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Title: Catch a Falling Star
Rating: NC-17
Characters: Xavi Hernández/Fernando Torres, allusions to Iker Casillas/Sara Carbonero and past Xavi Hernández/Iker Casillas, with cameos from Lionel Messi and the entire Spain NT
Word Count: 3243
Summary: Xavi Hernández grows up, falls in love, and takes Spain to victory in the 2012 Euros, not necessarily in that order. A sort of sequel to Never a Bride (but you don't need to have read that one first).
Disclaimer: While inspired by real persons and events, this story is a work of fiction.

Back to Chapter 2


Chapter 3: Extra Time

Xavi slept better than he had since leaving Barcelona, and he woke, refreshed, in the midmorning, without even a hint of a hangover. Iker, of course, was already long gone. He hummed a little as he dressed and brushed his teeth, checked his phone and his email. Torres had been named Carlsberg Man of the Match, he noted. Good, he had every reason to be pleased with his performance.

In the dining room, he took his tray over to sit next to Andrés, the only one of their teammates still - or more likely already - at breakfast.

"El Niño was phenomenal yesterday," his friend observed as he handed over the salt shaker without having to be asked.

"Yeah, wasn't he? He still has the skills. All he needs to do is trust himself." Xavi seasoned his eggs and took a big bite of his toast.

"He mentioned last night that you taught him a new relaxation technique," Andrés said innocently. "Can you show me, too?"

Xavi choked on a mouthful of milk, spluttered, and started coughing. He had to cover his mouth and pound himself on the chest until the spasms stopped. "Sorry," he gasped at last. "And ow. I swallowed wrong."

"You were saying?" Andrés asked.

He took a few more deep breaths and a big sip of juice before answering. "Andreu, you don't have any trouble relaxing before your matches."

"That's true," Andrés agreed, "but I get so nervous when I have to speak in public. Remember how much I was sweating when we filmed that video for Pep?"

Xavi smiled and said sincerely, "Yeah, but... believe me when I say that I really don't think that my technique would work in your particular case."

*

They all knew that the game against Croatia could be tough, and Torres in particular looked more and more stressed as the match approached. Xavi clapped him on the shoulder and said something encouraging whenever he could, but he was careful not to be left alone with him. Occasionally Torres would catch his eye with a questioning look, but he didn't push anything; he seemed to accept that Xavi would approach him if he were interested in another encounter, at least for the time being.

To Cesc's undisguised disappointment, Del Bosque started Torres in his stead, but the striker couldn't seem to score. He headed a corner kick from Xavi high, then attempted a low drive that was saved by the Croatian keeper. Torres became visibly more frustrated as the match progressed, and he wasn't the only one. Changes needed to be made, and Xavi couldn't understand why Del Bosque was delaying. He was tired himself - three tournament games in a row had taken their toll on his Achilles tendon - but he was forcing himself to push through the pain.

In the 73rd minute, the coach finally pulled Torres off for Navas and Silva for Cesc. Their fresh legs changed the whole tempo of the match, and Xavi felt his spirits lifting again. With only two minutes to go, Cesc chipped a perfect pass through to Andrés, who generously nicked it back to Navas beside him for the goal and the win.

Xavi barely had time to celebrate with them before he was called off, limping just a little as he joined his teammates on the bench. Torres' expression was bleak, his lips set in a thin line; Xavi put a sympathetic hand on his knee but sat next to him in silence until the match was over.

*

"Top of the group, cracks!" Cesc crowed as they straggled into the dressing room. He was elated by his assist-in-all-but-name, and obviously confident that Del Bosque had noticed how effective he'd been in the few minutes of play he'd been given in the last two matches. For his part, Xavi was surprised by the flatness that he felt. It was only natural, he supposed; four years ago, Spain had been elated to reach the Euro quarterfinals, but now, with that tournament as well as the World Cup trophy under their belts, advancing past the group stage had become business as usual.

*

Torres was noticeably subdued and withdrawn at practice the next day, and in the evening, he wasn't in the rec room with the others. Xavi was concerned enough to ask Juan Mata how he was doing.

His Chelsea teammate paused before responding, maybe just because he still hadn't fully forgiven Xavi for his post-match remarks, but finally confided, "I left him in our room. He's been pretty down since last night." He stared over Xavi's shoulder for a moment, then looked him in the face. "Maybe you could talk to him? He seemed better after he went to see you and Iker the other night." Mata's tone was skeptical, as if he couldn't quite understand why talking to Xavi might have that effect on anyone.

"Sure, okay," Xavi agreed. He could hardly say, No, sorry, because if I go to see him by myself, we'll have to have a supremely awkward talk about why I can no longer have sex with him.

The first time Xavi knocked, there was no response. "Niño?" he called, and rapped harder. "It's Xavi." He could just make out a stir and then rapid footsteps.

Torres opened the door, smiling despite the shadows under his eyes. "I wasn't expecting you to... come on in!" He held the door open as Xavi hesitated, then walked past him and pulled out a chair to take a seat at the table.

"So... how have you been?" Torres asked.

"Busy," Xavi began, scratching the side of his neck. "Um... Mata thought that it might help if you had someone to talk to." He felt guilty even as the words left his mouth; he owed it to Torres to be straight with him, but it was obviously going to be even harder than he'd expected.

Torres' eyes dimmed a little, although he didn't stop smiling. "Is that why you came, to talk?" He advanced on Xavi, took him by the hand, and gazed down at him expectantly, tilting his head.

Xavi was forced to look away, hating himself a little. "Nando, I'm here about your game yesterday, not..." He stood suddenly and stepped away from the other man, who released his fingers, looking a bit stunned.

"Oh," Torres said. When Xavi opened his mouth, he held up his hand. "It's okay, you don't have to explain."

Xavi made the attempt anyway. "It's not that I don't want to-"

"Let me guess. Iker."

He wasn't going to lie. "I'm sorry, I really am. You're a good guy and... No one has made me feel like that in a long time."

"Same here," Torres said simply. They stood there for a while, looking at each other.

"Okay," Xavi said finally. "Well, I guess I should go."

"And the match?" Torres asked. "That is what you wanted to see me about, right?"

"Yeah. Yeah. Listen, don't brood about it too much, okay? Anyone can have an off day. You're good, really good, you proved that against Ireland. All you need to do is relax."

"Relax," Torres repeated ruefully. "Yeah. Thanks."

Halfway to the door, Xavi had a thought and turned back around. "You know, the feather isn't really magic." When Torres just looked at him blankly, he explained, "Sex with someone else would probably work just as well."

Torres flushed. "You think that's all this is about for me? I'm not just trying to... to use you so that Del Bosque lets me start!"

"Sorry, sorry," Xavi said quickly, wondering how someone who meant well could possibly manage to put his foot in his mouth so often.

"I don't sleep with just anybody, you know," Torres added. He looked as angry as Xavi had ever seen him.

Xavi walked back to him, put an apologetic hand on his arm. "I know, I know, I'm sorry. I'm just saying... your wife is here, and-"

"Please leave my wife out of this," Torres interrupted. He sounded sad now, and tired. After a pause, he reached for Xavi's hand, but instead of removing it, he threaded their fingers together. "We haven't been... This season has been really stressful for us."

No shit, Xavi didn't say. "I'm sorry," he repeated. "But... maybe on the team... I mean, I can't help thinking that there must have been someone else before."

Torres took a deep breath, exhaled, and then rewarded him with a wry smile. "If I told you, how could you be sure that you could trust me with this?"

"There is no this," Xavi said. He gently untangled their hands and turned away. "I'm sorry."

*

In the five days leading up to the quarterfinal against France, Torres' performances at their practice sessions became increasingly erratic. Del Bosque and his assistant coach conferred about the striker situation frequently, sometimes bringing Iker and Xavi in for their input. The general consensus was that Torres was still the best striker on the team when he was having a good day, but there was no guarantee that they would get one; the coaches couldn't figure out where his occasional flashes of brilliance came from, and Xavi certainly wasn't about to shed any light on the subject.

So Cesc started instead of Torres, to no one's great surprise. In the first twenty minutes Andrés took advantage of leftback Jordi Alba's velocity to assist Xabi Alonso in a lovely header down past keeper Lloris. After that though, things seemed to stall; despite dominating possession, the Spaniards seemed unable to finish again and assure their victory. Disquieted, Del Bosque replaced his forwards for the last thirty minutes, Cesc looking downcast, Silva merely tired. But Torres and Pedro had no better luck. It was Xabi Alonso again who scored the second goal with a penalty kick in extra time and took them solidly into the semifinals.

*

The announcement of Real Betis defender Miki Roqué's death after over a year of treatment for pelvic cancer didn't come as a shock, but it certainly cast a pall over the Selección's mood the next morning. As soon as they heard the news, Xavi and Iker called Puyol, who had been paying for Miki's medical expenses since the previous spring. Puyi was sad but philosophical, clearly feeling that his friend had fought hard but had already suffered enough. He responded gratefully to Iker's promise that the entire team would wear black armbands in their next match in tribute to Miki.

On a more positive note, Puyi congratulated both of them on pulling the team together so successfully. Apparently David Villa had told him that Sergio Ramos was posting photos of himself bowling with blaugranas.

"How did he even know that?" Xavi asked, half amused, half appalled.

"He follows him on Twitter," Puyi said matter-of-factly. "You would know too if you weren't such a Luddite."

"I am not a... whatever you just called me, I just value my privacy! Anyway, what does David think he's doing, following fucking Real Madrid players?" Beside him, Iker's mouth was twitching in amusement.

"Don't look at me," the defender rumbled. "Just because I'm more discriminating doesn't mean I have any control over what David does. Anyway, my point was that it's a good thing."

"Whatever," Xavi grumbled. "Mourinho will make him take those photos down as soon as he figures it out."

"Don't you think you might be just a little paranoid?" Puyi asked.

"No, actually," Xavi said, glancing at Iker, who had folded his arms and was raising an eyebrow at him. "You just wait and see."

*

In contrast, when Xavi went to Andrés' hotel room to let him know what had happened, he found his midfield partner alone, choked-up and red-eyed and even paler than usual. He offered Andrés a hug at once, feeling somewhat at a loss. "I hadn't realized that you and Miki knew each other that well," he said tentatively.

"We didn't, not really," Andrés gulped. "But hearing about him... it reminded me of Dani."

Contrite, Xavi tightened his embrace. "Of course," he murmured. "I'm sorry."

"I don't know which is worse," Andrés sniffled. "At least Miki's friends and family had time to prepare."

"On the other hand," Xavi said gently, "it was probably quick and relatively painless for Dani."

"For Dani, maybe. Not for the people who love... who loved him."

"I know," Xavi said, wondering whether he really did. "I know."

He sat on the bed with Andrés for almost half an hour, letting him talk about his friendship with Dani Jarque, periodically wondering where the hell Victor was. Not that he minded - actually he felt privileged to be one of the few to whom Andrés would open up - but he felt, however irrationally, like he might be usurping Victor's position in this situation somehow.

It was a relief when the door finally opened and Victor entered with a black look... which quickly shifted to concern and affection as he knelt by the bed to put his arms around both of them.

*

They all sensed that Portugal would be the toughest team they'd faced yet, most because they had played either with or against most of their star players in La Liga. Xavi knew that even Iker was nervous at the prospect of going up against Cristiano, especially with Arbeloa, their weakest defender, on his strong side. And Pepe had been playing an incredibly consistent tournament.

In light of the Selección's nearly universally lackluster performances against France, everyone was wondering which forwards Del Bosque would decide to start this time. Apparently he had been even less impressed with his usual line-up than he'd let on, because el Míster surprised everyone by starting Negredo instead of Torres or Cesc. It did not seem to be an improvement, in Xavi's opinion, once the match was underway. Negredo was fast, but unlike Cesc, he didn't create chances, he only took them, and not any better than Torres as far as he could tell.

Del Bosque must have agreed, because the striker was the first to be substituted after halftime, giving Cesc another opportunity to prove himself. Not long after, Navas came on for Silva, and still they couldn't score. Even Xavi got desperate enough to try his luck from 25 meters, but he shot straight into the arms of the keeper.

It was really a war of attrition more than anything else, neither side able to gain the upper hand. When it looked virtually certain that they would be going scoreless into extra time, Xavi was signaled off, an excited Pedro taking his place. Once again he joined a despondent Torres on the bench, gulped water, and toweled off the sweat streaming over his forehead.

He could only watch, helpless, while the next thirty minutes of play dragged on. His teammates were getting tired now, and just a momentary lapse of concentration - on the part of Piqué for example - could terminate their hopes for the trophy. Andrés nearly repeated his last-ditch World Cup winning goal, but the shot was blocked by a brilliant save from the Portuguese keeper. In the end, neither side managed to get a goal before the whistle blew.

Now it was all up to psychology, Lady Luck, and San Iker. Xavi watched closely as the coaches and remaining players conferred: Cesc was especially animated, probably insisting that he be allowed to take the last penalty in the hopes of repeating his winning goal from their previous Euro campaign. In fact, he was the only Spanish striker to be included in the line-up at all.

"Sergio Ramos, really?" Xavi murmured sotto voce to Torres.

He was rewarded by a faint smile; Ramos' stratospheric effort in the Champions League semifinal against Bayern Munich had not yet been forgotten.

"Don't worry, we've been practicing," Pepe Reina put in, apparently having overheard them.


In fact, it was not Ramos who nearly scuttled the shoot-out but opener Xabi Alonso, whom Xavi would have picked a priori as their most reliable penalty-taker, hands down. He swore and clenched his fists as Xabi trudged away, looking more bemused than crestfallen.

Xavi barely felt his fingernails digging into his palms as Moutinho approached the spot, but he saw the red marks when he opened his hands after Iker's successful save as a sigh of relief went up from the Spanish side.

Andrés was next, sending the keeper the wrong way to slot his shot easily into the net. Iker, on the other hand, guessed Pepe's intentions correctly but was unable to keep his shot from slipping inside the post. Piqué's effort was similar - and far too close for Xavi's comfort - but Nani launched a perfect shot into the top corner, leaving Iker powerless.

With the sides tied 2-2, Ramos stepped up to the spot. "I can't look," Torres groaned, literally his head turning away and pressing his face into Xavi's shoulder. For his part, Xavi patted him on the back while watching with a sort of morbid fascination as the defender did a Pirlo, chipping the ball softly into the center while the keeper dove to one side.

The ensuing cheer evidently convinced Torres that it would be okay for him to peek again, but the sight of Bruno Alves advancing on Iker made him frown. "What, Ronaldo isn't taking the next one?"

"Probably begged Bento to let him take the last one so he could look like the big man when they won," Xavi answered absently, eyes fixed firmly on the Portuguese defender. He was rewarded by the welcome rebound of the ball against the crossbar. 3-2.

Now only Cesc and Ronaldo remained. As Cesc positioned his ball at the penalty spot, Torres grabbed Xavi's hand and held it, and on his other side, Silva did the same. They waited, the entire team holding their collective breaths, as Cesc made his run and fired wide to the bottom left corner.

The ball deflected off the post and spun into the net.

Xavi was immediately on his feet, screaming incoherently, although he couldn't even hear himself over the roar of the crowd, and then Torres was flinging himself into his arms while Silva leaped onto his back. Around them he could barely make out Cesc running back towards his teammates, beaming fit to split his face, while Ronaldo just looked up at the sky and shook his head, no doubt thoroughly disgusted by the injustice of it all.

*

"We have an extra day to prepare compared to Italy or Germany," Del Bosque told them afterwards in the dressing room. "You've all done well. I don't want to see any of you tomorrow. On Friday, once we know whom we're playing, we'll have a double session: physical training and then tactics."

The cheer that went up was heartfelt but somewhat ragged; the eight players who'd been on the pitch the entire time looked utterly exhausted and probably wanted nothing more than showers and early to bed. In addition, Torres' earlier elation had evaporated, and the contrast between the eschewed striker and self-congratulatory Cesc could not have been more stark. Seeing his beautiful but bereft face, the hopeless slump of his shoulders, Xavi felt a complicated mixture of pity, guilt, and desire twisting his gut. If he hadn't promised Iker... but he had, and that was the end of it.

Chapter 3 continued


Comments

flywoman
Dec. 31st, 2012 05:05 am (UTC)
Hee... sweet little Andres, he has no idea...

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