"You enjoy running people's lives for them far too much," Luis once said. He had been grinning. "It's indecent."
"I'll show you indecent," Pep had replied, trying and failing to hide an answering smile.
* * *
With the distance of years, the 90s feel like a lost time of innocence. Or they would if Pep was not brutally honest with himself. Football at the highest level hasn't been innocent for a long, long time, and he's been involved in it since he was old enough to sign for a club.
Still. He used to think that all he needed was more control, that being the one in charge would make it all better. In some ways, it's even true. He's good at making decisions. But what the young idealist with the senyera draped over his shoulder failed to realize was just how much dirt he'd pick up while trying to become someone who could be in charge of his own destiny.
"Rosell wants me to do it." It's not a question. He knows the answer already, and the sharpness of his tone is a little unfair to Zubi, who's just trying to help. But -
"He thinks you'd do a good job," Zubi says, almost completely without wincing.
"I'm sure. And tomorrow I'll discover a convenient talent for delivering budget reports so he can push that off on me too."
Somehow, that makes Zubi smile. "You're a very capable man, Pep, but that's stretching it too far. Not even you could make those interesting."
Having him around is soothing. He breaks Pep's often over-dramatic ridiculousness down into manageable bits.
"Have a little faith," Pep says, and even manages an answering smile to go with it. "Fine, I'll make the apology, smooth things over with the organisers. They understand that he's only had one training session, yes?"
Zubi nods gravely. "I believe so. They're not asking him to play the full match. Just enough to justify their marketing. It's...not unreasonable."
Sometime in the last twenty years, Andoni Zubizarreta, a dyed-in-the-wool football man if there ever was one, had learned to use words like 'marketing' in connection with the game he loved. In Pep's younger days, it might have broken his heart to hear. But he's old enough to know better now. Zubi's just like him, really.
They're both paying the price in exchange for a little control.
Pep sighs. "I know. But I can't help thinking - Zubi, we ask him for too much already."
Zubi's big hands feel warm on his shoulders, steady like anchors. His eyes are nothing but honest.
"Only because we must. He knows you're doing your best for him."
Pep can only look away.
"I don't know. Am I?"
* * *
After the World Cup, Leo came back different. International duty almost aways brings him down, as if it's the world's way of forcing reality into his surreal and remarkable life. No, you can't always turn a game with a moment of magic. Yes, there are people who despise you for not being even more amazing than you already are. No, the gods of football will not favour your every move.
Pep's job is to wrap Leo up in his own myth again, make him believe enough to live it. Usually it's not very difficult.
This time, he didn't even know how to begin. There was nothing to read in Leo's expression, in the carefully toneless politeness of his replies.
Pep took a deep breath. "May I - I'm sorry, I have to ask."
"Do you? Please, Mister, I'm fine. Leave it."
Pep was very good with people, but even he couldn't walk through a closed door. He went.
* * *
Everything seems fine at training. Leo slouches in, wearing one of those perpetually oversized tracksuits that make Pep want to take him shopping, and takes up almost no space at all in the dressing room. He could be invisible if everyone weren't paying attention.
Pep slings an arm around his shoulder as they head out for a practice game. "Everything alright?"
"Yeah. Don't worry about me, Mister," Leo says, smiling like the kid he isn't, mischief lighting his eyes as he eyes up Sergi Gomez and Marc Muniesa, shuffling along behind the senior players.
"Should I worry about those two?"
Don't go crushing their self-esteem all at once. Even mature defenders can't handle that.
Leo laughs, quiet but sincere. "Maybe a little bit."
This is the game he knows. He'll be fine.
* * *
Pep tells him after training.
"I'm sorry. We tried to tell them you only came back last week, but...you know how these things work."
Leo shrugs. "It's okay. I want to play." His face is a blank mask, the same one he's been wearing ever since he turned up. The playful boy who was doing impossible things with the ball as easily as he breathed earlier in training might as well be a different person.
The hurt hidden deep behind his dark eyes is eeriely familiar, and for once not because Pep used to see the same look in the mirror every morning.
"You know, Abi said the same thing when he came back."
Lyon can't have been an easy place to exist in after what happened in the French camp at the World Cup. Pep hasn't asked - if Abi wants to talk about it, he'll bring it up - but he didn't really need to. The man's almost maniac eagerness to return to training at Barcelona said it all.
"Yeah, he told me." A tiny smile struggles its way onto Leo's face. "I - I get it, wanting to move on after. After what happened. He said people back home blamed him. He said you make it easier."
He knows you're doing the best for him.
"I'm glad to hear that. Leo, if there's anything I can do - "
Leo's sudden hug rocks him back on his heels. It's not really something they do, outside of victory celebrations, and Pep has a moment of staring quizzically at the top of Leo's head before his arms remember what they're supposed to do in this situation.
"You already - you make it better, just by being here," Leo says, so quietly Pep has to bend closer to hear.
"Mmm. Thank you."
There's that all too familiar pain again, clearer than ever in the lines of his face (lines he's far too young to have, really) when he looks back up at Pep.
"Everything makes sense. You don't ask for anything I can't do."
Because I never need to.
Leo has a lot of experience with walking off the pitch. He's done it with a hundred thousand raining deafening cheers down on his bowed head, and with abuse in several different languages ringing in his ears. He's marched off like a bullfighter after a particularly showy kill, and been carried off - far too many times already - with his hands over his face, willing the tears of frustration away.
In South Africa, the final walk down the tunnel felt like he was being dragged into the dark.
The first walk up a different set of steps, onto a different pitch since that day is such a relief that his legs almost buckle.
When his cleats touch the grass within the chalked lines, it's a blessed relief.
Leo Messi lives again.
On the bus back to the hotel, Pep drops down into the empty seat next to Leo. "Good game."
Only 15 minutes on the pitch and two goals - the spectators had gotten their money's worth after all. Pep had been meaning to check up on Leo, make sure he wasn't too tired, but the kid's wide awake.
"Mister, can I ask you something?"
His eyes - so often fixed on the distance or directed at conveniently located inanimate objects - are focused on Pep's face. For once, it feels like Leo's fully present in a conversation, and that's a novelty not to be missed.
Leo twists his hands together, fidgeting with something one of the fans had pressed on him as they left the stadium. All Pep can see is a flash of blue-and-white.
"What - " His voice comes out hoarse. "What do you do if what you love most in the world doesn't love you back?"
Pep can feel his smile twisting into something bittersweet. Out of everyone here, he's definitely not the best person to give healthy advice on this.
But Leo had asked him for a reason.
"You make it work, whatever it takes. However long."
The truth is, after all this time he's still the hungriest of them all, the most driven. Insanely so, Luis would say, and he'd be right. Pep gave everything up to his all-encompassing obsession years ago until there were no other paths to take.
He had hoped that if Leo's relationship with his national team ever became half as tangled as Pep's relationship with the love of his life, he would never have to experience the same lows. But it was too late already.
When you love something that much, it's bound to hurt a little.
Leo - smiles. It's not a happy expression. "Even if it's never enough?"
"Even then. No one is asking you for the impossible, Leo," Pep says firmly.
I'm on your side and I will always be, he wants to say. It's a promise he can make, and part of him even thinks Leo would enjoy hearing it. But the smarter part knows what's necessary and for whom.
He smiles back, instead. "Just the highly unlikely."
Leo snorts. "Don't get me wrong. No one ever forced me to do anything. I chose this." He says it with unusual vehemence, like he needs to believe it himself. Like he'd be lost without it.
"You didn't know it was going to be like this."
It doesn't need to be a question. When Leo started down this road, he was nowhere near old enough to understand what it would mean. Younger than Pep had been, when he chose, and Pep had different priorities, even back then.
"No, I really didn't," Leo waves a hand at the foreign landscape outside the bus, an oddly childish gesture. "Sponsors, media...all of this other stuff people want."
His eyes are daring Pep to contradict him, argue him down the way he's done enough times before. But not on this.
Pep may be many things, but a liar has never been one of them.
He reaches out to ruffle Leo's feathery hair, drying flat against his scalp after the shower. "I'll never ask for anything other than what you already want. Promise."
Leo's silent, considering. Then his face splits into a real grin for the first time that week. "Huh. I guess that's true."
After Leo came back from South Africa, he couldn't close his eyes without seeing blue and white for a week. Specifically, one of the huge banners bought by the fans with a picture of Diego in the middle, black lines stark against the albiceleste stripes. He'd swear on his football career to have never felt a moment of real resentment towards Diego until then, but that week -
Some childish part of him refused to let go, even though being pissed at Diego was worse than stupid - it was the coward's way out.
Knowing that didn't help. It just made him even more angry. Even now, months later and a few continents away, he still has far too many dreams in albiceleste colours.
When the season starts properly, it'll stop, Leo tells himself. If he works hard enough. If he gets better.
If they keep winning.
Pep would tell him to have a little faith. Football is for playing, and while Leo's never forgotten that completely, sometimes it's nice to be reminded.
Maybe it's what Pep does best, centering all of them. Providing the necessary, until he doesn't even have to be there for the right words to spring to mind in their head.
For so many of them, there's a Before and an After Pep.
When Leo manages to convey this to Xavi, he grins, all mischief, like he's spotted a defence-splitting pass.
"I don't know, Leo. Not all of us like having his voice in our head all the time."
Xavi doesn't look at what had been Ibra's corner of the dressing room, but he doesn't have to.
Leo doesn't let himself laugh just yet, though he wants to. "You should know," he says quietly, deadpan, just when he knows Xavi's no longer expecting a reply.
Xavi's own laugh sounds like it had to be shaken out of him. The look he gives Leo is new, frighteningly intense, but not unfriendly. "I got used to it."
Leo used to think that the Xavi in press conferences or interviews (the one with the sharp eyes and even sharper words) was nothing like the one he knew.
Sometimes, he's a bit of a idiot.
"How do you do it?"
Xavi smiles, and Leo has to resist the urge to rub his eyes, because it's almost exactly like the one Pep gives him when he asks questions.
"What does anybody do when they're thrust into a job? I learned."
He makes it sound so easy, when it's anything but.
Maybe that's the key, Leo thinks, and feels a little better.
* * *
When he goes down against Atletico - and it's only fucking September, how is it fair for him to get hurt now - he doesn't know whether to laugh or cry, and has to cover his face because he's afraid of TV cameras catching whatever it ends up being.
It hurts. But this is only a set-back. He's not conceding defeat.
For every time he goes away, he'll just have to come back better.
* * *
"It's the biggest game. We'll be doing our best to put on a show for the fans," Leo mumbles into a microphone, hours before kick-off. Around him, the Camp Nou press offices are buzzing with harried-looking club officials, journalists interviewing the other players, and hovering coaching staff.
He can't hear the crowd, not from here, not yet. It'll be something to look forward to - Xavi had already told him that the organisers had surpassed themselves.
"I hear the mosaic is incredible today. Not that you notice these things, hm?"
Xavi's right, of course. He doesn't really care what the stadium looks like once the game starts. But when they walk out to warm up, the roar that greets them seems to come from everywhere at once, and the sight of the great walls of blaugrana and the senyera goes through him like a lightning strike. Like the best kind of certainty.
When the Camp Nou is in this mood, it's easy to believe that anything is possible. Forget Real Madrid, if the football gods themselves came to play, Leo feels like they'd give them a game right now.
* * *
It's half-time, and the dressing room is quietly buzzing.
Pep's entrance brings almost everyone to their feet, and Andres even makes a weird jerky move like he wants to pat Pep down and check that he's fully intact before Victor of all people tugs him back down.
Pep grins. "Not that I don't appreciate your concern, guys, but you need to calm down. Getting pissed just plays into their hands. Now, how did you feel before it got nasty?"
"Brilliant. Unbelievable, really," David says, his grin hard-edged, face flushed with excitement. He's so much older and so mature that it's easy for Leo to forget he's never experienced a Clasico before, how it can make you into someone else entirely.
"Get used to it. We're in control, keep it that way."
The words come out sounding brisk, even casual, but the look in his eyes, hectic, shining with savage joy -
Pep's relationship with Barca is unique. Even someone like Leo, who hasn't been watching for long, can't really miss it. He doesn't think he'll ever understand, most of them won't, but at times like these it's still infectious, and Leo can almost feel it spreading through all of them like wild fire.
Beside Leo, Gerard hums thoughtfully. "You come at the king, you best not miss."
"It's from a TV show I watch. Don't know why it just came to me."
Leo gives him a quick hug, bumping his head against Gerard's chest. Imagines hearing the thumping heartbeat underneath. "Don't worry, we won't. Right, David?"
David nods. "Let's go make sure they stay down."
* * *
The first thing Leo ever knew when it came to Barca was gratitude. For the chance, for their faith in his rebellious body, for that contract signed on a napkin.
The second was the certain knowledge that being loved passionately here was no guarantee of not being brutally abandoned as soon as anything changed. He's seen it happen enough times to know.
The third was how little that knowledge matters. Barca rearranged him, inside out, and left its mark so deep he can feel it sometimes when he takes a breath inside the Camp Nou.
When the final whistle goes at the end of the game, Leo stands on the pitch feeling like he could take flight, if the 98,000 in the stands asked it of him.
They called Manuel first so he could break it to Pep gently, which is how he knew it was going to be bad news.
An hour later, he's sitting in the club doctors' offices, wondering at the serenity in Abi's eyes, the smile playing around his lips. The enormous strength it must take to appear so unaffected at a moment like this.
"Don't worry so much. You've got enough to frown about. I'm not adding to your wrinkles."
"Abi, if there's anything I can do - "
Pep's hands on Abi's shoulders are only steady through willpower alone. Inside, he's floundering. Comforting injured players is second nature, but this is far worse than an injury.
Abi leans closer, lowering his voice. "Honestly, boss? I'm scared. I've got kids, you know? What are they going to do if - " He shakes his head. "Anyway, just help me keep that from the guys, alright? I don't want them to worry about me. They have a job to do."
Pep can't trust himself to speak. He nods, humbled, and lets the rough hug they share say it all.
You are a winner, and you will win this game too.
* * *
Telling the team about Abi is one of the hardest moments of his career. Another comes when Xavi asks how Abi's doing.
"Amazingly well, all things considered," Pep says. It's not a lie, but it's not the truth either. He owes Abi that much. "He's coming to say hi before his surgery. Says he doesn't want to see any of you with long faces or slacking off just because he's gone."
Gerard laughs, breaking the silence. "That joker," he finally manages, and everyone politely ignores how choked up he sounds.
Pep's eyes are wet, but his voice is steady. "From now on, we play for Abi."
* * *
Two weeks later, the papers are full of headlines about him leaving Barca, and Zubi's waiting in his office when Pep comes in at 7 in the morning, scowling over his coffee.
"You owe me a week's supply of painkillers for the headaches that interview's going to cause me."
Pep lets a sheepish grin onto his face. "Good morning, Zubi."
"Yes, yes, and to you. I may have bought coffee, but only if you explain yourself."
One of the few drawbacks of working with a dear old friend is that occasionally they know you too well.
"Deal. Can I have the coffee?"
"Here. Now talk."
Zubi's smile has a certain tired tinge to it, and now Pep really does feel bad.
"Thank you." He sighs. "When I agreed to the interview, they promised not to publish the contents outside of the centenary DVD. Obviously I put my trust in the wrong people. I'm sorry."
Zubi waves a hand dismissively. "No, that's fine, Manuel already told me. What I want to know is why you said it at all."
"I wasn't going to lie," Pep says.
"You know, if I get to be known as 'the sporting director who let Guardiola leave', you're going to have a lot to answer for."
"It's not you, and you know it. You know what happened last time."
Zubi leans over Pep's spotless computer desk, all focused intensity. When he speaks, though, his voice is soft, the words careful. "Does it really make a difference, being the one to leave?"
"Yes," Pep says firmly. "It makes all the difference in the world."
He's fought hard for some measure of control, this time around. Being able to dictate the terms of his inevitable departure is an important part of that.
"We won the war, Zubi. And nobody's going to wreck that, not after what we've had to do to get here."
His hands seem small in Zubi's enormous, calloused palms. (Those hands had been the foundations of the Dream Team, once upon a time, when they'd both been young.)
"I know. I'm with you."
Pep can't help a smile, and he doesn't have to see it mirrored in Zubi's eyes to know that it's one of his new ones, equal parts bright and sharp.
* * *
Zubi had been one of the first he contacted, when he made up his mind. The B team job was a good opportunity, an ideal starting point for the project of his dreams. He was going to need the support of old friends if he was to make it count.
"I'm coming back."
He didn't need to say anything else. Zubi knew that phrase could only mean one thing.
"Good. It's not been the same without you."
Pep laughed into his phone. "Flatterer. Football's changed, Zubi. So have we."
One of the first things he learned as a pro was to listen to his body. The second was to ignore it. Especially when it's telling him that he's tired, that he desperately needs a break, that what he's asking of it is impossible.
Pep likes to say that football is mostly played in the mind. If that was true - and Leo has never had reason to doubt Pep - then what his body says about limitations doesn't have to matter.
His certainty carries him through game after exhausting game. That, and seeing it mirrored in the eyes of his team mates, some of them probably feeling even more worn out than he is, but dragging themselves through with sheer determination alone.
Every time he sees Xavi getting a pain-killing injection in his ankle so he can run himself into the ground for another 90 minutes, every time anything reminds him of Abi's condition, or when he comes to training in the morning and Puyi's already there, doing extra exercises so he can get fit faster, his own fatigue becomes ever more of an irrelevance.
The media's Clasico crazy, mad with it, and nobody knows - nobody can know - that it's all they can do to play up to a decent standard, nevermind who the opponent is.
"Just a little more," Pep says to him in an undertone, two training sessions before the Copa del Rey final. They'd drawn the league game at the Bernabeu, the league was almost won, and the Champions League semis were more a prize to look forward to than a dreaded duty. "You can get some rest soon."
"Mister, I'm fine."
Pep smiles, and even Leo can see the strain behind it. "No, you're not. But it's nice of you to say so."
* * *
They lose the Copa final.
In the dressing room, David and Xavi are mad enough to spit fire, and even the milder guys like Andres are so pissed they've forgotten about fatigue entirely.
Leo sits in a corner and cries, as quietly as he knows how.
It doesn't work. Masche drops down in front of him a few minutes or an eternity later, pressing their foreheads together. Gabi messes up his hair and gives him a long hug, holding him so close he finds it hard to breathe and even harder to care.
When both of them leave his side without a word of protest, Leo doesn't have to look up to know who's there.
"Leo. Look at me."
He doesn't particularly want to, but something about the tone of Pep's voice makes it impossible to disobey.
Pep doesn't look angry at all, except in the dark depths of his eyes.
"We're going to Wembley," he says, each word carefully pronounced as if he's putting great effort into controlling every syllable.
Leo flinches like he just had one of his old hormone injections. It hurts, and nothing changes immediately, but he knows that it'll give him strength for when he needs it.
* * *
On the plane back, Gerard sits next to him. Leo's convinced Xavi or Puyi put him up to it.
"I'm not brooding."
"Yes, you are," Gerard says with devastating nonchalance. "Don't lie to me, you haven't been able to manage it for five years."
Sometimes, Leo's convinced that they would never have become friends if they were normal people who met under ordinary circumstances. If they had been just classmates in school, maybe, and their lives didn't revolve around football - but that's when his imagination stops, because he can't imagine what he'd be like without football.
He can picture Gerard being dazzlingly brilliant at any number of things, and that right there is the biggest difference between them, even more than being introverted or outspoken, tall or short.
"The last time you believed a lie I told. Two years ago."
* * *
"What are you even doing?"
Gerard's innocent face was really very good.
Leo snorted. "Quit it. I saw that interview you did with Cesc. When did you become an agent?"
He was trying to make Gerard laugh, because for some reason Gerard thought it was hilarious that Leo had managed to acquire a well-hidden smart mouth in his absence. When the loud, booming sound failed to arrive and the corners of his lips turned down instead, Leo felt kind of like an asshole.
Then again, the storm of desperation and resolve in Gerard's eyes had nothing to do with him.
"Don't you want him back?" Gerard asked quietly.
Leo's still not sure why he did it. Maybe he was just mad at Gerard for asking such a stupid question. Strangers could think whatever they wanted about him, but for Gerard to assume that he didn't care just because he didn't say anything -
"He made his choice, Gerard," he said, and regretted taking the coward's way out the second the words were out of his mouth.
(Taking them back would be even worse, so he let them be.)
Gerard flinched. "So did I. I still came back."
"You're different," Leo said, putting his arms around Gerard's middle because it was as good as an apology.
* * *
" - Leo, hey, Leo? Are you even paying attention? Dammit, how do you get through interviews with that attention span?"
Leo shrugs. The simple answer is that he doesn't. Journalists who have the patience to actually get to know him tend to already know that his brain is not all that well organised and therefore be more tolerant of his tendency to drift off in the middle of a sentence or change topics like he's mid-dribble and side-stepping an opponent.
Gerard's so used to it that he's already onto another topic, something about Rio Ferdinard and dirty jokes that Leo's not sure he wants to know too much about.
He doesn't bother fighting the urge to grin.
Before the first Champions League semi-final in Madrid, Pep finally gives a press conference the way he's been tempted to the whole year. He's not really the right person for this, but he's long since learned that when something needs doing, especially at Barca, he couldn't afford to wait around for someone else to get on to it.
It's almost fun.
"Therapeutic," Zubi says afterwards, trying and failing to hide his amusement behind a mask of skepticism. "For you, anyway."
Pep almost manages a smile. "I didn't do it for laughs."
"Of course not. But you are allowed to enjoy a job well done," Zubi says mildly.
After a long pause, Pep thanks him, and not just for the compliment.
Zubi's right, though. Pep could wear the black hat as well as he wore the white, when he needed to. Having learnt from the best helps.
* * *
"The boss' assistant. What do you think?"
"You're talking about Jose."
Luis raised an eyebrow. "Didn't realize you were on first name terms."
"He's - " Pep paused, unable to decide on just one word. "Interesting."
"Really. Spend any more time together and I'm going to get jealous," Luis said, and going by the inflection he could mean every word or not at all.
"Of what? I'm learning. It's important."
He said it with a smile, and trusted Luis to understand.
* * *
When he finally gets back to the dressing room after training, he finds the entire squad, showered and changed already, waiting for him to show up. Clearly, news had spread fast.
"Guar-di-ola! Guar-di-ola! Guar-di-ola!"
He's not sure who starts the chant, only that it's taken up quickly, and suddenly everyone's applauding. Pep scans the crowd, holding each person's eyes in turn, and he knows by the gratitude and renewed determination on every face that this was a decisive move.
Silence falls instantly when he raises a hand.
"I did what I had to. Now it's up to you."
* * *
Xavi approaches him after dinner.
"What are you thinking?" he says, voice hushed. There's no hint of reproach to be found on his face, only a calculating curiosity that Pep's always admired and treated with care.
He smiles. "That limitations are things we impose on ourselves. You understand."
He has no doubt that Jose will respond, and doesn't particularly care how. After all, none of it had been for his benefit.
Jose's sense of the dramatic is unsurpassable, as Pep himself had just very publicly admitted. But sometimes he lets it overtake his sense of the necessary, a lesson Pep learned very young never to forget.
As did the man in front of him. Probably better than anyone knew, back in the early days.
Xavi tilts his head, considering. "I think I'm beginning to. Thank you."
All things being equal, Leo would really rather get through games without rolling around, kicking other people, being kicked, or having someone (usually someone much bigger) snarl in his face.
It's not that he doesn't get pissed. Hell, he's pissed right now, has been for weeks. But he learned a long time ago that letting his emotions run wild wouldn't help anything. Not unless they could be cooled, distilled into a weapon.
The best revenge will always be winning, and Pep's counting on him.
Leo dusts himself off and picks himself up slowly, ignoring the deafening whistles of the crowd. He hurts, but he's not injured. That's good enough for now. He can play.
* * *
Football isn't a game between individuals. It wouldn't be any fun if it were.
They'd tried to teach him that in Argentina, but it took La Masia for Leo to understand, and Pep to make a team that fit him, and he them, like lock and key. Together, they are a weapon strong enough to match any opponent, and Leo's job is to be the sharpest point of the blade.
This is what he's meant for.
In midfield, the stretch of pitch in front of Leo looks massive, the distance to goal filled with white shirts.
It doesn't matter, none of it, because when Busi receives the ball and makes the return pass, even though Leo's still got a long way to go, what happens next suddenly seems like the easiest thing in the world.
He can see the entire play unfolding in his head.
Pep knows what's going to happen about five seconds before it actually does. Something in Leo's body language tells him.
It says: I want to go to Wembley.
Making demands on Leo has always been easy. He's obsessed with the game the way few others are, and his idea of reasonable expectations is downright brutal. They work well together because they both understand goals, and doing the necessary to reach them, and needing football almost as much as they need air.
Pep had promised Leo Wembley, knowing that it was difficult but possible. And with this group of guys, possibility was good enough to stake everything on.
* * *
Afterwards, Leo doesn't so much hug as tumble into Pep's arms, dead on his feet but still beaming up at the emptying stands.
"You can do anything. Never doubt that," Pep says, in his croaky wreck of a voice.
"I don't. Not when you say it."
Leo's smile is bright and guileless, almost like he's never had his heart broken by football before.
Pep tries his best to match it.
Despite all the talk of volcanic ash clouds, the sky in London is very blue.
On the glass at Wembley, with the songs of the faithful echoing around the great arena, he finds himself robbed of words. Not that they're necessary - he only has to look across for the other man to understand - and know that it's mutual.
You make me believe that all things are possible.
1. Title from the song Blue Skies by Noah and the Whale.
2. A lot of the action in this fic is based around real events, major or minor. A rough timeline, excluding the flashbacks:
July - Argentina's painful elimination by Germany from the 2010 World Cup and France's acrimonious exit in the group stages;
August - pre-season Asian tour and the sponsors demanding that Messi play due to a contract signed by the board;
September - Leo's ankle injury, sustained against Atletico from a bad tackle;
November - the Clasico at Camp Nou that Barca win 5-0;
March - Abidal being informed that he had a tumour in his liver;
March - an interview that Guardiola had given, in which he talked about the end of his time at Barca, to Brescia's club media leaks to the football media in general;
April - Barca lose the Copa del Rey final to Real Madrid in a heated match;
April - Guardiola's non-aggression stance towards Jose Mourinho ends with a bang at a spectacular press conference;
April - Barca defeat Real 0-2 at the Bernabeu in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final in a game mired in controversy;
May - Barca defeat Manchester United at Wembley in the Champions League final.
3. Guide for unclear names:
Luis: Luis Figo, who famously played for both Barca and Real.
Rosell: Sandro Rosell, president of Barcelona.
Zubi: Andoni Zubizarreta, goalkeeping legend for Spain, Athletic Bilbao and Barca (for Cruyff's Dream Team). Barca's new sporting director as of 10-11.
Manuel: Manuel Estiarte, Spanish waterpolo legend and Barca Team Liaison. Spends a lot of time trying to take care of Pep and is known (seriously) as his 'guardian angel'.
4. Several sections in this fic allude to the division of power issues at Barca which have been discussed extensively in the sports pages of El Pais, amongst others, this past season. The argument goes that Guardiola, while a more than capable spokesman for the club, has had to do too much on his own, with insufficient support from the institution around him.
5. Pep Guardiola and Luis Figo were very close friends during the latter's Barcelona days.
6. Another often-discussed issue in the last few years has been the effect international duty has on Leo Messi, and not just physically. It's been observed many times that he comes back more often than not unhappy.
7. Messi's many difficulties with the Argentinian National Team have been well documented, as has his evident devotion to the albiceleste shirt. Given the choice to play for Spain as a boy, he refused, preferring to wait for Argentina to notice him instead. His loyalty to Barca is not in question, and yet he has gone to war with the club in order to play for Argentina, as he did in the Olympic Games of 2008.
8. Eric Abidal was accused of being one of the ring-leaders of the now-infamous French dressing room revolt during the 2010 World Cup, an allegation he denied. He returned to pre-season training at Barca ahead of schedule, citing a desire to get back to work.
9. Barca's second pre-season game of 10-11 was preceded by a very public and embarrassing row between the organisers and the club on the subject of Messi's participation. The contract signed by the board obliged him to play a certain number of minutes in the friendly against the K-League XI. When this demand was made clear to Pep Guardiola, he was vehemently against putting a player who had been in training for only a few days onto the pitch, but ultimately had to bow to commercial demand. Messi played 15 minutes and scored 2 goals.
It has been reported that this row led to conflict between the board and Guardiola, which had to be resolved by Zubi.
10. Pep Guardiola's long and illustrious history with Barca as a player ended on a fairly bad note. After years of power struggles, gross insinuations planted by his enemies in the press and doing his best to lead an increasingly lost team, he chose to depart rather than accept the contract extension the board (the source of much of his trouble) had offered. He returned in 2007 to pull Barca B out of its slump, and the rest, as they say, is history.
11. Before Xavi Hernandez was the best midfielder in Europe, he was a young man thrust into the limelight by Guardiola's injury problems, burdened with the task of replacing the heart and soul of a difficult team. The endless comparisons and being pitted against the club captain in the press did not make the 18 year old's life very easy.
12. 'You come at the king, you best not miss' is a quote from The Wire. I wanted to use it because it was widely bandied about after the November Clasico last year in reference to Madrid's possible response to a heavy defeat.
13. Eric Abidal was diagnosed with a tumour in his liver in March. (Due to the player's request for privacy, it was never made clear whether or not the tumour was malignant.) This news had a devastating impact on the squad, but Abi himself remained a cheerful presence, keen to motivate his team mates to press on without him. He only spoke about his fears and uncertainties after his triumphant return from injury at the end of April.
14. As part of the centenary celebrations of his former club Brescia, Guardiola (who never does interviews) granted an exclusive interview to the club's official media. He spoke of the short term nature of his project at Barca, amongst other things. The quotes were picked up in the Italian media, and spread to the Spanish.
15. Andoni Zubizarreta's brilliant Barcelona career was brutally ended by Johan Cruyff after Barca lost 4-0 to AC Milan in the 1994 Champions League final.
16. The four Clasicos between Barca and Real in April and May (league, Copa del Rey final, Champions League semi-final) were hard-fought, filled with controversy and all around nastiness. You can read about the instantly-infamous Guardiola press conference here. And yes, he really did get a standing ovation from his players afterwards.
17. The Gerard Pique-Cesc Fabregas interview referenced is this one.
18. Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho worked well together during their time at Barca, and by all accounts had a good relationship until the second half of this past season.
19. Obligatory self-promotion: if you're interested in the relationship between Zubi and Pep back in their Dream Team days, I wrote about it a few years ago.