Everyone told Leo two things afterward: he'd been stupid, and he'd been lucky. He didn't really listen at first. They'd been careful, after all, even if they hadn't asked permission; they'd stolen all their paperwork from the school infirmary and checked everything to make sure it would work ahead of time--they didn't even ask Victor in the end, which Leo had felt weird about, because he wasn't compatible enough and it would have been dangerous--and they did the bonding at Geri's house. Geri's mom was a doctor; if something had really gone wrong, she would have taken care of them. And he didn't see how he was supposed to be lucky, when both his bondmates were in England and he couldn't play with them ever anymore. But everyone kept saying it, over and over. The míster looked really disappointed, and Puyi too. Xavi yelled at him, which Xavi never ever did, and even Andres pulled him aside one day to have a quiet talk, when Andres would barely say five words in a row to anyone who wasn't Valdés or Sammy. Sylvinho and Ronnie and Deco didn't care about it one way or the other, which Leo wanted to be reassuring but wasn't. He knew they didn't get it, couldn't get it.
When he was a little older he realized what it was like for Xavi, being bonded to Andres. That was the first time he believed that he'd been lucky.
Leo was pretty sure it was Cesc's idea, but Geri was the one who asked. It was stupid to feel flattered, but he was: Geri was tall and funny and popular and everyone wanted him to like them, and Cesc was Geri's best friend. It didn't matter on the pitch; Leo knew he was as good as anyone at playing, probably better. And everyone was nice to him, once they realized he could play. That wasn't the same as being friends the way Cesc and Geri were friends, being invited over to Geri's house and playing all the newest games and pranking the rest of the team together. Leo didn't want to care about that sort of thing. Most of the time he didn't. He had football, and he wanted football more than anything; it was enough. But sometimes when he went home to just his dad and his injections he wished he could have both.
"I'm not sure," he hedged. "Won't the coaches be mad?"
"Not if we don't tell them," Geri said, exaggeratedly patient. "But if you're just going to be a pussy about it--"
"Don't be such an ass," Cesc interrupted. "God, Geri. It's okay, Leo, you don't have to decide right now. We didn't even get the bonding agent yet or anything. Just think about it, okay?" He grinned, and Leo ducked his head. "It would be so awesome."
Leo thought about it, about what he'd been taught about bonding in class. They'd always know where he was, always know when he wanted the ball. They'd never miss a pass. They were already good, the best team he'd ever played on, but if they did this…
Reflexively, Leo looked back up at Cesc and smiled, and Cesc's grin took on a sharklike edge. If they did this, they'd be unstoppable.
"So, uh," Cesc said, holding up a syringe in the light spilling through Geri's bedroom window. "What exactly do we do with this?"
"I stole the records and the bonding agent," Geri protested when Cesc looked at him. "What, should I have tried to find written instructions too? I can't do everything around here!"
"Seriously?" Leo asked, and regretted not mumbling when Geri and Cesc both swung around to glare at him instead of each other. "I just meant--"
"You do it if you know so much," Geri said defensively. Leo rolled his eyes and grabbed the case full of syringes and unnervingly blue bonding agent lying on the bed. If there was one thing he knew, it was how to give injections.
The rest of the day wasn't any different than usual, except that Leo had never been to Geri's house before; Cesc had, obviously, but nobody made Leo feel like he didn't belong. Geri's parents were really nice, and his little brother was annoying but that was kind of comforting. After dinner his dad went into a closet and got out sleeping bags for Leo and Cesc. They looked really expensive and Leo's was still in its store packaging, but he didn't say anything. It was probably rude to notice that Geri's parents were really rich. Instead he started poking around Geri's room while Geri and Cesc squabbled over where the sleeping bags should go.
"Hey, who is this?" he asked, mostly on a whim. It was the only picture on Geri's dresser that had someone he didn't recognize: there were three, one of a very young Geri and Cesc, one of Geri's family, and this one, of Geri and a little girl. Picking it up, Leo felt a sudden stab of missing Cintia and Marisol. There were no girls at La Masia.
"Shut your mouth about my cousin," Geri snapped. Leo turned to stare at him, bewildered, and saw his face flush an angry red. Cesc went very still; he was close enough to have reached out to calm Geri down, but he didn't. "I'll fucking kill you, so shut up!"
"I--I didn't," Leo stuttered. He looked back down at the photo, but it was still just a little girl sitting next to a younger version of Pique, his arm slung around her shoulders. She was looking up at him, her face mostly in shadow, but Leo could tell she was smiling, and Geri was beaming down at her. "I just meant--I miss my little sister."
There was a long moment of silence, and then Geri relaxed all at once. Cesc touched his elbow, breath hissing out between his teeth, but Geri didn't seem to notice. He came over to Leo and took the photograph out of his hands, carefully setting it back on the dresser. "That's my cousin Montse," he said.
Leo looked up at him, still confused but obscurely grateful to be allowed even that much. "My sister's name is Marisol," he offered.
"You've met my sister, right, Leo?" Cesc asked, interposing himself between them. Leo blinked; he'd almost forgotten Cesc was in the room at all. "Carlota, she comes to watch our games sometimes. I definitely introduced you to her."
"Yeah, but I'm her favorite, right?" Geri ground his knuckles into Cesc's skull until he yelped. "You better be careful, she looks like she's gonna grow up to be a hottie."
"If you ever touch my sister I will murder you," Cesc squawked, and a few seconds later he and Geri were embroiled in a wrestling match on Geri's bed that looked like it involved more tickling than punches. Leo stayed by the dresser, forgotten and wondering.
It was black as pitch in the room when Leo woke up, but he knew immediately that he was alone. He stumbled out into the hall and followed the thin line of light between door and doorframe to the bathroom; the knob turned under his hand, and he was somehow unsurprised to find Cesc huddled over the toilet and Geri huddled over Cesc. "Is he all right?" Leo asked, yawning.
Cesc let out a pathetic, wordless whine, and Geri patted him on the head like he was a dog. "He's been puking for hours," he said. "Like, there's no way he still has any food in his stomach, and he keeps throwing up anyway. It's totally gross."
"One hour, maybe," Cesc corrected. His voice was hoarse, and he had to stop to retch again. "It is so not fair that I'm the only one with bonding sickness. I hate you."
"I kind of have a headache, now that you mention it," Geri said thoughtfully, and Cesc tried to punch him without raising his head. Leo edged closer to them, until he could reach out and rest a hand on the back of Cesc's neck. Cesc immediately sat up a little.
"That feels way better," he said. He grabbed for Geri's hand without even looking and sighed in relief when he caught it. "Oh man. So much better. No, don't let go!" he yelped as Leo tried to move away again.
"I just thought you'd want a glass of water," Leo said. "To, um. If you've been throwing up, I just--"
"Geri can go," Cesc interrupted. Geri made a faintly incredulous noise. "What was that, Gerard?" Cesc asked. "Your deathly ill bondmate needs a glass of water and you don't want to walk down a flight of stairs to the kitchen? You're a prince among men, clearly--"
"Oh my god, if I go will you shut up," Geri said, and went. Leo carefully slid down to sit beside Cesc on the cold tile floor.
"Are you really okay?" Cesc asked. Leo blinked. "I just thought maybe--I don't know. Maybe you wouldn't want to say anything in front of Geri, 'cause you're--anyway. You can tell me if you're sick, you don't have to pretend or anything. I'm not going to, you know, judge or whatever. Glass houses," he added, with a laugh that was choked off in a hurry as he leaned over the toilet to throw up again.
"I'm fine," Leo said. He rubbed Cesc's neck a little, experimentally, and Cesc relaxed under his hand with a sigh. "I don't feel any different."
"Okay, but if you do you can tell me," Cesc insisted.
"Okay." Stretching to reach Cesc's neck was getting uncomfortable. Leo shifted to try and ease the strain on his shoulder, then finally gave up and grabbed Cesc's hand instead. That was more comfortable, but then his eyes didn't want to stay open anymore. He barely heard Geri coming back into the bathroom, and the last thing he remembered was squeezing Cesc's fingers as he fell asleep on the bathroom floor.
He didn't feel different, and he didn't feel different, and then they were on the pitch and it didn't matter, because he didn't need to feel anything: he knew. For one perfect, shining season, he had Cesc and Geri and football, and that was all that mattered.
Things changed after that, and Leo only ever looked forward, never back, but he could have, and that counted for something.
"So, I'm leaving," Cesc said. Leo watched his hands twist together, so he didn't have to look up at his face. "Arsenal made an offer, my parents think it's a good one. They said I'll have a chance to get into their first team, so."
"I know," Leo said.
"And you'll have Geri to look after you, so you'll be okay," Cesc went on, to Leo's puzzlement. He didn't really know who Cesc was trying to convince. He knew he would be okay. He'd been fine without Cesc before; he didn't need him. He didn't need anything but football.
Maybe he wanted other things, but he could live without them.
"I know," he said again. "I mean. I don't really need you to look after me."
"Oh," said Cesc. Leo risked a glance up, and wondered at the expression on Cesc's face. He looked almost--hurt? Leo didn't understand. Cesc was the one who was leaving.
"I mean, they're moving me around so much anyway," he tried. "I probably wouldn't even be on the same team as you and Geri if you stayed."
"Oh," Cesc repeated. He hesitated, fidgeting, and then stepped forward to wrap his arms around Leo. "Take care of yourself, okay? I know--I know you're going to be great. Just be careful."
"Okay," Leo said. "Um, you too." He returned the hug, tentatively at first and then tighter. "I'll see you in the Champions League."
Cesc laughed, his voice cracking slightly. "Confident much?"
"I know we can," Leo said simply. "So we will."
Cesc's arms around Leo tightened until it hurt, and then abruptly let go. "I love you, little brother," Cesc said. "I'll miss you, okay?" He pecked Leo on the cheek while Leo was still frozen with surprise and started to walk away.
"Cesc," Leo finally said, when Cesc was almost out the door. The other boy turned to look back at him but didn't speak. "I--" He didn't know what he wanted to say, let alone how to say it. "Good luck."
Cesc smiled, and Leo thought that maybe he understood what he'd meant, even if he didn't know himself. "You too."
Saying goodbye to Geri should have been easier, because he'd lost one of them already and anyway he should have seen it coming, but he hadn't and it wasn't. Instead it was a mess of half-understood explanations about English football and playing time and some stupid grudge the president had, until Leo finally pulled himself together enough to ask, "Is it Arsenal? Cesc's going to explode."
"Leo, I wouldn't," Geri said, before he'd even finished getting the words out. "Leo. I'd never. It's not about Cesc, or--Leo, God, I'm not choosing him." Leo's face was squashed into Geri's chest in a smothering hug before he could explain that it was all right, that of course Geri was choosing Cesc and it was fine. Geri would choose Cesc and Cesc would choose Geri and Leo would choose football, and that was the way it was. He didn't mind. "Anyway, it's not Arsenal, it's Manchester. And Cesc isn't talking to me right now."
Leo blinked. "Because you're going to Manchester?" he asked Geri's shirt.
"Because I'm leaving."
"Cesc left first," Leo pointed out.
"Yeah, and I promised him I'd stay." Geri sighed and scruffed a hand through Leo's hair, equal parts comforting and annoying in his familiarity. "So I guess he's got a point, but he'll get over it. I'm sorry, though."
"Sorry for what?" Leo said, bewildered.
Geri paused and leaned back to look at Leo with an unreadable expression. It was so much harder without Cesc, Leo thought in frustration. He hadn't realized until he was gone that maybe he'd needed Cesc after all--not for football; he didn't need anyone for football. But Cesc understood him and he understood Geri, and when he was in the middle sometimes he could make them understand each other. "Leo," Geri said at last. "Who do you think I promised to stay for?"
Leo heard the shouting outside his room, but he couldn't understand any of it. Everything seemed distorted and very far away, like he was underwater, and knowing it was just the drugs didn't actually dispel the effect. He must have subconsciously recognized something from the noise, though, because he wasn't surprised when the door finally opened and Geri was on the other side.
"Hi," he said. "How was the match?" He could hear himself slurring, but he couldn't make his mouth shape the words any more clearly.
"Hi," Geri said. He came right in without hesitating, shut the door and sat on the side of the bed. "God, they put you on the good stuff, didn't they? The match was fine. You guys won three-one, I don't know if they told you yet. I played a few minutes at the end, or I'd have been here sooner."
"S'okay," Leo managed, after getting stuck on the first syllable for a few seconds.
"No, it's not." Geri leaned in a little and brushed the hair out of his face, and Leo saw that his mouth was set in a thin, unsmiling line. With a strange lurch in his stomach, Leo realized that Geri was angry, angry enough that Leo could feel it echoing in his bones, aching in his broken foot. It was unnerving, even through the haze of the drugs; Leo wasn't used to picking up things from Geri, not before he'd left and certainly not now. Cesc was the sensitive one. "Nobody's allowed to hurt you, all right? It's not okay. I'm sorry." He was still stroking Leo's hair. Leo fuzzily remembered the last time he'd felt Geri like this, the matches when Geri would attack other players because they'd hurt Leo. Cesc had still been there then, go-between and filter, and that was on the pitch. This was different.
"We're not teammates anymore," Leo said thickly.
Geri snorted. "You're always going to be my bondmate." There was some sort of ruckus outside, and he sat back up, rolling his eyes. "Look, I've got to get back to my team, I didn't exactly get permission to come visit you. I just had to see you. You'll be back in time for the home game, right?"
It took Leo a moment to parse the question, and a longer one for him to understand that Geri meant his home game, the one in Zaragoza. "Yeah," he said.
"Okay, I'll see you in April." Geri kissed his forehead and took off. Leo was, he decided, grateful that Geri hadn't waited. Even the drugs were a poor excuse for the question he'd been about to ask.
When are you coming home?
"Was it like this before?"
"Was it like this before," Leo repeated, and this time Geri actually looked at him. "I can't--I don't remember if it was, I don't--"
"Hey, hey," Geri said, and pulled Leo down to sit beside him on the bench in front of his locker. The locker room was empty except for them; Leo knew Geri was waiting for Cesc to get out of his presser. He wasn't sure why he was still hanging around himself until it was already out of his mouth. "Hey, shh. Are you freaking out? Wow, you really are."
"You're not helping," Leo snapped. "It was a simple question, okay, do I need to rephrase it--"
"Before what, before Cesc left?" Geri interrupted, because when he wasn't being intentionally obtuse he had years of practice at figuring out what Leo was thinking. "Of course it wasn't, we were fifteen and you were about as sensitive as a block of wood. Don't be stupid." He ruffled Leo's hair, which annoyingly enough made him feel a lot better, and then ruined things by adding, "I think Xavi's just wearing off on all of us."
"I don't want to be like Xavi," Leo said. His voice sounded too high, even to him. "I don't, I can't--"
"Calm down, Jesus, it's just a figure of speech." Geri was quiet for a moment. "Xavi's Xavi. You're not going to turn into him just because Cesc is back and we're better at backheels now than when we were fourteen. Okay?"
"Okay," Leo said.
"And also you have to be the shittiest bondmate in the history of bonding," Geri added as he got up to dig around in his locker. He was laughing, but Leo thought he was maybe a little serious underneath it, too. "You freak out because the bond is working? You didn't bat an eye when we left. I bet you didn't even miss us. It's too bad Andres would probably murder us if we tried to trade you in for Xavi, because seriously--"
"Of course I missed you."
Geri turned to stare at him, a half-folded shirt hanging from one of his hands. "What?"
"Why would you say--you're my bondmates, of course I missed you."
"Which is totally why you told me you didn't need me and have fun in England, right," Geri said skeptically. "And I know you said the same thing to Cesc, he told me."
"I don't need you," Leo said, frowning. "I can take care of myself. That doesn't mean I didn't miss you. It was fine when you were gone but it's better now you're back."
"Oh." Geri's voice sounded a little strange as he turned away again. "You could--maybe you should tell Cesc that, too."
Leo thought about the way it felt to set up a goal for Cesc, to score from a chance Cesc had given him, and had no idea how Cesc could possibly not know already: it made him so happy that he thought every person in the highest rows of the stadium must be able to feel it too. Cesc had always been the one who understood without needing to be told.
But maybe he could tell him, anyway.
The room was quiet for a few minutes, but it was a comfortable silence. Finally Geri finished whatever he was doing with his locker and said, almost idly, "You've met Daniella, right?"
"So?" Leo echoed, mostly just to fuck with him.
"So, what do you think?" Geri asked with exaggerated patience.
"Antonella likes her," Leo said.
Geri rolled his eyes. "I didn't ask Antonella, I asked you."
"Antonella likes her," Leo repeated, more deliberately. This time Geri got it.
"Yeah?" He looked closely at Leo, like he was checking to make sure he was serious, and then he smiled. "That's good. I like her, too."
"What do you like?" Cesc asked cheerfully, barreling into the dressing room with a huge grin on his face. "What are you talking about?"
"Not your hair, that's for sure," Leo deadpanned. Cesc stopped short for a moment, then burst out laughing.
"Now you see what I've had to put up with for the past two years," Geri said darkly.
"Yeah, but your hair actually is horrible," Cesc said.
"Wait, wait. You think that dead animal on your head looks good? My poor sweet deluded brother. Do you own a mirror?"
"I've heard there's an app for that, you should look into it," Leo interjected. Cesc didn't pull up at all this time, just laughed again.
"Shut the fuck up, both of you, it's my hair and I'll do what I want with it. Leo, we're going out for sushi, do you want to come with?"
Leo looked at Cesc's easy, uncomplicated smile and couldn't help answering it with one of his own. "Nah," he said. "I'm heading home, I promised the kids I'd play with them before dinner. Thanks, though."
"Oh well, next time," Cesc said. "Say hi to them for us, okay? I'll see you tomorrow at practice."
He paused on his way out to give Leo a quick hug goodbye, and Leo pushed up onto his tip-toes long enough to brush a kiss over Cesc's cheek. "I'm glad you're home now," Leo said simply.
Cesc's breath stuttered for just a second against the side of Leo's face, and his arms squeezed a little tighter. "Me too, little brother," he said. "Me too."