he always seemed to have his nose stuck in a book. "You and Cesca?"
"Yeah, come on, it'll be fun," Cesca said. She looked up from her shoelaces and grinned. "You can bring your book in case you get bored, if you want." Phil went red - she hadn't worked out what set him off yet; he didn't seem to mind any of the trash that came out of Carlos' mouth when they were in front of the Playstation, and he was in a locker room with professional athletes almost every day, but sometimes she'd say something completely random and he'd spend fifteen minutes blushing so hard it looked painful - and mumbled something inaudible. Cesca tried very hard not to laugh. "No, really, throw me the book, I'm bringing my bag anyway."
He walked over and handed it to her instead, but before she could tease Phil about his presumably shitty aim Carlos came thumping back into the room and distracted her by throwing his football at her head. "You're a little shit," she said equably, stuffed the ball and Phil's book into her backpack, and grabbed her jacket on the way out the door.
Nobody bothered them; Phil and Carlos were still pretty unrecognizable and Cesca was just one of the hundreds of girls in Arsenal track-jackets in the city. They were probably more anonymous in the park in London than they would have been in Barcelona, playing two-on-two with Geri and Leo in the street. She and Carlos were off running as soon as the ball hit the ground, and it was only fifteen minutes later, when a failed attempt at a slide-tackle had left both of them in a tangled, giggling heap, that she noticed the creepy-crawly feeling of being watched on the back of her neck.
She looked up and realized they'd completely forgotten Phil. He was just standing off to one side, staring at them with a strange look on his face. "What's wrong?" she asked, shoving Carlos off and getting to her feet. "Don't you want to play?"
He kept looking at her with the same funny smile. "You're really good," he said.
"Well, don't sound so surprised," she said. He flushed again.
"No, I mean - "
"Cesca, come on," Carlos interrupted. "I'll show you how to do that tackle right. You're going to break somebody's leg. Phil, get the ball and start running, I have to tackle you."
"Hey, Cesca, do you mind heading in to the training ground a little early tomorrow?" Phil asked a few days later. He was sort of hovering in the doorway of the room she shared with Carlos; Carlos was out in the living room playing videogames with Noreen's kids, and she'd been working on her English in the unexpected quiet. Sometimes it felt like all she ever did was drive Carlos and Phil to practice and write out stupid English exercises, but that was what she'd signed up for, and it was still better than Barcelona without Carlos. Once her English was better, she'd be able to do things again, she reminded herself for the millionth time. She could go to school, or get a job, or - anything, really. She wasn't going to be trapped shuttling between Noreen's house and the car and Hertfordshire forever.
"Sure, no problem. Do you have extra practice?" She sat up and smiled at Phil, and was surprised when he beamed back at her.
"No, not exactly. Vic wants to see you play," he said. He was almost vibrating with excitement; she was used to seeing Carlos bounce around like that after a good practice or too much sugar, but not Phil.
"Wants to see me play?" she repeated. "Who's Vic?"
"Oh, uh - Vic, our kit man? He coaches the girls. I told him about you, he said he wanted to see you, so I said I'd ask you to come in before practice. Is that - uh." Phil registered the furious look on Cesca's face and gulped. "Is that okay?"
"You told him about me?" she demanded. "What the hell, Phil! You didn't ask - "
"Hey!" he said, throwing up his hands as if she'd threatened to hit him. "I just said Carlos had a sister who could play, okay? It's not - I thought you'd like it," he added, plaintively.
"I didn't ask for your help," she snapped.
"Well, you never do," he snapped back, starting to look irritated for the first time since she'd met him. "But it doesn't take a genius to figure that you're bored out of your mind watching us play football when you want to be on the pitch too. So Arsenal has a girls team, and I think they're pretty good, and you're pretty good and maybe it would be fun if you could play with them instead of sitting in the stands watching us practice all day long. It's not goddamn rocket science. What the hell is your problem, Francesca?"
"Don't call me Francesca," she said automatically. Phil let out his breath in a long, disgusted sigh and started to turn away. "No, Phil, wait. I'm sorry, okay? I'm sorry." He stood in the doorway without moving, but at least he wasn't walking out. "I shouldn't have - I didn't mean to yell at you," she said. "It was really nice of you to try to - to get me into a team. But I don't want to get anything just because I know you, or because I'm Carlos' big sister, okay? That's not the way I want to do things."
"You're such a - that's not even why you were mad," Phil said angrily. He turned back around and glared at her. His face was going pink, but not with embarrassment this time. "It's just a trial, okay, if you were shit, and you're not, you know you're not, Vic would say thanks but no thanks and that's the end of it. You're just - you know what? I think you're just scared."
"Fuck you," Cesca snarled. "Do you have any idea - my whole life, okay, all I've ever wanted was to fucking play for Barcelona. And I can't. It's not - I'll never know if I could have been good enough. I can't."
"So you can't play for Barcelona, you stupid - so what? Do you know how many people can't play for Barcelona? I can't play for Barcelona. Carlos can't play for Barcelona! So stop feeling so goddamn sorry for yourself and - " Phil shook himself, bit his lip, started again. "You can't play for Barcelona, but maybe you can play for Arsenal, okay? It'd be really stupid not to try." He looked Cesca in the eye, and swallowed audibly. His shoulders hunched, like was trying to make his lanky defender's frame look smaller. "Shit. Cesca. Cesca, I didn't - "
"Shut up, I'm not crying," Cesca mumbled, swiping at her face with her sleeve. "I'm not."
"Okay," he said. He shuffled over to her and put a tentative arm around her back. "Of course not."
"Good," she said. Her voice was muffled, her face pressed into the front of Phil's sweatshirt. She felt his muscles tense before he carefully put his other hand around her and patted her between the shoulderblades.
"So tomorrow morning," Phil said at last, coaxing. "Come on. I'll take you to the sports complex."
"You can't even drive," she sniffled.
"Okay, you'll take us," he conceded. "But I'll go with you, okay? It's going to be fun. You'll see."
3. Andres Iniesta
"And we drew with fucking Leeds," Cesca ranted. "Leeds! And Carlos is being - seriously, if he gets any bitchier I'm going to murder him in his sleep, I know he's under a lot of stress but he should try being captain when the team fucks up, it's not a barrel of laughs. I don't think even he knows what he's fighting with Phil about at this point but the house is like a fucking war zone. And the weather sucks. I love it but sometimes I hate this city so much I could fucking kill myself." Leo made a vague uh-huh noise, and Cesca rolled her eyes. He was one of her best friends and she missed him even more than Barcelona sunshine, but why in god's name she ever called Leo on the phone was a mystery. Coming from him, anything more than three words strung together was like an epic monologue. "Anyway - "
"Come to Barcelona," Leo said.
It took her a moment to process that he'd even said anything. "What?"
"Come visit. You miss it and you want a break, so come back for the weekend. I can - I'll make Rodrigo buy you a plane ticket and pick you up from the airport, so just come."
Cesca laughed, mostly out of surprise. "That's really nice, but I've got - "
"You don't have a match," Leo said, sounding much firmer than usual. "Carlos won't die if you leave him for a few days. Ask your coach if you can miss a practice, and come visit me."
"Oh," Cesca said. "Um. Okay." She frowned, though of course Leo couldn't see that. "Are you all right?"
"Just because - oh, never mind. Do you want to talk to Carlos?"
Cesca laughed again. "Sorry, sorry, I know. I should have said, do you want Carlos to talk to you. I don't know where he is, though," she added, wandering out into the living room and then the kitchen. No Carlos in sight, or Phil for that matter, though the dishes piled by the sink probably meant there would be another fight about cleaning up their own messes when they got back. She thought about doing the washing-up herself for a moment, then shrugged and went back to her room. It wasn't her mess and she wasn't the goddamn maid.
"You could tell me about your practice," Leo said quietly.
"Leo, it's okay, you don't have to - "
"What, were you working on penalties or something? It's okay, I already know you suck at set-pieces, you're not revealing a big secret or anything."
"You asshole," Cesca squawked. "I am an integral part of my team's build-up on set-pieces and I do not suck at penalties, take that back right now!"
Leo laughed. It was a nice sound to hear. Mostly when Cesca missed Leo she thought about beautiful passes and ridiculous goals and Playstation deathmatches until two in the morning, but maybe she'd missed this too.
Leo was right, and Cesca felt a lot better about life once she got to Barcelona, although it probably had less to do with the brilliant winter sun than the fact that she was getting to watch Xavi practice. Xavi. And Deco. There was no way she was getting the lovesick expression off her face anytime soon, but she couldn't even bring herself to care all that much. She yanked her hood up to hide the dreamy look in her eyes and settled in for a glorious afternoon of beautiful football. At one point Leo paused between exercises and turned around to scan the scattered crowd of fans and journalists; when he found her - in the neon Nike hoodie she'd swiped from Carlos' closet, she was pretty hard to miss - he gave her a tiny wave. Cesca waved back, distracted, and went back to staring at Xavi with the intensity of a hawk, or possibly a deranged stalker.
She felt more awkward following Leo's directions into the heart of the complex after practice on her own; she'd seen more games than she could count at Camp Nou, but it wasn't her stadium, really. Not like Meadow Park, or even Highbury. But Leo had said it was okay, and to meet him outside the locker room, and she didn't know her way around well enough to go anywhere else. In the end she just sat on the floor in the hallway to wait. It was out of the way, or close enough. She'd just taken out her phone to text Carlos - she knew it was irrational, but she couldn't control the paranoid fear that he would manage to get into some horrible accident without her, or at least provoke Phil into severely maiming him - when a shadow fell over her. "Are you lost?" someone asked her. He didn't sound angry, at least.
"I'm waiting for a friend," Cesca said, squinting upwards. The angle was too hard for her to see who it was, but then he backed up and she realized that she was talking to Carles Puyol.
"This area isn't for fans," he said, still kindly but more firmly. "I can show you how to get back to the public area if you need help." It suddenly occurred to Cesca what she must have looked like: some kind of crazy autograph-hunter, or even a wannabe star-fucker, though the sweatshirt-jeans combination was probably a little low-key for that. She wondered, a little panicked, if she should show him the text from Leo, but that would just make her sound even more like a nutcase -
"Puyi? What are you - oh!" Andres Iniesta had come out of the locker room, and now he was looking down at her, too. "Oh, you're Carlos' sister, aren't you?" he asked after a moment. "Carlos Fabregas? I remember you, you always come to our U-21 matches and cheer for him."
"I," Cesca said. She hadn't really gotten past the realization that Carles Puyol thought she was trying to sneak into the locker room and accost the players. "I, um. Yeah, I'm Cesca."
"I thought so," Iniesta said, sounding pleased. He crouched down beside her. "He talked about a sister a lot, and you look just like him. Is Carlos here, too?"
"No, I'm, uh, I'm visiting Leo for the weekend. Carlos had a game, so it's just me."
"Oh, of course." Iniesta smiled at her, and then belatedly held out a hand. "I'm sorry, I should have - I'm Andres, by the way."
Cesca just managed not to say, "I know." They shook hands and Andres settled on the floor beside her - Puyol had walked away while they were talking, with a backwards wave to his teammate. "I think Leo might be a while," Andres said, still with that shy half-smile. "He was talking to Ronnie. When did you get in to Barcelona?"
This was one of the most surreal experiences Cesca had ever had, and the first time she'd met Thierry Henry had ended with her driving him and three of Carlos' other teammates home from a bar while they serenaded her with a drunken, out-of-tune rendition of "Ooooh to be a Gooner". She'd always assumed that Carlos liked the man who'd pushed him out of Barcelona because it was Carlos and he was too nice to do anything else, but maybe it was partly because Andres was too nice to do anything else, too.
Leo finally came tearing out of the locker room almost a quarter of an hour later, his face the color of a ripe tomato behind all the hair. "Sorry," he mumbled. "Hi, Cesca. Thanks, Andres." Cesca got to her feet and kissed him on both cheeks, which made her feel sophisticated and adult for the three seconds before Leo grabbed her in an enormous hug and squashed her face into his neck. On the balance, she liked the hug better.
"You take longer in the locker room than half the girls on my team," she informed him. "I just thought you should know."
"Ronnie saw me waving to you at practice," Leo muttered.
"And I told him you were my friend, and then he and Deco spent twenty minutes telling me why safe sex is important," Leo said. He sounded traumatized. She hadn't thought he could blush any harder, but he was turning purple. "I don't even know why Ronnie had all those condoms in his locker. I never want to see a banana again."
Cesca tried, she really did. She lasted maybe five seconds before she was laughing so hard she could barely stand. "Knowledge is never wasted, superstar," she said, once she could breathe again. "It'll come in handy when you've got hordes of women chasing after you begging to procreate with your superior football DNA."
"I hate you," Leo said. "No, seriously."
"I think I'll leave you two alone." Andres wasn't even trying to hide his grin. "See you tomorrow, Leo. It was nice to meet you, Cesca. Tell Carlos I said hi."
"He's so nice," Cesca said, almost at random, once Andres was gone. "It's really not fair."
"Yeah, and he doesn't give lectures about STDs in front of half the team," Leo grumbled.
"Poor baby," Cesca teased. "You'll get over it. Come on, we're moving, hood up, up."
"Why?" Leo looked blankly at her, and Cesca rolled her eyes.
"I want to go out in public and I don't want someone taking pictures just because I'm walking around with Lionel Messi, dumbass. There are like three different tabloids that already think I'm Carlos' girlfriend."
"Gross," Leo pronounced. He obediently pulled his hood up until his face was in shadow.
Cesca examined him carefully, then shrugged. It would have to do. "Let's go walk down La Rambla. I want to do tourist things today."
"Okay," Leo said. Cesca took the lead as she headed down the hall. Leo grabbed her hand before she could get too far ahead and stuck close to her side as they wandered out into the Barcelona sun.
"Son of a bitch," Leo yelled, as Cesca slammed yet another goal past his little cartoonish keeper on the television screen. She did a shimmy on the couch to match the celebration her striker was doing onscreen; it was her sixth consecutive win.
"Leo," Rodrigo called from the next room. Cesca kept dancing, but Leo squirmed.
"Sorry," he muttered.
His brother came out into the living room. "Mama will kill me if you forget all your manners out here," he said firmly, while Leo ducked his head to hide behind his hair like he was eight instead of eighteen. "Don't use language like that around a lady. I'm sorry, Francesca."
"I'm not a lady," Cesca said. "Leo can swear around me if he wants to."
Rodrigo didn't even look at her; he was still staring at Leo. Leo glanced up through his hair and nodded jerkily. "What do you two want to eat?" Rodrigo asked, as if the conversation had never happened.
"We can go out, if you want," Leo offered. "Ronnie told me about a, I don't know, some club he thought you would like? Or a restaurant?"
Cesca eyed him sidelong in disbelief. "Are you serious? We're not going to some fucking nightclub. You have training tomorrow."
Leo looked stubborn. "You're only here for - "
"You have training tomorrow," she repeated. "And I don't want to go to a club anyway. Let's just order takeout, okay? I'd rather stay in and play videogames."
"Are you sure - "
"Hey, if you're so upset about losing all the time, I can go easier on you," she said.
"I wasn't even playing seriously," Leo huffed. He swatted half-heartedly at Cesca, who grabbed at his arms and tried to wrestle him down to the couch. "Hey! What are you - "
"Okay, I'll order Chinese," Rodrigo said, smiling, and left them alone again.
"Ugh, lady my ass," Cesca grumbled as soon as he was out of earshot. Leo flapped his arms helplessly as he tried and failed to escape from her headlock. "I'm a fucking footballer, aren't I? Pretty sure I know how to swear better than he can."
"Can't breathe," Leo squeaked.
"You're hopeless," she sighed. He mostly stayed put even after she let go, his head resting on her shoulder. After a moment she pulled absent-mindedly at his hair. "You need to get this cut."
"I like it," he mumbled.
"Well, it's kind of out of place if you're going to turn into some obnoxious tabloid cautionary tale who hangs out in nightclubs when - "
"I just wanted you to have fun, okay?" Leo interrupted. "Just - leave it. I don't know what you do in London."
"I haven't been gone that long," she said.
"You kind of have."
"Leo." She put her chin on the top of his head and dug in until she was sure he was paying attention. "I'm never going to be gone that long."
"Okay," Leo said. It was so quiet that they could both hear the door slamming shut behind Rodrigo as he left to pick up dinner. Leo pushed his face into her neck for a moment longer, then sat forward and grabbed the playstation controllers off the floor. "Come on, I'm going to kick your ass this time."
"Seventh time lucky, huh?" Cesca rolled her eyes and took one of the controllers. "Bring it."
"You're going down," Leo said, deadpan. Silence fell between them as the tinny soundtrack started up again.
"Hey, Leo," Cesca said suddenly, a little later. He hummed, most of his attention still on the game. "Would you have played for Spain if Argentina never called you up?"
"I don't know," he said. He didn't look away from the television. "I don't - I love Argentina. I always want to play for them. Every tournament, every match, every minute. But if they never - I don't know. I wanted to play for Argentina, but I wanted to play." He finally hit pause and turned around to face her. "It's not the same thing. At least Argentina has a team."
"Spain has a women's team," she muttered. Leo didn't open his mouth, but his expression spoke volumes. "They just really suck."
Cesca waited, but he'd probably used up his allotment of words for the next week with what he'd already said. "They said, if I got dual citizenship, they'd call me up for the U-21s," she said at last. "Maybe the senior squad, if things at Arsenal keep going like they are. One of the - their coaches came to Arsenal, to watch some of the other girls, and they talked to me. They said if I wanted they'd help push my citizenship application through. I don't - I don't know what to do."
"What do you want to do?" Leo asked.
"I want to win the World Cup for Spain," she snapped. "I want to win the league and the cup and the goddamned Champions League for Barcelona. I want - goddammit, I want to play."
"That doesn't make you selfish," Leo said quietly. "You deserve to play." He leaned over and pressed a quick kiss to her cheek, and was back to staring straight ahead at the television before she could blink. She could see the back of his neck turning red. "And Catalonia isn't recognized by FIFA anyway, so as soon as they get a women's team you can play for your country and England too."
"If they're not recognized by FIFA I don't see why I can't play for the men's team." Cesca poked him in the side. "Unpause the game, I'm not done pulverizing your self-esteem."
"They'd be lucky to have you," he said. She looked at him, smiling, and while she was distracted he scored.
"Son of a bitch, you fucking cunt of a cheating whore!" she howled.
"LEO!" Rodrigo shouted from the kitchen. Cesca jumped and Leo winced; they hadn't heard him come back. "What did I tell you!"
"Sorry!" Cesca yelled. "That was me!"
4. Andrei Arshavin
"And you tell that fucking little creep that if he thinks having a vagina disqualifies me from doing my fucking job he can say so to my fucking face!" she snarled. Their front door slammed shut behind her. "That - that - " She covered her face with her hands and shrieked like a boiling teakettle.
"Okay, okay," Carlos said, holding up his hands. "I will."
"No, you won't," Cesca snapped, whirling around to face him.
"No, I won't," he agreed. "C'mon, Cesca, I know, but I can't - look, I'm his captain. I can't - you know I can't tell him not to say what he thinks just because you're my sister."
"It's not about me being your sister. It's about me being a person," she said angrily. She took a deep breath, let it out, took another. "Fine. Fine. But I don't want him at the charity match, okay? I don't want my teammates to have to share a pitch with him."
"Okay," Carlos said. "Okay. I'll ask Theo instead."
"Okay." She started to walk out of the room, then spun back around to face Carlos again. "He has a wife," she said, furious and helpless. "He has a daughter. How can he - "
"I know," Carlos said quietly. "Cesca, I know. But - look, he brings his family to the Ladies' games, when the men's team goes together. No matter what he thinks, his kids are going to know they can play if they want to. You won't change his mind, but there's more important things."
"Easy for you to say," she spat.
Carlos looked hurt. She didn't say anything else, but she didn't move away when he came up and wrapped his arms around her. "When we're fifty years old I'm still not going to believe I'm taller than you now," he said randomly, smiling down at her. "Cesca, I'd change the world for you if I could, but I can't. And you don't need me for that. You're going to do it all on your own."
5. Pep Guardiola
No matter how long she lived in England, Cesca never stopped missing the sun. It would be hard to go back after this summer, she thought, tipping her head back to let the late-July sunbeams hit her face. Ibiza and now Barcelona, even if she was only here for a day. But she always got used to it sooner or later.
"So what do you think?" someone asked her in Catalan, off to her left. Cesca jumped and turned around. Somehow she hadn't noticed that Pep Guardiola was standing next to her.
"Of what?" she managed. He gestured silently towards the field in front of them, where training was going on. It was mostly B-team kids, and Ibrahimovic towering over the lot of them. She'd lost track of Leo for a moment, and had to look before she located him again, talking with Gaby Milito. "They look good," she said at last. "Tough that you're missing so many players, but it's a good opportunity for the kids. And they deserve the vacation."
"Yes," he agreed. "I'm sorry to have cut yours short, incidentally."
"Oh - I'm just here to drop Leo off," she said, startled into indiscretion. "I mean, I'm not staying. Carlos and I have a little while still before we have to go back to London."
"Then I am sorry for taking Leo from you," Guardiola said. "If I could have let him stay behind - but that's not terribly helpful, is it?" He paused just long enough for her to feel awkward before going on, "You expect you will both be in London this year, then?"
"Oh," she said uncomfortably. "I'm not Carlos' agent, you know. I'm not the one you should be talking to."
"I've spoken with Carlos," he said, drawing out his words with care. "And with your father. If you'll forgive my contradicting you, I do think you are the one I should be talking to. Carlos has made it… hmm. He has made it very clear that you will be a factor of whatever decision he makes. Although of course the final decision will lie in Arsenal's hands, not his."
"I'm not going to tell him to go or to stay," Cesca said flatly. "I don't know what impression you got of our family, but I will support him in whatever he wants to do. If he decided he wanted to play in Turkey I'd support him. All I'm interested in is that he's happy."
"I apologize, I didn't mean to imply - I am terribly inarticulate today." Guardiola smiled at her, and somewhere deep inside her a shrieking twelve-year-old swooned. "I only meant that I believe Carlos enjoys the fact that he is not the only Fabregas who plays for Arsenal."
Cesca looked back at the training field. "I'm not coming back to Barcelona, not for a long time. There's nowhere for me to play here, and I'm not retiring yet. But I don't think I'll be at Arsenal forever either, if that's what you're asking."
"With all due respect to Arsenal, it would be a waste if you were," Guardiola said mildly. "I expect a number of American teams would be very interested in you, if you were willing to leave Europe."
"It depends on what happens at the World Cup, I guess. And how their new league is working out. I have some teammates who play in the US now, they'll tell me if it's awful. But yeah, probably America. Not this year. Maybe the next."
"Then Carlos will probably not be coming to Barcelona this year," Guardiola said. "But maybe there is a chance for the next, which is encouraging. To me, at least. Francesca, I hope - no?" he asked, when she shook her head.
"Just Cesca," she said.
"Ah. That's a bit of a relief, to be honest. My sister is Francesca, too." He smiled like the name was a secret shared between them, and almost unwillingly Cesca smiled back at him. "Cesca, then. I hope I've not been rude; I should have introduced myself, at least. I didn't mean to start grilling you out of the blue - did I say something wrong?"
Cesca shook her head again, still laughing. "Just - the idea that you would need an introduction. Carlos and I both wear the four for you, you know? When you sent him that shirt when we were kids, that's the only time I've ever fought with him. I wanted it so badly. And when he played that Catalonia game with you - I think I nearly spontaneously combusted out of jealousy. Trust me, I know who you are."
"I'm honored," Guardiola said. Someone shouted out on the field to get his attention; he waved in acknowledgement and then turned back to Cesca. "It has been a pleasure to meet you, Cesca, and I wish you the best, wherever you find yourself. You're a truly exceptional player, regardless of who your brother is."
"Thanks," Cesca said blankly to his retreating back. When she looked down at the field, Leo was staring back at her, a vaguely worried expression on his face. She flicked her fingers at him until he went back to practice, and left the stadium. She'd satisfied her curiosity, and it would be easier for everyone if she just waited at home.
"The míster gave me something for you," Leo said, most of his attention focused on flinging as many shirts into his suitcase as possible, as quickly as possible. Cesca hadn't bothered to bring anything back from Ibiza, so she didn't need to repack, and she had decided that her role in this undertaking would be to sit on the bed with a beer and commentate.
"Yeah? What is it?" she asked, when Leo did not feel moved to clarify his statement.
"I don't know, it's in a box, it's on the table in the hall," he said distractedly. "Are you going to help me with this at all?"
Cesca snorted as she got up to retrieve the mysterious box. "Seeing how I'm not your mother or your maid, no."
"I'd help you," Leo complained.
"I wouldn't call it 'helping'," she retorted. There was, indeed, a box on the table in the hall. She opened it while walking back to the bedroom, and stopped dead in the doorway. "Oh."
"What's wrong?" Leo asked.
"Nothing," she said. "Nothing at all."
It was a Barcelona jersey, and not one from this season; that much was obvious. She took it out of the box and held it up so that she could see the back, and GUARDIOLA 4 stared back at her. "Oh," she repeated.
Guardiola had signed the shirt. To Cesca, she read, after a struggle to decipher his handwriting. I hope someday Barcelona will be ready for a No. 4 like you.