“In football I don’t have a lot of friends. People I really trust? Not many. Most of the time I’m alone. I consider myself an isolated person.” - Cristiano Ronaldo, speaking in Ronaldo (2015)
I’m more concerned about being a good person than being the best footballer in the world. Besides, in the end, when all this is over, what can you take with you? My hope is that when I retire that I’m remembered as a good guy. I like to score goals, but I also like to be friends with the people I play with. It’s good to be valued as a person, it’s important that they have good concept of who you are beyond being the guy that scores a lot of goals. - Leo Messi, interviewed in El Pais
As long as he lives, Cristiano will never forget that horrible screech. It tears through him in the seconds before the landing ships take over the horizon and echoes between his ears for the entire week after that, getting louder every time he closes his eyes.
No one knows what's going on. Games are suspended. There's a run on essentials at the supermarkets, or so Jorge tells him, along with stay indoors and keep your phone with you. Cristiano follows his training regime best as he can, hanging on every scrap of news and wild speculation like everyone else.
"No school," Cristiano tells Junior, expecting him to jump up and down at the prospect of a day at home with Papa.
Instead, Junior just stares at him. "Why not?"
The kid's too bright. He can tell something's not right. Maybe it's written all over Cristiano's face.
Cristiano picks him up, hugs him far too tightly and says, in his best media-trained bullshit voice, "it's complicated. Don't worry, everything's gonna be fine. You'll be back to whining about school in no time."
He can tell from the look in those intense, almost accusing eyes that Junior's still not fooled. He doesn't ask anymore, though, and thank fuck for that. Cris has no idea how he'd answer.
At the end of that week, his phone rings.
"I'm putting together a team," Franz goddamn Beckenbauer says, like they're in the kind of dumb action movie Cristiano would fall asleep to in hotels. He laughs so hard that Junior runs into the room to find him curled up on the floor, shoulders shaking.
Aliens want to play them in a football game for the fate of the earth. Okay. Sure.
The circus becomes increasingly less funny with each player announcement.
Rooney? The man can barely run these days. Jorge talks about Falcao like he's a favourite son, but everyone knows he hasn't been the same since his knee basically fell off.
(Cristiano sympathises, to an extent. He knows knee trouble.)
Half the team is forwards and Beckenbauer seems to think defence is something that happens to other people. It's as if he's been possessed by Florentino Perez.
The whole thing is one big clusterfuck waiting to happen. Which would be fine if the fate of the world weren't at stake.
Cristiano gets no time at all to pack a small bag and say his goodbyes before shipping off to training camp at an "undisclosed location". When he tells them the sketchy details, Junior throws a spectacular tantrum and his mother looks sick with worry, and there's no time for him to make it better no matter how much he hates the idea of maybe his last glimpse of his family being like this.
All he can do is smother them both with hugs and kisses and lie. "It's okay. I'll be back before you know it. Take care of yourselves. Call Jorge if you need anything."
His mother takes his face in her strong, calloused hands and stares up at him with all the ferocity she can muster (a terrifying amount, even when her eyes are wet). "Don't make me worry."
Cristiano forces himself to grin. "When do I ever?"
The answer is 'only every second day', but he's been trying to get better. His mother is not going to stress herself into an early grave because of him. He made that promise a long time ago.
It doesn't get any easier when Jorge turns up to escort him out. One look at the weird pinched look on his face and Cristiano suddenly feels a chill of actual fear. The strained joke he'd been about to make about how Jorge must have bribed someone to put Falcao in the team dies unsaid.
This is serious.
(Of course it's serious. It's football, and Cristiano is a professional.)
"Undisclosed location" turns out to be a ridiculous futuristic dome in the middle of fucking nowhere. It's only after he's been led to his room - bizarrely bright and sparse, bigger than some of the hotel rooms Cristiano's used to - that it occurs to him to wonder how long this place's been around, and what the hell it was originally meant to be for.
The only thing that makes it better is the look on Wayne's face when Cristiano brings it up.
"Thanks. I really needed more to worry about."
"Come on, haven't you wondered?"
"Too busy shitting my pants at the actual alien invasion, mate," Wayne says, slapping Cristiano on the back so hard that he has to replant his feet.
They're standing around the indoor training pitch waiting for everyone else to show up for the first full team meeting. Cristiano's mind isn't really on the conversation; he's too busy watching the door, which would be rude if Wayne wasn't doing exactly the same thing. Outside the main 13, there's also supposed to be a B squad, both for training and in case someone gets injured and has to be swapped out. The makeup of that squad hadn't been made public and Cristiano, for one, is desperately hoping someone in charge decided to put a couple of defensive mids and defenders in there.
In a graphic illustration of God's sense of humour, his prayers are answered with the sight of Gerard Pique striding through the door like he owns the place. The smugness becomes outright hilarious when he's followed in by a small but unmistakable figure, shuffling along with all the swagger of an arthritic grandpa.
Ah, their glorious captain, a grown man who might as well be made of sugar and clouds for the way people coo over him. (Or "that other guy", as Jorge insists on calling him.)
"And there's the boss," Wayne drawls, grinning. "Jealous?"
Of course, it's Cristiano's luck to be stuck talking to the one person who's always been totally immune to his best death glare. Wayne just takes it as encouragement. "Don't pull that bullshit with me, Cris."
As if. Cristiano can bullshit with the best of them if he has to, but only if he has to.
"It's all politics, no? Look at the team. No defenders! And some of these people…" Cristiano's voice is getting too loud. He cuts himself off, takes a deep breath. Lets it out. "This isn't the fucking United Nations."
"Nah, it's a comedy." Wayne elbows him in the side, giggling hideously. "I wanna laugh just looking at you and Messi."
"We'll see who's laughing when we get on the pitch."
It comes out a lot more hostile than he intended. Cristiano blames the stress. Suddenly Wayne's face is far too close to his. "Hey, it was a joke. Come on, Cris. I remember when you had a sense of humour."
That's Wayne's problem - he never took it seriously enough for Cristiano's liking. But Cris, no one takes it as seriously as you do. He can almost hear Jorge saying it. Yeah, and that's their problem, not his.
Wayne's not a dick. He just doesn't think too hard, and Cristiano even envies that in his moments of weakness.
The next person through the door is Iker. They make awkward eye contact, Cristiano nods hello, and he gets a brief smile in response. Typical. Always so proper and polite it makes Cristiano's teeth hurt. At least he's a real honest-to-God professional, though. At least there's that.
"Twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six - is that everyone?"
Wayne's loud enough that he might as well be asking the whole room. Everyone shrugs except for Pique and Messi, who just nod at each other before Pique pushes Messi forward.
Cristiano always forgets how small he is. It's a surprise every time, that the name is so much bigger than the person. The guy's just such a blank, a cipher. There's nothing to him. He's the least impressive person in the room, and everyone's looking at him.
"Um. Hi, guys."
A subdued chorus of replies. Cristiano settles for catching his eye and nodding.
"I'm Leo," Messi says, apparently in all seriousness, like any of them didn't recognise him on sight. It's the first time Cristiano's ever heard him attempt English. His accent is terrible. "A lot of people depend on us. So - let's do our best."
No chest beating, no yelling. It's unlike any other inspirational team talk Cristiano's ever had. But he's at least the kind of player Cristiano would actually pick if they were playing for their lives. That alone puts him one up on some of the others in the team.
See, he can be reasonable. He's an adult. Especially when they've got bigger problems. Like how the hell this ridiculously lopsided team is going to, ahem, save the planet.
At least he's not the only one taking the problem seriously, if what he overhears on the way back to his room is any indication.
Some clever bastard apparently thought it was a great idea to give him and Messi rooms next to each other, which he realises when the multiple sets of footsteps die down to just him and one other person, talking on the phone in mumbly accented Spanish.
"I can't tell you where I am! It's a secret. Sorry. I miss you too."
Cristiano doesn't want to overhear any of this; a man's family is his own business. But there's an edge to Messi's voice he's never heard before. It certainly hadn't been there earlier during the meeting.
"Yeah, I know. What the fuck is Beckenbauer thinking? Don't tell anyone I said that. Anyone, okay?"
His voice gets louder at that last bit and Cristiano doesn't mean to look up from fumbling for his key card, but he does, and Messi's looking straight at him.
Cristiano nods, acknowledging the message. Messi sort of smiles in return. It's just like every other interaction they've ever been forced to have, except with actual communication.
The thought puts him in a strangely good mood for the rest of the night.
Next morning, it takes him a moment to remember where he is. The creepy sterile room doesn't help.
Cristiano lets himself have half a minute to miss having his son kiss him good morning, and his mother's smile at the door. Then he gets up, because there's no fucking way he's going to be late to their first training session.
The reserves aren't really staying with them, for some odd reason - their rooms are on the other side of the compound, they don't eat together, and they do training drills separately. All of which means that main squad breakfast consists of everyone eating fast and not making eye contact since most of them aren't exactly friends.
They play their first practice match against the reserves that afternoon. It's only for 30 minutes, and Beckenbauer spends almost as long lecturing them beforehand on not making rash challenges because they can't afford any injuries, but Cristiano is still desperately looking forward to it. He needs to do something.
Messi seemingly materialises out of thin air when he needs a partner to punt balls at in warm up, pinging a fast-moving pass at his middle with one of those blindingly quick moves. Cristiano plucks the ball out of the air with his instep and off they go. This is easy. This is what he knows.
He gets so caught up in the rhythm of the drill that Messi letting the ball drop for the first time feels violently jarring, and it's only when he looks up that he notices James standing two meters away with Neymar, looking like a couple of wide-eyed schoolkids desperate to impress the seniors.
The eager puppy faces they have on are so similar that Cristiano has to fight a laugh. He goes over to them to accept a hug from James that feels like being mauled by a small, affectionate dog and sees Messi doing the same thing with Neymar over his shoulder.
"You settled in okay? I know you got in just before the meeting," Messi is saying in his usual careless drawl.
Neymar's face brightens like someone just plugged him in. "Yeah, it's all good. Geri's been bringing me up to speed."
"When did you find out?" James asks Cristiano in a hushed voice.
"Day before yesterday. You?"
"Yesterday. Maybe they weren't sure about picking me."
"Don't even go there, James."
"Yeah, of course they'd want you," Neymar says. One of Messi's hands is resting on his shoulder and he's still glowing. "You should be in the main squad."
He says it quietly, because he's not stupid, and Cristiano already knew that even from the minimal contact he's had with the kid.
Messi's voice is even softer. "We could use you."
"Yep. But right now you're the enemy. Shoo." Cristiano makes sure to say it with a grin. He wants to grind his teeth, but it's nothing to do with James or even Neymar. It's just not fun to be reminded that even with so much at stake, they still can't stop fucking around and just pick the best team.
He's jolted out of his stewing by the unbelievably sappy look on Neymar's face when Messi half-hugs him goodbye. Subtle as a brick, that one. Cris doesn't bother trying to control his reaction.
Messi lets his incredulous face go for about twenty seconds. "What?"
"I thought - " Cristiano has to pause to laugh. "I thought it was all made up, but it's not even an act. The kid worships you."
Messi actually ducks his head like he's embarrassed. The tips of his ears have gone bright red. "I know. I keep waiting for it to wear off. I...it's not what I expected."
"Better than the alternative, trust me," Cristiano says, and he doesn't mean for it to sound bitter. He should just put all his Madrid problems in a box and shut it away, even if said problem is chatting to Wayne Rooney 20 meters away.
Messi looks even more confused than usual before he takes the hint and follows the direction of Cristiano's narrow-eyed look, the confusion melting into something like understanding or maybe sympathy. (Urgh, sympathy.)
Cristiano should really just change the topic. Gareth's not the problem. What happened probably isn't anyone's fault and he shouldn't even mention it in front of the enemy, but he suddenly can't stop. "And somehow I'm the villain. Shit, he's not that bad. We get along okay. Most of it's probably his agent."
"You don't have to explain it," Messi says quietly, jerking his head to the side. Cristiano follows the gesture to the hilarious sight of Ibrahimovic standing out like a fucked off giraffe in the middle of a herd of goats.
Ibrahimovic's face does a complicated, indescribable thing when he spots them, before arranging itself into a shark-like grin. (Cristiano quickly decides that Gareth and his agent are both angels in comparison.)
"Huh. Guess not."
The practice game, like everything else about this mess, is a clusterfuck. But at least it's football, and once they're on the field, there's nothing complicated about it.
He gets into good positions; he shouts for the ball. He watches both teams play like wobbly newborns with no tactical clue who've barely met each other.
(Seriously, is Beckenbauer being bribed by the aliens?)
Messi is basically playing in midfield because the top of the pitch is too crowded with the absurd number of forwards in the team. He's still having trouble getting the ball from there, which means Cristiano and Rooney and all the other strikers are getting even less of it unless they can steal it on a quick counter.
Basically, it's exactly like Madrid on a 'we don't need defensive midfielders' bad day.
Moses finally manages to get the ball and lay it off to Messi, who takes it past Pique and Ramos, and Cristiano's already running up the right channel for the pass, so he doesn't hear the crunch. Just the whistle, then Beckenbauer's bark.
"No rough tackling!"
"My bad. Got the timing wrong," Ibra's muttering when Cristiano gets close enough to hear them. He's not aiming his apology at the glowering Beckenbauer, but at Messi, who looks ridiculously small sprawled at his feet.
Messi just shrugs and accepts Ibra's hand to haul himself up. "Nah, it's okay." He smirks, suddenly, and goes from quiet, stumbling English to almost shouting in Spanish. "Come on, guys. Let's get serious. All this pissing around is boring me to tears."
Pique boos, Neymar and James cheer, and a laugh shakes its way out of Cristiano. He can't help it. "I knew you were a pain in the ass."
"Never said I wasn't," Messi says, sounding pleased.
Pathetically, that's maybe the highlight of the game. Cristiano's seen expensively assembled teams play like drunk strangers before, but this is different. They don't have time to fuck around.
Finally, someone - Messi - finds him with a long cross. It's slightly too long, he mistimes his jump and Neuer saves.
Then Falcao gets the ball in front of goal, but he's playing exactly like someone whose body isn't listening anymore, and Lahm robs him embarrassingly easily.
Five minutes from the end, Oscar steals the ball off Bale and looks up (thank God) to see Cristiano waving his arm, alone out on the wing. His pass deflects off Ramos, but Cristiano somehow finds the burst of pace that lets him get to the ball before anyone else, and he's got no time to line up a shot - just belt it, for fuck's sake -
The ball pings off the corner of post and crossbar.
In his incandescent fury, Cristiano almost misses Rooney pushing the rebound into the net with his groin.
Their changing rooms are a bright glossy monstrosity just like every other area of the compound. Cristiano's sandwiched between Messi and Wayne, because of course.
By the time he comes out of an angry red haze enough to notice any of that, he'd already showered and changed on automatic, and the room is mostly empty. If anyone tried to talk to him, he doesn't remember it.
(Even Jorge knows better than to do that. Usually, the look on his face is enough of a deterrent.)
Eventually even El Shaarawy finishes doing whatever it is he does to his hair and gets up to leave. The room's empty except for Cristiano, or at least he thinks so until Messi sits up beside him. He hadn't been primping, just sitting there playing with his phone, quiet and small and easily ignored.
"We won. I don't know if you noticed," Messi says into the silence. His tone is impossible to read.
Well, shit. He's really not in the mood for this. "I'm glad we won. What, did I not look happy enough?"
For some reason this actually makes one corner of Messi's mouth quirk up, like he's tempted to laugh. "You were mad."
"Mad that I missed," Cris bites out, too fast, and immediately regrets it. Dammit. He doesn't have to explain himself to anyone, especially someone who doesn't know him. Especially this someone.
Fortunately for his blood pressure, Messi just nods. "Yeah, I know. You care like I care." More, Cristiano thinks, and he has to bite his tongue against shouting it in Messi's face. He cares more than anybody else on earth, and what the fuck is wrong with that? "It's never good enough."
Cristiano is so startled he drops his cologne. "Yeah."
That's exactly right.
"I never used to pass to anyone, when I was a kid. None of the coaches could make me."
"You passed to me today."
"Yeah. I didn't do it to be nice," Messi says, looking at him like he's the one being slow on the uptake -