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a beautiful friendship

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"You know," Pep said, sounding oddly reflective, "I really miss you sometimes."

"I'd say I'm flattered, but I doubt you meant it as a compliment."

"Well, it's strange, don't you think? You'd think I'd miss Luis, or Johan, or - I don't know, Michael. Zubi before I got him back, maybe. And I did, you know, I do, but most of the time it's you. I don't know why."

"Maybe I had one of the physios hypnotize you into it. You were in their offices enough, nobody would have noticed."

Pep laughed. "Jose, not even you think that far ahead. Though I know you'd love for me to believe you can. No, I think… oh, I don't know what I think. After you went back to Portugal, and then when I was in Italy, I kept wanting to call you and talk tactics. That's not so strange. Or my classes, when I was in Mexico, I'd learn something and want to know what you thought about it."

"If you want me to critique what you're planning for two weeks from now, I'd be happy to go over your notes with you," Jose said dryly.

"That's all right," Pep said, and Jose could hear his smile in his voice. "I did learn how to handle things on my own. Good thing, or you wouldn't respect me much."

"I've always respected you. Even if you are a bit of an idiot about things sometimes." Jose leaned back in his chair, letting the day-old tension in his shoulders drain away. He didn't think he needed it now. "And a lucky idiot at that - what would you miss me for now? I'm right here. Closer than you'd like, I think."

Pep made a humming noise, then adjusted his handset so that Jose could only barely make out a muffled, "In a minute, sweetheart, Daddy's on the phone." There was a rustling noise, then he continued, "Sorry about that."

"No, no, no problem. Bedtime is bedtime."

"Well, I was the one who called you, so I'm still sorry. Do you need to tuck anyone in?"

"Not yet. They're a bit older than yours, you know."

"Mmm. I haven't seen them in a long time. I suppose I forget that they keep growing when you're not watching."

"That's more often than I like." There was a brief, companionable silence, which Jose finally felt impelled to break. "So what's on your mind, that you had to call up your great rival to discuss?"

"What great rival?" Pep mocked, though he sounded more amused than scornful. "You certainly haven't gotten any more modest since they ran you out of Italy. No, no, I'm sorry, that was unkind of me, and unfair. Forgive me."

"There's nothing to forgive," Jose said, because there wasn't. He wasn't so weak that careless or even malicious words could hurt him - not from Pep, not from some idiot Italian journalist. And anyway, it was half-true: he'd certainly never prided himself on humility.

"Ah, well. I suppose I happened to be in a bit of a nostalgic mood today. Even if it hadn't been down to you or me, I wouldn't have wanted you here," Pep said, too easily to have meant any cruelty by it. He was good at many things, and brilliant at others, but he was an amazingly awful liar. "You've always had the most extraordinary gift for finding beautiful things and breaking them to make them work better. They would have won for you but they wouldn't have been Barcelona."

"And you've always been a hopeless idealist," Jose said, unoffended.

"Well, someone has to be. And I suppose this is the closest you'll ever be to me again, but I still can't like where you are."

"It isn't where I am, I think, it's what I am. Or maybe who. I'm not Luis, you know."

"You'd never be that stupid," Pep snorted. "Or so pointlessly proud. No, I know who you are. And you know who I am. Better than anyone else ever has, at least. That might be what I miss the most, in the end."

Jose let the silence drag on longer this time, while he worked out what he wanted to say. It wasn't often that anyone surprised him, but he wasn't about to let that force him into a misstep. "Bring Cristina with you, the next time you're in Madrid," he said abruptly. "Tami gets sick of hearing nothing but football, football, all the time." Pep made a small, startled noise, and Jose smiled. "We can talk about the Bundesliga and Eredivisie without any problems, I think. As a purely theoretical exercise, of course. And Zuca and Mathilde should know what you look like from something other than television, at least."

"I… would like that very much," Pep said slowly. "And - not the next time you're in Barcelona, I think. But if you find yourself there for other reasons, I would like you to see my family as well." Jose heard a girl's voice, quiet and indistinct, at Pep's end of the line, and Pep's reply. He didn't bother trying to cover the mouthpiece this time, but he was speaking in Catalan. Jose had learned to understand and even speak the language during his time in Barcelona, but he hadn't had much opportunity to use it since he'd left. "I have to go, I'm afraid, but I'll see you in a few weeks. May the best man win, I suppose?"

"The best team," Jose corrected. "It isn't about us, after all." Pep was still laughing as he hung up. Jose made a mental note to call Luis sometime soon, then put the phone away and went to see how Mathilde and Zuca were getting along with their homework. Tami managed it all perfectly well when he wasn't home, of course, but since he was home, he thought he would like to spend some time with his children.