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It took Sergio’s discussion of his English lessons for Iker to see the light.

"It's like- you can't read the language straight on, you know?" Sergio started to explain, his hands tracing shapes in the space in front of them. "Because you don't see what is there. You have to approach it from sideways, from the corner of your eye, like this," Sergio squinted, the expression on his face half constipated, half confused. Iker watched him, because he liked watching him; Sergio’s expressions better than any actor on film, because he got all aspects of life and wasn’t precious about sharing it - including the humiliation of learning a foreign language.

“Yeah?” Iker removed his oversized, noise reducing headphones off his ears, they settling around his neck like a funky necklace, as he rested his head against the seat’s head rest, facing his friend. Another coach journey to another match- but a different continent this time - Estados Unidos de America. The Americans’ appetite for fútbol had grown from muted appreciation to a constant craving, and Real Madrid, with other European teams were there to feed the greed, with the International Champions Cup.

“Yeah,” Sergio nodded, eyes huge with his belief. “You always have to look at it from the corner of your eye. My tutor thinks I’m strange-”

“You are, nene.”

Sergio puffed his cheeks up with air before blowing them out, breath smelling of ice mint flavoured chiclets. “Wait until I’m speaking English and charming the ladies, and you’re not.”

“I just have to show up,” Iker replied, all smug, and Sergio grinned at him, all goof, the glint in his eye alerting Iker to what was going to come- and he couldn’t stop it. Sergio’s hand in his hair, fingers rubbing his scalp roughly, another one around his neck. At times, being hugged by Sergio reminded Iker of being shaken by a big dog; everything jostling into shards all at once, before they fell together into a deep sort of content, Sergio’s bark of laughter warm at his ear.

“Hey, not the hair!” Iker mock whined, and when Sergio pressed a kiss against his cheek, sloppy and purposeful, Iker laughed as he pushed at him. “Gilipollas,” he huffed affectionately, his heart now beating double time as Sergio pulled away. “You’re just jealous.”

“Aw, mijo hurt because I ruin his hair? Let me fix it,” and Sergio’s fingers now in his hair, fingernails brushing against sideburns, along his scalp. Soft, feather like touches, that tugged at strings he never knew he had, Sergio’s tongue tucked into the corner of his mouth, his features a parody of a child’s concentration, and Iker knew, knew that Sergio was making his hair worse, the cock.

Only for the tugs of affection to be tangled in with something else, taking in Sergio’s face as he applied himself to task. The tattoo by his left ear, his eyes framed by long lashes, his mouth in a pout. Iker couldn’t stop looking, at Sergio’s teeth worrying his lower lip, chapped by the changes in atmosphere with all the travelling they did. His face the same- but weathered over the years, as he moved from teenager to the adult he was now. Faint lines stamped at the corners of his eyes, a nod to the conditions they played in, the lower half of his face obscured by his beard. A soft click, and Sergio fell into place, the different but same- but different. But before Iker could place his finger on what changed, Sergio pulled back, Iker’s face tingling from the light taps on the cheeks Sergio did before pulling away.

“Now you’re even more handsome.”

Iker held up his phone, which had enough of a reflection to be a mirror, for him to see his face and hair, not surprised that Sergio did it in a faux mohawk. He lowered his phone, ready to singe Sergio’s ears with curses, only for Sergio to catch his eye- and they both laughed like naughty schoolboys planning a prank.

“Ssssh,” a voice interrupted them from the back, sharp in its chiding.

“It’s not yet evening,” Sergio defended himself, “we’ll get to the hotel soon, so you can turn in with your slippers and wine, Alonso. We’re not there yet.” A roll of his eyes at Iker, and Iker raised his fist to his mouth, not making a noise, because it wouldn’t do to be on Sergio’s side in this one, even though they were fast friends.

***

The tour of Estados Unidos de Amér - just say America, they get it Sergio pointed out, ever helpful, rolled on.

“You never get used to these trips, no?” Sergio’s voice carried over the gentle lap of water against the side of the pool. One of those balmy evenings in the Southern US, when the air was as warm as the inside of a mouth, and you either decided to turn out and swim, or stay inside in the air con. Sergio and himself decided on the former; and it might have been a fool’s errand, because as soon as you pulled yourself out of the pool, you felt hot and sticky enough to try and get back in. The other players peeled off, opting to stay inside instead. They had a day between games, and double trained, both in the morning and afternoon, so they were allowed. The sky inky black and expansive above them, kept at bay with the low lights illuminating the grounds.

“No,” Iker agreed, moving his arms and legs lazily as he treaded water, and Sergio swam towards him in a steady breast stroke, his hair plastered against his face, his eyelashes dark and damp from the water and air, the currents of water rocking against Iker’s body like sound waves, his heart hitching at Sergio’s tongue darting at the water wetting his lips. “You can never get used to jet lag, or the food. It’s not the same.”

“No,” Sergio agreed. “I miss huevos a la flamenca and caracoles, but its one of those things you don’t ask for when you’re back home, because it’s there. Even with our chefs-” the dieticians who travelled with them, because with a team of Madrid’s quality and expense, you didn’t leave their diets to chance- or an American chef. “It’s not the same.”

“They’d tell you to eat more vegetables,” Iker said, kicking himself at how inane the conversation sounded, but not wanting them to leave the swimming pool as yet, Sergio near enough for him to see the brown of his eyes from the darkness of his pupils. Iker kept on talking.

“How’s your English going?”

“It goes,” Sergio raised a hand from the water, doing that particular see saw movement with palm facing downward, the universal gesture of ‘meh- could be better, could be worse.’ “It’s- hard, and my accent -” at this he pouted, more an expression of annoyance than anything. “It could be better, but.”

“You could be like Pepe Reina, and go play in England if you want to improve your English,” Iker tossed out as casually as he could. Sergio paused, a thoughtful look flitting across his features.

“His English is good, no? That might be the way to do it,” Sergio agreed. “You think Chelsea might be interested in a defender?”

“You’re great,” Iker said, his voice matter of fact. They were Madrid players, any team in the world would be interested in any one of their players if they signalled they wanted an out. Even Jose Mourinho- who was now thankfully away from Real Madrid and back to slinking around in the Premier League- wasn’t above moving players to his side if it netted him a trophy. The thought occurred to him, rocked his world like a mini earthquake. The language lessons and coaching Sergio started to do when Real Madrid wanted a video to go out to their English speaking fans last Christmas. Sergio had gone out of his way to ask Cristiano and Xabi for pointers on pronunciation, their English honed to a reasonable level from their extended stints in the English Premier League. Did Sergio have plans to-?

Then, because Sergio couldn’t keep up a ruse for long, he grinned, bright in the dim lights. “Fooled you, didn’t I?”

The relief that surged through Iker’s body made him limp, to the point of sinking in the water, because his hands, now nerveless, didn’t work anymore. “Eres un gilipollas, not even as a joke,” Iker said, still weak with relief, as he half heartedly punched Sergio’s shoulder.

***

He couldn’t stop looking, stop feeling.

The glomping hugs that Sergio attacked him with- strong arms around Iker’s middle, swooping him up in the air and spinning him around- when Iker finally landed on his feet, breathless and legs wobbly, it took longer to right himself this time around. Or Sergio bounding into his arms at the end of every training, and even though Iker braced himself for incoming, he could never be prepared for Sergio. The purity and warmth of him breaching against the cool, larger than life figure in the goal sticks Iker had built himself to be, the kisses they traded on the cheek still warm, and Iker wondered. What might happen if he tilted his head that way, and - and he stopped that thought right there.

Focused on what they were at this moment in time. What they had instead, a friendship as strong as anything thrown against it; surer than Sergio getting booked on the pitch.

Sergio’s arm around his shoulder, his forehead against Iker’s, as he crooned support after another loss, the air buzzing with sharp and angry whistles from the fans in the stands. Their defence torn in shreds, by a team that wasn’t Barcelona, another goal getting into the back of the net. It mattered- because winning mattered- Hala Madrid. The losses stung less because Sergio stayed behind in the dressing room after everyone left. The air heavy with quiet save the rip of velcro as Iker tugged off his gloves, his hands cold and trembling even after a game of ninety minutes, Sergio’s warm hands and gentle on his own. The events of everything circling low, dragging rage and remorse from the depths of him like a storm. The cold, inalienable facts gathering in, the World Cup loss, the unsettled American tour, the fractious start to the season, clashing with the heat of his emotions. The frustration of their team form, the frustration of his own form, and if he had to swallow another lump, blink away another sting, the clouds of emotion in him would burst in hurt and temper.

“Don’t let them get to you,” Sergio would say, and the notes of his voice held the tears of frustration at bay. His habitual kiss pressed to Iker’s cheek willed the storm to disperse for the moment.

Then there were the times, like after that 2-4 defeat to Real Sociedad - when the storm in him couldn’t disperse. The two goal lead that they gave away- their defences slumping towards the end. Iker stood up, at the end of the game, in the dressing room, and spoke. Half censure, half sympathy for the teambecause they knew, they knew we fucked up before dismissing everyone, and he stayed behind in the dressing room, still in his uniform, as everyone else changed and filed out.

Sergio, normally one for talking and jostling a laugh out of him from some forgotten place now quiet; as Iker stripped off his gloves, his undershirt, shorts, tights, and stormed into the shower. The water pressure pummelling against his flesh, almost to the point of discomfort, and Iker pressed his hands against his face, and the emotion heavy on his chest, the pressure of everything against his eyes and nose - sharp with pain. His body convulsed, shuddering from his sob as he slid against the tiled walls. Before he hit the floor, before he shattered into pieces, Sergio was there, with a hug, holding Iker together, his chest and shorts dampening to the point of sodden under the pulsing spray, skin and cloth twin sensations against Iker’s naked, wet limbs.

Sergio’s mouth moving, and the thought that crept through Iker’s head came from the lyrics of one of those stupid English songs Sergio would bop to, under the guise of Learning my English, cabron. In truth, Sergio just liked cartoon fronted groups from Scandinavia who sang stupid songs - and if Iker went off and translated the lyrics from English to Spanish because he too liked the tinny, ear worm of a beat, the one that Sergio hummed on a snatched breath when he had the chance to be within earshot he’d never say a word.

The catchy, ditty of that beat in his head, menacing and merry, the thud of the water against his skin, nothing but his adidas slippers on his feet, him held up by the wall and Sergio. Sergio’s hair and face now wet by water, and it was unfair- unfair that all this was happening now, not now, as the lyrics danced in his head, complete with strobe lights and the thump and frenzy of an Ibiza party beat after sunset.

I wanna ruin our friendship/we should be lovers instead/I don’t know how to say this/’cause you’re really my dearest friend

“I’m all right,” with a gentle push, Iker stepped away, creating space between them. “It’s just-” he tried to smile, and felt it failing miserably, as if smiling were a - hah, irony- foreign language at this moment. Unsure how to begin, every attempt futile, he shuddered out a breath. “It’s just merde, Everything just seems hard all of a sudden. I’ve never had such a long slump of form before. But I’ll get over it, right?”

“You will,” Sergio said, his eyes and smile warm, faithful as any best friend, four legged or bipedal. “You’re San Iker of the Bernabéu.”

“Oh,” and Iker’s laugh as watery as their surroundings now, as Sergio stepped out of the cubicle, and even with the water steaming around him, Iker felt chilled, but didn’t shrink from Sergio’s gaze. “I might need a miracle right now. Praying to San Jude at next mass.”

“Get yourself ready, San Iker,” Sergio slapped the tiled wall. “I’ll take you home.”

Iker did as directed, washed, dried, changed. Each item of clothing, another suit of armour, he told himself. Thought about rubbing gel in his hair, dismissed the thought, and stepped out of the locker room, his kit bag in hand.

“I don’t want to go home, not yet,” Iker said as soon as he saw Sergio, now dried and hair gelled, clad into the white shell suit of Real Madrid, with the black stripes and pink highlight- because only Sergio would wear this even if they didn’t have to - because in matters of dress, Sergio was still nineteen.

“Okay.”

***

“I’m lucky, you know?” Iker began as soon as their waiter moved away, leaving their starter behind. They were in the sleepier side of Madrid’s constant caffeinated buzz- the neighbourhood of La Latina, in one of those small restaurants that prided privacy over press- sitting down to drinks and tapas. With a combination of their defeats and the lateness of the hour - they were left alone, the intimacy helped by dimmed lighting and candles. The rest of the patrons didn’t even look in their direction, as they dug into their own meals, the savoury scents of various foods tickling his nose. They sat in one of those booths small enough to hold two people, their thighs brushing against each other.

“With everything- I play for the best club in the world, with the best players in the world-” at this, Iker raised his gaze and looked at his friend, and it was easier to smile now, to unbend. “We’ve won loads of trophies, honours- to ask for anything else would be greedy, but...”

“You want more.”

“I want more,” Iker admitted, idly stabbing at his tapa of olives and feta cheese. “I don’t want to slink off in the shit form I’m in now, I want to go out on top. I want to start winning again, domestic and Euros. I want-” you - and that was unfair. In addition to being firm friends, Sergio was the vice captain to Iker’s captain, to ask for anything even with the power of captain, no matter how slight, was to be avoided. “I want to be cheered again, to remembered for the good things, not the bad.”

“You,” Sergio held up his bottle of beer, “you’re a part of the shield of Real Madrid. You’re not a robot, you’re human, and these things happen. We were on the pitch with you, Iker. All of us, it’s not just you- no matter what Marca says and don’t-” Sergio pointed the mouth of his bottle towards Iker. “Don’t start about, ‘I’m the Captain’, because Ancelotti is the coach, and I’m vice Captain, there’s plenty of blame to share out. We didn’t do well, we’ll go forward, it’s past now. Okay?”

“Okay.” Iker raised his bottle of beer, and they toasted each other with a muted clink.

“You won’t try to drown yourself in the Manzanares?”

“Only if it’s filled with beer.”

“Good,” Sergio draped his hand across Iker’s shoulders, speaking happily with the waiter as he brought over their meal, announcing the various tapas as he placed them on the table- broken eggs with potato, tomatoes with olives and feta cheese, battered fish with lemon... and his accent- a bit too flat around the vowels- alerted Sergio.

“You’re not Spanish.”

“Erm, no,” their waiter smiled, looking more like someone who should be a tutor on the Erasmus programme than the sure waitresses that tended tables here. I’m from London.”

“Oh, yes? How long you- how long have you- been here?”

Arm still draped Iker’s shoulders, Sergio attempted to speak English. Half lulled to sleepiness due to the evening’s activities, Iker leaned into Sergio, listening to his accent, how his voice changed in another language. How speaking English, he seemed to be softer, more a stranger- a bit unsure, his statements broken, ending in a question- compared to how sharp and demanding he could be when he spoke Spanish. But same- forever the same, as undaunted, he tried out various sentences, the waiter correcting him with patience and good humour.

Iker took in Sergio’s profile from under lowered lashes, as the little ditty from that stupid song danced across his brain again, and he pushed at that button of curiosity- what would happen if he’d said, or did- it. But no- to ask for more would be greed. But he could wonder? Couldn’t he? How in an alternative universe if they ever had gone - there, to wonder if they’d change, if they were to ever change at all but - he had enough. Sara, Martín- bridges mended on his family’s side, because Martín, who, by dint of being born, already made everything better.

Conversation done, the waiter withdrew telling them to enjoy their meal in Spanish. Sergio turned to face Iker, dropping his hand from Iker’s shoulders as he reached for his meal, more than pleased with himself. “You saw that?” Sergio speared his eggs and potato before shovelling it in his mouth, speaking between swallows. “I mean, I’m not Cristiano or even Toni, no? But-” he waggled his fingers in the gesture of ‘give it up’ be it respect or money.

“Better than me anyway,” Iker could freely admit, and Sergio took that as a compliment, sipping at his beer. “You should learn with me,” he said, “just because.”

“When I start winning again,” Iker squeezed the lemon wedge over his fish. “Or when I retire, I’ll do anything you want.”

Sergio nodded, and Iker found himself gathered in another hug, and a kiss against his temple, and in time, he could almost get accustomed to this odd, sweet, heartache, as he returned Sergio’s sharp pulse of a hug. “We’ll go on a - road trip, just you and me. No buses in Texas or football tours of the US. Just us, yes?”

“Yes,” Iker said, because at this moment, he couldn’t deny Sergio his random request, not even these nebulous plans of distant future that involved speaking English, because this- their friendship- would still be a sure thing.

FIN