It doesn't go through.
Fernando wakes up a week before the end of the transfer window and suddenly everyone's saying the deal's not happening, Ronaldo wants to stay, Inter won't sell him, Perez doesn't want him – a dozen different and not necessarily mutually exclusive reasons. Whatever the reason is, Fernando doesn't think it has anything to do with their president, who looks coldly furious when Fernando catches a glimpse of him on TV, some reporter shoving a mike in his face for a soundbite.
There's no word from the club, but there hasn't been, officially, not all summer. Fernando's not going to relax until September first. In the meantime, there's the Supercup. On board, he sits next to Raúl and tries to not to fidget too much.
"It's going to be fine," Raúl says. He's staring fiercely at the seatback and his mouth is set. If will alone could do it, Raúl's would make it so.
Four days until the window closes. They have two days in Monaco to train. Fernando's agent doesn't call. Three days. Two days, and the night before the game. He's sitting in one of the lobbies with Raúl and Solari and Fernando Redondo, fiddling idly with a magazine without reading it, when someone clears their throat.
"Morientes," he says, "a word, please."
For a moment Fernando is frozen, ice-cold. All he can manage is a single, helpless glance at Raúl, who looks like he's been hit in the stomach. Belatedly, he makes himself move; gets up, puts down his magazine. He doesn't even fumble. As he follows Valdano away, he looks over his shoulder. Raúl's on his feet and striding purposefully in the direction of their captain.
Valdano leads him to a quiet little alcove, tucked away from the lobby. He doesn't sit down, so neither does Fernando. It's not going to be a long conversation. Fernando takes a breath and holds it.
"It's not going to happen," Valdano says without preamble. "For certain."
For a moment, Fernando hears the words but don't understand. Then it hits him, all in a rush. The breath he's holding escapes in a heavy exhalation; he doesn't even care what he looks like. For now, he only cares about one thing.
"I'm not going to lie to you," Valdano says. He says that often, and it's true, unless you count lies of omission. "The president wanted this deal very much. He's not... pleased. Be that as it may, what's done is done, and the manager will be counting you, I have no doubt."
Fernando's silent. He doesn't know what he should say: "Sorry you didn't get who you wanted" – but he's not sorry, at all. Valdano studies his face. Valdano's himself gives nothing away he doesn't want to; he never does. Fernando will probably never know his own feelings on the deal.
Valdano says abruptly, "This was badly handled. I admit that. I've been told you didn't want to leave." Fernando thinks he knows who by. "However, if you've changed your mind, I imagine next – "
"No," Fernando says, quickly, finding his voice at last, "no, I want, I want to stay, I." I want, I want.
"All right," Valdano says. "Then here's your chance. If you want to keep your place, you prove it." He gives Fernando a sharp nod and walks away, without so much as a glance backward.
Raúl and Hierro are waiting, twin statues of forbidding iron. It almost makes a laugh bubble up from Fernando's throat, one of giddy nervous relief. They wait for him to speak first.
"I," he says, and clears his throat. "I'm staying."
Raúl's face almost collapses in on itself with relief. A shot of something warm goes through Fernando's chest. He tells them what Valdano told him, and Raúl says, with confidence, that there won't be a problem then. That night, for the first time in weeks, Fernando slips into a deep, dreamless sleep.
He's in the starting lineup. Not even the familiar rituals of match preparation can calm him; every sense is ultra-sharp, like he's taken off a blindfold, or woken from a dream. He's staying, he's staying, he's staying. He barely hears del Bosque's pre-match talk before suddenly they're in the tunnel, and Hierro and Raúl and Michel are shouting encouragement. Hierro cuffs him hard on the shoulder on his way to the front of the line, then –
Raúl throws an insistent arm over Fernando's neck, tugging, bringing Fernando's head down. His mouth brushes Fernando's ear. "We're going to get this one. You and me."
He grips Fernando's hand and vanishes down the tunnel. Fernando closes his eyes and thanks his lucky stars.
Then he opens them again, and runs out onto the pitch.
The Clásico is the worst night of his life.
No one scores: not Raúl, not Figo. Certainly not Fernando; Michel shuts him down as effectively as a brick wall. Ronaldo doesn't even play.
It's not as bad as the Camp Nou, with Figo. There's a storm of whistles every time he touches the ball, and a steady stream of chants from the Ultra Sur, but no pigs' heads, very few signs. Maybe it's because they know he didn't want to go, or maybe it's because they just don't care as much in Madrid. Or maybe they just don't care as much about him. It doesn't matter. Fernando cares enough for all of them.
It ends like that, a scoreless draw. Everyone – his teammates – his former teammates – comes over afterwards, to pat him on the cheek or put an arm around his shoulder.
"Good game," Raúl says, just before his arms go around Fernando. There's something hurt in his eyes.
Fernando closes his eyes and clutches at Raúl more tightly than he should, inhaling deep. "No, it wasn't," he chokes into Raúl's shoulder, trying to disguise it with a laugh. Raúl's hand tightens in his hair, briefly.
That's what they run on all the clip shows, of course. Fernando doesn't watch any of them.
It takes time to adjust, that's what they all say. They're not doing great yet, and he's still not scoring as much as he'd like, but it would be unfair to expect everything to click immediately, like it did the last time. He's starting to work out a pretty good link with Riquelme, and even though he gets the feeling Kluivert's not thrilled to have him there, the dressing room is fine: he knows Mendieta and Puyol and Luis Enrique, and likes them all.
It could be worse. It could be so much worse.
In the dressing room, he strokes one finger along the silky red and blue stripes, and doesn't think of anything else.
Fifty-four minutes into his Liverpool debut, Fernando scores.
He's already feeling the burn in his legs and his lungs when they line up for the corner. Some of the things they say about the English league are true. They're taller here, too, or at least they are at United – but so is he. Silvestre's trying to mark Fernando; Fernando knows him from Champions' Leagues and internationals, knows how he moves. At the last minute, he shakes him off, as the ball comes swinging in from Gerrard's high corner, and Fernando jumps –
It slams over Carroll into the back of the net, as sweet as anything at the Bernabéu. The Kop goes berserk. Fernando slides across the grass on his knees until Gerrard knocks him over and nearly strangles him, hanging off his neck, followed by Baros and Alonso and what feels like half the rest of the team. Fernando gets to his feet unable to keep the earsplitting grin from his face. It's freezing and wet and he's sore all over and it feels better than anything in months.
Ten minutes later Gerrard and Alonso combine for the winner. Fernando comes off in the 75th minute, exhausted but satisfied bone-deep, to a roar of applause. Anfield is a howling din by now, like nothing he's ever heard. The referee calls time, and that's it: Fernando's debut record remains unbroken.
It's a minute before he realizes what they're chanting. "Nando, Nando Mo-ri-en-tes..."
Everyone wants to congratulate him. They clap him on the back, pull his head down to ruffle his hair. Alonso says something in his ear about sharing his luck. He has no idea what anyone else is saying to him, so he just grins indiscriminately at them all because it feels so good to be on the field again, to score.
He does it again the next week, and the week after that. People start to stop him in the street. He's not very inconspicuous, after all, particularly because he still hasn't picked up that much English, but he tries, laughing at himself, and no one seems to care. They beat Newcastle. They beat Everton. They beat Tottenham. Fernando scores the winning goal, for the first time.
They finish third in the table, one point ahead of United. They're miles behind Chelsea and Arsenal, still – but that's okay, because next year's going to be different. Everyone at Anfield thinks so, and he – "Fernando, Fernando, he's the king of Spain," – is the reason they do. He's watching from the sidelines in Istanbul, but it's his team by then. The next season, he's going to be there on the field.
He won't return to Madrid until they go there for the round of sixteen four years later. Raúl's almost the only left by then – Raúl and Guti and Michel and Iker Casillas. (They're still friends, of course – but he doesn't see Raúl as often, now.) Real go out like a feather. Fernando feels a strange sense of déjà vu when he scores, and the ultras applaud – but it's washed away by the roar of the traveling Kop, who are louder. He belongs to them now.
Years later, they ask him if he ever in his wildest dreams imagined himself so successful, so accepted, so at home in this cold, grey city stained red. He says, honestly, that he can't imagine it happening any other way.
Valencia makes a strong bid. But the thought of returning to Spain, tail between his legs – of returning to Spain and playing at the Bernabéu as an outsider, over and over and over again – is more than Fernando's pride can take. He tells his agent to look harder, and when August begins he's training in maroon and gold, in the shadow of the Coliseum.
(There's a twinge, when he sees Christian again for the first time: a shower of confetti and silver glinting in the light, the roar of the Bernabéu, the weight of an arm around his neck.)
After Liverpool, it's almost as much to his surprise as anyone else's that he immediately does well – good – very good, even. He racks up goals in the first weeks of the season and earns himself a call up back to the national team, in the wake of their World Cup crash.
That's where he meets David Villa again: Villa and his burning black eyes and his predatory aura of self-belief. It's not really surprising. Fernando's always been weak to those things.
He almost says something stupid, like, Did you know we were almost teammates? Instead he grins at Villa and asks him how it's going at Valencia, and it seems to work, because Villa sticks his hands in his pockets and almost smiles.
They combine for a beautiful goal, Villa off Fernando's backheel. For a minute, Fernando does think of what could have been – but only for a minute.
Their clubs are in the same Champions' League group. Fernando hadn't been on the field for the first match, but he is when Valencia comes to Rome for the return leg in early December: the last match of the group stage. They play under an iron grey sky, and in the end Roma manage to pull out a goal for the win. They'll both advance.
In the post-match mingling, Villa cuts straight through to Fernando. They strip off their shirts and Fernando says, "Good game."
Villa shrugs. "I didn't score."
Fernando almost laughs, because there are some things that don't ever seem to change. "You remind me of someone I know," he says.
"Yeah?" Villa says. "That a good thing?"
"Yeah," Fernando answers, and ignores the sudden and unexpected tightening of his throat. "Really good." He pushes it back, smiling wide, and says, "See you in a couple rounds, maybe."
"Before that," Villa says, and something about the way he says it makes Fernando almost flush.
He thinks he sees someone approaching out of the corner of his eye; he turns, but no one's there. When he looks back, Villa is already walking away. Then he looks over his shoulder, casually. When he sees Fernando watching, he smirks.
It's nearly midnight when Fernando's phone rings.
Afterwards, Villa says, voice low and satisfied, "You should have come to Valencia."
Fernando's mouth smiles a little, though he doesn't feel it. "Yeah," he says. "Maybe."
He doesn't say, If I had, this would never have happened.
That's a mistake he's never going to make again.
He calls Raúl after he's made the decision. It turns out Raúl's made one, too.
"I'm staying," Raúl says. There's an immeasurable weariness buried deep in his voice. "One more season."
Fernando's quiet. What he thinks is, Is it worth it, will it be enough, will it ever be enough. He says none of it, because he already knows the answers. What he does say is, "What are you doing until then?"
"Vacation, for now." Raúl makes a sound that's not entirely a laugh. "I have the time."
"Come to Valencia," Fernando says, on impulse. "Get out of the city, bring your family."
Raúl hesitates a moment.
"Come on," Fernando repeats, and Raúl says, "All right."
It's a hot day. They eat off paper plates, sitting on the front steps, while the children race across the front lawn and through the house and back again, shrieking. Eventually, inevitably, they gravitate to the back, where there's a net at either end of the lawn. Fernando helps take everything inside, and catches Victoria's eye; she nods and tucks her arm through Mamen's and they stroll after the children.
Raúl's still sitting out on the front steps. Fernando fetches two long-necked bottles and carries them out between two fingers, condensation dripping on his palm. He hands one to Raúl and eases down beside him, leaning back with a small oof.
Raúl drains half the bottle, eyes closed. Before them, the sinking sun paints the sky a brilliant orange. A high-pitched child's laugh drifts up from the back lawn.
"I," Raúl says, and no more.
He doesn't need to explain himself, to Fernando. He never has.
"A year, huh," Fernando says lightly. "Then maybe I'll wait until you can come along before I go too wild." He looks out over the lawn, mirroring Raúl. "You could come up here for a while, even. Or anywhere. You'll be able to go wherever you want, you know? We both will."
Raúl's shoulders are rigid. Fernando keeps talking, keeps his voice light, warm. "Think about it. We'll go on vacation, real vacation. And we'll go to matches, and cheer for whoever we want. Or, who knows, maybe just tennis instead."
"We'll do all those things we weren't allowed to under contract. We'll go skiing or rock climbing or sky diving. We'll take our kids out any time we want. We'll play football, and I'll beat you." Raúl's arm is trembling where it brushes his. "And maybe – maybe, after a while, we'll go back there together, one more time."
He wraps an arm around Raúl's shoulders, the fit as familiar, as comfortable as it's been since they were teenagers.
"One more time," he says. "Just for the memories."
Raúl sags against him, just for a moment. His curls brush Fernando's cheek. Fernando turns his head just enough to press his lips to Raúl's forehead.
"Okay," Raúl says.
They stay like that for a long time, until long after the sun's gone down.