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O LEÃOZINHO vol. 2

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The sea weaves its way towards the sand. Sunlight bleeding in the horizon. Wind calling out the dead of summer. And in the sand sits Leo, hair like a banner at the mercy of the breeze, alone.

         Memories flow, whether he wanted them or not. The ball rolling with him at the caress of his feet, as if they were one entity. The field long and shinning under the lights of the stadium. The roar of the fans pales beneath the rhythm of his heart. His feet move following paths his soul reveals. And then it happens.

         A struck sends him backwards, falling on the grass with his head embracing the earth beneath. The light fades and even that is long forgotten when the pain kicks in. The world goes black and the roar becomes a shriek; a lament; a scream. A gathering storm.

         Then, when the lights come back, he isn't on the field anymore, another kind of white lights make him blink. Surrounded by white walls he is. And the faces looking down at him are unknown. All of them but one. And he wishes to hold the hand that so desperately tries to reach him, but fails to do so.

         It was the footsteps on the sand that made him return to the present, far from the stupor of memories. But the pain yet still remained.

         "I was hoping you were here" Cris says behind him, hands resting over Leo shoulders.

 

"It definitely suits you."

         “You only say it ‘cuz it’s your name on it.”

         Cris grins, showing perfect teeth “Partly you're right--- partly.”

         “Ain’t I though?”

         “Yeah, meu coração. But just don't get it over your head right now, alright?” A hand raises from his lap to land on his cheek, a dark ring on it. “It suits you.”

         “Oh, shut up about it”

         Leo kisses him.

         Deeply he wishes Cris had never found the jersey Ney had given him all that time ago, for Leo knew what would Cris might do if he ever came to know about its existence. And now--- well--- Cris gives him a spanking and makes him spin around for him. “Yes, it definitely suits you.”

         “A number 10 can suit you as well.”

         “Would it thou?” A hand reaching Leo’s cock.

         “Yeah---” he moans at the touch of the cold hand.

         “It wouldn’t, thou--- you are just too tiny for me to fit.”

         “I-I---”

         “Shh--- meu amor--- shhh---”

         Cris grabbed him by the jersey, pulling him down to the bed. Face on the satin sheets. Cris rubbing his body against Leo’s, slowly as his lips find its way through the small men neck. Breathing almost in synchrony.

         It was almost as if the heavens were aflame, but not yet.

 

Leo woke with the sound of rain knocking on the window. The day was grey and fresh, gusts of chill air beating down at the trees in the garden and beyond. The city is nowhere to be found amidst the heavy rain screen. He couldn’t remember the nightmare, but the fear remained as a piercing dagger tearing him apart. A hand raised towards his forehead and stood in the middle of the air. His dark eyes fixed in the deep color of the wooden ring. On Cris’s hand another one of the same material could be seen.

         His fears faded away with the sign of that promise. Leo smiled and moved to face Cris, still asleep.

        You may not fully understanding it yet he thought while staring at the bronze-colored-face of Cristiano, wishing the other man to wake up and yet to remain asleep for him to admire but I would gladly give my everything for you.

         Then he fell asleep with the easiness of those who feel safe. Then again, the fear of the nightmare never did vanished at all.

 

Training was most of the same as it had been for the past year. He was now wearing a white long sleeve jersey with a green stripe at the bottom and a black above this one. Real Madrid crest next to his heart in black and white and the adidas logo on the other side. Three black stripes running from shoulders to wrist completed the jersey. He, unlike Cris, who always seemed oblivious to the cold, was wearing the long gray trousers with green strips at the sides. Long white socks and silver cleats, a gift from Cris –as he was wearing now the ones Leo had bought him, golden were their color at which Cris had just said “Perhaps with this I’ll beat the Ballon d'Or out of you, sombra do meu coração” a grin on his face “Over my dead ass” had said Leo “God forbids, that ass is mine to keep” “Who knows? Perhaps you will do as well receiving as you do giving”–, make him look like a shooting star running down the field with the ball under the control of his feet following the path between the yellow cones, back and forth.

         Back and forth. How much had his life changed? Well--- to be fair--- not that much. For a moment, yeah. For a time it was a mess. Well, not a mess. The truth was he didn’t wanted to accept the things as they were. And by that all seemed dark. Gloomy. He has now happy at Madrid, with Cris. Thankfully nothing but the blaugrana jersey was lost, although not really. Cris had gave him a wonderful gift by putting almost all of the jerseys he had worn while playing for Barca. Now, along the new ones, where the 7 and 10 almost as one soul in the same room, next to each other as if by that act the true would last forever. Perhaps it would. Back and forth, that was the key.

         Ney and Leo had kept communication. That year Ney was actually going to meet Cris and Leo for Christmas. Back and forth. Later that year the new Star Wars film was set for release: The Force Awakens. Leo had have high hopes for the movie, but as for now the trailers didn’t promise that much. Not much of a new thing, really he thought while kicking a ball that resembled that new droid, BBHeight or BB-8 or something like that but not quite bad. Cris had loved it and the man keep watching the trailers again and again as if by that he might spot something new. Perhaps he would. Back and forth, indeed.

         The whistle marked the end of training. Everybody went straight to shower and change. James came closer to Messi, he was finally getting better at chatting. It was about time Leo thought while smiling and keeping the conversation a little more. Cris was across the room, joking with Iker –it was Iker final season with Madrid, sadly–.

         “He could be a nice addition, don’t you think?”

         “Em--- well--- I dunno.”

         “Come on James, speak your mind out. Please, I beg you” Leo smiled, slapping James on the shoulder.

         “Well--- Yeah--- I mean, it wouldn’t be his first time playing with us and--- umm--- it’s a good player.”

         Neither Leo nor Cris had changed from their training kit. They were waiting for---

         “Well--- um--- See you around, Leo.”

         “Yeah, take care James.”

         James was walking away when an idea crossed Leo’s mind “Hey James” Rodriguez looked back at him, eyes shinning bright “would you like to spent Christmas this year with us?”

         “Oh yes, yes! It would be fun! Yes, yes! Pleased to be there! Oh--- oh--- sorry, Leo--- I got a bit excited. I’ll see you there. Thanks, thanks!”

         Iker was the last one to go, leaving Cris and Leo alone.

         “You did well today, meu amour.”

         “That? It was nothing, thought you’ll want someone to chat who you really like when---”

         “What are you talking about, Leo? Today at training, you did so well.”

         “Ah--- that. You look good in that, you know?”

         Cris sit next to him. Hand resting over his hand, caressing. Cris gave him a little kiss on the lips. Leo smiled. “Someone might see us someday.”

         “Let them see. Let them know: you belong to me.”

         “And you to me, remember?”

         Lips meet lips, tongues danced with each other in a fast and frenetic kiss. It seemed as Cris wanted to take Leo’s breath, and Leo wanted to hold unto Cris’s. A hand reached his thigh moving forward to the place that was already hard as stone. Blood pumping faster.

         Suddenly Cris got up and with fast hands he lowered his trousers and underwear. The sight of the cock left Leo speechless for a second.

         “Cris--- what are you---?”

         “Take it, meu anjo.”

         “I---”

         “Take it.”

         Leo raised a hand, but before it reached its target Cris laughed “No, meu coração. Take it.” Leo was in shock. He didn’t mean to--- “with this, Leo. Take it with this” a finger walking around the contour of his lips.

         Leo bowed, eyes linked with Cris’s: ones shinning with unknown thoughts; the others full of lust.

         A hand pressed against his nape keep him still as Cris’s hips swing back and forth in smooth yet quick and long movements. Leo’s tongue lays flat drifting the taste of sweat and precum. The other hand swept the surface of his cheek with warm fingers as Leo reached Cristiano buttocks with both hands, grabbing and moving around the contour of the muscles, making the swing faster. Cris moaned in a low tone; his hands moving forward just upon the ears, grabbing Leo’s hair as the flow reached its apogee.

         The strangle noise was the first sign, a gasp; three last strong strokes followed by the inertia of the semen pouring out directly to Leo’s throat. Cris’s entire body went into tension for a fraction of a second, then it all became loose as the man exhaled the air from the bottom of his lungs.

         Leo backed slowly, licking maliciously the cock as it came out of his mouth through the kiss of his lips. A strand of slime hung between the head of the penis and the mouth. Leo grinned as Cris still had his eyes wide shut.

         “I love you, Leo” the man grinned.

 

“Afternoon all! There are big games, and then there are big games. This is the latter. The first Clasico of the 2015-16 season is upon us as Real Madrid welcome Barcelona to the Bernabeu. It is the visitors that will enter this match in the Spanish capital with a three-point lead at the top of the table, despite the fact that Real Madrid have only lost once this season. These matches are always special and we are once again in position for, hopefully, another memorable game between the two giants of Spanish football.

         “You could cut the tension with a knife here. The home supporters are expecting a strong performance, but Barcelona will enter this match knowing that a win takes them six points clear at the top of the table. It is just a massive game and it is the visitors that get the action underway---

         “Piqué, as expected, is roundly booed the first time he takes control of the ball. Ronaldo, Bale and Messi chase down Bravo, which sets the tone for this game. Down the other end, Suarez is chopped down the ground by Ramos, which sees both sets of players surround the referee. That was quick!”

 

His heart was pounding as once again he saw all that familiar faces. But it wasn’t beating fast for fear or emotion. Well, alright there was emotion as every time he entered the field. His heartbeat was fast because it had not been a minute when he was already running after the ball.

         He found himself taking over the ball, intercepting and then losing it once more in a matter of few seconds. At the last moment, though, he had taken over the ball and managed to pass it over to Cris.

         Then came Neymar running fast as a bullet, ball now in his feet, how? Leo didn’t catch that, he was running down the left of the field and with a kick the ball flew towards Suarez leaving a thin wake of grass behind. However, Nava was just as fast and the game was once more in control of Madrid. Leo felt relieved and catched a faint smile in Neymar lips.

         Another break as the ball returned to Suarez and then it was passed to Neymar. The Brazilian aims and shoots. But even then Leo realizes the ball will not meet the goal as it keeps rising over and over, lastly on the top corner. Roars from anger and excitement reign over the stadium. Cris passes next to Leo, his face is grim until he meets with Leo’s eyes “We can do this” he mutters and Messi agrees. They set to move again, working as a team.

 

“Benzema, who is returning from a lay-off, has the chance to drive into the Barcelona box following some sloppy defending, but the Frenchman is caught out and the danger is cleared. Still 0-0.

         “CHANCE! Ronaldo shows Mascherano a clean pair of heels as he drives past the Argentine before fizzing a low cross towards Messi, but Bravo gets strong hands on the ball to clear the box!

         “GOAL!

         “First blood to Barcelona!”

 

The locker room was filled with a heavy atmosphere as Iker talked. Messi wasn’t paying that much attention and, for what he could see, there were few who did. James was one of them. Cris was looking down at his cleats.

         “Just because we fall doesn't mean we are defeated. We'll rise once again!”

         The endgame was 0-4. Barcelona winning thanks to Suarez final goal. It could have been 0 to 5--- thanks must be given for not such a bitter sweet ending. It could have been worse, if Brasil had taught him something. The 7 that year wasn’t just the number of Cristiano as it had been the power of Germany. Leo’s team had lost to them too, and only after the match he had been allowed to hold the golden coup. That was bittersweet. As it was now. Leo sighed.

         “It’s just a game” then he heard Cris's voice echoing his words far across the room.

Chapter Text

Javier left the room when Leo and Cris entered it. The Mexican didn’t share a glance with them, he was way too busy murmuring, visible angry, while walking the long corridor.

         “Shitty day?” said Cris shrugging his shoulders while downplaying the matter. He went inside the locker room, adjusting one more the cap, but Messi didn’t followed, not at first, he debated going after Javier or staying and getting ready for training. The later was the decision taken. Whatever it was the thing that troubled Javier, and for what Leo could appreciate it was something really cumbersome, apparently he did not want to be bothered. Leo let him be, perhaps later he may want to chat.

         Inside everyone was already dress up, even Cristiano. At which Leo could just stare with an open mouth. The man was fast, alright; but this was just a whole new level. Cris peeked his look and smiled. Others did too and started laughing, Leo himself burst in laughter.

         He changed into his training kit and went with the rest. Cris, as always, was the first on the field. However, since he and Leo now shared a bed, and other things, he wasn’t any longer the first player to be ever on the field while the rest were getting ready for the morning training. But Ronaldo had found a way to compensate the lost time by jogging, and by fault taking Leo with him, and hour after training and other more before getting dinner. The man either was trying to kill him or become him a race horse. Whatever the reasons, Leo had acknowledge that now his body seemed better. More build up, which Cris seemed to like a lot, by the way. Yet, he was still faster than Ronaldo.

         Today they tried something he, Cris and Bale had been working on for the past weeks, each of which became more frustrating since there did not seem to be any progress. So, instead of trying it as just practice, today they were going to attempt it in a friendly match.

         Cris and Leo were to run from opposite sides on the field into a fixed point which came to know as a crossroad. Ball going from one to another, which at practice without any other players proved to be an easy task now became a total fucking nightmare as they had to constantly recover the ball with the help of others, until they could reach Bale at the crossroad to handle the ball and then as Leo and Cris parted ways following their current motion, the football would be changing places between the tree men way up the goal. It did not work in any try. And the whistle marked the end of that particular demonstration.

         “You’ll just have to keep trying and trying until everything flows” said the coach, writing down something in a notebook “Alright, Hernandez, you can stop now that and join the rest of us and don’t you dare coming ever again late to my workouts! You hear me?” the man shouted.

         “Aye!” screamed in turn Javier from the other side of the field, all covered in sweat.

         “What’s up with him?” asked Leo to Cris in a low voice.

         “I don’t know, meu amour.”

         “Enough with the chat already, get to work now!”

         Iker gave them a disappointed glare from afar. You can't satisfy everybody.

 

The three started running shortly after the whistle was blown. Lionel coming down from one corner to the center of the field. He was fast. Faster than Cristiano, for which the famous CR7, whose long legs gave him a great advantage when running, should put more effort to be at the height of the flea. The Portuguese did the same as Messi but from the bottom corner to which the Argentine had started his career. There was chemistry between them. Too much chemistry to deny the strength of the attack if it managed to be execute well. Everyone could perceive the potential, the sparks igniting the fire between the two. I wonder if---nah, they’re just good. But, and in that laid the dilemma.

         But he knew there was something else there, even if he couldn’t prove it. Nobody seemed to care as long the performance of those two giants turned into one continued to grow instead of impoverish. Álvaro had dared to bring up the subject a couple of times, using as an excuse the strange thing that it was to see two supposed enemies living together day after day in the same home.

         “Have you ever been at Cristiano’s home?” Iker had said, mind totally focused on the play the flea and CR7 were trying so desperately to achieve and polish at the same time.

         “No” was Álvaro's response. He stopped paying attention to the three players in the field. Iker did not look at him, however he addressed him as if all the attention was focused on Morata.

         “Well, your answer lies there. Triple Delta, can you believe it? As if this were a fraternity. Although you can’t decipher it is very obvious the reason they get along so well. Of course, everything is a charade to keep us calm –imagine those two getting to each other throats again, as if that wasn’t going to cause a drop in performance–. I'm going to miss those two in particular. It’s not worth crying for what was lost. I guess everything will be fine, do you know who’ll stay in charge? I've heard several names, but they all seem to me---well, let's just say we'll wait and see how the team reacts. No, Bale, you have to wait! Bloody idiot” the latter said in a tone that only Álvaro could hear “Concentrate more on them than on your steps! God, that man has always been so difficult to handle. He has anger, and that is good but it’s not always necessary, do you understand?”

         “Yeah, yeah--- what do you mean by that?”

         “What?” always looking to the field, as if his true self was there and not where he was actually standing “You just said that you got it. Bale is just---”

         “Not that, for fuck sakes.”

         “Language, Morata.”

         “About the reason they get along, Lionel and Cristiano. What is it so obvious?”

         “Ah, that. Alright, I get you now. You wonder ‘why they get along so well if they live in the same house?’ Well, Cristiano's house is the closest that any of us has spent more than an hour in a palace. It's big, way big. So I don’t think they see each other that often, besides eating and coming to training each morning. Come on, lads, concentrate! Wait for them, Bale! Goddammit, that man!”

         “So that’s the reason they get so well, huh?”

         “Fine. I admit that there is no more tension between them. Or at least not that we know of, right? You should’ve seen them the first time together in a changing room. In front of the cameras in each game was one thing, there they can stand each other and no one would raise an eyebrow at their behavior, even if they grabbed hold of each other, is the kind of thing that would be expected of them. But in the same team, same place; It was like being between two lions about to attack. That was some shit, alright. Faster, Bale!”

         “Shut up, bloody cunt!” shouted the alluded from the field, everyone in the stands laughed, Iker included.

         “They’ve come a long way in their friendship, I’ll give them that. But sure a big house to keep them apart is something that could keep a man from grabbing hate towards another---” A shadow of bewilderment clouded Iker's face “Although” he said “there is the thing about the apartment. You see, Leo was supposed to live only temporarily with Cristiano. Finding an apartment in the city was very difficult, everyone suddenly raised the value of one floor to triple its true price. It was chaos, to leave it simple. We got him an apartment” Álvaro knew that ‘we got him’ was a ‘I got him’ but Iker had never been someone full of egocentrism, if he did something then it was the fruit of everyone regardless of the degree of participation “But the day Leo was supposed to go see him, well; he did not show up The shame was great. It was a nice apartment, a pity. I guess not having to pay is something better. And in such a big house, well, why not?”

         They returned to concentrate on the play. Yes, Álvaro confirmed. Between those two there was a lot of chemistry. There was something there. Yet the play failed once again, Bale gaining another scolding from Iker. Because, truth be told, while the flea and CR7 had chemistry to overflow, between Bale and them there was little.

         Álvaro could not help but smile at what he had discovered.

 

“Javier Hernandez was transferred to Barça” said Cris as they drove into the night. The road ahead was empty, except for the few cars that every now and then crossroads with them.

         Leo came out of his foggy thoughts slowly, almost like coming out of a trance.

         “I really thought he would stay---“

         “He was ceded. I know, I know, Leo. But--- well I’m not sure. I did thought too he would stay. But as far as I am concerned, perhaps he won’t stay in Barça that long.”

         “Why?”

         “There are other clubs that want him even than Barça--- do you miss it?”

         “Not really. I liked him, but not enough. We didn’t have time to---”

         “No, Leo; Barça. Do you miss that?”

         “Not that much. And don’t start blaming me for the match now! I did all that was in my hand but still they were---”

         Cris laughed “Alright, alright, take it slow little one. God, if you were that fierce on field no one would ever beat us down!” his laughter was full of affection. Leo smiled too.

         “Yeah, yeah, whatever.”

         The taste of popcorn was still lingering in his palate. The movie had been okay. Yet, they have barely talked about it. Cris had laughed and scream full of joy through all the movie.

         “Did you like it that much?”

         “What?”

         “Star Wars.”

         The smile make his face shine once again. “Oh, Leo, it was amazing” he said “I haven’t been that excited for a movie in, God, years! And that ending! Oh my God, that ending was---!”

         “A bit of a cliffhanger. Pun intended.”

         “Pun?” Cris took his eyes away from the road for a moment to glance over Leo. His face showed all the signs of confusion. “What do you mean with---? AH! That!”

         Leo smiled.

         “But it was interesting, wasn’t it? You’d expect him to talk or to acknowledge Rey to be his--- Oh, Leo, do you think Rey is Luke’s daughter? She has to be, right? I can’t wait for episode VIII!”

 

Ronaldo finished injecting the turkey with the wine. Satisfied with his work he looked at Leo with a big smile on his face. Leo nodded, feeling a bit proud, still busy cooking. Cris kept staring, almost seem like he wanted an award. It wasn’t the Ballon d’Or but Messi was sure the other man would have want something as important just to let the world know he had stuffed a turkey. What would’ve Álvaro done in my place?

         Morata had joined them recently and day after day the man made them burst with laughter with his jokes, infecting whoever crossed path with him with his good vibes. Álvaro's reputation survived expectations, even as further to surpass them. He was a good lad. Although at first the younger man seemed oblivious or disturbed by the presence of Messi in the team. Leo didn’t blame the man, there were few that kept feeling that way after all the time they had been playing in the same team. His presence sometimes still felt as a snake inside a hen house.

         But any friction between them disappeared soon. They used to tease each other continuously, as brothers long time no see. Morata pelo rata and the flea always full of energy.

         “See” Leo patted him on the shoulder “wasn’t all that hard. Now stuff it, gotta watch the béchamel.”

         “Well, it’s easy for you to say.”

         “You can’t be serious. This can’t be your first time--- what am I saying? You were this close to deprive Maria of---”

         “Hey! Hey! Easy there, flea, I paid her very weel---”

         “Of that I’m sure, I'll be damned if I do not know. But whatever way you want to see it, this is her time to be around her family. So a bonus and a few days off won’t hurt any---”

         “What?!”

         “I gave her---”

         “You did what?!”

         Leo made use of his best poker face “You won’t day as long as I am here to teach you how to cook a little.”

         “Oh screw that, I’m ordering dinner all those days.”

         Now his expression transformed to an offended grimace, Cris raised both his hands, the filling staining one of them, trying to appease Leo with a faint smile and a pearl of sweat shinning in the forehead under the line of perfect of hair “Now, easy there--- easy---”

         “I won’t cook for you. You won’t make any order. You will use the stove to make your own food, let’s see how you like it then. And your laundry too, oh and don’t hope I’ll go to the rescue, because I won’t help---”

         Cris covered the space that separated them in a couple of strides, standing in front of Leo and giving him his most tender kiss “Don’t you think this change a thing, now stuff that bird” said Messi when the kiss broke “and when you are done with that you go upstairs and take a shower, we still have to pick up Neymar.”

 

Cris could see Leo from the bend in the stairwell. The Argentinian was still busy making the sauce and other things. A waning moon made an appearance in a bronze vault beneath the zircons that were the eyes of the Portuguese. He stood there watching the smaller man for a long time, fascinated with the details of his body.

         “You better move your ass, I can see your reflection on the mirror!”

 

Neymar awaited the arrival of Leo sitting in a row of chairs too uncomfortable to allow him to feel comfortable after such a long flight. The sun was still painting the sky in pink tones, enhancing the shape of the clouds that dropped their heavy shadows on the earth.

         'We're coming' the message reads. He had received it forty minutes ago, shortly after getting off the plane and going to get his two suitcases. The large one contained his clothes and the smaller one contained two gifts, one for Leo and the other for Ronaldo. To know if this last one would find of pleasure what Neymar had chosen for him was a minor concern, the Brazilian had done his part, If the latter would find what Neymar had chosen for him to be a minor concern, the Brazilian had done his part, all that remained was to wait for Ronaldo to do the same.

         He had the cell phone in one hand and was scrolling the screen with his thumb, on the other in the other he held an almost empty can of energizing drink. Next time I’ll take the train. His phone vibrated with the arrival of a new message.

         ‘Where art hou, brother?’ from Leo at 5:57.

         Neymar smiled and sipped the drink in one shot and called the man.

         “Hey, Leo, where you at?”

 

Ronaldo was walking, phone stuck to the ear, making perhaps an important call to one of his friends. How Leo endured that man was a mystery, there must be something in between for these two to get along so well.

         Leo, meanwhile, wrapped in a strong hug to Neymar.

         “Good to see you, man.”

         “Shut up about it” says Neymar with a conspicuous tone and a half smile buried in Leo's hair, he has let it grow again, although not as long as when he started playing “I still kicked your ass” the hug breaks and Ney gives Leo his best smile, it's good to see him again outside the field.

         Leo nods, an expression at once solemn, casual, and serious and mocking “I” he begins while raising a hand to his chin where the shadow of a beard grows. How much has changed “don’t you mean, we?”

         “Always a blaugrana despite all those fancy clothes covering you. Glad to know you haven’t forget. What’s the deal with he, ain’t he saying hello?”

         “He'll be more relaxed when James arrives.”

         “James?” Leo nodded “James as in James Rodriguez?”

         “Well now you are just being silly. Of course that James, who else could it be? James fucking Blunt?”

         They laughed, the people passing by looked at them in amazement, some reconceiving and pointing them with an accusing finger. Phones prompting out in hopes of a picture, Ronaldo himself was already surrounded by people.

         “I’ll be just like him tonight, white all around me.”

         “I thought I was still a Blaugrana.”

         “Leo, it’s not what---”

         A youngling and his father approached them for a picture and some words of encouragement. Although Neymar was treated with a little reserve. It was fine, not everywhere he went people had to love him and jump for a picture. Still the eerie of seeing Leo doing that with children and men all wearing los Blancos jerseys was an odd feeling. It was not so strange to see the 10 stamped on the back of the jerseys, with the name of his friend on top. That stage had already overcome it, but it did not reduce the impact to the other.

         “I know! I’m just kidding!” Leo said at last when they were alone again, as alone as someone can be in an airport where people could recognize you every now and then, of course “Man, you haven’t been this nervous never.

         “Come, let me help you with that” a hand raising to take a suitcase.

  

“Jesus Christ” said Neymar once they were inside the house “No wonder you two get along that well if you live in this---palace” He looked around until his eyes were fixed on the room filled with the jerseys of both men “Alright, alright! So what’s the deal with you two?” he turned on his heels to face them, Ronaldo had a proud and confident look in his face with a shadow of defiance in the bright dark eyes “are you two dating of something?”

         “No!” said Leo with half a smile changing the line of his lips at the same time Ronaldo answered “Yes”. They all remained silent, Leo and Neymar in shock while Ronaldo was truly in joy, proud lifting his chest and shoulders, if that was actually possibly. “Actualy” the Portuguese continued “we’re engaged, cuphead” and with that sentence the tall man left the room with the bearing of a king leaving behind his subjects: an Argentine with a face redder than the frames of the Spanish flag and a Brazilian worth the amazement of four confused men.

         “Is it---is it true, Leo?”

         Leo said nothing at first as if the man was calculating the weight of his words, which gave Neymar all answer he needed even before Leo said “Yes” in a voice too low yet full of confidence and something else Neymar failed to identify.

         “And why the fuck didn’t you tell me something as huge as this? What the actual fuck, Leo?” bursted Neymar doing nothing but feeling a bit ashamed and a whole lot betrayed.

         “Ah, c’mon, Ney; it’s not really that big---”

         “Really?” a smile and a tone that denoted both sarcasm and the unbearable truth. Of course it wasn’t really unbearable, but what’s done is done and Ney could do nothing about that now. The smile didn’t fade, though, it wasn’t menacing; or so he hoped.

         “Well it’s not---”

         “Yes it is. Could it---I mean---is that maybe you do not trust me?”

         “Ah, c’mon that’s just a low punch. You know it isn’t that.”

         “Then?” Neymar put his arms in jars with his fists closed above his hips. A mother waiting for her son to answer for the broken glasses.

         “I was scared of the reaction you might have about it; I am” he covered him from head to toe with a wave of his hand, tilting his head slightly while twisting his lips in a kind of smile that said if you know what I mean “I fear you may have stopped talking.”

         Now Neymar felt fully ashamed, blush covering his faces as it did with Leo’s “I’ll never do that” the Brazilian said he said in a tone that inspired reconciliation and forgiveness both for his way of reacting and for Leo’s secret, if that was something that needed forgiveness, as the man didn’t have to share all of his life with Neymar, this above all was something worth keeping secret “I would never do that to my brother.”

         “You mad at me” said Leo, eyes fixed on his feet, running his hand through his hair, a strange tone imprinted in every word. It was like hearing some animal being surrounded; a lion, Neymar smiled, ready to attack.

         “No, I ain’t. But I am in shock, to say less---oh man---this is---odd---“

         “Yeah, tell me ‘bout it.”

         “It’s heavy, you know? Odd and heavy---how did it---? I mean---you two were enemies---how did it happen?”

         Leo stare at him, his good humor seemed to have returned suddenly and all trace of hostility –had there been that reaction in the first place?– faded to oblivion.

         “Well, you could say it all really begun thanks to a fucking apartment. Or a flat, as they like to call it here.”

         Leo told him the whole story, obviously omitting certain details, while driving him to the room where he would stay for the following days. The room had indigo walls and a bed big enough for three people. There were two more doors inside the room, besides the one used to walk in –of course–; one led to an empty closet except for the furniture for the underwear, another for the sheets and a lot of hooks for the clothes arranged in a long had that went through the small room in the middle. At the end there was no wall but a large mirror, illuminated by three lights where he and Leo saw themselves while touring the inner flat, as Neymar thought of his temporary room. The other door led to a private bathroom that had a window to the fields beyond the city. As did the window inside the room itself, which was the size half of the wall. Next the window there was a dark wood desk, with two small lamps on top. Inside the drawers were pencils, papers, booklets and more. A television hung on the wall underneath a furniture full of movies and books, along with several games and an old playstation 2.

         “If you don’t like it, you can join us---though Cris likes to play almost fifa all the time. I mean, one would think that as that is what we do for a living, you shouldn’t get tire of it, but you do. It’s not the same feeling, you know? And I’ve been really very stung playing rpg's.”

         “Really? You?” Leo gave him a look made of stone, although his left foot was hitting the floor “Alright, relax I’m just kidding. What you playing?” Neymar added when Leo’s stony face didn’t dissolve one bit in laugh or smiles, or something.

         “Well--- um---”

         The knocks at the door prevented him from finish. The door opened as Ronaldo, Leo calls him Cris thinks Neymar with a faint smile tingling his lips, announces the arrival of James. The man pronounces the sentence with a doughy accent, almost as if each word came out of his mouth by force dragged out by a turtle in a swamp far from becoming a quagmire, but not exactly a place of dilutable waters, more like oil.

         “You still need to take a shower, Leo” says Neymar, to which Ronaldo agrees with a slight nod. To work his own relation with the Portuguese Neymar thinks it would be necessary being slyer than that.

 

On the bed was a crimson suit –sack, waistcoat, pants, and a bun, not counting the box that contained the round cufflinks; an outer ring filled with small crystals surrounding an inner ring, which in turn contained a gem as black as lustrous and over the precious stone a golden dome made with four herbages crisscrossed to form the initials a.a.d.m.– with both a black shirt and a white one. “I wasn’t sure which one would you pick, meu amore.”

         “Why you did that?”

         Ronaldo was surprised “I---I thought it would be nice, so you don’t have to waste more time than necessary. I bought them for you, and surely didn’t hoped you would be mad at---”

         “Not that. Neymar. Why did you tell him?”

         “Well” Ronaldo sat on the bed next to the suit, his movements were graceful, a swan floating in silk, taking Leo’s hands into his “I didn’t like the idea of spending God-knows how many nights sleeping away from you. I know we talked about this, but if he is really that worth of a friend for you, then he needs to know, Leo. I may not like him, not a big fan at least, but he deserves the truth. Shenanigans will only rip you afar from him as the truth would. Forgive me if I was---”

         “You didn’t sound quite friendly there.”

         “I’ve already told you I don’t quite like the lad” That had entangled him, he was just trying to do the right thing and --- well, Leo's point was true. What he did had not been good at all, especially when he had already been talked about. That had been childish on his part. “I’ll apologize to him. And I’ll try to get along. It’s a promise.”

         He took Leo's head in his hands and pulled him close until their foreheads were together. Light shone on them as they embraced without a hug. A feeling of belonging, safety and something else, rose from within to surround them. It was not the first time he felt this way with Leo, and was sure that it would not be the last either, that sense of foreboding couldn’t be avoided and only increased with each day, like an iron being attracted towards his final destiny was dragged in good will towards that horizon. He felt safe with Leo. Exposed and vulnerable too, but it was the feeling of well-being that stood out from the rest, crushing them with an untamable iron fist. That gave the promise all weight needed.

         “I mean it, Leo; I’ll do anything for you. You make my days better, even the gray ones you pierce them with all your brightness, casting all shadows away. I love you.”

         “And I love you too, sombra du meu corazo.

         Cristiano laughed out all loud, tears falling from both his eyes and running along the hills that were his cheekbones all the way down to the canyons along the corners of his lips. Heart going at a pleasant rhythm that matched the one’s pumping through palms of his hands in Leo’s temples. “That’s pretty good, meu amore. But now you have to get ready, I’ll be done waiting for you along with James and Neymar. I’ll be waiting there for you to come.

         “Now get ready” Cristiano gave him a light kiss on the lips followed by a spanking.

 

James, sitting next to Neymar playing jokes with a glass of wine in his hand, wore a blue king color suit with a red bowtie. Neymar was wearing a classic black tuxedo, but instead of the traditional bowtie he simply had a black thin tie with a complex bow that resembled a rose. Cristiano also wore a faded blue suit with a fainter tone, giving more seriousness to his bearing, with a double row of buttons; a white tie with blue lines and two diamond earrings to finish. Everyone, including Leo, wore black shoes.

         They all stopped to watch him, Leo came down the stairs feeling at first like a princess. Then like a fool for that thought. The blush colored his cheeks a little. He shook the thoughts of the mind while extending a hand to James, helping the man to stand in turn, to shake hands and then pulling closer to give him a hug.

         “I'm glad you can come with us” he said to James, the young man flushed as he smiled and said he would not have missed it for nothing.

         Cris was already serving him a glass of wine when he went to sit next to him, the two men shared an intense look. Leo looked away from James, then returned her to Cris with a slightly arched eyebrow. Cris nodded.

         At no time of the evening there was friction between James and Neymar, the two of them talked like best friends of all time. Exchanging jokes, then going into more serious issues. Cristiano was in turn more relaxed towards Ney, which Leo thanked with a smile hidden behind the glass while taking a sip, addressing the man as ‘Ney’ the way Leo did, asking him a lot of questions and answering the ones Neymar did to him. James seemed too happy to really be there. Leo felt satisfied, he had not make a mistake.

         They talked about football, as it wasn’t something that could be missing in their lives. Changing then to more trivial subjects in which they compared musical tastes, favorite series –except for Leo, the whole Madrid team was enraptured with Narcos–; Neymar's was Game of Thrones and Leo manifested his choice for something with more class and character development when mentioning Outlander. He had been reading the books of Diana Gabaldon with great pleasure since the exchange of Barça to Madrid took place. The first book accompanied him on one of the flights, when things between Cris and him were still a brittle terrain.

         Dinner was served between the four of them. Cris slicing the turkey, Neymar passing the plate for Leo to bathe them with the béchamel sauce and James putting the rest of the food. They avoided the formality of going to dinner in the living room, opting to keep the evening as intimate as possible by doing it so at the small table –small by Christian standards, it is understood– talking but little. Concentrated on their food and communicating only what wass essential.

         “The filling is good.”

         “Oh, that was Mr. Ronaldo doing, you must have seen his proud face” said Messi doing his best charade of a proud mother.

         “And the sauce! Uff, Cristiano, it was excellent.”

         “Thank you.”

         “Oh sure, take credit for my work.”

         “You reach for my bottle of wine.”

         “And more of that.”

         Once they were satisfied and no head nodded when Leo asked who wanted to repeat, the dishes went straight to the sink. I would think of a way to make Cris wash them with him. You had to give Maria more time to rest and a little soap would not hurt Cris's hands.

         They returned to the room where they started to drink the beer brought by James. The young man, blushing –for a change– added “I was just passing through.”

 

The music thundered as the four men jumped and sang to the camera of Ronaldo's cell phone. The song was Cómo te atreves by Morat. And the chorus had just kicked.

 

Cómo te atreves a volver

A darle vida a lo que estaba muerto

La soledad me había tratado bien

Y no eres quien para exigir derechos

 

         The songs and games were happening one after another, after another. The karaoke, which was not such, continued for a long time along with the publication of videos on social networks. At one point Neymar announced that several of the team had given so many likes and comments. Among the names Leo saw Bale, Xavi, Piqué, Stegen, Morata, Alves, Suárez and Iker Who would believe this man would be awake at this time?

 

James had fainted shortly before four o'clock. Ney had not missed the opportunity to take pictures with the unconscious man, although the Brazilian wobbled as he walked and spoke with the typical doughy tone of drunks. Cris had taken pictures of both men, he and Leo had drink but not in the same rough quantities that their friends had. It was true that Leo felt his head light and his steps were like walking on a quilt, but he didn’t feel too bad to help Cris loading James's feet, Cristiano took the man behind the armpits as they ascended one step at a time. Neymar, still laughing and taking an occasional photo of the three men climbing the stairs, carried James' coat, bowtie and shoes.

         They paused on the second floor while Cris went to his bedroom. He came back with plaid flannel pajamas and a white shirt. Then they continued on their way across the long corridor.

         The room where they left James was close to Neymar's. They laid him on the bed. Leo asked Cris to take Neymar outside and the two of them went away laughing, steps slowly fading. Once alone, he stripped James of his suit to change him to his pajamas and shirt. Then he laid him down, covering him with two thick blankets. He placed the clothes, carefully folded, on a desk that could be the twin of the one in Neymar's room. Satisfied with his work, Leo turned off the light in the room and closed the door behind him with all the delicacy he was capable of. He walked down the empty hall to the staircase, from below the voices of Cris and Ney. They had a serious tone.

         “Anything, right?” Was Neymar. All traces of inebriation had disappeared from his voice.

         “Yes, anything.”

         “I will not say what you already know; just do it and between us everything will be fine.”

         “It's important for Leo.”

         “I know. You are not as egocentric as I thought. No doubt a peacock, but not for that someone despicable.”

         Leo went down the stairs trying to be noticed. “What are you talking about, couple of gossips?”

         They carried on for another hour or so, until almost the same procedure had to be repeated with Ney. The man didn’t faint, but he can barely stood on his own. Brambling out at the two of them to let him be, as he could make his way home tonight.

         “Sure you can, pal” said Cris with a big silly smile on his face “but you still need---”

         “Quiet you two. You go to bed, I’ll catch you up later.”

         Cris raised both hands in a gesture Leo couldn’t figure out. Then walked his way to their room. Leo helped Ney to his bedroom and waited outside the unlocked bathroom until his friend changed the suit to something more comfortable for sleeping.

         Despite continuing to argue his condition and how well he could endure another hour, he barely lay on the bed and already was deeply asleep. Leo flipped him and left the room the same way he did with James.

         Alone in the corridor, he leaned against the wall and waited for the dizziness to recede a little. He felt the stupor take over. He shook his head, bad idea, and went to his room.

         “Hey there sex---”

         “When did we became parents?” Leo interrupted him “ ‘Cause as far as I am concerned I haven’t sign anything yet.”

         “Well---umm--- you know? The children are all sleep now--- are they, right?”

         “Yes. Take it off.”

 

Pale light of the morning lit the room. It hadn’t been the sun what wake him up. The cellphone was still ringing when he slide the screen.

         “Merry Christmas, mi hijo” His father’s voice ripped him from the sleep completely. Silence on the line. “Leo, are you there?” How long has it been since the last time he spoke to that man? He still is my father reminded himself. “Lionel?”

         “Yes. I am here.”

         Silence again. His father sighed over six thousand miles away. “Are you still upset about your contract, mi hijo?” no answer “Please, don’t be so hard on your dad. You know I only do what’s best for you.” Is it so? “Andrés, answer me now.”

         “I’m sorry. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to do so.”

         “What do you mean by that?”

         “Well” a bitter grin tore his face “since you’ve been deciding for me all my life, I just didn’t know if thinking and talking was---”

         “Cut that out!”

         Silence, once again.

         “You can’t---”

         “Stay away from my business, dad.” Dad, not papi such a bittersweet move to grace the day. “Just stay away---”

         “And let you drown in your bullshit? You ain’t ready yet for making decisions on your own, mi hijo.”

         “Just stay away. Happy holydays to you too. And I mean it, dad. Stay away.” He hung up. Now feeling a bit shitty.

         “Is everything alright?” Looking back he found Cristiano’s eyes on him. The man was still in that state that precedes wakefulness but is not quite the dream. How long had he listen? Well enough.

         “It will” Leo said, laying a kiss on the man’s forehead. Leo embraced Cris, feeling the heartbeat of the Portuguese. “Sorry if I wake you.”

         “It’s fine. Come to sleep with me.”

         And he did, for a while at least.

Chapter Text

Cristiano and Lionel were warming up when Álvaro joined them. The rest of the team would take a long time to meet with them that day. The morning, pale and of a blue so tenuous that it could be confused with the gray one, received it with its cold, the kind of coldness that only came from places protected from the sun. Across the field ran along the she dark shapes of clouds and beneath the shadows, the cold felt stronger.

         “You know your problem is that hardboiled head of Bale, right?”

         Lionel and Cristiano exchanged a look. A dim light shone in their eyes, almost as if two wires between them had made contact, transmitting current. No word, though. Just the look, so ephemeral yet everlasting. Álvaro had to be careful with those two

         The man smiled

         “So?” Lionel.

         “So let me try with you. Here we need chemistry, not the one you have, but something better than what you got with Bale.”

         “And if you fail?”

         “I'll run naked nineteen times around the stadium.” Lionel and Cristiano stood in shock “So we got a deal. By the way, you should get a cut, flea, you remind me of 2004.”

         T’is better work. Those two are my chance out of the bench.

 

The season was going bad, and that was being positive about it. The games that they did not lose were draws, increasing the bad mood in some and denting the spirits in general. Bale, among the favorite candidate for the constant attacks of anger, showed a more brutal attitude towards his teammates, and not to mention the opponents, he had already been suspended from a game for hitting a player, the poor man had taken a broken nose at home.

         James's nervousness had risen sharply, nothing to do with the young man with whom they shared the Christmas dinner. Which was odd, as the man had never really been who was affected by nerves. Shy, aye that had been, but nervous? That did not fit him anywhere, and still there run a man coming undone every match.

         Ramos stopped appearing in the interviews when his stuttering was uncontrollable, and his sweat dyed all his shirts gray. At first, embarrassed by all the questions and the constant failure of the team, he was more eager to train and in the games he was among those who performed better, although that did not help to win a single game. Of course that made him win more attention from the press. With an increasing performance and a diva attitude, because apparently reject the attention of the cameras was more egocentric than bathe in the light of the flashes, Sergio Ramos acquired the nickname Icarus unfortunately for the footballer. And that was when Sergio's performance plummeted.

         All of them have had d a bad season, including Morata, who barely appeared in one or two games to score a goal or go home again with the feeling of wasting his talent. But they all felt that way, did not they? When did it all start to go wrong for them?

         Training became harder each time. Iker had not returned with them after the short break between Christmas and New Year. Leo's vomiting made an appearance once more in each game, sometimes keeping him out of the game for the rest of the competition. They were all reaching their breaking points.

         “Enough, Leo! Take it easy!”

         Cris had shouted in a game, in front of thousands of spectators who fired him with big clubs. And the play, among other things, still did not work. But Lionel did not take it any  lightness. Which is why Morata's words were a bucket of icy water.

         It wouldn’t hurt to try.

 

“It could work” said Cristiano stopping his warm-up for a moment while he thought. Leo was thinking, or so he thought, the same as his partner; nothing would be lost if they tried a couple of times with Morata, they could always go back to Bale and continue to bleed their feet and soul until it worked. The problem, which was not such but a matter of insecurity, was that Álvaro was right and that someone external had detected that said a lot about his performance as a friend, or at most a fellow, of the rest of the players. He had blinded himself by letting himself be guided by a simple action, if he was okay with Cris then he had to be good with everyone without having to take the interactions further. How could he be so childish and careless? Being in a relationship with Cristiano did not ensure at all to be well with Ramos or with Bale, or James if he went to those extremes. It is true that his behavior was not hostile to them, but, now that he started to analyze the situation and put things in perspective, he had been a pretty shitty fellow teammate, wasn’t he?

         Yet, still knowing that, he felt with reservations about starting from scratch. “And throw away everything we had now?”

         A feeling of melancholy froze his heart. This was now home. This was now his family. I can’t afford to alienate myself, not now not then nor ever again; God! Gimme strength to pull this and prove I am more than what my father thinks. Let me live enough to fill the cups they hold with achievements that exceed their own expectations about me.

         “It wouldn’t be throwing anything away if you put things in perspective.” Said Morata, a confident pitch in his voice beneath a carefree attitude all along.

         “It’s easier said than done, lad.” A grin permeating the everlasting bronze face of Cris.

         “Don’t you lad me, sir. You know I’m right. The ones doing it right are the two of you. Not saying Bale is bad. But he is, for this at least. Perhaps I could do better.”

         “Don’t get cocky, lad.”

         “Enough with the lad, sunshine!”

         “It could work” agreed Leo “but you will tell Bale.”

         “Yeah, of course---wait, whut?”

         “You’ve heard the man, lad.

         “You two together are almost unbearable.”

 

Had the morning come sooner winds might have been more pleasurable. Cristiano had had no good sleep for a month since Christmas Eve with dreams constantly stalked by nightmares and some other unspeakably fears that permeated his days with grim quiddity. The kind of feeling that didn’t fade even when light casted away all of nights dreads. Yet, in what light was doom to fail each time, cold breeze seemed to succeed at least for a while. Clearing his mind and forcing him to exploit the most of his body jogging along the ever-still black-watered road ahead him. Fears faded.

         Leo had not had any good dreams either, though the Argentinian did not talked about it, Cristiano always felt his uneasiness through the night while he stared at the dark silhouette between the satin sheets. What had the smaller man into such a dark mood was anyone guesses and Cris had had time to wonder and fear to ask. Afraid of knowing it may end.

         A tear slipped down his cheek and a hand removed it with disregard, a shaking head denying any bad in whatever fears a mind had to sow and grow. Now was not the time for fear, perhaps it was never the time to be afraid. Why to be it so? And, most important, why now? All those months ago, soon it will be years instead of months, he did fear. And not only that, but speak about it was not a thing he wished to do. Always being consumed into his own private thoughts. How stupid.

         He urged himself to go faster, muscles burning beneath an already burned skin. Lungs breathing living fire. And it was not enough yet.

         In his memories always shone with more force the one which hold the first kiss and what came after it. “Why don’t you try and kiss me again?” A voice full of hatred and disappointment. Words spit by someone who had endured a lot and received so little. A voice harsh as iron and truly unforgiving.

         The night became grimier and between the spaces of each tree he thought he saw children with skins black as coal staring at him with pointing fingers and smiles with teeth’s as perfects as his. But those were just shadows and images a tired mind printed unto the world. They had no real effect on it. Just the worries he carried over day after day.

         He had been an idiot before in times he should have been a friend. All because of his stupid pride over a stupid game. Of course it was not just a stupid game and he was not a bad player. For fuck sakes he was among the very best. At the top were the sun make him shine and the people of the world –whether they liked or despise him– would have to bend the knee and raise a head to praise one of the best. And among the very best was also Leo. Cristiano gasped at the ease on which his pride dominated him. I am not a god, and for sure I won’t be the best at this. If someone had it would be Leo and for reasons beyond his skills.

         A wind rose from somewhere to move the foliage of the trees and made the herbs swirl at the empty road sides. Cristiano hoodie whipped his body while the shorts tried to get tangled up between their thighs. The hair was also wielded by the wind despite the large amount of gel. The man kept jogging.

         Cristiano falls to his knees, blood staining the black canvas he so many times had had drove over, and cries without a soul to hear, to bring him closer to the warmth of human touch. Just the night slowly dying, refusing to depart. Not a football star, nor the great and unique CR7 just a man pouring his heart out with no light –not of the stars, less of the moon and worse of the sun– to light his way back home; to shine on him and put his fears to rest.

 

Álvaro woke cuddled with Alice, face buried between the long golden strand of his girlfriend. It was cold in Madrid. Days like this remind him of the time he left Madrid for the first time, headed toward Italia. When the future was bright and the past a still photograph.

         The dream was already disappearing in a haze of golden tones, falling into oblivion in gentle movements. The clear walls of the room made it appear that there was more light there than what actually filtered through the brown curtains, enhancing the splendor of the golden paint. The room had no windows, it was the only room in the house that had not as even the basement had a couple of them spread out along in the top of the walls. Instead of them there were two large sliding glass doors that opened onto a balcony on which Álvaro and Alice used to spend their afternoons in the summer, when they did not go out together and he was not playing anywhere else in the world.

         From the dream he still had the memory of the sound of the sea, deafening, and the sensation of the breeze hitting his face. The desire to scratch where the salt clung with granite nails to the skin. But when he tried to take his hands to his face, he discovered that there were no hands, no faces. He discovered it, but he was aware that he already knew it and had only forgotten it. He was there, but he really was not. His ethereal body ached as he followed closely a boat that rocked with shrill swings to the clemency of the sea. It was raining, or maybe it was the waves crashing into one another. There was no sign of the sun, or of the moon or the stars. You could not even see land on the horizon, there was no such thing. The violent choppy waters stretched as far as the eye could see, and then they bent over themselves to rise to the heavens and lose sight of each other in the clouds. As if the world were confined to a cylinder –and maybe that world was. He was approaching that boat with a fast speed, and still the boat remained out of reach. But he was aware, he could not see it nor could explain how he knew it, that in that small boat there were two people accompanied by three others. And one of those three companions lagged behind, approaching Álvaro, while brandishing a silver wake in his hands. The only star in that place. It was moving furiously towards him. Closer and closer. The silhouette was blacker than the night, smooth and vile. There were no eyes, no other features. It could be a kind of dummy if it were not for the twisted phalanges that clung to the wake with so much pressure that the skin, if it was skin, would crack. Giving way to gnarled blood even darker than the entity. It approached Álvaro and brandished that wake to his face. It was when he woke up. It was the last part of the dream, and many of the memories were no longer so precise. Maybe that's why he remembered that man as a puppet. Who knows? Although the puppet was not totally dark, he remembered. The top of his head was degraded from black to golden.

         Last day training had been just as hard as the before and the one before that and so on and on. Cristiano and Lionel were beast, no wonder of their bodies. They had insisted him to join them after training for more training, and had threatened to invite him to run in the mornings and in the afternoon. But it was all just bullshit, was it?

         Tomorrow they were to flight for the first game away of the year. They have the day off to do whatever they wished. And Álvaro could not think of something better than spend it lying hugging Alice.

         And of course that was when his phone began to ring with a tune from Taburete. On the screen appeared the name RONALDO. “Ain’t you gonna answer?” Alice voice whispered muted from within the pillows. “Of course” he whispered before kissing her head. “Aye?

         “Leo and I will be training today. Care to join us, lad?” Not even hello or good morning, and what’s with his ‘lad’ thing?

         “Where?” He managed to say with his best tone.

         “Our house” another voice, which words faded into air, was heard through the phone. Lionel voice. “Let me ask” said Cristiano “Leo wants to train harder than before---all day?! Jesus---yeah, let me---Leo, let me--- alright, take it.”

         A strange noise through the line before Lionel voice filled his ear. “Hey, Morata, how you been?” Well, he truly is a gentleman.

         “Asleep” laugh “you?”

         “Good, thanks for asking. Look, you may already had heard. I want us to train today, if it is not trouble. Here are many rooms, so it would not be a worry if you run late to go home, you can stay here and in the morning the three of us can go together.”

         “Well---” Álvaro took a moment to see Alice, asleep again, before he could make up his mind “Yeah, why not? We have to build up chemistry.”

         Lionel sighed with relief. “Thanks! I’ll make Cris send you the location. See you later.”

         “Glad you’ll join us, lad” Cristiano said with a laughter. Then he hang.

         Álvaro remained with the phone in his hand for a while before leaving it on the stool next to the bed. He went back to bed for a while, hugging Alice again.

         “Something wrong---?” she said.

         “No, darling. I won’t be home today, gotta spend it visiting a marriage.”

 

The trainings stopped to rest and eat, in the breaks, however, they began to talk and play FIFA. Morata was the best at videogames, and how would not he? The man had the spirit of a child.

         Between Leo and Morata the relationship was more relaxed and fluid than with Cris. But they were working on it and the fruits of that work permeated little by little the way they played and trained. They were growing as a team and as friends.

         The day went fast following that rhythm of activities. When the night came, Morata stayed in the same room that Neymar had used not long ago.

         Everyone went to their rooms early, tired and satisfied with the performance of the day. Especially Leo.

 

The shirt fell to the floor, joining the rest of the clothes. Cris watched, devouring him little by little with those black pits he had for eyes, passing large and surprisingly soft hands through Leo's torso. The pads of his fingers rubbing against the skin of his abdomen, rising and falling down those hills until they reached the plains of his chest, pressing his forefinger and thumb to the nipples; Leo unbuttoning the buttons of his black shirt with his own.

         Teeth found the tender flesh of his neck, the white melted with the cream giving birth to the red. The fingers clutched the fabric of the shirt, pulling in opposite directions to leave the marked body of the Portuguese in the air. A bronze nugget worked hard by years.

         Leo's beard scraped across Cris's face as their lips joined together, pushing and gripping each other's teeth, lacerating the flesh in constant attempts to take over.

         Cris got rid of the shirt, throwing it away from them. He took Leo by the waist, climbing the Argentine to his thighs as he turned to get on top of him with a continuous kiss. The aftertaste of blood impregnated his mouth, sweet and ferrous at the same time.

         They joined their hands. One's fingers gliding gently across the palm of the other, feeling each line as it moved into the space between each phalanx, intertwining with each other. Clinging. His abdomens massaging each other in the swing.

         Leo's legs crossed over Cris's back, increasing and fluidizing the movement of the hips. His crotches banging between the friction of the underwear. Cristiano buried his face in Lionel's neck, biting and kissing; kissing and biting. On his back they nailed the fingers of his beloved, opening his way to the buttocks without loosening the pressure; forging furrows in the bronze landscape.

         Faster hands took care of removing Leo's underwear. The light bathed the man in silver, revealing half profile with eyes fixed on Cristiano. Part of his body was revealed, the other half were mere outlines a little darker than the rest. Only his other eye was visible among those shadows. The moonlight completely revealed the erect penis, head glistening from the lubricant, dripping on the belly of the man casting its shadow at the same time. Cris went down until his lips wrapped around the phallus, sliding down the body, distinguishing each contour; rubbing the head with his teeth. Leo moaned, arching his body in an attempt to escape –although he did not want to– but it was that same impulse that continued a large part of the work. One hand low to find comfort into the other in the darkness, Cristiano grabbed it as he went deeper into his own throat, rubbing his face closer to Leo's pubic as he moaned his name with a crescendo bell alluding to the entrance of the Valkyries.

         He released Leo. The pain in his crotch deserved attention. He pulled back one of the shorts already bathed in precum, feeling the touch of an alien hand rubbing in gentle circles ascending his limb. The heat dropped to melt with his belly. The legs shaking. Everything trembled. For that he was grateful when Leo pulled him towards the bed, because he did not know how much longer he could stand on his feet.

         The shriveled lips were again face to face, exhaling the soul of one inside the other in synchrony with the movement of both hips. He found his way into Lionel without difficulty, the man opened to him, filling him with his warmth, moaning as he received him, arching the body until his head hung in the air, his breasts fusing the sensation of two beings in one. An arm went under Leo's back, the hand finding its place between the ribs; the other on the mattress, supporting the weight of both. Leo wrapped Cris around his hip and neck, refusing to move away. Stealing his breath in an uninterrupted kiss. Shaking hips gently, a question answered by Cristiano's attacks every time Leo pounded his buttocks against Cris’s thighs again.

         They were shining in sweat. Moaning the name of the other between the lips, air to feed the fire allowing eternal life to the embers.

         Leo melted between them, screaming as he did; clinging more to Cris as he rammed harder, responding to Lionel's voice and the way the man clung to his skin. He melted inside him, refusing to stop now. Moving the hips, burning inside of Leo, burning them both. And Lionel refused to let go. Shouting their names, united in one, they continued until the sensation exploded in both at the same time, filling the night with color, breaking the world as his breaths were.

         They fell. Leo unto the bed and Cris over him. Chests burning, pleading for fresh air among the everlasting embers.

         Leo lifted his hold at last. Sweat cooling off as their bodies did so.

         “Breathe” he whispered into the smaller man ear “just breathe.” Lips meeting the shape of it, tickling. Cristiano, still on top, used his weight to kept Leo like that, stirring under his body, struggling to escape.

         “I’ll breathe you in if you don’t stop.”

         “Sometimes you are a killjoy.”

         And with that Cristiano rolled to a side and laid there with a hand over Leo’s. They did not talk. Leo immersed on whatever the hell he was thinking didn’t seem to notice when Cris got up and left the room. Leo’s voice followed in his path to the kitchen below. “Sing me a song of a lad that is gone, say, could that lad be I?” Cristiano stopped. Looking towards the dark threshold of his bedroom. The light of the moon seemed to avoid shining in that part, and only the sound of the men singing there could be any proof that the room existed at all. Leo had fought with his father, hadn’t make a goal, his condition was getting worse each game, throwing his guts to the field, leaving the field with a face torn by tears and frustration. Yet, against all telling of a broken man, he issued fire at each training, with each kiss, each word, in each interview his mood indicated that he would never give up. It wasn’t hard for Cris to picture Leo inside that black pitch that was his room as some sort of fisherman with his rod on one side and the hook cast into the black waters, fishing not fish but sharks and whales. Going against all dictated forecast; a lonely torch in the middle of the night, burning with the force of a thousand suns. “Merry of soul he sailed on a day over the sea to Skye.”

 

Something took him out of his dream, again that dream of the sea and the growing shadow. For a moment, among that total blackness, he was not sure where he was. He reached out a hand, looking for Alice's body next to his. But he did not find human warmth, only the sheets. Then it all hit him as his body began to ache. The room was the one Lionel and Cristiano had given to him that day; his body was sore from the abuse of the day; and he was hungry. He got up and walked to the kitchen bellow, the dream now totally forgotten.

         The night was pitch black and he was about to lit the lights when he heard the noises coming down from the corridor. Wailings. He felt fear, those fears as a child returned to him. Would he be a thief? Stop it, the alarm would have sounded. Don’t be silly. Then what?

         Álvaro moved in silence, bare feet going slow over the floor. Heart pounding harder as he got closer and closer. The frame of the door, white over a dark mouth, appeared gradually.

         He was standing just outside the bedroom, door open. The noises did not stop. Now he could hear the unmistakable sound of the mattress as it was being jump on it. Álvaro’s heart stopped. He peeked carefully inside. At first he saw nothing. More darkness. Then, as his eyes adjusted to the little light that entered the room through the window, he recognized the silhouettes of Messi and Cristiano as they shared a carnal embrace.

         He backed down where he had come. A smile burning his face. He reached the wall next to the stairs and leaned on it. Sliding little by little until he sat on the floor, arms resting over his knees.

         Plunged into his thoughts, he did not feel the passage of time. Suddenly it was all silent. Then there were a few quiet murmurs without a breath. Then came the steps and the figure Cristiano appeared under the threshold. The man did not seem to notice Álvaro. Ronaldo moved forward to the stairs and Álvaro felt terror as the other man came closer and closer. Lionel was singing.

         Ronaldo pass him by, not even noticing him. And Álvaro felt relief.

Chapter Text

Clouds were slowly drifting behind the plane, white snowed mountains in constant change for the voice of wind. Far below, mountains came as often as cities went. The sun, radiant as always there in the sky, seemed to follow them. Álvaro smiled. Looking at the sun was dumb, so for a moment he felt clever enough having brought his sunglasses. It still hurt, though, yet not as much as a fool might having guts to stare directly without nothing to protect himself. Even at that height, through a thick glass, I could feel its heat when looking out the window. It reminded him of Alice, who must have been somewhere in Madrid at that time modeling or arranging the papers for her new company, quite a woman he had found. Watching the sun brought back memories of times gone by, when he was a child and his father played by his side or told him stories lying on the grass in their yard. Back then, when the whole soccer star was just a distant dream, little do they knew back then, which was definitely good, his father had told him once in a road trip along the countryside –where were they heading back then? That the time did had had faded efficiently– that both moon and sun were tied to the back of their car, so they can always shine on them to show them the way.

         “And the stars?” Álvaro had asked, eyes wide open, also his mouth, hair long enough to hide his eyebrows, paler skin and thinner body with no muscles build in yet “are t’ose our too?”

         “No, child,” Alfonso, voice always soft and –unknowingly to the young boy– full of pride, and much more complex things far enough to escape beyond a mind still discovering life “another owns them all. They’ve been given a long time ago for another to keep them safe.”

         “Is it God?”

         “No” had said Alfonso after a soft deep laugh “He has far more better things.”

         “Who has ‘em, t’en?”

         “Your mother.”

         “Oh, how?”

         “I gave them all.”

         Álvaro smiled. Funny how things come back to haunt you. Sergio, by his side, had fell asleep short after boarding. So much for a captain. Álvaro plucked some hair from his head, scratching with leisure the place where the itching had started, and then proceeded to tickle Ramos’ nose with the hair wielded as feather duster right into one of the man nostrils. At first Sergio did not react, the dream, however short, was heavy. Then the nostrils become wider and thinner, they widened and returned to their original state just as fast as Álvaro waved his hand. Marcerlo and Isco they started laughing in the row next to their seats, he thought he had seen a flash, and his suspicions were confirmed when Ronaldo appeared nearby with the cell phone in hand recording and laughing like a child

         Sergio began to move, waving his hands before him, opening his eyes and sneezing while looking at Morata with a pained expression followed by a “Bloody fucking hell, mate!” Isco and the fellowship of the laughs finally filled the whole place with thunderous laughter’s. Álvaro himself was laughing to the resentful expression of his captain. Not my captain in this plane, he remembered. “Are you trying to fucking kill me? And what’s that? Oh, you’re bloody disgusting, pelo rata!

         “Oh, c’mon mate” mocked Álvaro doing his best imitation of the deep voice of the footballer, which prompted another round of applause and laughter from his audience. Álvaro made obeisances again and again, throwing kisses to where Marcelo and the others were. Throughout the plane many faces turned to see what was happening. Almost the entire team, if not for Lionel, with two white spots standing out between the increasingly long hairs, whose head was tilted down, oblivious to what was happening. “Anon, if 't be true thou wilt fetch me, thither is a matter yond I wilt attend to which I wilt hast awakened thy Majesty”

         “The heck is wrong with you?” It was all the answer he got from Ramos while leaving his seat, Ramos threw his hat, which Álvaro accelerated the step laughing. Everyone went back to their business, looking over his shoulder he saw Cristiano with Bale, they both laughed at the top of their lungs.

         He stopped at Lionel's side, the man had not yet noticed his presence, or if he had, he chose not to do anything about it. His eyes were concentrated, apparently, on the thick tome between his hands.

         Suddenly he closed the book. On the cover a figure with shiny armor predominated in front of a house, behind the sky seemed to burn. It was a hardback book, in the corners there were flowery ornaments as bright as silver. In white letters, of different sizes for each sentence, could be read The Wheel of Time, followed by big burden silvery letters with the name of the book The Eye of the World, then white letters again Robert Jordan; Volume 1. And at the bottom Timun Mas. The book was thick, which astonished Álvaro.

         That morning, while he waited for them to be ready, night had been hectic, he saw the bookcase next to the television, a large piece of furniture full of books, some new and others already used, as shown by the spines full of wrinkles along, the vast majority of all those books were thick, perhaps all greater than five hundred pages, when was it that Lionel had the time to devour them? That was something Álvaro really wished to know. Even the book among his hands right now was already half through.

         “What’s going on there?” asked the smaller man, a gesture with the head directed to where Ronaldo, Bale and other so many continued laughing. Now Álvaro could appreciate a phone being passed from hand to hand. The recording of Ramos he supposed. Álvaro explained, Lionel smiled.

         Morata sat in the empty seat. They were silent for a moment. “What are you hearing?” asked at the same time he removed one of the headphones from Leo’s ear to put it in his. A melancholic sound, more related to the longing, if that could be translated to music, filled his ear along with the voice of a man singing with a curious energy, as if the song was especially sung for them:

 

“---from the Action Man

‘I'm happy, hope you're happy too

I've loved all I've needed, love

Sordid details following’---”

                       

         “Who’s this?” said Álvaro, really feeling the tune.

         “Bowie” Messi said in turn, along with that characteristic smile of his.

         “Bowie--- as in Da---”

         “How many Bowies do you know?”

         “Not that many.”

         They listened to the rest of the song without saying a word to each other, enjoying the music.

         Lionel sure had no face to be someone who liked to listen to David Bowie. Although he did not have the face of being a bookworm, and yet the amount of books with the spine worn there in his house was surprising. However, of course, every taste was acquired. That particular could be traced back to that Pepsi ad a few years ago, when the Argentinian was still playing under the blue shirt with red stripes, or was it the other way around? The skin of the blaugranas was too closely related to the zebras. Álvaro laughed, how did he come up with such things? If Lionel liked to kill himself reading and enjoyed Bowie –yet, to be honest, who did not know Ziggy bloody Stardust, or whatever name David used to go under, was because of very different issues in which he did not want to think at those moments, changing the world was not as simple as going from place to place chasing a ball– was his business and nobody else, nobody but Cristiano perhaps. Which brought him back at the point.

         “You two get along too well, isn’t?”

         Lionel watched him with that characteristic look of his, an expression that reflected surprise, curiosity and interest, all in once and everything always after a great layer of humility. Although, thanks to the last matches and the growing coexistence between them, Álvaro knew that that part of Lionel was not the whole percentage of man. That was his foundation, there was no doubt in that and whoever said otherwise was simply a fool or a moron, or both. He came out of nowhere, so to speak, and the simplicity, despite the clothes, the cars and the stylist –which he had had not been in months, of course– would never abandon Lionel. But in the field it was not Lionel the man who played, but Messi. And that Messi each time had more of Ronaldo in him than many would like to admit. And not everything was good. Unfortunately. The same should happen with Cristiano, although Ronaldo always continued modeling underwear and making announcements where the rivalry between him and Messi was still a selling point for every inept director unable to see the obvious. Which was good in some aspects. Enemies now frenemies. Two opposing forces forced to coexist. Ha! Fools! Enemies! he thought, once more after days and nights even before signing again for Madrid Perhaps before, but not now, nor ever again. It isn’t the fans who want to see them bleed each other, but critics and those shitheads paparazzi.

         “I do not love the earth on which am standing, but the people for which I stand” had said Lionel not long ago in one of the few interview he had had agreed to do, the man did not do much of them this days, so a single one became quickly an unprecedented phenomenon---sure that’s the reason, aye?

         And have not Cristiano had said something in the likes –despite all that love, or perhaps it was not love but pure sexual attraction, that would be something, they seemed to bear for each other, the enemy thing seemed something ingrained deep inside them. In some way they still seemed to be competing to see who was more humble, or was it just what one thought after so many years, seeing them as opposite poles of the same coin?– which soon went around the world, also. “As grateful as proud I am of my home, Portugal, I wouldn't be nothing if it weren't for those in Madrid and Manchester that rose me to where I am now.”

         “Well,” began Lionel “once you share so much with someone, it is inevitable to get along.”

         “Yet you two don’t just simply get along, is it? I get along with Bale, which doesn’t really make him more than a friend or teammate. That’s what I mean with chemistry, you two are really, really good friends outside the field. You are more than best friends.”

         “If you put it that way” a faint smile and that gesture with his mouth that seemed he was about to shock on something, the peculiar way of tilting his head while his shoulders shrugged a little and his hands spoke for themselves, without neglecting the hand that went up to caress his ear “then I guess we are more than best friends.”

         “Oh I bet it on my life” Lionel gave him an indecipherable stare “Tell me” Álvaro continued in a low voice, though not enough to be a whisper, if effective enough to be only heard by Lionel “how long since you two been something?”

         “Something? I don’t know what you---” his eyes widened and blood rushed out of his face, leaving a pale ghost behind “James---” his eyes moved towards where the younger player was. So he does knows---who else? Am I the only one unaware? Obviously no, for his reaction it must be something only a few know.

         “Don’t worry about him. He didn’t tell me a thing” then “nor anyone. Say what you want about the child” Child? He’s older than me, nor even a year older---yet “but he sure knows how to keep his mouth shut.”

         “Perhaps you should as well.”

         “I won’t tell anyone” all spit in that kind of whisper, although the two now stayed on the defensive “that’s a promise.”

         Lionel was silent for a while, Álvaro could almost see how the gears in the man's head were turning at great speed while analyzing the situation. On the outside, anyone would see two companions sitting peacefully next to each other, if they approached, however, Álvaro was sure that one could feel the tension in the air with just one finger, too hard to cut. “You can trust me, Leo” the Argentine did not relax “that’s what friends are for” and that worked. A little, at least.

         “How long have you known?” his voice was dominated by a sense of caution.

         “Not long.”

         “How long?”

         “That doesn’t matter, Leo. Trust me.”

         “Alright. How then? How can you know?”

         “I---well. I started to suspect when I spoke with Iker. And no, he doesn’t know. Something was odd about you two, and everything fell in its place when I learned about the apartment. However, I confirmed my suspicions yesterday.”

         “Are we so obvious?”

         “Not quite, I’ll give you that much. But you should learn to close your doors at night.” In an instant, Lionel's complexion changed from white to the most intense red that Álvaro had ever seen on any skin, unless it was burned by the sun.

         “I’m so sorry you got to see that---Jesus! You---you---oh shit---why would you---how? Oh God! I can’t even---”

         “Hey, hey! Calm down, pal! Take it easy, it’s not---”

         “Would you take it easy?” in his face there was no humility nor fear much less shame, but pure anger.

         “Well, no---”

         “Then don’t you fucking dare tell me how should or shouldn’t react. You. Saw. Us.”

         “Bloody hell, calm down. You’re being a total brat. I only saw silhouettes in pitch black room. And noises, I heard that too.”

         “Jesus fucking Christ” Messi hid his face in his hands “please stop---please.” The man sighed. He looked dejected, as if he had lost a long battle. Álvaro felt his soul crumble inside him, taking away all the good humor that he had had, when the first tear fell from Lionel's chin. The Argentine did not sob, did not emit any sound for that matter, or these were so low that all the noise in the plane suppressed them, aware of the people surrounding him. Álvaro felt the weight of guilt on his shoulders. Leo's silence made it worse. For the first time in a long time Álvaro could not find the words to encourage someone, nor did he know what to say or how to act. A knot gripped his stomach and throat, competing with one another to see who would be the victor. He looked at his hands, big enough to hold Messi's two hands between one of his. He did so. The face he discovered was an amorphous, mournful mass that ended up dispelling any trace of good humor that might have survived, shattering his very core. The red face, puckered; the mouth opening and closing in search of air or a voice to vent the pain; eyes swollen and red, almost closed while shedding bitter tears; all that was his fault. He lost no time in hugging Leo. Hiding his face to the rest of the world. That was Leo's pain and nobody had to see it; take care of that was the burden of Álvaro. He kept the hug, Leo rejected him at first, but gave in, sinking his face between Alvaro's neck and shoulder, seeking refuge there. The arms that surrounded him were firm as steel, clinging more strongly to Morata. “I have no power over my life” he said in a broken voice, weak, unstable, nasal, lacking the harmony that used to permeate it “I don’t” full of ups and downs “why? Why can’t I be half the man that everyone thinks I am?”

         “What are you talking about?” confusion impregnated Álvaro's voice. That was unexpected. What did his manhood have to do with everything? Who in the world had told him that that had to do with maintaining control over his life? For all that Álvaro knew about Lionel, there were two or three oceans of questions that he could address to the man and still never even discover or know him completely. Every day, as expected with a teammate he had only known in matches, and many of those games had been matches in different bands, a new layer appeared. The man intrigued him deeply. He, truly, had had no expected this. Nor that sort of weakness in someone he had had thought had had his life resolved since his youth. “What’s wrong?”

         “My father was right. I'm not ready to face life on my own yet, all my decisions---”

         “Bloody hell, shut up about it” to say that a silence was established between them would be to lie. Lionel's sobs increased and with them the man began to tremble “Your father was right about what? Making mistakes? Then please, tell him to lead the bloody way.”

         “I’m not wise enough, not good enough for that matter.”

         “Wise? Wisdom does not come with age, nor does age come with wisdom.”

         “More knows the devil for older than for devil.”

         “Stop it, Leo. People learn from their mistakes. That’s all I know, and it should be enough for you to learn from your trips that from their scolding. And about taking control, if that’s what you mean, just take it, for fuck sakes. Let the old ones sew in their broths.”

         “I” the man began with a voice so weak that to call it a whisper would be to offend the whispers. For a moment Álvaro thought that Leo was just exhaling, gathering his strength, then he continued speaking “I feel I haven’t made a single decision in a long time--- I didn’t ask to be transferred to Madrid, you know?” Álvaro looked around, where all his companions looked as happy as a large family. And yet, everyone ignored the wounded member. There was solitude despite the union. Leo must feel, even after almost a year, as a stranger among strangers. Maybe Cristiano was his only bridge, the only connection, available between all of them –Álvaro included– and him. “That was my father’s doing--- behind my back, as if I--- well, I wouldn’t have approved. I was happy back in Barça--- I was doing well. And then he snatched me from that. It was hard--- and everyone eventually did try to make me feel at home, but I couldn’t felt it. I was afraid to lose every place I could call home. It hurt me beyond repair. Until I found him, and I discovered that I felt safe in his arms. That home was wherever he was.”

         “Leo.”

         “And I can’t to feel but---”

         “Leo” he said once more, gently, wiggling a bit to try to comfort Leo.

         “What?” Leo responded with a kind of grunt for being interrupted, for being denied the comfort he so badly needed, for being ignored when he finally opened his heart to what he could still consider a complete stranger “what do you want now?” a whimper almost as sharp as broken glass.

         “That sounds like a decision to me. You have been in control.”

         It was then that Leo finally broke down crying aloud. Alarming several of those who were nearby, oblivious to what was happening to be listening to music or watching a movie or some other activity. The faces began to turn toward them, Álvaro smiled at everyone, gesturing with his hand to ask them for a little more privacy. All but one agreed not to instigate the matter anymore, maybe another day they would ask the questions, but not today. “You are stronger than you think, braver than most; despite your height, flea” they both laughed. Leo finally relaxing. “I’m your friend, you can really count on me. You are not alone.”

         “Thank you” Álvaro could not see it, nor feel, but he sensed that the man was smiling. And at the right time.

         “What’s going on here, lad?” Cristiano said, casting his long shadow over them. His eyes flashed in his face like two flames that contained both a warning and a threat at the same time. He does love him. “He’s crying for the penalty of taking away the next Ballon d'Or from you, pumpkinhead” and that made Leo laugh.

         The warning was given to everyone to take their seat again, the landing was near. Álvaro, taking advantage of the opportunity, got up and returned to the side of Ramos, leaving behind Leo and Cristiano, feeling the latter's gaze as he moved towards his destination. An uncomfortable, hard look. The best thing was to continue as if nothing affected him, smiling and receiving congratulations –see for yourself and say if people is or is not odd enough to celebrate a joke as if it were the cure for cancer– and slaps on the shoulder as a signal of eternal camaraderie.

         The serious look, devoid of humor and clearly hurt that Ramos dedicated to him was more than enough to make his good humor come back. Well, part of it. The sense of grief still crawled with him like two heavy iron barrels. He sighed and began to nod and say the right words in the right tone at the right time while Ramos gave him a rant about age and how keeping with that kind of jokes could cause a serious problem in the future. Among so many things and advices, everything was summed up as it was time to mature.

         He turned a deaf ear to almost everything. There were interesting points that revealed a lot about the new attitude of Ramos since being known successor to Iker. Iker had been, in effect, a great man. So much so that his absence felt falling on them all at every moment. He had cast a very long and wide shadow over the land and history of Real Madrid, and it would be a long time before another could even poke his head away from the titanic mantle. May the Light shine on him and all his future in Porto. The poor bastards did not yet know how lucky they were.

         When the plane finally touched the ground, and the suitcases were collected and moved to the truck with the crest of Real Madrid on both sides, the spirits of all dwindled. The excitement was felt, however. Álvaro sat away from Ramos, he did not want to endure another of the man's sermon. And when Sergio threatened to follow him to his seat, Álvaro pulled James' arm to force him sit next to him. The poor boy, is not a boy he reminded himself, fell into the seat surprised by the kidnapping he suffered. Álvaro caught an indecipherable look from Leo, a few rows ahead, and a warning look from Cristiano at his side.

         They talked about trivial things, because there would not be many important topics to talk about calmly until the game that afternoon ended. How much was missing and they still had to wait longer! Why was time going so slowly when it was not being enjoyed? Following his own advice, and partly encouraged by James –who would have thought it?– Álvaro began to sing, dance and jump in the seat, making James participate. They were soon joined by others. All eyes fixed on him. Many smiles flourishing among their peers. If this made them more relaxed before the match, then it was worth it to make a fool of himself for a while and endure the disapproving look of Ramos. Seeing is believing and it turns out that becoming a captain had not made him bitter! Well, it was that or the pressure of the press. What was the nickname given to him? Icarus! Well, it did not fit, really. Maybe there was still time to check if the sack was left, but for the moment--- well, who was he to judge? Everything in its time. Going after everyone was certainly not Alvaro's work, but Ramos's. He already longed to listen to the speech that the man would blow later. That was something Iker could not be overcome either, although Iker had had the temperament of a romantic, his harangues did work even when the defeat fell on them. And well, with God as his witness, they had had seen defeats that season. Sometimes, and not for the first time he wondered if everyone felt the same, he felt a weight when putting on Madrid's uniform. He loved it, even when he was not playing with them he had brought every single jersey, his name on it obviously, on wore it with pride. But undoubtedly it was a burden to wear those colors, especially the ominous gray of that day, and not be able to win. Those were preferable thoughts to keep for himself. They could lift more than one eyebrow. Cause problems. Many. It was he who had wanted to return. He was the one who had had mobilized for the papers to be signed. It was time to show that he was worth the price and the effort. He would not be one more in the shadow of Iker. Not of Ronaldo. Or Messi, if we are already. Not even Rodríguez, or Ramos, could stop his ascension. And that only depended on him. I had to use them, all of them. He was disgusted at the thought, yet it was the true. No great man had reached the heights on his own. There had always been someone behind to support them, whether they had wanted it or not. Álvaro did not want to be one more among the bunch. No sir. He was grateful for everything he had had accomplished, with everything he had now. How many others had not had the dream of playing professionally and had failed in the attempt? How many of his friends had not faded into oblivion in the schools? There were many who entered chasing a dream, and many of them with the born talent to achieve everything. And still many failed. There were very few who came to the light at the end of the tunnel, only to find themselves trapped in the shadows of the giants. Álvaro wanted to be one of those giants. Leave his mark; to be remembered. And he would, he was sure of it. That's why his mood did not fade when Ramos shook his head in disapproval. On the contrary, it fanned its internal fire. Álvaro continued singing and dancing with more force, infecting everyone with it. They are mine, he thought, as much as I am theirs.

         The people and the cameras were already waiting for them, how long have they been here? when they arrived at the El Molinón Stadium next to the Piles River with its dark waters in constant waves. They got off the bus, with the flash rain on them following them as they made their way to the locker room. The corridors, painted red and white, looked pristine. Fluorescents on the ceiling enhanced the whiteness. It looked like a hospital corridor, if not for the red color and the crest of the Real Sporting de Gijón drawn in each corridor. The changing rooms were not so different from those in Madrid, although when were they? On rare occasions.

         The time progressed more slowly. The mood was decreasing again. No one had yet changed from their simple dark suits to the gray with green stripes kits. Some had taken off their sacks, others loosened their ties, and a few others had discarded their sacks and ties as well as rolling up their sleeves to the height of their elbows. Leo and Cristiano were conspicuous by their absence. That made Álvaro feel a tingling sensation between his shoulder blades. Uncomfortable, he wandered through the locker room, earphones in his ears, oblivious to what was happening. No one has changed yet, he said again as he moved toward the showers with a determined step.

         He sat on the floor, his back leaning against the wall and his legs stretched placidly. The hands resting on his thighs. He let himself be carried away by the song. Shaking the head slightly to the rhythm of the piece, marking the beat with his right foot. The guitar, happy and sad, reminded him of his childhood. The longing was linked to his taste for music, in one way or another he always ended up listening to groups that pulled those threads. Alice would laugh at him if she could see him now. Even his father would raise an eyebrow and laugh as he would ruffle his hair as if he were still seven years old or younger. His mother would try to make him smile, in order to get rid of all doubts. And he would smile at everyone, he would do it without hesitation over and over again, a thousand times if necessary.

         And when the world did not want to greet him again, nor would he want to return to the warmth of the reflectors, to the brightness of the fields, to take flight next to the balloons like butterflies for so many cities under the shelter of powerful shields, what would he do then? His father and mother, even Alice, would be waiting for him on that old sofa in the living room of a house long ago sold, as if nothing had changed. He could cry on his shoulders, hugged between strong arms while time disappeared in his path. It would not be going back, all the achievements would remain in his memory. He had not played with his time, he would have taken advantage of it, but he would always know that he could have given so much more.

         He laughed alone, accompanied only by pipes and white tiles. And wondered what he would be like when he was older.

         He always became melancholy, trapped between longing and the desire to erase everything by giving the best of himself. The song was over, giving rise to another with an almost smooth rhythm. The same sensation impregnated the new song and Álvaro was about to change it for another, but in the end he gave up. Throwing back his head, letting her rest against the cold wall. Aware of the pain in his body again. Leo and Cristiano were crazy to train like that. He closed his eyes and tried to dissipate the present, coming into contact with the void. Breathing. Exhaling.

         He was awakened by the touch of a hand. He had fallen asleep. Stupor made him feel lost for a moment. He did not recognize his surroundings or the man who looked at him. What song was that? Little by little he was reacting. He was in the dressing room showers in El Molinón Stadium. The song was by Arnau Griso. And who was shaking him by the shoulder was Marcelo, already in his uniform and a smile from ear to ear. Álvaro paused the song to listen to what his partner was saying. “In half an hour we must be in the field,” then after a little pause “Sergio is impatient to release his harangue, he wants everyone to be present.”

         In the dressing room there were few who still did not finish changing. Álvaro did not waste time and only smiled when Ramos said “thank you for giving us your presence, Morata.” A few laughed. Although Ramos did not know if it was because of his comment or the carefree attitude of Álvaro. Subtracting importance to that, Álvaro went to his place. In a matter of seconds he was in his underwear, several of them whistled him mischievously crazy and laughed when Morata modeled them sensually. Leo and Cristiano were already with them, in a corner talking with their heads close together. Marcelo gave him a thunderous spank to what Álvaro said “that also charges, my heart.”

         “It is well enough with the jokes and laughs already. Pay attention that we have little time!” shout out an angry Ramos, face red. They all became serious. Álvaro changed into his kit as quick as he could without giving the impression to care that much.”

         “Why so mad, man?” Marcelo said, a soft tone and shoulders shrugging.

         “Perhaps he finally touched the sun” whispered James. Álvaro took a look at the man, speechless. So did the ones that heard him, Rodríguez face went red as a ruby.

         “You’ve had enough time to chat chat as you always do,” rage out Bale, eyes darker than they really were “don’t blame us for your troubles.”

         “It’s not about that and you know it too well!”

         “Hey! Slow your horses down!” Marcelo, color all gone from his face yet rage building in.

         “He may want to step outside the sun a little---”

         “I heard that! Watch your mouth! I’m still your bloody captain!”

         They were all raising their voices more than necessary. Álvaro finished putting his cleats and stood, jumping the middle of the action with hands raised at each side. Palms facing both Marcelo, Bale, James, Pepe and Casemiro on one side and Ramos in the other. Face to the ground, containing the laughter. “Oh c’mon guys, don’t fight for me!” said as he lift his head slowly to face each band and gifting them with his most charming smile “there’s plenty to go around!”

         All eyes, all of them, rested on him. Not a single smile. Just stone grim faces. Emotionless. You could hear a pin drop among the silence. “Bloody bummers.”

         “Any way” began Ramos, calmer “we can do this. We are one of the best teams in the world. All of we are damn good. Let’s just go out there and show’em all how much we are worth.”

         Nods around the room. And with that they went off.

         The players from the other teams were already in the corridor that connected to the game court. They were all friendly, at first. Not much words. As both teams were into his own business.

         Music started and they exited. The lights shone over them. Fans in the stands applauded and shouted, filling the place with their cheers. Loud noises as of strong thunders. So many of them watching those few below. Crying out the names of their favorites players. “Messi!” in one part, “Julio, Julio!” in other; “Ronaldo!” or sometimes “CR7!”; “Mascarell”; “Morata!” and at that he couldn’t help but felt something warm growing in his chest. At the moment there were still no swish. Fraternal rivalry still reigned. They lined up to listen to the hymns of each club, voices louder and stronger than those of the speakers. When it was Real Madrid turn, Álvaro shy a smile while singing. There was not so long ago, but enough for him not being there, that the team had recorded a video, now streaming all day long on youtube, of them singing the new hymn. Leo and Cristiano were among the ones who sang with more passion.

         It all ended. Players shake hands once more and everyone went into their positions.

         Silence in the stands. Expectation growing. His heart, and he supposed everyone’s heart there, skipping a beat as they waited for the coin to be flipped.

         They were talking there in the center of the field. Players nodded. And then, amidst all the green grass, red walls and an ocean full of colorful jerseys, a silver dot raised. A star tracing a gently and elegant bow in the air. And a hand to catch it. Real Madrid would attack first. His heart began to beat with more force. Then, standing out from the growing murmur, the whistle blew.

Chapter Text

The first to have possession of the ball is Cris, a gray figure losing himself in a field of white and red striped shirts. Leo follows him at a distance, aware of all that goes behind the striker, pushing his way through their ranks. Dodging one and another player with a light step. He does not stop, but his progress is not what could be called accelerated. He is aware of the trembling of his legs, afraid to stop and see that they cannot sustain his weight. Out of the corner of the eye he manages to perceive movement on both flanks, Álvaro and Isco make their own career at a more fluid pace than his. That's enough to make him get moving while carrying, distracted, a hand to the stomach.

 

Cristiano makes a dribble. Followed by another. And other. Always moving forward. Feeling the sweat falling down his back, drying up thanks to the breathing of the jersey. A player appears at his side, approaching. But Ronaldo is faster, way faster. He leaves him behind without much effort, leaning just a little to get that little extra something. His body reacts faster than his consciousness. He dribbles and changes direction. The goal is close. The striped ones hover over him, trying to block his way. Somebody grabs him by the jersey back. Change direction again, sending the ball a little farther than normal. He could lose it. Another player sees the opportunity and launches towards the projectile. But Cris is faster, much more. His feet return to the command of the ball. He slips between two players. In front stands the goal. His ears vibrate. The audience is encouraged. How much time has passed? It does not matter. Not now. Point and shoot. With too much force. The ball bounces against the squad. Rolls on the floor a moment before the goalkeeper retrieves it. Ronaldo begins to retreat, his eyes fixed on the player; in the ball.

 

Surrounded by four players, Isco braked in time to see how Ronaldo failed his shot. He cursed in silence. The ball was already back to the center of the field, where he had left. He made his way among the players. Going to get the ball at a crossroads just as it passed. His feet moved; arms flapped, seeking balance. The ball went from the other player's feet to his own, then to Bale's. The man was fury made person when he stepped on the pitch, God help the poor ungrateful who stood between him and the goal!

 

Ahead. Ahead. Breathe. Just follow the gaps. And, if there is none; open one. Gray jerseys left and right. No. They would lose the ball again. Dodge! Well, that was close. Concentrate. Get moving. More strength; more speed. Yes. Like that, keep it that way. Let everything burns, let it hurt. Gap. Left. Dodge. Another turn. Go around. Get moving. Take care of your side. All right. Far away. Take care of the other side; nothing, nothing that matters. All right. Get moving. Perfect, there it is. Make eye contact. Move to the left. Wait for it. Reaction: slow. Alright, now go right: fast. If I shoot it in front I’ll be giving him the opportunity. Left then, so be it. All right. Let it go. Hard. The faster the better. Aim low, but not so low. Good, like that. The impulse will make it rise. Point. Kick. Hit it!

 

James ran after Bale as the man walked around and celebrated his victory. Arms giving blowing to the air, up and down quickly. Then, like a bird ready to plan, Gareth opened his arms. Running a little more, sharing and radiating more happiness than all the fans together. James smiled when he saw Bale's lit face. The man roared, inaudible to those in the stands, but registered for posterity by one of the cameras. James arrived, along with Isco and Marcelo, wrapping Bale in a hug that joined the arms of Cristiano and a pat on the shoulder of Lionel. “Very good” he heard Leo say. Bale just nodded, smile faded so he got a hard look from Cristiano, although Bale did not get to see it.

         Leo gestured with his hands to Cris, who shrugged, eyes still burning though. Celebration finished, everyone returned to their initial positions and waited a bit. The atmosphere was calm again, everyone, including the spectators, waiting.

         James, already in his place, did not stop observing Leo and Cristiano. They worked very well as a team. Which was good for all of them. He could not afford to think about the other thing here. He still had many questions.

         Hugo and Jony, the Gijón strikers, spoke to each other a bit before the kickoff. They advanced enough before Ronaldo snatched the ball from Hugo, running without losing time among the rest of the players, still stunned by the sudden change of the ball. Leo, Morata and Isco were on the heels of the Portuguese when he, in a matter of a few minutes, had crossed half of the court and scored the second goal for Madrid. From the stands came the sound of thunder. The cheers accompanied him as he went to Cristiano to congratulate him. Then his feet simply stood, impossible to move them as if they had taken root and on these someone had poured cement.

         He was paralyzed when he saw Leo jump into the Portuguese's arms. Heads very, very, close. A too intimate position. The scene lasted only a moment, fortunately, when Morata joined the embrace with a force that made the three men fall.

         James wanted to get close and say something. But what? Anything he said could be misinterpreted as--- well, as homophobia. He could not think of another way to describe it. His face burn, understanding that it was the flush covering his cheeks, he look the grass below. They were his friends, he could not go to say a comment like that! Besides, they were not stupid. Come on, do you really think they would be so clumsy to let that out during a game? No. This is how James saw it, because he knew what was between them. That's it, he told himself, that's it.

         Kickoff.

 

Leo takes possession of the ball, nullifying his opponent's dribble. Advances diagonally towards three striped jersey players. Kicking the ball and putting it in the path of Cris, then sneaking into the spaces that open when the players go after the ball carrier. Cris is being surrounded fast while Leo advances without quarter, all his space cleared. Cris sends the ball back, over the heads of the players, tracing an elegant bow. Leo jumps, receiving the impact of the projectile in his chest. The ball falls inert to the grass before its feet spin it again. Sliding to the bottom corner, Leo sends the ball with as much force as possible. Iván Cuéllar does not have a single opportunity to stop it.

         The ovations make the earth tremble with its strength. Fingers pointing to the sky, as if to bring him closer to god. Human heat surrounds him as his teammates embrace him. Leo dips his face into Cris's chest, or what he thought was Cris's chest. A laugh strikes his ears, and then a whisper. “Can’t let that happen, flea. Not here.” Looking up, Leo meets Morata gaze upon him. The smile does not fade on any of them, deeply he is thankful. A hand wiggles his hair, Cris’s hand.

         Again in the center spot, the sporting forward make the kickoff. The ball, however, goes from their feet to those of Carvajal, who bombs down from the right wing, sliding into a low cross which Cris takes advantage of, kicking the ball again to the net for his second goal of the game. Leo, who had stayed behind, feeling weak for a quick run, sees it all with a long pale face. A faint smile, perhaps even just the foggy form of a smile, tingling lips just as weak. His head gets fuzzy. It is Álvaro, again by his side, who sparks him. “What’s wrong?” his voice seems distant, a strange look in his face, before it tiny pale lights dance around, overcoming the man gesture. “Leo?” a distant sound, echoed. He is shaken a little, which seem to make all the symptoms disappear. “Are you alright?” They are not alone anymore. Bale, Marcelo and James all look at him. Stranger looks in their faces than that from Álvaro. Cris is nowhere to be seen, still across the field Leo ventures to decide.

         “Yeah” he says in a faint raspy voice which lifts more than one eyebrow “really, I am” a more determined smile.

         “Alright, is he says so; let’s go back playing.” Bale walks away and as he does so enters Ramos.

         “What’s happening?”

         “Leo didn’t seem---”

         “I’m alright. Seriously.”

         Ramos takes a long stare at him, his face reveals that he does not believe a word but in the end he nods and let him be. “We’ll see. I shouldn’t, but that’s not my call to make. Take care, Lionel.”

         “I’ll be fine” but Ramos, and everyone but Álvaro is already gone. “I’ll be fine. Just as the plow breaks the earth.”

        “Alright, whatever you say, flea. Don’t overdo yourself, okay?” Leo nods, what else could he do that does not take him out of the field? He won’t leave, not again. By now they all should be used to him vomiting and feeling odd. But this is different---it hadn’t happen before. Just one more--- what, half an hour? How long has it been? Leo did not know. For a moment back there, he felt as fainting. But it was not quite like that, was it? It did not feel as falling, as to going up. Ascending. Whatever the hell that mean. Things were not going pitch black but rather ablaze lit.

         Lost in his thoughts, he barely reacted when the game resumed. The forward pass him by fast. Leo run after and that’s when the gagging began. Slowly stopping to face the ground. Supporting his weight on the palms of his hands, in turn resting on his thighs. Move, you have to move. He looked up, something was going on at the goal. Ruben was down, surrounded by his teammates and the players from the other team. Why did people do that? Hinder the paramedic’s way.

         “What’s wrong, meu amor?” Cris was at his side, a hand resting over Leo’s back, looking at one side and other.

         Leo couldn’t take it anymore, he threw up. Some of the vomit landed on his cleats. It stopped. Throat burning, breathless. His body was shivering. He saw how Cris raised a hand, but could not ask what he was doing. A lumpy, hot, bitter-tasting dough was quickly crawling up his throat. It smelled worse than it tasted. The tears blurred everything. A pressure in his ears make things worse. Why did the floor move so much? And who was he standing in front of him, why did not he deign to speak to him well, gesturing instead of muttering to him? And what the fuck was wrong with Cris? Could no he be just--- he threw up again, this time on the paramedic’s hands. “Sorry” me managed to say. Or stutter. Now he was feeling a bit better. With one finger he pinched one of his nostrils and blew. Then the other. “I’m fine”

         “You are not fine, Leo!” the scream was raw, cold. Even the discomfort of the paramedic was obvious. Leo felt ashamed and angry.

       “Yes I am!” said in turn coldly but calm, he would not let him get the worst of himself. Calmly, he stood up, somehow managing to impose himself to the 6 feet and 2 inches of the Portuguese. Both his eyes were throwing sparks at each other, erasing all the love between them. No longer, at that moment, were they Leo and Cris. Again, they seemed like rivals; Messi and Ronaldo. And for an instant Lionel stood taller. Then came the shame again. Strength gone, he felt like a fucking idiot. He looked to his feet before returning his eyes to meet those of Cris. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have---I’m sorry. Trust in me; I am fine.”

         “Are you sure?” cold and suspicious. “Sure enough to keep playing?”

         “Yes. I need you to trust me” almost a wimp whisper.

         “Fine. You’re old enough to decide. Do as you please” voice colder and distant. Cristiano left him there, standing alone. He felt like crying, but did not. Looking something to clear his mind, he looked again at the goal. The commotion there was over, Rubén was back in his place, but his pain was visible from where Leo was. No good thing last, his father voice came back to haunt him “and let you drown in your bullshit?” In the end he did felt like weeping.

 

Looking forward, Álvaro swept his feet across the green grass. Mirthfully leading his way through the field, yet not a whit of it reflected in his face. The wits and pang of Álvaro Morata, wouldn’t that make a great title for a book? If Ramos could have a book, why Álvaro should deprive himself of such illusions? Although, he remembered one more time, if he ever was to write a book it would be fiction. About what? Who knew? Time would tell. It was all a matter of time.

         Ronaldo tosses the ball into his path, which allows him to shine when Álvaro deceives a defender and moves forward with determination. He can already taste his victory. And even though the shot should be perfect, the ball gets deflected at the last moment.

 

Piqué's bad mood has finally disappeared. The Shakiro had been unbearable during the first twelve minutes of the game, gesturing and growling with each goal by Madrid. Neymar, sitting by his side with a bowl full of chips, stirred uncomfortably in the sofa. Suarez had been the one of the idea of joining that day at his home to watch the game. Many had raised an eyebrow, visibly uncomfortable at the mere idea of watching the game. But, in the end, there was always something that could be done about a person's opinion, Gerard, Rafinha and Dani had agreed to come together to watch Leo play. Even Javier was there too, yet the Mexican remained almost silent. A dismal air most of the time. As if he did not feel comfortable there, after all he had been a Blanco not so long ago. How would Leo have felt during his first months at Madrid? And, for a change, Leo had been the reason why Piqué's bad mood disappeared. The man had celebrated Lionel's goal with such effusiveness that he had caused Dani to throw his drink on Suarez's carpet.

         “Oi, watch it!”

         “Stop whining, I’ll buy you another one.”

       Neymar smiled and kept watching the game. So did them, eventually. Dani poured himself another drink. Gerard and Rafinha were commenting on the play when the repetitions of the goal and celebration came in. Neymar almost chocks when a close-up of Leo and Cristiano came into frame. They seemed almost as if they were about to kiss. Not that it had no happened before in soccer history, yet this seemed obviously different. No one but him, and other millions around the world, saw that. Then both men fell to the ground as another player jumped on both. That’s when the game started again. The kick-off and Madrid leading the game once more. Cristiano second goal. Yet the attention of the cameras is divided between the celebration and a lonely Leo visible in pain. People start surrounding him, as the man threw up. That scatters his peers.

         “Why does that keeps happening to him?” Rafinha voice pulls them from the TV. “Back then it used to happen too. And doctors knew shit about what was happening to him.”

         “I dunno, man” Neymar said as he tosses the bowl to Piqué, who in turn gives it to Dani, and pours himself a beer. “It stopped, though. For a while.”

         “Shit don’t say!” Barks Piqué, frowning at all of them “the man always gets the nerves before a game---”

         “Not really.”

         “And you are the one to know, am I right?”

       “Why don’t you go waka-waka to the kitchen and bring more chips?” says Suarez as he hit Piqué chest with the empty bowl. Gerard stare at him with dead cold eyes narrowing to a thin line. The muscles of his neck expanded, revealing two strong stripes at each side. However, despise the tantrum, Gerard stood and walk away to the kitchen. Not a word from him.

        “He’s dynamite, isn’t he?” Neymar said returning his attention to the game. Leo was no longer vomiting, he looked better. The players settled down to re-establish the game.

        Later that day he would call Leo and ask him what was wrong, Neymar decided. Gerard did have a point: stress was what usually break Leo down. Something must be going on between Ronaldo and his friend. But what? In that take of the two together there had been no tension. And it could not be said that that was to keep up appearances, no one, presumably, knew of them other than him and James. Would something have happened to any of his family members? That sure was something to make him nervous. To anyone, in fact. Spinning a thousand ideas would not help him find an answer that Leo could give him, though. Tonight they will speak, or early that morning. For what it seemed, Madrid was about to win their first game of the season and that was a good reason to celebrate all night long. Leo was not that party guy like, but he would not reject an invitation for a drink if the man to give it was Cristiano. That was something that had Neymar impressed: Lionel Messi drinking. Seeing is believing. And oh boy did he believe now!

         “Oi, what’s taking you so long?!”

         “Aye, we asked chips not fucking lasagna!”

         “Oi, what you doing there?” that had been Javier, the man finally chilling a bit. Perhaps thanks not so much to Leo score but to Madrid winning lead.

         Neymar did not share a laugh, nor was he really watching the game anymore. His mind was busy thinking about the best way to proceed with the conversation that night, Leo was shy, at first talking to him had been difficult and talking about the problems even more. Neymar still remembered the time that took them, he, to discover that Lionel had broken up with--- what was the name of that woman? Damn she was beautiful! He could not remember. But the pain was a pill that Leo had swallowed in secret until Ney had actually ripped off the truth from him, and even then it was not the whole truth. In fact, he concluded, if it was not for Cristiano and his stubbornness, Leo might have never told him about them. Please talk to me, I’m just tryna help ya.

 

Bale threw the ball. It flew twenty-seven or twenty-eight yards, yet failed. It had already been about a quarter of an hour since the last entry. The match already felt stuck, although always under the control of Real Madrid.

         Passes and crosses were being done left and right. Never backing that much from the upper half of the field. Bale wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, when he ran again he felt how his hair was hitting the back of his neck.

        No one had pass him the ball and he had not had a chance to take it. Not much action anyway. Nobody was doing nothing but playing, like it was training and not an actual match. Those from Gijón were happy no to have another goal right up into their faces. And everybody in his team was just having a good time. They were already feeling victorious.

         Suddenly James lands the ball on his feet and Bale chases down as a soul that the devil carries. But he is being fenced all ways but his back. Reluctantly he makes a pass to Messi, and Messi to Pepe.

         Pepe shoots and fails. They were close enough to---

         Messi recovers the ball and shoots once, hitting the squad. Cuéllar looks for the ball and runs for it, but does not stand a chance when Leo is already aiming and shooting again. Scoring.

 

Fuck me thought Bale falling and rolling. Up the sky still was lit blue. Air was sweet as he lay in the grass. Clenching teeth with enough force to make them grind. He soon felt the migraine kick in. It was hard to see the light, even harder to listen to anything.

         The pain in his ankle came and went, exchanging his place with the migraine. Well, that’s it for me. They can’t throw this game, anyway. We’ve already won.

 

The game had stop for a moment as the paramedics checked Bale. Ruben took a moment to chill. His own pain had made the rest of the first half unbearable. So a chance to truly rest was a gift. He lay down in the grass, belly plumping with each breath. It was nice to be down, nice to feel calm. This was a game to remember. There had not have been that many goals from Madrid in years. At last they will be victors that day.

 

Leo tried to speak with Cris once again. The man sneaked back, shying away for what seemed the sixth time. What’s wrong with him? What is all this stubbornness for?

         Leo stopped trying, and it was close to the end of the first half. Then they would talk.

        They played a little more, perhaps just a couple of minutes more, before the end of the first half was officially announced. The ball remained still as the players exited the field. Shaking heads and slapping shoulders. The cheers between his companions were relaxed, happiness could be felt emanating from each one. Interweaving into something higher. Yet Leo did not feel part of it, despite all the congratulations and wiggle of his hair. He should cut off. It was long and disheveled. But that was now that he had sweat, before the game he did combed it. Enough with the damn hair, where’s Cris?

         As if he had invoked him, the Portuguese was advancing in his direction, asserting each step of his long legs. His eyes were stony, you could not decipher anything from them. It was a somehow scaring look and Leo gulped before being able to walk along his side and mutter “can we talk?” there was no way of knowing if the man had hear him, not until Cris looked down at him as he was seeing dirt over his carpet. Cris nodded, but nothing more.

 

“The fuck is wrong with you?” Leo's head bounced against the wall. Cris felt remorse, but did not let go of Leo at any time. He pressed harder on the shoulders of the Argentine, keeping him against the wall in one of the farther corridors that were engulfed by shadows. Although the words came out between the teeth, in order to prevent them from spreading down the corridor, they were strong enough to make anyone back up. And, if it were not for Cris push, Leo might have just done that. “Well?” always looking at him from above, while Leo had had just hidden his face, not daring to look up.

         “You are hurting me.”

         It was all he said in a low voice without inflections. Beneath Cris’s hands the shoulders of Leo went down. “I---”

         “Sorry. I know--- so am I.”

         “Leo, I---”

         “Let go off of me. Please.”

         “Leo---”

         “Just leave it, okay? I do not know why I propose to do things right and everything goes to hell. Why do I bother?” he never raised his head. “Can you let go, please?”

         He let go, even before he realized what he was doing, and watched as Leo vanished. It took him a long time to follow, confused, and when he tried to reach him, the man was nowhere to be seen. He looked for a while, though. Turning each corner with hope of finding him crying or just standing there. But Leo was gone. Sputtering and advancing with a forced step, stomping every step, he returned to the locker room where the atmosphere was warmer. Everyone laughed and celebrated. They celebrated their entry with loud cheers. He did not feel like celebrating, but now that he was in he was pushed to the center of everyone's attention, rubbing and puffing his chest in a sign of pride for him. Leo's name came up more than once, nobody knew where he was and wanted to celebrate his two goals. Remorse was accentuated even more. “Maybe I should go out and find him.” He proposed while trying to shake everyone off.

         “Don’t worry, I’ll go out for you. You just relax and enjoy a bit. Be back sooner.” And with that Morata sprinted off.

 

Leo was nowhere to be seen in the first corridors Álvaro went by. Nor was he in any bathroom. For a moment, a strange one, Álvaro almost run into some angry Gijón fans. They did not see him for all the shouting and curse fisting they were doing, so Álvaro turn on his heels, cleats making a funny noise while walking on the concrete, and turn left, then right and then left again before realizing he was already lost. At his side an open door that went into a dark gloomy office. He took a look inside. Nothing. Came in. Still nothing. He looked for a switch on the wall, white lights lit an almost white room. On the walls hung portraits, awards, prizes, medals, banners and so much more. There were long bright wooden desks on which more trophies rested, along with books and notebooks, a coffee machine some glasses and all the complements for the drink. In two of the four corners where plants, obviously fake ones by the way the shined, and in the remaining ones a counter with some kit, whether it was the new one or an old one was anyone’s guess, and an empty coat rack. The center of the room was dominated by a large desk, polished wood on which lay more books and other objects, in front of which were two individual crimson armchairs. Leo was sitting in one of them, looking at Álvaro with a stupid expression of amazement on his face, half-open mouth trembling more than his body, cheeks blushing. The only touch that was missing was a drop of sweat hanging next to his head for the scene to be more surreal.

         Looking at it that way, Leo seemed to be part of a Japanese aquarium rather than a renowned soccer player. Álvaro went over there and sat on the remaining couch. For a moment he thought of the excuse he would give if they were found there--- but, to be fair, he truly was lost and was sure Leo did not know either where were they. It seemed, with that trembling jaw, as he was about to speak. “Save it,” Álvaro said, smiling and putting a hand on Leo's knee. And, for estrange that might have been, it seemed to work pretty well. Leo relaxed, leaning over in the couch, staring at him, then at the wall, then at him again. “What happened? Cristiano seems---stoic.”

         “It’s---” he stopped, uncomfortable.

         “You can trust in me, Lionel, I really mean it.”

         “Everything I want, what I desire the most, is always there, constantly approaching, steadily. Yet I can’t hold a grasp of it. It just doesn’t fulfill me. Or not the way I want it.”

         “Is this about your father?”

         “Not quite.” Silence “I have this need to show him I can do on my own. And I know I can--- but. I don’t know. It’s just weird. I’m disappointed to see that if I decide to do something, well, go find the ideas of others.”

         “What did Cristiano did not agreed with you?”

         “How do you---it doesn’t matter, to know I mean. I wanted to remain playing, it’s just nausea, you know? It keeps happening, and I guess he keeps worrying more and more---”

         “Shit don’t say, pal.”

         “---but it’s nothing that grave. I threw, feel better and keep playing.”

        “He worries about. In a way we all do. We’ve become accustomed to see you throw up every match. It doesn’t mean, by any bloody chance, that it’s normal. But it’s that all? Each person has different ideologies, that's why so much shit happens in the world. You should know that, you’re tiny not young or idiot.”

         “I--- I think I might be afraid of him. And I don’t know why, before you ask.”

         “You need to start giving a fuck about what people thinks. And you both need to be more careful.”

         “Yeah” blush in his cheeks but, for once, he did not hide his face away, he held Álvaro’s glaze “thanks for that.”

         “You think that’s what’s really happening? Just the two of you in disagreement? Because, to be honest, it seems that this goes beyond a simple discomfort and worry. Does he knows what you’re going through? With your father and that feeling of insecurity, of insignificance that is killing you.”

         “Oh, thank you a lot, you might as well call me worm and step on me!”

         “That’s why we call you flea, Leo.”

         “Shut up, lad.

         “Ah, so you as well call me lad! What’s up with that, huh? Phaw! You both are unbearable either alone or together. Is it that you have a psychic connection or something? What’s the matter with being young?!”

         “Don’t you dare start being all that drama queen now, you got it coming with--- er--- can’t say that. Sorry.”

         “Very convenient.”

         “I said sorry.”

         “Aye, aye, sorry my ass. So tell me, if Cristiano doesn’t know about your pain--- do you know about his?”

         “What do you mean?”

         “Well, t’is interesting. You have not had a heart to heart talk. Why is that so?” Leo began explaining himself, and he did seem impress by being doing so. Yet, he did not stop. Álvaro took a grasp into every word of it, deep inside feeling both remorse and satisfaction.

 

“Where are you?” Cris was still leaning against the door, his head resting on his forearm as he watched the entrance out of the corner of his eye. There was no point in continuing, he told himself, but he was reluctant to move. He did not wanted to be in the dressing room surrounded by everyone, suffocating him. Even Bale had had enough and left. Probably now he was in some other room, complaining about his ankle while the doctor checked him.

         He shook his head and took a step back. Had he been too hard on Leo? He had barely had the chance to say a few lines before his fiancé ran off to God knows where. Still, had he? That was something that could not really be told, right? The last time he had pushed him to the wall, hands in same place, and that had ended way differently. What was wrong this time? May it be that Leo did not love him anymore? Why wouldn’t he? Cris bit his lower lip, blood ran down his chin. That stupid pride again. Why can’t you change?

         ‘No! This ain’t ‘bout you!’ another voice inside him said. It was not a foreign voice. Proud, harsh, unrelatable, annoying. Had he really sounded like that? ‘This is ‘bout that tiny brat.’

         What? Sure, as if he was really going to answer – ‘That tiny flea has messed with ya head well enough!’ – himself. What the damn hell?!

         ‘Aye, ya heard me, pal! That plumbheaded mud is why Madrid is losing.

         I might be crazy just for thinking this is really happening. This is the kind of shit that happens after losing sleep, bloody hell.

         ‘Aye, pal, ya just keep tellin’ ya that and see who wouldn’t call ya nuts! And what’s with that accent?

         May I ask you the same, shit, he had to fall in the game. He truly was mad as a twat.

         ‘Oi! Stop it! This is who we are! Leave twats alone since ya haven’t touch one in years, aye pal?

         “I’m truly helpless.”

        “Is that so?” Leo was at his side, a truly beautiful sight for him to feast. He seemed calmer. The need to embrace him and lose himself in his heat drew him to him with great vigor, but Cris had to resist the impulse. Did not know why, but he had to. “Can we talk?” a sweet, melodic voice, as before. The flow of a river, the flutter of a butterfly. Lips calling, heart rising.

         “Of course,” resisted the push “meu amor” in a slow deep murmur.

         He let Leo lead the way, following him so close that his hands brushed against each other. He looked to one side and the other before choosing the path to take, it was strange but he looked confident.

         ‘Ya better do something ‘bout this one while ya can

         Shut up! He would not let his damned pride take the best of himself and take his relationship with Leo to hell. Neither anger, you had to be careful in that aspect. I could not wake up every day next to that man and suddenly one day scream and hurt him physically and emotionally. I’m better than that, than you.

         ‘But we’re one and the same. Who ya tryna cheat?

         Little by little he was relegating that dismal, shrill, disgusting and ominous voice to the back of his mind. At least there the stupidities that would stammer would be that; babbling and nothing more. That would be as important as he wanted to give it, for as long as he allowed it. Moving it to the bottom was the way to show himself that he had his priorities in order. The whims of a kid were not important now. Now was the time to be a man and amend his mistakes. The voice, young Ronaldo, said something more and laughed heartily.

         A sour expression must have ruled his face for a moment, for Leo asked if there was a problem. They had reached a dead end. Cris said there was no problem, he smiled and held Leo's chin with his fingers. The man would have to cut his beard soon. Leo inclined his head, resting his cheek on Cris's palm while re-echoing the Portuguese's hand with his. He closed his eyes and stayed like this for a while, smiling faintly. Cris extended his fingers until they were around the back of Leo's head, drawing him closer. Surrounding him with a hug. Leo wrapped his arms around Cris’s waist

         “Listen,” said Leo slightly.

 

Soon after they came back into the locker room, found it had proven not being as hard as finding Leo, which was not, really –it was pure luck, if that meant something in the world–, Leo and Cristiano went out. Probably they wouldn’t run far, but who knew? Álvaro went to the bathroom, and began to urinate when James approached him. The young man, he’s not a youngling!, seemed not to notice the situation. Álvaro stumbled, losing balance in the process and falling to the ground. He looked at the boy, now he had earned the nickname, with an expression of resentment, shame and disbelief. James was lost in his thoughts, he did see Morata on the floor, cock out and short a little wet, but seemed to not process the information.

         “How long ha---oh God, I-I-I” cheeks bursting into bright pale roses “why you---?”

         “I wanted to seduce you, to lay you between me and satin sheets. I bloody fell because you bloody scare me! Bloody blood and ashes, one can’t take a piss in peace any longer!”

         “I’m s-sorry!”

         “Yeah, well, whatever. Saying sorry won’t take the pain away. Now quit that scary look from your face and help me get to my feet before I wipe it with the back of my---!”

         “What’s going on here? Oh my” Tony stopped a few steps away from the threshold, behind him Marcelo and Isco faces appeared, one on top of the other. Their jaws dropped and then came the laughter.

         “I didn’t knew you like golden, Morata!” Marcelo howled, throwing himself to the floor and slapping himself on the buttocks.

         “Forget that! Look who’s bottom and who’s the top! With a girl like that who would’ve known Álvaro would resort to James!” the alluded became even redder, if that was possible, and began to tremble. Álvaro could see the tears grouping in his eyes.

         “You’re one to talk; tell me, does Marcelo plays as good as the drives you in? Or is it that you two lads need help to feel? Well, if you’re not going to answer me get the hell out of here! You too, Tony, let the grownups talk in peace.”

         They all stare at him, but ultimately went off. Álvaro sighed. Then got up while rubbing his butt. He put his cock inside again. He took James by the arms and shook him gently. “Are you alright?” no more answer than a trembling lip “Don’t listen to them, they're a bunch of idiots.” Still no answer “James” the man looked at him, he still seemed like weeping “what do you want to talk about?”

         “I need to go--- please.”

         “James? They are just buffoons, don’t take it too hard.”

         “You don’t understand, do you? Are you so b-blind?”

         Álvaro was puzzled. Suddenly he felt the room get bigger and bigger. “Wha-what is that that I don’t see, James?”

         “Forget it, just let go off me.” but he did not even wait for Álvaro to let go, he ran away from him abruptly, storming off and leaving him alone more puzzled than before. “Why’s the bloody world so bloody mad all of sudden?” Álvaro asked the tiles, no reply given.

 

As he spoke, he remembered most of what Álvaro had told him. Lionel was not a wise man, but was aware that Álvaro, for his young age, knew a little more about how to carry out a relationship. It was strange to get advice from someone younger. He felt awkward about it, as if he had wasted a part of his life. But somehow, he felt better now. There were many things he wanted to say, but he could not do it all at once, as if he were releasing a great litany in a matter of minutes. That would be impossible, the tongue was not faster than the mind. So he just told Cris about the nightmares, or that these were part of his life lately. He told him about his constant alienation and how this could be one of the reasons why each match was getting worse. He did not tell Cris about his dad, for that he was not ready yet. Soon, perhaps.

         “I'm afraid he'll see me as a weirdo” Morata had not made a fuss about it, he had agreed to listen to him, maybe, if it was in his power, help him in any way possible. Sometimes that side of his, the unbearable one, resurfaces when you least expect it. I know that people do not change overnight, but even I expected that side to fade faster.”

         Álvaro swallowed before talking. His pasty voice –was it something common among the natives of Madrid? Nacho, Dani and Terejo shared that same cadence in their vocal timbre, but it was surely much more pronounced in Morata's speech– was still a bit difficult to understand, especially when he spoke fast. Which did not always happen, but it was something present in any of his conversations. Álvaro spoke by pausing between sentences, regardless of the size of these “I don’t know how long you’ve been together, but I see a lot of him in you when you go out to play. Even in training. A little more and it would be like watching two Cristianos playing at the same time. It’s odd as hell. And I also see much of you in he. Yes, he still wanders around some places like a peacock. But his level of haughtiness is no longer that of before. I don’t think he's still the same proud person, he's proud and I don’t think anyone can take that away, not even beating him. But it has changed, it is more humble, especially when it is by your side.”

         “Huh. I still see him as haughty, even when I'm around.” And it was true. Cris would never been, despite all the hopes that Leo had for him, more humble. It was hard to admit, especially because say it so or think it so felt like a betrayal.

         “He’s protective. Bloody hell, you can almost sense he’s about to punch someone in the face when you’re around. But I don’t think he’s still haughty. Yet I could be wrong. Of that I ain’t sure at all.” Somehow Álvaro managed to sound both daydream and fun, serious and afraid. Face was as joyful as always, although his eyes and expression seemed to point towards other things.

         “Of what then?” a tired voice, too serious to really be his, crawled out of his throat, slipping in the air filling the space between them with the slow regard of silent.

        “That you two need to talk. You need to trust your fears into him, carry the weight together, not alone. And he must listen you. What could possibly gone wrong?” dead serious voice, not mad nor angry, nor sad, or deflated; just his sweet tenor voice.

         “You’re right---” and he was, not that he needed him to know it, but rather to reassure himself it was not just in his head. They, Cris and he, were not in trouble, sort of speak. But rather just missing cues on each other. They just needed to talk more about themselves than--- but actually, had they had a, what did Álvaro call it, heart to heart talk? They have not. Love, and after morning talks. But they sure knew little about each other, nothing that could not be found on the internet or tv interviews, or magazines for that matter. How could have they been so, well childish? Kisses, hugs and sex did not mean everthing was going to go well. No, no, no, no, now I’m just overthinking it too much he thought we just have not given ourselves the chance to really get to know each other, it's not something to panic about like an imbecile.

         “And if nothing goes right, we can always go back to the pink kit.” Morata laughed.

         “You had to do it, don’t you, jackass---? But thank you, really. You are braver than us.” Said Leo.

         Now, as he spoke and Cris listened, he felt like a weight left him. “I din’t knew,” Cristiano said kissing Leo’s hand. “How would you have? Who does not speak God does not hear. I'm sorry too, for my insecurity and---”

         “Don’t. Please don’t do that. If there is someone to blame it must be me for not showing you that you can trust me.” An alarm began to sound inside Leo's head, distant but present. Leo was not sure what had fired it but Cris noticed something was wrong. He did not say anything, but the fleeting change in his expression gave him away. Perhaps in his mind a similar alarm must have sounded. If so, and in the absence of time and more explanations, it must be that they were aware that the rest was over. Soon they would have to leave to the field again. Yes, that had to be. The lack of time. Only a matter of time. It was that. He relaxed a little.

         “You have.” he said, trying to transmit the calm he did not feel. Why was that siren still playing in his head? They were going to go there! God!

         “Not enough, it seems.” Cris's voice was filled with calm, understanding, love, was light and flew to his ears with the cadence of an ambrosia bell.

         “We’ve been such fools, huh?” Cris held him closer in his arms, circumvented the bore that had tried to rise between them. “Are we fine?”

         “No we ain’t. But don’t worry, after this we’ll have time to amend ourselves. For now let’s get back to win this game, after I think we can handle anything the world has to throw at us.”

         “Together.”

        “I see no other choice I’d rather choose.” He gave him a kiss on each cheek and one on her forehead. "Now let's go, we’ve got a job to do.” The alarm still pumped his mind as they made their way to the locker room.

Chapter Text

James was not paying full attention to the game. His mood had not improved at all. The only thing that prevented him from letting himself go crying were the cameras that walked from time to time in his place. That, however, could not dissuade him from paying more attention to the game or improving his expression. Llorente tried to make him laugh, or get him talking. But he did not feel in the mood for it. James wanted the day to end. To be in the hotel room, lying in bed, watching some movie. Alone. Only until his roommate arrived later that night after the party. Then he would go to sleep, without a word. But before he would cry, while pretending to watch television. Although maybe there was going to be no party after all. Apparently the other team had put the batteries and were determined to score the same five goals suffered in a shorter time than they had done. Mark and overcome them.

         His fellow bankers had stopped trying to include him in the conversation when he had been so reluctant, sullen, with them. Which only made worse the solitude. For the time being he would rather be alone. I don’t want their pity.

         He forced himself to watch the game, something could get out of it that made him go to happier thoughts. There was a lot to remember or more things to think about. The first step to feel better was to stop thinking about what bothered you, so that you could go to better places; warmer and more pleasant. His eyes immediately located the number 21 on the gray long-sleeved jersey.

         That was all needed to make his eyes water a bit. James turned his gaze down to his cleats. He gripped the fabric of his shorts tightly until his knuckles turned white. He did his best to keep his face as neutral as possible. Why did he had to be so blind?

         In the first nine minutes of the second half Gijón had done the impossible, marking not three or four, nor five; but six goals in a constant strike which left everyone watching speechless yet euphoric.

         Neither Ruben nor Bale had come back to the field. Both injured, were now resting in the bench, laughing and trying to remain optimistic. “After all” said Ruben “it’s only the first nine minutes of game. We can do this!” in their places were Kiko Casilla, green socks already dirty with his constant yet futile efforts to stop the ball. Toni had taken the place of Bale. Where one was pure fury, rage unleashed, the other was fire. Still, no goal for Madrid. The efforts were rising, the results not so much. Cris and Leo were trying their best. So was Gijón. A pass and the ball was lost. It seemed desperate, but at one point James recognized the first steps for the so called Triple Delta. Nothing happened there, though. For some reasons they decided not to use it. Not that the play had had actually been made successful once. For all the chemistry nonsense, pure crap and bullshit, that’s what it is, Álvaro always talked about no one single improvement had been actually made.

         And there he was once more thinking about him. Why are you so blind?

        No gain in going back to the same matters over and over again. And again he had to do so, for the game was not as interesting, despise all that was going on –another person, whose number and name had gone without James read it, was injured and laying down on the grass, Zinedine cursed out loud at everyone in Gijón team– he rather fetch his sight with the views of his cleats or the audience above them, or the sky, loosing strength as night gather up. James sighed in relief of something he had not realized and by the time he was aware of his feeling the thought had just slipped away. Again he raised his glaze to the game in front, players running along. Number 10 flying between the spaces that could be found; number 7 followed closer, delayed by the players who stood between him and his path; 12 and 22 going constantly up and down, waiting for a pass that never fulfilled. And number 21 always in the middle of something. Always with the ball at his feet. Full of energy. I will not be fooled into this.

         The floor once more. His cleats. This is not going to go the--- the sudden screams made him look up. Álvaro had scored and was now gone, lost into the many gray jerseys that surrounded him. Bale and Llorente were screaming, celebrating they called it, standing and waving hands to an audience oblivious of their actions.

         Arbeloa came closer to James. “A shame that man was and not Cristiano. He should be the one making all the right scores.”

         “Madrid is not Cristiano alone. But that bloody CR7 on the field alone and he’ll lose faster than he’ll score.” Said bale as someone would do while talking about dinner or the water bill. Cristiano was, for many of his teammates, unbearable. Not many liked him and thus the man had few friends and many known. Bale, despite the two getting along well, as well as James could tell, was among the later ones. Cris had said to James once that the friends he had in the team, true friends he meant, “could be count with the fingers of any hand. It’s alright, people gets sassy when they spent too much time in the shadow.” Despite all that, Cristiano did enjoy playing alongside Bale, Marcelo and some others. But friendship had not flourished there.

         “You know he’s basically the face of the team.”

       “The time we start playing with our faces instead of our feet, then you can remind me that. Not now nor after; but when that comes to fruition.” A dry and wryly tone impregnated Bale's voice to the core. Nothing more came from Arbeloa but a resentment glance.

        James let it be. He was not willing to fight or stand in between other’s fight. The game was going on again. How many minutes had had passed? Twenty? Twenty five? James shrugged. Madrid against Gijón, 6-6.

         We better win this.

        Modric took possession of the ball and made a run to the goal. He did not score, but was close to. The ball had hit the squad. Modric was the one to take the place of James. Three went off and three came in. Modric, Kroos and Casilla. The three of them doing their best.

        Leo was among the few friends –for obvious reasons– Cristiano had. James like to think about those two as close friends. He had tought of Leo that way way before he even had joined the team. Well, not that long. But when Zinedine and Florentino came to talk about changing his number so Leo could keep the 10, James agreed without hesitation. That was when he began thinking of Leo as a friend. Not that he had begun to talk to him immediately but that was another matter. And Álvaro--- No! Stop it! Would you please stop? It was going so well--- ah, fine. I guess it doesn’t matter, you’ll just’ve to learn and live with it. Wasn’t my fault. But why, ashes, why was he so blind? Was it just him or everybody was that blind? They had not unraveled the nature of Leo and Cris. Nor had had he if it were not for Cristiano himself at Christmas Eve. Does Neymar knows?

 

Álvaro looked up to the sky. Heavy clouds were gathering up there, casting shadows over the stadium. A shiver shook him from toes to head. A wind rose, passing through chilling the place with its no so gentle force. The smell of petricor spread with the softness of the mist in a matter of seconds. And a feeling of uneasiness came with it.

 

James covered himself with the white and black jacket. No score and no true advance had been made since the last goal. Cris and Leo were less active, as the ball remained mostly with Marcelo, Pepe and Ramos. Gijón number 7 took the ball and rode it along the corners until it went off. Which allowed Madrid to kick-off the ball once more. It was passed to Leo, down at a corner and--- the man moved towards the center, tracing a diagonal. Cristiano was doing the same, from the upper corner of which Leo was. The ball was passed constantly between those two. Fast passes. No more than three strides between each pass. 10 and 7 met at the center, with the later in control of the ball at the time and then 10. Leo made a pass, with not enough force to reach Cristiano. No one was near the ball and then.

 

Álvaro pick up the ball, ran and the pass it once more to Leo. And Lionel fired. The ball flew. Time slowed down. He could feel every drop of sweat on his body. His heart was the only thing that beat at a normal pace. The goalkeeper stood up, leaning to the side, arms stretching towards the projectile. Closer and closer. His face was fierce, determined. Maybe a finger touched the ball, judging by the way he closed his hands in both fists. But it escaped him. The ball went to sink in the net of the goal.

         Only then could Leo feel the blow of time as it returned to its natural course. His foot touched the ground, he ran a little before changing direction, fingers pointing to the sky in honor of his grandmother. And he kept running. Dodging hugs and disappointed faces. He ran until he was breathless. Reaching his goal.

         Cris's lips welcomed his. Cris loaded him and turn, as if they were dancing a waltz. Leo wanted to laugh, cry, say something, but Cris did not break the kiss and neither did he. They narrowed more tightly with each other. There were no one but them, they were alone in the darkness, spinning as the thunder of a storm muffled out in the distance. The longer they stay closer the stronger they gripped. All sounds from outside were diminished every fast passing second.

         They separated slowly. Cris had his eyes wide open. He was pale. I'm trembling. He released it. Leo was also trembling. It was a long time before they refused to look at anything other than their eyes. All around looked at them. Thousands of eyes fixed on them. And among so many eyes, amid such effluvium of emotions, absolute silence reigned.

Chapter Text

“Well what the bloody hell was that?” Zinedine shouted at both of them when he finally shut the door close with a strong strike. The voices at the other side, all of his teammates eager to know exactly the same as Zinedine had demanded, were shut silent with the sound of the door closing, then breaking. “Are you stupid, sons of a goat?”

         “Hey, watch it---!”

         “No, sweetie, you watch your bloody mouth if you pretend to keep playing for years to come! And you wipe that silly expression out of your face!” he hit with a fist the table on which he had sat. “Now tell me, burn you all, what bloody gormless manky was that!”

         “Well ain’t you a scrubber.”

         “And ain’t you an uphill prat gardener?”

         “Uphill prat gardener?” Leo raised an eye brow.

         “Aye! That’s precisely” Zinedine answered, dangerous bright in his eyes.

         “Don’t ask, Leo.” Whispered Cris in between his squeaking teeth.

         “What's that?” ignored Cris, “I need to know.”

         “A bell end swallower through and through; a cock sucker; a bloody homo, if you get me, git.”

         “Well that’s just nice to say.”

         “I did warn you not to ask.”

         “Stop chatting as if we were drinking in a pub! And answer me.”

         “What’s the problem?” Cris hastened to say, angry, he was not going to give free rein to being insulted by anyone and less in that way. Leo did not know whether to laugh, cry, get angry, scared, or what. “Lot of players had had kissed over the years when scoring a winning bloody goal.”

         “Aye. So that was it, right?” a faint smile that quickly was gone as it had never been there before, eyes sparkled deep flames and the man grow taller even as he continued to be sit. “DO YOU THINK ME A WAZZOCK? That’s was not a friendly kiss, of which we aye had seen a bit every now and then. Nay, pal, pardon me if I’ve been misled, but that a kiss was simply not! You two, maggots, seemed to enjoy of each other, for what a thousand thounsand eyes could see and millions for the world to eat you alive! One does not goes old without noticing things clear as day. Other time, in other instance somewhere else, I wouldn’t ask. But as it happens, it is now and here. And you two are mine responsibility. I am the one who will have to go out AND GIVE THE BLOODY FACE TO EXPLAIN WHAT KIND OF KISS WAS THAT! Why you had to so in public? I don’t mind if you pair of fairy pansy poofs like to stab each other’s back, but keep that to your bedpost and not to the reflectors! Blood and ashes, Lord cast me down for what I’ve done badly, but why to do it so?”

         “Yeah, so?” Cris said, the cold voice, with that arrogance of his. His body was tense, but he stood as proud as ever, his eyes fixed, dark, revealing nothing but cold determination. He would not bend to Zinedine once. The couch smiled, a fierce smile, and then looked at Leo. He tried to impose as much splendor as Ronaldo, but he did not succeed. Zinedine was relentless with his looks.

       “What will Jorge say about this, little flea?” Leo felt himself break, the room grew larger, distant, bigger, but Zinedine seemed to come closer and bigger than anything else dominating his sight. Cris at his left was going adrift, and he did seem too as he had break. They tried to hold each other’s hand, but Zinedine was faster and grabbed them both in a tight grasp. “So it’s not just a victory kiss, is it?”

         “You cold bastard---!” gasped Cris.

         “Call me what you want, lad. It changes not the truth.” Eyes throwing fires ready to kill them right there. “Have you shared sweets while watching films? Or fetch each other biscuits or chips in you flat, Cristiano? How lovely must your holidays be? Right now, prats, I ain’t mad. I’m pissed off. You two will talk to the press and cast anything down before it fires, do you hear me?”

         “I will not.” the firmness of his voice surprised even Leo. Where had he found the braveness, strength and courage to face that man? Who knows? But now that that resurgence was within reach, he would not let it disappear. “I won’t hide anything am not ashamed of.”

         “So the little lion does have fangs. Good! You’ll need them with the press, or they’ll eat you too, alive.”

         “Didn’t you hear me? I will not walk out to spit out lies of what I am not ashamed or afraid of. You can walk your bald shiny head and told them yourself, but I will not. I’m just tired of being told what to do and have my life taken over. I won’t do this.”

         “IT’S FOR YOUR OWN GOOD!”

         “I DON’T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT WHAT YOU THINK IS BEST FOR ME!”

         “Leo---”

         “SO GO FUCK YOURSELF WITH YOUR STUPID REQUEST! I WON’T BEND TO THE PRESS! THEY CAN ALL GO FUCK THEMSELVES!”

         “Leo---”

         He turned to look at Cris, barely stopping the cry that was going to direct to him, and watched a man broken that had made a decision. “You won’t go out. But I will.” the words pierced his heart.

         “What---?”

         “See? At least he still has a little common sense there in that boiled head of his.”

         “Why would you do that?” disappointed and betrayed did not come close to describing how he felt at that moment. His voice sounded broken, all the courage was gone. In his interior the rage competed against pain. I’m not that important in his life--- I was right he gasped as tears slid down his cheeks after all I was right back then, the morning after--- I’m just a fuck stand for him--- I’m nothing but a lust night. “Don’t you---?”

         He did not let him finish “You don’t understand. Zinedine is right. We have to cut this from the root before it spread out. It’s our only chance.”

         “You didn’t--- you’ve never did--- did you?”

         “What are you babbling about, lad?” Zinedine tried to step in, but Leo left him out again. This had nothing to do with him, and he better start getting that.

         “You have never. Why all the trouble then? Just to keep the trophy? Just to laugh when I turned my back?! SO WHEN ANOTHER CONTRACT SENDS ME AWAY YOU CAN START TALKING SHIT OF ME?! IS THAT WHY?! HOW MANY KNOW?! HOW LONG I’VE BEEN PLAYING FOOL WHILE EVERYONE ELSE LAUGHES AT A YOUNG POOR PATHETIC IDIOT WHO HAS GAVE YOU EVERYTHING WITHOUT A SECOND THOUGHT!” then it struck him, and it made it even worse, now he was truly crying his heart out. His jersey was getting darker, as the sofa, were his tears landed. The room felt colder. He raised a hand and showed it to Cris “was this a lie too?” Silent, Cristiano was really putting a show pretending to hold his tears back. I’ve been such a fool.

         “You don’t understand, Leo.” That doughty thick accent, burdened with a lifetime in Portugal, filled his ears and Leo hated the way it made him feel safe, in home. Because it was all a lie. Nothing but a lie. Lionel wanted to scream, run to him and hit him, smash that bronzed face of him that so proudly walked the streets and exhibited in so many photos. Yet, at the same time, he wanted to be hug and kissed by that same man. Wanted him to have him. Lionel felt sick. The man from Argentina, the blaugrana, stood and looked at Cristiano from above, as much as his height allowed it, as if he was looking at a dangerous animal that could attack at any moment. The Portuguese seemed to be looking for the correct words, but none came to him. The lies had run out. Lionel turned his hands into fists, but kept them at his side. He would not be the one to throw the first punch.

       “You can keep it to yourself. You can keep the lies and laughs, use them as you will. I’ve been a fool before; that I burden. But I won’t be your fool anymore.” Said to Cristiano Ronaldo, the liar. Then to Zinedine “You can say whatever you want. I won’t. I will just train and give my best at every game, but I won’t go out and face the cameras just to be mocked. I am done with being fooled. I will keep my word of working hard to emend this. But I will not play if he is in the field at the same time as I am.”

         “Leo---” a whisper, painful apparently. I won’t look at him. He’ll just play more with me. I can’t. I can’t. God, give me the strength!

         “I will not be a fool again.”

         And with that, Leo turned around and opened the broken door. On the threshold there were too many perplexed faces looking at him. They had been caught in fraganti listening. He pushed his way between them, his chin lifted, and disappeared. He did not look back once.

         The road was clear to the dressing rooms. Nobody tried to follow him after the refusals and the incendiary glances Leo gave to anyone trying to find out more about what was going on, burn them! As if they didn’t hear it all out loud! As if the whole fucking stadium doesn’t know by now! Burn them, fucking morons! They soon stopped walking on his heels and hit his ear again at the broken door.

         He took off his uniform and took a quick shower. The water was just beginning to come out warm when he closed its path. Dripping, he went back to where his things were. Leo dried himself vigorously with what seemed like an old towel, leaving his skin red. From his suitcase he pulled out a simple dark-colored suit. A tie of a lighter shade, red, fell to the ground. He had not put her there. Perhaps Cristiano had. He lifted it gently and contemplated it for a while. Then threw it into his suitcase, rummaging through his things while searching for the deodorant. When Álvaro entered, Leo was buttoning the last buttons of his white shirt. In the end he undid his job, since he would not wear a tie, he did not have to button them all.

         Álvaro did not speak at first. I kept looking at him askance, or openly, according to his position. Searching between his things and turning towards the door, waiting for someone to enter or wishing that nobody would do it.

       Finally, with his bundle of clothes under his arm, he decided to speak. Leo was finishing the laces on his black shoes. Sharing glances between the tapes and Álvaro. “Leo, what happened?” the voice sounded shy, fearful for some reason, but curiosity was more latent than anything else.

         “Oh” Leo felt a forced smile stretched his lips, the eyes did not share that gesture. His tone was wry. “Didn’t you heard?”

         “As a matter of fact I did not. And not for lack of trying, believe that.” With his arms akimbo and that hurtful expression –or was it a proud one?– Álvaro looked like a midwife who was quick to scold a particularly annoying child. He began opening his mouth to continue, but Leo came in faster, cutting him before he could even start.

         “Look, it doesn’t matter anymore. So stop pretending to be a friend. Stop acting like you care and be on your way. I’m just tired of---” The incoming call tone from his cell phone cut him off. He stopped giving importance to Álvaro, but the young man did not leave, he continued planted there with that same ridiculous pose, while Leo fumbled between his suitcase until he found the device.

 

Incoming Call

Dad

 

         Leo gasped. The last thing he wanted right then was. But before anything, his thumb had already disengaged the green button. Strange noises from the other side of the line. He inhaled and held his breath, waiting.

         “Well, Lionel.” A dry voice. Nothing more. “Have you had enough already carrying out your own decisions?”

         Leo squeezed his free hand in a fist until the pain made him feel less nervous. Only then could he speak again, although the sentences came out slow, not forced, rather calculated. The last thing he needed now was to yell at his father and have him yell back. So, despite his desire to yell at him, and not just Jorge, Lionel had to bite his tongue and restrain himself. “That’s the only thing for what you call me?”

         “You know, Lionel, you are an ungrateful cretin. When your current contract was made, we had in mind to make you worth triple and see you at the top, your face in every news with your new achievements. And of course eradicate the jester that is neither good nor deserves the reputation of which he has become creditor. Of course we did not expect that you will reach those heights in this way. Do you see what happens when you are not being hold by the reins? Imagine my shame, and your mother’s, as we are all here, all your family, cousins, brothers, uncles, and we saw you go on fully faggot on TV. What am I supposed to say to them, Lionel?”

         “Well, you know, dad, this would’ve never happened if you haven’t had make foolish contracts behind my back. And, as for what you are to say, I don’t give a damn. Tell them what you want.”

         A wry laugh pierced Leo’s ears. Then Jorge kept ongoing. “Ungrateful little bastard. After all we’ve done---”

         “Nothing you have done for me but trouble. It was my grandma who was there for me raising me. If I really owe something to someone, it’s to her. So shrug off that stupid thought that you’re to praise. And stay out of my business. I already told you once. Or more. Do not make me repeat it again.”

         His father sighed “Lionel, you disappoint me. If that’s what you wish.” He hung up, leaving Leo cold. Álvaro was already gone, the shower in the background gave him away. Leo took his things and left. He did not meet anyone and when he left, fortunately, he did not find reporters or fans. The bus was already waiting for them, so he went up and went to the last row. He closed the curtain and put on the headphones. Pulled the book out of the suitcase and tried to read, but could not concentrate and ended up rereading the same simple line over and over, and again.

         Time passed slowly, very slowly. The song that he was listening was interrupted with the incoming call from Neymar. Leo let it ring. He would talk to his friend later in the night, when Leo had had time to think things through. When everything did became so convoluted? And still not a sign from any of his teammates.

         He reclined, closing the book and putting it on the seat next to him. He looked at the ceiling, not seeing anything in particular. It was funny how things came down when one least expected. That morning everything had been just fine. Then it all went downhill. And it was still going, he could feel it. Whining won’t help at all. He had to move out, that was for sure now. It was going to take time to pack all his things, to take them out would be another matter. But, matter or not, he was moving out as soon as possible. And apartment would do. And for the time being a hotel room would do as well. Next to the downtown, so doing the shopping would not be a hassle and there would be no reason to ask anyone for a ride. The car could be dealt with later, when the apartment was assured.

         ‘Or you could just stay and say sorry.

         No way in doing that! Not after what he had done.

         ‘That’s something you should’ve had thought before bursting like that. Rage is not a solution. Your head was hot and you let that anger and fear take the reins. It is not too late for saying sorry.

         Álvaro climbed into the bus. “They’re coming.” He said. Leo nodded absently. Why had not another song started already?

         “Álvaro” he began. The younger man stare down at him from the first row. “Would you mind if I share room with you tonight. You could ask your roommate to leave. I don’t wanna be in a room with him just now.”

         “What’s with that pronoun name?”

         “Huh?”

         “Yeah, whatever. I think James won’t we eager at all to see me--- whatever I’ve done to him.”

         What was that about? “A-aye. He could sleep in Ronaldo’s room. Don’t think he’ll mind.”

         “Are you sure?”

         “Yes. I will not go out to celebrate.”

         Half an hour later, according to the clock on his cell phone, the bus left. No one was sitting next to him. Not because they did not want to, several had made an attempt to approach, but Leo chased them away with a hard look and a resounding refusal. Cris had not been on the bus, so in theory that place must have been his by right. James had been the most persistent in approaching Leo, but after several failed attempts Marcelo had forced him to sit by his side. No one looked again at Leo’s place, or they did not do it so openly. The curtain next to Leo remained closed, he would not open it. Did not want to see anything of that city. And yet he did not want to see the nape of the neck or faces or anything, of his companions.

         The book continued to seem so vague and dispassionate that to continue pretending to read was an even worse punishment. He raised his feet to the empty seat and leaned against the window. The face reclined against the back of the chair. He closed his eyes. He let himself be rocked by the passing of the bus.

         Leo was not asleep, not quite. Somehow he was aware of his surroundings, of the heat, breaths and heartbeats of every person. It was impossible and lacked a logical explanation. But it was true. I was aware of all of them. Of the movement of the engine gears. Of the pavement on which the wheels passed. Someone had the air conditioner on, Lionel could hear that artificial whiff breaking through the plastic slits. In the air floated that smell like a refrigerator. Someone else was listening to heavy music, and another two were gossiping about something. Us, what else could it be?

         Lionel was also dreaming of long roads, silver stars, rainy days and cold mornings. Of dust falling all over him. Something, or perhaps someone, crawling out of a dark mouth open in the earth. His mother was also there, in the dream not the mouth, wearing nothing but strange feathers that were not a dress but born from within her skin. She had two faces in once side, and other two in the other. The ones from the left reminded Leo of his brothers, while the ones at the right were the living image of his grandmother. Both of them, Celia and Rosa. The faces all seemed like smiling, but at a closer look they were really screaming in anger. They had no eyes but black pits that shrivel the light. Those dregs wear away all of him and Leo, a tinny Leo that could fit in a hand or a pocket, was screaming at the top of his lungs. And the sound was so faint, way too feeble, that it could very well not be at all there. But it was. And it was being used, sucked to the core of those beast from other time.

         The tiny man falls into those black holes, all in once but just one at all. He falls and screams. And turns around as he falls. The wind there is a thunderstorm that catches his skin and frays his limbs away as rotten rags that ignite into the black and gray clouds around him. Lightings came out of the sockets of his stumps, tearing the scarred skin again. Blood pours out as a waterfall, staining the nimbus. From there golden beams are spit. And Leo keeps falling, never reaching an end. Spinning all the time as he screams. His body is slowly fading away. What remains are terrified eyes wrapped in lilac and green flames that torch a broken moon that is following him in his descent.

         When his eyes have turned to ashes, the fall suddenly stops. Up there the storm is still roaring in a black sky without stars. Far from him, the moon falls with a crash, cracking a land so black and lustrous that it could well be marble. The celestial body breaks even more into pieces of different sizes, and it raises an enormous layer of dust that creates a wake ascending towards the mouth of the storm. When the dust settles enough, Leo can see that the moon bleeds rivers of silver, and as it does so the light of the rocks starts to go out.

        At the base of the corpse a thick layer of dust continues to advance in spirals. The light of the moon, weak but with enough force to make shadows, marks the silhouette of a woman. It's gigantic, compared to the little Leo. However, if Leo had his normal height, that silhouette would still be three times as tall as him. She advances towards him. Leo’s body has returned, but bruised and malnourished, as if he had been years without eating well or exercising.

         From the dust curtain Antonella comes out. Her skin is dark with bronchial tints, almost the same shade as Cristiano's. She is naked and walks asserting each curve of her body with sinuous movements. Her brown hair falls in undulations to the height of her buttocks. For all that Leo knew, she had never left it that long. Soft long nailed hands pick him up from the grown with rehearsed delicacy. She was humming a soft low tone tune. Her skin shone, as if buried there were thousands of diamonds. Her voice was sweet, delicate and full of form. Listening to her was like sliding between mountains of silk. Leo’s eyes were a bit lighter than hers, but not as dark as Cristiano’s.

         “Child,” she whispered “why do you let the light disappear when you need it most?” the image vanished.

         He woke up with a start. Álvaro was almost on top of him. Watching with those strange eyes. “We’re here” he announced and went away.

         There was no one else in the bus now, but Leo, still reclining in his seat. Sweat making him feel uncomfortable inside his clothes.

         At the reception, Morata was waiting for him with the key, a gray plastic card with a black stripe next to it, and together they went up to the fourth floor all the way across the hall to the number 173. It was a simple double room with a flat TV on the wall and beds in brown and white sheets. Two chairs with similar upholstery next to the window, with a glass table in-between. At the side of each bed a bedside table with a lamp on top. The phone was on a desk under the tv. The bathroom looked impetuous, with a small shower on the other side of two glass doors.

         Álvaro dropped his stuff in the bed, the one closer to the bathroom, and then left. He said something, but Leo had his mind in other places so he missed what Morata said. Lionel nodded, though.

         Once alone he take his clothes off and went to sleep. There was still light on the horizon that crept into the room as he gave up to the dream. The dream where he was tiny once more and alone in an apotheosal wasteland.

         The morning came with its deadly halo and found Leo awake already for several hours wrapped between thick sheets and blankets, face buried between the bumps of a caked pillow. The man sat on the edge of the bed and looked through the window at the waking city. He felt like yearning.

         Álvaro, for reasons of destiny –which was the same to say unknown reasons– was awake, too. Fully packed into his cell phone, he barely gave a greeting of good morning, to dry, it should be added, to his roommate. Leo, taking it as a matter of course that the man –he still felt reluctant to consider him his friend in full– handled himself in that way, nodded and invited him to breakfast.

         "Leo, it's six in the morning, the service does not start for another hour." There was no trace of sleep in his voice, so he must have been awake for at least half an hour, Leo decided. Álvaro seemed fully rested, fresh and ready for the day. Leo, on the other hand, and despite having slept more than eight hours, felt dusted. His stomach again protested by the lack of food for the fifth time since he had woken up from a restless sleep, dream already blurred. He had woken up restless, feeling disoriented. Panic invaded him and it took a while to recognize where he was. That had been at four o'clock in the morning, when the sky was still too dark and the stars were twinkling up there. Through the window there was no sign of the moon. There were no clouds that night. Leo remained awake, watching as the sky cleared, unable to go back to sleep.

         Leo smiled with that smile of his, holding a hand to his ear and pinching it between his fingers. An idea occurred to him, it was not bad. "We can go out and have a drink, I'd like to do it." Which meant that with luck they would be out until they could return to Madrid. When in Madrid--- well, that would be dealt with later.

       Without stopping writing, Álvaro gave him a quick look "Do you think that’s wise, with what has happened?" Leo must have felt outraged or offended. He was sure that it was necessary to get angry and yell at him, accuse him of something. But he did not feel any of that. Only hunger. The anger of the previous day, that outburst, had been that and nothing else. An attack, an explosion. Leo had already endured a lot of shit and it was obvious that sooner or later everything would come up. The previous day had been the precise day for it. When I tell Cris---! Right.

          Leo shrugged those thoughts away. “Come on, let’s go out and eat. I’m starving, don’t you?”

         Neither Leo nor Álvaro bathed. Which with the later did not represent any problem, as the man did took a shower yesterday after the game. After my scolding. As for Leo, well; the man stunk. Perhaps later that day, before going to the airport. Or maybe once in Madrid, before leavetaking for a hotel.

         The streets were empty. They took a cab in front of the hotel and Leo asked to be dropped in a restaurant. The driver left them in a 24/7 sort-of-McDonald. The food was not great, but was not bad. Álvaro had a bowl of fruit along with two fried eggs and toasted bread, and a glass of strawberry juice. Leo went for a sandwich, a Panini the menu said –as if by saying things became the name– of ham and chicken, also a bowl of fruit, though not as big as Álvaro’s and a cup of coffee. They ate while talking. And then remained there in their table, sipping through coffee and sweet bread.

         They were back before nine and found out a press conference was about to be held. Sergio, Bale, James, Marcelo, Zinedine and Cristiano were gone. Álvaro suggested to be back to their room and Leo nodded.

         On the TV the news were being bombed with images of the kiss, which surprisingly did not change Leo’s mood. After fifteen minutes of watching the same clip repeated, Lionel’s phone rang. It was Neymar. “What was that!”

         “Er---” began Leo, aback for the intense tone in Neymar’s voice. At first Leo thought his friend vexed. But Neymar was not. His voice was energetic and demanded urgency, but it was far from being an angry tone.

         “No, no, no, no, no. Don’t say a word. Are you alright? Is he alright?” Despite the years that separated Leo from Neymar, he behaved as if he were the eldest and Leo his little brother who has been discovered stealing cookies from a pot. The analogy did not seem right, the context was all wrong, but somehow it was the right one. It made a lot of sense to Leo.

         “Yeah, hello to you too.” He said, holding back the laughter. His friend was a case worth watching for.

         “Lionel!” Neymar demanded while grumbling something about having to put up with this after the bad things that had happened the previous day. Leo was somewhat disconcerted. It took him a moment to answer, Álvaro looked at him with interest, even though more interesting things happened on the TV.

         “We’re fine. As fine as we could.” He said cautiously, without taking his eye off Álvaro and this one at him. What may he be thinking?

         “What do you mean? Will they retaliate?” An imperious tone, but worried, pierced his ear. Jesus! Chill, man, just chill. But that was not what Leo ended up saying, as he knew Neymar would not be calm at all. Once started, the man was impossible to take a step down to his emotions. A total case, indeed.

        “No, I took care of it.” And had he not? His throat still sore a bit for all the screaming. He felt embarrassed by his behavior, not that he could do anything about it now or that it mattered. He really wanted to say all that, he had felt and mean it. All of it. All. For once, his cheeks did not went red.

         “What do you mean by that? What’s going on? Piqué went crazy, you know? Threw things all over the place, broke some objects. Shit! Javier was didn’t know whether to laugh or shit with fear, and neither did I for the record. Rafhina was--- well, you know him and Dani. But Suarez got really angry. He and Piqué almost fight, not like that pussy-fights they used to have, you know, but real fight with fist and all. Jesus! It was mad! And then Javier, fucking weirdo. But hey, watcha expect from a Mexican? Not to offend, you know, but those dudes mock death every November. It’s weird. It was weird to be there, I told you! And Piqué started pointing me screaming ‘you knew this shit, don’t you?’. And you know what’s worst? They all teamed against me! Fucking five pairs of eyes staring down at me with inquisitive or I dunno what kind of bullshit-look were those. But it was frighten, man, that I told you! What was wrong with you two! You almost fucking kissed in the first half until some blanco jumped upon them, thank however that was for me and punch him hard for not doing it again!” Leo walked towards Álvaro and punched the man in arm with strength.

         “What the hell was that for?” cried out Álvaro while rubbing the impact spot, he looked at Leo with incredulity and distrust.

         “Neymar says thanks.” Álvaro tasted the name with his lips, even more incredulous. He sputtered an insult, or maybe it was a threat, who could tell with that dialect?

         “Oh man, that shit was crazy. Good game, though! Very, very good. And, if that wasn’t enough, they all began to blame Cristiano for that! That the man had had led you astray, and all that kind of shit. You know how they are. And---to be fair, perhaps I may have agreed to some degree. But you know I wouldn’t say the man took you in a leash, God no! That diva wouldn’t be able to handle you at all! If I had to bet I would do it for you, always. Every time. Oh, but it was crazy.” He took a break to grab air, Leo just waited. What else could be done? “And you!  Oh, don’t you think you’ll get clean out of this! Why the fuck don’t you answer your fucking phone? Jesus, it was like waiting for fucking---I don’t know! I understand the moment and how may you have felt, but a fucking message wouldn’t have been impertinent, you know? Ah, forgive me, man, I know I shouldn’t, but with all that’s been happening. I mean, have you turned on the TV to watch the news? You are all over the place! Even fucking Facebook has gone wild! And there’re some gay people, a bunch of homos, already making photos of you two with rainbow flags all over--- sorry! I know you are---I mean that you---Oh you know what I mean!”

         “I’m not gay.” Said Leo, laughing. Silence on the line, he could picture Neymar face being the same as Álvaro. They think I'm kidding them. “What do you want me to say?” he went on “I’m not. I’ve never have had feelings or desire for another man. Just---”

         “Another.” Said Álvaro, a wide open smile tearing his face in two. For heaven's sake that man was--- was----! To hell with him! Sooner or later Leo would settle accounts with those two!

         “See? You didn’t say other!” To hell with you two! Who you think yourself Dr. Fucking-Brave-Star-Heart! God, I’ll make sure you two don’t meet beyond the field or I’ll be damned! Nevertheless, he felt comfortable with them.

         “You two go fuck yourselves!” He said at last. Better hated than quiet. Besides those two would not take it badly. They were good friends. And if they did, well, they were the ones calling him gay and then being apologetic about it! The world was sure a funny place to be living in. Gay--- could I?

         “Two? Whataya mean? Is Cristiano there with you? Put him on the phone, I’ve got a few things I want to tell him too!”

         Leo suppressed laughter. For all he knew, which day by day seemed a little less, Neymar could well give the scolding of his life to Cristiano or be him the one dragged in dirt. Neymar was meekly to a certain amount, but he was also one who would not refuse a fight once started. Neymar was a good friend and Leo really missed him badly. “It’s not Cris; it’s Álvaro.” Leo answered at last. In his voice one could perceive the absence of a nuance for his words, perhaps his face reflected that same emptiness and only maybe he was lucky that he seemed to be concentrated, or absent, and not depressed. He went from happiness to sadness like a madman. It was partly due to being talking to Neymar, thus remembering the good old-times.

         “Álvaro? What’s he doing there?” Álvaro began to make negatives with his hands and head, his eyes wide open. The man had to have an amazing level of perception if he had realized what Leo had been about to do, when Leo himself had barely noticed his own decision. One in a kind.

         “Are you sure? Well, whatever. Gay or not, bisexuals of whatever you want to be called, you love that man! But that’s not the point” Neymar spat without a break. How can he do that? “You two need to be more---”

         “Careful, I know. Listen” he paused there, not knowing how to go on. Which words to pick and--- why was he being so careful and naïve? The truth will come out later that same day, better for Neymar to hear it first from him, the real truth, than brawl over whatever Cristiano would. That way, maybe, Neymar would not feel so sorry for Leo. “I don’t think we’re a thing anymore.” Álvaro jaw dropped dead. Silence from Neymar as well. A silence that went on too long. The television sounded thunderous in the middle of that stillness. Of course it did not have the volume so high, Álvaro had lowered it to a barely audible murmur when Leo answered his cell phone. Something that Cristiano had never done. It was not that it mattered, at least not anymore, he told himself, but it was the little details that eventually formed the foundations of memory.

         “You’re kidding, right?” both men asked in surprise. The same exact words at the same time, almost in the same tone, escaping from blow of two different mouths distanced by thousands of kilometers. What a fucking coincidence! It did not take away the special bit of it, although it had more to do with the macabre than with the special kind of coincidence. Get your head to the ground, Leo!

         “I think not” he said facing Álvaro but talking to both men. It was without doubt the most particular conversation in which he had participated. It still remained to be seen if Álvaro would fully join it or remain as a listener, something like a special sitcom just for him.

         “WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?” Roared Álvaro. Leo was sure that it was not long before the man got up from the bed to give him a blow on the forehead. But Álvaro just made gestures with his hands before raising them to the exasperated sky, to finally cross them on his chest and look at him so outraged.

         “Just for a kiss! Woah, tell that lion to chill the fuck out!”

         “Look---I---this things happens, okay?”

         “Yeah, SURE!” Álvaro, making a face that wouldn’t fit badly with Weird Al Yankovic.

         “But you’re engaged, Leo! You can’t just throw that away! You can’t!”

         “I think I---”

       “Shut up for a minute, will you?” no answer “Cristiano fucking loves you, man! I may not like him, not that much I admit. But even I can see you’re the light of his world! He’ll do anything for you. Don’t waste that. Don’t throw away---”

         “He was playing with me. Nothing more.” Somehow he managed to avoid sounding hurt, sad. He commented as if he would talk about the cold of the night or the pleasant heat of the day. I did not have to break before them. Maybe before Neymar, yes, there was enough confidence. But with Álvaro--- Leo did not know what to think about that. It was a friend; that was for granted. Yet---

         “You bloody idiot.” Leo frowned at Álvaro, he just shrugged and repeated it again with a more determined attitude, punctuated by a nod of his head. Which make him look like a genius with his arms crossed over his chest.

         “Why you say that?” Neymar's voice sounded disappointed, maybe a little annoyed and it was clear that there was a bit of exasperation there.

         “It’s complicated. God, I’ve should have stayed with---”

         “No, you should not!” Neymar said suddenly, cutting.

         “At least that way no big problem would’ve---”

         “All that reading and you know nothing! What is is, and what was was.”

         “Yeah, and you’re a complete philosopher.”

         “You get me, don’t play the fool you are not.”

         “Alright fine! But what we were was. If you get me, Ney.”

         Neymar sighed, then after a moment he spoke “Leo,”

         “Aye?”

         “Do me a favor, will you?”

         “Aye.”

         “Look down at your hand, your left one.” My hand? What’s this about. He did as was told. “What do you see?”

         “Just my hand and---the ring.”

         “What is is.

         They talked a little while longer, but the conversation had come to an end and it was clear to everyone, even to Álvaro that it was actually an external factor in her. Which did not stop him from nodding from time to time, thinking God will know in what things he had not heard what Neymar had said. But he had watched Lionel all the time. The man was, without a doubt, an insightful observer.

         Shortly after the interview began. There were many questions, yet no one had addressed the incident yet. Cristiano wore a puzzled face, looking up from the panel rarely and answering only the questions that Zinedine thought seemed right to answer. The answers were almost always monosyllabic or short phrases, most of the time dry and wryly driven, but lacking the charisma and stubbornness the Portuguese usually used. James also looked like an absent person and every time he spoke, Álvaro stirred in bed.

         “What about the kiss?” a tall dark-haired woman asked, she was almost in the first road. Her clothes were gray, for all that Leo could see on TV. Her tone was that of fake solidarity.

         Cristiano looked straight ahead, maybe he was looking her straight in the eyes, but before he could answer Zinedine went ahead of him. “I think we can all agree that in the heat of victory, and let’s remind that this is the first of a long-down-hill season, anything could happen. That being said, the kiss was just a kiss. It had happened before, as you may be well aware. The only thing I can think off of this being so stunning, is the fact that we’re talking about Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Once the heads and souls of great teams, which is better is beyond doubt,” laughers in the audience “rival teams and lets be fair, they have been the talk for years of the media for their enmity on and off the field, always launching spicy comments and that kind of thing that the media loves. Which seems to add or mystify the fact that now they’re no longer rivals, they’re teammates and as such they just got carried away a little and well, you know the rest.  But it isn’t like it hadn’t happened before. It has and has never meaned more than a victory spark.” The dark-haired reporter took a seat. Then a man raised, for some reason that seemed rehearsed.

         “That’s pretty well. But I’ll think we all like to hear it from the majestic and only, Cristiano Ronaldo.”

        “They boy does have a tongue” laughed Zinedine. The laugh did not reach the man’s eyes. “I’ll think he’ll be glad to take any question, but a question must me made first. Right, pal?”

         “Sure.” Cold dry answer.

         “Very well” the reporter smiled back a Zinedine. “Tell us, Cris, is it alright if I call you Cris?” the man did not waited for any answer. “Are you and Lionel lovers?”

         Leo felt his heart skip a bit. Álvaro was watching him, no longer looking at the screen. His face did not reveal anything, not that much could be said about Leo’s. That was for sure the true face of hope and expectation.

         Zinedine glanced at Cris with harsh eyes, harder when directed towards the reporter. The man said something, a hand over the microphone to shut the words to any indiscreet ear. Cristiano looked at the man with the same indecipherable expression, then nodded and went to his microphone.

         Everyone in the room were aware of what was about to come out of the man's mouth. “No” said the man at last. Leo’s heart ached as Álvaro said something in the likes of “bloody son of a bloody burning goat!”

         “Then that kiss was, in fact –as Zinedine at your right has referred– a gesture of victory. Am I wrong?”

         “Yes” the pain increased, Leo stopped watching television to watch his hands. Well--- what did you expected? You were the one to broke up. But the idea of Cris playing with him persisted. “You are wrong” Cristiano added. Leo looked up as abruptly as Álvaro did. Silence fell upon the room were Cristiano was. All were waiting. The dark-haired woman raised once more.

         “Could you elaborate more on your answer?” eager eyes devouring everything she saw.

         “With pleasure.” Cris answered with a big white smile of perfect bloody teeth. What’s he doing?

         “Cristiano, I do warn you, child!” Zinedine said, holding a grasp in Cristiano’s arm. Cris seem not to notice it; nor the cold voice or the fingers bruising his skin.

         “You see, the kisses are not just between the lovers, but the truth is that they are shared among friends, family, couples and betrothals,” Zinedine seemed to relax a bit, which lasted nothing “in my case, I kissed my fiancé.” With those words the room went wild.

 

As he entered the lobby of the hotel, Cristiano once again rubbed one hand on his arm and with the other his cheek, which was less sensitive than the already swollen eye. He resisted the impulse to spit back to the ground, but he was no longer on the asphalt of the street and there, on the tile floor, the blood would stand out. He did not regret anything, but he did not think about approaching Zinedine for a while. Cristiano would be many things but not stupid.

         Leo was in the lobby and approached him as soon as he saw him enter. Cris, despite wanting to embrace the man in his arms, took him by the arm and led him to a place where Zinedine's anger could not reach them.

         “Oh my--- what the hell happened to you?!”

         “A fight with an angry bartender. Don’t touch it, Leo!” Cristiano growled both at the feel of Leo's finger touching the swollen area where his eye had been and the pain of talking. But he did not remove Lionel's hand

         “It was your plan from the beginning.”

         “Yes, meu amor.” Cristiano was aware that Leo had not asked a question. Even so, saying it out loud felt good. Very good.

          “I’m sorry---”

         “Stop it. You didn’t knew. It’s not your fault.” It felt like he had been repeating those words for months.

         “Why didn’t you tell me?”

         “It was better that way, you should have trusted me, Andrés. Besides you're a lousy actor, do not think you'll get away with that pepsi ad. I’m still mad at you, though, for screaming to me like that. Don’t you dare apologize.”

         “You should’ve told me.” The smaller man insisted.

         “So you can have a face as mine? I think not. I like you just the way you are. Even with your bitch-fighting shit.”

         “Stop it.” A whine.

         “Not until I feel the debt paid.” He did no gave Leo a chance to talk back. Kissing also hurt. But it was worth it. Every inch of pain was worth.

 

Cristiano's swollen eye was part of the talk that permeated the country, not to mention the world, during the following weeks. The main course, however, was the declaration made by Cristiano and the image of the two soccer players kissing each other. The press did not give them rest, approaching the Portuguese property late at night. The police had already gone several times to get the impertinent reporters out, but the flow continued.

         Commentators, experts and others had opted for three primordial sides. Those who were in favor, those who were against and who only wanted to talk about football. It surely was a madhouse.

        Groups had been hostile, burning jerseys and posters, as well as other of the players' merchandise. Spreading hatred and violence with posters and acts of vandalism on the walls and bleachers of Berabéu. Despite the fact that Madrid had regained its winning streak, the eye of the storm continued to sink the team more. Zinedine had forced Lionel to fulfill his demand. Neither he nor Cristiano played together in a game. Sometimes Lionel spent the whole game on the bench, others Cristiano did. And other occasions, so few to count on the fingers of one hand and still have fingers left, Lionel played in one half and Cristiano in the other. Whatever the case, players were greeted with boos and other not-so-nice things. Those who were part of the propaganda were now James and Álvaro, with Lionel and Cristiano relegated to rarely go out in an interview.

         The cheers in the team varied day by day. They had accepted the relationship between Lionel and Cristiano, but they did not approve it.

         Not all was dark, though. Cristiano had started a campaign against homophobia. It was going quite well. Despite the fact that neither Cristiano nor Lionel considered themselves to be homosexuals. They were in love with each other, and that was enough reason to them. However, Cristiano had considered that somewhere in another team there should be people going through the same thing, and maybe they were afraid to come out. ‘The game is for everyone’ the slogan of the campaign read.

         Lionel, for his part, had to endure the calls from his mother and the silence of his father. Which, for once, Lionel did not know what was worse.

 

Leo felt the sweat running down his face. They were going to finish the second half of the game and neither team had scored. He was the one who had the ball now under his control and was close to the goal. Another player appeared in his path and next to this one another also did. Leo took a turn too close, enough to have to use his hand as a support to get up again and run after the ball before someone else took over. His lungs were burning.

         For once in what seems months fans celebrate his movements. And Leo enjoys it as it turns over and starts running the long green field. The ball rolling with him at the caress of his feet, as if they were one entity. The grass of that long path shinning under the lights of the stadium. The roar of the fans pales beneath the rhythm of his heart. His feet move following paths his soul reveals. It's been so long since he felt so confident playing! Cris must be watching from the bench, the recomposed face of the beating provided by Zinedine, full of pride.

        Lionel is running full speed, asserting his flea mote with a big smile. Then, for some reason, he is no longer seeing the grass but the blue sky above him. His leg feels funny as he falls backwards, the ball running away from his feet. Pain is kicking in when his head embraces the earth. The blue sky turns pure blackness.

         Before vanishing, he could discern among the roars of amazement and indignation of all the fans, a lament coming from his throat and a distant cry coming from another.

Chapter Text

The light fell between the enervated crests of the water, reflecting in sinuous lines on the walls and windows. The sun had long ago blunted its place on the horizon to be placed high above their heads surrounded by an everlasting halo of cotton. It could be said that for all the blue surrounding it, it was the sun who was submerged in the water and not Lionel. Who, floating on his back, awaited the return of Cristiano.

         There was no need to disturb the water with braces, however, Lionel opened and closed his arms under the surface in order to go against the slight current in the pool. His face and chest, dried by the air, absorbed all the heat that the great star had to offer, while the rest of his body barely came to known of such a gift among the freshness of the clear waters.

         A song of anonymous melody was hummed by Lionel. It could have been any song or maybe none, which neither diminished nor subtracted the beauty of the melody. There were six simple notes that varied with each repetition, but the original form in the idea remained constant despite the metric applied. The reboot of the melody coincided with his arms gently brushing the sides of his torso before leaving.

         His feet moved a little more quickly than his upper limbs, more an effect produced by water than by man's own effort.

        Maria had awakened him to go down for lunch, Cristiano had left hours ago without saying anything unless Lionel was to be well cared for. The housewife had brought him lunch to the bed –for she had seen Lionel very comfortable to bother him with going down the stairs–, a tray of eggs and bacon; blueberry juice and coffee; toasted bread together with two containers full of butter, one and a jam, the other, apparently apricot; cheese, an expensive one if that could be told by Maria's insistence on trying it before the other things, with some cookies of sweet dough and salty glaze. The woman remained on her feet, waiting for any of Lionel's need. Uncomfortable, Leo asked to be alone, and then he would download the dirty junk. Which drew a joyful laugh from the woman. Maria played down Lionel's nonsense with a wave of her hand, after all, she argued, for that they paid her and not a feeble amount, she added as if she were merely talking about the weather.

         After that, the woman came back carrying a swimsuit. Cristiano had left it for him, with the instruction to wait for him in the pool. Where now Lionel kept waiting. He was not there long ago. Yet he had already swum to exhaustion and no sign of Cristiano had been spotted. With a sigh, Lionel straightened up. His feet could not have touched the ground, even on tiptoes.

         Standing at the door, wearing a light-colored shirt, open enough to show part of his abdomen, clear shorts and dark shoes, Cristiano was staring down at him. He was smiling, a half-moon trapped between his lips. Lionel smiled as well before leaving and going to him.

         “Close your eyes and count to seven.” said the Portuguese with a slow whisper, one of those that slide down the skin of the neck to the base of the spine; cooling and heating at the same time. Lionel did as he was told and counted.

         One. Shivers all over his skin, a thousand rough fingers brushing him with tenderness. Two. The water trickling down his legs, miniature rivers breaking through a South American landscape in Spain, rivers of silver in the Old World. Three. The sun kissing his back, stealing the colors of the world to give its own to his skin. Four. The wind on the other side of the window, soft as the cello singing. Five. The expectation, the essence of the wonderful, flooding it with each beat, extrapolating its chills into excitement specks. Six. The sensation of movement beyond his own body, connected to his perception of the environment. Seven. He opened his eyes.

         Ronaldo lay in front of him, kneeling. One hand holding a small wine-colored box, the other holding the small trapdoor. Inside, between folds of a blue cloth, a dark ring shone with luster. A wooden ring judging by the dark and light ripples along.

         “Would you grant me the honor of sharing a life by your side?”

Chapter Text

Silence.  Dizziness. Where am I---? Was that a voice? What’s wrong---? Or was it just him, dreaming? How long---? Was that the soft feel of water pouring down at him? Where’s everybody---? He shook. Not precisely, but something was shaking under him. He made an effort to get up. His body did not react to the order. Why---? Why did his body feel so cold? He felt far from himself, apart from his body; lost in a haze of gold and jade. Opening his eyes, or trying so, also represented an effort beyond his comprehension. So he lay there, somewhere; alienated.

         “Move!” Who’s screaming? Why? What was underneath, a hard surface, was shaken again. That cry seemed familiar. He tried to rise again. Nothing happened but the thing shaking beneath him.

         I--- who am I---? Where am I---? What’s this pain for---? The pain came from the south. It was all he could say. He did not remember anything. Something blue and a clear sphere on the hair of the earth. Was I--- running---?

         A flash. Information filling his brain. A name, but not his. Was he sure about it? A name with the letter A on it. Red things –were they really red?– framing the corners of his vision, slimy red mirrored things. A sound with the pain; pain of green flames; flames of long summers; summers afar; afar as the night; night from another country; country where he had grown; grown as his grandma; why could not he remember her?; her that helped him build strength; strength for a small boy; a boy in a city playing with a ball; a ball which he ran after; after the sky he fell to the ground, hitting his head.

         He was injured. How? Why could not he remember that part? Had it been his fault? It had, right? He remembered asking something to someone. To whom? And what was it?

       “Let me pass!” that cry again. Who was crying and for what reason? What had happened before the blue of the sky and the pain of the fall? Who are you? The words never left his mouth. He had one, of that he was sure as the sun was up and the night not far. Then why could not he talk? Moaning. That he could. He was listening himself moan and growl. In pain. But it seemed as another man’s pain. Why? Could that be the reason why not a single muscle reacted to his orders? Was he not the man to which the pain belonged? “Let me pass, for fuck's sake!” Breathing was an ache.

         Steps. He could hear feet stepping on something. Was it grass? It could be. And something else. It was not the wind. Not quite. But somehow it should be the wind. Deep inside his head, his own private tiny cell, he was aware that it would be far more pleasant for that sound to be the howling air. What was going on? The fear keep on building. The reason of it was--- unsure.

         Another flash. His eyes moved under the eyelids. Left and right, up and down; circles, fast circles. His fingers opened with a spasm. The sun was no longer heating his cold skin. Pain. It was getting closer. Red things, fangs, crawling up to meet him. “I need to be here,” that voice again, grave tone. For some reason that voice, it was a man’s voice, reminded him of bronze figurines. The voice echoed. The sound of the wind was getting smaller. The footsteps were different. That thing below him was still wobbling.

         Flash. Red sharp fangs tearing him apart, raising from the south in an unstoppable wave. Why did it hurt so much? Fingers clutching the air. Lips moving slowly. Teeth biting them. He was sweating. What was going on?

         Flash. The sphere, it’s a ball he recalled, going a step ahead. He was running. Fast. It was important to run. All the way to that fisher’s net across a green grass field. He was doing well. Really good. Not once in his life he had felt like that few seconds when people roared up his name. Not my name dry voice, teeth biting lips so the pain from south was not as bad, I am Leo, don’t know that Jalam Adid they claimed. Something had struck him. Yeah, something had had done that. What?

         Flash. The moan was a loudly wail. “Let me pass!” that man again. A scream in full strength it was. Flash. The red coral fangs were tearing apart his leg. The right one. Not only sweat was drenching his face. Leo could feel every tear falling from his eyes. His eyes. Flash. Eyes. Red fangs. Flash. Eyes. Eyes.

         Leo saw the white ceiling. Fluorescent reapers make everything look whiter. He was being carried by two men. One above his head and the other one south, were his leg bent to the middle of the tibia in two different directions. The blood dyed the white cloak, his shin guard was not there. Removed perhaps. Leo felt dizzy again. Weak. Color leaving his face. And he did felt like screaming, but did not.

         He does not know the men carrying him, looking at him from above with hard rock expressions. Leo can’t speak. “Leo!” it’s Cris. It had been Cris all along the one crying to be closer. He has a hand raised but another man, dressed the same as the ones who carry the stretcher, prevents him from getting any closer. Between them an increasingly widening gap opens up. Cris screams desperate, his voice is like sandpaper. He screams his name, desperate, crying at the top of his lungs. Leo raises a hand, a weak hand, as if the distance could be closed by that. But does not call Cristiano’s name. He cannot do so. The gap widens, white filling the empty space. The image of Cristiano being dragged into a mouth of light as they are being dragged apart is what remains burned in his retina before Leo faints once more. The blackness devouring the white.

 

Lionel wakes up in a hospital bed. Around his head a pressure compress it. Bandages, he deducts.

         The room is spotless. The walls are not white as you would expect, rather gray with a dim of pale blue. A TV is in front of him, off. A window with the blinds closed to the left and to the right another, but these do have the blinds drawn, giving the view to a corridor with clear walls. Beneath the last window, in an uncomfortable sofa, Cristiano sleeps with a black leather jacket sheltering him. Dark circles hang under his eyes.

         Leo was about to speak Cris’s name when a nurse came in and her eyes spot Lionel's. She stood there for a second before sprinting out of the room shouting something his ears did not catch. The shout was enough, though, to wake Cristiano. The man seemed confused, staring at the door with anger, then he turned to face Lionel and his face lost all the color. “Leo,” he managed to say before tears came down his checks “oh, meu leãozinho, you’re awake! You’re awake!” Leo was about to answer, to ask what was going on, when he noticed the beard in Cristiano’s face. Lionel put a hand in amazement to his mouth and felt the hairs of his own beard on the palm of his hand. That was the moment the nurse and a doctor came in.

         “Ah, Sir Lionel, or do you prefer Mr.? Well, that should be discuss later.” The doctor said in a low baritone pitch. “There’re plenty of things to say and be asked. But, for now, please tell me: how are you feeling?”

         “Er--- I’m--- fine--- umm--- what’s going on, Dr---?” Leo voice was low and raspy, similar to the tone he acquired when he had a cold. He settled down, as much as the leg in the cast was permed. With regard to his leg he no longer had any doubt, it was broken. But what about the bandage on the head?

         “Hernández, you may call me. We’ll get to your situation in a moment. First I want to give you a test to assess your thinking in memory. Would that be okay with you?”

       “Um--- yes, I think.” Memory test? Why? ‘One does not ask the doctor but the doctor ask you’. That did not seemed right, thou. In another situation, one where he was not in a hospital or sitting half-naked on a bed, Leo would have felt remotely calm. Now, on the contrary, he felt a tingling in the legs that had nothing to do with cramps or that they were asleep. It was more related to nervousness and fear. It certainly could not be worse than his broken leg. And yet, he kept thinking about why his head was bandaged. Soon he began to feel how his temples throbbed against the bandages.

         “Alright. So, this is what’s going to happen, oh you can stay here Sir” Dr. Hernández addressed Cristiano, who was getting out of the room for some reason. “Now, I’ll ask you several questions and you’ll have to answer them as best as you can. Remember, there’s no wrong answer. Okay?” Leo nodded. “Good. Let’s begin simple: what is today date?”

         “I--- I don’t know.” Lionel was about to answer the date of the game but, unless Cristiano had such an accelerated body to produce that beard, which was really not that long, but neither was it a shadow, at least it should have passed a little more than a couple of days since that event. The worst thing was that he remembered the game but not what had happened afterwards. At least not everything. Cris with his hand stretched out to him and the sight of his leg bleeding, where things not that easy to forget.

         “What is today’s year?” Dr. Hernandez addressed him with a monotonous tone, as if he were repeating a lesson to a particularly slow student. Despite that, and maybe fear had a lot to do with it, Leo was not offended. The need to be aware of every word was just as powerful as his fear.

         “Two thousand sixteen.” Each of his words came out carefully guided. No matter what the doctor had had just said, a misspelled word a wrong phrase could really mean danger for himself.

         “What month are we in?” He looked at him not from above, in spite of his height, but as an equal, despite not being like that. The doctor smiled as if he had read Lionel’s thoughts.

         “Er--- March---?” Could he have slept longer than he believed, whatever that amount was? It would be far too crazy to believe that. But it was not a possibility that should be taken less, could be and it was possible that everything was his fear taking the best of himself.

         “What is the day today?

         “I’ve told you, I don’t know.” Leo must constantly remind himself that there was no reason to be angry with the doctor. Afraid, aye; for that his imagination gave him ideas to spare to remain in a constant state of hysteria. That, however things were, was no reason to behave so hostile. He took a breath, long and pleasant; things could not be worse than what he already pictured in his mind.

         “Very well. Could you tell me what season it is?”

         March he had said before. So, unless it was already the twentieth or twentieth one day of the month, spring was still to come. They were not longer in winter’s heart, but it was still “Winter.” It had to. It had to.

         “Very well,” said the doctor as if he was pondering the weight of every word Leo spoke. It was then than Leo realized the man doing the interrogation, the test, was writing nothing. It was rather the nurse the one writing things down as a kind of scribe “next questions are usually for other kind of occasions. So we’ll skip them. Now, that aside, can you tell me what city are we in?”

         “Er--- Madrid I suppose.”

         “Alright,” a faint smile draw on Hernández and the nurse, even Cristiano’s lips seemed to curve a bit. Since the test had begun, Cristiano had been so hanging or more of all when Lionel did and said. “Now I’m going to test your memory.  I want you to repeat this three objects for me: pencil, cup and stairs. Could you repeat that for me?”

         “Cup--- pencil--- stars---”

         “Now, beginning in one hundred count down by seven and I’ll tell you when to stop. Starting now.”

         “One-hundred; ninety-three; eighty-six; seventy-nine; seventy-one; sixty-five; fifty-four; forty-three---”

         “Alright, that’s enough, thank you. Spell ‘night’ backwards, please.”

         “T-h-g-i-n.”

         “And ‘wonder’, please.”

         “R-e-d-o-n-w.”

         “Good. Can you remember the three words I gave you?”

         “Mug--- pencil--- stairs.”

         The test went out for another ten minutes. Leo was asked to write down his name and copying both a phrase and a draw handed to him by the nurse. What was the purpose of it? Lionel did not know nor did he how to ask about it.

         “Very well, Sir Lionel”

         “Leo,” he said with a shy smile.

        “Leo, you had a fall. In the technical sense, we could say. You received a strong blow to back of your head, which led to a fracture. Luckily no filaments, or residues, of bones were found inside your brain. None that the radiography has not shown. We consider that a surgery is not necessary. However, time will tell. Everything seems to be in order, we will not let you go like that. You will come once a month to do a check and verify that everything goes well.

         “A fall--- if only it was so simply. You’ve been struck. Quite badly. But you don’t need me to tell that for yourself. A man hit you hard. Rather you had been kicked, for that matter the result is not varied. You were lying down and before anything could be done about it, they trampled your leg until it broke into two different sections. From what I have heard, a tumult was made around you. You were already unconscious when the paramedics could finally break through. The damage was done, however. It will take time to recover completely. And the recovery may not be entirely successful, you could be left with a pronounced limp or a slight limp. You will receive treatment to make it last. The forecasts that I can tell you can be bad or good, but in the end it does not depend on me.” The nurse approached the doctor and whispered something in her ear. “Ah, yes. I think you’re right, Dana. It is well enough information for one day, we will leave you, you both, to process the information. Have a nice day.”

 

Cris approached him once they were alone. He held the head of his beloved between his great hands, forehead against forehead. Leo did not suppress the urge to cry, even Cris cried with him for a while. Cristiano urged him to calm down, whispering soft-heartly words; wiping the tears with gentle fingers and a smile not quite sad nor worried. Leo did tried to smile back, but his lips seemed to forget how to do so. He felt stupid.

         “You’re not, Leo,” only then he realized the thought had come off his mouth. Somewhere else at another time, another where and when, his cheeks would have burned with shame. Now, however, he only dropped his shoulders and with them his eyes. One hand on white sheets, the other clutching Cris's. There was nothing wrong with feeling shame or fear, the dilemmas began when they were reflected in the face. How much had not happened since that kiss? Cristiano had remained strong for both. Leo had good days, bad days and others a bit worse. Sometimes at night he woke up at the sound of Cris’s cries, nightmares that happened night after night too often.

         Cris parted from him, hands still close, and when he did from his neck hung a gray chain from which hung two wooden rings. Leo observed, bewildered at first. Then he saw his left hand, his finger wore by ornament not a dark ring but a clear one made of pale skin. Cris caught his gaze. “I asked for it. I didn’t know if they were going to trash it away or what--- so I asked for it.” Leo nodded, leaving the subject for another day. Right then--- “How long I was asleep?”

         “I’m not sure if this is the right time to talk about that. It is already too much information. I’ll tell you everything, that’s a promise.”

         Lionel was going to contradict Cristiano when a voice sounded from the door. “Hey, Leo,” Álvaro and a woman –his girlfriend perhaps?– came in. Álvaro made quick introductions for Leo, as Cris already knew who she was.

         Alice was beautiful, Leo had to admit. Her light hair framed an oval face that was the final rest of a nose similar to Alvaro's, but thinner. A soft turn-up nose, delicate, between two bright gems; light-brown eyes for all Leo could catch. Maybe a mixture of coffee and olive.

         Every time Álvaro looked at Alice his face changed. Lips opened into something that was not a smile, but almost. Eyes were enchanted in her, enraptured. And oh his body was made down, as if the mountains were bent to be closer to the rivers.

       Álvaro carried flowers, tulips and some other white flowers with five petals that Lionel could not identify. Álvaro nodded to Cris, a kind of greeting, too formal. Alice, meanwhile, approached the Portuguese and kissed him on both cheeks and then embrace him as if he were a longtime friend.

         “Alas, Lio,” she said, getting closer to Lionel. Holding his hand into hers, she kissing kissed them with lips soft as roses. When she smile the room seemed brighter. The same effect as when Cris did so. “Wish you a quick recovery,” her voice, apart from being firm, was contagious. It was like listening to the wind in spring between the twittering of the finches. So now I'm a poet.

         “How you feeling, Leo?” Morata shaking one of Leo’s hands, the flowers already left on a table next to the bed. He looked happy next to Alice. A calmer person, perhaps his habit of joking comments and other jokes was relegated a little in the presence of his girlfriend. Or perhaps not. Leo did not manage to discover it. Alice left soon, claiming something about her business or a session. Leo did not understand. “So--- have you tell him?”

         Cris looked at Alvaro with murderous eyes. “Tell me what?”

         “I'm paying so you have the best possible care.”

         “I-I thought the contract included medical assurance.”

         “Well--- yes, meu amore. Yet I lose nothing if I can put something in the basket to help you. At this point fuck luxury; you are all I care about here at this moment.” Not a single angry note in his voice. Just hope.

         “You shouldn’t have---”

        “It’s only money, Leo--- that goes around and comes. I really lose nothing. You are flesh and bones and that can be lose. I don’t want to see you go down. I couldn’t handle not forgive myself if I let that happen. You will be back on your feet and running wild again, of that I can promise.”

         “So bad is it?” his voice finally reflected all the fear felt. Not a single thing to be ashamed of, at the end. If it was that bad he could handle the truth. Despite what Dr. Hernández had said, Leo could not quite believe it was just as simple as a willing to be fine. Perhaps his injuries were beyond what---

         “It could’ve been worse!” Morata said at the time he left sat next to Leo bed “You both are a bunch of drama queens. How you feeling, budy?”

         “Tired” answered Leo, a faint smile growing in numb lips.

       “You’ll be fine. You’ll see. I mean, it couldn’t be worse than the cream that make you itching.” Leo tried to remember what Álvaro meant, but nothing came to his mind. A joke, probably, that the Spaniard would have spent him in the course of the last weeks prior to the accident. I’ve been kicked for a broken leg--- could I---? God, what could’ve happened if they hadn’t stopped that man? Where is he now? Who is that man? The idea of what could have happened made the day grayer. Perhaps it could have been worse, as Álvaro suggested. Anyone else besides Álvaro and Cris would have gone to see him while he was lying unconscious? The unknown continued to accumulate. ‘Life rather play hide and seek that told.’ Had his father intended to reach him? That could not be possible. Despite the fight and what Leo had told him to do, Jorge should have had already been there at least once. All the way from Argentina to Spain to see his ill boy in a new-fleshed hospital wedding bed. Or so Jorge would see it.

         “He has a broken leg, Álvaro!” Cris didn’t shout but it felt like it. Álvaro did not notice it or not care about it. ‘I may not like him’ the man had said about Cris in what seemed a long, long time ago. Leo wondered how Morata was doing now that Leo was hardly on the team. The games had never stopped when a player got hurt and that tradition would not change now that Lionel Messi was lying in a hospital bed with a broken leg and a doctor dismayed with spelling questions and unstable drawings. Álvaro, for his part, should be enjoying a good season. Maybe one or two parties, maximum three, since the accident. And if Cristiano had stayed all that time with Leo, as Lionel suspected, then the situation could not be better for the Spaniard.

         “Oh bummer! Stop looking at me like that, for fuck’s sake. He’ll be bloody fine and you know it! He’ll run again and play once more. Now stop making a sea of a water pond, you will only manage to burn him in fear. More than what he already is.”

         Cris went into tension as Álvaro spoke. A hand became a fist as his eyes were aflame. The face was stone made and Leo felt the need to speak before something could go wrong. But words didn’t came to his mouth, nor did they appeared in mind. Just the need, as an instinct.

         Suddenly Cris spoke and it was like nothing had ever happened. “You are right. I’m sorry.” And he looked really sorry for raising his voice, even though he had not. Embarrassed and apologetic. “I’m sorry.” Even Álvaro seemed surprised by Cris's attitude, but it did not last long. With Álvaro Leo was never sure what would happen next.

         The tension in the air disappeared and relief embargoed Leo. One day Álvaro’s jokes will take a turn no one would be able to control, and shit will surely happen. Today had almost been that day. Bullshit, he is right about Cris; he takes it a bit too further---however this ain’t the way to approach a situation---even less if I’m in the middle of it. God help the man if he isn’t as cautious as I like to think.

         A broken leg. A missing father. But of that I need no reason, I was the one that made him stay away. A broken leg and studies and checks every month. Recovery will be long, isn’t it? At least things were fine for a time. Leo leaned back, his back had been hurting for a while but he had refused to look for a more comfortable position. Already lying down, he felt more relaxed. He fumbled with his hand until he found a control and adjusted the bed with it. Not paying attention to the visits was rude. Yeah, things were fine for a bit.

         “Well,” Álvaro began, a radiant smile on his face. How can someone feel bad or angry when that man was in the same room? His vibe was surely contagious. It’s the jokes, sometimes he just take them to far. That and he doesn’t talk bluntly. “That’s a start. Now, Imma go get something to eat, not sure if Leo would be allowed something else than the awful food they gave here, but nothing would be lost if I try. So, watcha want?” An itching cream, Álvaro had said. Lionel did remember the joke with that cream. Three weeks after the kiss. Before a game with barça. And that was more than three weeks before the accident. Doing the math the best he could, well---they could not be in March, maybe it would be late April or early--- That would explain that neither Álvaro nor Alice wore jackets. Cris sure he would, for sleeping. The man could not sleep if the weight of some fabric was pushing him down. It was not March. "And you, Leo? What do you want?"

         Time Lionel thought.

Chapter Text

“Alas, pretty. Come, it's getting late.” Álvaro rushed an arm along Alice's shoulders when she got close to him. His lips lay a kiss on her cheeks. It was getting dark. Streets became framed with amber lights and houses did so. With the shadows came a fresh night, neglecting the morning's heat.

         Alice walked along with him with her head slightly resting on Álvaro's chest. He kissed her again, this time in the head. She smelled like chamomile and lemon. Alice pressed herself closer to Álvaro, a giggle coming out of her mouth. With a soft hand, she removed her hair and then looked up at him. She was not pretty; she was gorgeous.

       They had not been that long together. The first year and a half were yet to come. Before she there had been another. That was the time Álvaro had had an injury he did not tell anyone. At the same time, his family went through some financial difficulties. And when he spent most of his nights drinking until his eyes closed and morning came with a crude hangover. He had cried himself to sleep some of those nights. Other nocturnes with no sleep at all. As a player, he was not taken that seriously.

         Life back then had felt so meaningless. Álvaro had grown tired of wanting everything in solitude. The few accomplishments achieved seemed rusted merits, exploits of another man. At the same time, he saw how the names of Lionel and Cristiano appeared more frequently in each story. He had been very jealous. He had almost drowned among those emotions.

         Then came Alice. And she had saved him from that hole. Simple as that.

         "Poor Lio," she said suddenly while squeezing Álvaro's hand. "Will he be fine?"

         "Cris hopes it so," he said absently.

         "What about you?"

         "I hope he can walk again. And run. In time maybe he'll be back playing soccer. Who knows? If someone still wants him to play---" Alice nudged him at the ribs. "Oi! What was that for?"

         "Alas! Don't play the fool with me."

         "But it's the truth!"

         "He's still in his prime."

         "Aye, bloody hell he is," Álvaro said as he absent-mindedly rubbed his ribs. "But by the time he can get back on his feet perhaps he won't longer be in his prime. One does not simply come out well of that kind of injuries. I do wish Leo well. But I don't make my mind into fantasies. Bloody ashes, hitting me was not necessary."

       Alice sighed. "Sorry, not sorry," she got on tiptoes to kiss him. "One night I dreamed of you injured. You had not come home and I wrote you many letters. I did not receive any response. When the sun came up you came with one leg less," she added nothing else. Álvaro pulled her closer into a hug and smiled. He bloody loved her. "Poor Lio," then after a pause "you his friend, go spend time with him."

         "And what about us?"

         "We see each other every night, now you almost see him. You must take care of all your friends more."

         "Alas, pretty.  I'll do so for you."

         Being late at night with Alice resting beside him, Álvaro considered postponing his plans for tomorrow with Isco and Carvajal. He could afford the time to visit the Argentine and the Portuguese. After all, they were his friends.

         Leo would spend most of the morning waiting for Cristiano to return from training. Maybe in the afternoon, they would want company. Perhaps the three of them could go out to a bar or something. But Lionel did not come off the house that often nowadays. Álvaro had seen him a few times waiting for Cristiano on the bench of the stadium while they trained, reading a book or just staring at them. James was sometimes at his side, chatting and laughing. But Leo looked uncomfortable most of the time. And so did Cristiano.

         Cristiano's hair was longer than he had ever used it with its curls showing up despite the gel. Although he still cut it every week for the sake of maintaining the clean and elegant look. Lionel, on the other hand, pulled his wavy hair back with one hand. It was not as long as it used to be. The two men were letting their beards grow too. Whereas Cristiano's beard was delineated and defined, Leo's was wilder.

         Spending time with those two could not harm anyone.

        And speaking of harm, what did James bring against him? Since the game against Gijón, he refused to talk to Álvaro or be in the same room as him unless it was necessary. Why? What had Álvaro said or done to receive such treatment? Not knowing that but catching other things was surely annoying. Álvaro should apologize, even when he had said nothing wrong.

         "You lend a hand and they stab you in the ribs!"

         Alice moved in her sleep and mumbled something that sounded like Italian to Morata's ears. He muttered an apology and kissed her back.

         Leaning back and looking at the ceiling, Álvaro wished he could fall asleep soon. He felt tired, but for some reason, the dream eluded him that night as he had two years ago.

        Was it going to be like that for the rest of his life? Always looking back at the past, into dry-hard awful memories. His mind was likely to stop every time in a dark spot he would rather forget. Sighing could not help him put to rest the weight of that time. Nothing would do it. Just Alice. Alice in her sleep. Sharing a life with her. Aye, that would bloody help him carry that weight.

         Phaw! Enough silliness. There’s still plenty to live waking in Madrid. He smiled at the thought. It was a nice thought to have on a spring night along Alice.

        Slowly he closed his eyes. Tomorrow he will tell Isco to go out another time. Yes, they could wait for another day. Maybe Álvaro would also ask James to forgive him, for whatever reason.

 

In between the waves high as mountains, Álvaro caught a glimpse of the row-boat slowly drifting away into to the crests of the tide. The ocean bends over himself on the horizon. As if the world was a cylinder and the sun and moon were trapped between the dark clouds.

         On the boat, Lionel and Cristiano look at each other without talking. There is no need for such thing. Among them run golden trills. In and out their ears, eyes, and mouths, even some red thread from one's eyes to the others. Álvaro is not close enough to be able to tell what the trills are, but he knows that those are words and feelings interweaving. What that loom expresses, however, is beyond Álvaro. He only captures pieces of the conversation, small unconnected words.

         Forgiveness; Pain; Regret; High; Spear; Womb; Shadow; Storm; Promise; Hatred; Love; Fear; Angst; Trust.

         And much more stuff lost in translation.

        As Álvaro is approaching the boat, he sees three more passengers with shiny things in their hands. Long-fat needles, they seem. They are poking Cristiano and Lionel with those silver wands.

         Then, one those men walk towards Álvaro and hit him harm with a shooting star.

        When he wakes, it’s not because the dream had ended. But rather because is Alice who is shaking his shoulder. “Alas, m’love--- what’s wrong?” she says with her sweet marked Italian accent. Álvaro does not remember the dream now. Not now that he is deeply lost in Alice’s eyes.

         Álvaro gets up a little and puts an arm around Alice's waist, pulling her close to kiss her. Alice returns the kiss. Soon the two share something more than breath. The sun, the pale sun of a gray morning, receives them with its warmth as their fire reaches its climax. She smelled like the rose that lives through winter.

 

The next day the training ended at the usual time. James still did not speak to him. And where Carvajal took as a personal matter the request to postpone their meeting, Isco just shrugged.

         Training was as usual. First warm-ups. Drills. Speed. Leans and falls. Passe in the form of a little cat and mouse variation. A friendly match. And then, as it had been since Leo went missing in action, the Triple Delta. It is not necessary to say that the play did not work. Not with James, who actually refused instead of trying, nor with Bale. Neither with Isco. And Asensio, the new new-comer, was good, but not as good. The kid had talent, but that was not the thing needed.

         “Chemistry,” Álvaro heard Cristiano said.

         So, eventually, the coach proposed to simply forget the play for good. Álvaro agreed, not with much pleasure. It had worked more than once after Gijón. In the training, at least; where Cristiano and Leo were allowed to play together. No one had asked about the decision for which Zinedine keep Leo and Cristiano apart, they had all heard it. Except for Álvaro. And he did not want to know. There were already plenty of gossips to add one more to the pile. That bloody bald should have swallowed his pride and let them play together. Bloody ashes, they harm no one.

         The trip to Cristiano's house was lonely and long. On the radio, the songs passed unnoticed. The lowered windows let in a constant burst that drowned the sound of the speakers. In that gale, Álvaro could barely hear his own thoughts. Much less spin them. His mind, therefore, was focused on the road ahead where the trees on the sides approached, slowly. Once they were at the height of the car, or vice versa, they became a blur that paraded in a jiff to his side.

         The houses were increasing in size as they moved away from the center of the city. Same as the distance between each property. All had two floors; some even had a third and very few with a fourth. The design varied from one to the other. Sometimes it was like watching a US home, then an Italian one. Other times the presence of Germany and Holland could be felt. And once he saw an oriental design that Álvaro could not see if it was something of Japanese or Chinese style.

         Cristiano drives ahead of Álvaro in his luxurious Bentley. Álvaro followed him at a distance in his gray Audi. One hand behind the wheel and the other a fist by his mouth while he bit his thumb.

         A white dot appeared in the distance. Soon it became a long mansion. A large yard in front, where luxury cars were parked. Álvaro knew that a brick road led to the main entrance. He saw the Bently turn to enter the property. And soon Álvaro's Audi followed the example.

         Álvaro was parking when he saw Leo leave the house. He supported his weight on gray crutches. A woman came out from behind the Argentine, the maid. She was saying something to Leo, perhaps that he should not make so much effort. But Lionel paid no attention to her. He walked down the steps calmly and approached Cris, ignoring the woman who helped him do it. Cris ran down from his car and went to Lionel. Cristiano put his hands on Leo's shoulders and said a few words that were lost in the distance, which would still have gone unnoticed with the music. Álvaro turned off the car's engine and went down to where his friends were.

         "Just don't overdo yourself, okay?"Said Cristiano. Leo looked at him a moment before nodding. "Look who the wind brought. It's good to see familiar faces again, right?"

        "Hi, Leo, how you doing feeling today, buddy?" Morata asked showing her best smile, patting Leo lightly on the shoulder. Lionel watched him for a long time. His eyes looked darker and drooping, with big dark half-rings under. The brown hair was knotted in a small pigtail, glistening with grease. Still, his hair hid his ears. His beard continued to grow wild.

         "I'm not going to fall apart just because you use a little force on me," Leo's voice sounded hoarse and sour. However, none of that was reflected in his eyes. Those were mirrors to a dark and empty room where the light tried desperately to enter without success. Had depression wore a face it would have been Leo's.

         The living room was crowded with boxes full of books and others with what seemed like tape. Old books, new books. White, cream and yellow pages. Many of the books, as Álvaro observed, were of medicine. Had Lionel devoted all his free time to read them? Many others were novels, poems, scientific texts and collections of stories. There were volumes so worn that paste no longer existed. And there were so much more with the wrinkled back. "He has not read them," said Cristiano when he caught Álvaro's eye. "He bought them in batch. Most are in another language or are things that do not end up liking. Although he has not stopped reading the anatomy books."

         "Stop prattling." Prattling, Álvaro thought, whereas before you'll use 'talking'.

         "Has he become so querulous, or is it just a bloody bad day?" Álvaro said in a whisper as he watched Leo move with Maria's help.

         "Every day has been a bad day since he woke up. I don't know how he did it, but he discovered how long he stayed... asleep. Itching is the worst, he says. And the pain. Pills do not always have the effect. At night, sleep is difficult. And not mention..." Cristiano shut abruptly and just stared at Álvaro. He knew what the Portuguese had been about to say, but Álvaro said nothing about it. None of my bloody business, he thought, one time was enough. "Either way, thanks for coming. He needs to see more people."

         "It's nothing, really."

         "Isco and Carvajal did not seem so happy with being left apart."

         "Aye. They should understand. They must. Have not anyone else visited me other than me?"

         "At first, when he left the hospital, yes. But not anymore. They've forgotten about us, about him. From time to time someone turns around. Today it was you. Tomorrow maybe no one, and the day after tomorrow perhaps no one else. Maybe a week from now we'll see another familiar face around here. Not even James has turned around. Something is wrong with him. James, I mean. He looks depressed and when I try to talk to him about it he shies away from the subject."

         "Aye, tell me about it."

         "And Leo... well... he's just... not himself anymore."

         "He'll be fine once he can play again. You'll see. We'll all bloody see."

         "I hope so. I really do." Because of the way he looked at his fiancé, Álvaro believed him. "Go to him. I'll reach you in a moment. I'll pour something to drink for us."

         "I don't drink this early."

        "It's just some juice, Álvaro. You don't have to bloody judge us as alcoholics." The old-good-Cris. It was nice to see that that man was still there beneath all the worry frowns. “Fucking hell, even if it was alcohol--- bah! Just forget it, I’ll bring you water and if you don’t like it you can shove it up your bloody ass!”

         Álvaro smiled. With any other person, the comment would have bothered him a little. Truth be told, despite making jokes left and right, he did not always take things with humor. It had happened once, a couple of years before his departure from Madrid.

         Leo and Maria were finishing opening a space on the couch. Rather, Maria was about to finish the task, as she kept Messi away again and again. He did not even let the man help her move a single book. Lionel, with an indecipherable face, finally gave up and took a seat.

         "That's it, Mr. Leo. You should not try at all. Let me carry the stuff and if you think I need help," she added sharply when Leo opened his mouth, cutting off any barbarism that the Argentine could argue with regard to the number of boxes and their weight. "There I have Mr. Ronaldo to help me. Or your friend here. He's not half as marked as you two, but he sure has strength in those arms." Lionel smiled and let the matter be. Álvaro just stood there, standing with his mouth open and wanting to say something. But nothing came to mind, so he let it be.

         Maria removed two more boxes very quickly. "Come and sit down, Álvaro. I won’t have a crooked neck all the time to talk to you. You must also be tired from training, so come and sit down before Maria sits you. Since you wouldn’t like to be pulled from the ear, it's not cute and it hurts more than when your mother did it in your childhood." The fox smile that Maria dedicated to Leo was proof enough that the comment had more background of which Lionel wanted to share. That must have been an interesting story, Álvaro thought. But that does not mean he would volunteer to recreate it.

         From the kitchen came the sound of broken glass. Maria looked quickly at the books as well as at the kitchen. She muttered an apology and something else, before lending herself to the disaster that Cristiano would have done. Álvaro saw how the woman was smoothing her skirts all the way.

         Lionel set his crutches aside and lifted his casted leg to the table in front of him. Or rather on one of the books that were on the table. Álvaro knew that his leg had been broken into two sections. He himself had seen the bone coming out like a monolith from Leo's skin. Álvaro was the one who knocked the man who assaulted Lionel to the ground. Álvaro did not remember his name, even though he had heard it countless times on the news. Plain and simple he had forgotten. Someone so vile and hateful did not deserve to be considered in life. Not even his name. That was the reason why he now had discs to listen to, instead of turning on the radio.

         Lionel had been lying on the grass, staining the green with red. He was not moving. He seemed like the dead. I don’t want to think about it, Álvaro said to himself in a tone too bitter for his liking. But trying to relegate the image of Leo thrown away was difficult. I would have to ask Cristiano how he did it.

         The Argentine put a hand to his chin and scratched himself, the nails against his skin and the hairs produced a sound too similar to the rustling of skirts. Leo noticed that Álvaro was watching him and stopped scratching, apparently embarrassed behind that smile of his. Lionel too, the simple old Lionel, was behind that tangle of hair. That was good and Álvaro, for some reason that he did not fully understand, was relieved to know that. At what point had he begun to care for Leo?

         "You know--- umm---” Álvaro began “there's something that has been spinning around my mind lately--- it's been making a lot of noise and---" the touch of soft fingers on his shoulder interrupted him. When turning around, Álvaro met Maria's gaze.

         "Mr. Cristiano wants to see you in the kitchen for a moment."

         "Everything okay, Maria?" Leo asked as he lowered his leg and stretched out a hand to pick up the crutches.

         Maria was faster than Lionel. She moved with unenviable speed and hit Leo's hand. The Argentine put his injured hand to his chest while rubbing it with the other. Maria watched him from above, her arms in a jar and her face shrouded in shadows. Only the bright white eyes protruded. The image of the woman imposed respect. Leo retreated on the sofa as if seeking refuge among the folds of cloth, unable to look away from Maria. "Do you plan to go somewhere again despite the doctor's insistence?" Maria's tone became serious, there was no anger in her; pure authority. "If you do not want to spend the rest of your recovery tied to a bed, and lose your privilege of bathing alone, you're going to sit there. Whether you want it or not."

         "I--- María!" Leo began, looking for Álvaro with his eyes, but always returning to María. His mouth opened and closed, but no sound came from it.

         "But nothing! Leave the affairs of others to them and remain resting. "

         Álvaro slipped away from the scene. He did not know whether to laugh, intervene or be afraid. And to think that a few minutes ago that woman was running like someone would chase a child who is learning to walk!

         Cristiano was by the sink. From the kitchen, you could see part of the room and the stairs. It was spacious and with shiny furniture. And, if it were not for a couple of things that had not yet been saved, the place would be spotless.

         "What's wrong?" Álvaro asked as he moved towards the Portuguese.

        "Leo cannot find out," Cristiano began with a sharp, dry tone full of anguish that was not reflected in his face but in his eyes "God knows it will be impossible, but if I can get him away from the bloody cell--- he can’t know. Not from you or me nor anyone else. Do you understand? "

         Álvaro leaned back, scared. At what time had he taken a seat? "He will not know anything from me. What happened?"

         "It's---" Cristiano paused as if he did not know how to continue or did not find the precise words. "It's Iker. He--- well, him. Oh my God! He’s in critical condition. "

         Álvaro, rather than seeing it, felt the color leave his skin. "Did he have an accident?" He began to imagine the crash or an assault. But, he reconsidered, it would not make sense to hide an accident from Leo. It was true that he could be sensitive, but there was no reason to hide things from him. No. If Cristiano wanted to hide something from Leo, it must be because he was involved in it in some way. Iker was always loyal and with a heart of gold ready for everyone. He had been the first to speak in favor of the relationship between Cristiano and Leo, defining a clear line between the personal and the professional. Sexuality did not have to be an impediment for a man or woman to enjoy doing what they loved most. His position had raised a lot of dust in a world that as progressive had nothing more than the concept. Therefore, if Leo should not know and Casillas was on the verge of death. "Was it for speaking in favor you?"

         "How is it that you do that?" Cristiano's astonishment was so obvious that it could be seen from a kilometer. "Bah, that does not matter now!" He scolded himself. "Yes, that's why. Simplifying it: yes, that was it. "

         "What happened?" to Álvaro his voice sounded calm, cold. There was no trace of fear and pain in it. Nor of anger. It was like listening to another man's voice.

         "Apparently it was an assault. Except that they did not take anything. They hit him with something, they don’t know what yet. Iker is unconscious. I fear--- I fear he---"

        "There, there. I get it." Álvaro did not know what else he should add. He did not even have a remote idea of what would happen if--- No, he should not think about those things. What was, had already happened and giving back to time was a utopian concept, nothing more. Wasting time on how things would have been different if certain events had developed differently was not going to change the present. Iker lay in a hospital bed. There could not be a favorable thought about it. Leo would find out sooner rather than later. No matter how much effort Cristiano put into it. The truth would come out and hit Lionel in the chest, tearing his flesh until it found his heart. What would happen next? Who knew? Maybe Leo would stand it and maybe not. Perhaps he cared or perhaps he did not. Time would give a reason for that. Álvaro sighed. Whatever it was, he had given his word and he would fulfill it. He stared again and felt as if his stomach had been hit with a blow to the mouth: Cristiano was trembling. And if he did not cry, it was perhaps because he was too afraid to do so. “It really is a bloody bad day,” Álvaro whispered.

         Later that day, with the moon taking the place of the sun and the coolness of the night relieving the afternoon heat, Álvaro stopped his car in the middle of the road. The lights of Madrid could be seen from a distance. He sat with his hands behind the wheel and the radio off. The windows were open, letting in a melancholy current of air. Álvaro was trembling and not from the cold. He leaned his head against the backrest and closed his eyes while clutching the wheel more tightly. His knuckles turned white. When he opened his eyes again his vision was blurred by the crying. Heaven seemed the saddest canvas ever painted.

         There were clouds in the sky, not many. The stars could be clearly seen on the outskirts of the city. Around the moon, there was a faint aura. The clouds swallowed the dim light. And Madrid did not know that. The people there were too focused on their tasks to direct their eyes to heaven. Too involved in fitting the world to his way of thinking. They were alone. All of them. Men and their so-called gods. Álvaro was not a god. Leo either. Cristiano less. And Iker the least of all. They were all men of flesh and blood and bone. Leo suffered just like any other, but in his condition, he was the victim of another kind of pain, another kind of loneliness that not even Cristiano could fill. They –the people, the media– were consuming them as the clouds consumed the light of the moon. All of them were alone, surrounded by a storm that only needed to adore you and then reject you. That was the worst kind of loneliness.

         Do not cry now. Not here, not now. She awaits you at home. Alice. Alas, Alice! Alas, my love. What would I be without you? You save me. Aye, you save me and you bloody know it. Where would I be without you? Do not let me walk this path alone, never.

         He would cry once he was on her side, that he could afford no matter what. Together they had shared much more than the bed. The same should happen with Leo and Cristiano. Many barriers and all kinds of consolidated intimacies. He would cry with her there to reassure him. To make him see that he was not alone in the world. Everything bad had been left behind. Together they had overcome those cruel days. She taking his hand and he seeking his support in his sweet Alice. What more could I ask for?

         The answer to that eluded him. There was nothing to do, he was repeated himself again. Crying did not solve anything. How long had he been clinging to that idea? Not much, he deduced in the end. After all, it had not been long since the last time he had cried. On his return to Madrid, in that ceremony where his parents and Alice were at the side of their friends.

         "Good afternoon everyone, umm, thank you all for coming, umm, and well, what can I say? Today is-it's a day of maximum happiness for me and well I have to thank my family, my friends and all the people who have always trusted me,” that was the moment when his eyes began to shine with tears not yet spilled. "Ummm, I'm here again, back home. Ummm, for me it's been two long years and---and-and a long wait to come back, but well I think---that there’re times when you need to mature, you need to get big at all, and-and here I am again. Well, to leave my life as-as I have always done in the Bernabéu" his voice betrayed the little calm that he still appeared. He moved, anxious, and avoided looking at other eyes that were not Alice's. She was smiling, that half-thin-smile under those sugar pits that were her lovely eyes. "And to try to stay as long as possible," that's when the tears came out. Happiness tears. Tears for his return to home; for being in Madrid again and forming part once more of Real Madrid. But, mostly, those were tears and words spoken to Alice.

         Iker would be fine. He had to. Yes, he had to. Finishing like that was not something the man deserved. He would recover like Leo. The two would get back on their feet to show the world how little their weight mattered to them. Cris would be there too. And Álvaro would also be there, with Alice at his side; He for them and she for him.

         ‘Alas’, Álvaro smiled, she got that from The Lord of the Rings. And I got it from her. “Alas, guapa, I’m coming home.”

Chapter Text

Piqué, in the passenger seat, had a dismal expression. So far he had been reluctant to start a conversation. He was just sitting there, with that look of hate burning in his face. His knuckles could not be whiter, nor his back straighter. A monolith of pure anger. Neymar glanced at him from time to time, waiting for Gerard's rats to soften. Dealing with someone so prone to throwing punches, or glaring, was not something the Brazilian was fully prepared to do. That's why Ney watched him with caution. Waiting for the moment when the hard features would break under the sweet expressions that dominated that Spaniard face most of the year. Oh, if only it were so easy to calm Piqué's mood!

         Neymar, on the other hand, felt contrite. It had been half an hour that the issues were over. And, while the silence was not uncomfortable, he had to try to fix things. Of those who had seen Madrid's game against Gijón, it was Gerard who was the angriest when Neymar had had to explain what was about the kiss. Suarez had come to accept it and Javier had not given a damn. The Mexicans were odd for sure. “So,” Ney began “are you really okay with this?” No answer. “I mean, we have to be one-hundred percent sure. We don’t want to spoil everything, do we?” Still no answer. “Jesus Christ! You’re u-unbearable when you're sulking!” No answer; no glare. What the fuck is wrong with him!? Not a single word since I picked him up! Jesus! Is he going to be like this all the way--- “Er--- you know it’s a pretty long journey, right?” Nothing “Gerard answer me! You can’t go like that all the way to---?”

         “You knew,” of his words, although dry and sharp, no emotion could be distinguished. “You knew this and say nothing.”

         “Thank God!” Neymar relaxed a little.

         “You knew.”

         “Look--- I knew, aye. But I made a promise not to tell anyone. Is it so hard to understand? Doesn’t Leo deserve some privacy?”

         “Ha! You’re one to talk considering what we’re about to do.”

         “Its way different and you know it!”

         “Shut the fuck up. All of this is wrong. Why on earth did Leo have to go like a like a schoolgirl opening her legs to the most boorish jerk of the boors!?”

         “Jesus! Where did you get that from?”

         “And you know what’s far worse? He bloody intended to keep it a secret forever! No, he did not tell you by will. How do I get that from? You fucking tell us that, goddammit! It was that bloody fucking moron of Ronaldo the one who told you! And of course, as he has no more choice, Leo then proceeded to tell you everything! How fucking cute! Did you cry when he tells you that story? When I put my hands on him, oh you'll see the bastard! Now shut up and keep driving, we’re already late and Xavi will fucking kill us. And let me think. If silence bothers you, then turn the bloody radio on. I don’t mind.”

         Neymar did as told. From the speakers came the sound of an old Brazilian song. His thoughts stopped when he heard the lyrics. It was appropriate. Ney shook himself as a dog would when the water was removed. Barcelona suddenly did not look like the great and beautiful city it was, but a wide meadow of yesteryear. The deeds done by man were no longer such, now it seemed to him great trees under which to rest after a long journey. Ah, Lionel, I'll be glad to see you again.

 

Luis was sitting on the steps outside the entrance of his house. A red cap was protecting him from the sun's rays. That was going to be a long, long day. And he did not feel ready for it. He looked again at his sports bag. Next to the clothes were two thick rolls of tape. He felt uncomfortable to see them again, however, there was little to be done about it now. Overall, they had talked about it until they were tired.

         Despite the season and the time, it was not excessive heat. The day was nice and the cap had more to do with eye pain than the sun itself. Sometimes a cool wind blew, those who were busy carrying litter everywhere. And that wind brought with it the memories of winter as if the son of a bitch refused to leave. It was a pleasant season to spend the day with his family and not doing what they were about to do.

         Benjamin and Delfina were at school. And Sofía working. His wife would not have to worry about money as long as Luis kept playing. But “It has nothing to do with money whether we need it or not. I cannot be in the house all day, alone or accompanied. It would be overwhelming! I would end up crazy or depressed, God forbid. I need activities and the life of a famous wife does not fit me, really. If it works for all those whores and sluts, well good for them! I could not care less about their fancy-ass dresses,” Sofía had said. And Suarez, like every good husband, had laughed at his wife's wit.

         If the man had been standing, he would have shifted his weight from one foot to the other. But as he was sitting, he contented himself with sighing long and heavily. Shaking his head and just staring nowhere in particular with a puzzled-worrying-bored frown.

         Leo had always been a--- well, what he was. It did not make sense, a few years ago he had had a girlfriend, Antonella. She was beautiful. For Luis, it did not make any sense how Leo could go from Antonella, as beautiful as she was, though not as much as Sofia, to Cristiano. Although, now that Luis thought about it, Antonella and Cristiano had the same skin tone. Could it be that Leo had a weakness for that skin tone, just as Bill had a weakness for the blondes in that Tarantino movie? But, and is that there was always a condemned but in all situations, there was no justification for it. Or it just slipped between Luis' fingers. After all, Leo had been hopelessly in love with Antonella since childhood. Before his transfer to Madrid, and that he had a stable relationship with the woman, Leo talked about her whenever the opportunity presented itself.

         It was not possible then that Leo was--- well, apparently yes. God, why did everything had to be so complicated! Well, and in the given case, that did not change anything, right? Leo was still Leo; the best bloody player in the world. Whether he liked to swallow swords or lick the donut--- well, that was his business! But it was not that simple. Luis had been raised in a way that said certain things about homosexuals. But Leo was his friend, almost a brother but for the blood that ran through his veins. And if something was clear to Luis is that he should not turn his back on a brother. "Treat how you want to be treated and respect the way you would like to be respected," he said on the air. It was the old words of his mother when he was a boy.

         Actually, it was a saying of his grandmother that his mother had adopted. Perhaps Luis's grandmother, Lila, would have taken it from his mother. And so on. Back then, still a boy and his father had just--- Aye, around that time had been when he heard that for the first. And now, what was Luis leaving to his children?

         Sofia was better at raising than he would be. He said with some pride. All the women in his family were like that; better than men to educate children. And it made some sense since they had loaded with them during the pregnancy and they were the ones who gave them their first meals.

         “You guys just think about going through life looking for bigger challenges, ignoring those who are about to hit you in the face until it's too late and we have to take care of the bruises as if changing diapers would not have been enough!” That was his mother, Sandra. While Lila had said, “Let them fly out of the nest when they think they're ready and see them go flat on the ground.”

         But all that was rambling to avoid the situation. Leo Lionel Andrew. Your friend, almost your brother. Were his feelings, Luis's, changed just because Leo liked men? It was doubtful to say without feeling remorse as if to give the wrong answer was to lose some important prize.

         There was nothing wrong with being a bit feminine. Luis stated. After all, Sofia had mocked a couple of times about her husband's calligraphy. And he remembered vaguely that Leo had raised an eyebrow at the sight of Luis's handwriting. So no. Being something feminine had nothing wrong with it. Nor should he have to fall in love with another man. True?

         “I don’t know,” Luis whispered between closed teeth with anger. “I can’t think of this now. Not if I have not crossed a single word with Leo about it, I owe this to him at least. Judging him now would be idiocy, no matter how inculcated in me so many years ago. Yes, I can’t think about this now. When I see it, when I hear it: then I can decide.”

 

You stupid, idiot! Gerard thought. Why did you keep this a secret to all of us? Were we not more friends? Gerard had always thought of Leo as his little brother. Maybe he did not always show it, but that was another matter. Getting used to the idea of Barça without Leo had been difficult. And having to face it in the field, even harder. And now this. With that unpleasant asshole. That pretentious man. Ah, Leo, I pity you. I truly pity you, brother. But pity did not erase the anger. Nor did that help to feel less betrayed. He glanced sideways at Neymar, closing his eyelids to create a thin line through which he observed the Brazilian. Betrayed, aye.

 

You wake up. Get up and walk out of bed. He’ll be laying there, still asleep. You’ll ponder whether to wake or let him rest. He looks so peaceful in the mornings. You don’t wake him, why would you do such thing? You go into the bathroom and you look in the mirror. Your hair is long, the curls look good, although a cut would not hurt either, would it? Maybe a Mohawk would fit you well. What else is there to see? It is the same face of all the years, the same one that smiles at the cameras in a session or in an interview or when they take you unexpectedly. You sigh. You’re bloody tired. Despite that, you smile. White marble pieces shine in the space between your lips. Look, they would not be out of place on a piano. You have to smile, is what is expected of you. You will take a shower and go to train, like every morning. But every day you lose a bit of interest. What is happening? You will be home late, again. Busy giving a lecture on gay rights. You will receive applause. And spit, as always when you go to one of these events. Spit on the part of the people you are fighting for now and on the part of those who have always opposed it. You will feel the desire to cry. To break the face of someone about to hit. But you will not do either. You will smile and give thanks. You will pose for the photos, your clean face of whatever they have spat on you. And you will smile. It’s hard. You knew this would be hard. You will drive back home, listening to the news and feeling a knot in your stomach at every mockery. You will be angry, you will think about finishing everything. In returning to Portugal with your family. To see your parents and brothers again. Your mother already accepts it, she has no other. Your father does not want to talk about it, but he has not turned his back either. Only your brothers support you indiscriminately. Why is this so hard? How is Leo taking it? Back home, María already prepared dinner a while ago. Leo has already had dinner and your plate is still saved. You warm it, you've waved María goodbye. Exhausting the woman is not pleasant. Dinner in silence, holding back tears. You wash your plate and let it drain. You still do not discover how the dishwasher works. You go up the stairs. Each step is difficult. But you achieve it. And when you enter the room and see Lionel lying on the bed, you smile for him. You’ll kiss and make him smile. He’s so beautiful when he smiles. You’ll tease his cock and then suck it until the warmth inside spills in your tongue. Then you’ll do it again. Just because you can, want and Lionel enjoys it. You will masturbate slowly while doing it. And Lionel will take your seed between his tender lips. Then you’ll sleep again, only to wake up and do the same thing again the next morning, and the day after that and the one after this. Oh, but you’re so tired of this. And you wonder, wouldn’t it be quite right to end things now? And the thought hurts you. But you will smile, after all, you are the great CR7. Even if you don’t feel like him anymore.

         Cris stopped looking at himself in the mirror. He felt disgusted by himself. He should go in and take a shower, wiping away those dark thoughts once and for all. However, there was a truth in his words so unequivocal that it did not matter when it was carved or how much water fell on it, it would never go away. Cristiano Ronaldo, at his young age, was tired of everything.

         Maybe that was the reason for the decision made. Or perhaps he just wanted a day off. He returned to his room and woke Leo. The Argentine looked at him with beautiful eyes. Lionel was beautiful. “Come, leãozinho, let’s bath together.”

         Cristiano did not wait for an answer. He removed the blankets and helped Leo get to his feet. Cris then puts a plastic bag around the casted leg. And he gave Lionel one of his most tender smiles, feeling his chest burn with love.

         The water was lukewarm and she balanced them gently. They had gone to another room, the only one in the house that had a bathtub. Cris was lying on his back with Leo on top of him, hugging his chest. Cris ran his fingers through Lionel's hair, long and curved, clearing his face. Leo had his eyes closed, a smile was forming on his lips. Cristiano began to hum an old song to which Leo's smile pronounced.

         Cris felt more confident and began to sing in a serious, but soft tone. Almost whispering each word in Leo's ear, while hugging the Argentinean and shaking him to the rhythm of the song. “Meu coração não se cansa de ter esperança, de um dia ser tudo o que você quiser,” Cris changed the lyrics, small changes that were appropriate for the moment. “Meu coração de criança não é só a lembrança, de um vulto feliz de seus olhos que passou por meus sonhos,” Leo smiled again. His lips planted a soft landing on Cristiano's chest. Both rocked in the water, generating small waves that crashed against the sinuous lines of their shores. Cris also smiled, all forgotten for the moment. “Sem dizer adeus e fez dos olhos meus um chorar mais sem fim; meu coração vagabundo quer guardar o mundo em você,” now Cris was the one to kiss Lionel with brisk in the top. “Meu coração vagabundo quer guardar o mundo em você.”                                                        1. (see notes at the end)

         Cris was the one to help Leo dress again after drying themselves with soft towels. Usually, it was María the one responsible for helping him. But Cris had sent her off that day. Neither she nor they would be at home for the most part of the day. Black jeans and a white t-shirt with a V-neck, alongside white Adidas, and a leather jacket was what Leo wore. Cris chose clear jeans and a long-sleeved gray t-shirt with buttons on the neck.

         They left in the Silver Bugatti Chiron, at a moderate speed dealing with Cristiano. Leo made a comment about it and laughed at Cris's expression. The Portuguese, however, did not increase the speed an apex.

         Their first stop was at a cafe, Ocho y Medio the place was called, considered one of the best bookstores-cafes in the city. In two of the walls, there were bookshelves of black color full of books of all sizes, colors, and shapes. Another wall, behind the cash register, was lined with black and white photographs of people drinking--- well, coffee. Next, to the photographs, a piece of furniture where liqueurs, sweets, and other things were on display, covered the rest of the wall as far as the other one began. There was also, on the free wall on the left when entering the cafe, a huge bookcase that covered the whole piece to the bottom. Leo's eyes immediately caught on it. Cris rejoiced.

         The table at which they took a seat, was next to the angle created by two booksellers coming together. It was a small table, compared to the ones on the terrace, but still small for any standard of two people eating together. Still, it was cozy, the whole place was.

         Who attended them, a girl of maybe no more than twenty years with a long black hair adorned by two strands, one white and one red, showed all smiles and understanding, helping Leo sit down before offering them a menu and leave them a moment to make their decision, offering at the same time to throw out any snoop who recognized them, and congratulating them for their beautiful union and regretting, obviously this could not be missing and perhaps would forever be the trait that would define the people every time they saw Leo, the injury suffered by the Argentine as if she herself had been the one responsible for the fracture.

         Leo only nodded and smiled, saying “Thank you,” when necessary. Always so humble and full of acquiescence. Cristiano could not remember when Lionel had not been like that. Or maybe yes, in the field Cris remembered a couple of scenes, which had circulated on the internet and enough media, of Messi angry or about to throw a blow to another player; a rooster of fights. But those moments, in reality, did not count at all. Everyone had had their heads warmed when they had their feet on the field. It was normal.

         How many fights or arguments had started for no particular reason? Cris was guilty of this himself, he would never admit it in public and doing it for himself was hard and difficult. But he had screamed and arrived at the physical intimidation, the mockery had not been lacking either if he was going to consider it, so of the saint, he did not have a hair. He had become unruly, and once he had hit someone. Well, not just once. But at least the time he was thinking, when they had played against Barça and with Leo wearing the white, he had thrown more than one blow. Cristiano was not particularly proud of these attitudes, but he did not give them a second thought when he came to reconsider them.

         “Let’s see what we got here, shall we?” Cris winked at Leo.

         Leo ate a kind of Panini that, in Cris's experience, had nothing of Panini and would not look bad like something out of a Subway. It tasted good, though and it was accompanied by a chipotle-based sauce, along with homemade potato chips. For drinking, he had ordered a chai tea. Cris had ordered an apple pie accompanied by an oatmeal cookie and an espresso which came with a large glass of water.

         People did come to ask them a picture, especially with Leo with whom they were amazed by the long hair and the beard. It was a miracle that they recognized them, especially Leo with his beard and lion hair. Cris, on the other hand, did not have really big changes. The beard had been lowered to an incipient shadow and the hair, while not short as it used to be, was well groomed. Not that Leo's hair was a mess, he still used that ponytail that reminded Cris so much of a character in a Chinese movie.

         Cris bought Leo some hardcover books, something in the lines of ‘Wise Man’s Tear’ and ‘Name of the Wild’. Later that day, when Leo started to really look at them, Cris would know the right names.

         Leo took off his leather jacket and Cris carried it folded in in his arm, always helping Leo to go calm and safely into those damned crutches. Cristiano was afraid to see his beloved fall to the ground at any time because of a hole in the ground that neither of them could see in time. Although he had no choice but to go at a slow pace, very slow as that song by Julieta Venegas said, since going to Lionel's side with an arm around him would be an easier way to go both of them flat on the ground. And that would be very bad.

         Very bad, aye. Try stating out more the already obvious and see who falls down the road to break his head. He’ll be fine! Bloody hell, the man is stronger than he seems. And, as if Leo had read Cris’s mind. “I can walk a bit faster and not fall,” big curved lips and a glance that accepted no refutations. “Besides I don’t want to spend all day under this burning sun. That tan may look good in you, it truly does, but I kind of like my skin just as it is. And I think you like it as well.”

         It was almost like hearing the old Lionel, and that was good. Going out truly worked. Even though most of the time Leo did seem as if he was somewhere else. He looked better, there was no doubt about that. Cris repressed himself. If he had left the house before---, he thought. However, the doctor had recommended rest and Cristiano wanted to make sure that it was so. He’s already a grown man, let go of the reins that were never yours and let him decide what is best for him.

         Would it be like that when both were older with grayer hair? One walking next to the other, taking care that none would fall flat on the ground against the ground. The idea had its appeal, it also contained a charge with too sad detonations, but that did not remove appeal of it.

         They walked down the Martín de los Heros street at a slow pace, looking at the facades of the buildings open to the side to show the Plaza de España. Already in the square, they looked for a seat under the shade of some tree. There were children who knew them and came to lose their autographs, some a picture together, but mostly avoided them. Leo suggested going to a part where there were more trees and fewer esplanades. They walked again until leaving behind the monument to Cervantes.

         “We can go to the temple of Debod or, if you prefer, to Campo del Moro.”

         “I just want to sit, dear,” Leo said, a slight smile on his lips. “Just sit and enjoy the air of the city for a bit, that would be nice. Besides, my leg hurts a bit.”

         “Then why didn’t you say nothing?” Cristiano's voice became a kind of shriek towards the end of the sentence, but he did not care, nor did he cry when a couple of ladies who were passing by turned to see him with a clearly disapproving gesture.

         “Because it’s fine,” Everything in Leo showed insouciance. I was at peace, for the first time in weeks. And Cris was going to ruin him if he continued with that overprotective attitude. It was hard not to be after having seen how that moron had danced on the leg of his beloved. “Cris, I’m fine, trust me. I just got tired. It’s been a long time since I’ve walked more than the distance between the bed and the couch. Thank you for bringing me here,” added, at last, winking his left eye.

         “It was nothing, meu amor.”

         “It was, Cris,” a pause, as if Leo were looking for the right words--- “você me salvou um pouco hoje.”                                                         2. (see notes at the end)

         Cristiano jaw dropped. Not even the trill of the most beautiful bird had a comparison with the fragrant revelry that emerged from the Argentine throat.

         “Você--- Leo! Voce falou portugues. Ah, meu amor, você falou o idioma dos meus pais e dos seus pais antes deles. Há quanto tempo você fez isso? Por que você manteve isso todo esse tempo? Diga-me, eu tenho que saber se você aprendeu em um de seus livros. Oh, Lionel, todos esses segredos são tão esmagadores. Não devemos es---”                                                        3. (see notes at the end)

         “Alright, alright; take it slow, cowboy. I don’t know that many words. You lost me in the middle of that speech.”

         “Sorry,” Cristiano felt his cheeks go red and could not help but to act like an embarrassed child. Lionel put an arm around Ronaldo's shoulders, bringing his face closer to Cris until he kissed him on the temple.

         A woman stood in a jar in front of them, the hardest look Cristiano had ever seen was carved on the face of the lady, lower than Leo, much more. “How ‘bout ya go‘nd do that wea nobody can see ya? Ya’re indecent und immoral! God forbi’ the success o’yar campaign” she said while crossing herself in a hurry while glaring at them with another disdainful look. “Now go before I call the police to take y’away” she ended up saying as she spat on the ground in front of them and left with a walk that indicated an injured leg or a limb shorter than the other.

         “Yeah, we should probably go.”

         “Yep, whatever,” Leo shrugged.

         The second stop they made was at Renoir Plaza de España where they saw an independent film where they got less attention than previously received, which was pretty good.

         After that, Cris took Lionel to lunch to the restaurant to which he had taken it that time when the Argentine was still accustomed to life in Madrid and had lost the spark. ‘Is this not good enough for you?’ he had said in a burst of aggravation that now he was ashamed to remember, ‘Not good enough for the high and mighty Lionel Messi?’ Until Cris remembered that, he had not realized how much Lionel had changed him. Cristiano had been arrogant. Bloody arrogant. The almighty Cristiano Ronaldo, the God-kind CR7. The kind of man he still tried to be in front of the cameras. A man without fear because there’s nothing to lose. He had had everything, right? The face, fame, and money. All the cars for him to show off on Instagram and shit. But until Lionel had really came into his life as a fellow rather than an adversary, he had never felt complete. Because Cris had been D7OS and Leo the Messiah.

         Cristiano laughed at that thought, attracting the attention of Leo, who was watching him behind his menu with an arched eyebrow. “I don’t think an Éclair of poultry and curry is that funny, so what are laughing at?” Leo inquired.

         “And what about a Norwegian Éclair with raifort? That sure sounds amusing,” Cris winked “but you’re right. I was remembering the first time we were here. You had a face of death, bored, tired of life.”

         “Good to know that made you laugh.”

         “It wasn’t that, Leo. I recalled some of our aliases that the fans had made. D7OS and Messiah. It’s funny how close to each other they put us.”

         “I’m sure you were above me,” Leo grinned.

         “Until now I haven’t heard any complaint, any time we can shift top to bottom. Still, it wasn’t that. God and the savior are one. So we are one. They were the ones that put us together in the first place. And now they are the ones that want us apart. Funny.”

         “Not all of them want us apart,” Leo said while looking again at his menu, “why everything has to be Éclair and shit?”

         “What you mean?”

         “Here, look. Éclair with this Éclair with that, Éclair for them and everyone. It’s like they don’t even try it anymore. I don’t remember having tried an Éclair that wasn’t sweet, remember when we tried it at your parents' house? Well, I tried it, you already ate it many times before. It tasted very well. I would like to return to Portugal with you.”

         “Nay, nay. What I meant was what do you mean about the fans?”

         Leo looked at him in dismay for a moment before reacting and laugh. “Have you ever hear about fan fiction?” Cristiano shook his head. “While you were busy with the campaign and interviews, I started to search for us on the internet. And I found this fanfiction about us. It’s funny, most of them see me as the bottom. Seems to fit reality, isn’t?”

         “Fan fiction--- stories about us?”

         “Yup,” Lionel put a hand to his chin. “They’re--- interesting.”

         “Anything that comes to mind?”

         Silence for a bit. “One in which we are some kind of space gladiators or something like that. I undress you with some whips at some point. That was pretty sweet, you know?”

         “Why would you do such thing?” Cristiano had lost the color of his face as if Leo had carried out that feat at that moment.

         “How can I know? I just read, didn’t write that down. But that’s not the point! Not everybody wants us apart. That’s a win for a chance.”

         Afterwards, they returned home. Outside the cinema, few people gave them a look, too focused on crossing the street or their talks, some even looking at the screen of the mobile as if there was nothing else to do in the world. The march was slow, provided with the necessary breaks so that Leo's leg did not hurt. Even if Lionel claimed to be able to walk five kilometers before the pain knocked him to the ground, Cristiano firmly insisted on resting every few steps. He was counting them in his mind with a precision that would have once made him nervous. And even among so many protests, Cris could see the look of relief every time Leo sat down to rest for a while. He was becoming a stubborn, uncompromising man at times, but Cris still held him tight by the leash. As Maria did, although not with the efficiency of the lady.

         Cristiano wondered, not for the first time and surely it would not be the last time, what his parents would actually think about him and Leo. Officially he had not told them anything they had not heard on the news. His father offered a sullen silence when they spoke on the phone, then responded with a peremptory tone "what is has been," while his mother had shown all smiles, or that was inferred by nervous giggles on the other side of the line, promising that everything was fine and that he would always be his son.

         The word deadly did not quite describe the weight of the attitudes of his parents. His brothers were another matter, they always were. They had accepted it and soon they were playing jokes. One of them, Hugo, went to visit Leo at the hospital when he lay unconscious. He spent several days at Cris's side, keeping him company; chatting about the old days. Kátia and Elma were always such loves, in their very peculiar way of being.

         Thinking about them and the simple way in which they had become fond of Leo, made him see that maybe not everything was so bad. Yes, there would always be people who would oppose their relationship, but they had little importance in the course of it. Cristiano would not be the one to throw the towel just for a bunch of erratic children, he had not done it in football and he would not do it now. Let them say whatever they wanted and organize as many marches as they can. Am I not doing the same? He thought, felling proud of his work. Maybe now there were no major changes, but they would happen. It was just a matter of time and effort. And money. And of the latter he had plenty. I will help create a better world. At least I’ll put my part in the foundation.

         "How do you want to be remembered?" they had asked him in an interview a long time ago, before Leo, before his ex-partner. The answer had not been made to pray, ready to come out of his lips and fill the room with his words as if they were going to make history just for the sake to be pronounced. He remembered vaguely a smile curling his lips and a tongue passing over to wet them. “As someone realized, who has achieved all his goals. That they see me as who fulfilled all his dreams and arched with all goals and obstacles that were appearing in my path. Also as a happy person and full of success. Especially as a man full of love for his family and friends, that is very important for me beyond football,” Much of that had been arrogance, and much more had been the truth.

         He stopped thinking about all that when he started driving, tending to Leo the cell phone connected to the aux to play the music. It was the phone they shared, its only use was to store as many songs as they liked. Right now a song by Bowie –oh how Lionel had liked David's music and how sad he had been when the artist died!– filled the car. Cristiano had his mind more focused on the road, for which he only picked up a couple of words, including those of the choir; something about ‘changes’. Cris brought his hand unconsciously to his knee, absentmindedly sobbing the area that so many months before had hit the road asphalt. The memory of that day accompanied him every day. Sometimes when waking up, others in the course of the day and many other times before sleeping. Even in his dreams there was that image of himself crying on the road. But in dreams everything was different, not crying for feeling unable to help Leo, but for another reason worse. In front of him he had spread a body with a fluctuating face. That body was only there, like a monolith to its own failure. And nothing more.

         The idea, or in this case the dream, would not have to terrify it. Looking at it from a rational point, dreams were just that; dreams. Alright, maybe this was a nightmare, but when the sun woke Cristiano it made the dream disappear. Lionel also suffered nightmares, he was still suffering them, and did not look as if a lot of bulls had trampled him over.

         Think of other things. Today there was an advance, at least it is an advance and who does not want to believe it can go to dig holes in the bottom of the Atlantic. The streets of the city, with their large parks and skyscraper facades, were leaving behind the cinemas and shops. Soon they were in residential areas, pleasant places where few people could be seen walking on the sidewalks. Then the houses were more separated from each other. Until they were out of town on their way home. Which reminded him of that Fun. song ‘I was out on the town so I came to your window last night. I tried not to throw stones but I wanted to come inside.’

         Leo was changing the music they heard from his cell phone. Cris was surprised to hear the folk selection that Lionel was putting. They spoke little. In the rearview mirror, Cris noticed a gray car. The house was already nearby, the white contours already protruded in the distance.

         Cris parked and was going down when Leo finally spoke. “From what you said a while ago, I caught a couple of words. I think you were talking about secrets. I, well, I have something to say.” Cris got back into the car, without closing the door. There was a nice breeze. He caught a movement in the rear-view mirror, but he did not pay much attention to it. Lionel's expression was severe. "I know---" Leo began before an expression of recognition lodged in his face.

         Something, or someone, pulled Christian out of the car. He fell on his side, watching a pair of dark pants and Nike shoes. He was about to look up when someone else wrapped several times tape around his eyes. Cristiano was going to scream when the tape also caught his lips, sealing them. A foot on his back prevented him from standing. They were forcing his hands behind his back, tying their hands together with many turns of tape. Then they tied Cris’s legs, flexing them and passing the tape down his thighs and calves. They returned to take care of his hands. From what Cris could feel they were tying his feet and hands together. When they finished with it, they lifted him enough to pass the tape across his chest over and over and over again.

         Totally immobilized, gagged and blinded, Cristiano realized that Lionel had not shouted at any time. The tape around his ears muted the sounds of everything around him. But Cris came to hear the steps away from him and going to open the passenger door. There was a brief conversation before Leo raised his voice. “I’m not living him like this!”

         What's going on? He thought while struggling and trying to scream; nothing but muffled sounds came from his mouth. Those who tied him came closer again, Cris could feel them all. After a pause, they raised him from the floor and carried him over to somewhere outside his property by the number of steps he came to tell.

         Beside him, he heard a door open before being placed inside a car. Possibly in the trunk. He struggled again against the moorings, weakening some of them and tearing the tape. But he did not achieve anything. Soon more tape passed over his body and face.

         Between the murmurs of voices, he recognized the unmistakable sound of crutches as Lionel walked towards Cris. Leo stood in front of him and whispered, or maybe he said it in a normal tone, to be sure was nothing but a guess, "Don’t worry, these fuckers will pay for this."

         "Ah c’me on, Leo, don’t be like that." What is happening! Cris tried to scream through his gag as the door shut, leaving him struggling in a trunk. This is bloody strange, too bloody fucking strange! Blood and ashes! Fuck! Shit! Shit! What in the bloody motherfucking hell is going on? Who are these ‘fuckers’? Why am I the only one tied up while Leo goes free? What are they gonna do to me? Another try to unleash resulted in the tape ripping off the hair of neck and arm. Álvaro? This sure seems like one of his jokes--- but this is even way too cruel for him. Could Bale do such thing? Or Pepe? Who? And why now? Now that he had--- GOD! Is this because I--- IS THIS BECAUSE I SKIP TRAINING TODAY?! Those BLOODY BASTARDS! You ain’t gonna haze me! You ain’t!

         There was a long silence before the other doors opened and the car was set in motion. A horrible song thundered on the loudspeakers, smothering everything that Cristiano had to object to.

 

The music of the club was not so loud on the terrace. Out there the air and the sound of the pool below made the strident songs that the DJ played pale. The wind carried an icy chill despite being in the spring. James let out another moan when the boy, Ispán or something like that was his name, breasted his wet neck again. Moistened with sweat and saliva. James’s heart kept its accelerated rhythm acquired when dancing and, of course, by the way, Isval was kissing him. And touching him. The hand of the stranger grabbed his cock and ass through the fabric of the pants.

         Ispan smiled at his face when James moaned again. His lover whispered something that was lost in the sound of music and the wind. James closed his eyes and approached Ivan to be kissed by him again like that; James' lips were bitten and stretched with a passion that was not far from the fury.

         The moans followed each other. The fabric of the shirt brushed against his nipples, hard as rocks, were producing a sensation that raves that did not end up being to his liking until Inan –God, James would have to ask his name again and the guy would think he was an idiot!– pressed them hard between his fingers. That felt good. James smiled and moaned. He almost shouted, but Ispan stepped forward and covered his mouth with one hand. The pressure of that hand on his mouth was almost as strong as the clamp on the nipple.

         “Just moan,” Ivan said “That's so delicious, just groan and everything will be fine,” He approached James a lot, shaking his hips in a way too sensual. “I have never taken a footballer, until now. If that Portuguese can, why cannot I?”

         James felt disgusted by the way the guy had said that and started to twitch, trying to get rid of that carnal embrace before it was consummated. The hand in his mouth did not withdraw. And the railing behind him faced the void.

         “What’s wrong? Don’t act like you don’t want it! Here’s the bloody truth if you need some,” said Ivan or whatever-the-hell-his-name-was as he grabbed with a hurtful grip James cock. James only kept recoiling scared, and angry too. He wanted to scream, but the hand muffled out his tries with an extraordinary force. “Stop it, bloody idiot! You will enjoy it, bloody faggot!”

         Then everything happened too fast. James hit the crotch of the fellow with all his strength while plunging an elbow into his ribs. When the guy opened his eyes for the pain was when James's teeth tear the skin of Ivan's hand. The taste of the blood was too strong. Isvan pushed him out at the same time James was pushing him with his other foot. The guy fell to the ground on his back, his eyes bulging and shouting something in a terrified tone. James went back as well, moving his arms frantically to regain his balance. But James continued to fall, his buttocks sliding on the other side of the railing. And James fell.

         As he fell, he expected to see Ispan's face peeking out to see him fall. But that did not happen. James fell very fast for it. He hit a hard surface and the air left his lungs as they filled with water. His back hurt and the blow had stunned him. He thought he heard a strange sound as he lost consciousness.

         Bloody Álvaro, he thought. He had time for that.

Chapter Text

When he awoke, the first thing he did was cough all the water in his lungs until breathing became an ordeal. The throat was the living reflection of the embers, the reflection of a cry never made. A memory, perhaps, of many years ago when the youngest boy got his throat excited before the games on the television. James looked around, trying to make sense of everything around him as his eyes slowly focused on the images.

         The firmament shone in fragments of quartz behind a layer of dark cotton. Now that his body was wet, James resented more the breath of the earth striving to surround him. James was also aware –albeit in a very remote way, similar to drowsiness, but that had nothing to do with that feeling– of the earthquakes shaking his body from his insides.

         "Is he going to be okay?" Asked a woman with a low voice and an accent in which all the letters were dragged. She was also of those who lisped a lot when speaking and she had said just a few words with "s" for James to deduce that. It was a pleasant voice, after all. Maybe she was a little drunk, that would certainly explain the drag of the words.

         "Let's hope a yes," answered a man who was on top of James, with a voice sweeter than the quince. It was another of those voices in which the words crawled and the "s'" were enjoyed when speaking. A voice that could be tasted day and night, but one that James had come to hate.

         James struggled to focus on the man's face, lifting his neck cost him a lot. The features gradually revealed themselves, as if the face were coming out of a May fog. James' eyes lit on Álvaro's lips, tender moons opening to reveal a set of white pearls. "Epa, kiddo," said Álvaro with that voice of his that James had so often heard in his dreams, "how are you feeling?"

         A drop of water fell on James' forehead when he was about to respond. Stunned, he took a hand –how weighed the simplest movements!– to the forehead, stopping in mid-gesture when he noticed the wet clothes of Álvaro. James opened and closed his mouth without saying anything at all, the living image of a fish out of the water. "You---" was how much he managed to say.

         "No, kiddo, I asked you first. All good?"

         "I--- er--- yes," James had so many questions and he needed so many words to complete them. Then he was conscious, a sensory memory, of lips separating from his own before coughing up all the water. James lost color and began to tremble more violently and not because of the cold.

         "Let's see, come here," Álvaro took him by the arms and helped him to his feet. The garment fell heavy, producing a sound similar to a slap on the back of some animal. James instinctively put his hands to his chest, tearing Morata out laughing.

         "Vale," said Álvaro, "put this on before you catch a cold and let's get out of here, vale?" Morata continued as he passed over James's shoulders a dark leather jacket impregnated with Álvaro's scent. James resisted the temptation to inhale that fragrance.

         They walked shoulder to shoulder, ignoring the looks that the people of the club cast on them. James came to catch Ispan in a corner, he looked scared, but James did not give Ivan, or whatever-his-name-was, another thought. To hell with him, James told himself and continued on his way.

         Álvaro tried to make himself heard in the noise of the music, making people aside, apologizing and muttering other things. In his eyes shone an urge foreign to James's understanding. It was that look that was opening the way for them, so James did not make a comment. Álvaro looked back at him from time to time, in those moments he modulated his expression to something softer, sweet and subtle. 'The boy with the ball'.

         Outside the club, they waited a bit before a valet brought Alvaro's car. "Did you come in yours?" He asked James.

         "No," James replied as he approached the car and opened the door, "I came in Uber. I'm not a big fan of driving."

         "You mean you don't know how to drive?"

         "Alright, so; I don't know how to drive, what's wrong with that?"

         Álvaro laughed, "Vale, nothing, nothing. There's nothing wrong with not knowing how to drive, David. Relax, kiddo. Now come, get in the car and let's get out of here."

         James watched Álvaro do as told. He called me David--- but come on, for fuck's sake, nobody calls me like that in the team! "Well, are you coming in or do you prefer to wait here for an Uber?" James climbed into the car. Morata started the ignition immediately. "Vale, where are we going, kiddo?"

         "To the Finca. Where else here in Madrid? "James replied with a cheeky tone, further highlighting the stupidity of his question. Alvaro would not let the opportunity pass to mock him, James knew it very well, so he waited quietly while chewing on his lower lip in a reprimand.

         "Well, what do I know, kiddo? With the money you make and the little desire you get to go to another club, you might think you've decided to buy a nice house just outside Madrid. One as cool as the mansion that Cristiano and Leo share." Not a joke about it. In fact, despite the jocularity that pervaded his voice, Alvaro sounded like someone who makes a serious comment and does not expect to be taken as a joke.

         "Well, it's nice, is not it?" James trembled and Morata stretched out his arm to turn on the car's heating; If he was cold, he did a very good job hiding it. "How is it that you are here?" James asked at last after a long pause, however, it was not an uncomfortable silence. "In the club, I mean. And how is it that you saved me? Thanks, by the way."

         "Oh well, it's nothing. I couldn't leave a friend die or something. Look, I will not ask what happened, that's your business. I needed to go out, take a breath. I have brought an idea to my head lately and well, today I decided it was better to take some time. So I went out and walked around, among shops, restaurants, cinemas and the odd bar. You have to go to Casa de Dron, dude, it's damn cool! But, uh, yes; one thing led to the other and I ended up in that club. The DJ has a fatal taste for putting music, so I ended up going out for a bit of air and to finish my drink. I was about to leave, the club when you fell in the pool. Of course, I didn't know it was you, but the people around did nothing but watch and, I don't know, stupid people, you know? I jumped. When I came to you, you were unconscious. I took you out and did my best CPR attempt."

         "I would have died…"

         "I--- aye. It's possible. Nobody moved. Either they were too intoxicated to do it or simply they were just all assholes to move their asses and give help to those who need it. You see that only one girl came to see how you were doing. But in reality, she was just there getting in the way, idiot. It didn't cost anything for them to even move their ass to help me get you out of the pool. Oh, but of course, they did pull out their phones to take pictures or videos, what do I know!"

         The phone! James thought as he put his hands into his still wet trouser bags -Alvaro's car would stink for days- and pulled the device out of his left pocket. He pressed the power button once: nothing. Once more: nothing. One more time and nothing. He threw the device, now useless, to the floor of the car and leaned heavily on the seat letting out a sigh. "Well," he commented reluctantly "something else that has gone to hell today. Have you never had a fucking day?" He turned to look at Alvaro, waiting for his answer. The soccer player took a while before responding.

         "I've had them," he said cautiously and with his eyes fixed on something beyond the cars on the road, it was as if he were observing what lay unseen beyond the horizon. "Everything does improve, there is always a light that guides you in the dark. Look, if you're having a shit day or a week, or you're going through a difficult time; come to me that I will give you a candle to light your path."

         "Um--- thank you," But what about your path? James thought. Álvaro nodded, although the way he did it was as if he had not really listened to James.

         James looked out the window, recognizing the part of the city they were going through. They were going to the outskirts of Madrid. "Alvaro?"

         "Yes, David? Does it bother you me calling you 'David'?" He asked as he looked away from the road for a moment to look at James.

         "David is fine," James replied, dismayed. "Where are we going?"

         "Well, since we are here and taking advantage of the fact that the night is young, I thought about taking you to a place where I can teach you how to drive."

         "What?!"

         "Look, it's all right that you can pay yourself an Uber or a fucking taxi if you prefer. But, wouldn't you like to depend less on other people and start moving by yourself? You don't lack the money to pay for gas or buy a car, not if you can afford to ask for Uber at all times. So, why not learn to drive better? Forget about getting into a stranger's car, who knows what you might find one of these days? In this world, there is no shortage of madmen.”

         Álvaro stopped in a wide field. The headlights of the car were the only available lighting. They moved and James soon found himself behind the wheel feeling nervous. Álvaro smiled but did not make any joke about it. That was new in him.

         James finished buckling his belt at the same time as Álvaro. Then, shyly, he put his hands on the steering wheel. It felt strange.

         "Very well," Álvaro began, "I suppose you know how to start the car."

         "Yes. You only turn the key and---"

         "No," he laughed. "If you do that, the key will not spin. Step on the brake. It's the second pedal from right to left. Step and turn the key. "James did as he was told and soon the engine began to purr. "Very good, kiddo. Now, do you see this lever here?" James nodded. "Vale, move the button twice to the front." James did as told and the lights came on. Some animal fled for the sudden burst of light. "That's very good. I hope you haven't even removed the brake pedal, right? Vale. Now put your hand here," Álvaro took James' hand and positioned it on the gear lever, "press this button and lower the lever to the D, like this," James felt as if the car had a small jump. "It's automatic, you will not have to worry about changing speed. Now take your foot off the brake and put it on the other pedal. Press gently, as if you were walking on a layer of brittle ice. Press gently and let the car move forward."

         James followed Álvaro's instructions, which were not many. Driving was not that difficult. So the transition from the land to the highway was nice. Of course, since he was still an apprentice without a license, Álvaro only let him drive on the road outside the city and at a speed that did not exceed 50 km / h.

         "See, David? Not that hard. You'll just have to be careful in the city, but we'll get there, vale?" Álvaro ruffled James' hair, "ready to go home?"

         "I think so," replied James, smiling in turn.

         "Well, then stop and change places."

         La Finca looked like always, well delineated and everything well squared. No house differed from the other and soon the beauty of the buildings became the monotony of all life. It was nice to see them, at first, until you came to hate each one of the facades. Every single property was stuck together and had a garden in front with the same kind of trees and shrubs that were pruned every two weeks without fail.

         Both streets and sidewalks were paved, always running in a tedious straight line designed to match the distant hillside. All green and gray under a blue sky. The epitome of monotony. At least, he thought, the uniforms of the Real change every time to more beautiful or striking designs.

         "Here it is," James said, pointing to a house that did not differ in anything from the others, unless you looked at the number, of course, and the little cactus growing among the tendrils.

         "It's nice, I guess," said Álvaro with a clear tone of incognito.

         "It ain't. But it's like home, you know? Say, wanna come in?"

         Álvaro laughed, a light contagious laugh. "Sorry, kiddo. Got someone waiting for me at home. Maybe next time, aye?"

         "Aye," said James and got out of the car.

         At the last moment, he turned his face towards Alvaro and spoke. "Álvaro, hey listen, I got something to tell you--- I--- well--- I---"

         "I know, David."

         "Right--- You do?!" James felt his legs turn to jelly, so he took a seat inside the car. He was about to hyperventilate, but the shock still prevented him. He knows! He knows! Since when?

         "Aye. It took me a while to figure it out. To be fair to me, I've been dealing with other--- stuff. But now I know. Here," Álvaro put an arm around James's shoulders, always smiling. "I'm sorry if I did something that misled you. I like you, truly I do. But not in that fashion, sorry."

         "How can you know?! I thought I was so--- discrete."

         "You were, don't worry about that. I'm good catching and weaving things together. I don't know how it works before you ask, it just does. It's a thing I do."

         "So, what---”

         "Don't worry about it. I won't cast you away.  Look, I can't tell you how to deal or manage your feelings, that would be inhuman and it's not my place to call. Just, love who you must and live the way you want to. I can't be more helpful. I just can't, sorry. I'm busy dealing with a big decision right now, so can't help you solve a thing when I can't do that for myself," Álvaro got closer, so close that James could feel his breath on the neck. "But I do can give you this," he said before leaning over James and kissing him with tender lips.

         Time seemed to run slower. The sounds of the silent night and the feeling of floating in the void grew. The lights, all but one that shone around them, died.

         James closed his eyes slower than the passage of time. He felt a hand come into contact with his cheek while he carried his to the back of Alvaro's neck.

         Then the kiss was over.

         Álvaro smiled at him, his eyes seemed distant stars. "It's the only gift I can give you." He said. “Take care of him, vale?”

         “I--- I will treasure it forever.”

 

The emptiness was haunting back there in the car trunk. Music had been turned off for a while now. And the tape was doing a good job preventing him from hearing the conversation in front. The sounds of voices seemed like nonsense.

         Cris had tired of struggling against his bonds and was now trying to find a comfortable position to rest your head against one of the cachivaches that rolled through the trunk.

         His jaw hurt. And he could barely feel his legs now. His fingers were also gone. In a way, Cristiano knew they still were there, responding to his commands and moving. But both fingers, hands, and legs were like ghost limbs. Or another man’s body parts.

         Someone rocked him and Cris let out a grunt of anger. He wanted to punch that man in the face so badly. He was just waiting for the moment when they left him free, if they left him.

         Bale, Ramos, Isco--- Álvaro, Pepe, Marcelo--- Benzema, Dani--- could Toni be also involved? Who can they be? No, no… you’re missing something here. Why should they be three people? What makes you think it can be three people? It could be more, right? Or less. Two were the ones who knocked me, of that I am sure. And where the bloody hell are we fucking going? I’ve been here for hours now. Are they seriously just driving around the city with me in here? They could be total cunts when they want to. And of all things why today? Just ‘cause I skipped training? Fuck them all!

         The sun must be past the horizon by now, so what was the point in keep driving? Cristiano, as usually, did not know an answer. Nor did he really want to know one. The bloody bastards, whoever they were, would pay for it. Tie and gag him was one thing, but to be tied and throw in the trunk as if he were luggage! Those idiots have a lot of nerve.

         Well, nothing would be gained for the time being. Not that a person could do that much while bound and gagged in a trunk. The tape will leave marks on my skin--- what would the news say about that? Cris giggled. What else could he do? On the radio a tune began, he recognized instantly. Underneath the tape, a smile tore his lips open.

 

Gosto muito de te ver, leãozinho

 

Alice was finishing drying her hair. She was wearing a simple cotton nightgown and nothing else. It was fresh, although that night was not hot. She moved her toes, pinching the bathroom rug while shifting the weight from one foot to the other. She was singing an old lullaby. Alice did not remember who, her mother or father, had sung that nana to her. The words also the time had erased, but not the melody. Perhaps it had undergone modifications over the years, but the main idea, the reason, remained intact; cool to memory.

         "Oh, how pretty!" Álvaro, standing in the doorway, looked at her with a broad smile that would make the Cheshire cat nervous, his eyes flooded with brilliant tears. "How pretty!"

         “Alas! Fermati, Álvaro!”                                         1. (see notes at the end)

         "But you're beautiful!" He approached her, wrapping his arms around her, rocking to the beat of a slow song that Alice could not hear. Álvaro kisses her on the head before giving her a spanking.

         “Ehi, calma il tuo desiderio!” Alice knew how to speak Spanish / English, but only when it was necessary to do so. That is when she went out with Álvaro to other parts. Whether to watch a game, to be able to talk with the rest of the people, or in a meeting. However, inside their house, the house of both, Alice spoke Italian and Álvaro Spanish. There was no need to translate anything. After a season playing for Juventus, it would be very strange to think that Álvaro did not dominated, at least by ear, Italian. Now, if he knew how to speak it--- well, that was another matter and Alice, in fact, did not bother if her partner crushed or not such beautiful language. “Dimmi, dove sei andato che non hai preso il telefono?”                                                     2. (see notes at the end)

         "I went for a walk," Álvaro answered in Alice's ear in a serious, sensual whisper, "and one thing led to another. Oh, you're such a pretty!"

         “Hai bevuto con un amico?” She did not mind the idea of Álvaro going out with his friends, the man was right to do it. To spend all day glued to each other would, in simpler terms, be too annoying. Anything that kept him happy was good and Alice approved it. Deep down, do not all things have a reason at the bottom of something? Alice was afraid that Alvaro would fall back into that depression in which she had found him. She needed his space and he needed his. For more cloying or heavy, as for the jokes that used to do, as he used to be. Still, this was the first time in years that Álvaro arrived late at the house without first telling her where he would go. And that did worry her. The fear of him falling ill again was so--- crushing.             3. (see notes at the end)

         "Not quite," he always talked to her with that sweet melody in his voice, whether it was to take a picture, ask her about politics, play a joke on her, and ask her about her day and everything related to it –school, work, and projects–. It did not matter the occasion, Álvaro was always ready to talk in that sweet voice of those who are drunk in something that is not alcohol.

         “Cosa intendi?”                                                      4. (see notes at the end)

         "I ran into a friend, David--- er, James I mean, but we didn't drink. I'll tell you later. Look to you! How cute! Divine! You are beautiful!" Between each sentence, Álvaro interspersed a kiss.

         “Alas! Basta, sei stucchevole!” Álvaro did not stop, “Almeno puoi aspettare che finisca di pettinarmi, sarò con te a letto. O cos'è che ti rende così difficile?”                                                                                                                 5. (see notes at the end)

         "You! Who else but you?" Álvaro turned her over so their lips met. There was no trace of alcohol in his breath.

         “Qualcuno è molto affettuoso questo giorno, cosa succede?”                                         6. (see notes at the end)

         "With you always, beautiful."

         He brought his fingers to the cave between her legs and she opened before him, just to him. "Let’s go to bed," Álvaro whispered between the highs and lows of her voice.

Chapter Text

Neymar was Neymar. A name could not be an adjective, Leo told himself, but for Ney it may as well be one. Ney could be describe as many things, joyful, playful, easy to get –not in that way, if you ask Leo--- not that he had tried to get Ney– but, in the end, Neymar was Neymar. Just as Luis was Suarez and Gerard was Piqué.

         “I’m telling you, man,” Ney was saying in-between laughs while Gerard and Luis were moving towards the van. “Tonight you’ll sleep in my house. I will give you the most comfortable bed and we will order your favorite food, we will drink and we will see some movie.”

         “That sounds like a date,” Leo said as he put a hand to his beard. His thumb slid down his jaw from the inside out while his index finger rested on his chin. “Ney, are you in love with me?”

         “What? No!” Ney waved his hands in a hurry as he had spilled hot soup on his pants.

         “So you wanna fuck me,” Leo continued. He cocked his head a little, directing his friend a look between curious and threatening. He also raised an eyebrow that surely must produce the desired effect.

         “Leo what the fuck! No, man!! I would never---!”

         “Am I that ugly?”

         “What?!”

         “I know I’m not the most handsome man of the world, but, you know, I really believed I could be more than a one-night fuck,” said Leo, feigning disappointment and grievance.

         “You fucking cunt!” Ney bursted out in laughter. “I know I’ve said it way to many times now, but it’s good to have you back. Barcelona’s nights have not been the same without you, bro. Besides, you still owe me an exit to celebrate my birthday. Don’t think I’ve forgotten that!”

         “Ah, Barcelona. How I’ve missed this place!” Leo took a deep breath of the night. Neymar smiled and rested a hand on Leo’s shoulders. It’s good to be back.

         Leo could almost smell the sea that night. It was good to the back home. For a while it was almost as he had never left Barça. The illusion of a time with the blue and red in his skin was broken when Gerard and Luis pulled out Cris from the trunk. The smile that had been permeating Lionel's face disappeared and with it Ney's expression turned coarse.

         “Be careful!” said Neymar to Luis and Gerard.

         “Careful? He’s a fucking human being! Be more than fucking careful, for god's fucking sake!”

         “Leo, I didn’t mean---”

         “Yeah, yeah, nobody mean anything!” Leo advanced towards Cris, laying a hand on his hair. “Just--- ah, for fuck’s sake, just don’t harm him any further.”

         “Come inside, Leo,” Ney pointed towards his house. Leo nodded and then walked his way across the path that led to the main door. Neymar had given him a cane while they were going back to Barcelona; a long stick of dark wood with red and coppery veins, the hilt was of a lighter wood carved in the shape of a lion's head with its jaws closed and an austere expression. Under the hilt was a silver ring that matched the golden eyes of the carving. The body of the cane was, in appearance, smooth. However, when viewed close up, three circles could be seen gently carved into the wood under the ring, and other three over the toe. Leo was now using the cane instead of the crutches.

         The inside of Ney’s house reminded Leo of his own old house in Barcelona.

         “Say, do you remember last time we were together here in Barça?” asked Ney and Leo nodded. “Well, do you remember this?” Ney took a DVD from a table in the middle of the living room. It was a copy of Baby’s Day Out, the movie they all watched on Leo’s old house. Lionel was reaching out a hand to grab the movie when Luis and Gerard came in carrying Cris.

         They left him in one of the couches and started joking about something Leo did not understand. Ney put the movie again on the table while Leo walked towards Cris. “Let him be for a moment! We have a lot to discuss!” Say Luis, grabbing Lionel by an arm.

         “I’ll be right with you once I’m sure he is fine,” Leo approached Cris, sitting next to him on the couch. He seemed to sleep, but for the slight movements he made with his hands. She leaned over him and whispered in his ear. “Don’t worry, babe, you’ll be fine,” then, after a pause, he proceeded to remove the tape from Cristiano’s face.

         The skin was red and white, with redder lines where the duct tape had hurt the skin. From Cris's lips hung a long trickle of blood and saliva. “They’ll pay for this,” whispered Lionel.

         “Leo--- whats happe---?” Cristiano looked around, his eyes half closed as if the light hurt him, watching Luis and Gerard, finally stopping at Neymar. “You!” His voice was low, yet harsh and merciless “I gave you shelter in my house, I shared my food with you, and so you pay me?”

         “Hey this wasn’t my idea!” Shout out Ney, indignant.

         “Then whose idea was this?” asked Leo calmly. “Luis? Gerard? I honestly can’t believe you, guys. I certainly didn’t expect this kind of behavior from you.”

         “Save the sermon for later. Much of the idea was from Chicharito. So if you want to blame or nag somebody, wait for him. He should come tomorrow at first hour.” Said Gerard, a funny look in his face. Lionel said nothing. He was truly shock.

         All the way from Madrid to Barcelona they had been talking about other things. Less complicated things. Leo had forgotten for a while about Cris, he was not proud of it, but it was not something that could change. Being surrounded by his friends simply had transported him to another simpler time. But now the illusion was over.

         “Untie me, you bloody fucking cunt!”

         “No can do, baby boy. Leo, tell your man to shut or I will tape his mouth again. And this time harder.”

         “Do as he says, Cris,” Leo did not look away from Gerard. Both seemed to be curled up in a contest of unperturbed faces. None willing to give in before the other did the same. It was, however, Piqué who first broke the contact of his gaze. Leo could not help but to smile a little.

         “What?” Said Cris. “You want me to stay like--- like this?” The disgust on his face showed in his voice.

         “You look kind of cute. But no. Ney, please untie him.”

         “He’ll punch me.”

         “Well, you all kind of deserve it.” Despite his jocular tone, Leo did not feel a hint of grace at the time. He was angry, but that would not show either. It would stay under control. They wanted to talk, right? Well, I would let them talk and ask. And then they would answer any question Lionel had to ask them about it. “Just untie him, Neymar. He won’t punch your face, nor yours” he added towards Gerard and Luis, who were passing the weight from their bodies to one foot to the other. “Just know that I agree if he does so.”

         Neymar hesitated a moment before going to the kitchen, bringing back a pair of scissors with which he cut the tape, releasing Cris from his bonds. Cristiano remained lying on the sofa, his face looked more relaxed and Leo thought he heard him mutter a ‘thank you’. After a while, Cris changed to a more comfortable position that allowed him to rub his wrists and stretch his legs. “Will you be okay?” Asked Leo while approaching Cristiano.

         “Aye, although right now I don’t feel with the strength to hit anything.”

         “I can tell, sweetheart. Sorry for not being able to protect you.”

         “Don’t say a word, as long as you’re fine so am I.”

         “Er--- do you want something to eat?” asked Neymar to them all.

         Five minutes later Luis and Ney prepared dinner in the kitchen while Cris, Leo and Gerard sat at the table. Gerard had already asked some questions about the relationship between Leo and Cris, how it had come about, how long, what they had thought when they kissed like that in public in the middle of such an important game, how the relationship affected their professional careers, and many more things. Luis even asked questions about the accident. Iker's name emerged in the conversation at some point and Cris went into tension and did everything in his power to silence them or change the subject. Leo, however, reassured him and confessed that he already knew what had happened with Iker. He had known for a long time. Between the therapy sessions and TV reports, Leo had even read it in one of the newspapers that came to Cris's house.

         “It’s not your fault,” said Cris holding one of Lionel’s hands.

         “I know it’s not,” said Leo and smiled. “Shit happens, you know?”

         Neymar pulled some beers from the refrigerator and passed one to each person except Leo. When Leo asked for one, nonetheless, all eyes turned on him. “I like to drink from time to time, okay? Now turn your goat faces to another part that is annoying to have to endure them, Jesus fucking Christ, I’m not a fucking boy anymore. I don’t like to be drunk, which doesn’t mean I don’t want a drink tonight. And you erase that nervous expression from your face, Cris.”

         “Is that all you have to tell us?”

         “Well, what else is there to say? I honestly don’t know. I’m in love, been so for a while now. I didn’t expected this to happen, but it did and I’m glad.”

         “Even with a broken leg?”

         “Nobody said love would be easy. And a love like this, it’s hard. It feels like being fighting alone against the world. Although, if there’s someone who has been fighting that is Cris. I haven’t done much about it, I've only been hiding from the world. Healing. A lion without roar, teeth or claws. I’m kind of broken, you know? Despite all the world I've seen, I've never experienced it this way. So much hatred everywhere. I wish I could do so much more, but I can’t seem to find the strength to do so. And, oh my, look at me now; bragging about my loneliness and pain.”

         “Leo,” started Neymar.

         “Please don’t pity me. It’s the worst you can all do. I’ll be fine. I think so.”

         Cris tried to pull him toward him with a hug, but Leo just looked at him and smiled lightly at him. “You didn’t bring me to Barcelona just for dinner and such obvious questions, right? And an even better question, where will we sleep?”

         “Leo, you offend me. My house is also your home. Sleep here is night and tomorrow you can---"

         “You know, a day or two off wouldn’t hurt anyone,” said Cris taking the beer can to his lips and sipping a long drink, he had not tasted almost anything that had been served for dinner, his jaw hurt a lot, as he had explained.

         “What about training?”

         “Fuck training for once,” they all looked at him in shock. “I’m not having the best season, in case you haven’t noticed. Let the younglings enjoy a time without us. Glory is nothing if you ain’t there to celebrate.”

         “God, this man truly cares for you,” said Gerard stunned with horror.

         Later, when all the topics, along with the spirits, diminished to the absolute silence, Neymar took Leo and Cris to where they would spend the night. A simple bedroom, without television or luxuries. A sliding door closet, empty, and a couple of bedside tables next to the bed. A fan of five blades hung inertly on the ceiling. There was no need to do a tour like the one Leo had given Ney at Christmas. It would be stupid to do it in a place whose only door led to the outside corridor. There was a window, yes, but it was small and its function was more to allow the entrance of light than to give view to a beautiful landscape.

         Cris lay on the bed as soon as Neymar opened the door and was shortly snoring at full. Leo thanked Ney before closing the door and staying alone with his fiancé.

         Not all the sighs in the world, not even the concentration of a hundred years, would have sufficed to make him lose that invisible weight off his shoulders. Lionel was fine in solitude. It was a mantra that he used to say every day when waking up, before going to therapy. There was nothing wrong with loneliness, he told himself over and over again, hoping to believe it. Where did the emptiness come from?

         At first, when the itching under the plaster was unbearable, he mistakenly judged that he was devastated by the lack of football in his life. But he had been hurt before, not to that degree, of course, but it was not the first time, nor would it be the last, he promised himself day after day, that he would be cut off from the field to heal. With time, when the cold on the other side of the bed became more evident and the hours dragged his career like old war horses, Lionel noticed something; he had felt empty for many years, but, thanks to all his comforts, he had never noticed it.

         Now, being forced to remain most of his days behind four walls with no other company than his voice, he was aware of all this.

         Put all those damned thoughts away for once, for fucks sake. Leo thought with great bitterness as he bit his lower lip hard. That was another habit acquired since leaving the hospital. Many new habits had emerged since then; in Madrid, under the mattress, Leo kept several notebooks full with his sharp letter. Full sheets and many others with scribbles on the margins and the odd drawing. How much had not he left in those pages? Many fears and other horrors and confessions in which he did not want to think anymore.

         But all this came and went to his memory day after day. Harassing and causing him great grief, in addition to pain and an unavoidable feeling of being humiliated by himself. What would Cris think if one of these days, by chance or carelessness of Leo, he were to find those notebooks and read what lay in those damned pages? Cris would never see him with the same eyes ever again. Lionel could no longer think of his person in the same way after those words.

         Don’t think about what you don’t want to remember. Don’t carry your own suffering by remembering the worst moments of your life.

         The height of everything was to have given reason to his father in one of those notebooks. They were the words for which he felt too weak to shout. However, writing them had cost less effort and produced an acceptable anguish. However, the words were carried by the wind; the ink, on the other hand---

         Once you know something it’s impossible to ignore it.

 

The dawn brought with it the moans of a wounded Cristiano whose movements accused a more crippled state than the one Lionel was a victim of. If someone were to enter the room at that time of the morning, he would find a scene reminiscent of two old people walking around the house.

         Lionel felt a horrible pain in his leg. Making use of the cane had been, in general, a stupid idea. He had felt good leaving the tedious crutches aside in order to regain a more natural mobility. However, the plastered leg was an ordeal that he would not wish for his worst enemy. Of course, in perspective, a toothache was much worse. Although the molar could be arranged easier than a leg. Pain, after all, was a matter of mere perspective.

         Not a day passed when Leo did not want to be able to get rid of the damn cast. He wanted to get into real therapy, not those ridiculous sessions where the doctor only asked him sequences of numbers and the order of words. What the hell had that to do with his condition anyway? Well, okay, Leo did know. The doctor made those sessions to verify that there was no severe damage to his brain. But, after so many sessions, that must stop!

         In the beginning, the first few days after waking up in the hospital bed, Lionel had felt disoriented. Unable to properly spin small details. He had failed again and again when asked to spell simple words. And sometimes, it was hard for him to remember things before the accident. But all that was already part of the past. Now he had no problem answering the questions, nor counting back or remembering key words heard thirty minutes before. The doctor should put an end to the sessions and only be seen again when the plaster was removed. Nobody but Leo understood the doctor's caution when doing those sessions, but by God, even Leo knew when it was necessary to stop chasing a ghost!

         There were days, however, in the solitude of the room, surrounded by so many books and the jerseys he and Cris had once worn, in which Lionel recited, unwittingly, those questions and answers. It was his way of reassuring himself that he was fine; healthy.

         After that self-therapy, Lionel was going to write all that crap he did not want to think about in his diary, writing page after page in an endless torrent of hate, pain, loneliness, fear, frustration. It was a way to heal, he constantly repeated. But it was also a difficult, arduous, strenuous path. And he was afraid to follow that route where his feet had never walked before.

         Lionel never considered himself a coward, he owed it to his grandmother. It had been this woman who had most supported him in his childhood. God, it was for her that he was the man that he was when he entered the game field! That woman had ignited flames inside him that were still burning, it did not matter if these days they were more embers than flames. He was Lionel Messi!

         That should be more than enough to put his fears to rest, but it did not happen. Why would it be so easy when you are so fragile? And it is said, often, those who demonstrate so much strength is because they are fragile at heart. Was not being fragile enough reason to show the world how strong you could be? It was the way to give the world the middle finger without the need to offend anyone. And if someone was offended by it, well, they can all go fuck themselves.

         Those moments in which his spark was lit again were pleasant, comforted him. But as soon as they alluded to their interior, they vanished. They were sparks and nothing more. He needed more than that before returning his embers to flames. And for that, it was necessary to remove all the poison that threatened to extinguish them. The diary, then, was a good choice after all. That, however, did not make him lose the fear of those accursed pages.

         After spending an hour, at most, writing in his diary, Leo watched television. The news channel was blocked, courtesy of Cris in a vain attempt to protect Lionel over what happened to Iker.

         Thinking about the ex-goalkeeper of Madrid, and in his delicate current situation, made Leo's heart shrink with great violence. Had he known that a kiss would cause such a stir, Leo would have avoided it. And, following that line of thought, if he had a time machine he would go back and give himself a couple of good slaps before going out to play that second half. But what was done, was done and regret or create new possible scenarios only added more frustration and pain. And nobody wanted that.

         He left Iker aside, sending him his best wishes if that was any good, and Lionel returned his mind to the days at his home in Madrid, waiting for Cris.

         The news channel was blocked. Oh, surprise! But not the sports channel, who would think of that slip? Cristiano, apparently, did not. So Leo spent watching the replays of Real Madrid games, even before the blocking of the channels. He had not only watched Madrid matches, of course. Barça was still present in his memory and Lionel enjoyed seeing his friends once again, even if that meant to see them on TV. He followed other clubs closely, forming ideas and taking notes about the players. One of his notebooks, in fact, was full of information about the style of many players. It was a hobby that he had become addicted to. Now Lionel could detect the subtle patterns among several of his friends, including Neymar, James, and Morata.

         Morata, who was having a tremendous display in his career as a professional player. All this while Cris's seemed to be stagnant. He was still a good scorer and his technique continued to evolve into a more refined form. However, it paled next to James and Morata. Even Dani! It was silly, many would say, compare players when they were in different positions, however, Lionel had come to the conclusion that--- well, there was no point in remembering those things! It was his right to consider things as he did them.

         Álvaro, his friend Álvaro. At first--- oh, Lionel had had a little reserve towards Álvaro. Leo had not fully trusted him, especially for having discovered the relationship between Leo and Cris the way Álvaro did. You could not blame him, really. Both Lionel and Cristiano had become careless in keeping the secret.

         All that was the cause of a kiss. And it was the truth. It had all started with a kiss in a hallway of Cristiano's house when it was still only Cristiano's house and no soul but him living there. It was poetic, Leo thought, that everything had gone to the gullet for another kiss.

         Lionel began to recapitulate everything that happened since the fateful words "We'll trade you to Real Madrid." Traded! As if he was some kind of trophy or a collectible trading fucking card!

         When he saw the story from that point, everything fell on his father's shoulders. So, in theory, if he found his leg made shit and only saved by plates and screws, it was his father's fault and not his. Of course, that would also nullify his love for Cristiano. And in that, his father had not taken any cards on the matter.

         Why cannot I make a decision on my own! The change to Madrid, stay at Cris's house--- There is nothing in what I could put my grasp!

         When he saw the story from that point, everything fell on his father's shoulders. So, in theory, if he found his leg made shit and only saved by plates and screws, it was his father's fault and not his. Of course, that would also nullify his love for Cristiano. And in that, his father had not taken any cards on the matter.

         Why can not I make a decision on my own! The change to Madrid, stay at Cris's house--- There is nothing in what I could put my grasp!

         But was that true? Putting it in perspective, there were few things about which he could not take matters into his own hands. However, it was he who, by Maria's words, left the apartment to stay with Cris. It had been him, Leo, who decided to put himself ready for a fight with Cristiano, refusing to leave the house!

         Maybe he was not being entirely fair to himself. Perhaps he was throwing up baseless reproaches for feeling cheated. Only because his father had decided that Madrid would be a better opportunity to stand out. And what a highlight! Whoever saw him now would only see a queer. A queer, but one of the best players in the world. It was the truth, whoever it hurt.

         He had already reached the point where his sexuality did not bother him in the least. And Leo still not defined himself as homosexual. If a pretty girl came to cross his path, he would see her and accept that she was beautiful and perhaps she could awaken some sexual desire in him. With Cris, it was the same. Cristiano looked at a pretty girl and reveled in his figure, even though he denied it or tried to deny it. In that, Lionel sentenced with a smile, his fiancé was lousy.

         That sexual desire, however, did not appear in him when he looked at another man who was not Cristiano. He could see them, and he had done it, well, and decree that they were handsome or had a good face or a well-defined body. But they did not cause him any attraction. For Leo, the rest of the men were what a piece of shit would be for a woman when it came to looking for some sexual pleasure. A woman in her right mind, it is understood.

         Only Cristiano aroused in him that sexual appetite. And, while sex was complacent, it did not fill him. Lionel was always hungry for more. Cumming on the satin sheets while Cristiano's semen slips from his ass, was not enough. It was never enough. But Cris went over it for him in the carnal act, so to demand more of him would be like saying he was useless. That would be an offense hard to forget, so Leo remained silent and ended up staining the expensive silk sheets.

         Once, in December, when they were in Portugal, Leo went to Cristiano's room and rode to Portuguese like never before, or later, he had. Leo remembered, vaguely, that at some point he had put his pants in Cris's mouth because the Portuguese was doing too much noise and Leo was afraid that at some point someone would come into the room and find them in that position. He remembered Cris arching under his weight. That had been the first and only time to date when Lionel had felt completely satisfied.

         The memory aroused in him a desire that became manifest in his crotch.

         "I don't think I can do much today, my ass hurts and I didn't even use it that much," Cris said as he approached Lionel, limping, and rested his hand on Leo's penis.

         "You don't need to do anything, Cris, don't worry, and erase that hurt dog expression that I'm not heart hurt! My body also hurts and not because I was tied up in the trunk of a car for hours. And to all this, what use is it to kill you training if for one night in a trunk you are sorer than with a month of intensive training? "

         "You bastard! There's no degree of comparison! "Cris said between hurt and playful.

         "Oh, aha!" Leo craned his neck to kiss Cristiano. "Anyway, you're squeaky. Besides, you didn't look so bad, you know? Someday, I don't know, perhaps---"

         "Don't even think about it," Cris cut him as he could see where that idea was going. "Once was more than enough for me; If you want to involve moorings to sex, then I'll be happy to tie you to the bed and put a ball in your mouth. Then I'll fuck you so hard that you won't stop moaning and screaming! "

         "It sounds like a date," Leo said, playful. The idea, he said with some interest towards that newly discovered aspect, had its appeal. "But not until I heal and kick your butt again on the football field."

         "Barça will win the Champions first!" Cris put a special contempt when mentioning Neymar's team. "Besides, how exactly will you kick my ass? We're part of the same team, in case you havn't notice---"

         "Yes. Same team. But I'll score more goals than you and then you'll be the third best scorer of the team. "

         "What little ambition..!"

         "After Álvaro," Leo interrupted him as he gave Cris one of his best smiles.

         Cris was speechless with amazement. Not even when he managed to recover a little of his composure, not to mention a bit of pride, he said something about it. Maybe Leo had taken the joke too far this time but, for some reason, he did not apologize for it. Cristiano, contradicting the behavior that Lionel expected to see, laughed heartily at the end. He praised Leo's courage and among so many lion nicknames, kissed him

         Leo accepted everything, showing such a show that anyone would have thought he was a king.

         In the end, after those compliments and kisses and other honeyed things, they went to the kitchen. Neymar had been already gone to training for a while now. On the table, there was a plate of pancakes and several containers with honey, jam, butter, cajeta, and fruits. Cris took the liberty of snooping in Neymar's refrigerator to get two eggs and fry them. Each egg was placed on a stack of pancakes. Next to the stove, resting on a plate covered with a napkin, there was bacon. Also, the bacon, well fried and crunchy, went to stop on top of the pancakes. Cristiano poured himself a large glass of milk, while Leo drank some orange juice to accompany his breakfast.

         Neymar would not return until midmorning, so there were two options. Go for a walk in the city or stay and wait. Leo, after eating and seeing how Cris devoured his food, opted for the first option. They looked for some copies of the front door key between Ney's keys and then, securing the door and carrying the suitcases, they left in the morning sun.

         Neither Leo nor Cris had wanted to bathe. They did not have clean clothes and Neymar had a taste very--- peculiar. So no, they settled for washing their faces and gargling with the toothpaste.

         Neymar, despite having his own car, a silver Nissan Versa of 2015, was still going to the training in someone else's car. In a few words, they still went for him. Who did it now? Lionel thought of Luis.

         The truck in which they had arrived yesterday in Barcelona was rented. Lionel did not know what happened to her after Gerard and Luis took her away.

         "Do you think your pal would get mad?" Cris asked as he clinked the Versa keys in his hand. Leo noticed the red lines around Cristiano's lips. Those were the marks of the tape.

         "Oh yeah. He's going to piss off, "Leo replied in turn as he moved toward the car with a broad smile on his lips.

         "Perfect," Cris finished as he did the same, unlocking the doors and sitting behind the wheel.

         "Cris," said Leo, who had not yet climbed into the vehicle. "Don't you prefer that I drive today? This isn't Madrid, in case you hadn't noticed and you could be lost in a matter of minutes. "

         "Would it be so difficult to give me directions?"

         "Well--- if you put it that way. You know, the decision is yours. "

         Minutes later, Leo took the car through the streets of Barcelona at a moderate speed. He did not remember exactly the last time he had put himself behind the wheel of a car. Cris was the driver and Lionel enjoyed the trip all the time back in Madrid. So at first, when he had started the engine, Leo felt very nervous. An oppression in his chest urged him to get out of the car and let Cristiano drive, as he always did. However, once Leo got the first speed, everything was easier. Memories returned to him, memories stored in his mind on how to drive.

         They did little that day in Barcelona. No more than how much they had done in Madrid the day before. They stopped a couple of times to refill the gas tank because although they had not had any problem when taking Neymar's car, neither Cris nor Leo had considered it correct to leave the car stranded somewhere in the city so that the crane will take it. Neymar could accuse them of thieves when they returned to the house later in the night, but he would not have the pleasure of calling them inconsiderate. Besides, Leo told himself, it was how much he owed them after the kidnap of the last day.

         Leo drove to the beach. By then Cris had fallen asleep in the passenger seat. Leo got out of the car, but not before leaving the windows open, and walked to the sand, keeping the keys in his pants.

         He sat facing the sea. A breeze was blowing, it was cool. The sun fell to the horizon, accompanied by the voice of the sea, sweet, warm. Leo, who had not restrained his hair, brushed back strands of it from his face and continued to contemplate the landscape calmly. Delighted in every little detail that his eyes captured. Some children playing with a huge beach ball beyond, almost at the edge of the ocean. Several couples lying on the sand. Some people still swimming, screaming with joy. The smell of some food. A distant music from some recorder. In it, Lionel thought he recognized the lyrics. "la noche va, dejándonos solos. Y cada mitad se acerca a su modo. Y dicen las calles, de tu Barcelona, que la noche es nuestra; que la nit es nostra."                                         1. (see notes at the end)

         Lionel waited until the sun had finished bleeding on the horizon before taking his crutches from the sand and getting to his feet. Cristiano was still asleep. The same breeze that was shaking Lionel's hair did the same with Cris's. Leo contemplated him a moment before entering the car once more and driving. Not to Neymar's house, he thought he remembered how to get there, but he would worry about it later. He drove to l'Observatori Fabra.

         Once he found where to park, he woke Cris and together they made their ascent to the observatory. The observatory had been built on a hill. Trees abounded there, as well as small breaks, which were difficult to define if they were a natural or artificial passage. There were few people around, almost all going down except for a few souls who continued their ascent. Leo and Cris watched and advanced at the same time. However, they stopped in a small clearing where a weeping willow extended its leaves.

         "Come," Leo said as he moved to the willow shelter. Nobody saw them go there.

         Cris advanced to Leo. The night around them became denser as it cleared up like a slow flare, taking away the heat of the day. The fluorescents were already beginning their journey, oblivious to the two lovers under the shelter of the willow tree.

         Lionel took the hand that Cristiano extended towards him and helped him to be closer to himself. Leo then stretched out his free hand and tore off one of the thinnest branches of the willow.

         Cris looked at him, his face revealed that he did not know what was happening. Leo smiled and used the branch to join his hand along with Cris's. The two looked at each other for a long time with so much solemnly before something else happened. Now there was no uncertainty in Cris's eyes, just security. The same was true of Lionel's.

         "I can't promise you a tomorrow," Leo began, "because I don't know what the future holds. I would like to have the certainty of creating the illusion of a happy future, but I can't do that either. I won't spend flat words about growing old together, dying together--- I can't, allowing me that is a cruel luxury that I will not fall to. Filling your head with fantasies and promises beyond my control is something I can't do. And, following this last part, I promise you one day at a time. I take you, if you accept me, as my husband; here and now before the eyes of God.  For he knows too well that I'd be lost without you."

         "Leo," Cris began.

         "Follow your part, Cris," a soft smile on his lips and a tear on his eyes.

         Cristiano smiled. "I promise to be by your side, to be the force that you lack to face whatever life puts in front of you. Although there is nothing that I can contribute that you don't already have. But I will be there for you, always. To face whatever comes to your side. I accept you as my husband as you did with me."

         “You may kiss the groom,” said Leo in a soft-sweet whisper. And Cris did so.

Chapter Text

Cristiano had to endure Neymar's warning for having allowed Leo to drive and to walk through the city as if he were healthy enough to do so. The thing was, Cris thought, Lionel was healthy enough to do whatever he wanted. Neymar did not even make a fuss over the disappearance of his car! The Brazilian had to have his priorities in a higher order, not to say organized.

         In short, it was certainly better to receive a scolding for "neglecting" Leo than for stealing the car. Of course, in Neymar's eyes, the car had been borrowed. Cris wanted to get Neymar out of his mistake, but he held back. Cristiano would let him say as much as he wanted. Neymar was not the one to comment on the care required for a person after what was done yesterday. Cris once again rubbed the wrists where the tape had lacerated the skin. Those blaugranas sons of a goat will pay for it. I’d see how to return the favor.

         Leo, with a cup in his hand and the most boring look ever seen on him, watched Neymar out of the corner of his eye with little interest. He often turned his eyes to Cristiano and winked at him. Cris smiled at Leo, shooting him a kiss later.

         Lionel Andrés Aveiro Messi, or Cristiano Ronaldo Messi Aveiro. God, you are still a child or what! No--- it's something we should talk about. Who will give the name to whom? Both sound good, way too good.

         "And to top it off, you both are ignoring me!" Neymar finished with a loud bang on the table. "It's this kind of attitude that has put you in this situation. Stop making eyes for an hour a day!" He never shouted, only printed his voice of strength and urgency. "I love you very much, Leo, and well--- I don't know what to think about you, Ronaldo. But not all the love in the world is capable of--- you know that? It does not matter. At this point in life, what else does it matter? Fuck me, but it doesn't anymore, is it? We brought you to Barcelona to get away from the problems for a while. And look!"

         "Ney," Leo began, "I was just playing football. That brought me problems. I went up a lot and people already consider me a god--- deep down I don't even know if that's what I wanted. To be considered a god, I mean. Cris has made me feel like a man again. Don't put on that face that I'm not even talking about something sexual. Look, the thing is like this: my father made decisions for me that he shouldn't have made. You saw the mess that he got me in for that nonsense of diverting money. And then the trade. Always acting on my back--- the truth is that I don't know how he manages to make me feel the bad guy in the story, but he's not exactly a saint and I don't claim to be the most humble man in the world, but my humility led others to perch on top of me with their filthy feet. Never again, Neymar. Never more."

         "And that's very good, Leo," said the Brazilian, "but what does the ass have to do with the eyelashes? I understand that your father was a sh--- a fu--- a monster!"

         "A bloody fucking shit of a person. To date it is. Even though he hasn't talked to me, but he still has a horrible influence on me. The day he deigns in something truly good--- who knows?"

         "Alright, Leo. But you learn from mistakes. I understand, or I am able to put myself in your shoes, regarding your father. But he didn't take you running through the middle of the field to kiss Ronaldo. And go for a walk around the observatory and--- fine. I think you get me."

         "Now you're the one to criticize, huh?" Cris asked as he stood up, dominating the Brazilian with his superior height.

         "It's not that." Neymar did not flinch. "It's great that you're happy together, there's no one who is happier for Leo than me if his partner makes him happy. But Happiness won't wash away the stupidity, as we say in my house. You two are careless or have turned so. Yes, I think you've become careless. The truth always comes to light, it was a matter of time. But I expected it to be something more gradual. The world is not the wake of light that one would like. People are still just as intolerant. I don't want anything bad to happen to Leo, he's like my brother. I can't be there to protect you, Leo, and maybe one day you'll be missing too, Cristiano. I am happy for you, it's good that you have made it official, as official as it could be for something so spontaneous. When you decide to do it again, with a judge who endorses it or a priest who accepts enough money, I'll be the one to take Leo to you or the one to give t-the rings, don't doubt that. But while, in exchange, is it so much to ask you two to be more careful? How many more members do you need Leo to break before becoming aware of the precarious situation in which you two are?"

         Cris thought of one or another answer for Neymar. But, in the end, he remained silent. Cristiano did not want to see his husband hurt more than he already was. Husband! Well, say what you want about the signature stamped on paper, he's already mine forever. And I his! It was not the way Cristiano would have wanted to celebrate their union, however, it was appropriate. Later, if Leo accepted, they would give a party to which they would invite all their friends and family. Perhaps by that time Iker would wake up and be in a position to accompany them. Don't get too excited about Ike--- expect the worst, so the good will be better.

         Years ago, Cristiano had been in a constant struggle with his brother due to Hugo's alcoholism. Everything arose from the coma in which Dinis fell in 2005.

         I don't want to think about that. He told himself as he pulled Dinis away from his mind. Now he's fine, they both are. And if father could come back, Iker will do the same.

         "We should go to sleep, everyone," Cris suggested suddenly, too tired to try to argue anything else or continue to endure Neymar's scolding. Of course, in the eyes of the Brazilian, this attitude would suggest that Cristiano was fleeing. Nothing further from the truth! But Cris did not have the necessary strength to resume a fight already lost. It was wise to know when to retire knowing that he was dejected. Only the idiots persisted against a cause without a brightness victory. And Cristiano Ronaldo had already proven more than once that he was no idiot. Unconsciously, Cris put a hand to the cheek that Zinedine had swelled so many months ago.

         Zinedine was another man he did not want to think about at the time. He would give war when Cristiano returned to Madrid. Zinedine would be responsible for humiliating Cris in one way or another. And, to his surprise, Cris agreed to it--- unless it became a physical thing again. Cristiano shivered at the thought.

         That time Zinedine had taken Cris by surprise when Zinedine call him aside to chat. Cristiano was expecting to receive another series of screams like the ones Zinedine had thrown at Leo. Cris was prepared for it, so he felt confident and somewhat cocky. He remembered very well having walked after Zinedine, the flashes of the cameras dying behind them. He had walked with a lot of arrogance. In the end, Cris had gotten his way and that gave him great satisfaction. He smiled openly. Then, after crossing a door, Zinedine suddenly turned and without a word sank his fist into the eye of Cristiano. The Portuguese went backward, knocking loudly on the door.

         Fear had invaded him and his hand searched desperately for the doorknob; there was nothing to grab. Zinedine grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket, forcing him to stand. Cris did not even remember how he had ended up leaning against the door.

         When Cris was on his feet he tried to get away, but Zinedine lost no time and hit him again, this time on the cheek. It was then that Cristiano shouted at last. The door behind him opened and James' face appeared on it. Cris had never been so happy to see James. Zinedine released Cris.

         Before leaving, however, Zinedine looked at Cristiano for a long time, after which he said: "I already knew that arrogance would be the reason why you would lose your smile. Move aside, Rodriguez."

         A fight with an angry bartender, Cris had told Leo.

         Leo put his arm around him. The pillows on the bed were bulky, comfortable. Cris's body no longer hurt so much, thanks to the pills provided by Neymar. "You know, we should go back to Madrid soon. Let's go by train. What do you think?" Cristiano whispered to Lionel.

         "As long as it's with you, what else does it matter how we return?"

 

"A man came looking for you," Maria announced the next day when they were already back in Madrid.

         "Álvaro?" Leo asked as he dropped into the chair.

         "I think I know who Álvaro is and I would tell you if it was he who appeared. But that guy I had not seen him in my life and didn't give me a good thorn, for that matter."

         "Did he leave a message?" Cris asked as he locked the front door.

         "He just said he would come back."

 

Zinedine did not comment at all on Cristiano being missing. However, the coach made him sweat blood for more than a month. Cris left sore and tired of those sessions. Too tired to try to drive without falling asleep or worse. Álvaro felt sorry for him after a few days and went for Cris in the mornings and took him home after the training was over. Sometimes James joined them and the four of them, Leo included, spent the afternoon together. Alice also appeared from time to time, when she had the time to do it.

         After the month, when Cris had become accustomed to his new intensive form of training, James bought a car. That caused a stir in many teammates, some pimped the car and others spent jokes. Álvaro, on the other hand, nodded solemnly every time he saw James driving that white Camaro from 1995.

         Also within that period, the plaster on Leo's leg was removed. The leg had lost muscle mass after so long without use. It looked skinnier and paler than the other leg. The therapies began by order of the doctor. In the morning Leo went to the rehabilitation center, in the afternoons a personal trainer, hired by Cris, to another session. The guy charged dearly and, like everyone with a touch of pride in his person, cried out to be the best. Cris did not mind paying the ridiculous amount demanded, he had money to do it. Leo went everywhere with that cane that Neymar had given him. He seemed happy, finally, to be able to walk again freely.

         The first weeks Cris noticed a severe limp in his partner, but it soon disappeared. Leo walked slowly, talking about how much he would do once he could run again. Cristiano nodded and waited. And smiled, a lot, of course.

         The first month without the plaster cast went by, the leg became colored and the muscle mass increased a little. Leo could already walk long distances without the help of the cane, although he kept it close by order of Cristiano. Leo accompanied him to the training again and put on the training kit. The coach, however, did not allow him to do much more than walk around the field as many laps as he will support. And abdominals, many abs.

         At the end of the second month, when several important matches were played, Lionel and Cris were given the opportunity to travel to Kaiserslautern for a weekend. The fans recognized and surrounded them asking for pictures. There were hostilities, too, but these were so few that they did not affect the trip at all. They slept in a simple hotel, one embraced the other.

         Neymar also had a free weekend to visit the couple. Needless to say, Cris finally got even with Ney. But that is a story for another time and day.

         The third month passed as fast as Leo's improvement. He could run in training and even talked about the possibility of letting him participate in the first half of the match against Chelsea. Lionel was quite excited, his eyes shone and his happiness was notorious for anyone. This motivated him to train harder. But not so hard to hurt himself. His hair was beginning to brush his shoulders. One night, at the house in Madrid, Cristiano, with Maria's help, made Leo three horsetails like those used by Rey in The Force Awakens.

         Álvaro continued his promotion, becoming the player who scored the most goals per match. Cris was close behind by a margin of two goals. Behind Cris came James and Marcelo. And, behind these, Bale with his implacable fury.

         Leo participated in the match against Chelsea, scoring one more goal than Álvaro. In the stands, the name 'Lionel' was shouted over and over again. The same thing happened with each media outlet. 'The return of the King,' some newscasts announced, 'The Messiah goes on!', others said and, to be honest, that nickname had never been as good as now with his beard and long hair.

         Cristiano had restless dreams, always on a dark landscape, almost impossible. He woke up sweating and terrified. He spoke with Leo. They tried to find a meaning to all this, but could not get much out of it. Álvaro said that maybe it was the nerves that Leo suffered another accident. Both Lionel and Cristiano accepted this as a possibility. But not for that reason the dreams went away.

         Leo also suffered nightmares, since long before the accident they had both had this problem, but until now they had not found the strength to share them. Cristiano did not understand Leo's dreams, but he listened to him when he related them. With time, perhaps thanks to the talks, the nightmares were distancing themselves.

         One night, Cris woke up from a dream. Beside him, Leo wrote in a notebook.

         "Did I wake you up?" The Argentine asked.

         "No--- what are you writing at---? God, it's four in the morning!"

         "So late is it? Wow, I didn't feel the passage of time. I couldn't sleep and since you were almost dead, I started writing. It is a poem or an attempt at a poem."

         Cris leaned back on the head of the bed and watched Leo for a while while he waited for the drowsiness to dissipate. He no longer remembered what had awakened him. "Are you also a poet now? How many talents do you hide under that look of yours?" He asked while referring to the previous day. They had gone for a walk after training. In a store, Leo got up with a piano and, to Cris's astonishment, started playing. Many people stopped to watch and took video. Videos that circulated on the internet incessantly. Many accused the videos of being edited. "A soccer player cannot have as much talent to play like that!" Said an old bitch from the show. The truth was that Lionel could play, and very well, the piano.

         "I don't believe myself a poet, Cris, it's just---"

         "Oh, shut up and lend," said Cristiano, snatching the notebook from Leo. Each letter was written in capital letters, traced with precise clarity. The curves were elegant and the lines, despite being static, gave a sense of fluidity to each word. The 'n' stretched at the end, giving them the appearance of lightning. The 'r' looked like small mountains on the horizon, while the 'm' were the Mount Everest in miniature.

 

In the forest sleet;

laurel segmented to the breath of Nimbus

where dawn alludes so many nights

you have debated with yourself,

kill or leave him

 

sentinels of origin, without a will,

candle the star, primitive among the ancient

tempt the influx of clay

Do you feel the evocation?

It flows inside, the frenzy subsides

Where have they gone, all of them,

 

         "It has weight," said Cris.

         "Well duh, notebooks weigh. They are not made of air, dear."

         "No; the poem, Leo. It has weight. I like it."

 

In the afternoon they went out to eat and from there to the cinema. Cris was a passenger while Leo was driving the car through the streets of Madrid. Álvaro and Alice would see them in the restaurant. It could be said that it was the first exit they made with another couple.

         Alice dressed simple, a light blouse and jeans; Dark slippers and a moon necklace. Cris noticed how Alice was holding her hand to her belly. Maybe she was not feeling well, thought Cristiano.

         Álvaro wore a black long-sleeved shirt, light pants, and plush shoes. On the head a black baseball cap like Cris, except that Cristiano's was blue.

         Cris wore a blue jacket with a white shirt without a tie and a collar unbuttoned. Matching trousers with a dark leather belt. Black socks and a pair of Bostonians, just as dark.

         Leo, on the other hand, was wearing a white jacket over a blue and red polo shirt. Gray pants and shoes that Cris had given him for his birthday. The long hair was braided in a short ponytail. The beard, trimmed, at last, made him look stern.

         The restaurant was not far from the Bernabéu, it was called Thai Zas and, as the title suggested, Thai food was served. The tables were small, but large enough to have four people without piling on one another. In general and without going into the luxury of details, the place had a homelike atmosphere. The smells of all the food floated in the air, pleasant and deep. The table reserved a week ago, was next to a beautiful brick wall from which hung four pots with green plants. Cristiano thought he recognized one of those plants as the Child's Finger.

         They were attended by a young man named Alberto Abudd. Taller than Cristiano and with eyes of a deep green. While he welcomed them and offered drinks, a copper-skinned young woman presented the menu. Then, when his litany ended, Abudd left them to review the cart and make a decision.

         "I really do not know what to think about the dishes. Everything looks very appetizing, but it's been years since I have eaten something like this. Wouldn't it be too much trouble for you to ask for the chef's recommendation instead of choosing something at random?" Alice commented as she put the cart on the table and took a sip of the water they had just brought her.

         "Alas, beautiful. You always want to go the easy way," Alvaro said as he ruffled Alice's hair.

         "Well, it's that if there's an easy way to do things, you have to take it. Why go the hard way if there is a better method? Ehi, non essere entusiasta del vino che devi guidare indietro!"                                               1. (see the notes below)

         Álvaro pouted but left the cup down. Cris did not know what to think. Leo, on the other hand, had left his menu below to pay attention to Alice. "I think it's a good idea what you suggest. If there's someone who knows what is good that's certainly the chef. One must trust another's judgment sometimes."

         "Is that a sentence, Leo?" Alvaro raised an eyebrow, his lips trembled slightly. That happened whenever he prepared to play a joke.

         "Respect the opinion of your elders, lad," Leo said mockingly while he himself rising an eyebrow.

         Álvaro did not respond. He put such a stubborn face on such a face of obstinacy that it tore Alice out loud, but pleasant and light, laughter. "Alas, Lio. But you are a lion! "

         "Oh, I didn't say anything odd!"

         "Álvaro can be a little intransigent at times. No, darling, I say it in the best possible way. This man is wonderful. He cares for everyone and always goes full of energy to whoever is with him. It is very beautiful on your part. That said, he can be very heavy at the time of making jokes. Thank God he is not a fool and has two good fingers in front! He knows when it's enough."

         Cris remembered a video uploaded to Instagram where Alice 'hanged' Álvaro with her feet. A funny scene, he thought.

         "Alas, pretty! Don't say more, you're embarrassing me!"

         "Allora, that's your problem," Alice said, hitting Álvaro's nose with her index finger. "If you get embarrassed, it's because you want it. Can you believe the words of this man, Cristiano?"

         "He's too young to fully accept a compliment like that. It has complexity and elegance, Alice. I take off my hat before you and I gave you this foil as a sign of friendship."

         "Oi, your friendship is very gallant with my girlfriend, go and make those foolish things to your husband," said Álvaro.

         "Lad, don't be afraid to lose her for me! Alice, you're not ugly, so don't be offended, but you're not exactly the flea I need in my life."

         "No offense, Cristiano. The truth is that I do not see myself next to someone other than Al. The same must happen to you, right? Lio is someone special. It's like the wind, it comes and everything he touches it."

         "Aye, truth is that he's one among many," said Cris, absent-mindedly. Like the wind comes and touches everything and when he touches it, he goes away leaving behind only the memory of its passage. Would Alice have meant that? If that was her intention--- no, it's silly to believe it. She’s right with Leo, he gets into everyone and they all love him one way or another. It's similar to Álvaro, yet---

         "Are you ready to order?" Abudd asked at his side with a smile.

         In the end, everyone asked for something from the chef's recommendation. As input, Alice and Leo tested the Poh Pia, while Álvaro enjoyed a Floating Market and Cris the Som Tam. The main course was three Pad Thai and a Muu Kratiam for Leo. For dessert, there was Coco Flan for Alice, Rice with Milk for Lionel, Mango with Rice and Coconut Milk for Cristiano and a Pumpkin Pie with Whipped Cream for Álvaro.

 

"And you still don't know who he is?" Cris asked Maria. It was already the third time that a man came to look for him or Leo in the month. And, like all other times, Maria ignored the identity of the subject. It would have helped, Cris believed, if it were always the same person. But, to date, it had been three different men who had gone looking for them.

         "I'm sorry Mr., I really do not recognize any of those faces. I do try my best, but no time in my life have I seen them before.  "

         "And you say they have not bothered to leave a name or form to contact them." It was not a question for Cristiano already knew the answer. Still, it was worth a shot. Perhaps this time they did have left a way to stay in touch. Not that Cris wanted to do so, but it would be a relief to know the names and identities of those men. The surveillance cameras had not been used for years since Maria had been hired. The other employees that Cris had had came from a small private security agency. It was not an expensive service, not a big company either, but they did a better job than the mall of the so-called-Professionals. Cris' guards had left because the company they belonged to - an empress by the name of Irishnate, or something like that- had dissolved. Cris thought he had the numbers of some of them written down. A call would not be bad. Lan and Thom had expressed interest in keeping working when Cristiano told them goodbye. Besides, they would be company for María. There could win a lot of things, for change.

         "So is," María said with a harsh long whisper. "Oh, I am sorry, Mr. Leo, Mr. Cristiano. I am very wary. I'll go make some dinner for all three of us if you don't mind me eating with you today."

         "It's always a pleasure," Leo told her while waving her goodbye. He waited for her to enter the kitchen before carrying on. "At least it's suspicious, it wouldn't be bad to have a patrol nearby, just in case." That's what Lionel said. His voice sounded dispassionate, cold, distant. The tone he used lately when thinking things very seriously. Strangers coming and going for unknown reasons was not something to feel so calm. Maria was scared, Cris could see it. Even he was uneasy about the situation. But Leo--- Cris had no idea what his husband was thinking.

 

The dream was not different from others Cris had had in the past. He was standing, naked, on a dark stone path. There was nothing on the sides of the road, only darkness. The road was based on emptiness in a way possible only in dreams. There was no sun or moon or stars, neither lampposts or torches; but there was light. It was a faint luminescence the color of mauve, that fell on the rúa as if it were a thin mantle.

         Each step resonated without explanation because as far as Cris could see, there was no wall to generate such resonance. Much less that echo. The journey was not straight in any way, it snaked from right to left without mercy. He was spinning about himself, so that Cristiano, looking up, could see the path already traveled over his head. The stone beneath his feet revealed moldings hidden from his eyes. Cris was moving at a slow pace. There was no other speed.

         The entire road was visible except for its final destination. Cris could see it meandering everywhere, higher and even lower. There were also many crossings on the way. Too many crossroads in the twilight for his liking.

         He walked for a long time following the only path lit by the mauve color. It went up and around. Low and then straight. When the road turned to the left, it twisted about itself, circling like a roller coaster. When it went to the right, the step was straight until Cris came across a rise or fall and the whole cycle repeated again.

         The earth with its silver grasses was appearing little by little as if someone were gradually weaving them into existence. The new terrain, which soon extended to the horizon, suffered from the same accidents as the road Cris traveled. The world was chaos and to see it meant risking losing sanity. The rivers ran over each other without mixing their waters. The birds flew in straight lines towards the trees that were above their nests. The valleys folded and folded around each other and many others over the rest. The foxes and wolves jumped so prodigiously as to touch the moon and the stars, but instead, their hind legs left the ground below so that their foreheads hit the grass above.

         In the middle of everything, there was a clear and above the clear a hole of unknown dimensions. In the clearing, a tower rose into the darkness of that hole. The structure burned with long mauve tongues. The flames moved like snakes. The tower, even higher than the Torre Espacio in Madrid, dominated all the landscapes and, despite the flames consuming it, no smoke came from its body. Cris advanced to the tower and watched as whirlwinds of green, blue and red flames ran from here to there, sweeping the earth, leaving behind intricate white glass designs.

         A huge roar echoed throughout the place. The call of some giant. It came from the abyss on the tower. Cris knew it despite not knowing how he knew it. But he did it. The Portuguese looked towards the gigantic black hole and felt dread. There was nothing there, at least nothing could be seen in that darkness, and yet he felt observed by thousand-thousand anxious eyes, hungry, thirsty for him.

         Cristiano wanted to run, flee from that burning tower, escape from the shadow of that hole, but a shine in the latter attracted his attention. Then there was another and then another, followed by many others. Distant stars, fleeting, bright as the silver of the rivers. He heard a sound, a kind of whistle, similar to that of a plane falling.

         A spear, longer than four times his stacked body, pierced Cris's belly with the strength necessary to shake the earth. It was made of glass, or a material similar to glass. Cris, stunned, looked at the objected while holding his left hand towards him. Incredulous, he stared at his hand, stopped by another spear. Another spear stuck his leg to the ground. One more his right shoulder and another split his cock in two. He could not move anything except the head.

         The creaking of the wood and stones attracted Cris's attention to the tower. It's going to fall on me! Thought. But what he saw made him shiver and shed cold sand tears. The tower was bending like a bird with a long neck. Bending to face Cris with battlements of sharp edges. A mouth opening and closing advancing towards him, all wrapped in flames mallow.

         Cristiano tried to scream; no sound came from his mouth. He struggled and the more he did the spears increased their thickness, destroying bones, organs and skin. His sangria ran to the ground below and dirt drank it avidly. His tears of sand corroded his face, tearing his eyes. The burning was unbearable, not even the heat of the flames could be compared to that feeling.

         The tower continued to bend, opening and closing that jaw from which fell long threads of a thick translucent liquid of brown hue. The liquid fell on Cris, soaking him, burning his skin. Everywhere there were white blisters piled up like pockets of pus. They burst, spilling seawater on the irritated skin. More blisters came later; for each one burst, seven more stood at the same point.

         Cris cried without being able to stop. The battlements of the tower were already on his head open to a throat too human, approaching more and more.

         He awoke bathed in sweat. Leo had been rocking him, his face reflected embarrassment. "You were screaming," was how much he said.

 

Summer was already making its way into the autumn with no rush, like two old friends taking their time to relieve each other in hard work. It was still weeks before the leaves turned golden, but the heat of the days was now appeased by blissful currents of air. Both in Barcelona and Portugal, the sea gave coastal people a delicious breeze most of the day. The first storm raised a swell that combed the beaches of Porto.

         In a room at the Lusíadas Hospital, Sara Carbonero alternated her glance between the bed where her husband lay and the window where the rain slipped. The shadows of the streams on the glass projected onto the walls with the fall of lightning. Sara's eyes, red and swollen from crying, left the window and rested on her husband. The penalty returned to seize her.

         Sara got up and went to Iker. She watched him for a long time, feeling a lump in his throat. So many things Sara would like to tell him right now and all of them tangled over each other in her throat, causing discomfort and fits of rage. Sara looked at the ceiling and counted to twenty. Maybe, just maybe, it was time to give up. As much as it hurt. Maybe it was the end. She returned her gaze to Iker and her heart jumped.

         Brown eyes watched her from the hospital bed. Then a hand rose to her.

         "Ike," Sara could say, at last, crying with relief for the first time in what seemed like years.

 

Cris watched Leo running with the ball from the bench, cheering on his husband as the match went on. That day Cristiano Ronaldo would not lay a foot on the field. It was an agreement previously done with Lionel. Leo was to play a full match again while Cris enjoyed a little rest, which was most needed.

         Messi made a dribble and then tossed the ball to Morata in what seemed like a swing. Behind Álvaro, Rodriguez approached through a clearing. Álvaro's way was blocked by three players, so he turned and with no time to waste gave the ball to James who then tossed it to Leo, giving the Argentine the perfect chance to score.

         Cristiano closed his hand into a fist and squeezed it, feeling as a tension was released within himself. Leo still got all that magic inside him. Leo run across the field edge, arms open as if he were flying. Bale run after him to hug him, so did Marcelo, Toni and both those new kids, Casemiro and Asensio. Álvaro and James did not join the hug, those two were close one another, chatting and laughing. Leo's goal was also their goal and no one seemed to give a damn about it. They seemed not to care at all, but Cris knew that a "good work," would be appreciated.

         Sergio and Lucas were fooling around, waiting for the match to restart.

         Seventy-five minutes in, with Real Madrid in the lead by three points. And Cristiano could not wait any longer for being all alone with Leo again in the hotel room.

 

Once again in the house of Madrid, Cris dreamed uneasy dreams of bending towers and burning flesh. Something, however, was different that time. It was like a siren roared beyond the dreams, making that reality shake beyond repair. The tower collapsed within itself, sending golden dust to outer space. The black hole above the building closed as far cries crushed the dreamland.

         All around Cristiano swirled swirls of bloody guts and shit. Painting all to see into dry brown sheats. And when the dream went away he put himself up against the sheets. It was weird, nonetheless, to face a cold night with burning cheeks.

         The uneasy feeling of that dream persisted even in the waking world. For Cristiano could not make a thought without a word. He pushed himself up against the cold wood headboard. And leaned a hand into his forehead as it were a pome door.

         All the time he felt observed by eyes without a body.  Cris was scared, to say the less, feeling too as a somewhat gaudy. His palms were drenched in sweat as bloody hell and blood so bloody. That not even friends could calm this buddy.

         By his side, a little lion slept without noticing the state Cristiano was in. And at that sight, the Portuguese feel alright as if the nightmare has never been. How lucky, thought the man, to find me among such lovely friendly kin. Then a noise tread wood made his head spin. And with that, all the shivers pierced his skin.

         In the threshold, the silhouette of a man stood out among the shadows like a solid stone monolith. And the man was staring right back at him.

Chapter Text

Come on, wake up. Cris thought as he dragged Lionel's body down the stairs. The Argentine, despite his height, weighed more than he appeared. Come on, help me. Cristiano withdrew one hand under the unconscious man's armpit and wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of it. The air was way too hot. Cristiano had the feeling once again that there was something strange that he had not yet identified. The sensation of being overlooking something persisted and he did not know the reason.

         The light that came from below had never been as natural as the fire devouring furniture. He did not dare to look any further, fearing he would be paralyzed by fear. Or, worse, to look away from the corridor that led to his bedroom where another unconscious man lay. Bloody hell, why didn't the damned alarm sound? How did he enter without making any noise?

         Lionel winced, but his eyes remained closed. Cris put his hand under Leo's armpit again and dragged him down the stairs. The feet of the Argentine hit each step gently. Cris was muttering an apology at every step.

         A tongue of fire climbed the railing, disappearing as soon as it entered. Cristiano held his breath for a second and then started moving again. He came to the rest of the stairs, leaned back against the wall and watched the scene unfold in what was the living room of his house.

         From the jerseys on the wall, the only memories were the dismal fabric bats that crossed the room from time to time. From the wall to the air, from the air to the ground, then to the other flames. The wall behind the flames had blackened completely in the parts that were still standing. The fire went to the rooms of the guests for what Cristiano could see. The furniture that had not disappeared was great torches of bright colors; there was not a single shadow in the room, except for Cris and Leo silhouetted against the wall. All books burned, old and new alike. That vision made Cristiano's heart contract in his chest. Oh Leo, I’m so sorry! How sorry I am!

         The smell of smoke was stronger down there. However, in juxtaposition to what was said, there was almost no smoke inside the house. Most of it escaped through the sliding glass door that led to the backyard. They, Leo and Cris, however, could not escape through that door, for the flames surrounded it in furious eddies fanned through the air. The main entrance was not an option either, the fire owned that part and made its way to the kitchen; towards the gas.

         Cris gathered strength, ignoring the pain of the places where he had been hit and tried once more to throw Leo over his shoulder. The pain in the kidneys was immediate. Cristiano let out an animalish howl. He cursed all the devils and fell to the ground with Leo on his shoulder, causing him more pain. Hundreds of black dots danced in his vision, threatening to leave them there to faint and die. The Argentine moved again but did not wake up.

         Amidst the noise of the flames and his own moans, Cristiano heard the unmistakable tinkle of glass breaking. Cris looked up, he could hardly see the entrance to his room, even so, he thought he caught a movement inside. As if it weren't enough by now! He thought in a bad mood.

         He took Leo back by the armpits and finished the march down the stairs. The heat felt worse, it was a kind of euphoric blow. Cris could not describe it in any other way without being roasted. The Portuguese retreated down the hallway beside the staircase. His eyes could not get away from the damn flames. They had a hypnotic, almost erotic dowry. His head felt light, a little dizzy. The corridor had only one door at the end, the one facing the pool.

         Inside they were received by a surge of freshness and overwhelming darkness compared to the sun inside their house. There was a smell of chlorine in the air as opposed to the sweet smell of smoke. Cris left Leo on the floor and did not waste a second in closing the door and locking it with everything he found. When he finished doing so, he dropped to the ground, taking large puffs of pure air. He coughed. But in the end, Cristiano began to feel better. It was then that the other began to pound on the door with force. A faint orange light filtered through the cracks between the frame and the door. In the lower strip between the floor and the door, two shadows cut out the strip of light. The man was on the other side, striking with all his might. Cris felt fear grow inside him. That bloody idiot was coming at our heels! The door resisted. That made Ronaldo feel reassured.

         Cris went as fast as he could next to Leo. The smoke was beginning to make itself felt in the pool and Cris was sure that the light had increased in intensity. He heard the other man curse and scream. Cristiano stopped paying attention, the door would hold more.

         Cristiano reached into the water and dropped drops on Leo's face, again and again, distributing them across his forehead and cheeks each time. "Please, my love. Wake up, please."

         Lionel came to himself slowly. He looked at Cris first and then the room. His eyes were stranger than ever. Cristiano perceived too many shadows wrapped in so much fog in those eyes, it was difficult to know any thoughts after so much hiding. Anyone could get lost in these eyes, he thought, and not in a pleasant way. Have you always been like this?

         "Is it smoke what it smells like?" The Argentine's voice sounded hoarse as if he was emerging from a prolonged cold. Cris was relieved to hear him speak, so much so that his own lips trembled with the promise of a smile. Cristiano looked towards the door, the light that filtered through the cracks was stronger. The smell of smoke was more noticeable. They had to move.

         As if to corroborate his idea, the door and part of the house creaked with a sound similar to that of a giant moving. "The house is on fire, Leo, we have to go right now," Cris said without adding anything else, trying to sound as relaxed as possible. They should remain calm. And look how to get out. The pool was surrounded by many windows and no exit door. Looking outside, Cristiano observed that the night was lighting up with the flames. He went to the window and looked around, sticking his face in the glass. Part of the grass was already burning along with several trees. You could not see more of the house, but the fire grew at a very fast pace. He looked again at the door, the light was more intense, now it had the strength to begin to reveal what was in that room. The smell of smoke continued to intensify.

         The house trembled. The door shook so violently that Cris feared it would split. He did not want to burn to death. If necessary, he would drag Lionel under the water to survive the fire.

         "What the fuck is going on? What in the name of---? Son of a fuck, you hit me!"

         Cris stopped short. Embarrassed, looking at his hands without knowing what to say. There's no time for this, he told himself. "It was not my intention, Leo," were the words that came out of his mouth. He sounded sad. And he was.

         "You knocked me out! What the damn hell!"

         "Leo, it wasn't what I wanted! It was a bloody fucking accident!" He paused a few seconds to take a breath and calm down. He had to stay calm. "Look, if you want to scold me for an error, well, so be it. But you can wait until we get out of this. That bastard can still be around and the house is on fire." Then he realized what had seemed so strange to him: the smoke detectors had not sounded at all. Damn. "You have to break one of these windows, how do you feel? Believe to be able to stand and help?"

         "A little dizzy. But I'll achieve it. Why's the house on fire?"

         "A question for philosophers, my love."

         Cristiano was the one with the idea, but it was Lionel who found the extinguisher as well as the one to hit the glass with it until the window turned into a strange tangle like the web of a spider. The glass gave way when the door buckled inward, letting in a mouthful of hot air and long tongues of fire reflecting off the water. A thick black cloud of smoke also joined the party, filling everything with heavy shadows. Neither Cris nor Leo stayed longer than necessary, they went out into the cool of the night from where the crystal had been. Being careful not to step on the broken glass.

         Cris cursed when a glass splinter cut his heel. Nothing serious, but it still hurt. He had been stupid but, given the circumstances, everything could have gone worse.

         They circled the house cautiously, away from the building as much as possible. Taking care of each other's backs in case the attacker was still nearby. So far no one had appeared. They went around the house until they reached the front opposite. Everything was burning.

         Cristiano contemplated the scene with regret. The heat had burst the windows through which intense flares were coming. The door and part of the facade had been expelled. The remains of rock and wood lay scattered all the way to the entrance. The kitchen, Cris thought as he looked at the fire pit in what had once been his home.

         He felt the heat of the fire on his face. Making him sweat and drying that same sweat. Everything was burning. And, if not, soon it would. His eyes stung from so much watching, but he could not look away. On one side, cars also burned. All of them had exploded.

         "Cris, I am so---" Leo began in a calm voice before he acquired a tone of urgency, "move!" Cristiano did not have time to react when Lionel already pulled him away from the path of a club.

         The iron club hit the ground, producing a strange sound. The man was blond, tall, taller than Cristiano. It was not who had entered the house. The blond looked at Cris with an expression without inflection. A white face. Cold. Contracted only by the effort of raising the iron again in his hands. A rock, of a good size, struck the man's chest. There was no pain reaction. Another rock hit him in the face. Nothing. The man did not feel pain, apparently. Cris felt afraid. Very afraid.

         From the distance came the sound of sirens. The blond man looked at them a second before running away, he took the club with him. Cris saw him leave.

         "Let's go!" But Cristiano could not find the strength to move.

         "It's not the same man," he said. "It's not the same man, God, what's happening? I don't understand---"

         "Cris!"

         The sirens sounded louder. That did not matter much, the noise could not quell Cristiano's fear.

 

The fire devoured almost everything in the end. The roof collapsed, causing a large mushroom of fire and smoke. The walls folded inward and fell heavy. The firemen could not do much about it. The fire was already at its peak when they made an appearance.

         Cris and Leo watched everything, they were still in underpants and covered with gray cotton blankets, from afar.

         "What now?" Lionel asked when the flames were just a few scattered fires across the black wasteland that had been their home. His eyes showed fatigue. They were not red or swollen like Cristiano's. He had lost everything. All he had worked for. And the culprits--- no trace could be found of them.

         "Do you think you can make a description of the subject?"

         Cristiano would have liked to say yes, but he did not remember specific features. Only blonde hair, height, and a face without expression. That would not help at all. Anyone would fit that description. "No," he had responded with a brutal honesty that made him start crying.

         Now he looked at Lionel, who was still watching the remains of the house. Not all is lost, Cristiano Ronaldo thought with determination as he took Lionel's hand with his. "I don't know, leãozinho," he sighed "I do not know."

         Then, after a while, he added: "we'll think about something."

Chapter Text

Stares flare in a gaze
At my ginger and lazuli civvies
Bargain you a white kiss for costliness
A barge of clairvoyance

My soul echoes my eerie fears
I glow whenever you glow as well,
You're my élan.

 


Haven't I thought of this before? I wish I could remember more and still recall less. Can't find words to put it as it is, but I think I get it--- I may be wrong, but if I don't understand myself who will? Cris not--- for sure---
         But I don't mean it in that way. I love him, God knows I do. I do love him. Yet I fear he may leave me if I keep going this path. How can I change? How does anybody expects me to grow out of this if they keep staring at me as they would with a wounded animal? I know I'm wound, I feel it every goddamn fucking day. The less I need at the moment is for them to remind me that.
         They do such with good intentions, I know that too.
         My father hasn't given me a call yet. Is he angry? Good. But not so good--- after all that he has done, I still care for him. What kind of joke is that?

 


I came far beyond the stars,
From a place that fades in time
I was deposited in the ocean
Between the waves of the Andromeda
And I could see myself alone.

And as I dared to see beyond my dwelling
I glimpsed thousands of desolate worlds
The brightness of the distant lights
I listened to the music of the spheres
Even beyond the visible.

 


Cris danced and stripped for me last nite. God, he does look good! This is what I need, for him to act as nothing's wrong. I only wish it was for me as easy to tell him that as it is to write it down.

 


Álvaro likes to do as much on his own. He has trouble in the upper part of the field, that's odd.

 


I caught Cris talking about buying a piano for me. I told him to stop, I love the gesture, but now it's not the time for such expensive item. And knowing him as I think I do, he would've bought something way too expensive. I mean, there's no room to put a piano in this mansion anymore! Many guest rooms and few studios or such. He even offered to dismantle his private museum! My man is a bit crazy at times. Nothing a kiss can't stop, though.

 


As the splinters of my wooden legs hurt,
I want to take out that yellowed pus
and not suffer the smells of a ruined win;
how the wounds of my infected sores smell

All sing without love
and I here alone, August,
I bleed every moon,
and not exactly of the good ones

I owe everything to these wooden legs
that have guided me through life
between dreams and mysteries,
always under the shadow of the brother tree that cries

I have felt myself flourish
and seen withered;
A constant change
surrounded by chance

Would it be silly to say that God took this away?
A red day under a moon
and a carmine night inside a sheet
How much damage should we endure?

I've been splintered dead by my wooden legs
that all these years have brought me misfortunes,
I take out and clean the wounds
of poisonous splinters

Reduced, year after year with the sandpaper of Mael
varnish retouching
but the pain could more and the saw even more
the dirty sawdust stave

I am shorter, less strong or stoic
I no longer walk with my head held high, crying in every bleed
I feel empty; although somehow well
I'm not cold at night, my legs feed the home
But damn it--- how it hurts to walk on scars!

 


Strange, how many times have I gone through all of this pages by now to found a sad little man staring right back at me from the corner of my own past? And I still wonder... what if Cris were to see this? All the stupid shit I've done. Would that be fair for him to witness?
         I'm sick of staring blank cold into the distance, I'm done with being like this, hiding what I feel. I'm finally through with what people think. If my parents don't care enough to talk me but the news, well farewell with them. They can take their beliefs and stuff them down their breeches!
         The wind wipes the worst we carry in us.

 

You faked the reasons whispered in songs
and gave me back the fear of looking at the shaking of the earth
then turned off my meditated proposals in silences,
You were fire, today the ice fanning the flame
Typhoon in sorrow that advances further,
You try to save what is left, as you were destined
To be with me, now you only sing along thin timbres
With each one crossing your path
I needed the air.

 


We needed this time, that's all. Time for us, away from the cameras. I needed to find myself in finding him. Does that makes any sense at all or is it me just trying to fit this path into the mess I am in?

 


I see his moon,
like November's breeze,
in each mirror.
I see his eyes in the water,
Strolling.
The wind brings its memories, its aroma,
and I miss him every time the sun goes down.
I just met him,
I almost didn't have time to love him
but only a carnal embrace was enough;
his eyes guided me to an eternity of dust,
where there was a pale heart,
inside something cozy lay,
then he told me:
"If you love me, then love me."

 

As months go by, I fear to lose myself to my own solitude. My fear of falling goes deeper every time. And those dreams just won't stop. Cristiano has nightmares too--- should we talk about those dreams? We've never done such things, it's odd to speak of dreams when you're fulfilling the ones of childhood sake. Should I speak about these things that bug me at night?

Chapter Text

“So you don’t remember a thing?” Álvaro asked while Leo tried on some jeans, pants and God knows what else the Argentine brought inside the fitting room. Álvaro weaved his weight from one feet to the other, waiting for an answer, he could hear Lionel inside the room cussing in mumbles, a funny scene, if the situation leading to it haven’t had been such a baleful one.

         “I can’t recall nothing before waking up by the pool,” Messi’s voice came out low and flat. The Argentine was tired, the same as Cris who, by the way, had not returned from measuring himself that blue suit with garnet lapels. “Well I do recall a thing,” Leo added after sometime. Light! Álvaro himself, I’m also tired. Between trainings and being host of both Leo and Cris, and Alice away in Italy doing her own stuff, he felt kind of lost, if not truly lost. It could be worse Álvaro reminded himself calmly, as he got it easy. As easy one could be with Zinedine wanting him to be the new titular. Bloody hell, why it had to be me?

         “Aye? And what’s that lad?”

         “Hey, take that down or I’ll call you lass!” That had seemed to work, Álvaro could picture Leo smiling a bit inside the fitting room. Where the hell was Cristiano? I swear to God I’ll lit his bloody ass!

         “Oight,” why had he used the word like that? Who knew? It was just fine by him. “What’s that you remember?” A silence emerged in which he could hear Leo fitting to fit some of the pants. “Well don’t complain when I told you that wouldn’t fit! You’ve gained weight fatty!” More cussing. Álvaro could distinguish a “Stupid prat, being born a blanco doesn’t give you a fucking right to call me that! Get in you fucking piece of wool!” Leo ladies and gentleman, Álvaro thought, the most handsome and educated footballer in the world has the forge of a crass in his mouth!

         “I recall Cris punching me,” his voice had almost no breath, as if the man had been running. He’s really out of shape, isn’t? “Then I blacked out.”

         “Cris punched you? Why?”

         A bit more of cussing and the noise of something heavy falling to the floor. Álvaro tried to get inside, but the door had the lock on. No use at all, he decided to lie on the wall. Leo cussed out more. “I’m fine,” the smaller man said at last “I don’t know why--- Cris said it was an accident. But he still punched me! We haven’t talked about that--- not with all that’s been going on. Jesus fucking Christ, will none of you fit me well!”

         Álvaro chuckled behind a fist, then took a look at all the clothes Leo had bought that day. How else does he wants to buy? Where are you, Cristiano? The Portuguese was nowhere to be seen, as if the earth had swallowed him to its deepest pits--- as deep one could go in a Departmental Store, of course.

         With a long sigh that seemed to carry more than he intended to, Álvaro closed his eyes and waited for Lionel to end. They all had a lot to think about and Cristiano was the one who was closer to the edge, a little push could throw him down that path and break him; Leo was handling it way better–oh the man had cried but had quickly stood back. Good for him, he just came out of the deep and falling was not an option. Now let’s hope Cristiano rises as well, for Leo’s wellbeing.

 

Cristiano was looking himself in the mirror. He had nothing on except for the socks and boxers, the clothes he was supposed to wear were in the hangers and the ones he had been wearing, courtesy of Álvaro Co., were on the chair perfectly folded. One of the first things Cristiano had to learn was to fold his own clothes as Álvaro had no maiden, nor did other player in Madrid as far as he knew. Cris did miss María on days like this.

         The woman had appeared a few hours later in what was left of Cristiano’s house, he had screamed at her. Blaming the woman for letting a door open so the intruders could came in. It was not fair, as Cris had no proof nor whatsoever to make such accusation, but he had to blame someone for his own bloody sake. The truth, however, was elusive and cold dark. He did not knew a motive other than a robbery and murder attempt--- But why would someone want us dead?--- I’ve received threats before, but it was all pure crap and nothing less--- why is this different? Could it be---? I mean, it would’ve such a coincidence, but it’s more likely to be an isolated incident, isn’t?

         “Whatever help you sleep at night,” Álvaro had said with no regard of hiding his thoughts on the matter. Cris appreciated everything Al and the rest of Madrid’s team had done for Leo and him, but speaking in that manner---

         Let it be, the lad means no harm whatsoever.

         If that was so, why was it so hard to convince himself about it?

         Because uncertainty is such a sharp blade.

         A gentle knock on the door and the voice that followed took him out of his thoughts, for once, he was not disturbed about being--- well, disturbed.

         “Is everything fine, sir?” asked the muffled voice of a man, a young one who had almost ruined his boxers when he had recognized Cristiano for who he was. Cris had smiled and now he felt such a dork doing nothing but staring at a well-produced body reflected on the mirror.

         “Aye, all’s fine. I’ll be out in a moment,” Over and out, he thought.

 

“You know,” Leo said “sometimes I think we don’t speak Spanish at all.”

         “I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about.” Most times Álvaro feel weird about some things that Leo talked about, and for Ál to feel weird was something extremely odd. Which was already a thing to say, regarding his status as a joker most of the time.

         Aye, but I don't joke that often anymore, he thought.

         They were now waiting for the cashier to check all of the articles of clothing, Leo alone had enough money to buy all the clothing in the medium cost and for a moment he seemed determined to do so, thank God he didn't, Ál told himself quietly watching how the amount of money kept rising. And those were only the clothes, as both Leo and Cris wanted to recover all those things the insurance had not covered. The house would be rebuilt, that was for sure. And the cars and most of the furniture were covered too –the cars have insurance of their own–, but no other things.

         It could have been worst. Praised be the God who in his wisdom did not allow those two to have pets around the house, even though Cris and Leo both seemed to really love dogs.

         "We wouldn't just have the time to take the proper care," Cris had said "we're not home all that much anymore and leaving the task to María wouldn't be fair for her. No, Ál, I've got the money to pay her. Bloody hell, lad, you think these looks are just a facade?"

         To be honest, Cris has not looked as good as he used to. He had let his hair grow, not as long as Lionel, but long for what everyone had become accustomed to seeing. He seems a bit shaggy, yet still looking good. The man had the ego enough to look bloody good wearing worn-out clothes. But the Portuguese was right, he had the money to pay for a person to take care of the dogs if they had ones to pet. That came to show that if they were to get one, they will be the ones taking care of them.

         Is almost like they want to have a child, isn't? And did not Álvaro wanted the same? He was young, but felt confident enough to be a father. But that was just letting his imagination run wild once again. Growing up he had been the kid with the ball and the dream of growing high, which did not mean at all about his height. Yet, when he had the opportunity, he did not work that hard for it. At first he was not as focused as he would have liked now to. He had started to take his job truly seriously only when he was playing for La Juve.

         So what was next?

         Cris still has not shown himself. Not even after Ál and Leo were already out of the store. Leo was trying to get Cris on the phone, the ones they had bought yesterday. As far as Ál could see, the Portuguese was not going to---

         "Where're you, dear?"

         Speak of the Devil and he shall show its presence to you, Álvaro thought. Well, at least we know he's alright.

         "No, Cris, I understand--- yeah, I know--- it's been rough--- no, please don't apologize--- because it wasn't your fault, big moron!---" Leo chuckled "We'll find a way out of this--- look, we've got plenty bags so what do you say if we wait for you in the food area?--- uhumm--- yeah, I bought that--- because I believe it'll make you happy--- yeah, that's a good idea too--- look, Ál is all pissed and he thinks I don't notice---"

         "I'm bloody not---!" Leo raised an arm where plenty of bags hung one after the other. Álvaro stared at the lifted finger and hushed.

         Bloody flea, he thought.

         "I could order some food, what would you like?--- aha--- with everything?--- I thought so--- yeah, I know---" another chuckle "fine, see you there--- love you."

         The way back home was quiet, Leo fell asleep in the backseat of the car next to some bags that did not fit in the car's trunk. Álvaro was driving while Cris finished his drink, a raspberry milkshake. They were both listening to some match on the radio, but paying little to none attention to it. Cris seemed like he wanted to talk and Ál for once did not know how to help him. At that moment it felt like any wrong word could shut Cristiano forever. Maybe it was just a silly feeling, but the fear of messing this up was something Álvaro was no ready to take the risk for. Cristiano and he were not the best friends.

         Back in the time when Álvaro made his debut in Madrid Cris was the sort of friend you only hang up with during school but no afterward.

         “I keep thinking this has something to do with our sexuality--- whatever that is. It just doesn’t feel like a robbery, you know? A burning house, an attempted murder. Does that feels like a robbery to you? I know that thieves often want no witnesses. Ugh--- I don’t know what to think, at plain sight it is a robbery, isn’t? But there’s this feeling I can’t shake out of my head. Like a voice screaming at me to look at what’s obvious; but I see nothing. At least Iker is fine.”

         Álvaro had not given himself much time to think about the ex-goalkeeper. Just a post on Instagram and some videos in other social media. He had even sent the man flowers and stuff alike along other Madrid’s players. But time to think about the man and his health status? Nah, that had not just happened yet. For Christ sake, Álvaro had been busy enough with Zinedine on his bloody heels all day long.

         “You’ll be the next face; you, James, that boy Case and Asensio.”

         “Bullshit,” Ál said out loud. Cris raised an eyebrow in that eccentric fashion of his. “Sorry, just shouting thoughts. But you got to admit it’s pure bullshit,” he lied “it would just be such, you know. They were just burglars, if they didn’t still shit it’s ‘cuz you make them run. You put up a fight, as I understand. Even managing to know a little flea out of the way.”

         “That wasn’t on purpose!” It was not a shout, but inside the car it felt like one. A shout without anger, just remorse and infinite guilt.

         “So it’s truth. Wow, but why? You didn’t want him to get involve, didn’t you?”

         “It’s not that simple. Alright, it’s simple. I thought Leo was someone else, another intruder. It caught me off guard and when I realized who he was it was already too late. I knocked him dead for a good minutes. That little bastard weights a lot, let me tell you that!” Cris laughed softly, a sound that seemed to wave a fair goodbye to summer and all those easy years. Winter was just around the corner and Cris’s heart was already being turned into the heart of Winter.

         What if Cris’s right about those burglars? I sense something off too, but I can’t find out what it is.

 

The room where Leo and Cris were staying at was half the size of what Cris’s bedroom used to be. It was not big, but comfortable enough to ignore the sudden change of life style. Oh, hear you talk. You’re surely a king in a pigsty, aren’t you? Leo took another look at the bedroom and realized it was almost the size of his room back in Barcelona. He had feel comfortable back there. The style of life Cris had taught Leo was surely making a triumphant entrance today.

         Cris was asleep. The Portuguese just took a few spoons of the dinner –Álvaro was an amazing cook, who would have thought that?– before apologizing and retiring to the cloister of the guest room. Ál said nothing, yet he seemed to have some words of advice. That was the moment the doorbell rang and as Álvaro went to open the door, Leo took the opportunity to sneak out into the bedroom. The voices of two men harassed him all the way to the room, he felt ashamed and did not know why. Sure you do, selfish fuck.

         And now, standing close next to an uneasy asleep Cristiano Ronaldo, Leo could not stop the urge to take him. Still, he managed just to jerk off hard and fast. The sound of the fabric of the sleeve of his shirt moving seemed like traffic noise, but Leo did not care. The urge to do such thing was there and he could not resist it any longer. Leo stroke harder and faster as seconds went by until an aching pain menaced to numb his arm and rip his cock.

         From the head of his cock a long shot of semen flew falling on Cris’s face and the pillow below. The Portuguese moved in his sleep before remaining still again. Leo waited for his heart to regain its rhythm along with his lungs. Lionel was shaking and now the shame had returned.

         “Sorry,” he whispered as he squatted to lick his own seed from the other man face. It tasted sweet and most of it was already cold. Just the larger amount contained any warm in them. Leo felt as a slut, but again did not stop. After all, Cris had done the same back in Portugal.

         Once he had finished licking, Leo stepped out of the room and walked towards the bathroom where he picked up some wet wipes and paper. Then headed back to where Cris was. In the way Lionel heard the voices on the living room, whoever was in there sounded like James.

         Leo had not found the time to talk with James. Not that they used to be best friends, but Lionel like to consider himself as someone who kept a close eye with his pals. Neymar was about to get married to a lovely woman, was her name Iliana? Leo could not quite remember that part, much had happened since that moment. Luis Suarez was doing better than never now that Leo was gone, he was even given the number 10. Those bastards, Leo thought in a heartwarming tone. Javier was doing also great, although he truly seemed like he wanted to be somewhere else. Bayern and West Ham were some of the names around el Chicharito, along with Chelsea. The only ones that seemed to be in a hard time were Piqué and Shakira. But those two brought it upon themselves, truly. Who would, in their right mind would marry someone who spent most of the year flying from one city to another and across countries and continents? And Leo was not thinking about Piqué, for Christ fucking sake! Shakira was gone in her tour and Piqué was gone playing matches. Those two deserved that hard time, for real. Dani was just the same and Rafinha had improved a lot, of their personal lives Leo could not discover a lot, they were suddenly to close about it. Even Neymar did not know what was going on with those two.

         “It’s almost as if they were, you know, dating or such--- do you think they could?”

         Leo had said no in a way that did not accept another answer, to see his friends pass the same he had was not an option. Cris campaign might be worth it, but change doesn’t come that easy. And now it would just be harder, most of the campaign plans where at the house and hence gone. Some conferences, interviews, demonstrations, marches and other were still going on with other people in charge, for Cristiano had not been feeling strong enough to show himself again after what had happened last time. Leo did not enjoy watching his husband cry and be laughed at. And the man who had laugh did not like it when Lionel Andrés Messi broke its nose in three separate parts.

         In a few days all that status he and Cris had worked to recover was blown into dust by a fucking homophobic idiot. A cunt, a moron, a son of a raped goat! Should security never show I’ve might just keep punching him. To laugh at someone else’s tragedy you must truly be the worst cunt of them all.

         The man, Antonio was the name Leo managed to discover, did not file charges. Coward. The headlines in the magazines did not wait and that was the worst, though. That was the moment Cris truly broke down and stopped doing anything for his campaign. Responsibilities fell upon his sister and Leo just had to accept Cris might never come up to speak again.

         Nah, of that I’ll take nothing. He’ll be out again and stronger, I’ll see to it. We just need to lit his fire once again and keep it burning stronger than the sun. It’s been well enough with one depressed head over this year to have another wimping around shit that can be fixed. We’ll show this world we’re stronger than them alone and far too strong together. This marriage wasn’t in vain, official or not, it was not in vain!

 

Morning was pale lit as the sun was being obscured by clouds all the way from one horizon to the other. November fleeting fast, a glimpse that could be lost in a moment. The cold winds were slowly making themselves notice. James was staring at something beyond the horizon of what the view of his window allowed him to watch. That morning the pain of his back did not bothered him. Ever since the fall he had had a horrible pain and now it was finally gone. But James felt indifferent to it.

         The boy was thinking. Last night at Álvaro’s place he had woven goodbye to his feelings towards the Spaniard. James still felt something for Álvaro, but now it was an easy to wipe feeling. The Colombian wanted to cry for so many mixed emotions to keep track of them, except for the sadness and the sensation of freedom.

         One of the boy’s hands raised to gently touch his lips. I will treasure it forever, and he would do so. But memories were to keep inside and no to live in.

         Ifrit woke up and wrapped with an arm James’s torso. The man was taller than Álvaro, and that truly was a thing to be impressed at. They were supposed to take it slow, see where everything would go and no rush. But that had not happened. The first date was almost childlike. The second date James stayed at Ifrit’s place. The third and fourth they were already calling each other nicknames and taking plenty of photos that only Ifrit shared at first. Then James did the same, caring little about people’s mind.

         “If you keep fearing life won’t change, but if you dare to go further to your truth self, then you’ll discover what’s really worth caring for,” that had been Álvaro’s words to James. More than a week had passed of that conversation at Álvaro’s place, Ifrit was there too.

         “I’ll fight God himself if you ask me to,” Ifrit confessed later that night as they went to bed one looking deeply into the other man’s eyes.

         And now, as Ifrit hugged him, James felt as if the sun had never been so warm and beautiful as it was today, even behind those foggy clouds.

 

That same day Cris and Leo were looking a flat in Salamanca, Recoletos. The flat, a nice 4779.18 square foot construction in a fourth floor, was mostly half and an hour away from the Bernabéu, which was actually an improvement in schedule. However, for the price they wanted to charge them one could have thought the apartment would have been way bigger, whether a duke lived there or not. But, since they had nothing better to do as for now, training that day was suspended for whatever reasons –the ones Cris did not listened to as he was way too focused in his own thoughts– and Leo had suggested to go and check it out.

         Cristiano was not really impressed at the meat colored walls or the furniture, it all seemed like a stellar dollhouse or a prank. A lot of light entered through the big windows, which could be useful in winter and a pain during summer.

         The kitchen was not that great at all. Nor was it the service bedroom. Cristiano had to admit that this could not really compare to his house and that making comparisons truly was something futile, but not to do so was hard. The rooms and beds were almost tiny, less than half of those guest rooms in his house, when he had a house.

         Lionel walked and looked at everything with a big smile and eyes wide open, the Argentine fell for the flat as soon as he saw where it was. A lot of nightclubs were near and close by was the Parque del Rerito with the Crystal Palace and the Fallen Angel Fountain. And of course the Big Pond of El Retiro, where they could take a boat ride. How gay are we?

         “What you think?” Leo was holding Cris’s hand, when had he taken it? Cristiano slowly wrapped his fingers around Leo’s hand and tried to smile tenderly. It must have been easy, smile was something he often did, why was it hard now then?

         “Did you ever finished that game of yours? What was it called like? Ugh--- Final Fantasy!”

         “Er--- whut?”

         “Sorry. My head is running wild again, can’t stop thinking about, you know. It’s been hard, somedays I feel fine and then come the times this weight o’er me pulls me down.”

         “You shouldn’t carry that alone.”

         “But I have to! Sorry, didn’t mean to shout. I’ve got to, meu amor; I feel responsible for all this. I don’t like it, but---”

         “Go fuck yourself you and your goddamn pride! This ain’t no court and you ain’t being judged, so nock that shit out of your ass now. Bullocks. You’re not alone. I know the pit you’re buried in, but that’s not real, believe me; trust me. That hole shit is not real nor are the guilty thoughts. This has nothing to do with you, you did well protecting us.”

         “Then why do I feel so incompetent?” the words came out strongly, barely contained by the tightly closed teeth. Leo freed his hand and drew the body of the Portuguese against his, forcing Cris to rest his head on Lionel shoulder.

         “I don’t know, we tend to make things that got nothing to do with us personal. You’re human after all, you feel like a failure, but we’re only alive because of you. That’s proof enough how much you’re worth and how less guilt should worry you. We only lose material goods. We’ll make our lives once more and we’ll fill them with all that crap we love so much. Now just stop whining about everything and come see the apartment. I’m pretty sure Álvaro is sick of having us there.”

         Leo walked a few steps before turning around and raising a hand for Cris to grab. He’s the light of my darkness.

         Later that day Lionel went running with Álvaro, leaving Cris to sleep alone in the crushing silence of a foreign house. The bed had become Ronaldo closest friend, a loyal confident for his darkest secrets and bitter tears. Cristiano had made very clear he did not wanted to be outside for the time being, but also that it was not fair for Leo to stick imprisoned with him in the self-imposed solitude. Things were better this way, Leo enjoying life while Cris tore his throat wipe open with sobs and unstoppable fears.

         Not a minute went by without the illusion of someone slowly turning the door handle, nor a night went by Cristiano did not wake in fear of being observed by a shadow between the shadows.

         The other day he had almost fallen in a fit of hysteria when Álvaro decided to lit some charcoal and cook some chops. Not even the beer later that day had made him feel better. But to be broke in front of Lionel’s eyes--- that he could not do. So he waited for them to go running or to the gym, so his cry would not disturb any of them.

         How much had he changed over the last years? Ever since Leo came into his life he stopped being so arrogant, at first it was easy to deny that. But now--- he still had that seed inside. Otherwise, why would he cast Leo away when he needed him the most? Any reason would be a total lie, he did not want to be alone, and yet he was stubborn enough to send help away. When would he learn to ask for help? Only until something worst that the fire appeared in his road, only then would Cris let that stupid pride fade away forever?

         There’s nothing worse than this. Nothing. I don’t need help, I can carry on my own fights and win them as I’ve always have. I didn’t need a goddamn thing about Leo to become the player I am nor the model.

         You need help. It was his own voice, yet somehow it belonged to another.

         I don’t. I’m strong and that’s enough to---

         Hit the ground harder. Being a stubborn works sometimes, should we recall the “fucking get in the car, Leo”? That turned out good enough.

         What does that have to do with anything? It’s almost trying to sell a car without having a look at the car in the first place!

         Leave the car alone. Leo was stubborn because you were, ‘cause you’ve never been able to switch your pride away in favor of others. You’ve cared about Leo way before that day, haven’t you? I can still feel that kiss in my memory. I can still feel your beating heart at that moment and what you did after still echoes in the ashes of our house.

         Stop it.

         Why should I when you don’t?

         Stop it. It’s not playing fair.

         Nothing is. We are victims of our own hazard luck. We made our fates. You sealed one with a kiss. You’ve been playing a game only you care for. Be gentle one day and rude as fuck the other, then gentle again. You did it with Leo, you did it with Irina.

         Stop it!

         Face it. You’re helpless in the end. Tell me, have you stopped loving her already?

 

“You should do it,” Ál said panting. Had it been summer, the Spaniard would have fainted some time ago. Lionel just smiled at his friend and kept jogging fresh as a lettuce. Killing himself along Cris had it’s advantages. As today, Leo have not recovered all the muscles Cristiano had make him build, but Leo did not want to be all that bloated. All that muscle just did not fit him enough. He liked very much to be thin, hit helped with speed. Álvaro had built some muscle by now, he was not as skinny and his face was no longer in that shape of elongated dish, now he had more volume, just like his body contoured. Alice should go crazy every time. Isn’t that a bit cliché? Ál’s good looking enough for Alice to like with or without that body. Great, perhaps I’m gay after all.

         “I’m scared.”

         “You? One of the best in the world, scared? Get off my case, bloody hell.”

         “Wouldn’t you be?”

         “No, I’d hire someone to do it for me. That’s not my area and to dare that much is not my intention. All I want is to help the planet, which kind of puts me against you, you know, trees and stuff.”

         “The heck you’re talking a--- you know, I don’t wanna know right now. That could wait.”

         “T’at coul’ wait. You’ll never know, Leo, life’s got a heavy sense of humor.”

         “You’re one to talk.”

         The house was sunk in the deepest silence. There were no clocks on the walls, so no ticking disturbed the peace among the concrete prison cells. Just the foot steeps of Leo and Ál walking around the house, undisturbed, in peace. They drank water and ate some fruit and chips before setting themselves to do their respective chores.

         Leo cleaned up the dishes while Álvaro swept the floors, then Leo went to wet the plants in and out of the house. When they finished that, Ál was already making popcorns on the stove, why did the man did not use the microwave?

         Cris was cuddling with a pillow, which gave Leo both a feeling of tenderness and jealousy, also his crotch went hard as rock. This time, however, Lionel managed to control himself. Cris shook his head and turned one of his shoulders, the gesture was similar to what he did when something gave him grace, reducing the weight of the situation. Leo looked at him for a while, caressing his husband's smooth cheek with the backs of his fingers, a movement that somehow seemed paternal. Leo had only made that gesture with another person, Antonella, but for some reason in doing so with Cristiano the feeling was more natural and warmth. As if the woman was somehow cold and distant despise Andrés feelings for her for so long. Yet again the woman, not to make her less, was a pure childhood dream that came to be and, like with most childish dreams, it ended sooner and faster.

         “Darlin-ling, wake up,” Leo whispered. Then an idea spark in his mind and he could not resist the temptation, “I’ve sell you to a band, they’re coming for you, you’ll be their slave from now own.”

         Cris stared at him with eyes wide open and a clear expression of disgust and disdain. “Leo, what the fuck are you talking ‘bout?” the voice came out deep and raspy as the purr of a tiger or the roar of a motorcycle in standby.

         “Nothing, we’ll watch a movie, come, love,” his was the sound of summer nights and warm winds in winter days, the sweetness of rivers condensed into a single stream pouring out lovely from the mouth of the foreign land that never thought to fall for the sweet Portuguese rose of May. Rose of May, loss of me.

         “Bloody weirdo, should’ve stayed on Argetina,” was it ever going to be otherwise with them? Would things eventually fell apart as the leaves change its colors? Will there be a time where both were forced to deep each other in deep dirt holes just to carry on in their separate ways? Lionel did not wanted that to happen. But it could. Yet to think about what was not was not a good thing to do anymore. If it must happen, then it would and nothing could be done about it. As for now, Leo intended to enjoy as much as possible of Cristiano.

         “What did you just say?” Now Andrés voice was that of the chilling air going through dead branches in a winter storm. Yet as fearsome and haunting that could be, one could not but to remember that that same air was the one that helped you live all through the most extreme summer day. There could simple not be love without a little of balance. Love, after all, was a force to be reckon with.

         “Er--- nothing, I’ll be on my way,” and to Leo’s surprise Cris actually stood and walked fast to the bathroom as a child would do just to not get his father angrier. Lionel had to swallow the laughter, if he did not, Cristiano could easily turn around and punch him. He had done so by now, so another time should not represent any problem.

         Of course Álvaro had told Lionel what had actually happened that night in the words of Cristiano. But for Cris to yet not tell Leo was way too weird. They were falling once again to that place where secrets were piled one after the other in an endless pyramidal funereal capable of piercing the moon there in the sky and biting the eye to God just for the old man to be there.

         We’ll talk, I just need to shake him out of this hollow slump. Cris, dear, you got to understand there’s still much we’ll go through to stay like this. I need you to need you to be strong as you were.

         But for the time being, all that Leo said was: “Yeah, you better. Now get your lazy ass moving faster before I whip it.”

         “That wouldn’t be bad,”

         “For God’s sake! I’ll whip you in the night if that’s---” Lionel could not end up the phrase for his lips were caught by the trap bear that were Cris’s. Those lips felt as good as heaven itself. Ronaldo left Andrés without a breath and with the heart challenging any metal drummer to beat him in speed.

         “You were saying?” Cris had one of that smiles of his, the ones that made Leo’s knees shake and bend to take all Cristiano could give him. The man really was better than Aphrodite in any way possible. No offense to the Greek goddess.

         “Ah, just go wash you face and let’s see a movie.”

         Leo entered the room nearby the living room to take a piss. He sat on the toilet, too tired to stand, and proceeded to watch the news of his phone as he did his necessities.

         The main section was still full of articles about the fire, homophobes and poetic justice bullshit, photos of he and Leo shopping, kissing, some of them fucking –when had they taken those?–, but  mostly were focused on the fire and what was going to happen to Cris’s campaign, now run by her mother and sister, and their football careers. Most of the articles were pure crap and focused way too much on who was top and who the bottom was. Pure crap and a lot of cunts gaining money by writing that kind of shit. The worst was knowing there were people who really swallowed through and through all those words. Nobody was perfect, alright, but that did not justify idiocy.

         Well, from a time on I just like calling people idiot, don’t I?

         Among all the news he observed, Andrés could see the name of James appear in one, but when Leo wanted to re-locate the article it had already been replaced by another news item about a Mexican team going through some sort of hell. And since Leo did not give a damn, he decided to leave it for peace and close the application. The phone screen was warm as hell by the use.

         When Leo came out of the bathroom Cris was standing in front of him, hands behind his back and those dark eyes staring straight into Lionel’s soul. Andrés smiled and that seemed to cheer Cristiano.

         “This is yours,” the Portuguese announced as he grabbed one of Leo hands and pressed hard a solid object against the palm of his hand. When Cris released him, Leo stared stunned at the dark wooden ring.

         “I believed it was lost to the fire. Why’re you giving me this?”

         “It’s yours, Leo.”

         “What should I do with it?”

         Cris laughed “Whatever you want, I’d like to see it on your hand, just as this one,” Ronaldo showed Lionel the other ring stuck in his finger “but you choose what to do with it. Let’s go, I can taste the popcorn already.”

 

“What’s wrong Size?”

         “You're not giving me the width I need from you.”

         “The hell if that supposed to mean? I’m overworking my ass there.”

         “Is that so? It’s not enough.”

         “Burn you!”

         “You don’t get to blame me for you poor performance. Either you get the point of being a professional and start working as one or you can find yourself another club who’d like a lazy ass one shot lad.”

         “Bloody bastard.”

         “Start thinking about what you want now, you’re part of one of the prime teams around the world. Shake that laziness off and start working real hard, you’ve the chance to be amongst the greatest, even more than those faggots. Now stop giving me that hurtful hate glance and get to work faster and stronger, and tomorrow at eight in the NCuadrarte Estudio, move and work.”

         “Why, couldn’t you afford something cheaper?” Álvaro hissed as he stepped out of Zinedine office. As the door closed Ál could hear de other man say in a sharp voice with no trace of pain but pure mockery.

         “Just ‘cause the bird got wings doesn’t mean he can fly, lad."

 

James could not help but notice the low spirits on the part of Cristiano at the time of training. The Portuguese was not bad, such an accusation would be an unfounded assertion. But to be fair, James wanted to move as much or better than Cristiano, and yet, despite Cris good performance, it was obvious that he was not giving the same effort as always. Lionel was also a little behind, following Cris from one side to the other and whispering God knows what things in his ear. Ronaldo smiled at times, not always and of course that the desire there also varied. Bale and Ramos went to Cristiano when Messi retired for a drink of water. Whatever it was that those two were telling Ronaldo, his attitude seemed to improve a little. James was sure he was seeing the old Cristiano –not the cocky one he used to watch on the games in TV, that man had disappeared slowly as fading mist when Lionel entered into all of Real Madrid players life--- so, now that James had the time to think about that, and how convenient that turned out to be, everyone had suffered a major change since Leo appeared. And more things were still to come, or so it felt like–, if not for those eyes that even from a distance were clearly lost.

         James finished doing his abs and took a break before getting to do drills with Isco, who did not stop talking about FIFA and Skyrim. James had played the Skyrim-thing once, it did not convince him much. Yes, the graphics were impressive, but the game progressed slowly and in the end, James ended up playing a game for four hours without doing anything at all. James did not doubt that the game was as exciting as all the ads and all people were fucking prasing promised, but sons of bitches! Was it that hard to start with the blows from the beginning?

         Isco finished quickly doing his series of drills, for some reason James suspected he wanted to finish as soon as possible to return home and play his damn game all afternoon. Isco no longer only had the face of being addicted to the game, but it was clear the man indeed was.

         Well, as long as he don’t start betting, what's the difference? Let him do as the wants and you just smile and be nice.

         “Love who you must and live the way you want to,” the infinite wits and wisdom of Álvaro Morata, God the man was handsome! Could that same thing aply to Isco’s situation? It has to, right?

         Álvaro was not there, he had been called by Zise to an important meeting. James also had been called to one, but as for the moment the Colombian had had no guts at all to approach Zise. The man scared him a bit and James was afraid to be scolded by his low performance. I’m doing my best!

         But what if his best was not enough for Zinedine? That was a real scary thought. James did not want to leave Madrid because of his poor skills. The only way James really wanted to leave Real Madrid place was if he was good enough for another team that was better than Madrid. Of course, saying that out loud could earn him some hurt and hateful looks. So the right phrase to speak was “to expand my horizons and grow more as a player by playing in places that aren’t home,” which was pure bullshit.

         Could it be that Álvaro had some thought on that? After all, Ál had already went out to Juve and growth a lot. What if that was what James needed after all?

         Don’t be ridiculous! We just played at a fucking World Cup and that’s some shit to be proud of. You’re good. That’s why you’re where you are right now. And all this because Isco wants to go home and play Skyrim?

         And talking about going home, is what James wanted to do. Return to Ifrit's arms and rest his head on that firm chest. Get lost between his lips and feel the roughness of the clear beard. However, there would be no opportunity for it. Ifrit wanted to take James to dinner at his parents' house, which made the Colombian more nervous than a World Cup match.

 

“So what was it that Zinedine wanted?” Cris asked Leo as the Argentine dressed up in white pajamas.

         “I don’t know. He didn’t receive me today. He left me waiting all the time and at the last minute he apologized. We'll have to leave it for another day, flea. And he smiled at me!” Leo impression of Zise was way too accurate for the taste of Cris, who was now pale white in something near fear. His check started to prick. “Who does that? I don’t know what was so important, but if I needed to get out of the damn training. Argh! And I haven’t been the only one, let me tell you that shit! James and Álvaro have been summoned and they have been attended to. This idiocy must end. Just because I'm gay has the right to treat me the way he does.”

         “You’re gay?”

         Leo turned to face Cris and raised an eyebrow while smiling in a half-moon style. His hair was loose and still wet by the shower. Lionel looked so good without the shirt and the hair like that. Cris felt something rest hard in-between his thighs, Leo saw that and his smile just turned wider.

         “Well--- yeah. I guess. I mean, isn’t our relation homosexual?” Lionel climbed onto the bed and advanced in four to Cris. While speaking, his hand removed Cristiano's underwear, exposing the Tower of Pisa slowly bending over to the side. The touch of Leo was soft and warm, going up and down along the cock body.

         “Yeah, but that does not makes us homosexuals, does it?” It was hard to talk trying not to moan. Not because Leo had magical hands, he had them, but because of the habit of moaning for the pleasure of his little lion.

         “Er--- you’re getting the reality wrong,” the Argentine said before swallowing whole the member of Cris, whom gasped fully letting himself go.

         “Oh, am I?” he managed to say while Andrés’ tongue licked across and around his cock head. Leo tried to pull off, but Cristiano held him where he was with a hand pressed hard on the nape of his lover, who started shocking. Ronaldo did not let go, pressing harder and moving his hips in slow throbbing. Lionel clung with fiery fingers into Ronaldo’s thighs.

         When Ronaldo released Leo, he took the opportunity to throw his head back, hair sliding on his back and a trickle of saliva connecting his lips and Cristiano's penis by means of a glass bridge, and breathed. His face of pleasure when receiving his first fresh puffs in a while put Cris harder. “Yes,” said the Argentine wheezy, smiling and wiping his lip with the thumb

         “What you gonna do about it, punk?” Cris raised his hips so Leo’s face could be closer to his cock. Lionel just smiled and grabbed the dick, hand moving fast.

         “Punk? Who’re you? Dirty Harry?”

         “I--- no--- I was actually going for a Harrison Ford kind of thing. Maybe Han Solo, or well--- don’t know for sure anymore.”

         “Well, try harder next time. As now you sounded like an ill Billy Joel.”

          Leo pushed Cris back to the bed and proceeded to ride him.

 

Cris was now asleep, one of the first nights since the fire that Leo had seen him truly rest so Andrés took his time to watch Ronaldo in his dream, beautiful as always. Many nights of this I wish the skies for you, I pray to the flowers to guard your dreams for their smell heal the far hidden wounds.

         Sometime later Leo walked out of the room and left Cristiano sleep. Álvaro was asleep in the couch, the TV still on. Lionel turned the screen off and then walked towards the kitchen, the light there was paler than in any other room in the house. The table was nice and comfy for work.

         Leo left his laptop on the table and then poured himself a drink of lemonade from the fridge.

         Fifteen minutes later the Word document was still blank. Leo had previously thought and wrote and outline in one of his note books, the ones that the fire eagerly ate. The story was still fresh in his mind, as the outline had been worked on several times. Yet, one thing was to know how to story would play out, and other to know how to begin.

         Oh, just shake it off and start. It shouldn’t be this hard anymore. Just shake off the fear.

 

Dust had not ended to settle when the blood was already dry on the wooden floor. Neither the night had come, nor was the sun gone. It was the hour of the day when the city was sunk in limbo. The children were still running through the streets and people were walking on the sidewalks. A car -an old 1996 green Chrysler- turned left at a corner, disappearing into the heat of the city.

Berta Ameres was one of the few people who paid attention to the old car. The others were Ricardo, a senile man without a hint of grace, and Daniela, a nine-year-old girl destined to fade into oblivion that very day.

Returning home, walking slowly, Berta thought about how to talk to her partner to tell her about her dismissal from work.

 

         Well, that was a star for sure. And as the night went by Leo started to feel better at what he was writing. It was not the Odyssey, but it felt right. And hour passed by with Lionel making slow but sure progress. It was very different from writing poems, but not extremely hard. It was just that not all the words seem right the first time around.

 

With constancy came the memories of when they went together to see the skeleton of the whale. Danya and Eros walking together, almost touching but not reaching. Walking on the sidewalk under the inclement sun. Later that night, Eros would apply egg white to Danya on the burned skin of her neck. When the sticky sensation was too uncomfortable to bear, Eros would clean the white and put in its place an ointment used for babies when they were rubbed. That would work better.

Despite the discomfort, Danya would not regret having spent those hours walking in the sun going from one museum to another. Seeing floats, rifles, cells, models, and fossils. That had also been the first day that Danya and Eros had tasted a good ramen.

In the past, the closest thing to noodles had been instant soup. And while it was one of his favorite junk food, after a while they got fed up with the invariable flavor. Neither soy sauce nor lemon managed to alter the synthetic taste by more accompanied by hot sauce than outside.

Last July, when Danya was still painting her room and all her things were out of it, she and Eros had sat in the living room eating instant soup that promised to be an extra spicy demon. To make it more interesting, they had given the food a good amount of extra hot spicy.

Of course, the burning did not compare to the spicy wings that had been collected in La Capital one winter night. That time they had walked to the store after ordering the food over the phone. The walk had been something to enjoy. And the old city had a special charm. Danya would remember forever the first time she had looked at the sky of La Capital, a lighter blue than Rosario's. A blue that hurt to see. The air also had a different taste, sweeter and fresher.

Blue like the coconut water that was sold in a Market Place next to the Dancing fountains in the Downtown. Who would say that the coconut water in La Capital would be blue? It was a special city, indeed. Wherever you looked at there was a special detail with which to be enraptured. Whether it was the hotel that reminded Danya so much of a bunch of legos about to fall or the small sidewalks.

When Danya set foot for the first time in the house of Eros, a feeling of belonging grew in her. They slept separated by a room. Eros, the first day, fell asleep on Danya's legs while watching a movie.

        

         Now, that was something. It still needed a lot of work but it was a good start. All great things started in less impeccable things. This was just the first draw. Everything could be improved.  Just as he had worked on his poems, writing and rewriting again and again.

 

That July day they had left the house early under a sun of justice.

Danya in her life had even seen a whale or, at least, not up close. A long time ago, in Necochea, a small boat full of tourists was lucky to cross in the path of some whales. But that left only photos lacking a memory to associate them with. It was like looking through the files of some stranger. And although Danya remembered the flavor and aroma of the sea, it was due to a return to the sea, from Caleta Olivia this time, more recent. Therefore, being in front of a skeleton that occupied a room larger than his house, was quite an impression. She did not feel fear, but a deep fascination. That skeleton had been in the city for years and had once heard of it through the best friend of his childhood. However, in all the years since that day, she had not given her the opportunity to enter that museum. Until now.

Eros, at her side and with a half-moon smile, also looked at the skeleton. He had let out an exclamation when he saw it. If it impressed him as much as Danya, it was a mystery. However, it was by far the most amazing sight that day. Even more than the mammoth bones on the lower floor. Danya was unaware if Eros had ever been, or seen, an elephant. Danya had, as a child. The mammoth, its skeleton, was beautiful and had its charm, but it made no greater impression on it than the elephant seen so many years ago. The whale, on the other hand, was a cathartic experience to which she had no explanation. Simple and simply there was a sense of accomplishment in there.

 

         Tired and with his eyes about to close for sleep, Leo kept the document, but not before thinking of a title for the work in progress.

 

Layers at Night

By Leo Messi

    

         No, that did not sound quite right. It was fine in the football world but not for a book.

 

Layers at Night

By Lionel Andrés Messi

 

         That was better. At least for the manuscript.

 

Iker felt useless. He could not recall a damn thing about his attackers. Those memories were messy and foggy. Faces did not come to him, even if he put all of his effort. Nothing at all. The police had told him to take his time, the case was still open. Of course, it was probably that those fuckers –the attackers– were not in Oporto.

         “No pressure at all,” Ike said after the police was gone and he and Sara were finally alone. She sat next to him and gentle reclined her head on his chest. Iker hugged with one arm. “You look tired, wanna call it for today?”

         “Only if we sleep together.”

         “Dear, I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”

 

“Look, it’s not that much.”

         “You’re asking him to expose his life, that’s too much for any to give willingly,” Álvaro was truly upset at Cris suggestion to James who was still silent and with a look way to serious that did not match the Colombian face at all.

         “Álvaro, I appreciate all you’ve done for us---”

         “Stop that now, bloody hell. He’s a boy, for---”

         “Boy?” the roughness in James’s voice took all by surprise, even his boyfriend Ifrit. “Is that how you see me? A boy? Must I understand by that that I’m clueless and an easy target?”

         “No. it means the world will eat your heart out and spit it in such a fashion that will destroy you. Don’t you get it? We’re bloody famous and have little privacy left. To expose this, if you’re not truly ready, would make your life harder than it has to.”

         “Álvaro is right, m’dear. You shouldn’t if you’re not ready to lose this little peace we have.”

         “Peace? There’s photos of us, not very discrete ones, in some media by now. They hadn’t been that talked thanks to Cris and Leo drama. No offense, but it is a drama.”

         “Whatever happened to the shy guy from the locker room?” Leo asked in a well faked out gasp.

         “Look all that’s bloody bad. Alright? We get it, you’re exposed by now. However, however, as you just said it, you’re not that truly exposed. I wouldn’t have known if it hadn’t been for you. Don’t you see it? There’s still plenty of---”

         “No, Ál. Thanks, but no. Once online it is forever there. It’s just a matter of time before they claim a top spot. Once the fire thing is relegated to a ‘do you remember’ kind of thing. I--- I want to accept Cristiano proposal. We need to create a possibility of equality and acceptance for people like us in every aspect of life. Perhaps we could make a difference, a true start for gay people in football to be, you know, out of the closet and be no ashamed for it.”

         “Huh. Look what a little driving help does. I’m proud of you, kiddo.”

         James smiled back to Álvaro, while Ifrit just moved in his seat.

         “Right. Then listen,” Cris began explaining his plan.

 

“It’s risky,” Bale was saying to Cris as they walked through the Parque Berlín, “but’s worth the damn try.”

 

Leo was waiting for Zinedine, trying his best not to lose his temper as the couch simply was doing some stupid and irrelevant shit just to not attend Lionel. Just receive the fucking scold and take it like a man and this will soon be over. This doesn’t has to be a nightmare at all for any of us. Just nod and that’s all.

         Zinedine did not show until an hour and a half later than he had cited Leo to be at his office. Lionel did not say a thing about it that was not good and pleasant words. Zinedine talked about a lot of things, going from one theme to the other regardless of the time quickly passing by.

         Suddenly the other man caught Leo by surprise by letting out a gentle laugh. “Now, this is what I’ve wanted to talk about,” as he talked Leo’s heartbeat became a storm of mixed feelings. By the time Zinedine finished, all Lionel could say was:

         “You’re trading me where?”

Chapter Text

Zinedine steeped out in a hurry covering his nose and looking over his shoulder constantly, there was something odd about the hand Zinedine used to cover his nose, but Cristiano could not figure out what was it. Soon after Zinedine entrance came out Lionel, face red in anger. Screaming. “Got anymore jokes, fucker?!”

       Cris stood still looking at the smaller man walk in a rage towards Zinedine, even more when the later ran terrified at the vision of the Argentinean shortening the distance that separated them. It was then that Cris realized what was it with Zise’s hand, it was painted red with blood. So was the knuckles of Leo’s right hand, which was tight in a tense fist.

       “GET THAT MAN AWAY FROM ME!”

       As Leo passed by, Cristiano grabbed him by the arm and pulled until his arms surrounded an angry man that debated himself between kicks and bites to get free. “I’ll teach him not fuck with anyone! Let go, Cris! He’s got it coming! Let fucking go!”

       “I can’t! He’ll find a way to get you out of the team! I can’t lose you to something this stupid, stay still, bloody hell!”

       “He has already done it, damn it! I’m back to Barça!”

       While Lionel screamed out that last line, Bale, Isco, Marcelo, James, Álvaro and others had approached in amazement at the sight of Leo screaming out loud, Zinedine was way out of reach, around the corner of some corridor was the last time Cristiano saw him that day. They all stood there, eyes wide open and fearful to approach the lovers. Leo continued to fight his way to free himself, his efforts were getting less powerful and frequent as Cris lowered them both to the ground, where they sat crying their hearts out for everyone to see.

       I don’t care Cris said to himself while he clung to Andrés like a castaway would do it to a raft in the middle of a storm on the high seas, I’ve lost it all. I don’t care to lose what’s left of my pride.

       Leo returned the embrace and rested his face, did not hid it, while silver rivers crossed his cheeks. Cristiano felt the same kind of rivers furrowing his face and falling on his lover hair. Cris closed his eyes and sobbed. Light seemed to fade out, leaving them in a warm darkness.

       When opening once again his eyes, he and Leo were surrounded by all of their friends and partners.

       “Thank you all,” he whispered and felt the embrace grow tighter.

 

“Calm down, please,” Cristiano gently pressed Lionel shoulders with both hands, preventing him from getting back out of the chair. That’s when Álvaro came with cups filled with tea.

       “He had it coming,” commented the Spaniard with a tone that anyone would use to talk about how nice the weather is. Most of the afternoon he had spent with a dreamy smile that did not quite reach his eyes.

       “I know, but there’s no need to turn this into Chicago, for Christ’s fucking sake! Er--- thank you for the tea. Take a sip, dear.”

       “Wish I had done more than broke his nose.”

       “Had you done more we’ll be having a demand in our hands---”

       “No, you wouldn’t. In any case, you’re the ones that can sue him for what he had done in the past and now.”

       “I just want to beat the living shit out of him. It’s fair. He had it coming,” Andrés smiled, a sinister smile full of complicity that he shared with Álvaro. Cris had chills.

 

“When are you leaving?” asked Cris later that night in their bedroom. His voice was tight, forced, as he tried hard not to burst into tears. Had the world always been so gray despite all the light around it? Cristiano could not remember clearly.

       “Don’t weep for me.”

       “It’s not so much for you as it is for us.”

       “What do you mean?”

       “I don’t think we can handle the distance, you know? Going back and forth just to see you, just to breathe you. This ain’t bloody right. I didn’t ask to be in this lift.”

       “We’ll have to--- ugh, we’ll have to acclimate to this. I didn’t wanted to be in this elevator either, but as for now there’s nothing we can---”

       “Don’t you fear for us to fall apart?!”

       A long silence, Cris hadn’t realized how loud he had shout until his throat burned in agony.

       “I do. Yet fear won’t take us anywhere. If it has to end, it will.”

       “How can you say that?” tears were now falling down Cristiano cheeks, chest pounding in a pain only felt once, back then when she went away. Now, “bloody blaugrana,” the word came out with rancor, bitterness, a poison too strong for anyone to hold in and not be endangered just by the smell of it.

       “I know for sure you didn’t mean that.”

       “And what if I--- No, let go of me!! Stop kissing me bloody culé!! LET GO OFF--- Stop doing that! Stop--- please.”

       “I might be wearing white, or white with blue stripes, or blue stripes with red ones, even yellow and orange, why not pink or black or the bluest blue of them all; yet the colors of my heart are the ones of your skin. I’ll never stop loving you, burn me if I do! I rather drop dead in the spot that stop loving you. It may be selfish for my part, but to see you in other arms that ain’t mine would kill me. I’ll go back to Barcelona, once again, and find out a way out of this.”

       “Then I’ll come with you!”

       “No, my dear. Er, how are the words I’m looking for? Ah! luz valiosa do meu coração desconhecido, I love you. Now and always. But this I have to do it alone. For us. For me.”

       “When are you leaving?” Cris asked once more with a clear broken voice which sunk Leo’s heart into the deepest darkness. Be a man about this, Andrés.

       “Tomorrow, in the afternoon.”

       Cris waited until his tears were wiped away by Leo’s touch before speaking once more. “Then I’ve enough time to turn this around for good. Will you do something for me? I can’t tell you what, but this may change everything for good.”

       “Of course.”

 

The night went on slow with neither Cris or Leo nor Ál getting any rest.

       Cristiano hugged Lionel tight, the first one nose was buried between the long waves of that dark argentine sea. The smell of vanilla and oak was strong and sweet, a drug that make his mind fly away to more pleasant times, before the accident and some after it. There were good times among the mist.

       “I love the way you smell.”

       “I love you.”

       “I know.”

       “Until the end.”

       “I know.”

       Álvaro did not want to sleep at all. Dreams had not been pleasant at all. In those he saw Alice walking along path alone, from her navel flowered two white roses but she always looked sad despite the beautiful garden in her belly. A gray shadow preceded her, getting darker and darker in the road left behind. Álvaro could not stand to see her sad, not even in his dreams.

       Since she was gone, he had spent all his phone plan on call after call. To The point where she asked him to stop, not in ager or desperation, but because the situation demanded so. Alice was not gone for pleasure, it had to be with his education and business.

       But Álvaro missed her, and wanted so much to see her once more. That was a feeling he could not shake off at all. Maybe it had to be with what was kept safe in one of his drawers, waiting for Alice to return.

       A feeling of loss hung deeply in the air.

 

Over the next days after Leo went away, Bale came to talk with Cris a few times –shouting would be a better way to expose it– about the latter missing most of the trainings. And, at one point, about Cris new delight for beer. Which was a truth exposed by Álvaro.

       Cristiano had finally moved out, going to a nice flat close to the Bernabéu. But still he was missing most of the trainings.

       “You have a really high profile to maintain. Is it that you care no more for it?”

       “Bale, stop. You know it’s not that---”

       “Don’t give fake allegories! This is bullocks and you know it. I know everything blows ass, but you can’t keep doing this. Why lose the job of your life? You’ve worked so hard for it.”

       “Aye, I’ve worked for it. So don’t come here telling what I’m losing. I do know what’s going to be left out of the picture.”

       “Then why are you doing this?”

       “Isn’t it obvious? If you’re straight and in love with a woman, even if that relations sucks to the core, you’re just fine. However, the moment you kiss another man because of true love, suddenly you’re wrong and deserve to be traded as a bloody goat for a few bucks. In a world like that how much can my whole work truly be worth?”

       “Less if you keep missing.”

       “I will. Please understand. I need to fix this world so others can have a chance. So I can have it.”

        “You still want me to help in your campaign?”

       “Aye.”

       “Well then, Captain Trips. Then you won’t be missing any trainings from now on. Go on and fix the world as you may like it to be shaped, but don’t neglect the one you’ve already built.”

       James was taken to Zise office, threatened and then went on to film Cris TV spot. The shooting week was long and full of reshoots. Not because James was a bad actor, not that he was any good –if doubts remained–, but rather Cristiano was hard to satisfy regarding the lines and the way they spoken. Ifrit had to leave the set on more than one occasion, exhausted and at the brink of rage. Who wouldn’t have James thought when you’re force to do the same more than fifty times in a row?

       “It’s not a film, Cristiano!” had shout Bale one time, he was also getting sick of it.

       On the other hand, James felt good doing so. He kind of understood why Cristiano wanted this to be perfect. James wanted the same, even though he did not say that out loud. Staying late at night just for reshoots was no sane thing after all.

       “You can have the number 10 back on you back, boy, think about it,” Zinedine with dead eyes and a cat-like-smile, the smile of thieves and liars on lairs.

       “No thanks, number 11 suits me well.”

       “Think about it, don’t rush any decision.”

       “I’m not rushing. That’s my call. Thank you, but no thank you.”

Lionel went silent for a while, then came back cold as ice, which made Ronaldo hit harder the drink. Álvaro screamed to Lionel over the phone, the same as Neymar did.

 

They were at the airport. Leo’s flight was already being boarded. The men that came with Cris where at the distance, waiting. Álvaro seemed uncomfortable. And Lionel feel that way too. Had he say no, what would have Cris done?

       “I don’t like waving goodbye to a friend. Be a good man, the best you can be. And fight hard, we’ll be waiting here for you.”

       A hug, a simple hug that felt so warm.

       “Thanks, Ál. Take care of him for me, will you?”

       “Aye, will do.”

       Then came Cris, who with the wave of a hand gave the signal the men were waiting for.

       “Leo,---”

       The plane had taken off. Land became smaller and clouds were soon towering over the mountains. Madrid was behind and the horizon only promised future days of salty air in Barcelona.

       I’ll break them all. What would Cris do with what he has?

       Lionel thought once again of their departure.

       Soon I’ll find out. Now, what to do next?

Chapter Text

Night was supposed to be colder in the city near the sea. And yet a lot of people –whom recognized and approached him for photos, autographs and a lot of other stuff, much as they did with Neymar when the Brazilian went to Madrid– were walking around in shorts as if summer was still around. Some whispered skintrader as soon as they turned their backs on him. Leo heart ached at that. Others screamed at him Bloody Blanco! Leo did not flinch, despite burning in anger inside. Lionel was not in a mood for this now; the insults and flattery, the flash of the cameras, the smiles and obscene hand gestures. However, this people was not to blame for what had happened to him. They did not deserve to be treated as shit, no matter how many treated him in that way.

         Turn the other cheek, we all do things that we regret.

         Much like Iker was the one to come for him when Lionel arrived at Madrid, Iniesta came to pick Leo up. The man was wearing green sun glasses, despite the day being pale as smoke. Seeing Iniesta in that was oddly funny.

         “It’s good to see you again, Leo, welcome home.”

         Sometimes words felt sharper than any blade, whether they were intended to be that way or that it just happen to shape up like it because of Leo’s emotion was something to be thought of once in bed, in the comfy loneliness of darkness and self-awareness.

         It was how things turned out to be. Iniesta was doing almost the same thing Iker did that day. Lionel did not stay behind, as he was now doing the same thing as before, paying little to none attention to what Andrés was telling him, nodding when it seemed appropriate and asking politely “is it?” or “for real?” when it felt right. Iniesta did not notice or simply could not care less.

         “Does Neymar knows?” Leo asked when his mind catch up with the last words spoken by his ex-now-captain.

         “Um, yeah. Why wouldn’t he?”

         “Kinda of Déjà vu all this part.”

         “What do you mean?”

         “Short story?”

         “If that pleases you.”

         “Just to save us some time. When I arrived in Madrid Cris didn’t know that I would stay to live for a while in his house. He was angry. Mad. Like really pissed off, you know?”

         “Well, los blancos aren’t the most stable people, you know?”

         “Neither are the blaugranas.”

         “Leo, c’mon. You’re here now. You’re one of us once more. We’re family. Your flesh is red and your blood is blue.”

         “They’re also my family,” kind of “I don’t want to be thought of as white and blue, nor white or blue and red. I’m me. My colors are unique and common. That’s the way I’d          like people to think of me, what I’d like them to see when they stare at me.”

         Leo’s luggage contained only clothes and some brand new books and the laptop. Most of this stuff was still in Madrid under Álvaro’s protection. Cristiano had promised to find a home, never mind if it had to be an apartment for the time being. Ál said nothing about that.

         “I don’t want a party,” Leo hissed to Iniesta after holding the man into getting inside Neymar’s house. Leo’s grasp was harsh on his captain arm.

         “Well, mate, you don’t have that much of a choice.”

         “Ugh, no, you don’t understand--- wait a bloody damn second, for how long have all you know of me coming back?”

         “Um, just a few hours before your flight arrived.”

         “Fucking hell,” it came out as a whisper, the kind of whisper that was more fitting for a cub lion while making a tantrum.

         “Shut up, Leo. Look, we all worked hard for this. So get your ass inside and enjoy it. Not for the sakes of you being part of Barça again, which wouldn’t be bad, but for all of us; friends that saw you grow here and back there. Besides, it’s the only night I won’t be upon their arses controlling what the heck they eat. It will be a hard night for me too, God just to think about what are they going to eat--- fuck. It almost makes me regret this. Oh, but I will burst their arses in training. That I promise.”

         “Ugh. Fine. For the old times. If you go through hell so can I.”

         “That’s more like it. Now smile more, talk less.”

         “Have you been listening to Hamilton?”

         Iniesta gave him a dead stare alongside a cryptic lip movement. “Get in the party, Lionel.”

         Just as Leo stepped in the loud noise of a cheer made him shiver. He faked a smile, not that he was not happy to see all of his pals, but rather because he did not want to make them think he was there to stay.

         Soon after the greetings, hugs and smiles, everyone went right unto what they were doing before. Some stayed behind with Leo, asking a lot about Cristiano and Lionel.

         “How does that work?”

         “What were you t’inking? If ya gonna screw another ma’ don’t ya t’ink ya could do bettar?”

         “Look, I know it’s your life and all. But I gotta know, man, here there been rumors that that relation is pure bullshit. I kinda believe it back then, you know, just like a way of making propaganda for los bl---Madrid! But---”

         “Oh, boy, I remember that game in Basel. That dork truly went straight to kick that poor bastard, 13th! As it the number wasn’t bad luck in itself!! HA! And that dork of yours went just straight to kill! And Ramos!? Oh my fucking hat! I thought him a fighter and he just stood there as a princess next to you! What a waste of muscles, if you ask me! What I wanna know if, at that moment you and Ronaldo were together?” Claudio finally stops and Leo just thinks Yeah, I too thought Sergio was a fighter. But being there the time I been there, Bale is the fierce one. The spark in the gunpowder barrel.

         “No, we weren’t. Not even truly working things right then,” Leo says while truly smiling for the first time in the day. A nostalgic smile, the ones he always did. Lionel stops dead frozen when he realizes he had taken a hand to the lobe of his ear. How long had it been since the last time he did that?

         Vidal and Mascherano talked drink along Lionel too, everyone expressing how happy they’re to have him back. And Leo knows it’s true, but he also can feels there’s something off in those statements. As if they did not really want him to be there?

         Dani and Piqué said not much, the attention of those two is completely focused on the FIFA game. Dani plays proudly with a character dressed in white with the number 10 at the dorsal and Leo can help but blush at seeing his friend playing him. Piqué plays as Barça, which truly raises no surprise whatsoever in Messi.

         The world is constantly changing, yet some of us refuse to change at all in the smallest things.

         “You have Ronaldo, I get Messi, we’re even.”

         “But it’s not the same, Leo is better and I hate Ronaldo. I don’t want to play now.”

         Neymar had dyed his hair blond and Leo could not help but think that had he remained in Barcelona, he would have done the same.

         “It suits you, no really, I mean it.”

         “So would you---?”

         “Are you crazy? With all this hair? I’ll be damn.”

         “Then I don’t look that---”

         “Don’t you dare pulling that card on me, Ney! The saiyan look just wouldn’t look as good in this mess of a hair.”

         “It’s a nice hair, Lio,” Luis says while passing by in his way to a bowl full of chips.

         “Say, you wanna go out and have a drink?” Neymar whispered into Leo’s ear.

         The night was fresh and helped Leo to calm his thoughts. Ney was chatting things which seemed alright but not of heavy importance. Just a distraction, Lionel came to decide. A good friend comes in need. From inside the house came the noises of the party as a distant rumor from thunder rains.

         “I’m glad you’re walking free again.”

         “Thanks, I loved the cane, by the way. I’m sorry it’s now lost.”

         “Yeah, it was a true piece of art.”

         “I wouldn’t call it art, but pretty it was.”

         “Why wouldn’t you call it art?”

         “Would you do so to a cup with Gioconda’s face?”

         “Er--- not really. I’ll call that a cup. But the cane was art.”

         Leo laughed softly and padded Ney on the shoulder. Being smaller just for a few inches, Leo was grateful for not having to bend the head backwards while talking to someone for a change. “Art is not supposed to be used in such frivolous ways, doing so it’s just mischievous. You can buy one of those fancy Mexican clay mugs and exhibit them in a museum, yet that doesn’t make them art; just handicrafts. That was the cane, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever own, but just a handicraft. I’m sorry it’s lost.”

         “Aw, don’t worry about it bro. Things come and go. All I care for is your wellbeing. And that Cristiano too. I like that man.”

         “Sure you do. Ever since you two got drunk on Christmas. Funny, right? You like Cris since Christmas.”

         Neymar glanced him like a fish staring at an apple. “Sometimes I don’t get your references, man. You’re too way out of my league. But hey, I still play the piano better than you, bro!”

         “Only in your deepest dreams, and sure you think you can act better just for being in your underwear for some comercials!”

         “Well, if being sassy is the lawful good nowadays, at least I didn’t cross-dress as an old woman for an airplane!”

         “It was the performance of my life, let me tell you that!”

         They both laughed and embraced, enjoying both their company and the warmth of a body. “I missed you, Lio.”

         “Me too, buddy. I just wish---”

         “Whatever you have to say save it for tomorrow when we’re alone. They all suspect by now, but it’s not right to spoil their fun.”

         “You’re right, damn right. What would I do without you?”

         “Probably crawl back to Cristiano’s lap. Now come, let’s have some fun. You need to lift that weight, boy.”

 

The suitcases were now in a corner of Neymar’s house. The Brazilian was in a truly blast because of Leo, smiling and making food that smelled way too good but looked just alright. Ney moved from one place to other, walking fast from the stove to the cupboard then turning back to face Andrés and ask some questions about Iniesta. Their Lord Captain Commander had left as soon as the last of Leo’s suitcases was inside the living room after last night party. Neymar took Leo to the kitchen first hour in the morning –the Brazilian did not seem to have a hangover in spite of having put himself like a Cuba last night. Perhaps he’s still drunk--- I think am a bit drunk– and started making breakfast and talking big time. Happier than having won a World Cup, for sure--- alright, maybe not that happy, geez I must be truly drunk.

         When Lionel tried to help him cook, Ney hit him with a wooden spoon dirty with sauce in the hand. Leo shook his hand in pain, absently smiling. “You don’t need to be that rude.”

         “Don’t mess my food, Leo, I’m cooking because this is a special occasion. Don’t mess---”

         “I get it, geez!”

         The kitchen was starting to look like a mess, as if a children had decided to prepare breakfast for his sleeping mother. María would have had a heart attack just by looking at how many pans Neymar had used to prepare a Marinara.

         Speaking about the woman, Leo could felt great shame. He had not thought of her before, not how she was doing or if she felt guilty about the fire. Lionel did think about her once in a while, but never in a fashion to tell how was she doing. That always remained away from him. Most of his time he had spent it thinking about Cristiano and the proper ways to help his husband.

         Lionel only started to think about her at that moment, even when he just see her earlier.

         María had paid them a visit just before the three musketeers abandoned Ál’s house to go to the airport. The woman was a bit fat, proof that she had not worked since the burning of Cristiano’s house. Why that was, was a subject no one dared to ask. She cried for Leo, and for Cris too. But mostly for Lionel alone, he thought.

         That woman is almost like a second mother to us. She has no fault in what happened, of that I am sure.

         “I heard your trainer had a bad time, broken nose or something like that. Wouldn’t you happen to know what occurred to him?”

         “Aye, a fight with an angry bar tender, for what I heard,” Leo smiled as he rubbed his hand distractedly.

         “Are you ready for training?” Neymar said while putting the dishes in the sink. Leo looked at him not knowing how to start, Ney just winked at him and smiled. A crooked smile that was truly terrifying in that brown face of his.

         “Um, I don’t plan to stay that long.”

         “I know you ain’t. We all know you won’t be here to stay! Even the most docile lion in the pack tends to show fangs from time to time. We’ve been kinda of expecting the time for you to finally stand up and fight. And for what I can tell, it has begun. Finally. So, how can I help you go back home?”

         “Why you call it home?”

         “Home is whenever the heart is and I knew for sure where’s yours. Tell me, what’s that on your hand?”

         Leo was taken by surprise and lowered his face slowly the face his hand, dreading am an insect on his limb. His gaze met the wooden ring. Lionel smiled, remembering a cellphone call from a long time ago.

         “What is is,” Lionel said while smiling in a deep voice that almost crossed the line between a shy speech and a whisper.

         “I'll help you the way I can do so. Don’t get me wrong, I'd rather see you here playing home. But this ain’t you anymore. We'll get you home, Leo. You’re not alone.”

         “Now I know, God struck me down for being to idiotic to realize. But now I know. Thanks.”

         “Don’t thank me yet, vale?”

         “Vale,” both of them smiling. God it felt good to smile and not being fake or forced grins! “there’s too much to do.”

         “Then let’s eat, shall we? After we can start whatever plan you got to strike down upon them with your anger. I think I know how to help, but enough of that. Let’s eat!”

 

What remained of the house were four blackened pillars and the half-half of a wall that used to carry a lot of jerseys. All those clothes were now gone. The wind had carried them away. Walking among the rest was strictly forbidden. But Cristiano could not care at all about it. He moved slowly to avoid falling and injuries.

         The stairs had crumbled down when the roof fell, that was what the firemen said. The living room was buried beneath crumbles. So was the kitchen. Everywhere could be seen broken pieces of glass, yet none of them shined dirty from dust, mud, and smoke as they were. But you could see they were glasses. That was the few things that could survive a fire.

         Crying was of no use, yet Cristiano could not help it. He stood there among the ashes of a lifetime and with a hand covering half his face he mourned all his past with no one to disturb his weeping pain.

         The pool was filled not with water but rocks and wires and thick mud.

         It’s not lost, just distorted. Everything can be saved.

         No, it can't.

         Why not?

         Bury this past and build something where you both can live as one.

 

“If the light will see in the light will be,” was all Lionel could say without sounding like a boor. In the tone of Cristiano, a strange and doughy pattern was detected, similar to the way of speaking of those who are torn between sleep and consciousness. Leo felt strange listening to that particular form of speech in Cris, but he had to ignore it, at least for the moment. Just when I intend to help him out of that hole where he fell, they transfer me. What am I supposed to say over the distance? ‘It’ll all become normal once more?’ Cristiano lost it all, what could possibly Leo said to make him feel better. What to do?

         “Meaning?” Cris voice sounded off over the phone. Ál had said nothing of this behavior. Actually, Álvaro had remained awkwardly quiet about Cristiano. Leo knew Ál was not that fan at all of Cris, yet then again they’re were getting along before the fire. Is it really coming to the point of blaming the fire for every single thing? Wouldn’t it be better to paste a sticker on our fronts so that everyone knows? What purpose? It’s almost like planting a sign with the word ‘Water’ in the actual center of a lake! Of course there’ll be fucking water, you cunt!

         “Meaning that we’ll harvest our own harvest. Cris what---?”

         “Went to what remains. Mostly dust and ashes. Black rocks. Burned fabric and glass. Tears too. Lots of them,” his voice sounded unsteady, almost as if he had been “drinking? Aye, a bit. Few cans now and then. Why?”

         “I just--- isn’t Álvaro there?”

         “Er--- He's aumm--- he’s on the kitchen. He doesn’t want me here no more. Not even as a visit. Which I understand.”

         “Then change.”

         “How dare you?”

         “For both of us?”

         “Need to think---”

         “Really?”

         “Yeah, sort of. Look it’s not the right---”

         “So basically just fuck it, right? Everything. Just fuck it all and fucking give up.”

         “You’re one to talk.”

         “I’m going to pretend I---”

         “Don’t pretend. You hear it. And I’m sorry for it. Won’t blame alcohol or being tired. But I am tired. And durnk. Drunk. D-runk. There, that’s the right one.”

         “I wish I was there.”

         “Wish you were here too. To drink with me.”

         “Cris---”

         “’Cause let’s be honest. Y-ou’re just too tiny to stop me. Me? I’m tall, strong---”

         “Handsome and tan?”

         Cris laughed. “Aye. I love you.”

         “Love you too, dear.”

         A sigh as sailing weaves. “What did I do to deserve all of you?

         “You kissed me, can’t you remember?”

         “And you told me it was pronounced ‘Messi’ and that I’ll get there.”

         Now it was the turn for Leo to laugh and spear some tears, “yeah, I did, didn’t I?”

         “Aye, you did, meu amor.” More laughs. “Leo?”

         “Yeah?”

         “Are we there yet?”

         A pause perfect for crickets to sing and night to gently blow. “Almost there. Almost there.”

 

“Your medical examination has been canceled, and the News are already talking about it, they're like flies going for a pot of sugar or a bunch of dogs fighting over a piece of meat,” Iniesta said as if he were talking about a warm climate, or a good joke.

         “Technically now there’s no turning back. I mean, you could but you get the idea,” Ney said.

         “Are you still sure about this?” asked Luis.

         “Totally. What about you all? Are you still willing to lose me once more?”

         “A flea is fun for a while, but soon monopolizes all the attention. We also need to succeed!” Piqué expressed. “We’ll be as fine as you’ll be.”

         “I love you, guys. Best friends you could ask.”

         “We know, Lio,” Ney once again “now let’s go.”

         “I owe you all,” Leo said while getting closer to them.

         “You don’t owe a darn thing, you hear me boy? You owe nothing, on the other hand Neymar does owes me a training. Don’t think all forget all those beers and your day off. I’ll make you bleed you. Now off you go.”

         Neymar was gasping just as a fish would do out of water in search of oxygen. Funny sight. “I love you, guys.” Leo finished as he hugged them all in a group embrace. Then it was time to go whenever Neymar was taking him. Leo could not stop hearing some wheels turning inside his mind. It was time.

 

"Well Mr. Messi, your problem is difficult, but nothing that cannot be solved. Now, please tell me, if it's not indiscretion, why have you decided to take action on the matter now? Why not before?”

         Ennio was tall and broad-bodied by muscles, his eyes were of a deep color only overshadowed by the well cut black hair combed to the side. A strong square jaw accompanied by thick lips under a hulking and powerful nose completed a face at once affable and hard. Ennio's voice was serious but delicate, the man knew how to modulate it, that's was for sure. Coarse eyebrows moved to express so many different emotions that Leo forced himself every now and then to look away from them. They were simply hypnotic.

         “Er --- well, everything was fine for a while. I adapted to my new life and began to enjoy it. At the time it was a family situation, let's say it like that.”

         “An illegal situation, are we in agreement? Otherwise this sounds way too much like Stockholm Syndrom.”

         Well that’s going way too far, isn’t? Leo bit his lip internally before any answer, “It is, well, but as I say, despite the forgery and identity theft, I didn’t consider such a solution at the time. In those moments I came to surrender, after all it was already done. Now this is a problem that transcends my person. It’s right. I feel that it isn’t so much a family dispute anymore. It's something that now truly about work nature.”

         “It was always something about that, Mr. Messi, if you allow me to say it. However, I understand your point. Regarding your father, I mean. Nonetheless, I believe you remember a couple of years ago you had legal problems because of your father. I do not say this for you to hate him---”

         “For that I don’t lack motives.”

         “--- but to understand that if we take Zinedine to trial, then your father must also enter the lawsuit.”

         Lionel thought the consequences. I did not want an evil for them, I just wanted justice.

         “Tell me, is there some way in which this--- um---, well I-I don’t know how to explain it.”

         "You have rights and laws protecting you. What they did to you was, and it still is, illegal. You signed that first contract without knowing what it was, you were cheated and maybe that is the biggest problem when it comes to presenting evidence and winning, but there are no such impossible cases. There’re hard as diamond cases, but that’s a matter that doesn’t concern you for the time being. Now, this new transfer was made without your consent, the signature that should have been used for your contract was obtained illegally. You are not a slave to be moved from master to master right and left under water as fruit on display for the best restaurant. I need you to understand that.

         “When we go to court you won’t be staring at your father, do not think about him as the enemy, leave that for your home troubles. There he will be seen as your agent. Regardless of whether it is or not today. That’s something he have to discuss.”

         “I-I don’t have an agent. I’ve actually haven’t think about that lately. I asked my dad, no, I ordered him to stay away from my bussines,” and he decided to step outside my life “but officially nothing has been umm- announced.”

         “Technically, he is still your agent.”

         “Aye, that’s right.”

         “Do not get me wrong, but you should think more before shooting.”

Chapter Text

The mist falls on the city. The intense swell capable of sinking the mountains roars in full swing. The faint sunlight does not reach any building. The air feels strange, heavy in a way that air should not feel: wet below the waist and drought over the head. Stars were silent. A cicada with an old guitar came by swinging from a veil. Night was gloomy.

         A vision then appeared in the high dotted vault: a pearl in the stars moving elliptically towards the swell came by and went for Leo to see as if a rumor of the nebula greeted him. Things were not meant to have meaning there, did they?

         He felt himself held by thick, unfamiliar, hands. They made him turn without moving him, the city moved, the sky did too and the same was for the mighty sea.

         Upside down held the city all his might by the light of dawn and blue-veiled-white-mountains tops. A starling gazing yellow dots in the deep of nothingness. Music, aye, there was some kind of music too, sweeping the emphasis of the waves. That sound, where did it come from?  A window high in the air, suspended in a middle point between the cosmos and the weeping sea. Leo moved there as only one could do in dreams: unwilling, fast and harsh.

         A frame made of the wood of so many ancestors difficult to trace. Carved in the shapes of so many faces buried under the foundations of a mind whose eye had already seen too many faces. It framed a window with no shape at all, many glasses casting a gentle reflection. Her gentle reflection dancing for him. A somber silhouette prattling for him.

         "Dear God, it's her!"

 

Daylight never felt so cold before. Falling snow would not be as chill. Neymar’s girlfriend had come, beautiful girl. Ennio Macheras paid him a visit to discuss the trial yet to come. Phone calls were made. Precise plans were laid out. Many witnesses. Farther outcomes. One goal.

         “Kind of like soccer,” Leo admired.

         “If by that you mean you want to win, then yes: totally like soccer. Or any sport really. Football it’s just the representation of a battle when civilizations thought themselves grown enough to leave behind the act of war. Guess what happened.”

         “Can we win this?”

         “Just aim and shoot the goal. Except is a bit more complicated. By the way, that TV spot, just brilliant.”

         “What TV spot?”

 

“Have you ever wondered if the step you take is wrong?”

         “No.”

         “You have never felt that you tread on fragile ground, seriously?”

         “Yeah. I’ve played my life mostly safe, you know? Don’t take this personal, but I date chicks and play soccer. Besides some underwear promotion when needed or Pepsi’s ads or whatever I’ve signed for. I’ve played safe.”

         “Aye, aye, but even there--- you’ve never stopped and asked yourself ‘is this the smart choice or the right choice’?”

         “Having second thoughts?”

         “Not really. Right now I feel in control. It feels right.”

         “Then what’s the problem?”

         “I’m not satisfied.”

 

Neymar was good in training. But Luis was far better. Lionel loved Ney as a brother, he was his best pal after all, but truth be told, Neymar was much ado About Nothing. A good few minutes playing like a pro, then a spinning fall worthy of a circus, not a soccer field.

         Yeah, everyone overreacted to “injuries”, it was like an unspoken agreement around the world. Did they touch you with the tenderness of a butterfly? Then fall on the ground and pretend to be injured! Leo had done that a few times, Cris had too! Even the best of the world had done that at least once in their life time. But Neymar, man, the boy took it to a new whole level.

         “It’s part of the game,” the Brazilian had told Lionel over a can of bear.

         And while Neymar perfected his technique of rolling, Luis endured to be one the best. Luis was one with the team, adapting his style of play to that of his classmates. Had Luis always done that only for Leo to realize it now? Or had he started doing that not long ago?

         “Ney, get your fucking ass of the grass, for Christ’s fuck!” Lionel was pale when he realized what he had shouted, the rest of his friends and ex-teammates laughed.

 

Ennio Macheras came back with a bunch of papers. The trial was approaching. Zinedine had been summoned. The same was for Leo’s father.

         Now Lionel was sitting in the backyard of Neymar’s house watching the sun descend upon the horizon.

         Leo thought of his home, not the one he left in Madrid or the one in Barcelona. He remembered his first home back in Argentina. Especially the sempiternal house with the smell of coffee of his grandmother Celia, May God enjoy, who opened to him the first door leading to the rest of his life.

         “I hardly remember you,” he whispered to the wind, hoping him to carry the message all the way up to heaven, “Thank you. Thank you for letting me play with those children so many years ago. I hope not to be disappointing you by how it has turned out to be my life lately. I hope--- to have been all you expected from me. I love you.”

 

The sky was the same everywhere, if one were ignore the different constellations that could be observed in each part of the world. For Lionel Messi, alone again admiring the stars, looking for the old and known constellations and enjoying the stronger brightness of the planets than the stars themselves, the sky was the same everywhere: that is, a blank canvas on which to paint what one wishes to see. That is, of course, ignoring that instead of white, the fabric of the canvas was black.

         Once every time, he and Cris would sit and watch the stars after swimming or making love. “Those brighter dots, dear, are the planets. They shine stronger, yet that’s no light of their own. It’s just the sun, doing what he does best: light our little corner in the universe.”

         “Look, meu amor, that is the Big Dipper.”

         “Should we make a wish?”

         “Why? That’s not a shootin---” a kiss interrupted the phrase.

         Now all alone in Neymar’s backyard, Lionel felt deeply sick.

 

Lionel woke like he had done must of the past nights: covered in a thick sweat that drenched all the bed sheets. The dream was not a nightmare, Leo had not have one since the Burning. Yet the dream was worse than any dread. Messi had dreamed about Antonella. God… the other time I dream her was before the fall…

         Sitting on the bed, the Argentine took the palms of both hands to his eyes. He pressed them softly, yet with some push, then slid them up his neck in unison as he brought his face to the ceiling.

         Lionel sighed trying to release in that sigh all the fears, frustrations and other things that conflicted his life. For a few seconds he felt light. Then ungrateful memories came to him.

         She had finished with him. News and rumors about the break up might told something different, and Leo himself never found a reason to deny them, but the truth was that Irina broke up with him. That still ached. The echoes of an unfulfilling love still hurt as the infection of a rose splinter long removed.

         What she had say was long buried by the dust of time as it moved forwards and Leo stayed stranded behind in the middle of the road, not back in the moment nor here in the present. A victim of his own past constantly coming back at him quietly. He had been shy. Leo had always been quiet. Sunk in his own thoughts, learning to forgive himself for what he had not done. Reserved, contemplative. He would never be satisfied.

         That could be part of the reasons she left. But to know that for sure was to dig a hole into a diamond crust with bare hands. She was gone as sure as youth parted away to never return. And Leo just keep on locking himself on that path were the past was meant to live once more. A man is mold in what he has lived, he thought. And also he said to himself but what forges you is not mean to last forever, only you, the product, is what’s mean to last.

         Antonella had broken him.

         “And still I dream of her, isn’t that funny?”

         She had changed him for a different pair of eyes across the street. And Leo mourned her lost as if she had actually died. He had loved her way too deep. Antonella had been a dream came truth, one of those dreams that people say would not came to be. And just as Lionel exceeded everyone's expectations of him in the soccer pitch, so did his relation with Antonella. A dream come truth, indeed. But all dreams must come to an end when morning paints it’s silk veiled skies with the tincture of the currants.

         “If there’s a price for all my actions I still have to see it pay.”

         “It’s just the same old story retelling itself in a different set. Answer this, will you stay with me?”

         “No, Lionel,” she had said “I will not stay here to live under your shadow. You’re a wonderful man, but not the one I need and want. There’ll be someone who loves you as you deserve, but not me. I can’t go on like this anymore, tricking myself into believe this is the life I deserve. What I need and want is not here. You talk so sweet to me and spoke me in so gentle precious words that ache my soul as nothing has ever hurt me before. To stand that is to lose me for a life that you created to fit your happiness.”

         “I’ve always wanted your happiness too.”

         “But I don’t deserve it. And I don’t want it, because if I take it it’ll burn me to ashes. Can’t you see it?” then after a brief pause in which Leo seemed to had fallen into a dwelling well, Antonella keep on going “I usually choke on my own pains, swallowing them like pills without a prescription so as not to cause problems for others. But I’m through with that. I’m finally done, I’ve seen the stars and they’re calling.”

         “Five years I was there for you. Five years of my life that ain't coming back. The least I expect is for you to grant me that. That's a fair equivalent exchange.”

         “Forgive me for being this coward. And know the less I wanted was to hurt you. Now let go off me, Lionel.”

         She left like the vapor dissipates into the air during a winter night, that’s to say blink and it’s gone. She can trade the morning for a dime.

 

 

(Leo Speaks)

There is not a night in which I feel comfortable in bed, I move from one side to another perhaps in search of a more comfortable position, surrounded by four pillows (two soft and two hard) failing to find the right way. This once comfortable position is now annoying, the pillows between my legs to simulate the lost contact of my other half is a far-fetched farce that only knows how to cause annoyance. The sheets make me feel locked, being without them is terrifying. Then I stay here awake hour after hour looking at the darkness where the roof is supposed to be, or observing the few stars that can be seen through the window; I heard the sound of the crickets as if they were cicadas, it bothers me some nights and others I pretend not to listen to them when I focus on the voice of the air conditioning. And the ever-present shadows dim as my eyes adjust to them. I see the silhouette of a desk next to a small bureau where my underwear lie, I perceive the shape of the bookshop in a haze of indigo tones, and the closet doors that can never be closed completely attract me at times and I just wait that something happens in them, that they open by sliding awkwardly or the sound of knuckles hitting the wood gently. But there are only crickets and air conditioning, and I, of course, moving from side to side in search of a comfortable position where my neck can feel comfortable and my spine relax. If I lie on my right side the air moves my hair over my face and these produce a kind of messy tickling; Then change side, feel better, for a few seconds at least.

         My thoughts are so confused to the point of not knowing what is the guiding thread motivating them to torment me at this time. It is like a mouse circling a labyrinth with no way out, that is, there is no logical purpose to be going through this ordeal. It only remains to wait for the dream. Wait for a metaphysical, astral quarrel between Morpheus and whoever the god of the vigil is. I can not take part in that battle, it is far from my material faculties. I am human, after all. I eat meat, bread, and water while Morpheus and the rest of all the gods have and have taken a diet consisting of filtering the universe.

         I smile in the dark, a waning moon of ivory, the things one can think at three in the morning.

         I no longer see the clock, I do not have the need to do so to know the nefarious hour in which I find myself speaking these speeches. It's three o'clock, maybe three and a half. In the sky, the only light is that reflected by the moon and the minor points of distant constellations and suns. It's three o'clock and counting. Soon four will be given and I will be able to begin to see a slight change of tone in the sky of this city next to the Balearic Sea. If I close my eyes and concentrate I can hear the swell of a blue sea crossing the coasts of Barcelona and the Balearic Islands: the breeze of Mallorca and Ibiza dancing with that of Menorca, Cabrera, and Formentera. The aftertaste of that breeze should be settled in salt, that is dictated by logic and science, is not it? But I feel it sweet, too sweet. Maybe because it reminds me of Funchal, back in Madeira. Ah, Madeira! Cris, you were born in the middle of the sea. If only as a child you had the arrogant character that for so long characterized you, you would have robbed the sea of its color to use it in your eyes! If I do not doubt that at birth your voice has silenced the sea, bending it in eternal delight to your person. Just as I am now; a willing prisoner of yours.

 

Awake in bed Leo wondered how Cris was doing without him, if Álvaro thought of Alice the same way Lionel thought of Ronaldo, if Neymar, out with his girlfriend for the weekend, was having a blast. But especially, Leo thought again and again if Cristiano would think of Irina as Messi did with Antonella from time to time, during the loneliness of the night.

 

It has been a while since Lionel returned to Barcelona. Some workouts have come and gone under the wing of time, passing by with a strange and inexplicable parsimony. Lionel was officially part of the Barça once again. This was displayed in the news and newspapers. And, although Leo went to one or another training (just to keep fit and prevent himself from dying of boredom at Neymar's house), he was never seen wearing the training kit. The coach, out of respect and affection, let him in and do the exercises. More was not allowed to play in friendly matches.

         Leo was seen attending a Barça game against Valencia at the start of the new season. The new kits were not as nice as they used to be. The elegance of the colors did not shine so much and the design in general was, then, inconsequential.

         "Maybe you think that after so long wearing meringue."

         "Yes, maybe that's it, although I doubt it."

         "Will you say that the uniforms of Madrid are ...?"

         "Best, elegant, I love both uniforms, I would proudly wear the Blaugrana shirt once more and continue to wear white no matter how long I stay there."

         "Your words are blown by the wind."

         "Why is such a conclusion, Sergio?" Sergio had come from Madrid to watch the game only because Leo asked him to. They were not the best friends, they got along, yes. Sometimes they went out, but not enough. However, the few times they had shared together they had a blast.

         A story for another time, Leo thought.

         "Because you are part of this club, whatever the circumstances that have brought you here and now," Sergio interrupted Lionel when Leo began to protest "and I don't see you wearing that horrible striped jersey or chasing the ball next to Sanchez or whatever his name is, Piqué," this last name said it with a tone that was especially different between mockery and disgust, "not even that kid, Rakitic or Neymar, you look like someone who would go out on the street and not like a fan supporting his team, that hobby is outside of you, even though it's your friends who play life down there."

         "I would use it if the circumstances that had brought me here would have been fair, I was torn from my home twice, how can I use any jersey when between its colors is mixed the feeling of instability, of perpetual insecurity?" a pause "when the time comes I will return to wear the colors of one or the other team, knowing that I belong there because I have won it and not because it was exchanged as traded as cattle."

         Sergio burst into laughter, there was nothing malicious about them. Yet, there was something that did not click all the right way with Leo.

         "Little one, will you ever be satisfied?"

 

“By the way, Cristiano needs you.”

         Those were the fated words out of the most unexpected oracle of all; Sergio. Tiresias would not have been so cryptic at the time of pronouncing the fateful truths that ended up leading Oedipus to fulfill his destiny.

         “Miss you.

         “Hey. What u doin up this late?” The message read.

         “Can’t sleep.

         “Something wrong?

         “Dreams. Not nice ones, tho.

         “You too?

         “So it seems. Anyway, why r u awake?

         “What’s with the grammar? Tryna mock me?

         “I would never.

         “I’ve been thinking about something lately. It scares me.

         “What is it?

         “Don’t know how to say it.

         “Just do it as it is. Want me to call you?

         “No.

         Please don’t.

         Not strong enough as of now.

         “Cris, what’s wrong?

         “I don’t know how to say this.

         “Just say it as it is, everything will be fine, trust me.

         “I think we should have a break. The distance is too much to bear.

         “Can we talk about it?

         Please.

         “I’m sorry, my love. I can’t. I just can’t.

         “Cris, listen. It will all be fine. We can talk about this. There’s no need to rush things.

         Cris?

         Cristiano, answer me.

         But he did not. Nor the messages or the calls. As if Lionel did not already have enough problems to drown in! ll come out of this, one way or another I'll find a way to fix all this damn swell. I WON'T FAIL HIM! I WON'T!

 

Luis was at the door, facing Lionel, holding a huge box of food from which smells of an almost ambrosial nature were dismissed. A couple of DVDs rested on the box. Behind Luis was Piqué and, to Leo's surprise, Shakira accompanied them wearing one of those smiles that he boasted so much in the advertisements of Colgate.

         “Why is this honor?” asked Lionel, who surely went back to his old self. Shy, and with his fingers caressing his own ear.

         “Is it forbidden for old friends to cross paths at twilight?” Shakira asked in turn, while she made her way between Piqué and Luis in order to reach Leo. The hug was warm, motherly and fraternal at the same time. Shakira kissed him twice in each cheek. Then she held him by the arms and looked him straight in the eyes, trying to find something that Lionel did not quite catch. Although Shakira was a short woman –if Leo Messi was the flea Shakira therefore it would have to be the louse–, that day she wore platform heels that almost equaled them in size, however, Leo was still taller than her. “If there’s anything I can do for you, say it. Don’t doubt it at all,” her Colombian accent was more marked than that of James Rodriguez.

         “Ha! Well, you sure look like a gathering storm, one might think.”

         “Big day is tomorrow, kiddo,” said Piqué “chill today and fight tomorrow.”

 

The room looked white, not because of the painting, but rather because of the amount and strength of light filtering through the windows that preceded both the stand and the jury; the shadows cast by these empty seats of honor lengthened in such a way that they gave the illusion of wanting to catch Lionel in their clutches. And maybe that's the way it was.

         On the other side of the stand, the opposite to the jury is understood, stood alone a small typewriter shinning in what seemed like silver skin, on a wooden pedestal of Corinthian cut, behind the majesty of the machine was a chair that, in comparison, looked shabby.

         Zinedine Zidane was already there.

         Leo had thought this for days in the morning, he had thought that at the sight of Zinedine his blood would boil in anger and no one would be able to stoop Lionel from breaking Zidane nose once more. But there was no anger. Nor hatred. And not even the slightest sense of resentment. For once Lionel found himself at peace.

         Ennio Macheras walked alongside Messi, his step was firm but relaxed. The kind of walking that would challenge an embroiled current and come out victorious. Leo, on the other hand, entered as he knew how to do it; that is, in his mind he had not entered the Court, but into the playing field.

         Leo greeted Zinedine with a slight nod, the greeting was not returned. Unless the cold looks consisted of a greeting in some Nordic cultures. Lionel did not think twice about the matter, he passed by, followed by Ennio, and sat in his place. Now it was the time for waiting.

         “Are you nervous?” asked Ennio, politely.

         "No. Only anxious, I want to put an end to all this. It is somewhat similar to the feeling experienced when an airplane is about to take off. The uncertainty of whether everything will turn out well, or wrong."

         “This can’t be as bad as visiting New York. Did you know there’s a Frenchwoman of almost one hundred meters violating the sky with her arm?”

         "I guess so---"

         Just then the sound of the doors behind them opening draw Leo's attention. He turned around to see.

         Walking down the corridor between the roars of seats was a familiar face he did not expect to really see that day: Jorge.

         Jorge did not look as Lionel remembered. His father seemed to have aged incredibly fast. Jorge walk seemed weird, which almost make Leo's heart skip a beat when he saw the cane his father was lean on.

         How long--- why? Leo wondered in a slumber astonishment. Part of him, the son he had always been, the one that still trusted his father, wanted to run and hug Jorge, kiss him in the cheeks and ask what had happened. The other part, his grownup self, the one that seemed to be getting bitter with time, told him to remain sitting. So Lionel did.

         Jorge crossed a look between friendly and fatherly to his son. That made Lionel felt ashamed, yet, and this was something learned over time, he let those tactics slide from his body.

         Lionel still cared for Jorge, after all. Leo could be angry with his father, even disgusted, but he did not harbor hatred for Jorge in his heart. Saying "no longer" would be deceiving himself, Lionel had never hated him. He had only lost confidence in him, and that did not recover. However, he loved him.

         Zinedine, on the other hand, was as lovely as a thorn would be stuck up in the ass. If only that could be fixed, Leo thought, everything would've been worth it. Cris--- why did you have to say that?

         After Jorge, and when some time had passed by, came along some of the Real Madrid players, Leo's friends and partners. James' face was filled in confidence, Gareth and Ramos walked like they owned the place, and, for what Leo knew about the world, that could be much as truth. Marcelo also made a brief appearance, which Leo did not know why, but his presence felt somehow right. The face Lionel wanted to appear, however, did not cross those reddish-like doors.

         Messi felt disappointed. Still, he expected that absence to take place.

         I'll fix everything when the time comes--- whenever that'll be.

         James waved him hello, beside him was Ifrit, smiling dimly.

         “Where’s Cris?” Leo asked in gestures as more people entered the room.

         “Who knows?” James pointing to his nose make him look like he was picking it. Ifrit smiled once more. "Hardly I've seen him. Álvaro's the one who's seen him the most."

         “Got it--- and where's Al?” Leo searched the room: nothing.

         “A question for the wise ones. Last I saw him was at training. He injured himself--- I still don't know if it was an accident or if he--- well, things are bad since Zise got, you know, berserk.

         “Slow it down. Zise hurt Ál?

         “What? No! No, no, no, no! No way--- I hope not.

         “I don't understand.

         “Me neither.

         “What's up with Cris? Is he alright?

         “I don't know, Leo,” James's face contorted in a grimace of despair, guilt, and helplessness. “Last we meet was when filming the TV spot.

         “What TV spot?

         “All rise.”

         Leo jerked his head back while a powerful hand pushed him up, it was Ennio, who gave him a serious look.

         “It has begun, child,” Leo's lawyer whispered in a deep tone.

 

Standin 'utside. Coward--- Are you afreid of the pure scent of what you've been drinkin'---? Should've thought that beforehand, ain't it thou?
         Coward! Move, godfuckingdanit!

         Face this. Face it.

 

Leo was sitting tight. He, among many others, kept his eyes stuck in Ennio as the man walked towards the center of the room. Ennio's voice reached every corner, he was not even trying to raise his voice at all. Plain and simple, what he said was: today Zinedine and Jorge were there on trial to be judged on charges for illicit actions and behaviors, in addition to physical abuse and discrimination. Ennio encompassed to the last soul with a glance at once warm, distant, pleading and just. Then came the turn for Sagitta, Zinedine's and Jorge lawyer –why his father agreed to chare Zinedine lawyer? Who knew?–.

         “My clients, as will be proved at the time, did make deals to exchange the demandant, Lionel Andrés Messi, to other clubs,” she paused as if to let tension grow, Leo did not know if that came to work in the rest of those present, then Sagitta continued with an almost poetic tone worthy of the Odyssey and the Iliad. That is if those great works had been read by kindergarten boys. “However, the acts were not illegal and were not taken out of what was established in the contract, as proven,” Sagitta raised his hand to embrace the entire jury while smiling with a smile that made it clear that both Lionel and Ennio they were hopeless fools, poor devils who should be pitied. Ennio smiled, a laugh that made it clear felt sorry for Sagitta. The woman did not even know about it. “It bears the signature of the plaintiff, here present. Hence my clients are innocent.”

         Then she sat. She looked very, very pleased with herself.

 

The silence after Gareth sworn testimony felt like the skip of a heartbeat. The man looked dead serious, though his eyes seemed to tell another tale: Bale did not want to veil a lie there.

         “Sir Gale---“

         “I am not a Sir nor is my name Gale, but thank you. It's a name that I like to fantasize about once in a while, it's cute and has good cadence. But, as you will understand, it is too soft for my personality. I can't go around the world playing the way I do under the name that a fortyish lady without her own aspirations can put a cat. Mr. Bale would be fine.”

         “Order! Mr. Bale,” the judge said, hiding behind a dead look a wide smile “please behave or you'll be forced to leave. Do you understand?”

         “Yes, your honor. Sorry.”

         Sagitta cleared her throat and smiled as if nothing had happened. Leo smiled to himself. "As I was saying, Mr. Bale, please describe the events on the day of November 23."

         Bale said nothing, remaining perfectly still, eyeing the cold fancy glance of Sagitta.

         “Mr. Bale, please respond to the plaintiff question.”

         “With pleasure, yet a question must be made for me to answer. Isn't that so?”

         “Very well, Sir,” Sagitta carried on, not even waiting for the judge order to continue “Could you please relate the events occurring on the 23rd day of November, when my client, Zidane, was physically assaulted?”

         “That day we had training, a session that in particular turned out to be physically and mentally exhausting. I won’t overwhelm you with details of the training, suffice to say that it was enough to make us faint at nightfall. That day, after training, Leo was called to Zise's office.

         During the time that Leo was inside the office, I saw Zinedine going around the training camp, joking with other coaches and talking with some janitors. Baby, I guess. It was strange, it took a long time to go see Leo.

         By the time he finally deigned to go to the long-awaited meeting, we had all bathed and changed. Plans for the afternoon had been drawn and many of us were ready to leave. Many of us stayed behind to keep Cristiano with a company, the man looked over anxious.

         It had been a hard year, you know?

         Then, perhaps a quarter of an hour after Zise had entered his office he fled, covering his face and shouting nonsenses. After him came Leo, the feelings to bloom in the skin.

         Cristiano and he broke up. We all feel broken.

         There was not much to do, perhaps a tear or two. A whole group of mature men crying like children in the face of misfortune. Normally the kind of situation that usually causes excitement and a party later, now had two men in their golden years crying inconsolably. What should one do in a circumstance like that but stay and try to console what perhaps at that moment is inconsolable?”

         “What was the reason Zinedine ran away in a hurry?” asked Sagitta after a while.

         “Who knows? The man was covering his face with a hand. I could barely understand a word.”

         “But, with time it is to be supposed that some rumor must have run. Isn't?”

         “Aye. Rumors do spread as mushrooms do on rainy days.”

         “So?”

         “So what?”

         “So isn't possible that my client, Zidane, had run away in a fear of being hurt further.”

         “Objection. She is basing his interrogation on speculation, at this rate we can assume that Lionel burned the office, which does not prove or confirm anything, rumors must be left out of the evidence and the use of reason must be used.”

         “I only maintain that it is possible to obtain a viable line following gossip, there is always something true in the rumors, after all, something comes up.”

         “Sustained.”

         “What?” Sagitta said in a whisper that almost got lost in the air of the room.

         “Please base your line within reasonable terms. Going through the bush is not a luxury that can happen now.”

         “Right--- very well then. Mr. Bale, after Zidane ran out of his office you said Lionel Messi came out in if I remember correctly, a state of his emotions blossoming in the skin, am I right?”

         “Aye, miss, you speak the truth.”

         “Good. What did you mean by that?”

         “That you were right on what you said.”

         “No,” a soft-bitter laugh “by the feelings blossoming on the skin, what did you mean by that?”

         “Ah, I see. It came out a bundle of emotions, anger, frustration, pain, and I do not know how much more of having felt Leo in those moments. I felt seized. I guess he also felt something like that.”

         “Aha! And why would he be angry, I ask?"

         “By an unfair treatment towards his person, I guess."

         “And wouldn't that be reason enough for him to punch my client in the face and broke his nose? Isn't rage a feeling that overrules people and guides them to do crazy things like attack physically another person?”

         “Aye, I suppose so. I've found myself in that position once every now and then.”

         “And wouldn't that state be enough for, let's say, Lionel, to act like a madman and attack an innocent man?”

         “Innocent? Of that, I ain't no sure, my lady. Nor am I of Leo acting like a madman. I wasn't there. All I saw was Zise running away in a fear for some reason. For all I know, all that could be an act. What I do know is that Zise did trade Leo unfairly, only because Leo's image damages somehow Real Madrid. People's blind to the real poison they carry on their backs, I guess.”

         “I have no further questions, your honor.”

 

"Mr. Rodríguez, would you say you were a victim of discrimination because of your sexual preference, and, if so, could you please tell us about the events?"

         Ennio was giving a slight curve, it was impossible not to notice it because of the way he dominated the space in front of the podium. However, his gait was so smooth, slow, and with such an unusual cadence that one might think that Ennio simply walked in a straight line instead of a well-curved motion with which he allowed himself to be seen by both the witness and the judge, the jury and the others present.

         James, on the other hand, was serene. It was a change in him for which Leo was still amazed, not to say that he felt a faint trace of pride. Lionel remembered even the timid boy that James had been, the guy who was struggling to talk to someone else without feeling like an idiot. A memory at the same time tender, sad and full of melancholy. Time slipped by the corners of the world when you were a little careless!

         "Not long ago I was called to Zinedine's office. He presented me with an offer that, for many, might be tempting. Threatened would be more correct. The threat was either to take Lionel's number as mine or to be expelled from the Club. I was menaced by certain photos, with the words, if I remember correctly: 'that you like the cock is your business, brat, but here you come to play. You'll behave like a man and take this damn number back to your dorsal, or may go wherever you can. Surely there will be a third category club that wants a faggot like you '. Or similar words, it is difficult to have such a lively mind. But yes, that answers the question. I have been discriminated against and not only because of my sexual orientation, but in the conglomeration of my friend's sexuality."

         Ennio asked as many questions, James answered them. Sometimes with great satisfaction and sometimes leaving a large margin of doubt. This was the case of the next question.

         "Did you ever see my client, Lionel, being discriminated against because of his sexuality by Zinedine?"

         There was a pause. "No. I don't remember, being frank. All I've heard has been from Lionel, Cristiano, and other third parties. I can not say that Zinedine has put a hand on Lionel, with the intention of hurting. Nor can I say that I have seen Lionel being mistreated. The most I came to see was the scene already described by Bale. I can only say that, at the time, and without knowing the exact reason, I thought with all reason that if Lionel was in a rage, it was because Zinedine must have done something to make him explode in fury that way. For the rest, I can not deny or affirm anything with total security."

         Ennio nodded. "That's all for me, your honor."

         "The defense can go on," the judge said.

         Sagitta stood up as soon as her name suggested and went to stand in front of James. Needless to say, she did not have Ennio's presence, yet non the less she had a somewhat of a poise. Although hers did not impose so much, at least it managed to attract the attention of everyone.

         "Mr. Rodríguez--- well, to be fair right now you have me against a wall and a dagger. Tell me, if you never saw any attack, either physical or verbal," the latter said more to the jury than to James, making them understand that two plus two is four and whoever believed otherwise could return to the preschool to receive the appropriate education. This, as expected, did not sit well with most of the jury. However, if Sagitta found out about this either she did not care or she was simply blinder than a mole. "How can you say that Zinedine is someone capable of causing that kind of emotion, much less an injury to anyone?"

         James stirred, not uneasy as might be expected. Rather it seemed to be looking for the most comfortable position, taking advantage of those seconds to organize his ideas. All that elucidated Lionel, who placed his elbows on the table and clasped his hands in a large fist on which rested his chin. His beard tickled the skin of his hands.

         "It's true, I never saw Zinedine put a hand on Lionel, in that you have your mouth full of reason, miss."

         "Oh, then---?"

         "Let me interrupt before this diverges towards unnecessary directions. True, I never saw Zinedine do that nor other such things to Lionel. And I didn't say to saw it, that's a conclusion you've reached on your own. What I saw was Cristiano bleeding, by the hand of Zinedine. And we all witnessed the way in which Zinedine tightened his grip on Cristiano's arm on the day of the conference in which the relationship between Lionel and him was revealed, after which Zinedine took Cristiano aside. I was nervous, and to avoid having to answer questions from the press, I left. It must have been the grace of God, or I don't know what, but the door I opened to get away from all the tumult was the same after which Cristiano was on the floor, scared as I've never seen or think I saw no one. It was a terrible fear which had made its nest in his eyes. The same dread that covered me to the bone and I feared for a long time, God knows I'm telling the truth.

         In front of Cris was Zinedine, his face distorted by a fury that ended up making my soul fell to my feet, as people use to say. I was scared. Afraid to see a partner, a friend, lying on the ground, scared, beaten. And the relief reflected in the face of Cristiano--- dear heavens, I still dream of that terrified expression turning into hope.

         How to trust, how to place faith in such a director? Can you answer me that? Can someone here do it? I know that it is not my position to ask questions, but the truth is that I don't understand how one should be able to place his trust, your career, in such an explosive man. It scares, I'm sorry, but it scares.

         'I knew that arrogance would be the reason why you would lose that smile', something like that Zinedine said to Cris before leaving him in peace.

         And do you want to know the worst part of it all? Do you allow me to extend myself further? "

         "Your Honor, this is---"

         "Let the boy talk, Sagitta."

         James nodded. Then he remained looking at the back of the room for a long time, after which he nodded. Leo heard the movement of a few feet behind him, in the distance. Followed by the sound of chairs and many other apologies. However, as things were, Lionel was too invested in James to look at something else. To acknowledge a world that was not James.

         "The worst thing wasn't the fear, nor knowing the kind of man that guides us. It is understandable to some degree to have someone with the vigor and fury of a warrior. What good is that, however, if the fury turns about his own team? How can a man find some peace, trust, love, safety, in a missile ready to strike you?

         The worst came later when Cris and I were left alone." James paused there again, his throat seemed to be working out all the right words, "he cried, like a child, uncontrollable, unconscionable.

         And what should have I done if I was also dying of fear? How to console what is inconsolable? I just sat next to him and cried along with, not understanding all of his fear and pain, but sharing a shadow of it."

         "Why a shadow of it?" asked Sagitta, and from the face she made it was obvious that this was a question directed mostly to herself and not for James. Her own voice had betrayed her.

         "Because in it, I saw my possible future if I even dared to come out of the closet. And it is difficult to think about doing so, knowing that more than a support all you will receive will be a punch in the face if you are lucky. If not--- I really don't even want to think about it. Who would want to?"

 

After other testimonies, as well as a brief intervention by Zinedine, it was Lionel's turn to sit down on the stand. From there, his view covered the entire space with ease. He saw that the door closed just as he turned to sit down. As he adjusted his tie he wondered who had left, everyone he remembered before the start of the trial was still there. If only he had not been so focused at the time of taking his oath, he could have known who the absent person was. If only he had not turn to watch his step, the answer would have been known. Oh well, shit sometimes happens.

         Bah, and what does that matter. Maybe you didn’t even know him. Perhaps one of those reporters, like the fucking crows outside. Just waiting, lingering here and there for a piece of this utterly damned cake of my life. Even I want a piece of my life--- my whole life too.

         Being there was different, a strange oppression was dropped on his shoulders. An echo of the first time he had set foot in the Camp Nou so many years ago, that day when he did the tests. At that time he was so small.

         Yes, but come now where we are.

         Time had passed, has not it? The first steps into Camp Nou. Oh, how wonderful! How life had felt somehow resolved back then. As if in the horizon all were truly gold and easy. But it was that shine of gold-like-fire the same that made the pebbles on the road disappear. The shinning was dangerous to walk along.

         “That lit’ boy? I must see that!

         Lionel suppressed both a smile and a giggle while preparing to answer Ennio's question: “Could you please detail the cases in which your rights were violated and acted against you without your consent?” They had little time to return from a break, which had been shortly after the testimony of Sergio Ramos, who detailed in with lux of embellishments how Leo had been tackled and hurt. After that testimony, all the presents opted for a fifteen-minute break. No one, not even Leo, seemed willing to spend more time than it was strictly necessary to clarify things satisfactorily.

         Funny thing, as Lionel was the one who wanted to bring an end to it all. Perhaps that was the reason, though. Tired as he was, Leo only wanted to go back to Cristiano. To his now well build life in Madrid next to the man that haunted his soul, heart, and life. Cristiano, just you wait. I’ll be satisfied. It will all end well.

         On the comeback, Sagitta had called witnesses –if they could be called in such a way, Lionel did not know–, who detailed that all the movements made by Zinedine, and therefore Jorge, were totally legal to be part of a contract. And there were many, way too many witnesses and professional testimonies full of, let’s say it so, bullshit. Pure boiled-hatred-bullshit. Although of all the hate and nonsense they all spat, Ennio silenced the aforementioned by reminding them that Lionel had not been contacted and, to date, the clause of the contract was a mystery even for him. A closed contract in disclosed times.

         After that, Zinedine himself had gone up to prove his innocence and to become the victim in everybody’s eyes. All for a punch! Look, if Leo was homosexual then Zinedine was a fucking fag. No offense to fags Lionel thought bitterly. But Zinedine acted in such a weird way he had only seen in little girls. Even some boys, yet mostly girls. Spoiled brat girls, let’s be clear.

         Not all witnesses said things worth telling, and no specialist was worth the listener. Perhaps because of that Leo, with great dissimulation, began to write in a notebook that he had at hand. Words that connected to back home, to Cris. Then bounced back his other home, Barcelona, with all of his friends. There they linked to his family, and his family obviously brought him back to Rosario. And to remember the origin of it all brought out the reminiscence of his grandmother, Celia.

  

Celia was a woman of character, who did not realize that must have been foolish or blind. Simple things should be say as they are, without having to make a mess of the forms or complicate what should not be complicated. Celia was a woman of character. This, however, did not mean that she was exempt from love.

         In the morning she woke before the sun rose when the sky made its slow transition from the deep blue of the night to the pearly gray of the birth of a new day. After opening the lattice shutters, she went to prepare breakfast for the family. Antonio, her and, many times, Lionel. All the other three brothers of Lionel were around sometimes, but not as most as Leo himself. Celia loved the little Lionel as a very child of her own.

         That day would be important for the little one. She had to feed him as well as possible, oh yes! And why else was she there? Celia would see the pibe jaed from the breakfast –in the sense that he would be full to the top of it–, and the countless laughs and the bright future that awaited him. There is nothing more pure and beautiful than the unconditional love and blind faith of a grandmother. Matías and Rodrigo had talent, including the girl, María. Oh, María, how the little girl ran after the ball too! The three brothers brought it in their blood, well! Not to see that, as Celia used to say, was to play dumb or blind. Or it was that people really were foolish and blind to not see it.

         However, the boy, Lionel, Leo, his Lio, oh, her little lion! That kid not only brought him in the blood! Lionel had it in his soul! Maybe everyone would say that the child danced with the ball as if from another life had loaded such talent. But Celia, who was not stupid, dumb, blind, or a poor credulous woman with her feet out of reality, knew the truth. Perhaps it was her version of the truth, those were philosophical subjects for which she simply and plainly did not have the time to discuss. Everyone there with their beliefs and barbarisms! She understood the world in her own way and to do so she had only set to use her most valuable jewels: her eyes; heart; ears; touch; smell; and taste. Lionel did not dance with the ball, he did not have only the talent for it. Leo and his ball, and any ball, were one: a whole entity that the universe in her immense wisdom had allowed to coexist. Both bodies –the ball, any ball, for all balls were one and the same, and the child– vibrated in consonance beyond any physical plane. They were one only. Each one the extension of the other. There was no concrete way to determine where Lionel started and where a ball ended.

         To know it--- no, to understand it! One only had to observe the way in which the boy glided through the field, flying like a bird, following the sinuosity of an asp, and in front of him the other part of himself: the ball. For that Celia had a good pair of eyes!

         The heart, her heart, and the heart of the Lionel, the heart of everyone! All the hearts were intertwined because they are not only the material that pumps the blood but the doors and links of the spiritual way. There Celia was introduced to the path of his grandson and she felt it, and to perceive that resonance between the boy and the ball showed her that together they could reach and dominate anything –Lionel and the ball, obviously. That's what the heart was for! To feel, and enter into communion with others, with their loved ones.

         The ears, why else, but to listen to the compliments that all directed towards the little Leo that went after the ball like a beast in full hunting! But Celia knew that he was not going after a prey, but following himself, opening his own path with steady steps. That was what the ears were for, to glimpse the truth that everyone barely perceived! Celia would say whether her grandson was the promise or not!

         And the touch to help the boy overcome his anguish. The anguish of those who did not grow at the rate that Lionel himself imposed.

         "Calm down, Lionel," Celia would say to him at times, "all in time when time says it's necessary. But do not become lazy, lazy and silly. That would be making mistakes. You keep going, training. I know what I said. Everything in its time, but not because everything must arrive at a certain time means that you will be left behind. Of course not! You will split your back so that when the time arrives you can make it your own without it rejecting an iota of anything! "

         Yes. Touch to feel the skin of his grandson and the fears that surfaced through that show of affection. Touch to feel and say things. Not like that Jorge! Foolish man! But hey, Jorge would one day understand. Celia counted on it. Her heart told her so, and she believed in her heart as the gospel word.

         Smell and taste to know when the occasion and the time was right.

         That's why she had done what she did last night. That is why today Celia was awake early, preparing a good breakfast for Lionel, Antonio and herself. It was time for Lionel to play with the big kids. None of them could ever stop him! Celia knew it. Celia knew it in the deepest of her soul, a beautiful crystal shinning the brightest light.

         It was that same certainty that led her to say this the following afternoon:

         "Leo, in this life all kinds of obstacles will rise up against you. But you can deal with all of that, because albeit you’re small inside you I see a lion ready for everything, strong and able to end all obstacles. But also forgive and move on. Now go to that field and show what you're worth!"

 

"Could you please detail the cases in which your rights were violated and acted against you without your consent?"

         "My father, Jorge, made deals behind my back. Without any consent from me, to be transferred to Real Madrid. "

         "You says it like it's something bad."

         "It was. At the time. Moving to a new city, where you don’t know anyone, where you are a stranger. It was a bit like reliving the experience of arriving in Barcelona the first time, so many years ago. But this time there was no excitement. I didn’t want to leave my home and friends. Not to go to a place where for so many years I received the hatred of so many players. Players that today I can call colleagues, and friends. I didn’t ask to be transferred. I didn’t ask for that plane ticket. I didn’t ask for any of it, period. My father falsified my signature, perhaps for his benefit or, as he alleges, a job opportunity to continue growing. It may be one of those reasons, or none, or all of them. But I didn’t ask for it, and I surely was not consulted about it. I was only informed that the deal was made after the fact.

         "That was the first time. The first betrayal, if I may add.

         "Then, I made what many called in their beautiful headlines the blundering mistake of kissing my partner, Cristiano, during a game. That was when, as they say, everything went to hell. And it did. Things were crap” Lionel was doing his best to control any trace of insults or, as he liked to think about it sometimes, embellishment language.

         "Both I and my partner suffer from the harassment and rejection of a large part of society and the world of football. They gave us motes, they shouted at us in the street, we received letters full of feces, vomit, urine, and many other things. Things we decided to forget, put aside. Because we considered them to be a childish like behavior. Who puts any grain of attention to a child rambling, right? All that because sometimes people forgot our sexuality when we scored a goal. Only in those instants were we again the heroes, the crack, as they say. The gods of football, him and me.

         "Then someone came with the intention of hurting me. He did it. He fractured my leg, putting my career on the verge of failure. On the edge of everything. I don’t know how else to describe it. Nor do I like to think about those days, the depression, the pain and all the pills that the doctors made me take to stop feeling, to disconnect a bit from the world and float in a cloud of painkillers. I don’t blame Doctor Hernández for that, he was doing his job. And was the best help I could have got. But those days were hard. The almost madness of the world consuming me slowly.

         "And Zinedine, always stalking, insisting on recanting us. Things I kept silent, for fear of retaliation. Things not even Cristiano knew about. Zinedine, whispering to break the relation, offering the comeback of a long girlfriend. Just for the prestige of Real Madrid.” Bitter memories. Silent secrets. What was the name of that album? ‘In keeping secrets of something, something and a number 3’, right? That was what his life felt like then. He had to shut his problems in order to never let known Cristiano about them, just to save the man Lionel loved to carry another weight over his shoulders. “Just for non sensical pride.”

         If Lionel had to think about what was the hardest things to talk about his life, the second one must likely been his leg injury. A broken leg for a footballer was most likely the end of it all. A three multiple time broken leg--- Leo must be truly blessed for his comeback. The number one thing to talk about, however, had nothing to do with his profession. It was purely personal, which made the stakes higher. Once the monsters under the bed and inside closet became the mere pale shadows of what they once had been, the true monsters of life, adulthood, became known: humans.

         "Someone, two crazy people set fire to my home. There is nothing left but rubble from that place that used to be home now. And maybe many want to show that everything is a coincidence. That those people only wanted to steal some goods and stuff alike. Then please ask yourselves this: why didn’t they just steal and left? Why burn the house? Because that way police might not been contacted? Bullshit. It was an act of hatred--- one of them tried to kill Cristiano, I'm sure of that. "

         "Objection, your honor,” Sagitta said in a hurry. Leo just stare dead back at her, cold eyes meeting the eager ones of the lawyer. “He cannot base his testimonies on the beliefs of---"

         "IS IT A BELIEF TO SEE A MAN BRANDISHING A GOAT FOOT AGAINST THE HEAD OF MY HUSBAND?” Leo’s voice broke with the anger, the frustration, the pain of the memory, the helplessness of being interrupted while telling such personal things, and yet his voice did not sound less authoritative. He did not lose strength, and more than a howl was a passionate sound. “Or is that just a figuration of an unstable, depressed mind? Go ahead, say it! They wanted us dead. Because of hate. They didn’t want anything about our economic position, for that the cars would have been taken and that's it. After all, they entered without being noticed. Come and go, and not even the wind might have noticed them taking away the cars No. No, don’t you fucking dare undermine my intelligence. One of them went up to our room brandishing a knife. Another set fire to our house. And one of them wanted to leave as a memory of their kind visit a piece of iron in the skull of my husband. In what way does that seem like a robbery?

         "You can distort the truth as much as you want, Miss, but those are the facts and they speak for themselves."

         "Lionel," Ennio spoke firmly, his voice did not sound at any moment annoyed, the face of that man was sculpted in the best marble in the world by the best hands of the best artist "Could you please continue with the narration of his illegal transfer?"

         "Yes, with pleasure--- sorry.” Leo’s hand met his ear. "After my recovery and a few games, Zinedine called me to his office. The news he gave me was that he had transferred me back to Barcelona. To play again for my old team. Once again, I was not asked for an opinion. "

         "As we can see, my client has been the victim of abuse and unfair treatment, not to say embarrassing. That's all for me, Your Honor, I have little or nothing more to add. "

         Sagitta stood up and asked the first and only question in a scathing way.

         "What did you do then when Zinedine informed you of the news of your transfer?"

         "What did I do? Punch him in the face, what else was I going to do? "

         "The defense rests, your Honor."

 

“And you didn’t suspect there was something wrong? Did you continue to believe in your father after the money fraud?”

         The Judge asked. For what Ennio told him later that day over the phone, it was really weird for a Judge to ask things in a trial of this fashion. More even when the Judge went on asking things of almost every aspect of the case.

         “Yes, your honor. That’s right. But I didn’t knew of it until I was already transferred. After what had happened with the money, well I believed I was left with all my decisions under my care. I wasn’t longer just playing football, as I once said. I just want to take care of my own decisions, your honor.”

         “Is there something else you’d like to add? Why was it that after that accident you didn’t start taking control of your contracts?”

         “I thought I was. Now, after all that time, after all those things, I see how wrong I was. I'm not saved from guilt, yet there’re worse people and things.

         “And answering your first question, I just want to love--- and to be left alone, to let me make my choices--- to live. To live and love, no matter who that person is. A life in peace, is that too weird? I don’t want to be worry about how my next trainer, the next man who takes up the role as Director, being willing to turn my life into hell just because I love another man and not a woman. For being who I am and loving whom I love. I just want to live in peace, with no fears. And to love.”

         “And what’s is love, Mr. Messi?”

         “Love--- love is a force. To love someone is to surrender to that force, being willing to be taken along the stream. Ready to build something with that force. Because otherwise, you’re going to get crush by it. I’ve surrender, and built. And now I just want to preserve what I have raised.

         “That’s a part of what I want. To play football, to be respected both as a human, as a football player, for I have dignity as both, emotions, feelings, rights, privileges, voice of my own regarding my career and how I feel better to manage it.

         “And I want Zinedine out of the picture. Any man like him isn’t worth it, it’s dangerous for others. Others like me, others like the rest.”

 

Leo waited, as everyone else, for two days before hearing the verdict. He did not went out of his hotel room near the court at any moment. Anxiety was a hell of a beast. The only way he used to relax was remembering the feel of Zinedine nose breaking under his fist. An awful thought, yet a worth one.

         Then came the day to hear the verdict. And after that day, things did change.

 

“Have you reached a verdict?”

         “Yes, your Honor. The jury finds the defendant, Zinedine Zidane, guilty of the charges. He is required to be removed from his position immediately. Likewise, the restitution of Lionel Messi to his current position in Real Madrid, in the same way that the fulfillment of his previous contract is required.

         “However, the suspension of Lionel Andrés Messi is also requested for a month given to the physical damage caused to the ex-director of the Football Club, Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane.

         “As for the charges against Jorge Messi, he is found no guilty.”

 

Jorge took Leo aside to talk. A place where they had a little more privacy from the eyes of the reporters, yet still out in the open. A place where no one would be able to scream at each other. Leo was sad, for the verdict, and for the absence of Cris.

         “Ah, mijo. You’ve changed. Now you’re fully a grown. Which proves my point. Madrid was a good choice for me to take, regardless of whom you share your bed with.”

         “You traded me like a goat.”

         “But you’re a goat, mijo! The Greatest Of All Time, ain’t you? Look, take it as you will. You can’t deny I was right in this. I send you there to grow, as a football player, I agree. But you grew to become a proper man. You don’t need me anymore. Although I’d like to talk with my son, if you please, from time to time. I’m proud of you, Andrés. Angry too, but mostly proud. You’ve come to be a greater man than I’ve previously thought you could be.”

         “That’s oddly satisfying to hear.” Cris came out of the building, walking slowly. The man raised a hand and wave it for Leo. “Dad, if you excuse me, I’ve got to go.”

         “Hey! You came,” Leo smiled to Cristiano.

         The taller man moved quickly towards Lionel as his face became drench in tears. “I’m sorry, Leo. I’m so sorry--- I shouldn’t--- I shouldn’t have.”

         “We learn to live with the pain we make.”

         “Please forgive me. Please tell me that--- I--- wasn’t brave enough, strong, just a boy--- there’s no replacing in what we have lost, in what I’ve done. The pain I put you through--- I don’t deserve you--- Oh, Leo, I---”

         Lionel grabbed Cristiano by the tie and pulled him down so their lips could meet. Strong arms soon surround him as his own wrapped around Cristiano fiercely. There was too much to say, many things that could be scream and punches to be thrown, kicks to break and things to throw at each other. But pain was mostly gone for now. And at the moment it was all that mattered to Lionel. There would be a time to talk and a place to be angry at each other, aye. Those bad things were bound to happen anyway they were meant to. But those fights they will be able to solve at their own.

         "Just shut up," Lionel said playfully. "Still, I need to know something. What's this TV spot everyone keeps talking about?"

         Cristiano just smiled, so did Lionel. This last one heart finally feeling relief. 

         Forgiveness. Can you imagine?

Chapter Text

 

“I thought for a while going back to Rosario, just for a period of time. To fix things with my father, or at least try to.” Leo smiled and Cris heart skipped more than a beat, it hurt. “I was also thinking in spending sometime down a beautiful island I once knew.”

         “Madeira,” Cristiano whispered, tightening the grip around Lionel’s wrist. The Portuguese planted a kiss on his lover's lips, tenderly; as if the Argentinian could break under such affection. “I’d like to take you there; to the lava pool, remember?”

         “Yes, I’d love that.”

         “Good. Now I’d like you to wear this.”

         “Only because I--- gmo---” Cristiano pushed inside Leo’s mouth the ball gag. It was a little too big for Lionel’s mouth. But feeling how hard his cock got, Cris only smiled and kissed Leo in the upper lip.

         “You look beautiful like this,” Cris ran down a hand on Leo’s chest, feeling the fabric of the new Barcelona jersey. Leo was in full kit, and Cris had to admit that the sight of his lover like this, hands tied on both sides of the head of the bed, ball gagged and pleading with his beautiful eyes, the full Barça kit with Leo’s name and number on the back, and the black and green CR7 mercurial cleats on him--- let’s just say Cristiano was very aroused. Whatever Leo had to say was muffled by the gag. And that ended up catching Cris on the edge of fire. “Sim, sim, meu amor. Whatever you said.”