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-November 04, 2014

Another UEFA Champions League match, another win.

Long veterans of these matches, Real had the best way of these things: the balance of treating each match like a final with the mind of realising it as a campaign, where you raided points from teams along the way. After the stumble of the start of the season, the team now lean, mean and efficient.

Iker raised his hands in the middle of the Bernabeau, clapping for the Madridistas and the ripping scarlet of the travelling Liverpool fans who had made their presence heard. The gasps of breath for every almost goal attempted, the roar for one Benzema slipped in.

Three sharp blasts of the referee’s whistle, the match over, the result favourable as it should be.
Full time:

Real Madrid 1-0 Liverpool.

Maximum points on the board, their path clear to the final sixteen as the unmarred inky black sky above.

Hala Madrid.

Their chances bright as the lights thrown on the field, the players standing in line, as they shook hands signifying the end of the match.

A soundtrack to their hugs of victory, the cheers and songs boomed and twisted the air in varying keys of harmony, like the rumbling vibrations of an organ in a church.

Iker accepted his congratulations from Javier Manquillo.

As players of la selección at all levels, you knew of each other, even if you didn’t know each other. Javier Manquillo, formerly of Real Madrid youth, broke away across the city to Atletico and now across the ocean to Liverpool, his choice in uniform getting redder with each change. From Los Blancos, to Rojiblanco and now fully Rojo. Iker had always wanted to ask Manquillo looking back now, if he had to do it over again, would he’d have chosen his brother over Real Madrid, because Liverpool was not Real Madrid. However, the distance of captaincy of the senior team, as well as the club tie never made the question appropriate.

“Congratulations, Iker, your side was good,” Javier smiled, face bright with sweat and exertion under the lights, as he stepped back from their half embrace. “It was a pleasure playing you.”

“Same,” Iker nodded. “About your new team, and England,” Iker asked, more national captain of La Roja than Real Madrid team captain now- he had to be- with more Spaniards plying their trade outside of La Liga more than ever before. Less the Real Madrid Barcelona vibe in the national locker room, more scrambled, with more Spaniards being called from teams outside of Barcelona and Real Madrid. It cost nothing to ask after a person’s well being, especially if they might be called up to the Senior side sooner rather than later. “Are they treating you well?”

“Yes, gracias, thank you for asking, it is a good adventure,” Javier nodded, and Iker didn’t know if his reserved pleasantness was due to shyness, embarrassment at Real Madrid’s win, or exhaustion. Iker didn’t push, knowing that they would meet again soon enough. A firm handshake, and warm smiles before Manquillo moved on. Iker turned to receive another Liverpool player, like a Prince bidding his guests adios after a short stay at his palace.

Sergio’s roar of delight rang his ear, even over the cheers of the stadium. Instinctively- and it was always instinct with Sergio- such were the tangled nerves of their friendship- Iker turned, trying to find the source of it.

“Alberto!” Sergio greeted the man in question with a one armed clap, his other arm opening up for the hug. Alberto Moreno- another member of la selección under 21s he knew of, but didn’t know- the recipient of such warmth and glee that caught Iker off guard.

“Sergio!” The wattage of Alberto’s grin rivalled the spheres of light around the grounds, as he walked into the hug and stayed there. Short and sturdy, his arms around Sergio, feet wide and planted into the ground such that Sergio leaned into the hug, his booted foot swinging off the ground.

Albertooooooo, come here, mijo! You played a good game. I see you trying to slice Bale into ribbons, eh?”

Alberto laughed, the quick childlike staccato noise at odds with his asymmetrical haircut and colourful tattoos and sturdy build. He and Sergio continued to trade warm greetings, pressing their whiskered faces against each other for seconds too long in Iker’s book. “I see you got another yellow, again, Sergio.”

“Not my fault this time, Albertito, believe me.”

“When you weren’t booked at el clasico, I checked to see if the sky had changed colour, but in Inglaterra the clouds never show the sky,” Alberto reached up, resting his palm flush against Sergio’s cheek, his face flushing with amusement. “Now with your booking tonight the World is right again; I know the sky is still blue up there.”

Sergio rubbed Alberto’s scrub of hair affectionately, more like an older brother’s fondness towards a younger, shorter (like two heads shorter) brother with a smart mouth.

“And how is England and the club treating you? You’re well, yes?” Sergio asked, with much more warmth than Iker used with Manquillo. Less vice team captain, and more of a concern that made Iker prick his ears, as he still continued to clap, acknowledging the supporters who turned up and cheered, infusing the match with atmosphere.

“Yes, I am, thank you, it is a great adventure.”

“Still missing Sevilla?”

For a fraction of a second, Alberto worried his lip, as if unsure what to say, before he said, “When I have time to think. But with everything now- nuevo Liga, nuevo club y compañeros- I don’t have time to think about it so much.”

Sergio nodded, and Iker caught the look as Sergio’s eyes softened in understanding, his hands on Alberto’s head and the nape of his neck respectively; like a priest offering counsel and absolution to a penitent sinner, the heavy tape around his ring finger and tattooed wrist strangely enhancing the image. For the first time in the years that they’d known each other, Iker wondered.

“Enjoy it all,” Sergio advised, “Only look forward. The European nights, the Champions League as far as you can take it, your adventure with your new club.”

“Yes, I shall. It is good to see you again, despite the unlucky outcome.”

“For you.”

Alberto acknowledged the pointed jibe with a roll of his eyes and a grin, his eyes crinkling at the edges with good humour. “Joder, it was a good game, we can only learn from it. Adios, Sergio.”

“Alberto.”

Another warm hug before they parted, and Alberto broke away, Iker’s eyes on Sergio’s face as he followed Alberto’s movements, now catching up with Liverpool’s number nineteen, Javier Manquillo, as they walked off the field arm in arm, only to meet up with Real’s Isco at the edge of the pitch, breaking into another round of smiles and hugs and excited chatter.

If nothing else, La Roja had depth to chose from the Under 21s. Spain would come back from 2014 to future prominence as strong as it ever did. Iker thought as he looked at the trio: two players in red and one in white, Alberto now on tip toes ruffling Isco’s hair, saying something that made Isco cover his face with his palm, his shoulders hiccoughing with his giggles.

***

“Alberto Moreno,” Iker said the next time they left the field at the end of training, walking towards the changing rooms. They had seen each other the night before, but Iker couldn’t bring himself to ask the question then, when they shared a meal that night before going to their respective homes. Iker woke up, cuddling his son with one hand as he looked at his phone the morning after, the screen face live with text, whatsapp and various functions, and couldn’t bring himself to write it out. To put the picture of Sergio and Alberto Moreno at the Bernabéau from his mind, and the words they exchanged.

Alberto’s small hitch in his voice as he confessed that he missed his old club, when he had time to think. But Alberto was - at the cusp of his professional adventure, Sergio a good decade into his at Real Madrid. Did he still-?

“Alberto,” Sergio’s eyes warmed at the mention of the name. “He’s a good boy. It’s nice to see him smiling and happier now, even if it’s with an English club.”

Oh yes, Iker remembered now, that match night with Sevilla in Wales, and Moreno hadn’t played because, Sergio told him on their plane trip back to Madrid, terms had been agreed. The transfer to Liverpool came through that day and Alberto didn’t belong to Sevilla anymore. He wandered around the pitch in floods of tears, going unresistingly into Sergio’s embrace as Sergio murmured to him, his voice carrying over Alberto’s sobs.

“He didn’t want to leave Seville, no?”

“It’s a good club, a good cantera,” Sergio toed off his shoes as he sat on the bench in their changing room.

“But you wanted to leave, yes? When Real Madrid came calling-”

“Yes,” Sergio affirmed as he shrugged out of his shirt, his tattoos standing out in sharp relief against his skin, and what was with Sevilla cantera kids and their tattoos. “But Alberto-” he slung his towel across his shoulders as he headed towards the showers, kit bag in hand. Iker followed, identically un dressed, towel around his shoulders, kit bag in hand, another towel securely hooked around his waist. “He’s- wherever he plants himself. He’s loyal, and Sevilla- it’s a club that makes you want to be loyal, that pays you back in emotions for being so. Even if you can’t stay there.”

“But-why? it’s not Real Madrid, it means nothing,” Iker scoffed carelessly, because it was true. “No club is.”

As soon as the words left his mouth, Iker knew that he’d said the wrong thing.

Oh, not that Sergio showed it outwardly. If you didn’t know Sergio, you’d have thought the laugh he did might have been of good humour instead of being brittle with hurt. The waggle of his eyebrows as he did a mock leer, “I need to have this shower. Not unless you want to share--”

Iker took a step back, his mouth dry, unable to offer an apology. Not that he’d have been able to, as Sergio opened the showers, drowning out the uncomfortable moment in a hail of white noise and steam.

***

Joder, Iker thought as he hung up the phone after getting through Sergio’s answering machine service. Again.

The match against Rayo, and the result didn’t matter (it did, they were still top of La Ligain points, but in the scheme of things, it really didn’t), as Sergio defended, took direction, issued orders, but didn’t respond in the way he normally did. Oh, he still ruffled Isco’s hair, and shouted lewd things in Marcelo’s direction that made him laugh. Did a pep talk with Rafael, but in the tunnel, they only shared a brief nod, after the game, he’d changed quickly, and with the team captains briefing after Ancelotti left, he kept things brisk and professional.

“It was a good game, Isco should be proud of his performance tonight, he did well. Navas will get better as the campaign goes on.”

“Sergio-”

“Not tonight, Iker,” Sergio raised his hand in the universal sign for stop. “See you on Monday?” It wasn’t a question, as Sergio turned on his heel and left Iker alone in the locker room. On a muttered oath, Iker threw his glove across the room, the solid thud of it against the wall did nothing to make him feel better.

Puta madre, he was an idiot.

***

“Sergio,” Iker pressed his hand against the door as soon as Sergio opened it the next morning. One of those late, autumn Sunday mornings Madrid did very well. The air comfortable enough for button down shirts, the sun’s light a bit mellower at this time of year. Less a baking white and more a yellow.

“Iker?” Sergio answered, and the polite tones in his voice flayed at Iker- sharp ice that cut into skin and emotions instead of the easy jeers Sergio threw in his direction. He would take the prolonged practical jokes and wind up merchantry to the chilly deferential tones they exchanged now.

“Can’t you just shout at me like you normally do when we argue? I can take that, but not this,” Iker pleaded, not caring if his voice shook by the time he’d finished his sentence.

On a gust of breath, Sergio rubbed at his face, clad in a Real Madrid polo and last season’s shorts, as he stepped back from the door and held it open. “Come in.”

They entered the gardens at the back of Sergio’s house, as he curled his fingers around the balcony separating the house patio from the riot of colour and flora that made the garden. Normally, the greenery soothed, but not this time. “I acted like an asshole.”

Sergio said nothing, leaving Iker to metaphorically twist in the wind, and - and he deserved it.

“I- I look at Manquillo, and you know his story, eh? How he chose to leave Real Madrid over them dropping his brother, and I go, ‘How interesting, I don’t know if I could do that.’ Because it’s always been Real Madrid for me. It has always been. When you came to Real Madrid, you-” At this Iker dared to lift his gaze from the grass underfoot, and look at Sergio. “You just slotted in, you know? It felt seamless, it feels- like a lifetime with you- like you’ve always been here. So when I saw you with Moreno, and when you asked him if he’d missed Sevilla-” Iker drummed his fingers against the railing, “I felt-” jealous, that you still had a tie to your old club. Stupid, because I shouldn’t.

“Most Real Madrid players are called from other clubs, Iker,” Sergio said at last, as he sat on the steps from the patio to the garden. “Ronaldo came from Manchester United, Isco from Malaga- you’re called to the shirt and it’s an honour, but - you still respect the clubs that brought you here. It’s just that for you- your boyhood club just happened to be the biggest club in the world, and everything for you is in this club. Even with your hard times, you’ve never known the danger of being sold just so your club to can keep its doors open. Or the want of going to a bigger club to see what it means to be on the biggest stage. It’s a matter of perspective that you don’t have. But even with that, yes,” he raised his head towards Iker. “Yes, Alberto is right. When there’s time to think- apart from new team members, campaigns, the strategy, the tactics, the trophies, everything- Sevilla is there at times.”

It made no sense to feel so light headed with betrayal.

It really didn’t. Sergio was more Real Madrid than Sevilla, his blood bled white for the shirt. They had been friends and teammates for ten years, Captain and vice Captain and- and. In that moment, Iker would have rather a confession of an affair by Sara that what Sergio had told him now.

“Ah,” Iker finally said, and his voice must have given him away. Only for Sergio to huff a breath and hold out his hand. “Sit,” he said, patting the space on the step beside him.

“I don’t know,” Iker half laughed, more from shock than amusement. “I don’t know if I can move.”

“Idiot,” Sergio still held out his hand, waggling his fingers. Clad in short sleeves, Sergio’s tattoos could be clearly seen, the broad inked tribal design waved as his muscles flexed, and after a flicker of thought, Iker placed his hand in his.

“Help me understand,” Iker said, as he lowered himself to sit on the step by Sergio, the air tinged with early autumnal scents of the garden, more soil and leaves than flowers. The morning early enough for traffic not to be a distant soundtrack to their Sunday morning.

“It’s the same like any other cantera, really,” Sergio started after a short while. “You play football and get scouted. You work through the ranks checking every step of the way and hope to know if you’re good enough or not. If not, you want to know before the coaches do, so you can drop out before they kick you out. But if and when you’re seen to be good enough-”

“You get called to the first team,” Iker prompted, voice soft with memory.

“Yes, and you get good, yes? Sometimes, you get lucky, in that it’s not only you. That you come up with a group, because success is sweeter and brighter when shared and reflected, no? Otherwise you wouldn’t put on gloves to go into goal. Or I wouldn’t defend my goal. I got lucky, not coming up alone, not with Jesus Navas and Antonio Puerta-” Sergio made a sharp inhale of breath, as if he’d been punched.

Again, instinct overrode thought as Iker searched for Sergio’s hand, linked their fingers together, as he looked out, allowing the moment to simmer, a reflection on childhood, and paths taken.

“Here’s the thing about being a great player in club that’s not Real Madrid,” Sergio continued, “it can be-” with his free hand, he snapped his fingers and tried again. “It’s a double edged sword for a club, because they are always looking outside, because the player will help them to win trophies, but at the same time, they know the outside looks in, verdad? They take pride in their players, and their development, but know that at the end of the day, they might lose them. I wanted to come to Real Madrid, and when I got the offer, I know I’d always say yes if asked. I don’t regret saying yes. But it doesn’t mean that I forget my old club. It’s like-not wanting to recognise my parents after I’ve moved out of their house even though they were good to me.”

Yes, Iker could understand that, which made his comment in the showers even more galling.

“And Moreno?”

“Alberto-” Sergio scratched at his nose, his broad white metallic ring catching the light. “He’ll be the heart of a team wherever he goes, and the supporters will love him. He wore the number sixteen jersey at Sevilla, and deservedly so. He’ll do his best, and be his best. He’s on a grand adventure, he knows that now. It’s good that Alberto has Javier with him, so he’s not so lonely.”

“He doesn’t seem to be sort who’d be lonely for long.”

Iker.”

“It’s a compliment,” Iker protested his innocence, because he meant it. “He’s- a good boy that’s all. Has a great locker room presence, it seems to be a... Sevilla thing.”

“Alberto will be fine. He might go back to Sevilla, like he said he would, he might not. That’s for the future, but he’s learning, no? Different league, different play. It can only be good for la selección when he’s called up to the senior team.”

“The same thing for Manquillo.”

“You’re still wondering why he chose Real Madrid for Atletico, if his brother was worth it. I know you, Iker,” Sergio wagged a finger in his direction, “ but you will never ask him that.”

Iker turned the thought over in his mind, and finally let it go. “You have to find your own way,” he agreed. “And Javier is finding his. He’s a talent, although not ours. If either of them are good enough, they might be in the future.”

“True. A question, can you cook omelettes?”

Iker’s brain went pffzzt at the non sequitur as he stared as his friend, puzzled. “No.”

Cabrón, that’s the only reason I let you in!”

“We’ll go out for breakfast, on me.” Iker got to his feet and brushed at the seat of his shorts. He extended a hand to Sergio and pulled him up to his feet. As soon as Sergio got to his feet, Iker hugged him, the glow of contentment flowing through him when Sergio wrapped an arm around his waist, easy as anything, as he fished for his phone with his other hand in the pocket of his shorts, clicking through the screen for a list of restaurants nearby which had their menus online.

“Omelettes? With roasted dorado in salsa if they have it?”

“Anything,” Iker promised, pressing his lips against Sergio’s shoulder. Then, because he had to, and more importantly, he wanted to, apologised. “I’m sorry.”

Sergio touched his forehead against Iker’s temple, and Iker knew he had been forgiven. After a moment, Sergo laid down his edict, “Let’s go eat. I see an omelette in our future."