it rains the day he arrives in liverpool. loud, unrelenting, painting the window panes in long sharp streaks and xabi almost tells the cabbie to turn back to the airport; almost says look, look- there’s been a mistake. they drive all the way to anfield in the end, and somehow he makes it onto the center of the field, facing a circle of press next to luis and rafa in his new liverpool kit and his best shoes. he smiles as widely as he knows how to with their hands heavy on his back.
it’s in the middle of august and, the rain seeps through the seams to his sole.
he trains with the team through the end of summer and watches them on the weekends, tries to understand what is it about this, why they touch their palms to a signboard on a wall the significance, the meaning of red. instead, he learns what it means to lose the first time: he tries and tries, but the ball always seems heavier here, the air thicker, and when he falls it hurts more than he's ever known before.
it rains the next day, cats and dogs - xabi just pulls on a windbreaker, tugs on his hood and runs onto the soggy pitch. he chases an elusive ball around the field, more to get used to the feeling of ground tilting easier beneath his feet, sharp grass slippery along his thighs, and knees that still ache hitting against deceptively wet soil.
he doesn't realise he's not alone anymore until someone picks the ball up, and he's left sliding on his back. he squints; it's riise. who says c'mon, tucks the ball under his arm and holds his hand out to xabi. he takes it, gingerly and pulls himself to his feet, his eyes cautious. riise slings his arm around xabi’s shoulders conversationally as they walk back. xabi peers curiously at him; listen, mate. they asked me some things after the game and- it’s nothing you know, just the press and he gestures wildly with his other hand.
(he finds out later that riise had admitted to the media that he hadn’t understood xabi’s transfer before, the price tag they'd slapped on his back and xabi doesn’t get why riise’s going to all this trouble. but riise just knocks him on his arm and says hey better from me, you don’t know english press, corners crinkling as he grins, the language slipping smoothly off his tongue like it was never once foreign to him too.)
the thing about football is, it's like this: he breaks his ankle on new year’s day and starts the year being sidelined for three months. xabi contemplates going home to spain, but figures in the end that it’s easier to navigate his house on one foot than face the questions he knows are inevitably waiting for him back there. besides he still has mikel here with him, that should count for something right? eventually after only a day and a half, xabi kicks him back next door when he starts whining too much about how without a football, xabi morphs into the most boring individual on earth.
(it doesn’t strike him until he sighs quietly into the blissful silence, but he refuses to see mikel’s point even as he buries his nose deep between the pages of the economist.)
the doorbell rings once at noon. then again, and again, and again- until he hops his way to the door, cursing recklessly as he almost crashes into the coffee table. xabi swings the door open, wider than he’d intended to and an arm shoots out to grab his, steadying him on his feet.
“xabi! you doing good?”
“i have a broken ankle,” he can’t help but deadpan, as riise squeezes his way past xabi into the house.
“yeah yeah i know, that’s why i’m here. i brought lunch,” he beams, then his countenance darkens. “fuckin’ lampard,” he stares mutinously at xabi’s cast. “don’t worry yeah, stevie’ll sort him out. or i will.”
when riise grins he bares all of his teeth, someone must not have told him before but till now xabi still can't quite figure out when he's joking, and when he's not really. he smiles, though. and riise smiles back when xabi offers him tea, settles easily into xabi's chair and says actually i prefer coffee, but don't tell the lads it'll hurt their feelings.
xabi just rolls his eyes and suppresses a grin as he hobbles into the kitchen.
in the end, it takes a night in istanbul, two goals, four penalties and immortality for him to understand what it means to win, really win. they tell him after that they're allowed to keep the trophy: they explain it to him, it's an english record now, for some obscure reason five is the magic number, but xabi doesn't argue. he just thinks good because he can't ever imagine it in anything other than red: it's a part of it now somehow bonded into its chemistry, engraved in its silver, their loss, their victory, their history.
he doesn’t really expect to find anybody the day after they return home, but riise’s already there when he enters the pitch, his fists balled at his sides, chin tucked in concentration. xabi watches him practice for awhile, shot after shot from the eighteen-yard box, in the top corner, the bottom, right down the middle- until he gets tired of just watching. he grabs a stray ball and kicks it into the goal, whizzes past riise just as his lands in the net.
riise stiffens automatically as he approaches, his back straightens, shoulders solid. even now xabi picks his words carefully, quiet, and his accent measured; but against the backdrop of riise's silence, his brash hair, the harsh lines on his face, it all still seems too loud, stark even to xabi's own ears.
when he finally meets xabi's eyes (i don't give up, cowards give up), xabi only nods and takes the ball from his hands. he walks all the way back to the halfway line and places it neatly at his feet. xabi smiles at the confusion on riise's face; look - i'm going to score from here, next season.1
riise lifts his brow skeptically as xabi mimes a kick, and stands unmoved before the goalmouth, arms folded cynically.
he starts walking towards xabi, laughing as xabi complains loudly about him getting in the way when the ball lands ten feet away from the goal. riise toes a ball in between them and they end up having a kickabout, jostling like teenage boys on a field that's only theirs for the moment.
eventually xabi falls onto his back as he steals the ball from riise's feet and slides it into the net. he lies flat down and closes his eyes briefly, then squints up at riise, who chuckles and stretches his hand out to xabi. he grabs it and hauls himself up. riise throws his arm onto xabi's shoulders, elbows muddy, and steers them back to shelter: now, do that next season.
xabi laughs carelessly.
when he injures his ankle again before a crucial final, he starts thumbing through the classifieds with interest on what a degree in business could do for him. because the thing about this is, he's never had any illusions and, it's like this it's always like this- (mikel tells him that he's being a melodramatic little bitch; xabi tells him that he doesn't have to put up with this abusive relationship).
and that's how riise finds him on a sunday, perched with the morning paper in his hands, his swollen ankle propped snugly before him. he plucks the papers from xabi's hands in greeting, and frowns at the circles penciled in around the ads, what's this - part-time? he snickers when xabi only looks at him.
"i hate to break this to you mate but, we're nothing without football, xabi," he sets the paper down on the ledge. "we're nothing."
xabi hesitates - just for a second, then pulls the newspaper off the ledge, and spreads it deliberately in his lap, careful to avoid riise's eyes. he stills when riise tenses beside him, hears him mutter i see, tight under his breath and leave the room quietly. xabi doesn't look up; he sets his jaw, and grips the pencil hard in his hand.
it turns out a few days later that nothing is as serious as they'd thought it to be: he still makes it home by the end of the day with a winners' medal around his neck. he follows quickly behind when riise leaves the grounds and texts him from across the parking lot, chews on his lip as riise reads the message silently.
xabi arches a brow inquiringly when he finally turns around: so?
riise looks intently at him, for an instant - the space of a thousand heartbeats, a callous blink - his face blank, then it splits into an easy grin.
"well you think i'm charming, and have a sexy aura.2 i guess, a romantic dinner for two is right on the cards." and xabi laughs, sounding more relieved than he'd expected to.
drowning your sorrows looks a lot better on paper, xabi discovers the night they lose to benfica.
actually, everything looks better on paper and the truth is, no no, the truth is: losing at home hurts more than you'll ever imagine. (no matter how many times you tell yourself in the mirror, wear down the space before the door pacing, repeating in your head, nothing quite prepares you for the deafening silence, betrayal ringing in your ears and all that red, suffocating - his collar closing in on his neck as he struggles to pull it off, xabi thinks he'd take defeat and isolation in a foreign land any day.)
when he leaves the bar, he's more sober than he's ever been. nobody's surprised when he volunteers to drive riise home, who seems to have drunk enough for everybody, and stolen all their insobriety for the night.
riise's rowdy for the ride home, and mostly, xabi just listens to him talk. but as he goes up the steps leading to his house, he grows quiet, and staggers. xabi reaches out instinctively, more to feel the surety of wrists warm against the centre of his palm, their weight in his hands. riise's head jerks when they meet, as though he's surprised xabi's still there; and xabi says hey, says hey look- you're still john.
riise looks at him, frowning before confusion melts into clumsy comprehension; xabi holds his hand there, steady, gets used to the feeling of skin taut beneath his fingers. then he smiles, slowly across his face (yeah, yeah i am) and turns the doorknob in his other hand. he faces xabi deliberately and
xabi presses his fingers into his bones, tightens.
love notes to myself:
1. the only thing better than foresight, is knowing what already happens(/ed), hah!
2. i give xabier way too much credit here, and balls. JAR! could've cracked his jaw, honestly, or stolen away with his proper spelling.
& (generally). i've discovered that i may love xabier just that little bit more over JAR!, if only for his rebellious academic tendencies. but overall, mikel > both of them combined: his bitchiness pwns all (except maybe for mr. andrew murray - but then again nobody surpasses his royal bitchiness, ever).