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Learn to Listen

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———

“You in a rush or something?”

Sergio freezes, his hand on a door handle. He’s been ready to bolt but he forces a smile and turns to face Iker. “No, why?”

“Dunno,” Iker shrugs, “you always seem to be in a hurry these days.”

“Nonsense,” Sergio dismisses with an exaggerated wave of his hand. He takes a few steps back into the room and nonchalantly sits down on the bench. He watches as Iker ties up his shoelaces and when the silence lasts too long, he asks, “Was there something you needed?” He’s already been lectured thrice today and there’s only so much he can take. He doesn’t need more coaching, he needs some peace and quiet and a good night sleep.

“Not if you’ve got places to be.”

“I don’t,” Sergio says. He knows what Iker is going to say next so he hurries to add, “Wanna talk about it over dinner? I could go for a dinner.” He’d like to pretend he’s got a say in it.

“Sese, you read my mind. Dinner sounds fine,” Iker agrees.

Sergio’s smile turns manic. “Brilliant! How about Thai?”

“That place downtown?”

“Sure, sure,” Sergio agrees. “I’ll drive you.”

It’s the exact opposite of the quiet evening he wanted. But he needs to keep up the pretences of normalcy. Iker knows him better than anyone and he is already growing suspicious.

Iker stretches, pulling his sweatshirt over his head. Sergio watches.

“Okay, let’s go.”

They walk out of the stadium and get into the car.

Sergio hates every single minute of driving. It’s a recent development, the ear-splitting roar of the engine never bothered him before. Sergio was never aware that there is a whole orchestra of noises coming from the car. The sound of the traffic used to be nothing more than a background part of getting to places.

But now, driving is a purgatory.

Actually, it’s not only driving. It’s every single moment of a day.

Sergio figures he deserves it.

———


“Would you like to know what the future holds for you? Let me see your palm, young lady, and I’ll tell you–”


Sergio nearly stumbles when Clarissa stops.


The woman is reaching up to take Clarissa’s hand into hers. Her golden rings and bracelets clinking. Her nails blood red. The colourful starched skirts ruffling in the wind.


Sergio draws himself to his full height, pulling Clarissa behind him by her elbow so the woman’s dirty hands can’t touch her.


“No, thank you,” he says.


The woman raises her chin and her gaze pierces through Sergio. Her eyes are as dark as the night and Sergio can’t look away.


“Are you afraid to know what’s coming for you?” she croaks. “No reason to be afraid, my child, it’s better to know rather than to remain ignorant.” She reaches her hand again, focusing on Clarissa.


“We don’t believe in your mumbo jumbo,” Sergio snaps. “We’re not interested in your bullshit. So bugger right off, will you?”


The woman clucks her tongue. “Why don’t you let her speak for herself? You speak too much. Just listen.”


She tilts her head to the side, as if there was really something the night was whispering to her. “Listen to her. Oh, but you never listen to what people are telling you, do you?” She cackles. “But you will, oh, you will.”


Her hand shoots out and grabs Sergio’s arm. One of her ring digs painfully into his skin, making him wince. Suddenly, she has Sergio’s hand in a vice grip and forces him to open up his palm. She clucks her tongue again as she stares down.


“Let go of me,” Sergio yelps, tugging at his arm but she’s latched onto him like a leech.


“Tut, tut. So much pretence, you hardly know who you are right now. But you’d know if only you listened to what people are telling you,” she admonishes.


“Let me go, you old hag!”


She stills and then she sneers at him. “You’ll be cursed until you learn how to listen to what people are saying.”


She lets go of him and turns to Clarissa. Sergio takes a stumbling step, trying to get in between them but the hag shoves him aside as if he was light as a feather. Sergio is confused by everything, his ears are ringing and he feels nauseated.


“And you, my dear, you need to decide soon, before it’s too late for you to be truly happy. You know this isn’t right,” she says, gesturing to Sergio. “You know it deep down. He never listens to you. He’ll never listen to you.” She doesn’t try to take Clarissa’s hands anymore. She just stares at her for a few moments and then she disappears into the crowds.


“What the fuck was that?” Sergio wheezes, wincing at the sound of his own voice.


Clarissa turns to him, her lips pressed together tightly. “I don’t feel like going out tonight anymore,” she tells him.


It takes her two more days to tell him she’s leaving.


By that point, Sergio has bigger problems than one more of his affairs not working out. He thinks she’s better off without him.

———

Sergio follows Iker inside, lets him find them seats and it isn’t until they’re reaching for the menus that Sergio realizes he’s sitting right under a loudspeaker in the ceiling.

The music is playing directly to Sergio’s left ear, making it impossible to focus. He closes his menu and pushes it to the middle of the table.

“I’m having whatever you’re having,” he tells Iker.

A small worried line appears on Iker’s forehead. Sergio keeps smiling until Iker sets the menu aside.

They wait for their food to arrive and Sergio finds himself staring at Iker’s lips a lot. It’s not even for his usual reasons but because watching the mouth shape the words helps to distinguish them from the rest of the clatter of the room.

There are too many people, too many conversations, chairs scraping against the floor, cutlery scraping against the porcelain plates, chopsticks dully clicking together, someone slurping their soup.

Trying to hear Iker over the noise is like trying to hear the birds twitter over the thunder of the Niagara falls.

Sergio leans in, as if captivated by Iker’s story. He props his head up with his hand, cupping his own cheek lightly, two fingers pressing against his right temple. It’s supposed to appear as if he’s deep in thought but in fact the cold tips of his fingers feel heavenly against the throbbing pain in his head.

“That’s it,” Iker says curtly, getting up.

“Wait, what?” Sergio reaches out to Iker and grabs his wrist.

“We’re leaving.”

Sergio lets go of Iker. “What did I do now?!” he snaps.

At that, Iker glances down at him, “Nothing. But I can see right through you.”

Sergio’s heart skips a beat, then starts racing. The possibilities of everything that Iker could have realized are unnerving.

He mentally scolds himself. He’s managed to keep his feelings in check for this long, there is no way Iker has picked up on anything now.

“We’re going home,” Iker continues. “I’m driving you to my place and I’m getting you drunk if that’s what it takes for you to stop with that ‘I’m fine’ bullshit. You’re not getting away with it this time because I’m not letting you out of my sight until you start talking.”

Sergio shivers. He can’t decide if it is the commanding tone of Iker’s voice or if it’s the dread of Iker finding out.

“Iker, I’m–” Sergio falters under Iker’s glare. “I’m going to ask to have the food wrapped to go.”

“Good. I’ll wait in the car.” Iker holds out his hand. Sergio gives him the keys with a heavy heart.

The ride to Iker’s place is far from silent, although Iker doesn’t say a word. They get overtaken by a speeding ambulance and Sergio barely stifles a pained moan when the cadence of the siren reaches levels that have gotten past the pain threshold for him.

Iker shoots him a look but he doesn’t make a comment.

———


Sergio doesn’t remember the rest of the day. He knows he walks Clarissa home but not much else. His head is throbbing with a painful headache, though Sergio is sure there wasn’t any moment during the practise that should warrant it.


He can’t stand to watch the TV before he falls asleep, he remembers that too. He lies down and closes his eyes, whining whenever any little motion jostles his head, sending the world spinning, despite the curtains being closed and the room being dark.


Waking up the next day is like waking up to a brand new world. A very loud, obnoxious and painful world.


Sergio remains in the bed for long minutes, trying to take it all in.


His ears are sensitive, suddenly picking up on so many little noises Sergio never before knew were a part of his apartment.


He tells himself he’s just tired, has been working himself too hard, it’s probably the stress of the past week catching up with him. Nothing to worry about, it will pass in a few days, Sergio is sure.


He makes himself get up from the bed and go on through his morning routine. They have a game in the evening and he needs to get his shit together.


He doesn’t get his shit together and when he’s subbed in the thirty-fourth minute, he feels nothing but relief. The stadium is too much for him to handle. He doesn’t know how to cope.

———

Iker’s place is the quietest one Sergio’s been too since leaving his own home earlier that day. He breathes out a relieved sigh when the door falls shut behind them.

They carry the food into the living room. Sergio makes a trip to the kitchen for the forks and returns just in time to see Iker reaching to switch on the TV for the background noise.

“Could we not?” he pleads quietly. He sits on the couch and draws his knees up. He’s tired and yet he has troubles falling asleep, he wants to rest yet he’s too winded up to do just that. And he hates keeping Iker in the dark.

Iker gives Sergio a long look, then walks over to the couch to sit down next to him. He tugs until Sergio shifts, lists sideways and lets himself be cuddled. His ear is above Iker’s heart. He can hear the rapid beats eventually slow down to an enthralling rhythm. Sergio listens to it, tuning out the rest of the world.

He closes his eyes, focuses on the low sound of the heartbeat. He’s so exhausted that he dozes off for a moment. Sergio rouses from his snooze to find Iker is still patiently holding onto him, thumb stroking the small of his back. The TV is switched on but is on mute.

Sergio can still hear it perfectly. He never realized before, that the sound is simply always there if you listen close enough. The hum of the electronic is also stupidly loud and so is the buzz of the overhead light.

Someone is lighting up their cigarette on the street below, the lighter snapping noisily. The window must be creaked open.

Sergio stirs, then blinks his eyes open.

“Hey,” Iker says. The slow and steady rhythm of Iker’s heartbeat is gone, replaced by a quickening gallop. Although hoarse from being silent too long, Iker’s voice still booms and Sergio winces. Iker’s arms are withdrawn that instant and Sergio misses the warmth instantly.

“Hey,” Sergio croaks back as he sits up.

“Think you can eat now?” Iker says.

“Yes. It’ll be all cold now, though,” Sergio says, rubbing his eyes.

“Sese.”

Sergio glances up and he is met with one of those intense stares that he could drawn in. He needs to admit something or Iker is going to keep digging until he discovers the real secrets. And Sergio can’t have that, their friendship is too precious to him to lose it.

He’ll have to feed Iker some half-lie and hate himself for that later. He’s become quite skilled at that particular charade.

His share of the food is still on the table, and so is a glass of juice. He reaches for it and takes a sip, stalling.

“I’m just tired, a bit irritated, maybe a little stressed, it’s nothing,” he admits at last.

“Is your head bothering you? You know that if you have any symptoms of a concu–”

“It’s not that,” Sergio interrupts him quickly. “It’s…” He can’t say it.

“Yes?”

“Uh, nothing. It’s nothing.”

It’s just that he can hear freakishly well and it’s been giving him headaches and he hasn’t had a good night sleep in a while. He’s dead on his feet, he’s frightened of what’s going on with him and while he knows something is dreadfully wrong, he isn’t ready to know the real answers.

Sergio is still entertaining the idea that it’s all in his mind. It’s been a tough few weeks and he’s tired, upset about where their season has been going and irrational about everything else.

He looked it up, it’s a vicious cycle, you get too stressed, you can’t sleep, your hearing can become too sensitive, you get irritated, you can’t sleep…

It could be just that.

There’s no way he’s been cursed.

There is no way the stupid curse actually works.

The words are stuck in his head and it’s his own attitude that allows this to happen. He’s just a little irritated, that’s all.

“Okay, then,” Iker says in that tight tone which means he can see right through Sergio but he won’t call him out on it.

Sergio digs into his food. “You think Pepe’s ready to be back on Wednesday?” he asks.

“He was feeling fine today,” Iker nods. “It would suck to change the strategies this late.”

Sergio has his mouth full, so he waves his free hand to make Iker continue talking about the upcoming match.

———


Sergio can hear many things he never did before but most of the time, he wishes he couldn’t.


He is so damn tired all the time. He hates accidentally overhearing private conversations, he hates hearing every jeer from the stands, he hates the sudden blows of the whistle that are sharp enough to make him wince, especially when he doesn’t see them coming and can’t brace himself for the prickle of pain in his ears.


And now the match is over and they won – no thanks to him – and they still have to talk about it, still have to analyze instead of going out to celebrate. (Or getting drunk so fast that the noise of the club stops being a bother, in Sergio’s case.)


Sergio is stuck explaining and defending his moves and Iker’s stupid phone keeps ringing, making it really hard to focus.


On the fifth loop of the cheesy melody, Sergio can’t take it anymore. “Dude, pick up your fucking phone.”


“What?”


“Or put it on mute, I don’t care. You really had to link your brother with the most annoying melody ever, I swear.”


“…I left my phone in my locker.”


Which is three rooms down the hallway. Shit. The melody is so familiar Sergio was immediately drawn to it and he couldn’t ignore it and he thought–


“Hehe, just jerking your chain,” he jokes. He isn’t fooling anyone. He receives a couple of strange looks from the guys but mercifully, the debrief ends soon after.


Cris is waiting for him, leaning against the driver’s door of Sergio’s car. He extends his hand towards Sergio, who gives up the keys. “Iker checked his missed calls,” Cris says.


“Oh?”


“Unai’s been trying to call him all evening. There are four missed calls and one is from the exact same time you were complaining about hearing it ringing.”


“Oh,” Sergio breathes out, climbs into the car and lets Cris drive him to the club. He needs booze to tune out the constant noise.

———

Sergio can’t fall asleep in the guest bedroom. He’s slept there many times before without any problems but tonight it doesn’t seem he’s going to be so lucky.

The alarm clock is obnoxiously loud. Although it’s the type that does not tick by seconds, Sergio can still hear the whirr of the mechanism. He eventually snaps and takes out the batteries. Iker will wake him up in the morning.

But then he lies down and he can still hear the constant buzz and he realizes, holy shit, the lamp being plugged into the wall makes the sound, even though it’s turned off. He gets up to unplug it, lies back down.

No matter what he tries, he can’t tune out the drone of the AC, the gurgle of the water pipes somewhere in the wall, the clicking of someone’s high heels against the pavement out on the street.

Sergio grunts, tossing on the bed.

Trying to shut out the rest of the world doesn’t help but then Sergio remembers how easy it was when he could focus on Iker, the soft sound of his breathing, the calming rhythm of his heartbeat.

He’s too far to hear it from where he is in the guest bedroom, even his sensitive ears can’t pick up something as feeble as that from across a hall, through two closed doors.

Sergio wishes to be closer to Iker and he huffs out a quiet, amused laugh. The irony isn’t lost on him – he’s always wanted to be closer to Iker but now he needs to.

He is quiet on his feet as he slips out of the the room, silently opens the door, sneaks across the hall. He reaches Iker’s door, wraps his fingers around the knob, slowly turning it without making a sound. He presses the pad of his thumb against the latch bolt, releasing it carefully.

Iker is sleeping soundly. Sergio creeps to the window near the side of Iker’s bed. With his fingers, he scissors the blinds apart a little. The streets are bustling with life and the view is entertaining enough to hold his attention.

He listens to the quiet rhythm of Iker’s breathing, feeling calmer by the minute.

He doesn’t know how long he stays there like that but all of the sudden, he hears a shift in the soothing pattern, like a little startled hitch, followed by a few mad, powerful thuds, immediately softening, like Iker is trying not to show his reaction.

Sergio frowns and steps away from the window. When he turns, Iker is still pretending to be asleep.

Sergio crosses the distance to get to Iker. The bed dips as he sits down but Iker doesn’t ‘wake up’. Sergio shifts a little closer, his knee brushing against Iker’s side.

Iker’s heart is racing.

Sergio can hear it but it’s not enough. He reaches out to touch with tentative fingers to feel the powerful thump through the skin.

Iker pretends to stir awake. “Sese?”

“Yeah, it’s me. I couldn’t sleep.”

Iker gulps. “And you thought it’d be good to come here and wake me up as well so you wouldn’t have to suffer alone?”

“Didn’t mean to wake you up,” Sergio admits truthfully and he doesn’t realize how strange that sounds until Iker’s heart is picking up the speed again. Sergio strokes his fingers soothingly over Iker’s skin but that doesn’t seem to help either.

“You could have,” Iker says calmly, although Sergio can both feel and hear his heart going haywire. “I wouldn’t mind keeping you company.”

Sergio sighs. “I’m sorry I’ve been so weird lately.”

“What? No, Sergio, it’s fine. I just wish you told me what’s going on with you so I could try to help. I know something’s up.”

“Clarissa left me,” Sergio answers in one quick breath and then revels at the way Iker’s heartbeat stutters.

“Oh, fuck. I’m sorry. When?”

Sergio waves his hand, hoping Iker can see the movement in the darkened room. “It’s been a while.”

“That sucks.”

“Well, I don’t think we’ve been in love. I thought so back then but not anymore.”

“You’ll get better, I promise,” Iker says.

Sergio isn’t sure if Iker means his game or his love life but it’s nice to hear it either way. Especially since Iker’s heart rate is calming back down to its usual levels. He’s almost sorry to say the next words. “But that’s not what’s been wrong with me.”

And sure enough, the stutter is back. “Is there someone else?” Iker asks quietly.

“No. God, no. It’s just. Well, it’s pretty bad. I think I got myself cursed.”

“Cursed?” Iker echoes.

“Don’t laugh,” he warns. “But there was this woman and she said I never listen to what people are telling me. I woke up the next day and wham, I can hear sickeningly well. And I still didn’t realize, even though I could hear your freaking heartbeat, I stil didn’t realize–”

“You can hear… what?” Iker is panicking. It’s a nasty sound.

“I can hear the rhytm, and it’s soo soothing. That’s why I came here tonight, to hear it. It calms me down, okay? I’m really sorry about it.”

“Jesus,” Iker breaths out. “You’re not fucking with me?”

“I wish I were. But I can hear your fucking TV plugged into the wall and I can hear your phone on the bedside table and I can hear your neighbour snoring but it’s really easy to listen to your heart and how it speeds up when we meet.” He waits a little, and when Iker doesn’t recoil, he continues, his words more and more resembling a babble. “I can hear the spike when you reflect the ball and you do the same for me but not for Pepe or Sami, and your heart doesn’t do the funny dip when anyone else hugs you but sometimes when I’m around your heartbeat goes crazy and I guess you’ve been saying it since forever but I really never knew how to listen. Why didn’t you ever say anything aloud?”

There is no answer from Iker, but Sergio figures it’s okay, Iker must be shocked by Sergio’s admission and he still hasn’t said the most important part.

“I wish you said something because then we wouldn’t have wasted so much time. I always thought it was just me.”

Iker’s heartbeat is enough of an answer for Sergio.

“You swear you’re not just fucking with me? I’m serious, Sese.”

“I swear,” Sergio promises. As if he would ever pull a prank like this on Iker. Well, okay, he might see why Iker is so hesitant even when his own heart is giving him away to Sergio.

“Kiss me.”

Sergio closes his eyes and laughs, shaking his head and following down when Iker tugs at his arm.

Iker is kissing him, pressing his mouth against Sergio’s insistently and Sergio parts his lips to let the wet slide of Iker’s tongue in. Iker’s heart does the familiar side step of ba-dum that has been trying to tell Sergio of the love. That’s what he wasn’t hearing before.

The realisation is so earth shattering that it takes a moment for Sergio to register the persistent ringing in his ears. He breaks the kiss and brings his palms to his ears, presses in and then pulls, creating a soft pop. He hisses and shakes his head because the ringing blocks the sound of everything else.

Sergio covers his ears again.

The lamp on Iker’s bedside table switches on, spilling a dull light into the room.

Sergio blinks against the tears until the room is back in focus.

Are you okay? Sergio, please, are you okay? What’s wrong? Iker is saying, Sergio can clearly see his lips forming the words.

He manages a weak smile. “I’m fine,” he says and startles at the sound of his own voice which sounds nothing like he’s used to. Like it’s coming from under the water, weak and muffled.

Iker touches him gingerly, makes him lower his hands from his ears.

The ringing is gone and the world is strangely quiet. Empty, foreign, echoing, like the cut scenes from the end of the romantic films when the camera zooms out and soft romantic music picks up. Only, there is no music, just the silent world.

“I’m fine, Iker, I promise,” Sergio says, testing the words, testing the loudness. He’s relieved when his own voice breaks the stifling silence.

“Do I need to call someone?” Iker asks, obviously worried.

“No, it’s fine. I’ll let them give me the throughout check up in the morning, okay?”

“Okay,” Iker says.

Sergio tries to focus on Iker but it’s much harder to pick up on any clues, the world is back to its usual limitations. He runs his hand over the bed, the rustle is feeble and barely noticeable. Iker’s heartbeat is gone, too.

Sergio gulps, his chest feeling much tighter. “I think you broke the curse,” he says.

“Your ears are okay?”

“I don’t feel anything unusual anymore.”

“Oh.” Iker starts pulling away from him. Sergio is having none of that.

“Everything’s the same, except that I don’t need to worry about getting so drunk I’d tell you about my horrifying, embarrassing crush on you.”

Iker chuckles. “I guess you don’t. Come on, let’s go to sleep.”

“U-huh,” Sergio drawls.

“Play nice. It’s ass o’clock in the morning and we really should sleep. Early morning practise, let me just remind you.”

“I thought you said you wouldn’t mind staying up with me all night.”

“Funny. Your hearing is still pretty selective.”

“Some other time, then.” Sergio laughs but he lets Iker pull him down and they settle against each other. Iker switches the lamp off again and pulls the covers over them.

Sergio lies his head down on Iker’s chest. With a jolt, he realizes that he can still hear the familiar staccato of Iker’s heartbeat when they’re this close and his ear is pressed directly above it.

Experimentally, he runs his fingers along Iker’s back and shifts so that one of his legs ends up between Iker’s. Right on cue, Iker’s heartbeat stutters and quickens in a way Sergio has grown used to hearing. It’s not as loud but it’s still the same and all the more precious that now Sergio understands it.

He lets out a long, relieved sigh, turning his head a little to drop a kiss to the hollow of Iker’s neck.

Goodnight, Sergio,” Iker says imploringly. It’s the best reprimand ever and Sergio grins into the darkness of the room.

“’Night,” he whispers. Then he lies his head down again, content, with the constant of the heartbeat playing a sweet lullaby, soft and comforting.

———


It’s late at night but there are still so many people out there that Sergio has no hopes of finding her. But it was somewhere around here that him and Clarissa run into her, he knows it.


Sergio looks around, his eyes skimming every dark corner, every alcove, every doorway. The small figure of the old woman is nowhere to be seen. Iker told him he’s crazy for willingly showing his face here again but Iker wasn’t here the first time so he doesn’t quite understand.


Sergio can’t just enjoy the gift she gave him and never thank her for it. The last he heard, Clarissa wasn’t doing so bad either. The woman did them both a favour and Sergio needs to apologise to her.


He reaches the end of a park and turns to go back and search the streets one more time. If he doesn’t find her tonight, he’ll go again when they’re back in town.


Sergio makes it halfway through the park, then he remembers the shop across the street that makes those disgusting smoothies Iker enjoys and he changes his course.


He only makes it a few steps when a sudden rustle comes from behind him. The wind picks up and Sergio swivels around.


“Your hearing is much better,” the woman says, her dark eyes piercing Sergio’s own.


Sergio shivers but manages to keep their gazes locked. “I hope it is. Thank you.”


The smile she gives him is quizzical and it takes a lot of courage not to flinch when she extends her hand towards Sergio. But she’s not trying to touch him. In her hand is a plastic cup that she offers to Sergio.


Sergio takes it, bewildered, recognizing the logo of the smoothie shop. The nasty green tint of the drink tells Sergio it’s the one Iker likes.


“They closed up five minutes ago,” the woman says, pulling her hand back. Her bracelets clink.


“Thank you,” Sergio says, glancing up in a surprise only to see that he’s talking to thin air.


The woman is nowhere to be seen.