Chapter 1: One
“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 -
Chapter 2: Two
Q - You light up when children come up to you. Why is that?
A- Children are pure, especially when they’re young. They see you and they transform. Some of them are shy. They don’t talk, they don’t understand why I’m there or why I’m talking with them. They only see me on TV so when they see me in person they are frightened. I’m most fulfilled when I make a child happy. - Leo Messi, interviewed in El Pais
“For me it is not a problem. I will say in the world, many kids don't have mum, don’t have dads or dads die or mums die... Cristiano has a dad, an unbelievable dad. [He has] a grandmother, I have the support of my family, great of course. It will be like, ‘why don’t you [say?]’ Listen, some points in life it’s private and people have to respect the privacy of other people. When Cristiano is going to grow up, I am always always going to say the truth to him because he deserves, because he is my son but I am not going to say because people want me to say.” - Cristiano Ronaldo on the Jonathan Ross Show (in response to the usual seriously invasive questions about his son's mother)
A few days in, Cristiano finally manages to get Jorge on the phone.
"Do you know what time it is, Cris?"
"No. And apparently I'm not allowed to."
"This secrecy is ridiculous."
"Tell me something I don't know. Can you get Beckenbauer sacked?"
"I'm serious. At this rate, we'd be lucky to beat Getafe."
"You'll improve. Now ask me for something that's possible."
The idea that there are some things even Jorge can't accomplish is not one Cristiano likes to entertain. Some days he thinks the man might actually be a wizard.
"I want to see my son."
"...I'll see what I can do," Jorge says, which might as well be a yes.
The thought of seeing Junior at the end of the day is such a mood booster that he almost gives in to Wayne's beckoning to go and sit with him at breakfast. Almost.
One table over, Messi's on his phone again, talking in a low, soft voice, beaming into the camera every single time Cristiano looks. Before saying goodbye, he pulls such a ridiculous face that Cristiano almost chokes on his cereal.
Messi looks up at his incredibly undignified coughing, grinning. "At least somebody thought it was funny. How long have we got?"
Cristiano taps his watch. "Five minutes."
"Oh, shit. I don't usually take that long," Messi says, sheepishly running a hand through his hair. "You coming?"
Instead of answering, Cristiano falls into step beside him, and then he has to bite back a smirk when Messi immediately starts walking faster to account for Cristiano's longer strides, like he's used to doing it.
"Who were you pulling faces at?"
"My nephews and nieces. I'm so bad at saying no to those spoiled brats." Cristiano could've told him that, just from the fond look on his face. "Some of them are older now than I was when I left home. Nothing like I was, though."
He was young when he landed in Barcelona, Cristiano remembers that much. About as young as Cristiano was when he left home.
(It had been the worst thing in the world and it was the making of him. It marked him and made him into the kind of person who could keep going through anything so long as he kept his eyes on the horizon.)
Most kids don't leave home at 12 or 13 to make their dream come true.
"Were you miserable?"
"A lot, at the beginning," Messi says slowly. "Doesn't matter. I knew what I wanted. Didn't you?"
"Yeah, of course."
The misery was nothing. The tears were nothing. It was all just getting him where he wanted to go.
He thought he'd sounded fine, even flippant, but maybe not, going from the way Messi's looking at him, with this weird intensity he's never seen before. It's uncomfortably close to a bonding moment, and that's nothing Cristiano signed up for when he woke up this morning.
Not good or bad, just - new.
"You know they'll fly your family in for a visit if you ask," he says in an undertone.
Messi's eyes widen. "Really? But Beckenbauer said - I mean. I thought they didn't want anyone visiting."
"Yeah. You just have to let them arrange everything." Not quite true, but it's not like they're going to say no to Messi if he asks. Not when Cristiano's already done it. "I hate this 'undisclosed location' bullshit."
"Maybe it's to keep the aliens from spying on us," Messi says thoughtfully.
Cristiano actually stops walking to stare at Messi. "That makes no sense."
"I know because I'm actually one of them."
"That was a joke."
Cristiano snorts. "Riiiiiiiight. Please don't pull that in front of my kid when he's here. It'd break his heart if you were secretly evil."
"When's he coming?"
"Tonight, after training." Cristiano doesn't mean for his voice to go all soft and delighted. But it's not like Messi's got any room to judge him.
"Is that why you're in such a good mood?"
Cris raises his eyebrows. "I'm always in a good mood."
"You were nice to him, at the Gala."
(Jorge had been very pleased afterwards. Same with the documentary team, who were practically doing cartwheels over the footage. Cristiano hadn't cared beyond Junior's delighted face.)
"I like kids. He's pretty cute." He must - Messi hadn't even smiled like that when Beckenbauer complimented his tactical intelligence yesterday. "Is his mom coming too?"
Cristiano draws a breath, and another, to keep himself from blowing up or stalking away. He should be used to this shit by now, but like a moron he hadn't been expecting it from Messi of all people, and it fucking stings.
"It's none of your business," he eventually grounds out, when he can trust his voice to be even. "Don't even start."
Messi looks almost comically surprised, which is Cristiano's first clue that maybe he hadn't stepped on that one deliberately. "Sorry. I don't...pay attention to stuff. Wasn't trying to be nosy. I won't talk about it if you don't want me to."
They don't know much about each other, for all their lives have run in parallel for so long, but somehow Cristiano, who doesn't really trust people, knows that Messi is being honest in the same way he knows where and how a long pass is going to drop out of the sky.
"Fine. Got a minute tonight?"
Messi's sudden, bright smile makes him seem much younger. "To talk to your kid? Yeah, of course."
The first thing Junior says after lifting his head from Cristiano's shoulder is, "I miss you. Avó does too. She lies about being sad."
Cristiano has to swallow before he can speak. "I missed you too, kid. Everything all right at home? Have you been taking good care of Avó?"
"Yeah, like I promised," Junior says in a wobbly voice, and buries his face against Cristiano's shoulder again.
He's getting to be pretty heavy, Cristiano thinks with a sudden pang as he eases them both down onto the incredibly uncomfortable couch in his room. Pretty soon he'll be too big to pick up and haul around.
A knock on the door saves him from getting too sappy.
"Hey. It's Messi. Can I come in?"
The sudden change in Junior's demeanor is both sad and hilarious. Cristiano sets him down and pats him on the head.
"Go. Go talk to him."
Messi kisses Junior hello and ruffles his hair. "Hello. We met before. Do you remember me?" He seems to mean the question, too. What a ridiculous person.
Junior manages to nod vigorously, which is an improvement on last time. "I, uh - "
Cristiano snaps his fingers. "That's right, he wanted to ask you something. Ask him now, Junior."
"When you score goals, you do this - " Junior raises both his arms, fingers pointed upwards. "Why?"
Messi's face becomes somehow both younger and more serious at the same time. He kneels down and puts a hand on Junior's shoulder.
"You stay with your avó, right?"
"It's for my avó. She used to take care of the entire family. When I was as old as you are now, she was the one who put me on a pitch and let me play football. So all my goals are for her."
Junior's eyes get very big. "She watches you play?"
Of course, he's seen the way Cristiano's mother gets when Cristiano is playing, how she suffers through games. That's what he knows.
He's too young to know what he's actually asking.
"I think so," Messi replies, very softly. "She always loved watching me."
Junior falls asleep pretty quickly, exhausted by the flight and the excitement, one of his little hands clasped in Cristiano's, the other clutching Messi's shirt like a treasure.
Messi glances down at the limpet-like grip with a wistful grin. "You guys play football?"
"Do you let him win?"
Cristiano stares at him like he really is an alien. "Do you let your kids win?"
"All right, fine, stupid question."
(It really was.)
"You miss them?"
"All the time. I - it made the world bigger, when we had Thiago. I can't explain it right."
Cristiano nods. He gets it. He's not gonna say it out loud, but they both know it. That's enough.
It used to be that football was the beginning and end of everything, and it followed him home from games, training, press. It was the first thing he thought about in the morning and the last thing on his mind before bed. Before Junior arrived and broke down the box he'd been living in, he hadn't even noticed it was there.
"Get them to visit. Who's gonna say no to you?"
Messi's face shuts down into his blank media mask. "I figure the whole family are safest in Barcelona. People like me there. They won't let anything happen to them."
"Unless we lose. Then the pitchforks come out."
"We're not going to lose," Messi says, with enough heat that Cristiano almost believes him.
Then he remembers the kind of team they're working with. He gestures at the door, encompassing the rest of the dormitories. "With that lot?"
Maybe he should, but Cristiano's never been great with should. "What, you don't think the squad was put together by a 6 year old playing FIFA?"
Messi glares at him. "That doesn't matter. We just have to do it."
Cristiano recognises that, too.
Later that night, Jorge shows up to collect Junior and take him back home before he turns into a pumpkin or something.
(Some part of Cristiano has clearly been paying too much attention to children's TV.)
"Cristiano, we have to go - " His face doesn't change much when he sees Messi sitting on Cristiano's couch, but Cristiano's known him long enough to spot the distinctive eyebrow twitch that means this is a problem. His voice flattens out, and he switches to Spanish. "Time's up. Mr Messi, I didn't realise you were here."
"Hey, Mister," Messi replies, his blank face back on, with one of those smiles Cristiano is starting to think of as fake. He slides off the couch with a long yawn. "I'm going to bed. Say bye to Junior for me."
"I'll tell him you admitted you couldn't ever hope to be as amazing as I am," Cristiano says, as close to deadpan as he can manage.
Messi flips him off, the little shit. "Kids can tell when you lie, Cristiano. Night!"
There's something far too thoughtful about the way Jorge's staring at the closed door. Cristiano doesn't know what it is and he's pretty sure he's not going to like it.
"Please tell me you can get Beckenbauer sacked. Or at least make him pick a proper team."
"We've been over this, Cris."
The problem is that a part of Cristiano still can't believe all this is real, from the ships in the sky (although he still hears that screech in his dreams sometimes) to this unnerving training complex they've been stranded in.
"This whole thing is ridiculous. We're really going to let a football match decide what happens to the entire planet?"
"Well," Jorge starts. An unnervingly unfamiliar look takes over his face before the smooth mask slams back into place and he clamps his mouth shut.
Helpless frustration is such an alien concept to Cristiano's image of Jorge that it takes him a moment to identify. A cold chill shoots down his spine.
"What? Just tell me."
Jorge heaves an enormous sigh. "You have to keep this quiet."
"Who am I going to tell?"
"There is a plan B, if you lose," Jorge says slowly.
"We're not going to lose." The words roll out of his mouth without a second thought. Jorge just gives him the coolly dismissive glance Cristiano's seen him use to shut up people from club presidents to Jose Mourinho. "Sorry, keep going. What's plan B?"
Jorge looks away from Cristiano, his eyes stuck on the small blanket-covered lump formed by Junior beside him on the bed. For some reason, that's what makes Cristiano really freak out. It's like someone dipped him in an ice bath.
"Jorge, what's plan B?"
When Cristiano tries to get up, Jorge puts both hands on his shoulders to stop him. He's shaking. Or maybe Cristiano is. He can't really tell.
"Plan B is to blow up the mothership. On the final whistle, if possible."
"Can - can they do that?"
Jorge closes his eyes. "I'm told they're close to being able to manage it."
"But we'll be on board." Cristiano sounds like a child, even to his own ears, hurt and uncomprehending.
"I know," Jorge says heavily. "Don't tell anyone. I mean anyone, including your new friend."
It takes Cristiano a moment to even work out who Jorge means. "We're not friends."
They barely know each other.
(Messi's right foot works just fine but his left is better. He can put a cross on Cristiano's head from fifty meters away. He doesn't look down at the ball.)
Jorge looks distinctly unimpressed. "Uhuh. Promise."
"Sure, okay. Listen, Jorge. I'm not joking about Beckenbauer. The team needs to change."
Now more than ever. How can the bastards in charge not see that?
Jorge squeezes his shoulders. This close, Cristiano notices for the first time the dark circles around his eyes, the exhausted set of his mouth. He looks old. "This is above my pay grade, Cristiano. I'm sorry. I hate to let you down."
"No, no. It's - it's fine."
It's not fine. They're fucked.
The next morning, Messi sits down at his table for breakfast, amusingly bleary-eyed and focused on devouring his food.
"Junior get home okay?"
They eat in silence for a while. That's something he's thankful for - Messi doesn't waste time saying anything that doesn't need to be said. What does bother him is when Messi spends five minutes sneaking looks at Cristiano before deciding to ask a damn question.
"You guys are close, huh. You and Mendes."
"Must be nice."
It doesn't sound like he's trying to be a dick. But thinking that just makes Cristiano realise he has no idea what Messi trying to be a dick would sound like. He's so annoyingly opaque that Cristiano feels a sudden surge of sympathy for any journalists trying to get a soundbite.
"What are you complaining about? Your dad's around, isn't he?"
"It's complicated." Messi's voice comes out very quiet, ground down like maybe he doesn't want to be saying it.
Jorge had shown Cristiano the headlines about tax evasion and the photos of Messi coming out of court, expressionless in a suit that made him look very small, a stocky man that could only be his father walking with him.
"You blame him for getting you in trouble?"
"No," Messi says immediately, clipped and almost angry. "I don't. It's just...I think they've gotten paranoid, my family. They always think outsiders are out to get us."
"That's because they probably are."
"But you trust Mendes."
Messi is staring at him, hanging on his answer. It would be kind of weird, except - who the hell else do they have to talk to about this shit? There aren't exactly a lot of people like them.
"Yeah. He's - " Useful. Important. Not my father, and I'm thankful for that. "I trust him."
Leo's eyes go soft, like he'd heard the bits Cristiano hadn't said. "That's - that's good."
Cristiano gets a sudden, overwhelming urge - tell him about the ship. Say it. You have to tell someone or you'll go crazy.
But no, he promised Jorge. That's still worth something.
Chapter 3: Three
"I always speak well of Cristiano because I like him. People form their opinions by gestures and comments without knowing. To me, he is a guy that helped me a lot when I arrived at [Manchester] United." - Gerard Pique
‘Leo is smart, he knows when he has to be good, when to joke, when to be serious,’ explains Cesc. ‘I notice these things a lot. Many of us here are, at times, out of control, loose cannons who say things without thinking … but Leo is very smart, he knows how to handle himself, how to pick the right moment. We know how he is on the pitch, but in his house, or in the dressing room, he always knows what he has to do and when he has to do it.’ - Cesc Fabregas, quoted in G Balague's Messi
"Don't fight. I'll hear about it and then I'll have to go over there and make angry faces at you," Messi's saying into the phone as he sits down opposite Cristiano at lunch a few days later. "Okay, bye!"
"Your nephews and nieces again?"
Messi grins. "Nah, it's Geri. You know, Pique."
Oh, that overgrown, smug jackass, Cristiano doesn't say, because he's really trying. "He's calling you from across the building?"
"Yeah, we talk all the time. I miss having him around. He's always defended me."
That's right, Pique's known Messi since they were both snot-nosed brats.
"Must be nice."
To have someone always in your corner, he means, with no agendas and no strings attached, but of course Messi takes it differently.
"He's not that bad."
"Keep your pants on, that's not what I meant." Pique might be a jackass but he's an honest jackass. Better that than some of the alternatives. "I just - forget it."
"No, no, I was being thick. You're right. It is nice." Messi gives him an oddly hesitant look. "He defends you, you know. Whenever anyone says anything really weird."
It's nothing, it should be nothing, but something inside Cristiano shifts, hearing that, if only for old times sake. "He gives us shit all the time."
"Madrid. Not you."
"I don't need defending, anyway," Cristiano says, way more harshly than he meant to.
The silence that follows is weirdly charged, especially with Messi staring like he's trying to read Cristiano's mind, in that odd, off-center way where he never quite meets Cristiano's eyes.
When he does reply, it's so quiet Cristiano has to strain to hear it. "I don't need anything except football. It's still better to have it than not."
Just like they summoned him, Pique appears at the end of the afternoon training session.
"Just in case Beckenbauer decides he needs actual defenders," he says, with the kind of grin that just dares someone to bloody his nose.
Cristiano's mouth opens without permission from the part of him that has impulse control, but luckily Messi beats him to the punch. "He wouldn't be calling you for that."
"You're so mean to me!" Pique cries, clutching his chest.
Messi rolls his eyes. "It's the only thing keeping your monster ego down."
Cristiano's never seen anything like it. If only the press could see this.
"You see the bullying I have to put up with all the time?" Pique demands, looking at Cristiano, asking him to share the joke.
Before today, Cristiano would never have thought he'd see any expression on Leo Messi's face that he'd describe as a shit-eating grin. "Why should Cristiano side with you? I'm much less annoying."
Pique slings an arm around Messi's shoulders and lowers his voice to a mock whisper. "You see, Leo, I knew this guy when he had pimples every morning. I have pictures."
"I knew this guy when he had bad hair and couldn't buy a date," Cristiano retorts automatically.
Messi honest-to-God giggles. "That's most of his life. I still don't get how he managed to fail upwards."
There's a grin on Cristiano's face. He's not sure how or when it got there, and it feels a bit like the first sprint after a long injury. He hasn't really had to use those muscles since Junior left.
"It's a gift," Pique drawls. "A magician can't reveal his secrets."
"It's something, all right," Messi says, and he sounds exasperated but the look on his face is unbearably fond. It makes Cristiano feel like an intruder.
"I hear there's unrest out there in the reserves. Are you bickering with Ramos again?"
It doesn't even make a dent; Pique just waves his free hand dismissively. "We've had years to work out our issues, do couples counseling with the psychologists, get yelled at by our captains, all that. It's fine, we're like clockwork. You're the ones everyone's gossiping about."
Cristiano exchanges mildly annoyed looks with Messi. "We're okay."
"Uh huh." Pique narrows his eyes at Messi. "Come on, you can tell Papa. Has this man been mean to you?"
Cristiano'll say this for him: the man has dramatic flair.
"Geri," Messi says, in his soft mumble. "Cut it out."
Pique's head snaps up like a dog that's being yelled at by its master. Cristiano has to fake a cough to cover his laugh. There's a disturbing image he never wants to think of again.
It's perverse, though, how easy it is to forget that Messi's just as used to being the man in charge as he is.
"I was just teasing. You know that."
He sounds serious, even a little hurt, and he's looking between them like the concession isn't just for Messi.
Cristiano can feel himself getting pissed. "Do I? You say a lot."
"Shit, were you really mad about Kevin Roldan?" Pique runs a hand through his hair, making a total mess of it. There's no hint of humour in the clear blue eyes locked on his. Maybe a little awkwardness, but no shame, either. "That wasn't a dig at you, man."
"Don't fuck with me."
"Cristiano - " Messi says, quiet and worried.
Pique cuts him off with a glance. "It's fine. Just let me explain. It wasn't a dig at you, Cris."
"You keep saying that."
"Okay, so you had a birthday party. So what? I'd have done the same thing. It was the media freak out afterwards that made it stupid." Pique says with surprising intensity. Then, as if he'd used up his quota for the day, "okay, and funny. It was pretty funny. But my point is that they're the dicks. Not you."
It's more understanding than Cristiano had received from most corners in Madrid, let alone Barcelona. Which is exactly the problem.
"It was bullshit."
"That too," Pique agrees cheerfully.
Somehow, that sets him off.
"I could've put on a sad face and stayed inside for the whole week, or I could've gone on with my life without feeling the bullshit need to - to perform how bad I felt about losing. Just because I go out and play for them every three days doesn't mean they get to be up in my business the rest of the time."
He's breathing hard when he's done, and Pique's giving him a look he hasn't seen since Manchester.
Messi, who'd stayed out of the whole thing, is shaking his head and he looks kind of annoyed. "They'll say whatever they want. You know who you are. Who cares about the rest?"
He might mean it, too. Cristiano has yet to detect any sign that Messi gives a damn what anybody thinks, which might be the weirdest, most incomprehensible thing about him.
Cristiano can't imagine being that way. He's always cared. Not about the tabloid bullshit. But acknowledgement, his name, how he's remembered - he might as well die if he stopped caring about that.
He'll die before he says it out loud.
"Leo's right. They can't tell you anything. You're Cristiano Ronaldo. Fuck the haters."
Pique genuinely believes it, too. That's him all over - loud, obnoxious, arrogant, no bullshit, same as he was at age 16.
"Is that how you do it?"
Pique shrugs. "Have you seen my twitter mentions? Death threats, mate. You know those open training sessions they fly us reserves out to do, to make it look like they know what they're doing? I get a bunch of guys in Spain shirts turning up just to whistle me at every single one."
"Still? Now?" Cristiano says. He's kind of appalled.
"Yeah. The fucking world's ending, and they're still hung up on my politics."
Messi tucks himself in close against Pique's side and bumps his head against Pique's broad chest. "Don't let them get to you, Geri."
A different person would probably find it disgustingly cute, especially when he can see Pique visibly relaxing. "Nah. We've got bigger things to worry about."
Maybe Cristiano's just getting paranoid, but for a moment he could swear Pique's giving him a significant look.
Does he know?
There's no way. If he knew, Messi would know.
Cristiano almost jumps a foot in the air when Beckenbauer clears his throat loudly behind them. He blames his chain of thought.
Pique recovers first, for all that Cristiano's sure he's not supposed to be hanging out with them. "Boss!"
The look Beckenbauer gives him could melt stone. It softens marginally as he turns it on Messi. "Lionel. Please come with me."
"Oh. Okay. I'll see you both later."
Messi trundles off after Beckenbauer with a careless wave. Cristiano assumes Pique's going to wander off too but he just stands there, frowning at Messi's retreating back until the door closes behind him.
The way he looks at Cristiano then is so intense it freaks him out a little. "Seriously, is everything okay?"
Cristiano snorts. "You're worried about me?"
"I'm worried about us winning. You guys getting along is kind of key to the whole thing."
"We're fine, he told you."
"I want to hear it from you. I know he's not the easiest guy to read."
Cristiano's first instinct is to protest that's not true. He might have thought so in the beginning, and he wouldn't ever describe Messi as expressive, but he's not exactly difficult either.
On the field, it's just a matter of learning each other's rhythms and habits, what the other person is and isn't capable of. They both take training seriously and they both have good standards. They don't even have to talk much to have a good session.
None of this is really surprising to Cristiano. The one thing that's unexpected, even a little chilling, is how calm Messi is all the time. Cristiano always thought that was just a mask he put on to not show weakness, and he'd almost envied it. But it's not. The stillness is real. It's like he's got ice water in his veins.
Cristiano can't imagine what it would be like to live without a constant thrumming under his skin, urging him on, telling him how little time he had left. Messi doesn't act like he's running out of time. He doesn't even seem aware of time passing.
"It's just fucking disturbing how he's not bothered by anything," he blurts out. "I thought that was all made up. But it's not."
Pique raises both eyebrows, which is just as incredibly obnoxious as Cristiano remembers. "You really think he doesn't care? Come on, Cris."
"Not like I do."
"Bullshit. You know that's not true."
"Do I? I don't know anything. He's so goddamn nice all the time, how am I supposed to tell?"
Pique starts laughing so hard that he has to hold on to Cristiano for balance. "Leo's not nice. That doesn't mean shit. He's just quiet. It's not the same thing as being a push-over."
"Maybe he just likes me better. You know, because I'm so much cooler than you."
"Fuck off," Pique says breezily. "Listen, Cris. He won't say it, and he'd kill me for telling you this, but how do you think he got to be so good? I've never met anyone that driven. Well, until I met you anyway. Of course you'd be friends."
We're not friends, Cristiano thinks reflexively, with such perfect ringing denial that he knows it's not true.
A friend would tell Messi that they're probably going to die. Cristiano's not sure how he feels about being friends with Leo Messi, but he sure as hell doesn't like the idea of being a bad friend.
Chapter 4: Four
“Over the past year, our relationship has improved. I see him not as a rival but as a person. I see him as someone who makes me a better player and I make him a better player.” - Cristiano Ronaldo, quoted in Ronaldo (2015)
"We live trying to improve all of our ambitions and with football I am no exception. My objective is to grow, not to remain with what I have. I always say it. I have to get better in everything." - Leo Messi after receiving his 4th Ballon d'Or, January 2013
At the two week mark, Iker twists someone's arm into putting a giant countdown timer over the door to the cantina.
Breakfast that morning is the loudest they've ever been. Almost everyone else is upset, except for Messi, who doesn't say a word, and Cristiano, who kind of likes having a ticking clock outside his head to match the ever louder one inside it.
The truth is, the so-called team is improving.
They train hard, they play progressively less fucked practice matches against the reserves, and Cristiano and Messi are no longer allowed on the same side in some of the drills because apparently it's "cheating" when they can both communicate with a glance and execute flawlessly.
(Wayne's just mad about the time they kept him chasing the ball in the middle of a rondo for the length of the entire drill.)
Give them another couple of months at this level of intensity and they'll be able to pass to each other without looking. They'll give anyone a game, human, alien or god.
But they don't have months. They don't even have weeks. There's just not enough time.
T-minus: 5 days
If Jorge held a gun to his head, Cristiano would grudgingly admit that there are some benefits to doing their training in an isolated, secret location. Most of them have to do with the lack of media coverage.
He's never been more thankful for it than when he plants his foot just slightly wrong and the resulting spasm of excruciating pain makes him stumble and fall in the middle of a practice game.
The first thing he sees is Ramos' face, chalky under the tan. "Shit, did I catch you? You okay?"
Of course he's skeptical. Cristiano's a perfect athlete. He doesn't fucking fall over for no reason.
Thankfully for the sake of his sanity, James cuts in. "Cristiano. Cris. Do you want the doctor?"
He only sounds a little panicked, which is an improvement.
"No. Everyone back the fuck off."
"You heard him. Go get ready to resume," Beckenbauer says from above him. The man's always capable of sounding like the crack of a whip, Cristiano'll give him that much. "Ronaldo. Go get that looked at."
Cristiano wants to argue more than he wants anything else in the world. If he was younger, if the situation was less ridiculously dire, he'd argue it without a second thought. But he's older and smarter and better than that.
That thought isn't as comforting as it should be. Older is the root of this entire goddamn problem.
The physios tell him exactly what he'd expected to hear. He's a finely tuned machine. He's in great shape. The bits that are creaking regardless aren't going to get any better unless they get some serious rest, and there's no chance in hell of that happening.
Unlike most other players, Cristiano always knew he had to take care of his body. He's not afraid of pain or hard work. What he can't stand is sitting on the sidelines when he could be on the pitch making the difference, and that need has always been and always will be stronger than any desire to be healthy.
That's the deal. He doesn't get to be angry about it.
" - FUCK!"
Messi sidesteps the boot flying at his face without missing a beat. "Whatever it is, I didn't do it. Blame Geri."
Next time, he'll be sure to at least look at the doorway before he throws anything at it.
"What's wrong with this?" Messi asks, handing him the offending boot. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether he's trying to joke. This is one of those times, and Cristiano's not really in the mood.
"It's not that! It's - this fucking knee. It never stops."
After sneaking several futile, increasingly awkward looks at Cristiano's face, Messi sits down on the opposite bench. His feet dangle off the ground. Cristiano's somehow never noticed that in all their time changing together.
"Do you need a doctor? I know a specialist - "
"No! No. I'm fine. I'll be fine. I'm not gonna let it beat me."
"Course not," Messi says.
And nothing else. Cristiano kind of appreciates that about him.
T-minus: 3 days
Wayne got the bright idea to host a 'we're all gonna die!' party. No one knows where he got the drinks from and Cristiano doesn't want to ask. He's tired, his body aches like a man twice his age, and he's on edge from carrying a secret that feels like it's going to explode out of him. The only kind of party he wants to go to is one with victory champagne.
The flow of people from the locker room to the living quarters tapers off like usual, and Cristiano's somehow still surprised when he gets to his corridor to find Leo shuffling along behind him.
"You're not going to the party?"
"You wanna come in?" Cristiano's mouth says without consulting his brain.
Leo's face might as well have been a mask to him, before all this. Now he can trace the transition from surprise to satisfaction like the path of a perfectly weighted pass. "Yeah, okay."
"And here you see the result when someone with no taste is given too much money," Cristiano says in his best Jorge Valdano voice, opening the door and indicating the room with a sweep of his arm. "Did I tell you how much I hate these rooms?"
Leo snickers. "Yeah, you mentioned it. Maybe fifteen times."
"I'm glad you were paying attention. Sit down, you're making me feel tired. What'd I miss at lunch?"
"Um...oh, Ronnie was here. Oscar wanted to come get you but I knew you had Junior time."
Leo says the name like he's talking about the lovechild of Pele and the Pope. It kind of bugs the hell out of Cristiano, who's struggling to remember where Ronaldinho's playing these days because the man made himself irrelevant years ago.
"What a fucking waste."
Cristiano doesn't get how someone can squander their talent like that, when it's so precious and their careers are so horrifyingly short.
Leo goes from zero to furious in seconds, spots of colour spreading on his cheeks. "Don't talk shit about Ronnie."
All those years of wondering what could possibly be a sore point for someone like him, and Cristiano gets the answer dropped into his lap like this.
"I'm just saying. You know he could've been the best."
"He was," Leo snaps.
Cristiano suddenly can't stop himself. "Then he pissed it away. Couldn't hold it together for just five more years."
"What, you don't agree with me?"
"I - he - you don't know," Leo finally manages, in a wisp of a voice.
He must know Cristiano's right. Every bit of him probably agrees, except the bit that can't hear a word against his brother. A few months ago, Cristiano wouldn't have known that for the weakness it was. Now that he does, the idea of doing anything to keep that lost, too-young look on Leo's face just feels gross.
Luckily, he also knows how to get rid of it.
"You're not going to do that, are you? Just stop bothering and fade away? I'd be kind of disappointed if you did."
Leo stares at him like he's seeing all the way to the back of Cristiano's skull. Going by the smile that breaks out over his face, whatever he sees there must be pretty amazing.
"Don't you wish. It's not going to happen, Cris. I know what I want."
He says it like a promise. Like the kind of promise Cristiano made to himself, all those years ago.
"You know what bugged me? I wasn't sure if you were even trying. You made it look so fucking effortless. Like it was nothing."
"Now you know."
He should've known from the beginning. It's impossible to be as good as they are without wanting it so badly that it takes over your entire life. Cristiano struggles to recognise that kind of hunger in most other people, although he's always looking.
He almost missed it in Leo because he wasn't looking in the right places.
"Yeah. I do."
Immortality is a big word. It's a weight to carry, but he doesn't even remember life without it, this constant sense of I'm going to get there and nothing's going to stand in my way.
"I'm not - threatened by you, or whatever," Leo begins, hesitantly, like he's struggling for the right words. "You know that, right? It's not just talk. I mean it."
For some strange reason that fucking hurts. Turns out being disregarded by someone like Leo is far worse than being hated.
"I think I'm offended." He aims for light and mocking, but it lands with far too much venom, enough of a sting to make it not a joke at all.
"Oh for - you're not in my way."
"Okay, now I know I'm offended."
Leo heaves a long suffering sigh, like he's the reasonable one. "Don't you get it? You're not stopping me from doing anything. I thought, when you came up to me after the Copa final last year - you must've been thinking the same way."
"Oh yeah, that. Just trying to show what a gracious winner I am. Jorge's always on me about that."
Leo snorts. "It was nice. And not in a bullshit way. I could tell you weren't doing it for the camera."
"Maybe a little."
Leo laughs. "My friends call me that, you know."
The way he's looking at Cristiano is the way he looks at Neymar, at Pique. Warm and mischievous with none of that usual blank haze.
"So I should keep doing it?"
Sometime along the way Leo had stopped being MESSI, the guy in the commercials, the guy he saw across the pitch and sat next to in awards ceremonies and stood alongside on podiums, the thorn in his side, pushing and pulling him to be better.
I have to.
T-minus: 1 day
They get the final day off. Most of the players ask for their families to get flown in, but they're not allowed. Beckenbauer says it's so they don't get distracted and upset, but Cristiano strongly suspects there's more to it.
He makes do with Skype.
Junior says, "good luck, Papa. Come home soon." He seems older, and Cristiano gets angry all over again about missing so much time he should've been spending watching his son grow.
His mother says, "I'll be watching, so you better win."
It goes through Cristiano like an electric shock. She can't see him lose, let alone what would happen afterwards. It might just kill her.
"I will. I love you."
Distance and a shitty connection can be a blessing, too. They can't see how close he is to tears, or hear the shake in his voice.
Jorge says, "I hope you haven't told anyone."
"I promised not to."
"That's not a no."
"Yes, it is."
Sometimes Jorge looks at him like he looks at Junior. This is one of those times. "I've always believed in you."
"Yeah, I know."
It's just not always enough.
To Cristiano's credit, his resolve lasts until the shuttle's in the air. Then he glances down and thinks I might never get to go back, and comes far too close to throwing up.
"Hey. Hey, Leo."
He doesn't even notice the name thing until the dopey grin flickering over Leo's face clues him in.
"Can I talk to you?"
Beckenbauer gives him a narrow-eyed look. Bastard has to know what happens if they lose. He knows and he hasn't told them.
"What's up? You don't look too good," Leo says, as soon as the door's closed.
"They're going to fire on the mothership and try to destroy it if we lose," Cristiano blurts.
There. It's out there. He broke his promise, and he hasn't been struck down by lightning.
"Jorge told me weeks ago. He made me swear not to tell anyone."
Leo's wide-eyed and silent for a long moment, and Cristiano laughs at himself for having expected any sort of over the top reaction.
"So why're you telling me now?"
Five responses run through Cristiano's head, most of them snarky, none of them right. "You deserve to know."
"All right. Thank you, Cris," Leo says, in a low, quiet voice Cristiano's never heard before.
"You're thanking me? What for?"
"I didn't know how any of this was gonna go. But - it was good. I actually had fun, and I wanted to tell you. In case - in case we don't - "
Leo trails off, biting his lip and ducking his head, trying to play it off like it's nothing. But Cristiano knows. He heard the way Leo's voice broke at the edges there, at the end, and it makes him feel sick. He needs it to stop.
He grabs Leo's face with both hands, forces him to look up.
"Shut the fuck up. We're going to win. Okay? We're Messi and Ronaldo. That's what we do. There's no one else who can carry that like we can, because we're the best. Whatever's in our way, we crush it and keep going."
He never thought he'd ever look at one of Lionel Fucking Messi's crooked little smiles and feel like he'd won something.
"I'm not in your way, Cris."
"I know." You dummy.
Leo hugs him in one of those lightning quick moves, so fast that Cristiano doesn't even have time to do anything but stand there and accept it. "I'm gonna help you win."
Chapter 5: and one time he didn't
"I'm not a friend of [Leo's] because you know, we don't share the same dressing room. I respect him as a professional, but friends, we're not friends. Like...real friends. We're friends from, you know, profession. If he comes here we can play together." - Cristiano Ronaldo
It's pitch black in the tunnel. All Cristiano can hear is the sound of fourteen people all trying to breathe evenly.
Time doesn't make sense in the dark. They might've been waiting for five minutes or five hours. The only thing that stops Cristiano from yelling just to have something to listen to is the grounding grip of Leo's hand in his. He squeezes probably too hard; it's an unspeakable relief when Leo wiggles his fingers back.
"You nervous?" he says into the silence. It comes out shockingly loud.
Fuck it. Just let Beckenbauer try to tell them to be quiet. He's spoiling for a fight.
"Nah. It's just football," Leo whispers back, like "just football" hasn't shaped their entire lives and been responsible for everything they have.
Cristiano gets it, though. He knows exactly what Leo means.
It goes like this:
Hurakan are like no other team Cristian's ever played against. That's not a surprise, though. They're fucking aliens. Of course they're fast and strong and flexible and absurdly skilled.
Other than that, it's just a game of football.
They're better than they were, but they're still a suicidally attacking team who can't hold the ball. It's no surprise when they concede the first goal, or the second one.
What happens after that isn't surprising either. It's just the first time Cristiano's been able to enjoy rather than feel gut-punched by a Brilliant Messi Solo Goal, and he almost misses not knowing what that's like. Seeing Leo dance his way past one - two - three - four defenders, draw the goalkeeper and almost delicately chip the ball into the empty net makes him want to laugh like a lunatic.
It used to actually bug him, because there's just no way that talent came from practice and effort. Somebody gave Messi that, and he just uses it. Cristiano still kind of thinks that - some things just can't be taught.
But it doesn't bug him the same way anymore. Leo's just a guy. Normal to the point of being boring, just as driven as Cristiano, and a goddamn artist with a ball.
They concede another goal. Then Falcao, miracle of miracles, manages to pull one back, which makes Cristiano feel a twinge of guilt about writing him off, if only briefly.
Cristiano takes down Donovan's pass, whips the ball into the danger zone without a second thought, and watches open-mouthed as lightning strikes twice. Who'd have thought Rooney had one of those overhead kicks in him, let alone two?
"Team player" is the most meaningless cliche Cristiano's ever heard. "There's no 'I' in 'team'" is the most filthy lie in football.
Teams are built on individual players, and players who can't or don't take on responsibility are either useless or actively a drag on the team. He's thought that since he was 10 years old and he's not going to change any time soon.
Cristiano doesn't rely on anyone but himself. That hasn't changed. What has is that he now knows Leo better than he ever thought possible.
And Leo has the ball again. He takes it past three defenders like they're not there. Cristiano doesn't raise his arms. He doesn't even look back.
I know you can give me the ball in the right place at the right time and I trust you to do it.
That certainty is more powerful than trust, sweeter than affection, better than anything else on earth in the moment when the ball drops.
Cristiano doesn't remember anything about the first moments after his shot hits the net. It's all white noise. When it clears, he's being hugged by what feels like a many-tentacled monster that's also screeching in both his ears.
After a while, most of the tentacles detach and then it's just Leo beaming at him, and Cristiano has to wonder not for the first time how a frame that small can hold that person inside it.
"Hey. We won. We won."
"It went in," Cristiano says hoarsely. He sounds dazed, even to himself.
He can feel more than hear it when Leo laughs, his shoulders shaking with it, before he puts both hands on Cristiano's shoulders and goes up on tiptoes to talk into his ear. "I'd have killed you if you fucked up that finish."
"I'd have killed you if you didn't make the pass."
"Of course I made the pass. Didn't even need to look. I knew you were there." Leo stares at Cristiano as he says it, like it's both the most obvious and the most important thing on earth, and he's trying to make Cristiano get it by sheer force of will.
Cristiano can feel himself bristling, trying to back away from understanding even as his body remains still and frozen. "Yeah, sure."
Leo rolls his eyes. "Is this how it's gonna be now?"
"I don't know what you mean," Cristiano lies. Back to normal, like nothing ever happened. Isn't that what's supposed to happen?
The thought makes him want to kick something.
"Come the fuck on, Cris." Leo grins at Cristiano like they're in on the world's best joke. "After all that?"
Cristiano decides he's too tired and too wired to keep fighting the answering grin that keeps threatening to take over his face. As always, the best defence is a good offence.
"First promise me you'll get a haircut. That thing on your head is terrible. I refuse to be seen with you otherwise."
"I mean it."
hey u gonna be okay for the game? hows the knee
hurts like a bitch. hope ure ready to lose!!!
ha ha we ll see whos crying tmrow night! hug jr 4 me
see u soon. hi to anto & the kids. here's junior
[play video attachment]
"Hey Junior, you want to say hi to Leo?"
"Hi Leo! We miss you! Visit soon or you won't be my favourite anymore!"
"What's this 'we' business?"
"Lying is wrong, papa."
"Check out the disrespect. That's your fault. We're gonna need to have words after the game."
Narrator: "The seminal 2025 film Football Will Save the Planet, released to coincide with the tenth anniversary of first contact, has long been criticised for an orgy of product placement as well as numerous factual inaccuracies. Ten years after its release, filmmaker and journalist Victoire Pique Mebarak sat down with the heroes of 2015 in order to shed some light on what really happened twenty years ago."
Ronaldo: "Training was nothing like that."
Messi: "It was a little bit like that."
Ronaldo: "Those outfits? The drones? The obstacle courses? The phones?"
Messi: "Yeah, fine, it was nothing like that. But the worst thing is that the film makes it look like we were always fighting."
Pique: "Set the record straight, then: was there fighting among you?"
Messi: "Not really. Do you remember us fighting, Cris?"
Ronaldo: "Nope. We were perfect angels."
Pique: [laughing] "For some reason I find that hard to believe."
Messi: "The truth is that we didn't really know each other before the training camp."
Pique: "How did you go from that to finishing each other's sentences?"
Ronaldo: "It's a long story. Maybe I'll put it in my next book."
Messi: "It's gonna be, what, your tenth?"
Ronaldo: "Third. Don't pretend you haven't read the first two cover to cover."
Messi: "The first one was a photobook, wasn't it? I read that when you gave it to me. Good pictures."
Ronaldo: "The second one's interactive. I'll send you a link after this is over. Homework."
Messi: "Just so you know, I hated homework."
Ronaldo: "But it's about me, which makes it amazing and worth your time."
Messi: [laughing] "Why am I friends with you again?"
- promotional footage for Game of Our Lives: the True Story Behind Football Will Save the Planet (2035), directed by Victoire Pique Mebarak
- Here's the 20 minute short film, if you want to watch it.
- This thoughtful review of Ronaldo's film has the tidbit about how Dolores is affected by watching him play.
- Jorge Mendes, super agent, is one of the most important people in football. Him and Cristiano are pretty close. Falcao is a Mendes client.
- Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo were team mates and strike partners at Manchester United.
- Pique and Messi have known each other since they were 12/13 and are pretty close.
- I made up the existence of the reserve squad because dear Lord would you have to have one for so many reasons.
- Neymar loooooooooooooooooooooves Messi and he can't stop talking about it. It's adorable. James Rodriguez kind of has the same thing going on with Cristiano.
- I don't really want to get into Cris-Bale or Ibra-Messi, but here's an explanation for the reference to Bale's agent. Ibra tends to say nice things about Messi but he also said in his book that he was forced out of Barcelona because Messi asked to play in the middle.
- Leo is very close to his extended family. The teenaged Messi used to be the one looking after his oldest brother's babies when they woke up during the night. He even lied to Barca about the resulting sleep deprivation.
- Leo left Argentina aged 13 with his dad to try to make it in Europe. Cristiano Ronaldo left Madeira at the age of 12 to attend Sporting's academy in Lisbon.
- "Messi is an alien" is kind of a meme by this point. Here's one example, from the great Gigi Buffon.
- You want to watch this incredibly adorable clip of Cris Junior meeting Messi, trust me.
- The media need to stop asking Cristiano about his son's mother. Seriously, just stop it. It's gross. I'm not linking to any of the tabloid bullshit but there is a fuckload of it.
- Avó is Portuguese for grandmother. Here it refers to Cris' mother Dolores Aveiro.
- Leo Messi's grandmother Celia was the woman who cultivated Leo's love for football and the one who made a coach put a 5 year old Leo on a football pitch for the first time. They were very close. She died when he was 10 and all his goals are dedicated to her.
- Messi really doesn't let his son Thiago win. I did not make that up.
- Leo, Leo's dad, and tax evasion problems. (He doesn't really have professionals working for him. It's all family.)
- The human embodiment of trollface, Gerard Pique, has a record of defending or complimenting Cristiano Ronaldo at unexpected moments. Here are some examples. (The two of them were friends from their respective spells at Manchester United.)
- Leo calling Pique 'papa' is an actual thing.
- In case you've been lucky enough to miss the Kevin Roldan controversy, here's the chain of events: (a) Cristiano dared to, you know, live, and didn't cancel his 30th birthday party after Madrid had lost to Atletico; (b) there was a media freakout, because the Spanish press are always in character as themselves; (c) at Barca's title celebrations, Pique cheekily thanked Kevin Roldan, the singer at the party.
- Pique has been persistently booed by a subsection of Spain fans whenever he plays for them since about June. This article touches on the various causes.
- Here's Cris talking about his knee problems.
- Jorge Valdano, the ex-Madrid player, coach and general manager, is a football aesthete who puts great emphasis on style. He coined the phrase "shit on a stick" for a pair of particularly dull Liverpool-Chelsea Champions League games.
- Ronaldinho, then the best player in the world, took Leo under his wing when the latter arrived in the Barca first team as a kid. Leo idolised his big brother and to this day will not hear a word against him, even though Ronaldinho's final years at Barca were marked by a total lack of professionalism.
- Adorable gifs of Cristiano and Leo after Madrid defeated Barca in the Copa final in 2014 right this way.
- Anto is Antonella, Leo's partner and the mother of his two kids.
- Messi loves starting sentences with "the truth is". It's kind of a mark of how reticent he used to be, especially when he was younger.
- "That was a joke" and the noise the alien ships make are both references to Mass Effect. The soundtrack to this thing is basically a combination of Suicide Mission from Mass Effect 2 and Carly Rae Jepsen. That is not a joke.