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old dogs, new tricks

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In 2007 they went down to Nacional, and Berta quit football for good. As far as Ani was concerned, the second was worse news. They would make it up to the Superliga again -- she never doubted that for a second -- but Berta was never coming back. "Are you sure?" she asked, not for the first time.

The retirement party they'd thrown for Berta was subdued; it would have been even if they hadn't just gotten relegated. Even the argument the twins were having in the corner seemed listless. No one had looked twice when Ani pulled Berta into the kitchen. "It's not like I have a choice," Berta said. She reached into one of the cupboards for a glass and then just stood in front of the sink holding it in her hands, as though she'd forgotten how to turn on the tap.

"You could get the surgery -- "

"No. Ani, no."

Ani sighed. "You were supposed to be Xavi," she said. Berta turned around to look at her with one eyebrow raised, and Ani, suddenly picturing Berta as their bald, bespectacled coach, had to suppress a giggle. "No, I mean -- Xavi Hernandez, not the mister. And I was going to be Puyol. And we'd play together forever."

"Even Xavi and Puyol are going to have to retire eventually," Berta said, half-smiling.

"Not at twenty-three."

Berta's smile flattened out. "Ani, if I could magically fix my knee, I would in a heartbeat," she snapped. "But I can't, and I don't have the time or the money to spend on more operations that might not even work, and I am sick of -- of you and everyone acting like I'm giving up, or, or -- I would kill someone to not have to retire, it's killing me, can't you just -- "

Berta was crying, Ani finally registered, and she was on the other side of the kitchen before she could even think about it, tasting salt and copper and being savagely kissed. It wasn't comfortable; Berta bit her lip so hard it bled and she was still crying and she was so small, she was a fighter on the pitch but she'd always been so much smaller than Ani: Ani had to crane her neck at an awkward angle so Berta could even reach her mouth.

Ani never wanted to be comfortable again.

"I'm sorry," she said when they finally stopped to breathe. Her neck twinged in relief as she straightened it back out. Berta was silent, her face hidden in Ani's shoulder, and Ani wished with an unfamiliar desperation that she knew what she was thinking. "I know. I'm sorry. I know it's selfish. I'm just -- I'm going to miss you so much."

"You're a first-class cunt is what you are," Berta said, her voice clogged and muffled in Ani's shirt. Ani held her even tighter and felt the glass in Berta's hand press against her back in response. "And fuck knows why but I like that about you," she added with an unexpected, watery laugh. "I wasn't going to tell anyone yet, because -- well, just because. But the mister offered, after I finish up at INEFC, he said he'd like it if I came back to be his assistant. I'm not going anywhere."

Ani inhaled sharply and leaned away to look down at Berta, although even with her maneuvering her view was mainly of Berta's hair. "Thank you," she said quietly, and rested her cheek on the top of Berta's head.

"I'm not doing it for you," Berta said.

"Thank you anyway," Ani said, and didn't clarify that she'd meant "thank you for telling me" rather than "thank you for coming back." She didn't know if she would have been able to make that kind of promise, if it had been her: to come back and watch from the sidelines while everyone else kept playing. She knew would have tried; she loved football too much not to. But she didn't think she could have promised.

"You can pay me back by winning next season."

Ani arranged her mouth into something resembling a smile, even though she knew Berta couldn't see it. "We will," she said. She kept her voice light through sheer force of will. If Berta wanted to keep things professional between them, she understood. A goodbye kiss was one thing, but Berta wasn't leaving after all, and that was good; it was what she'd wanted. The team had to come first. "Just you watch, assistant míster. We'll get back to the first division, and we'll win everything."

"I'm going to hold you to it," Berta said. She shifted a little and Ani finally let her go, reluctant for reasons she didn't want to examine. She watched in silence as Berta went to the sink and filled her glass with water, and then turned back around with a look on her face that Ani couldn't read. "And then…"

"Come on," Elba interrupted from the doorway. "This is your party, all right? You can't spend the whole time sulking in the kitchen, Berta. We're going to put some music on, come help us pick."

Berta let herself be dragged back out to the living room, and the younger girls all made an effort to cheer up the atmosphere; it was even something like a party by the time it broke up and they all went home. Ani hugged Berta goodbye, for exactly as long as she would have if they'd never had a conversation in the kitchen. "I guess I'll see you at practice, entrenadora," she said.

"Till then, captain," Berta said, and then, confusingly, "Don't forget what I said."

"I won't," Ani promised. She didn't know what Berta was referring to, but she was fairly certain she wouldn't be able to forget anything that had happened that day no matter how hard she tried.

It took years, years and new faces and saying goodbye to old ones and one particularly miserable four-month stretch when Ani's foot was too badly mangled to play, but when the whistle finally blew against Sporting Huelva, Ani found herself looking for Berta with a smile that threatened to split her face in two. It was very important to her, somehow, that she find Berta before the celebrations began in earnest and they all dissolved into an undifferentiated mass of happy shouting, but when she did she couldn't think of anything to say; she just hugged her as tightly as she could and squeezed her eyes shut against the sudden, inexplicable urge to cry.

"I knew you'd do it," Berta said into her ear, standing on tiptoe while Ani hunched down so that she could reach. "Ani, I'm so proud of you."

"I promised, didn't I?" Ani asked, her voice thick and half-choked. "I just -- I wish you could have -- "

"Ani. Ani," Berta said. She moved back just far enough that they could look each other in the eye, and a shock of something like electricity went through Ani's body as Berta reached up to touch her cheek. "It's all right. This is what I wanted. It's not second place or a consolation prize. This is where I belong. This is what I want."

"Is it all you want?" The weight of a five-year-old promise was finally off Ani's shoulders, and she felt like she might float away without it, giddy and unmoored at the same time. Berta's smile sent another jolt to her stomach, and she wondered if Berta felt it too, the relief of finally achieving what they'd promised each other in the kitchen at Berta's retirement party and the loss of it as well. She was suddenly very aware of the slow sweep of Berta's thumb along her jaw.

For the first time in five years, she let herself wonder if they were going to finish what they'd started in that kitchen.

"You're coming home with me, after the team dinner," Berta said quietly. It was not a question.

"Yes," Ani agreed.

"Then yes." Berta's smile widened at Ani's questioning look, and she surged up to press a lightning-quick kiss to Ani's mouth before settling back down on flat feet. "I think I've got everything I wanted now."

"You are a revolting child," Ani sighed, and stroked Olga's hair back from her clammy forehead. "Guti, go get another bottle of water, would you?"

Guti went without even a token protest, which said more about how terrible Olga looked than Ani's authority over the youngest members of the squad. "You don't have to stay," Olga rasped. She rested her cheek against the toilet seat, pale and miserable. "No point in you missing the party, too."

"Don't be stupid," Ani said, and felt a helpless swell of affection for Olga, for Guti and Leila and Eli and both Martas, for all these girls she'd watched grow up. She was going to miss them more than the football, she thought, and she didn't know what to do with that realization. "Road roommates stick together."

Olga managed a surprisingly successful smirk for a woman who'd just spent the past hour clutching a toilet in the throes of food poisoning. "Wouldn't you rather room with Berta, though?"

"I can do that at home," Ani said, and couldn't help smiling because it was finally true. "None of your sass, princess. Thanks, nena," she added, taking the bottle of water Guti had brought in. "Drink this, there's no way you'll be able to play day after tomorrow if you don't stay hydrated."

"I can look after her for a while," Guti said, and ignored Olga's protest that she could look after herself with the contempt of very long familiarity. "You're the captain, I'm pretty sure you have to at least show up at the party and drink a glass of wine with everyone. And you've even got a guide to show you where to go," she added with her trademark grin. Her giggles and Olga's hoarser laughter followed Ani to the door, where Berta was waiting.

"Hello," Berta said. She was smiling. She had been smiling almost continuously for the past few days; Ani found it disconcerting to see Berta's usually serious face beaming at her, and even more so to realize from the tight muscles in her cheeks that she was smiling foolishly back. It was a strange feeling, but Ani thought she wouldn't mind getting used to it.

"Are you two making out out there?" Guti called from the bathroom.

"Gross, you're old," Olga half-shouted, half-croaked. "Get a room!"

"This is my room," Ani said mildly.

"One that isn't mine, too!"

"You should respect your elders, brat," Berta said. She ducked past Ani into the bathroom for a moment to talk to Olga and Guti; Ani could have probably deciphered the murmuring into words if she'd tried, but she didn't bother.

She hadn't expected the team to react the way they had, really. She hadn't been afraid, exactly; none of them had ever had a problem with Lianne and Joanna, and she knew they all cared about her and Berta enough to get past it if they had. They were a team. But it wasn't just winning the league and keeping her promise she'd been waiting for all this time, she thought; it was being finished with her career. It was finally having nothing left to lose.

In retrospect, she was a little ashamed of not trusting them. She hadn't even wanted to tell the rest of the squad, and it turned out they hadn't needed to: she'd woken up the day after winning the league to more congratulatory texts for finally going home with Berta than for the trophy itself. She'd gotten backslaps from Mely and Melanie and Lau and endless teasing from Leila and Olga and Guti and a surprisingly heartfelt hug from Miriam. Even Xavi, who would never have dreamed of meddling with his players' personal lives, had given her a smile. It had been… nice. Like family.

"All right, I think those two will survive on their own long enough for us to show our faces at the party," Berta said, interrupting Ani's thoughts. Ani checked that she had her keycard and followed her out into the hall. "Are you hungry?"

"After watching Olga throw up for an hour straight?" Ani wrinkled her nose. "Not especially."

Berta laughed. "Fair enough. Well, we can get a glass of wine in you, at least. Unless, um."

"Unless?" Ani glanced over at Berta and was charmed to see her slowly turning a violent crimson.

"I mean, if you wanted to, uh, get a room…"

Ani felt happiness fizzing in her throat like bubbles from a bottle of cava, and it came out as laughter when she opened her mouth. "Let's save it for when we get home," she suggested, and went straight past the elevator so she could hold Berta's hand a little longer as they walked down the stairs.

"That's a very charming hat," Berta murmured. The bus home from the Basque Country was quiet; most of the girls were asleep, and even the handful playing cards at the back of the bus were trying to keep their voices down. It was the closest they'd had to privacy in days.

"You like it?" Ani settled the beret back on her head and posed for a moment, feeling silly and lighthearted in a way she hadn't since she was Guti's age. "I don't know, I think it might suit you better."

Berta laughed and tried to duck away from the txapela, but she didn't put much effort into it. It looked ridiculous on her, of course, which only made it that much more endearing. Ani didn't kiss her, but it was a near thing. "All right, all right," Berta finally said, still giggling, and tucked the beret away in her lap. "I do actually have to talk to you about something."

"Talk away," Ani said.

Berta took a deep breath, her laughter dying away. "Xavi thought -- I know he hasn't talked to you yet about next season. He thought maybe it would be better if I did it. If you'd rather talk to him…"

"No, it's fine. I'm okay with it, you know." Ani looked down at her hands for a moment, then back up with a smile. "We won the league and I got you too, so I'm going out on a high. I think Mely should be captain, if he wants my input on that."

Berta's frown had steadily deepened as Ani kept going. "What are you talking about? Why wouldn't you be captain?"

"Because… I'm retiring? Isn't that why we're -- "

"Why would you want to retire?" Berta demanded. She caught her voice rising and continued in a furious whisper, "You're not injured, you don't have to quit for work or exams. We're in the Champions League -- "

"Okay, okay, wait. Berta, wait, just let me -- I thought Xavi was waiting to talk to me because he wasn't planning on having me in the team next season."

"What? Why would you -- you probably won't have as much playing time, they're bringing in some younger girls and they'll need to settle in, but you're -- Ani, you're the captain, we wouldn't just kick you to the curb after we won the league!"

"No room for sentiment in football," Ani said.

"That is just -- I can't believe you," Berta hissed. "You can still play, you stupid bitch, why would you just give up on it like that?"

"I've played my whole life at Barça. I'm not going anywhere else now."

"'No room for sentiment in football,'" Berta quoted back at her, mocking. "Oh, all right. I don't want you to go anywhere else, either." She settled back down, tucking her head into the crook between Ani's shoulder and her neck. "You'll stay next year, though? Xavi wants you to."

"If you and Xavi want me, I'll stay one more year," Ani agreed. "I'd be sad to miss out on the Champions League."

"One more year," Berta mused. She began to go on and was cut off by a giant yawn. "That's it?"

"I'm old," Ani said dryly. "As Olga so graciously reminds me at every opportunity."

"What do you want to do after that? Going to come coach with me?"

"Not coaching," Ani started, and was interrupted by a yawn of her own. "Maybe as a trainer or something. I've been talking with Zoe about helping out with her team sometime, getting a feel for it. I'm not going to leave just because I can't play anymore, you know."

"Yeah?" Berta turned her head a little bit and nuzzled sleepily at Ani's throat.

"Yeah."

Ani waited for Berta to say something else, but she had already fallen asleep. They could talk about their future some other time, Ani decided -- there was the Copa de la Reina very soon, but after that they had the whole summer; there was no rush -- so she adjusted Berta's head on her shoulder and closed her eyes. It had been a long couple of days, and it was good to be going home together.