Gary Neville, Jamie decided early on, was far worse to deal with when it wasn’t socially acceptable to trip him up and maybe accidentally step on him. Far, far worse.
Of course, technically it never had been acceptable to trip Gary up on the pitch either, and Jamie had the yellow card record to prove it, but it was even less so in the Sky Sports studio when they were both in suits and Gary was perched on his stool, yammering on about something or other and jabbing repeatedly at the screen in front of them with his little pen.
The worst part was, Jamie thought grimly, was that when it came right down to it Gary wasn’t even horrible. He was funny and clever and a least two other flattering adjectives that could never be spoken aloud. He didn’t mind Jamie slagging him off on twitter and he actually knew what he was talking about when it came to football. All of which was why Gary was terrible to work with. If Jamie hadn’t ever had to deal with him off of the pitch he might never had discovered these unfortunately likable sides to Gary, and he might never have found himself in the position of enjoying Gary’s company.
Sure, they’d been on the same side for England and Jamie’d never let their club rivalries get in the way there –insofar as anyone did- but it had been different. Working with Gary on MNF provided opportunities to do things like asking Gary to grab a pint with him or staying up late on Sunday hashing out the sequence of the show.
So colleagues had turned to tolerance had turned to affability, but Jamie hadn’t realised that he’d somehow become –horror of horror- friends with Gary until Gary’d took him aside one evening and told him that he was going to Valencia.
Jamie blinked. “Immediately?”
Gary nodded. “They want me over as soon as possible- am leaving tomorrow, in fact. My first match is the Champions League against Lyon.” His tone was fairly neutral but Jamie could recognise the undercurrent of buzzing excitement there, humming along as his lips threatened to curl into a smile. It was a testament, he supposed, to how well he knew Gary at this point. A terrible, terrible testament to their blossoming friendship.
Gary was watching him expectantly, maybe even a bit apprehensively, and Jamie realised that his brow had been furrowed critically in thought and he hastily smoothed his expression.
“That’s-” he started, and then discovered with a bit of a jolt that he was pleased for Gary. Really pleased. Not just ‘you’re my colleague and congratulations’, but genuinely happy that Gary was getting something that Jamie knew he’d always wanted. He could feel himself smiling, slightly bemused at himself but Gary didn’t have to know that. “That’s fantastic, Gary. Well done, mate.”
The smile that had been waiting in the wings spilled over Gary’s face like a sunburst. It was a bit flattering to think that Jamie’s approval had summoned it.
And because that stray musing apparently hadn’t been far enough past the professional friends line, Jamie immediately had to open his mouth. “Drinks?” And then at that point the damage was done so there was no harm in adding, “On me. To celebrate, like.”
What the fuck are you doing, Carragher? Jamie’s brain screamed at him, but Gary was nodding in agreement and that was that. Why did he dig himself into these holes. A celebratory evening with Gary really wasn’t going to help this little problem of liking Gary Neville.
Much as he hated to admit it, Gary might have a point sometimes when he joked about Jamie’s own goals.
“Fuck,” Jamie said, with real emotion behind it as he dropped like a stone onto the sofa. His sofa. He blinked. “Wait- how did we get back to my place?”
“We walked.” Gary said from somewhere in front of him. Jamie opened his eyes to see where he was, and was immediately incredibly glad that he had because at that moment Gary attempted to sit on the sofa as well, but missed it by an inch and ended up sliding to the floor instead.
Gary looked so put out to find himself suddenly on the ground that Jamie nearly choked on his laughter.
“Ugh, it’s not funny, I could have broken my back, Carra, honestly...”
“You absolutely could not have broken your back- don’t be so dramatic, you tit.” A giggle was still threatening to bubble up into Jamie’s voice. He tried to keep a straight face. “You barely- what? What are you looking at?”
“Nothing,” said Gary, but he was looking at Jamie strangely. There was an oddly soft expression on his face that sent something sparking in Jamie’s brain and he felt the need to crack a joke, or just say something to break that look and bring Gary back down to earth where they were colleagues who maybe-slightly liked each other but certainly didn’t look at each other in the way that Gary was looking at him now.
He thought it might help if Gary wasn’t gazing up at him from the floor as he was, almost through his eyelashes, his hands resting on the upholstered cushions, and so Jamie slid down off the couch to rest beside him.
It didn’t help. If anything it made it worse, being at Gary’s eye level. Jamie swallowed, his throat dry. “Gary?”
“...why does your nose look like someone broke it as a child and never put it back proper?”
Gary let out a breath in an irritated whoosh. The strange gentleness was still hovering in his eyes but he was grinning and the atmosphere felt more normal, like. Familiar ground.
“Ever consider getting a nose job?”
“You really don’t have a leg to stand on, criticising my face,” Gary said, straightening unsteadily out from his slump. “Have you looked in a mirror lately? Seen that great ugly pancake you’re walking about with?”
“Great ugly pancake!?” Jamie gasped in outrage.
“Yeah,” said Gary, sounding pleased with his insult. “And you can go get fucked, at that.” It was the kind of thing that Gary might once have said standing squared with his feet apart and his teeth bared, draped in a baggy United kit with grass stains on his knees, ready to let fly a few punches while the brick fishbowl of Old Trafford howled for blood. Quite different to hear it in a near-affectionate tone of voice, sprawled on Jamie's carpet and leaning against Jamie’s sofa.
“Christ,” Gary sighed, breaking Jamie out of his ruminations. “I’m still well pissed. Not about to drive like this.”
“Eh- just stay here.” Jamie suggested lazily. “You can get your car in the morning.”
“Really?” Gary said, somewhat surprised.
“Yeah, wouldn’t want you wrapping yourself around a lamppost trying to get home, Neville.”
“I didn’t know you cared,” Gary teased, and Jamie rolled his eyes.
“Don’t be a twat. Accept my spare room before you pass out and I have to carry you upstairs. God knows what that would do to my back.”
Gary swatted at him without any real conviction. He was a bit of a mess, Jamie noted, with his hair all sticking up in disarray and his shirt collar half folded the wrong way against his neck. He looked soft and drunk and friendly and Jamie couldn’t help but reach out and comb his fingers through Gary’s hair, pushing it back into some semblance of its normal state, letting his hand follow lightly over Gary’s head and coming around to rest at the back of his neck.
Gary was watching him carefully but didn’t make any move to shake him off, which was vaguely encouraging despite Jamie still not being entirely sure what he was doing. He gently, experimentally stroked his thumb over Gary’s cheek. Felt the stubble there. A grin flashed over Gary’s face and he contorted his expression, pursed lips and raised eyebrows, a rough but recognisable imitation of the face Jamie had pulled when Gary had touched his ear on the show and they both dissolved into laughter, Jamie’s hand dropping from Gary’s face.
“Christ,” Jamie said a little disbelievingly once they’d settled down, “I think I’m going to miss you when you’re gone, Gary Neville. You Manc bastard.”
And Gary grinned. “I always knew you’d gone soft, Jamie Carragher.”
“I never.” Jamie said, but he was looking at Gary like he’d never seen him before and like there was nothing between them but this, this comfortable warmth and drunken fuzziness. No years of dislike, no ribbing gone over too sharp, no bruised shins and no acid words. Jamie suddenly didn’t quite remember why he didn’t like Gary Neville. Surely it hadn’t been the same Gary Neville as the one sitting here on the floor, his hand too close to Jamie’s knee and his eyes all crinkled around the corners. Not this Gary Neville, smiling, hair still fluffed up madly despite Jamie’s efforts and the smell of liquor on his breath.
Sure, Gary had always been handsome in his own narrow way, with his pointed chin and occasionally questionable facial hair. Jamie had known that. But he also distinctly remembered Gary Neville being a slimy little rat-faced twit. Something had gone wrong, somewhere.
Something had gone wrong, because he was finding himself strangely fond of the way Gary’s hair curled neatly around his ears, and the earnest look he got when he was listening to Jamie but preparing to disagree with him on nearly all counts: eyes wide and brows shot up half-way to his hairline.
And of course- Jamie poked Gary’s shoulder, suddenly impulsive. Probably had something to do with the alcohol still strumming his veins like guitar strings. “You know, I was joking earlier. About you getting a nose job.” He smiled, and it was just on the side of too-sincere. “I like your nose all crooked.”
A faint blush rose in Gary’s cheeks. “Um, thanks?”
“Yes, it’s a compliment, you can take it.” Jamie said graciously.
“Thanks for the clarification.”
Gary was very close, his knees almost brushing Jamie’s. Very close. Closer than he’d ever been. Jamie thought then about Gary going far away to Valencia. Spain, La Liga.
And just then, Jamie thought, perhaps-
He leaned forward as quickly as he could without swaying dangerously, and kissed Gary. Just a split second of dry lips brushing against each other before he pulled himself back to meet Gary’s surprised gaze.
“What was that for?”
Jamie shrugged, carefully careless. “I think I’m going to miss you.”
Gary was watching him intently and clearly despite the fact that he was at least as drunk as Jamie was. He looked as though he was about to say something, the set of his mouth the same as when he was preparing to deliver a diatribe of some sort on MNF, and Jamie suddenly didn’t want to hear what it was that Gary had to say. He had a terrible feeling that it was going to be a soft rebuke. And he really didn’t need Gary Neville of all people ‘letting him down gently’ or whatever-the-fuck.
“C’mon,” he said abruptly, standing up and effectively cutting off whatever Gary had been about to say. “Get upstairs before we fall asleep on the floor. Not what I’d recommend, that.”
Gary’s eyebrows furrowed ever so slightly. But the set of his mouth smoothed out and Jamie breathed an internal sigh of relief.
He managed to shepherd Gary up the stairs and into the spare bedroom, and was just about to flee when Gary grabbed at his elbow. “Jamie.”
Jamie steeled himself. “Um. Yes?”
“I think I’m going to miss you too.” He gave Jamie’s elbow a light squeeze. “So. There’s that.” He released Jamie’s arm and closed the door, leaving Jamie standing in the hall, uncertain and unwilling to speculate. He was either too drunk or not drunk enough to deal with that. He was almost tempted to go with the latter route –there were a few choice bottles in the cabinet downstairs- but in the end he just pushed open his own door and crawled into bed, trying not to think too hard about the man sleeping in the room adjacent.
When Jamie woke up with his head spinning like a tilt-a-whirl and his mouth full of cotton wool, there was the smell of coffee floating upstairs from the kitchen and a text from Gary waiting on his phone.
Had to leave to catch my flight. You sleep like a corpse. Made coffee and thanks for drinks
Jamie snorted and hauled himself out of bed and down the stairs. True to his word, Gary had left some coffee for him in the pot on the counter. He had also left a used mug on the table. Jamie rolled his eyes. “He didn’t do his dishes. Terrible house guest.” He said it aloud, mostly just to fill up space in the empty kitchen and to distract himself both from the headache threatening to worsen and everything that Gary hadn’t mentioned in his text.
He was heating up the coffee when his phone buzzed again, Gary’s name popping up on the screen.
Just realised utd is playing same time as valencia next week. You better watch and give me ticker updates to read after. W/ minimal editorialising CARRA
Jamie could feel a grin forming slowly on his face despite himself. Alright, so he was going to miss Gary Neville, horribly enough. But perhaps there were some positive trade-offs at play here.
Oh youve asked for it now
He thought about Gary’s hand on his elbow. How Gary’s hair had felt slipping through his fingers. And thought- at the very least, Gary Neville was going to miss him, too.