Sometimes [Juan and I] go out walking in London. We go to Big Ben, places like that. I am 20 years old: I can't stay at home all afternoon. I have to do something, whether that's with my friends or Juan.
-Oriol Romeu in FourFourTwo Magazine Issue 215 (May 2012)
"Come up, hang out a while," Juan said with an easy smile. Practice had gone well, but even when it went badly Juan always seemed to be in a good mood. He was just easy-going, maybe, but it seemed like he chose to be that way; Oriol liked that about him.
"I thought your sister was visiting, though," he said. He could hardly forget; Juan had been talking about Paula coming to see him all week. He'd gotten some stick in the locker room for being so excited about a mere sister, but the teasing just made him smile even wider.
Juan nodded, every bit as enthusiastic as he'd been when asking where he should take Paula for dinner, what places she should see. "She is! Come and have tea with us, we are being English today."
"Being… English," Oriol repeated as he followed along in Juan's wake up to his apartment, now too curious to resist.
"Yes, Paula says I must acclimate to the culture and embrace the English as my people now," Juan said solemnly. Oriol opened his mouth and then closed it again. He could not think of a single thing to say in response to that. "We will drink tea and eat, ah, crumpets?" He used the English word. "That's how you say it, no? And then supper at seven, and bed by ten. Very English." He looked back at Oriol and suddenly dissolved into laughter. "Joking, joking! Well, we'll have tea. Paula likes it now, she is more English than we are."
"Don't scare me like that," Oriol said, and swatted the back of Juan's head. "If you and Fernando go native I'll be completely on my own."
"We would never abandon you, Ori," Juan said. Oriol couldn't see his face, and he couldn't tell from his tone of voice whether he was joking or serious. Maybe a bit of both. "Without you, who will attract the women when I go out dancing?"
Mostly joking, then. Oriol tried not to think about why he was suddenly disappointed. "Fernando is the pretty one," he pointed out. "And you never dance. You didn't even know the steps to the Macarena."
They were at Juan's apartment now; Oriol thought that Juan would just knock on the door and yell for his sister, but instead he started fumbling in his bag for his keys. "Just because you've never seen me dance, doesn't mean I don't," he said with a sly smile. "There's lots you don't know about me yet. And anyway, shut the fuck up, you know you're the best-looking guy on the team." He had the door open before Oriol could protest or ask what that was supposed to mean. "Paula! Paula, we're home!"
Paula was small, like Juan, but darker: darker hair, darker eyes, darker skin. She was pretty but not beautiful, dressed in ordinary clothes, and Oriol liked her immediately. "Hi," he said. "I'm Oriol."
"Ohhh," she said, drawing the sound out until it lost all meaning. Oriol couldn't help wondering why. "Hello, I'm Paula. It's nice to meet you. Juanito," she went on without waiting for Oriol to return the social niceties, "why didn't you tell me you were bringing Oriol home with you? I would have bought more pastries if I'd known."
"You went to the store? Paula, I told you, you don't have to shop for me--"
"Oh, yes, mister big football star can buy his own groceries, only he doesn't know where the store is or what to buy or how to ask a clerk where the cereal is," Paula sniffed. Oriol watched, wide-eyed, as Juan and Paula stared at each other for a long moment, and then they laughed and kissed each other on both cheeks like they hadn't been about to fight. "I just picked up a few things," Paula said. "I know I promised to take you with me. I didn't forget."
"Okay," Juan said agreeably. "Just show me before you go home. I can't keep eating takeaway for dinner."
"Would you like some tea, Oriol?" Paula asked. She was already walking back to the kitchen. "I'm making a pot, it's no trouble. Or there's water, or horrible sports drinks in the fridge."
"You're selling them so well," Juan said, deadpan. Paula flapped a hand at him, not even looking back.
"Tea is fine," Oriol said, and then repeated it a little louder when neither of them heard.
The pastries Paula had bought weren't actually crumpets, he was pretty sure. He was even more sure they weren't allowed in the diet the club physios gave them, but he and Juan ate them anyway, and then they sat on the couch for the rest of the afternoon, trading off the videogame controller with Paula whenever one of them lost. She was better than Juan at football games but not as good as Oriol. The pastries weren't very filling so they ate dinner early, and it was barely half-nine when Oriol started yawning, because of course he'd missed siesta playing videogames with Juan and Juan's sister. He went back to his apartment at ten and went straight to bed.
It was a little ironic that the place he felt the most English in all of England was Juan's apartment.
They had both been to see Big Ben before, but Oriol said yes without thinking when Juan asked if he wanted to go again. He didn't care where they went, really; he just wanted to get out of his apartment. (That was what he told himself, and he ignored the little voice that said he'd go anywhere if Juan smiled like that when he asked him to.)
It was cold out, and he'd forgotten his gloves back at Cobham. Oriol shoved his hands into his puffer jacket pockets and shivered underneath three layers of clothing, including a sweatshirt and a long-sleeved training top he'd taken home from practice. Juan grinned up at him, apparently happy in just his peacoat and scarf. "Let's walk along the river," he suggested. His breath formed a white cloud in front of his mouth as he spoke. "Look, the sun's even out."
"For how long?" Oriol asked dryly.
"Exactly!" Juan's teeth flashed again, and Oriol resigned himself to doing whatever Juan wanted to do. "Who knows when we'll see sunshine again, we'd better enjoy it while we can."
So they walked across the bridge and then up the river for a while, the circle of the ferris wheel silhouetted against the sky growing bigger as they went. "Have you ever been?" Oriol asked, jerking his head up at it. The sun had predictably vanished behind the clouds, and it was even colder with the breeze blowing off the Thames. Oriol had zipped his coat up all the way to his chin and was still casting longing glances at Juan's scarf when he thought Juan wouldn't notice.
"On the Eye? No, I've walked around here but I never had time for the queue. Do you want to?" Juan brightened visibly at the thought, and Oriol didn't manage to tell him it had only been an idle question before he was dragged off to stand in a cold line waiting to go up into the even colder air. By the time they had finally handed over their money and were climbing into one of the swaying little cars, his teeth were chattering and he could barely feel his fingers.
"Where are your gloves?" Juan asked, when Oriol gave up and started blowing on his hands to try to warm them up.
"F-forgot them in the locker room," he said, only stuttering a little.
"You should be more--joder, Ori!" Juan's almost motherly nagging tone vanished as soon as he put his hands around Oriol's. "Your hands are freezing! No, hold still," he said firmly, and moved to sit beside Oriol instead of across from him. Oriol could feel Juan's body heat seeping into his thigh where they were pressed together, and he tried to focus instead on Juan's frown as he rubbed their hands together. "Just hang on until we get back on the ground, okay? We'll get some tea or something to warm you up again."
"More tea? They're going to make an Englishman out of you yet," Oriol teased.
"Well, I haven't found a place here that will serve cola cao yet, have you?" Juan retorted. "That's enough cheek out of a boy who can't even remember to put on gloves in the English winter, eh?"
Oriol was going to come up with some sort of snappy retort, but then he looked out the window and he forgot what he wanted to say. "Oh," he said instead, stupidly. "Look. It's so beautiful."
Juan turned to look as well, and he didn't say anything at all. It was beautiful, the whole city spread out beneath them, churchspires and skyscrapers and parks and the river winding through it all like a giant ribbon. It wasn't the same as Barcelona, decaying Gothic churches and Gaudi buildings and the bright blue sky stretching out forever over the ocean, but Oriol was glad to be here with Juan and see that London was beautiful too.
Without a word, Juan put his arm around Oriol and pulled him even closer. They huddled together for warmth for the rest of the ride and silently watched London go by.
"This is boring," Oriol complained.
"You have no sense of artistic appreciation," Juan retorted, most of his attention on the audio guide he'd insisted on renting. "Look, it says all these sculptures would have been on the roof of the temple!"
"I'd have more appreciation for the art if it were still in one piece," Oriol muttered. It wasn't like he didn't like art. He just didn't like it enough to spend an entire afternoon running around a museum. They'd already been there for two hours, and they hadn't even left the first floor. He was tired and hungry and his back was starting to ache just from all the standing around. Though at least the tourists in museums weren't usually the kind who would recognize Juan and ask for autographs. "How much longer are we going to be here?"
Juan finally looked up at Oriol, and his face fell. "Oh. Do you want to leave?"
Yes was on the tip of Oriol's tongue, but he couldn't bring himself to say it. "I'm just hungry," he finally compromised. "Can we take a break? There's a cafe by the bathrooms, I saw it on the map."
Juan's stomach growled, and both he and Oriol burst into surprised laughter. "I guess I'm outvoted," Juan joked. "Lead the way!"
The cafe wasn't very crowded; it was an awkward time of day, too late for lunch but too early for dinner even in England. Oriol was making a beeline for the pasta--too much cheese for his diet, but Juan wouldn't tattle to the physios--when he heard Juan laugh behind him. He turned around and immediately saw what Juan found so funny: the cafe served tea. Not just in cups or a pot but a full cream tea service with scones and jam and clotted cream. Oriol thought a lot of things that British people ate were very strange, but clotted cream, once he'd been tricked into trying something that had "clotted" in its name, made up for most of them.
Juan ordered a cream tea for both of them without even asking if Oriol wanted any, and they sat down to eat. Oriol devoured his scones immediately and then spent the next hour licking his jam-sticky fingers and nursing his pot of tea while Juan told him about all his favorite things they'd seen that day. The art seemed much more interesting when he was listening to Juan talk about it in the cafe than when Oriol was standing around staring at it and struggling to read the explanatory English placards. He was almost sorry when Paula called Juan's cell phone to demand to know where he was and why he wasn't home yet to get ready for dinner, because they couldn't go back and finish looking at the mysterious bits of broken marble statues.
"We can always come back another time," Juan said as he returned his audioguide.
"Yeah," Oriol said slowly. "I'd like that."
"We're lost, aren't we."
"No, I know where we're going," Juan said, frowning down at his map.
"But not where we are," Oriol retorted. "Look, I'm hungry. There's restaurants all around here. Just call the place we were going to go and cancel our reservation, and we'll have plenty of time to find the theater after we eat."
Juan looked disproportionately upset by his suggestion. "I guess we can," he said slowly. "I just--I really wanted to take you to that restaurant, that's all."
Oriol looked at him sidelong, puzzled. "Well, we can go some other time, can't we? I mean, it's not like I'm going anywhere."
"True," Juan said, smiling, and intentionally bumped into Oriol's side. "All right, you're the one who's dying of hunger--"
"I didn't say--"
"--so you decide where you want to eat."
"Right here," Oriol said immediately, not even looking to see what kind of restaurant it was before he dragged Juan inside. Maybe he wasn't dying of hunger, but he was definitely hungry enough not to be picky. It turned out to be a nice restaurant, though; they specialized in dumplings, and he wasn't sure what was in half of them but they were all delicious. After they paid their bill, the waitress even looked at Juan's map and helped them figure out how to get to the theater from where they were.
"I liked that place," Oriol said suddenly, halfway to the theater.
"It was a good choice," Juan agreed. "We should go again sometime."
Oriol wasn't sure whether the warm feeling in his chest came from Juan's approval or his easy assumption that they would go back together, but it lingered for the rest of the night.
The thing was. The thing was, Juan was an amazing footballer, a World Cup winner, the kind of player who scored goals and made assists and won games for his team, and Oriol didn't believe in false modesty, he knew he was good and Chelsea had bought him for a reason, but he was just a hard-working kid from Barcelona: nobody was going to fall in love with him like they loved Juan or even like they loved Fernando. They didn't make up songs to sing for him or chant his name to encourage him when he was playing badly, and maybe that was for the best--the way the Liverpool fans treated Fernando scared him, and everyone who'd ever played for Barcelona knew what had happened with Figo, we hate you so much because we loved you so much--but it did drive home how different he and Juan really were.
For all of that, though, even if Juan was four years older and an established starter when Oriol was just hoping to play some minutes here and there, sometimes Oriol thought that Juan maybe needed him to protect him. It was probably a stupid impulse; Juan had seen a lot more than Oriol had as a footballer, and he wasn't like Fernando, too nice for his own goddamned good. But still, after they played Valencia--after they beat Valencia and knocked them out of the Champions League--he didn't want to leave Juan alone. Everyone in the locker room was loud and happy and relieved that they were finally winning, finally playing well, and Oriol was happy too, but nobody else seemed to remember that Valencia had been Juan's team until only a few months ago, or think twice about celebrating in front of him. So he waited around until Juan was ready to leave, so he could walk him home.
"You played really well," he finally ventured, after they'd gone most of the way in silence.
Juan laughed, breathless and clearly still coming down from the adrenaline high of the game, and slung an arm around Oriol. "You too, my friend. What a game."
"I'm, um. I'm sorry it was Valencia."
"That's football," Juan said. "You've got to try to win. It's not honorable if you don't."
"I know, I just--" They were outside Oriol's apartment building already. He stopped and looked down at Juan, aware that he should stop talking unless he wanted to make a fool of himself, and kept going anyway. "I would feel weird if it was me. So it's okay if you feel weird, or if you don't, or--I just don't want you to think you have to pretend with me."
"Ori," Juan said softly. He was staring intensely into Oriol's eyes, and Oriol felt his cheeks heat up as he wondered what Juan saw in them. He wondered if what he was seeing in Juan's was really there. "Ori, you should invite me up for tea."
"I--you--okay," Oriol stammered, and only broke out of his haze of confusion once they were already in his apartment. "I, um, I hope that tea was a euphemism," he blurted before he could think better of it. "Because I don't actually have a kettle."
Juan stood on his tiptoes and kissed him, and that answered that question. He broke away after only a moment, but Oriol chased after his mouth, pressed for another kiss and another and another, until he was almost dizzy from Juan's nearness and lack of air. He was so small, Oriol thought distantly. His personality was so big you never noticed, but now that he could finally touch him, really touch him, Juan was so much smaller than he was, and he wanted to wrap him up in his body and hide him from the world. He wanted to keep Juan all to himself.
"You have no idea how long I've wanted this," Juan panted between kisses. "Fuck, the first time I saw you--fuck, Ori, where's your bedroom, I want--I want--"
They stumbled into the bedroom, and Oriol didn't even have time to feel embarrassed about the messy sheets or piles of clothing on the floor before he was tumbling Juan down onto the bed. "Nice place," Juan said, smiling up at him.
"This is my favorite place in all of London," Oriol said fervently, and kissed Juan again, and again, and again.