It makes sense that all the journalists who were buzzing like flies around the conference room were more or less all humming the same tune: Pep. Everyone wanted to know about Guardiola.
Everyone always wanted to know about Guardiola. José gets a decent amount of satisfaction knowing that when it’s Pep’s turn under the magnifying glass, the flies all want to know about Mourinho.
So the question is inevitable considering their history, and José is expecting it. He has his answer prepared. But even as he’s saying it, he knows it’s a lie. Not get personal; how could he not get personal? As of that morning football was still a sport played by humans with all their petty human hates and fears and all the dramas that came with it, and until FIFA replaced them all with sleek androids who could be neatly programmed to kiss whichever crest they were assigned to and be managed by some iPad-twirling executive hidden away in a plush box, until that day, football was personal. José delights in being human. Of course he’s going to get personal with Pep. To deny their history would be to deny what burned them forward, running parallel and bending away and intersecting again and again. He’s going to create football. He’s going to get personal.
It begins happening almost immediately, and this José probably could have predicted because when it came to him and Pep things had always sparked quickly, like the first time he had seen Guardiola laying out passes from the midfield and had decided then and there that he was going to be great. So it’s really not surprising that the universe has decided to continue a trend, and the first time José has to make a trip to the shops to pick up last-minute groceries for the weekend he runs nearly literally into Pep closely examining the nutrition label on a tin of some sort of bean.
Pep is standing just around the corner of the aisle and when José rounds the shelving he has to pull himself up short in order not to trip over him. Pep begins to make a generic noise of apology before he fully sees José as José rather than as a blurry fellow shopper in his peripheral vision and stops just as abruptly.
“Pep.” José breaks the silence that had, in a single beat, descended heavy and suffocating onto their small mutual bubble.
“José,” Pep says evenly. “Hello.”
It’s here that the conversation hits a snag. They teeter, trying to stare each other down without being too obvious about it. There’s a bright yellow box in Pep’s basket and José flickers a glance down. Weetabix. Well, he could never accuse Pep of not doing his best to integrate into a new culture. Absurdly he remembers the presser and his empty promise not to get personal. That hadn’t lasted long: he already knows what Pep is going to have for breakfast.
He smiles thinly. “Should I say something meaningless about the weather or can we both move on with minimum agony?”
The set of Pep’s shoulders relaxes somewhat. “Let’s say that we’ve both noticed the rain and leave it at that.”
“Glad that’s settled.” The tin in Pep’s hand catches José’s eye and he shakes his head slightly. “If you’re looking for habas, they’re called broad beans here.” He reaches up and plucks the appropriate tin off the shelf.
Pep takes it. “I was. Thanks.”
He doesn’t ask the question but José answers it all the same. “Lucky guess.” It’s not entirely true, but it is a lot easier than saying he still remembers the staples of Pep’s diet. Which isn’t so strange; after all, José had managed Pep once upon a time. Or at least, had helped to manage him. He thinks Pep knows. It’s sitting uneasily in his eyes, and with it the tension resettles around them.
José clears his throat. He can almost sense their combined presence drawing in the journos from all corners of the city, and as almost pleasant as this encounter has been, he doesn’t particularly relish the thought of fielding questions about his shopping date with Pep Guardiola the next time a microphone gets shoved under his nose.
More privately, he also doesn’t want to add to the pile of evidence of the Before Times when this fleeting civility inevitably turned sour. There is enough photographic proof that he and Pep had once gotten along without letting themselves get long-lensed chatting about beans, for heaven’s sake.
He gives Pep a nod. “We should-”
“-stop confusing the media narrative by managing so much polite small talk?” Pep says, raising an eyebrow.
José smiles faintly. Pep always did know what to say. “Shame we aren’t by the vegetables. I could have thrown a tomato.” It’s a poor joke and he doesn’t know why he even makes it, but Pep laughs. José makes a jerky, half-hesitant movement towards a handshake, which Pep accepts in an equally uncertain manner. “We’ll see each other soon enough, then.”
“Just a few weeks now, isn’t it?” As if Pep doesn’t know the precise date of every one of his fixtures. “Until then.”
They part ways on decidedly good, if slightly confused, terms, leaving José to go pursue the rest of his shopping list and try not to mull over the encounter to the point of paranoia. He has enough of that coming from legitimate sources without having to over-analyse a chance meeting that had, all things considered, gone very well indeed.
He doesn’t see Pep again until the managers’ meeting, and then their interactions are strictly professional except for a half-smug, half-despairing smile that Pep flashes in his direction when Wenger ices José out of his end of the table. José raises his eyebrows as if to say what can you do, and tries not to feel as though he’s sharing a joke with Pep, because down that path lies memories of when they had been on the same side as captain and coach, and the extensive conversational shorthand of facial expressions and minute hand gestures that had evolved as a means of talking about other players while they were still within earshot. José frowns as he sits down and fixes his attention to the present. He doesn’t get nostalgic as a rule.
And then the season begins proper and with it all the rush of being back on the touchline, at Manchester United none the less, and José would be lying to himself if he didn’t acknowledge how thrilled he really is to be there. The papers have of course been going mad with speculation almost since the day he was sacked: but then José’d never made it a secret that United was a goal of his, and United had never made it a secret that van Gaal was doing less than the job they wanted.
José lets himself be excited. Why shouldn’t he? He has the job he’s always wanted, he has Ibra back, still all towering arrogance and barely-leashed impatience waiting to kick through brick walls if need be, and he has a whole season ahead.
So he stalks the technical area and spins what he needs to for the media and doesn’t read any articles about himself in any papers, because he doesn’t care. José knows what he’s doing.
He doesn’t read the papers but he knows what they’re saying: that he’s no longer the creator but the conventional, that he’s lost his touch, he’s lost the plot. José’s never set much store by the media. He plays too much with those particular gears to trust anything that the machine churns out.
It’s down to his ongoing good mood that even when United loses the derby a scant four weeks into the season, José thinks -as he’s clapping Pep on the back with a camera-ready smile nailed determinedly to his face- that he’s still going to enjoy the post-match drink. Usually it’s a stilted affair draped in the trappings of false courtesy and awkward attempts to make conversation about anything other than the match that had just been played, but José has hopes that he might actually be able to talk to Pep.
As he is wont to do, Pep only takes about two minutes to prove José wrong.
Most of Old Trafford has cleared out by the time they meet in the small private lounge. When José gets there Pep is already sitting in an armchair, foot tapping against the carpeted floor, and he’s feeling good after his team talk but there’s something familiar about the set of Pep’s shoulders that squares him for a fight.
José nods coolly, and sits down.
There’s a bottle of wine nestled in a basket on the low table between them and Pep gestures to it. “How is this supposed to work, anyway? We just drink this lovely club-provided wine and then I get to leave?”
“You don’t have to do anything,” says José, his voice immediately prickly. “Please, don’t think you’ll hurt my feelings if you want to go.”
“Feelings, you? I would never have thought.”
They glare at each other in stony silence over the table. Pep is clearly not willing to try talking, and José is (irrationally, it has to be said, since he knows he doesn’t deserve it but can’t bring himself to be generous enough to really care) angry that Pep isn’t going to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“Maybe, then, it would be best if you left now before this can deteriorate any further.” He wishes they were back in the grocery store. A little bit because they had been friendlier in that setting, but mostly because he could have possibly gotten away with chucking a box of lentils at Pep, and here all he has is either the bottle of wine or a glass, both of which were a little bit extreme. Although really, the decor around here was so red already that it might not be so much of a problem. “Can you find your way out? Or do I need to show you to the door?”
Mood fully soured from the loss and Pep’s cold shoulder, José works angrily for an hour after Pep goes before gathering his things and heading home. The stadium is still lit up when he leaves, and it glows in his rear view mirror as he pulls away.
When he gets back to his hotel, Pep is waiting in the lobby. José stops and stares. “Have you been- did you come here after leaving?”
“No, I’ve only been here ten minutes.” Pep looks sheepish. “I was going to give it half an hour. I wasn’t sure when you were going to leave the stadium. I don’t have a number for you.”
“You do realise half the hotel staff will have tweeted photos by now. God only knows what the bloggers will say. What is it you want?”
“We got off on the wrong foot after the match. I was maybe a little over-defensive.”
“Oh, were you now,” José says sarcastically. He has a limited amount of good will towards Pep on any given day and most of it has already been eaten away by his annoyance at Pep’s mistrust. A thoroughly hypocritical annoyance, sure, as José would no doubt have been equally as ready for a fight had their situations been reversed. But he can’t help but feel snubbed.
“I was expecting you to be less than friendly, if you can believe it. But I wanted to apologise.”
It’s not a conversation that José particularly cares to have, but if Pep is determined (and José can see the familiar set look at the corners of Pep’s mouth that means he isn’t going to be able to slip out of this one) then he certainly doesn’t want to have it in the lobby of a hotel in Manchester where just any interested party could overhear. He knows for a fact that two of the porters are City supporters, and he’s seen the girl working behind the desk get ticked off by the night manager for watching Liverpool highlights on her phone (whether the reprimand had been primarily fuelled by her neglect of duty or the fact that the team had been Liverpool was a toss-up). So, in spite of his reservations, he invites Pep up.
“Blue curtains?” Pep says looking around the room and raising an eyebrow with a small grin.
José rolls his eyes. “They’re hotel standard and you know it. If you’re here to rile me up you need to work on it. I’m hardly going to be kept up at night thinking about the colour of the drapes.”
“I’m really not here to play your so-called mind games, José, that’s still your area of expertise. No tricks: I wasn’t fair to you after the match and I wanted to apologise.”
“That’s a mind game in itself,” José challenges back. “What do you want, Pep? You come here and hang about in the lobby where just anyone can see you and know who it is you’re here for. I know you’d much rather be at home drinking red wine by yourself than with me. What do you want?”
“Just what I told you: a drink. If it’s not too much of a stretch we could try to have a civilised conversation. Like at Barça. You always had good things to say.”
Again the nostalgia. José’s beginning to wonder if Pep is doing this on purpose. “And you still had hair,” he says, but it doesn’t come out as dismissive as he would have hoped.
Pep sighs with exaggerated wistfulness. “True.”
José gives up. “A drink.”
“I trust whatever selection you have.”
José doesn’t comment on Pep’s self-proclaimed trust. He’s not so contrary that he’ll cast aspersions on his own excellent taste in wine just for the sake of a snide remark.
Pep is peering around, inspecting his surroundings as José assembles the requisite glassware. “Do you like living here?” The question is casually posed but José can hear an opinion in Pep’s tone, just waiting to be offered. “Surely you could have found a flat by now.”
José shrugs, pouring out two glasses. “A flat, a house; I haven’t decided yet. I haven’t had time.”
“You should look into it. This is no good.”
“Oh, because you know what’s best for me, now?”
“You like space.” Pep raises an eyebrow, inviting José to challenge the statement. “And you like to choose what you put in it. So don’t pretend that you’re satisfied with the generic landscapes on the walls and this sofa, which is so dull I’m falling asleep just looking at it.”
He’s right, very much so, and it puts José on the defensive almost automatically. It’s true that he likes having control over his own spaces, even if all he does with that space is choose some sparse furniture and put up a few photographs. In the hotel he only can do so much with his surroundings, and he hates the feeling of transience that, despite the excellent accommodations, lingers over every hotel like a miasma. It’s true, but he doesn’t like Pep knowing just how uncomfortable he is. Despite the protestations from the both of them, to the media and to each other, that they’ve moved beyond their shared history, José can’t shake the unwillingness to provide Pep with anything that might be turned into a weapon.
He waves a hand in annoyance. “And where do you get your credentials for giving me life advice?”
“Of course,” Pep says, stung, “I’d forgotten. Mourinho the enigma, how could I ever hope to catch a glimpse into that famed psyche?” He narrows his eyes. “I’ll keep your endless inscrutability in mind next time I’m tempted to comment.”
José finds himself slightly taken aback at the bitterness in his voice. The retort had been sarcastic, but there was an underlying hurt there that was genuine.
He’s considered before that Pep had always bought into the concept of José Mourinho, even though he knew that he shouldn’t. It’s what José was trying to do, of course, but at that moment, with Pep looking at him so coldly, it’s an unsettling victory.
The problem is that he knows Pep well. Intimately well. José had spent an inordinate amount of time in his early career pouring over grainy VHS footage of Pep, pulling apart the gears that made him tick and trying to see how he could make him better. José had known Pep the player better than anyone, perhaps in some ways even better than Pep himself. And despite the intervening years Pep the player still had quite a lot to do with Pep the manager. José remembers all too clearly working together, staying up late unravelling Robson’s elaborate tactical designs and spooling them back into plays and formations and action to feed to the team. He remembers the conversations they’d had, and he remembers the thrill of having found someone who understood, who could talk football until all hours.
“You do know that I don’t dislike you,” José says, although it is very nearly a non-sequitur and getting very close to something in the ilk of a magician revealing the trick. He has an odd compulsion to explain himself, which never happens. It must be Pep’s fault: after all, he had been the one who’d brought up Barcelona. “I have always respected you. As a player and as a manager.” It’s even true, what he says. Sometimes José hates Pep, sometimes he can’t stand him, but he doesn’t dislike him, and he certainly doesn’t disregard him. To José there is a difference, and that difference is everything.
Pep is giving him a curious look, something between pleased surprise and- pity? Sympathy? José doesn’t like it, whatever it is. He wishes that he hadn’t said anything. But being himself, he decides to tack on addendums rather than just shutting up. “I have to rail against so much in this sport. Can we not just remain uncomfortably civil? It’s a lot of effort hating you.”
It earns him a small smile, at least. “I can do uncomfortably civil.”
They relapse into silence, both studiously sipping their wine and trying not to make too much eye contact, but also not to actively avoid each others’ gazes. A delicate balance but then again, hadn’t it always been.
Just when the tension has settled into a sort of bearable stasis, Pep stands. “I should leave. Let you work.”
“Yes,” says José, looking up from his empty glass. “Lots to do. Lots of statements to prepare, to tell the papers about refereeing errors.” That actually gets him a startled laugh. He gives Pep a wry smile. “I am at least partially self-aware, you know.”
“Forgive me if I had my doubts. Those were a long few years.”
On José’s personal blacklist along with nostalgia is regret, so it would be wrong to say that he feels suddenly remorseful about everything that had happened between them in Spain, but he does know that it had been bad. Not so much as individuals but certainly as two people sharing a relationship, whatever that relationship might have been. He had been constantly on edge in that time, always hopping to keep his feet from burning. Like Pep had said: it had been a long few years.
He’s still not about to drop his guard entirely, even if he’s already letting Pep get through the persona he’s so carefully built. He’s not about to disarm himself. He’d had too many late night conversations with Pep in the past, listening to his ruthless ideology of football play out with deceptive ease, to believe for a moment that Poor Pacifist Pep Guardiola was being bullied by the Big Bad José Mourinho.
They have another awkward encounter in a Waitrose, and then another, and then José decides he’s really going to have to change his shopping schedule from Mondays to Fridays, because although it’s vaguely amusing seeing Pep squinting at the labels and distressing over brands of jam, it’s rather more embarrassing. Maybe he should just get someone to do his shopping for him. There have to be some perks to being the manager of Manchester United. He’s not only under massive pressure and constant stress. There are things like riches and power too, which happen to be benefits that José enjoys quite a lot.
In the end, he starts doing his shopping on Friday. He likes getting out of his rooms, or at least, getting out to places that aren’t the training grounds. Pep hadn’t been wrong about José liking space. Fresh air and not looking at his mobile. It’s his first season and José is going to give himself time, but even so he’d wanted a better beginning than this, especially with the papers all fawning over Pep’s perfect start.
But he doesn’t care what the media says. And if he gets a notification about Manchester United from one of the many news applications on his phone, he swipes it away.
Only two Guardiola-less shops later, Pep phones his suite.
“How did you get this number?” José demands, immediately suspicious.
“Karanka.” Pep replies without prevaricating, as if it should have been obvious. José frowns. He can just imagine Aitor gleefully handing over the information the first time Pep asked, the traitor. “I met him through Victor and took the opportunity.”
Valdés. The degrees of connection are beginning to close in. José remembers when the Premier League was something akin to a bolthole, somewhere he didn’t have to think about Spain or Barcelona, somewhere he could build something wholly new and wholly original. But these days the island was crawling with ghosts.
“I’m taking it in good faith that you don’t have Karanka currently taped to a chair? This isn’t a ransom call?”
Pep laughs. “Oh no. You’re the last person I would attempt to extract ransom from. Unless I had, oh, I don’t know, kidnapped your trophy cabinet. You would pay for that back.”
“There are people I would pay ransom for.” José contradicts Pep more on principle than because he’s actually offended. “I would pay for Rui.”
“You’re telling me this?”
“You wouldn’t be able to take Rui hostage if you tried.”
“The media thinks that everything you say is a disguised attack on me,” Pep changes the subject, sounding far more amused than José likes him. “It’s enough to make me paranoid.”
José scoffs. “Please. I do think about other things; your ego doesn’t need to believe otherwise.”
“Everyone knows you’re the one with the ego, José.”
“Yes, and I’m also the paranoid one, I know.” He’s getting annoyed by Pep’s light tone. Calling him up at home, just to prattle on about nothing at all? Pep was either playing at something or being an idiot. And the latter wasn’t likely. “What do you want?”
“Nothing. I just haven’t seen you in a while.”
“You can’t see me now,” says José, deadpan.
“I haven’t talked to you in a while either.”
“Don’t try to tell me you’ve missed me.”
“Only your opinions on organic vegetables. Everything else I can do without.”
“So you’ve called me up to for a salad consultation?” Despite himself, he feels himself begin to settle into the conversation. “We agreed on civility, not a sewing circle.”
“Well,” says Pep, “we don’t seem able to talk about football these days without going at each others’ throats.”
“We could always just not talk to each other,” José suggests, even though he doesn’t really mean it.
Pep just laughs at him. “What, and then who would you be able to have a decent conversation with?”
“Are you saying I have no friends? And why would I even need to talk to anyone, anyway?”
“I am definitely saying you have no friends. And at the risk of setting off one of your tirades, I know for a fact that you don’t enjoy solitude half as much as you’d like people to think.”
José scowls but doesn’t bother with refutations. There would have been a time when he could have produced a sharp retort but he’s just not feeling up to task.
Pep’s house is small and modern, with an open floor plan and large French doors that open onto a neat postage stamp of a garden. There’s a new sofa in the living room and a few books on the shelves but José knows Pep’s reading habits, and they aren’t ten-odd volumes with a heavy skew towards English grammar and Manchester walking tours. Sure enough, when he looks about, there are several boxes stacked neatly in the corner.
“And you were getting on my case for not having moved in,” José remarks. He’s still not entirely certain why he’s here, only that the last time they had spoken over the phone, either Pep had invited him or he had invited himself. He has a sneaking suspicion that he’s been tricked into coming, for whatever nefarious reasons that Pep no doubt has.
“Still needing to unpack a box or two in a house I own isn’t the same as living out of a suitcase in a hotel and you know it.”
José rolls his eyes. “I’m telling you, I’ll look for a permanent place when I have the time.”
“If you have the time,” Pep says, slyly, “and don’t go and get yourself sacked again.”
More likely than not Pep isn’t actually trying to score points, because Pep has never preferred fighting his battles with insults and jibes, but José bristles all the same.
“Because your recent run has been so flawless. Certainly no line-up changes proving less than successful. No unexpected set-backs for manager of the century Pep Guardiola.”
He really hadn’t come here to be spiteful. It just seems to be something that happens with Pep. And admittedly, he’s had a lot of practice with spite and it slips out easily. He’s annoyed with himself the moment he retaliates because of the implication that he doesn’t mind his own struggles so long as Pep is having tribulations of his own, which is patently untrue. José hates losing, and he hates that sometimes his hands feel clumsy where once he could manipulate anything he wanted with ease: teams, tactics, journalists. José delights, sometimes, in pettiness, but not to the point where he’ll let it obscure the smug comfort of three points safe between his teeth.
But Pep is nodding. “It is a challenge. You did say so, when you first came to England. You remember you called once or twice?” José remembers. He remembers being in a new country and a new league and he remembers paying to phone long distance so that he could hear a familiar voice over the tinny line. “You talked about the league and how different it was.” Pep shrugs. “I like a challenge. Wine?”
José lets Pep pour him a glass and keeps his mind determinedly in the present moment. In Pep’s house, drinking Pep’s wine, trying to be civil with Pep.
“I am looking forward to going back,” Pep tells him. “I think the team is ready, and we can really pull something off here.” He’s only giving José his media statements, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that his eyes also go slightly starry. It might be the wine they’ve drunk, but it’s also entirely possible that it’s just the way Pep is. “And of course, it’s always nice to be back in Barcelona.”
“Barcelona.” José frowns. “It’s always everything for you, isn’t it? First you grace the pitch with your football and then you’re kind enough to lend your presence to the technical area. Barcelona’s Guardiola, Guardiola’s Barcelona. Until death do you part, amen.”
Pep smirks at him. “Is this going to be your latest strategy? Going to imply to the press that I’ll throw the Champions League because of my deep abiding love of my old club?”
“If you keep talking like that I will. Can you possibly go ten minutes without mentioning it?”
“Come on, you were there, too. You know what it’s like.”
Pep speaks with just enough reverence in his tone to grate at José’s thinly-worn nerves. He’s had more than enough of nostalgia lately. “We aren’t at all the same people we were at Barcelona,” José says sharply. “We aren’t young men anymore, Pep, or hadn’t you noticed?” He feels suddenly angry, not particularly at Pep, but at everything. He’s never been a patient man. He can wait, to be sure. But he doesn’t have the requisite natural calm to make it easy. He can hold himself back, can know when to retreat, but he always has to be rapping his fingers while he does. The kind of perfect stillness that someone like, say, Ancelotti can achieve is beyond him. And now he feels himself rather at the end of his rope, and about to hang from it. He never used to wake up with dark circles under his eyes.
Pep is shaking his head. “I don’t mean that we haven’t changed, obviously, but it was all there. It was all at Barcelona those first few seasons. Who I am now. And you won’t admit it, but it was important for you, too.”
“You would think that,” José throws back, voice poisonous. “You were always the golden boy there. I may not have been running around the pitch with you, and I know you look down on me for that, but I had to work, I had to work for everything I’ve gotten just the same as you.”
Pep fixes him with an almost disbelieving expression. “Look down on- José, I may not like your methods but I’ve never doubted that you’ve earned everything you have. Don’t be ridiculous. That’s not what I’m saying.”
The blank calm in Pep’s tone fizzles José’s anger out like rain against a sputtering candle. Arguing with Pep can just be so god-awful exhausting, when Pep won’t do the easy thing and just shout at him. He hates how much Pep enjoys taking the high ground. He’s practically built a second home on the high ground, complete with a smug little moralising sign announcing whose territory it was.
“What- Pep, what is it that you want from me?” José’s been asking the same fucking question for months now with no satisfactory answer. “We try to talk, but the only thing we can talk about is football and we clearly can’t talk about football. Will you not just leave it alone?”
He doesn’t get an immediate response. Pep refills his glass and looks into it thoughtfully for a time until José is about to start fidgeting irritably. “At first, after we ran into each other, I did think we might be able to get along again,” he admits finally. “And I wanted to pick your brain. You know England, and this league. I had the idea to see if I could get anything on that front.” He tilts his head ruefully. “Obviously not. But when I went to yours after the derby, and when I called you- it was just nice to hear a familiar voice.”
It’s so similar to what José had remembered about his own first stint in England that he startles.
“I always think about how we used to talk. No one could ever talk like you.” There’s a measured intention in Pep’s tone, and José knows for certain now that Pep is leading him somewhere. Sure, some of what Pep is saying is probably true or based on truth, but it’s still being used for leverage. Pep is good like that. He’s always been skilful at driving people where he wants them, off the pitch as well as on.
Do you ever wish things had gone differently? José wants to ask, even though he has a feeling that it’s the very question that Pep is setting him up to fall into. He’s too tired to put effort into fighting with him. Do you ever wish that we had found a way to keep ourselves separate? Maybe it wouldn’t have been possible in any variant past. Maybe for them to wind up where they were, it was necessary to have also come to this: the two of them sitting uncomfortably in Pep’s kitchen with so much between them and so little to say.
He thinks about going back to his hotel suite, the set of impersonal rooms with the pale blue curtains. He thinks about the things he brought with him to Manchester but hasn’t unpacked. The books and the framed photographs still wrapped in newspaper sheets to protect the glass. He wonders what books and photographs Pep has yet to unbox.
It’s a moment before he realises that Pep is watching him closely with something approaching calculation in his gaze, and José lets his expression go carefully blank.
Pep notices and smiles wryly. “Paranoid.”
“We are still rivals in this league,” José points out. “We don’t need to have history to be wary.” He raises his glass. “And that’s something that I’ll drink to.”
He never does ask Pep what he thinks about their possible pasts. He lets the thought dissolve, another ill-conceived idea amidst many.
After the Chelsea match, José doesn’t bother calling. He just drives round to Pep’s house. When Pep opens the door neither says anything. José stands on the stoop, hands in his pockets, just looking.
Finally, Pep breaks the silence. “So neither of our returns to old homes went particularly as planned, did they?”
And just like that, José feels a little better. There’s something comforting about the small ways in which Pep is predictable. He manages to crack a smile. He’s sure it looks terrible on his face. He feels about a hundred years old. “Didn’t I tell you not to keep mentioning Barcelona?”
“You did say something along those lines. I thought it was an oblique enough reference to get away with.” They stand in silence, Pep in the doorway and José just outside. The air between them isn’t even tense. Just empty, and José is suddenly struck by the possibility that they may have already said everything they have to say to each other, in bits and pieces since the season began. He’s mildly concerned by the idea. He and Pep have always had things to say to each other. Unpleasant and downright cruel things at times, but the idea that they may have come to the end of their shared road just doesn’t sit right. They must still have something. They need to have something, because José doesn’t want to talk to Pep about the match. He doesn’t want to talk about the woeful performance or the inadequate tactical changes, and especially not about the fact that he’s beginning to suspect that the disastrous last season with Chelsea had broken a few more things than he’s been willing to admit. He doesn’t want to confide in Pep, he just wants-
Again it’s Pep who speaks first, and he reads José like a particularly grim book. “Since I can’t imagine you coming to me for emotional support and I’m not going to give you any, would you like a drink?”
José accepts, honestly grateful for not having to have asked for anything, and follows Pep inside.
They manage a decent amount of time during which they stand about the kitchen, Pep just letting José drink and seethe quietly.
Being themselves, it could never last, and Pep opens his mouth as they approach the bottom of the first bottle. It’s a good thing that they’re both paid such exorbitant salaries, or José could really see the wine bill causing issues.
“You’re walking a tightrope already,” Pep warns. “We’re barely two months into the season and you’re going over the top.”
“I thought we’d established the fact that I’m not here for group therapy,” José snaps at him. He doesn’t care for Pep’s advice. He’s not about to drop his persona. At the moment, it’s most of what he has. Without the name of José Mourinho, he is on worryingly shaky footing.
“It isn’t group therapy if it’s only me telling you to get your act together,” Pep says seriously.
José sees red. “Fuck you,” he spits, and he can feel words welling up in his mouth like bile. Words, words, words: so many he’s going to choke one day but for now he can still use them. “I organise my club the way I want, and I’ll do what I need to do in order to win. Which I notice you haven’t been managing lately either, perhaps you should concentrate on your own lacklustre efforts rather than what I am or am not doing.”
“Does that make you feel better? It wasn’t me you just embarrassed yourself in front of,” Pep tells him, voice dangerously derisive. “Are you looking for someone to blame? Perhaps Chelsea, for out-playing you, or Conte, for refusing to sink to your idiotic level? No, it’s probably going to be that the breeze was blowing their way all evening. Get a clue, José. You are slipping. Ever since the season started you’ve been on hair-trigger. You used to be so calculated.”
Wine glass forgotten on the table, José forces his way into Pep’s space with a vengeance. “And I’m supposed to believe that this is you being concerned?” He stabs two fingers into Pep’s chest, hard. He almost wants Pep to throw a punch, just so that he has something tangible to seize upon. “Don’t joke; what you think of me is inconsequential.”
Pep doesn’t rise to the bait, expression impassive although José can feel his heart thrumming quickly. His eyes rake over José’s face and then, very deliberately, flick down to his mouth.
The tension changes abruptly. José is momentarily stranded, adrift too close to land and uncertain but all of a sudden, he returns to himself. This is back on his ground, now. Pep might be trying to spin the situation here but José has always won these sorts of games. Always.
He raises an eyebrow. Slowly. And watches Pep very closely. “Do you...want something?” He repeats the familiar question quietly, anger brought down to a simmer instantaneously without a hitch and José is pleased that he can still do that. Not everything has gone out of his control.
“Do you not?” Pep asks. His tone isn’t a challenge. It’s an invitation.
José still has his index and middle fingers jabbing just below Pep’s collarbone and he curls them into Pep’s shirt, not bothering that the fabric twists taut around his throat. Pep’s breathing quickens slightly and heat pools in José’s stomach, still riding off furious adrenaline. He moves in closer, dragging his other hand down towards the waistband of Pep’s dark, fitted jeans. Pep’s pulse jumps and José just lets his hand drop away with a smirk when Pep snatches at his wrist and pulls him back.
“You’re not so young and handsome anymore,” José says leaning forward, his voice harsh against the curve of Pep’s ear. “Have you considered that?”
“That makes two of us.”
José has always liked words: after all, they’ve brought him this far. He likes words and he respects the power that they hold. But all the words in the world could have no effect now. Cutting remarks mean nothing when Pep has his fingers curled in a bruising grip around José’s wrist. Insults and jibes fall by the wayside because Pep’s eyes are very dark and fixed on José’s mouth. And José figures it would be an awful waste to start talking now.
Kissing Pep, digging his fingernails through thin cotton into his collarbone and biting at his bottom lip, is altogether different than the occasional experimental fumble that they had indulged in at Barça. Back then José’s attraction to Pep had been primarily motivated by a heady combination of success and daring, and Pep had been handsome and intelligent, a rising star to boot. He’s always been drawn to Pep. Only now he can’t quite parse between how much he wants to dissolve into Pep and how much he wants to hurt him.
He shoves a knee between Pep’s legs and lets himself be pushed up against the kitchen counter. Pep is warm against his skin and José can feel his pulse beating against his fingers as they kiss, anger and desperation represented in equal measure.
Pep swears under his breath. “Fuck- José-”
“Don’t. Don’t say anything.” José orders, his thumb pushing insistently into the soft hollow under Pep’s jaw. He feels in control now but if Pep starts talking José isn’t sure that he’s not going to tip over the edge of whatever horrifyingly personal breakdown he’s been teetering on ever since he was last sacked. “I don’t want to talk to you, I don’t want to say, I don’t want to think, I-”
“Okay. Okay,” Pep pulls him forward, stumbling from the kitchen into the living room with the empty shelves and the cardboard boxes quietly waiting in the corner. He drops to the sofa and tugs José down over him, hands heavy on José’s waist, fingerprints burning. José settles into Pep’s lap and just for a moment, he lets himself relax into the feel of Pep beneath him, his shape familiar after all.
Pep makes a sound too small to identify when José touches him, leaning back on the sofa and José refuses to acknowledge the déjà vu that overcomes him at the sight of Pep’s throat bared to him like this.
He’s got one hand curled into the side of Pep’s neck and the other around his cock, and when Pep closes his eyes, José doesn’t think about anything at all.
José slips out of Pep’s house sometime after midnight and drives back to his hotel in the dark. He doesn’t turn on the radio, and despite the other cars still careening around Manchester at night, there’s a deafening silence all around him.
He takes the elevator up and when he opens the door he takes a minute to just stand there, looking at the darkened suite of rooms.
He picks up his phone and dials Pep’s number.
When Pep answers he sounds as though he’d fallen asleep since José’d left, but José doesn’t bother with false courtesies apologising for the disturbance. He doesn’t need to, with Pep, and he shouldn’t need to. They’re rather past that point, he thinks.
“You were right,” José says without preamble. “I hate living in a hotel. The desk is too small and the lighting is strange. I can’t open the windows all the way because they are worried people will throw themselves out and to tell you the truth, with this decor it would not be an unreasonable reaction. I want a place where I can tack up paper on the wall and a kitchen with enough space to properly cook.”
For a long moment, Pep doesn’t speak. “I’ve been tired,” he says finally, slowly, “all the time. There is a lot I need to do but it’s as if everyone expects me to have already won a trophy in October. It’s frustrating to be so scrutinised all of the time.”
“You’ve been under the microscope before,” José points out. “At Barcelona both as a player and then manager, and at Bayern too. It’s part of the job.”
“This is different.”
“I had trouble sleeping, sometimes. At Chelsea the first time.”
“Oh, but not the second time?”
“Alright,” José admits, “and the second time as well.”
“We’ve done this backwards,” Pep says, amused. “I think you were probably supposed to open your heart to me before we fucked, not after.”
“Josep, please,” José says, “Everyone knows that I don’t have a heart. This is a courtesy call, nothing more.”
Pep laughs over the line. José’s been making Pep laugh a lot lately. It doesn’t bother him as much as it probably should. “I’ll see you at the cup tie derby. And make sure that the staff puts out a really nice vintage for us afterwards. I want something expensive.”
José is quiet, rolling the concept around on his tongue. He can still taste Pep, smell his cologne, feel the scrape of stubble against his chin.
“Of course,” he says at last, “I wouldn’t dare offer you anything but my best.”