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Your Heart is My Home

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On Fernando’s first official day with his new club, Nora decides that she doesn’t like mangoes anymore by throwing up all over her daddy. That is a signal for Leo to start wailing, despite a diaper change and a feeding barely thirty minutes ago. Fernando strips off the new shirt he put on for the occasion and debates which of his children to take care of first when the doorbell rings. For a brief moment, he thinks it’s his teammate’s wife Yolanda, coming by to pick up the kids before practice like usual. But the sound of Leo crying brings him back to the fact that he’s in London, not Liverpool and he’s all on his own here.

He opens the door to find a shorter man with the most welcoming smile Fernando’s seen since he’s been in London. Sure the club executives have welcomed him, and by his new manager as well, but it’s this man right here, with a scruffy beard and wide smile that is sincerely happy to see him.

Fernando asks confusedly, looking at the two suitcases being pulled “Can I help you?” He really hopes this guy is not a fan. It’ll be worrying how fast fans have tracked down his new address.

“Hi. I’m Juan Mata.” He beams and Fernando can see the bluest eyes ever, as blue as the sea when his parents took him to seaside vacations when he was young. Juan lets go of his luggage and stretches out his hand. “The club sent me, I’ll be your new nanny.”

Fernando frowns; he hasn’t heard anything about this from the club. As much as he appreciates that the club is looking out for him, he’s not sure how capable they are at choosing who looks after his children. This Juan fellow has all the right paperwork though, with a letter from the club explaining everything. It’s not asking for a lot, the club will be paying for it and all he has to do is supply room and board. Still, it’s asking for Fernando to trust his children with a stranger he knows nothing about.

Whatever reservations he has about the guy, the reality is that practice starts in twenty minutes and the drive to Cobham takes that long. And there’s the fact that he’s still half-naked with two unhappy children.

“Are you sure you can handle them?” he asks, the nanny doesn’t look too old himself.

“Don’t worry Mr. Torres, I’m sure Leo, Nora and I will get along just fine,” Juan reassures his new boss.

“Okay, you have my cell in case of problems?” Fernando does some last minute fretting. He regrets not taking his mother’s offer to live with him for a while, but he wants to show everyone that he’s okay, and that he will be on his own. “There’s a list of emergency numbers on the fridge. And I’m sorry about the mess.” He gestures to the table.

“Please don’t worry. I’m great with kids.” Juan says it like a worldly fact: the sky is blue, I will love your children.

“Okay. I’ll be back when practice ends in three hours.” He pulls on a random shirt, gives his kids a kiss (while making sure not to get any vomit on him) and leaves with one last look at Juan. “Nice to meet you, Juan.”

~

There’s something about stepping into Cobham for the first time in a blue shirt. Every part of Fernando’s body is screaming that it’s not Anfield, but he can’t bear to think about Liverpool anymore.

He knows most of the players, though know isn’t the best word. He’s played against them, scored against them, and even had a couple on-pitch spats. His last encounter with his new captain wasn’t under the most friendly of circumstances, so he hopes he’ll be professional. However, He doesn’t really know these players as people. He knows nothing about their dreams, loves and feelings. But maybe one day he will, and he hopes that he can fit in just as well as he did in red.

“Welcome.” John Terry extends a hand. “We’re glad to have you here.” The handshake is firm but without the tension of all the ones before. Fernando relaxes and didn’t realize how stiff his shoulders were.

The rest of the players come and say hi to the new signing. They’re friendly, but don’t really push the boundaries, and he’s glad for that.

He walks towards his bench and there’s a shirt with 9 TORRES hanging there. He takes it and traces the curve of the number; it’s familiar, except it’s not. He slips it on anyways, and doesn’t look down to look at the foreign crest over his heart.

Things are different on the pitch; there’s no small talk and footwork speaks louder than words. They run drills and Fernando keeps up well with the team. He still knows how to work his way on a pitch, no matter who’s on his team.

“Torres, right, left and slip it to Ramires! Start over,” Di Matteo shouts.

This time Luiz forces him out wide. “Pass to Hazard, he was wide open!”

He does it again, and this time completes the pass. Ramires surprises him though, sending the ball back with a cheeky back-heel and he instinctly shoots. The ball arches over the fingers of Cech and goes in.

The whole team cheer and whistle, and then coo when his cheeks start burning. He scowls good-naturedly – some things never change.

Fernando is exhausted by the time practice ends. He is not used to the pace the manager drives them to go at; there is less downtime, less fooling around between the players. There’s no one to throw water at, and nobody jumps on his back for a piggy-back ride. That’s not really a bad thing, just different.

Robbie approaches him as he’s changing out of his training gear. “Settling in alright, Fernando?” he asks kindly.

He nods. “Yes. London is very nice.” Fernando’s words come out softly. It’s exactly what he had told the Chelsea press earlier, but he doesn’t have much to comment. London is nice, but if they asked if he liked it better than Liverpool, he wouldn’t have been able to lie.

“Just know, we’re all here for you.” That’s the thing he likes about Robbie; he is always so considerate, even though they’ve only talked a handful of times. “We are glad to have you here.”

“Thank you.” Fernando attempts a real smile and it must look okay because his manager ruffles his hair before going to speak to Cech.

It’s not until on the drive back when he realizes that he hasn’t thought about Olalla since he stepped onto that training pitch.

~

Fernando pulls into the driveway and but doesn’t get out yet. He tries to will away all the thoughts that emerged during the drive back. Those moments are the worst, when he’s by himself and there is nothing else to focus on. No matter how loud he cranks up the radio it doesn’t drown out the screaming in his head and the memories flooding in.

It’s why he’s so happy to be training again, to be out on the pitch, to listen to the direction of the other players. He loves the sound of thousands of fans cheering, booing, whatever sounds they are making doesn’t matter, as long as they’re loud. That’s why he loves it when his kids are fussy, when they throw tantrums – it gives him something to focus on.

Fernando opens the door to his house and everything is silent. He sees that the kitchen has been cleaned up, and the dining table smells like ripe lemons. He goes upstairs to the nursery – they’re both sleeping soundly, Nora with a new blanket. Everything looks alright.

The door to the master bedroom is open and Fernando stills. There’s a painful pounding in his ribcage that turns out to be his heart trying to escape. His legs that are usually so agile have suddenly turned into lead as he walks into that room.

Fernando finds Juan kneeling on the floor, attaching foam corners on his bed frame.

“What are you doing?” He doesn’t mean to, but it comes out as a hiss.

Juan looks up, bewildered. “I’m baby-proofing your house.”

“Get out.” Fernando hauls the younger man up and towards the door. “Don’t ever come in here.” He pushes him out and slams the door, rattling the entire frame. Fernando slides down with his back against the door and puts his head between his knees. He’s close to hyperventilating and desperately tries to control his breathing. It’s especially difficult in this room.

After a while, he collects himself, and thinks about apologizing to the nanny. Then he hears the familiar sound of Leo crying. By the time he gets there, Juan has his son rocking in his arms, and a bottle is being heated up in the microwave.

“I think he’s a little hungry,” the younger man explains, not meeting his eyes.

“I’m sorry.” Fernando waves his hand in the direction of upstairs, trying to convey what happened but not knowing how to explain. He doesn’t even know why he had such a strong reaction, he’s not a violent man and he would never ever hurt anyone else. It’s important that Juan knows that.

Juan is clearly surprised because he looks up. “No, it’s okay.” He murmurs as he continues to cradle Leo.

Fernando still feels so bad; Chelsea sent this guy to help him, and he’s already yelled at him for no good reason. “I just…don’t like going into that room.”

The microwave beeps and Juan checks the formula’s temperature before guiding it to Leo’s mouth. “You don’t have to explain,” he says quietly.

So Fernando doesn’t. Instead they work together to roast a chicken for dinner and give both kids a bath. Fernando helps Juan move into one of the guest rooms, the empty one beside his that’s only two doors down from the nursery. At night he says good night to Juan and his kids, and tries to sleep. He hears the other man rustling around for a bit, singing something softly and that’s his last memory awake.

That night he dreams of blue eyes melting into the blue skies above his new stadium.

~

Stevie calls him the week before the league starts. “How are you doing?” The warmth and affection comes through so clear in his voice.

Fernando chokes at the familiarity. “I miss you,” he admits. “I miss Liverpool so much.”

“I know. Everyone still asks about you. We miss you too.”

“It’s just so hard, Stevie. I’m sorry.” He wants to cry, because if there is one man that he can let his shield down around, it’s Stevie. His captain, his friend, his link to moments when everything was splendid. “I’m so sorry I left.”

“Oh Nando,” Stevie tries to soothe his ex-teammate. It was so much easier when they sat next to each other on the bench, 8 and 9, their lockers behind them. Now he all he can do is reach out through a phone line and hope for the best. “We don’t blame you at all. All the lads understood why you had to go.”

“I just wish…” he starts and stops; he’s stopped wishing months ago, when he realized all it did was get your hopes up and destroy it. “I wanted to stay.”

“Listen to me, Nando.” Stevie is using his captain voice; it doesn’t matter how far apart they are, or the fact they’re playing for different teams now. There’s power and belief in that voice that makes Fernando listen. “You needed to leave. Liverpool had nothing for you or your children anymore. Leaving was the best decision for you and your family.”

“If I tried harder…” Fernando says.

“No.” Stevie is firm. “Think of your children, they couldn’t stay.”

“Nora still asks when she’s coming back.” His voice cracks. “Leo knows something is wrong because he won’t stop crying, I don’t know what to do” he admits.

“They’re young, and they will move on with time,” Stevie tells him. “And right now it may seem impossible, but you will too. The pain will fade, but not if you stayed here.”

Fernando knows his friend is right, but it’s difficult to feel that way. The hurt is too raw, and he sees her in the corner of her eyes everyday.

“One day you may even love again,” Stevie reminds Fernando gently.

He knows the older man can’t see, but he shakes his head anyway. “My love left me in Liverpool.”

~

It’s Fernando’s first game for Chelsea, and his nerves aren’t helping. He hasn’t played in a while, well not really played since the accident. The last couple of weeks at Liverpool were difficult to say the least; he didn’t score and nobody seemed to mind. He’s not sure which is worse.

He’s a striker (and one of the best in the league, his mind helpfully supplies). He’s supposed to be terrorizing the defense, not cowering in the tunnel wondering if his feet still know how to kick a ball. Those same legs feel stiff, and he can feel the shin guards dig into his leg even though he’s adjusted them a dozen times. The shirt is itchy, the sleeves are too long and he fiddles with the extra length. Most of all, the color is blue and he doesn’t recognize the man staring back at him in the mirror.

They line up in the tunnel and Fernando thinks he might throw up. Players on the other team shoot pitying looks at him and he hates it. There was a time when they would chat good-naturedly and they would look at him with respect, now’s it’s all oh look lets console Torres since he lost his wife and his scoring touch.

Fernando wants a lot of things, but that doesn’t include their sympathy. He wants his family back and he wants to wipe those understanding looks off their face. He tries his best to fulfill the latter.

It’s a tough game. He runs hard, trying to turn all the pressure and insecurities into energy chasing after the ball. The whole team pushes for the ninety minutes, but there’s just something off in their understanding. Fernando gets it, it’s a new team and all, but he really just wants to score. He wants something different.

It takes a lucky header from one of the defenders almost in injury time for Chelsea to get their goal. As Fernando trudges off the pitch to the roar of Stamford Bridge, he isn’t quite sure what he signed away for.

“Good game lads,” Robbie says in the dressing room, his eyes sweeping the dressing room.

His teammates cheer and start grouping together for locker room pictures, but Fernando focuses on changing out of his kit. He’s happy that they won; he just wishes that he could’ve done better. He wishes he could’ve scored.

“Hey, Fer.” Luiz comes to pat him on the back. “I can call you that, right?” the grin in the Brazilian’s is as ridiculous as his hair.

“Yes.” He nods.

“Come out with us, and have a drink.” He slings his arms around the taller man, and Fernando gets a face full of curly hair. “It’ll be fun, and you can get to know the team a bit better.” David’s smile is full of hope and good intentions; it reminds him of Nora when she’s excited about something and he finds himself agreeing.

Going out with team after game. Will be a bit late. Okay?  he texts Juan. It’s only been a couple of weeks, but by now he has zero qualms about leaving the kids with the younger man.

Nora wants you to have fun! :):):)

Fernando allows himself a small smile and joins his new teammates.

They go to some posh bar and the captain buys everyone a round. A couple more drinks later, Fernando’s more relaxed and actually enjoying just hanging out. Petr and Mikel have a wicked sense of humor and are determined to integrate him into the group. Rami drags a stool to the middle of the room.

“Time for the Chelsea tradition.” There’s a twinkle in Rami’s eyes, the same kind right before he trips you in practice.

Everyone starts yelling and catcalling and whistling. Fernando is suddenly a little apprehensive. He still remembers what Stevie made him do for Liverpool’s initiation. His cheeks flare red-hot and he doesn’t even know what these Chelsea boys have planned yet.

“Come on, you have to sing us a song.” Frank is laughing and pushing him towards the stool.

He deflates a little bit; that’s actually not so bad.

“While giving us a strip tease,” Drogba adds in.

“Strip tease?” His eyes open wide and he’s sure his freckles are ready to jump off his skin.

“Don’t worry. It won’t go on the internet or anything,” Brana tries to reassure him, but it’s anything but reassuring.

He reluctantly agrees to Call me, maybe and as the upbeat pop comes on he starts mouthing along, singing the few words he knows.

“Start stripping!” comes the calls.

Fernando takes a deep breath. He can do this. How many times has his old team fooled around like this? How many times has he seen Sergio do this during national team call ups? He tilts his head back up and fumbles with the first button of his shirt. There are whistles by the time he works his shirt off and the alcohol must be kicking in because by the time he gets to his pants, he’s leisurely sliding them down like a professional. The song ends and Fernando’s only left in his boxers and a visible flush that runs through his entire body.

Everyone is laughing good-naturedly and Fernando’s in his boxers in the middle of a bunch of guys in a random bar. It’s so ridiculous but it’s football, so he joins in. Kalou gets him another drink and he clinks bottles with his teammates. His teammates. He thinks he can get used to that.

~

Fernando and Juan end up developing a good system. Juan gets up early to make breakfast. He heats up formula for Leo and uses the food processor to mush up fruit for Nora. By the time Fernando comes down, all he has to do is feed them quickly and then he’s out the door for training.

Leo sleeps through most of the day, but when he’s awake he likes to crawl around in his playpen by the couch. He has a slightly different cry for when he needs a diaper changed or when he’s hungry. And he whines unhappily when he just wants to be picked up. Juan likes to think he understands the little guy most of the time.

He has more trouble with Nora. First, she has to be the most aware three-year-old he’s ever met.  She knows exactly when Juan is just trying to placate her, like when she asks for ice cream for breakfast and he says no and offers mango puree instead. He waits for her to stop pouting, because you can’t always give in to kids, no matter how cute they are. Second, she’s also the saddest three-year-old he knows. This is a little harder to deal with because he can’t do anything about the source of her sadness. Plus, when Nora is sad, so is her daddy and that’s another whole story right there.

Fernando and him usually make dinner together. It’s always something simple, like pasta or roast chicken since both of them aren’t well versed in the kitchen. They they sit and eat at the dinning room table, like the semblance of a real family. Some days Nora doesn’t like the color orange and dumps all her carrots on Juan’s plate. Her daddy frowns but doesn’t say anything, so Juan eats them anyways.

He loads the dishwasher while Fernando wipes down the table. “You okay here?” he asks.

“Yeah. Thanks.” The older man is always incredibly grateful.

Juan heads upstairs into his room. Fernando spends the evenings alone with his kids, usually cuddling them on the couch. Some days he takes out the double stroller and goes for a walk in the park, but only when it’s dark outside. He feels like already away too much, with weekend matches and Champions League fixtures in other countries. Some nights he wakes up in a strange hotel bed, wanting to cuddle Leo and Nora but he just can’t. When Nora calls him before a game and says I miss you daddy he wants to drop everything and kiss her.

Fernando is grateful that Juan takes such great care of them, but sometimes he just wants them all to himself. He knows it’s impossible, but he hugs them enough for two, and prays he can love them enough for two as well.

~

“But it’s Halloween, Daddy!”

Fernando looks at his daughter’s devastated face and crumbles. Nora isn’t crying yet, but judging by the way her eyes are filling up, it’s just a matter of time. “I’m so sorry, honey,” he picks her up and whispers into her hair.

“I want to go trick or treating.” She’s sniffling and he feels his shirt getting damp.

“You will,” he promises and traces little circles on her back. “Juan will take you.”

“With you.” Nora isn’t calming down though. “I want to go trick or treat with you Daddy!”

“I want to go with you too,” Fernando says and stops. How do you explain to your child that you need to play a football match rather than taking her door to door for candy on Halloween? It’s not even a matter of choice; if he had to choose, he’d pick his daughter any day, but despite how little he values a league cup fixture, he still has to play.

“But do you remember how Daddy has to go to work?” She gives a tearful nod. “Daddy would love to not go to work, but there are thousands of people watching and they would all notice.”

“But you’re mine, Daddy.” Nora doesn’t understand it; last year she was Tinkerbell and mommy and daddy were Wendy and Peter. But this year she doesn’t have anyone.

“I’m yours. Always yours.” He kisses his daughter on the cheek and just holds her close, trying to absorb all her upset tears and negative energy.

This year Nora wants to be a kitty witch. Fernando’s not too sure what that is, but Juan does. Sometimes it’s like Juan and the kids are on some magical wavelength that the striker just can’t seem to tune into.

Juan ends up making Nora’s entire outfit by hand. He sews little kitty ears onto a witch’s hat and makes her a cape to twirl in. For Fernando’s benefit, they start getting ready during the day so he can help. Nora’s face is painted green, with black whiskers and dark eyes. She’s delighted with her costume, and the tail sewn onto her pants bounces up and down as she jumps around.

“Meow, daddy. I’ll cast a spell so you can take me next year.” She waves around a plastic staff.

Fernando smiles at his daughter wistfully. “Next year, darling.”

Juan comes down in his costume, dressed as a sorcerer to match Nora. “You ready to get some candy?”

“Yeah!” She waves her arms around, sadness momentarily forgotten at the thought of candy.

“Did you show your daddy your song if they ask you for a trick?”

She scrunches her nose. “No.”

“How about you sing it for daddy.” Juan gives her an encouraging smile.

With that, Nora does a perfect rendition of “I’m a little teapot”, with some extra meows thrown in. Fernando laughs and it hurts a bit. He hasn’t seen his daughter this outgoing since Olalla passed, and it’s all because of Juan. Little Juan who spent hours making his daughter’s costume and drawing away all her sadness from how her dad can’t take her trick or treating. He’s suddenly so grateful for this man in his life and his children’s lives and he can’t imagine what he would’ve done without him.

~

England plays Spain for a friendly, and the next day Sergio Ramos shows up at his door. Fernando’s surprise quickly melts into joy at seeing his best friend.

“I’m so glad to see you,” he mumbles, his face squished into the defender’s neck. If there were paparazzi outside his house, they could’ve gotten some incredibly discriminating shots.

“Me too Nando.” Sergio runs his hands up and down Fernando’s back, soothing him as much as possible. “We all did.”

“Missed me, or my goals?” he tries to joke.

“Well, we didn’t score, so I guess just the goals.” He sees the striker frown. “Oh no, it wasn’t your fault; the whole team was just a mess that game.”

“Still,” he demurs, “I wish I could’ve been there.”

“Where are Nora and Leo?” Sergio tries to change the subject, he’s here to cheer his friend up, not to make him despair even more.

Fernando’s smile comes back at the mention of his kids. “Leo’s sleeping, and Juan took Nora and the dogs out for a walk.”

“Juan?”

“The nanny that Chelsea sent me. He’s Spanish too, so my kids won’t forget their language.” He explains.

“A guy?” Sergio laughs. “The club sent you a manny!”

“I guess they did.” Fernando has never thought about Juan’s gender. He’s always been Juan, the guy who’s amazing with his children. “But he’s just so good with them,” he gushes. “You should see the way he plays with them. They love him a lot.”

“Oh wow.” Sergio is surprised, because his friend is unusually vocal in his admiration. “He passed Nora’s test of acceptance?” He remembers how long it took him to befriend Nora, it was a whole Eurocup campaign before she would let him pick her up.

“Yeah. And Leo always stops crying when Juan picks him up.”

“It’s like you hired a baby whisperer.”

“I’m just glad that the kids have someone who adores them when I’m not there. It’s been really hard for them.” Fernando’s voice tapers off, he thinks about Leo and Nora right after the accident. He’s so glad they’re happier now, and maybe he’ll be too.

“I’m here for you, even all the way in Madrid.” Sergio grabs his friend and just holds him tight. “We’re all here for you. All of Spain is here for you,” he whispers fiercely and hopes Fernando understands.

~

“What kind of juice do you want?” Juan slides opens the fridge display. It’s one of the most profound differences when he came to England, how much choice there is in the grocery store. Like how there are over a dozen milk options, whereas Spain just had whole milk.

“Orange is fine.” Fernando squints at the display.

“Pulp or no pulp?”

“Pulp.”

“Really?” Juan scrunches up his nose. “But there’s nasty bits in your juice.”

“Pulps makes it taste more like actual oranges you know?” Fernando grins. “If you squeezed real oranges, you’d get pulp.”

Juan is not convinced and grabs a carton of grapefruit juice for himself. “We need more eggs too,” he remarks, while pushing the shopping cart along. Leo makes grabby hands from his seat on the cart, so Juan tickles him until he’s giggling.

“Daddy, can we buy a cake?” Nora looks imploringly at her daddy, and he’s never been able to deny her anything, especially with her mother’s eyes widened like that.

“Just a small one, honey.” It’s just a cake, it’s not like he’s buying her a pony, though he certainly has the money if she decides she wants one.

“That one.” She smacks her tiny hand on the glass at the pastry counter towards a chocolate one shaped like a heart and tied with a large red ribbon.

“It’s okay to say no, you know,” Juan murmurs in a low voice while the cake is being wrapped up.

“I know I’m spoiling her,” Fernando sighs. “But she’s had so much taken away; it’s difficult to deny her anything else.” He tries to explain to Juan, he’s not sure why he feels like he needs Juan’s approval.

“Just you wait until she starts bringing guys home,” the younger man teases.

“That’ll be a long way from now,” he comments fondly, looking at his daughter flouncing between the aisles.

Fernando is having a hard time perusing the cereal section; everything contains so much sugar. There was something with almonds that Olalla always picked out, but none of these packaging looks familiar.

“You should go for Greek yogurt and oatmeal instead,” Juan suggests. “Lots of fat-free protein and slow release carbs, won’t weigh you down on the pitch.”

“Oh.” Fernando is amazed at how Juan just understands him, just from how he’s standing before the array of cereals. He feels like one of his kids. “Thanks.”

“Let’s grab those and go home? I think Leo needs a diaper change.” Juan pushes their full cart to the dairy section while Fernando swings Nora around in his arms.

They pass by another couple who stiffens and glares at them. “Your family is unnatural,” the woman hisses when they push their trolley past.

Fernando stiffens and pulls Nora closer to him. He knows what the woman is implying, and even though it’s not true, he feels the need to defend himself and his family.  

“Hey.” Juan touches him gently and Fernando pulls closer to the other man. Juan’s eyes are icy as he herds Fernando and the children by without another word.

“Those people,” Fernando spits out. “They make me so angry.”

Juan shrugs. “People who assume are usually wrong.”

“That’s not it.” He shakes his head, scattering blonde hair in his face. “This family, it’s perfect the way it is.”

“Of course it is.”

“I mean with you too.” Fernando looks his nanny in the eyes. “You’re part of the family now.”

 

 

 

 

 


Chapter Text

Juan doesn’t realize what’s happening until Nora starts singing carols and every other front lawn on the street has a dozen reindeers crafted out of wire and tiny light bulbs. The intercom at the park is playing I’m dreaming for a white Christmas when everyone knows London never gets any snow. That’s when it hits him; Christmas is coming.

December has to be the worst schedule for Fernando. In addition to Premier League games, there are also Champion’s League group stage matches not to mention the start of the League Cup. Between matches and training, he’s barely at home and when he is, he’s so exhausted that all he does is fall asleep with the kids on the couch. He just rolls over when Juan extracts Nora and Leo to put them to sleep properly in the nursery.

By default, Juan ends up spending even more time with the children. Like when Nora has a nightmare, but Fernando is with the team at their hotel, it’s Juan who sings and cuddles her close until she falls asleep again. It also leaves him with a lot of free time, when Leo’s sleeping, or when Nora’s over at a friend’s. Especially at night even when the kids have turned in, eight in the evening is still way too early for a man his age to sleep. It’s periods like these when he spends a lot more time thinking about his own family and it just hurts so much. He tries to keep busy with trivial tasks, like organizing Nora’s doll collection or trying new puree recipes for Leo, but that emptiness is still there. Juan ignores it and pretends it’s just any other month, which works okay most of the time, until Fernando brings it up.

“My parents are coming to England and spending the holidays here. I can ask them to stay longer if you want to spend some extra time with your family.” Fernando grins at him. “It’s not really fair to them how I get you all to myself.” 

Juan feels his throat choking up and frantically tries to play it down. “It’s okay! I can stay during the holidays and help you guys out. They’ll be a handful.”

“It’s fine.” The blonde laughs. “Nora and Leo get spoiled enough with their grandparents.”

“But…”

“Besides, you deserve a break.” He looks into those blue eyes and tries to convey his gratitude. “You’ve been a miracle worker every day since you’ve got here.”

Juan feels an incredible sense of gratitude. He wants to take his boss’ advice, he wants it more than anything, but he knows he can’t. The dismay must be showing on his face because Fernando immediately becomes concerned.

“Juan.” He reaches out a hand to his shoulder. “What’s wrong?”

“I can’t.” Juan shakes his head. He feels tears prickling his eyes and has to look down and will himself to get back under control.

Fernando frowns, he has never seen Juan upset before. Juan’s always been calm and happy,  and right now he feels so helpless. He wishes he knew why this lovely godsend to his children is sad. If he knew, he would surely do everything in his power to fix it. He’ll do whatever it takes, to wipe the turmoil off Juan’s face.

“I can’t go home Fernando.” Juan cries brokenly.

“Oh Juan.” Fernando reaches out with both arms this time and wraps them securely around Juan. This is the first time they’ve been this close, just the two of them hugging without the children and even so, everything feels like its in their perfect place.

Juan feels so safe in the taller man’s arms, enveloped in comforting warmth and the familiar scent of freshly cut grass. He sobs quietly into a firm shoulder, wetting Fernando’s sweater with a couple stray tears. “I’m sorry.”

Fernando shushes him and runs his hand over Juan’s dark curls and traces them down his spine. “Hey. It’s okay.” Holding Juan isn’t too different from holding Nora, and he feels the same rush of intense affection coursing through him. “My parents will love you.”

Fernando’s family. Juan thinks it should be terrifying, but if they’re anywhere as warm and loving as Fernando is, he knows it won’t be a problem. 

Fernando wakes up late and groggy after a sleepless night spent thinking about the enigma that is Juan. He’s never seen such a look of despair on his nanny’s face and the more that he thinks about it, the more he realizes that he doesn’t really know Juan at all. 

Since Juan’s come to him at the start of the season, he’s never once mentioned his family. Their conversations always revolve around Leo and Nora, and sometimes football. Juan seems to like Chelsea and is always interested in how they’re doing. Sometimes they watch La Liga together. Fernando still cheers for Atlético, but Juan turns out to be a fan of Valencia even though he’s from Asturias. Fernando’s is surprised, but Juan’s got a keen eye and a pretty good understanding of tactics despite only being a fan. 

Other than football, much like Fernando’s life, their conversations revolve around Nora and Leo. If Fernando’s been away for more than a day, Juan will give hour by hour recaps of everything that’s happened to his children. Details on what they ate, to whom Nora played dress-up with and why Leo was crying at noon gets recanted to Fernando, and he get to relive everything through Juan’s perspective. It’s easy for him to see how much the younger man adores them and how the kids love him back.

Fernando doesn’t begrudge his children. They’ve already lost a mother’s love and although Juan can in no way make up for that, he’s still doing the best job possible.

~

“We need a tree.” Is the first thing Fernando says when he comes back after a game. His eyes are alight and the freckles around them seem to jump out of his skin like one of Nora’s pop up books. From that look alone, Juan knows that Chelsea must have won their game and Fernando scored a goal. 

“A tree?”

“A Christmas tree.” Fernando nods emphatically and makes a vague gesture of something triangular.

Nora and Leo are super hyped about a trip out. Well, Nora certainly is by the way she’s bouncing around in her car seat, but Leo is making happy sounds so Juan takes that as enthusiasm. He’s not particularly excited, Christmas trees always make a mess when they start shedding needles and the dogs are going to make a mess with the ornaments. Plus, outings like these remind him of that time his sister Paula lost him at a Christmas tree lot, but he puts on a cheery face for the kids. They drive out of London and there are miles of rolling hills and empty farmland before they pull into Ronnie’s Tree Farm. A jolly old man greets them. “Hello there! Pick any tree you like and just send someone to get me so I can cut it down for you.”

“He looks like Santa.” Nora whispers to Juan.

“But it can’t be.” Juan plays along. “Santa’s at the North Pole.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course.” Juan nods solemnly. “It’s almost Christmas. He’s rushing to finish making all the toys, making sure the reindeers are in shape and double checking every letter.”

Nora chews on her lip, the same look on her face as when she did something bad and doesn’t want to admit it. “Grecia said her daddy buys all the presents. She told me that Santa doesn’t actually exist." 

Juan heart almost stops, Nora is way too young to be questioning the validity of Santa. 

Thankfully Fernando jumps in. “That’s because Grecia’s daddy is jealous.” He exchanges Leo for Nora and leans down to whisper conspiratorially in her ear. “Tio Pepe wanted to be Santa when he grew up, but he didn’t make the cut so he had to settle for being a football player instead.”

Nora looks so taken back and Juan wants to laugh, so he does. “There can only be one Santa, and he lives with the elves and makes toys all year.”

“Poor Grecia.” Nora nods solemnly. “Her daddy should be on Santa’s naughty list.”

“I’m sure he will be.” Fernando says with a straight face.

They walk around, admiring the rows upon rows of trees. There are all kinds: evergreens, fir, spruce, and pines. It doesn’t feel like it, with England’s dreary overcast skies, but the smell of all this greenery and sounds of families laughing really makes it seem like Christmas is coming.

“I want this one!” Nora exclaims as she runs up to a particular tree. It’s one of the biggest trees in the lot, with majestic branches reaching even above Fernando’s head. He and Juan exchange a look.

“It’s a bit big, honey.” Juan starts. “Are you sure you don’t want to pick another one?” Even though in his heart, he knows Nora is set.

“No.” Nora shakes her head, flinging her pigtails about. “I want this one.”

“But how will you put the star on top?” He tries again.

“Daddy can carry me.” Nora smiles.

Juan sighs. He knows Fernando won’t say no and he hates having to play the mean parent, the one that has to say no to cookies before bedtime and make her wear gloves when it’s cold outside. He gives a pointed look at Fernando and the taller man gives a shrug, as if to say what can I do?

“Okay.” Juan smiles indulgently at Nora. “We’ll get this one.” Nora’s toothy grin makes it seem like the easiest decision in the world.

Fernando’s parents fly in a week before Christmas. The striker has a game so they’re taking a cab to the house where Juan is anxiously waiting for them. There’s no reason for him to be nervous, they’re Fernando’s parents and since their son came out so well, then there should be nothing to fear. However, there’s anxiety building in his gut, as he makes sure everything is perfect for their arrival.

Nora is the first to spot the taxi that pulls up in front of their house. “Grandpa, Grandma!” She squeals as she rushes out the door before Juan can tell her to put a jacket on.

The couple that gets out of the car doesn’t look old enough to be grandparents, but they have the same doe eyes as Fernando and the same affection towards Nora.

He walks out with Leo who is properly bundled up and introduces himself. “Hello. I’m Juan.” He holds out the hand that isn’t holding a baby.

“Ah. You’re the miracle worker that Fer talked about.” Mrs. Torres pulls Juan into a hug, Leo and all, and kisses his cheeks like they’re long lost friends. “Call me Flori, and my husband is José ”

Fernando’s father also gives him a crushing hug. “So pleased to meet the one that’s been taking care of my son and grandkids.”

Juan blushes and helps them bring their bags inside. “It’s so great having you guys here.”

He starts fussing around in the kitchen, taking his time boiling water for tea and fixing a tray of scones. It’s not that he’s avoiding them, it just a lot to take in and he’s not used to so much physical affection; the kissing and the hugging from these people who seem to really like him even though he’s a stranger. He’s gotten used to this bubble in which only Fernando and the kids exist, and he’s forgotten how to interact with other people. Except these aren’t any other people, they’re Leo and Nora’s grandparents, so for them he tries his best.

“You must be tired from the flight, I made you some tea and scones.” Juan says as he sets down a tray filled with food. José has Nora in his lap and is telling her stories of Spain while Leo’s crawling on the carpet under the loving gaze of Flori. “And your room is ready if you want to freshen up or take a nap. Fernando won’t be home for a bit.”

“It’s only two hours to fly between London and Madrid.” José explains wryly. “We’re not quite old enough to be so wrung out over a little trip like this.”

“We do a lot of travelling.” Flori tells Juan fondly. “Since Fernando started playing professionally, he and his siblings insisted that we retire early. It left us with a lot of time to go around the world and babysit grandchildren.”

Juan can see that, Fernando is the type of man who would ensure that his parents would want for nothing, not out of duty but because he loves them. Under the same circumstances, Juan would do the exact same thing, making sure his parents and sister were taken care of for the rest of their lives.

“I wanted to come after the accident. I didn’t want Fernando to go through it by himself.” She says, her eyes crinkling a little less as she thinks about the dark time that hit their family. “But our daughter Mari Paz had just given birth and Fernando insisted that he was fine. I was so worried though.”

Juan twists the teacup in his hands nervously; he’s not entirely comfortable with the topic and he doesn’t have anything to say. They don’t ever talk about the accident; in fact besides the kids, the last conversation was about whether it’s time to replace the vacuum or not. Some days he sees Fernando staring wistfully at the door to the master bedroom like it contains an unreachable treasure. But Juan never asks and Fernando never brings it up.

“Right now, you’re the one who knows him the best.” She turns to him, looking into Juan’s eyes. “How do you think he is?”

Juan opens his mouth, and then closes it again. He has no idea how to respond to such a direct question, so he goes for the truth. “I don’t really know.”

“But he’s getting over it right?” José presses him.

Juan has no idea how to answer that question. In fact he doesn’t feel comfortable with the topic even if these are Fernando’s parents. He settles for, “he seems happier and more open since he’s come to London.”

“Good.” José nods. “It’s good that he’s improving.”

“I think he is,” Juan feels a little awkward. It’s not his place to judge Fernando, and he really has no right to either. He’s neither a psychologist, or even a friend for that matter. In fact he’s really not sure what he is, other than the nanny. But nannies don’t sit down with their employer’s family getting questioned over their boss, so he’s probably allowed to be somewhat confused. Thankfully Flori can sense that he’s feeling a little reluctant and asks to be shown where they’ll be staying so they can freshen up. Somehow, Juan feels like Fernando’s mom can see right through him. 

~

Christmas morning comes on a wet and foggy English morning. That doesn’t stop Nora from waking up at an unreasonable hour despite the lack of sunshine to rouse the whole house. The only exception is Leo, who just sleeps through it all, as babies tend to do.

Juan stumbles downstairs, scratching at the scruffy beard that he’s been meaning to shave but hasn’t found the time to. He thought that with Fernando’s parents here, life would be a little less hectic, especially since they could keep Leo and Nora occupied most of the time. However, Juan didn’t realize that they would draw him in and include him in all their family activities. Not that he’s complaining, because Flori and José are a joy to be with, and he hasn’t realized how much he missed speaking with adults other than Fernando.

The kitchen is in full swing and Flori has a batch of churros frying in one pan while slices of bread are soaking in milk for torrijas. There’s the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg in the air mixing with the scent of fresh pine draped around the house. It hits Juan so suddenly; this is what his house smells like during the holidays. His eyes water and for a moment, Flori blurs into an image of his mother, flipping the torrijas and yelling for him and his sister. He blinks and he’s in Fernando’s house again, with Flori cooking and José trying to figure out the fancy espresso machine on the counter.

“Juan! Good morning.” José waves him over. “Good thing you’re here, I don’t understand this fancy coffee thing my son has. I pressed the button to filter coffee, but all I’m getting is hot water.”

“That’s because you have to grind the coffee first.” Juan explains, and shows the older man the attachment filled with whole beans that produces the grind. “It grinds and then goes to the filter, you’ll get fresher coffee this way.”

José shakes his head ruefully. “Everything’s so sophisticated now, I still remember grinding beans by hand in my day.”

“It’s pretty simple once you get the hang of it.” Juan points to a long metal tube. “It even has an attachment to froth milk for café con leche.”

The older man is amazed and they spend the next half an hour going through different espresso settings. Juan shows José how to use the steam wand to make hot chocolate for the kids. By the time Fernando comes back with Yanta and Pomo, breakfast is all laid out on the table and there are cups of warm drinks for everyone. Juan takes a bite of churro, they’re still hot and crispy and he never thought a piece of food would make him so happy. Sitting around the table with Fernando’s family, it’s not his home, but right now it’s the best he has and he’s just enjoying the moment.

“It’s so nice to have everyone here.” Fernando has a rare smile on. One that Juan doesn’t often see outside of when Fernando plays with his kids. “It’s going to be a wonderful Christmas. 

~

“Are you sure you don’t want to join us?” Flori asked one more time as she checks that Nora and Leo are properly dressed for the miserable English weather outside.

“It’s perfectly fine.” Juan assures the older woman. “It’ll give the kids change to spend some quality time with their grandparents. After all, I see them every day and you guys are leaving in a week.”

Flori hesitates, “It’s just that I know you don’t get much of a chance to go out, since you’re with the kids so much. If you wanted to watch the match…”

“Oh give the boy a break. Not everyone is obsessed with football like our son. He probably doesn’t even want to see Chelsea play.” José chimes in. “You don’t really want to go to the game do you?” He asks Juan with a wink.

Juan turns away and double checks the baby bag they’ll be bringing along. “No, I don’t.” He admits.

“There you go.” José booms out, ushering his wife and grandkids out the door. “The lad has better things to do during the holidays. Who wants to hang out with a couple seniors and kids while watching a sport he doesn’t even like?”

Juan opens his mouth to disagree. He wants them to know that there’s nothing more that he’d like to do than to spend time with this family, it’s just that he really doesn’t want to go to a match, especially at the Bridge. José smiles and grips his shoulders close. “A young man as handsome as you, take the day off and go find yourself a pretty little girl.”

Juan is saved from protesting when the cab outside honks. Flori hustles the family out the door and soon they’re en route to the stadium. Fernando’s pretty lucky, instead of having to play on Christmas day like the previous years, the Chelsea match is scheduled for Boxing day instead. Leo and Nora finally have a chance to see their Daddy play in a blue shirt, having his parents there is just the icing on the cake.

The house becomes silent after they leave. Juan stands in the foyer and feels somewhat lost. It’s the first time he’s had a day free and all to himself since he’s come here. He’s not sure what to do now. Juan’s days have always revolved around what the kids are doing and Fernando’s game schedule. He’s never needed to prioritize what he wants to do because what he wanted has always overlapped with what the kids wanted and thus also what Fernando wanted.

Call him cliché, but Juan decides to go sightseeing. Even though he’s been in London for a while, he’s never really gotten to explore this great city. It’s a sprawling metropolis filled with various landmarks, museums, attractions and all sorts of culturally interesting places he’s attracted to. So far he can count on his fingers the places he has gone to; Leo and Nora’s pediatrician, the park, the grocery store, the houses of Nora’s friends.

It’s a national holiday, which means the Tube is insanely crowded. Juan gives up his seat to a pregnant lady and lets himself be jostled around by the mass of people. He doesn’t mean to, but he becomes entangled with a group of people who get off at Westminster station and the subway leaves before he has a chance to get back on. At least he’s close to Big Ben, which is as close to a London icon as he’s going to get.

Juan stands on the bridge and looks at the grandeur he’s surrounded by. All around him are tourists and people crowding together and smiling as cameras flash. He feels obliged and takes out his phone to self-snap a picture with the Westminster Abbey in the background. There’s a list of contacts that Juan scrolls through, but in the end, he just instagrams it, but marks it off as private.

There is a line two hours long around the London Eye. It’s funny, Juan thinks, how much time people will wait around to get on a glorified Ferris wheel. Especially on a day where visibility is minimal and all they’ll be able to make out are grey blotches of buildings. He is willing to bet that his old condo had a much better view of London.

Instead, Juan takes the path that snakes along the Thames and eventually ends up at the Tate Modern. He buys a pass to the Kurt Schwitters exhibition on display and sits down in front of the original Das Undbild canvas. There’s something about this painting that really catches his eye. He’s no professional at analyzing art, but it’s probably the use of blue. He had always been fond of that color and even proud of wearing that color. If his friend Esteban was here, he’d probably explain that the sharp angles are a reflection of his inner psyche, and that the blue is actually a metaphor for his emotional turmoil or some deep shit like that. He thinks about ignoring the “do not photograph” signs and taking a picture, but Juan really likes the atmosphere here and plan on returning. It’s probably not a great idea to antagonize the museum staff, he thinks.

It gets dark and Juan stumbles into a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. It turns out to be a ramen shop run by an old man who doesn’t speak any English. Juan sheepishly points to a random item on the menu and hopes for the best, it can’t be any worse than what he and Fernando usually makes. Soon after, he receives a steaming bowl of noodles covered by half an inch of clear pork fat. He grins, it smells absolutely divine and so indulgently sinful. This is something he would never think of eating if he was concerned about his health. It’s quite different from what he cooks in the house with Fernando; for one thing, this whole bowl contains more fat than they consume in a week. He truly enjoys the food and by the time he clambers off the stool to pay, his gut feels like he’s been chasing around Nora and her friends for an entire afternoon.

Juan feels out of shape as he meanders downtown London, popping in to cafés and late night shops. He buys a box of delicate macarons from a bakery that he passes by. Nora’s got a sweet tooth and is undergoing a phase where she’ll only willingly eat foods that are strawberry flavored. Luckily most of her meals are easy enough to blend some form of strawberry into.

It’s pretty late by the time Juan makes his way back to the house. The subway is a lot emptier than previously but Juan still opts to stand on the return ride. He likes the feeling of movement as it rolls along the tracks. When he turns the corner onto their street, Juan is surprised that the lights are still on. Then again, Fernando’s got a free day tomorrow so he’s probably still up.

What Juan doesn’t expect is that the striker is waiting for him on the other side when he turns the lock to enter. “Hi.” He says, surprised when Fernando is just right there.

“Where were you?” Fernando scowls, wearing the same expression when he’s being benched or “rested”.

Juan hands over the box of macarons in confusion. “I was exploring London. I told you I wasn’t going to the game.”

“Oh.” Fernando doesn’t know how to explain how he felt when Juan wasn’t there when they came back from the game; it’s not like Juan just upped and left them. “Nora was worried.” He mumbles. “She didn’t want to sleep until you came back, but my mom tucked her in.”

“I’m sorry.” Juan apologizes, even though he didn’t do anything wrong, it just feels like the right thing to say. “I didn’t realize the how late it had gotten.”

“It’s fine.” Fernando waves his apology off, the scowl has already dissipated. His eyes are back to their gentle crinkle. “I’m glad you had fun tonight.”

Juan nods and wishes Fernando a good night. He’s not sure if fun is the right word. Sure it was quiet and meditative and a great break from his normal routine. But when he thinks of fun, he thinks of making airplane sounds while feeding Leo or playing hide and seek with Nora and pretending he doesn’t hear the giggling behind the living room TV. He’s not sure how, but now that he thinks about it, his most memorable times of late have been playing with the children and he’ll take them over being alone any day.

~

Fernando is supposed to drive his parents to the airport a week after New Year’s, but Nora starts crying uncontrollably when she realizes that her grandparents are leaving. She refuses to let go of them and throws a fuss. Only the idea of accompanying them to the airport gets her to stop crying but she still clutches furiously to José. The only problem is that the car seats for Nora and Leo take up too much space and so, Fernando ends up driving Nora, Leo and the luggage in one car, while Juan takes another car with Flori and José as the passengers.

Flori spends the entire time giving Juan last minute advice on parenting, not parenting Nora and Leo as he’d think, as most of her tips pertain to Fernando.

“Fernando’s guilty pleasure are rosquitos. He craves them the most after he’s had a bad game.” She tells him. “The trick is to roll them in cinnamon sugar, not the normal white sugar.”

“I see.” Juan nods in agreement as he weaves through London traffic. He doesn’t know why she’s telling him this, as he has no idea how to make rosquitos, and they’re probably too greasy to go on Fernando’s diet anyways. Not that it’s his job to make rosquitos when his employer is feeling down.

“Next time, I’ll teach you how to make them.” She promises him. “And don’t let him wallow in front of the television watching replays when his team does badly. He always puts too much of the burden on his shoulders.”

“Yes ma’am.” Juan agrees with her observations. Once again, it’s not part of his job to disagree with Fernando no matter how much self-blame he feels. Those times he usually drops a wailing Leo in his lap, because no matter how sorry Fernando feels himself, he’ll always drop that attitude when his children need something. He wonders what Fernando would do if he was one of those unmarried footballers living in a bachelor pad. Would he go out clubbing, and lose himself in the number of women he’d sleep with? Juan shakes his head, he has no idea where these crazy thoughts are coming from.

“Oh, one more thing.” Flori fixes him a stare through the rearview mirror. “I want him moved back into the master bedroom by the time we come again.” Her voice leaves no room for arguments.

Juan swallows a protest. He has no idea how to do that, and really he has no right. Fernando covets that room the same way he covets the memory of his deceased wife, and what’s Juan supposed to do to change that? It’s an unfair request from the older woman and they both know it. It doesn’t stop Juan from saying “I’ll try my best,” as they pull up to Heathrow.

“I know you will.” Both José and Flori smile at him before embracing him fondly. “You’re doing an amazing job taking care of our family.” She tells him as Fernando pulls up with the kids.

José pulls him close after they’re done the whole check-in procedure. “Thank you,” he says gruffly but full of sincerity. He pats Juan’s curly hair the same way he did when Fernando was just a boy. “Fernando probably won’t say it to your face, so I’ll say it for all of us. We appreciate everything you’ve done for him.”

Juan holds Leo as Fernando and Nora wave goodbye sadly. She sniffles loudly but her face is dry. Once the older couple has disappeared through the security gates, Fernando looks at the shorter man. “Let’s go home,” he says softly.

With her free hand, Nora grabs Juan and together, they walk out of the airport.

 

 

 

Juan