does this feel like an end to you?
It was 8 o’clock and I was pretending to be asleep. Iker had woken up long ago, stumbled downstairs with the sound like dragging feet against thick carpet, and when I opened my eyes, his side of the bed was empty and I heard him rustling around downstairs.
I stayed in bed, looking up at the ceiling thinking about disappointment and how Iker let me down. He really let me down and part of me wasn’t surprised in the slightest.
The sheets were warm and thick and felt like they hadn’t been washed in days. They hadn’t. Iker was lazy and I didn’t feel at home enough to toss them in the washer. I still tiptoed around on mornings after I’d stayed the night. I put my head in one of the pillows and listened to the sound of footsteps on stairs, hoping to God he wasn’t about to force me out of the house. I shut my eyes and continued to pretend.
Iker stopped in the doorway, paused there, drummed his fingers on the door as if he knew I was pretending, as if he could hear my thoughts, and knew I wanted some warning. He crossed the room when I didn’t respond, sat on the edge of the bed. He didn’t touch me, didn’t move closer, didn’t do anything but sit there and stare down at his hands for the longest time.
Finally, I felt him shift on the bed and his hand was at my back. He murmured my name and I couldn’t pretend for much longer. I opened them and he removed his hand, sat back a little and brushed the sheets off his toes.
“I don’t really like being in love,” he said thoughtfully, and I ignored the fact that I heard it— the fact that I’d heard it for real this time. Besides, I was supposed to be angry and he didn’t really look like he meant for me to understand that way.
“I would rather lie next to someone and not have to worry about looking funny when I wake up or making waffles without burning them or not using their toothbrush.”
“Or hurting them?”
“Or hurting them,” he echoed softly, looking away.
I sat up and he passed me his shirt from last night, looked down while I pulled it over my head and I rolled my eyes.
“Don’t get shy on me now,” I scoffed.
He didn’t smile at first, just turned to look at his dresser and sighed so heavily I almost started laughing. Instead I just scooted closer and buried my face in his neck, pressed a light kiss there and assured him in more words than strictly necessary that it was my decision to be with him. For once, I didn’t trip over them and for once, the smile wasn’t slow to appear on his features.
He turned back around and my speech halted. He pressed a light kiss to my lips. It deepened and he was pressing me back on the mattress, but just as quickly, extracting himself and lifting me up with him, pulling me to stand.
He spoke rapidly about breakfast and how, okay, he’d lied about being able to cook, but there was some cereal downstairs, and did I want it? He looked at me hopefully like perhaps all could be forgiven, and I felt more like it had to be my apology to fix things than anything, although I had nothing to apologize for. I knew that; he knew that. His change of mood was his apology of sorts, but it wasn’t the one I was looking for.
He talked with his hands a lot, moving them around in front of his face as if the movement could somehow distract me from the fact that he still hadn’t apologized, we still hadn’t talked about anything— and perhaps to distract me from the feeling that all was already forgiven.
“I just really hate bananas,” he was saying as we continued downstairs, “I just really hate them. They’re my least favorite food and I don’t allow them in the house. Sergio came over and he wanted one for breakfast and I told him, Sergio, if you’re going to eat a banana in my house, I’m going to have to kill you. The stench stays for days. Days, Lee. I’m not joking.”
“So number one rule of being in your house, no—”
He nodded, said it with me, “No bananas, that’s right.” He rubbed his palms together and stuck them out in a ta-da kind of way. “Kitchen. Well. You’ve already seen the kitchen, I guess, but this is the formal introduction. Kitchen, Lee. Lee, this is the kitchen. Now that you two are good friends, please, sit down—” He pulled out the chair for me and gestured. I sat. “Have anything you’d like.”
“I was going to say a banana, but—” I shrugged. “Since you don’t offer that, how about cereal.”
“Don’t say the b-word in my house,” he grumbled under his breath, reaching to open a cabinet behind him. “Okay, pick your poison. This half will give you a heart attack, probably instantaneously. This half is healthy— oh, here’s a great one with fiber. It takes like flavored dirt. You’ll love it.”
“That one,” I said pointing to the bright box with what looked like kid’s cereal. It was cinnamon and negative 5 years of my life.
“Ah, good choice. Good choice.” He poured me a bowl and crossed the room to find the milk. He slid it across the table to me and I caught it with both hands, uncapping it, pouring it, and quickly sliding it back.
He returned to his bagel, already sitting out on a plate. There was a large bowl of fruit next to him that he kept eyeing, but he left it for last. We were mostly quiet while we ate. Sometimes, he brought up a story he’d read in the newspaper or tell me something a teammate had said before the game. They were little stories, little peace offerings, but none of them apologies.
Finally, his shoulders slumped like he was giving up and he said, “You know there is no before and after. Not for me. There has only ever been you. You— and those who pale in comparison.”
He watched my reaction carefully, trying to pick out some shred of regret or excitement or shock, anything he could pinpoint to find out what I really thought, but I just smiled, nudged his elbow with mine, said, “Ah, so now there’s a comparison?”
“Yes, but you win every time,” he replied with the shadow of a smile in his eyes. I thought about winning and how it was always so far out of reach with him— how it always felt so out of reach with him, but here he was handing it to me freely, saying ‘I didn’t even have to choose you. It was just always you.’
“How much do I win by?”
He could tell I was playing by now, so he opened the newspaper next to him, shrugged. “Such a small margin, really. It’s hard to say.”
“Knew it,” I said, drawing out the word in an attempt to annoy him. It worked. “How am I even beating out all those model ex-girlfriends of yours?”
He snorted. “What, have I dated one model in my life and suddenly it’s ‘all those model ex-girlfriends.’”
“You’re a chick magnet,” I assured him, slowly growing out of my awful mood, my anger, and even my feeling that I had a right to be angry. I wasn’t about to make excuses for him, but Iker was… He was, just. Iker was closed off. Always had been, always would be. But little by little, he was slowly allowing me into his world, and instead of appreciating that, I had expected him to be normal about it. Iker was anything but normal.
“I’m classically handsome. There’s a difference.”
“We like classically handsome.” I waggled my eyebrows and he stuck out his tongue.
“No. Some people like my money—”
“—Some people like your looks—”
“— And some people like what the image offers them.”
“And me?” I asked, crossing my arms over my chest, eyebrows raised.
“What, you have a thing for my money too?” He was smiling now.
“Don’t be ridiculous, I have a thing for you.”
His bagel was distracting, but a slow smile crept over his lips, and the tips of his ears turned pink. “I know.”
“Does this mean you’ll stop being a dick?”
“Hm.” But I smiled.
We were sitting on a park bench two blocks away from his place. There was a light breeze and his scarf flapped in the wind. I almost told him not to wear it because it looked like something Sergio might wear, but he put it on and smiled, so I stayed quiet. It was nice anyway, to look over and have a reason to burst out laughing. The great, fluffy thing was practically devouring his neck.
His hand was on my leg and it felt like the only thing anchoring me to reality. He was my anchor and I was his, and we were sitting in the midst of people who didn’t need anchors at all. Children ran across the field playing frisbee, someone flew a kite, and there was a lone hooded figure underneath a tree with a book. Someone snapped a picture of the two of us and Iker didn’t mind, didn’t even ask me if I minded being in it like he had so many times before.
They left and he smiled and it reminded me of a photograph, how people freeze that image and it’s burned there forever. One has successfully stored a memory beyond the reaches of time. Iker’s smile wasn’t frozen; sometimes it was there and sometimes it was fading, but on that park bench with me, it never disappeared completely.
“I’m probably falling in love with you a little,” he said casually. It was an offhand remark and my hand trembled a little in his. He pretended not to notice. “You don’t realize how beautiful you are. I like that. You dress like you are beautiful not like you’re trying to be. I like that too. And you smile a lot. I can bring up serious things and not get that depressing, crushing feeling. You make me pretty goddamn happy. That okay?”
“Yeah,” I said after a second, getting that crushing feeling, but not in the depressing way. In the wow something is sitting on my chest and I love him so fucking much sort of way. “I guess that’s sort of okay.”
It was much more than okay.
“I’m just not drunk enough to say it yet.”
“You have to be drunk to say it?”
“Bravery and all.” Iker shrugged.
“You just need 20 seconds,” I said as he covered my hand with his. He squeezed my hand and I squeezed back gently.
“20 seconds is a long time.”
“It’s not like I won’t say it back.”
He hesitated. “Will you mean it back?”
“That’s not fair,” I warned, shaking my head. “You’ll have to wait and see.”
He mulled it over. “I’ll have to think about it.”
“Only you would put that much thought into telling someone something as simple as this.”
“It’s not that it isn’t simple. It’s just—” He laughed. “—complicated. Difficult to get out.”
“It’s not complicated,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “You’re not confusing. One of those is a lie.”
He did his half-disappearing smile again, somehow bringing it to life while keeping it dim enough to control. He suggested we walk home.
I met his brother three days after the park. He was equally handsome, equally kind, but louder and more boisterous in a way only a younger sibling could be. I teased Iker about leaving him for his brother and he just grumbled under his breath about not being able to take me anywhere.
Unai was pleasant and open right away and Iker looked away like he could see me making the comparison. He smiled faintly when our conversation turned to El Clasico and Iker returning to training and—
“So will you play against United, that’s the question. We knew you’d be out for the clasico, but for Tuesday… hm?” He raised his eyebrows at Iker, took a sip of his water, and moved the ice around noisily. “I think it’s soon for you to return, but, hey, if you want back in right away, by all means, go for it.”
“I’d like to go back as soon as possible, but—” He cut off and shrugged. His voice was different around his brother, more controlled and careful, more familiar. He was familiar with being in control, completely comfortable, and for once, we were completely comfortable in unison.
“You never know,” Unai finished for him, nodding. “I know, I know. Well, no matter, it will be nice to see you back when you do return. Maybe you’ll come and visit Mom and Dad and me again once your schedule is back to normal.” Unai turned to me, gestured frustratedly. “You’d think once he injures himself, he’d have more time to see us, but no— not Iker.”
Iker sighed and threw up his hands. “Not this again. I told you, I can hardly drive with this fucking thing on my hand and—” He moved his fingers, the absence of the cast now noticeable. “Well, the cast that was here made it difficult to drive,” he finished crankily.
“And now it’s off, so you can come and grace the family with your presence.” Unai turned away from Iker and back to me, giving me a glowing smile that made Iker roll his eyes. “I hope Iker hasn’t told you too many bad things about me. Don’t want to make a bad impression.”
“You don’t need me for that,” Iker remarked coolly.
Unai laughed, short and under his breath like Iker, and I shook my head at the eerie similarities. “Iker only has nice things to say about his younger brother,” I said diplomatically.
“My fucking annoying younger brother.”
“Yes, your annoying younger brother who gets to meet your girlfriend first and— I’m sorry, Lee— will tell Mom and Dad she’s not suitable at all if you’re not more pleasant.” He smiled at me cheerily.
“I love you too, Iker.” He turned back to me. “I hate to subject you to this, but you’re going to have to go through the sibling test.”
“That’s alright. I think I can handle it. What can be harder than handling Iker for a few hours?” I nudged Iker’s elbow.
Unai grinned. “You’re already ahead of the curve.”
It was well past 2 am and I wasn’t sure how I’d ended up staying at Iker’s again, but I had, and nothing even happened. I just crawled in bed and his arm brushed mine and he smiled. I turned over and tried to fall asleep. His arm wrapped around me, squeezing me tightly to his chest.
He fell asleep a long time before I did, and his arm loosened around my waist, his snoring soft at my ear. The alarm clock made my eyes sting and my head ache when I thought about how exhausted I was going to be when I had to wake up in— oh, 3 hours. I groaned into my pillow and rolled away from Iker, trying not to take too much noise. There was hardly any point in getting to bed at all.
If I could just reach my (the) nightstand, maybe I could read until 5, wake up and do shots of coffee until I was awake enough to deal with Scarlett and the re-signing of her contract. My arm was halfway to the book when Iker sat up with a groan and rubbed at his eyes.
“You’re still up?”
I took my arm back and rolled back over to look at him. I sat up and pulled the covers to my chin. “Yeah. Couldn’t sleep.”
“Mm.” His voice was sleep-rough and quiet and I buried my head in his chest. “You need sleep. Thought you had to be up early.”
“I do, but I can’t sleep and there’s almost no point now. I was just going to read instead.”
“Don’t read,” he whined and his fingers played with my hair. “Just stay here with me.”
“Fine,” I sighed as if it was taking a lot out of me. He smiled faintly. “But you’re going to have to do your fair share of entertaining if you’re not going to let me go downstairs to read.”
“Entertainment, hm?” But he didn’t move and he stayed quiet after that and I could tell he meant a far more innocent kind of entertainment despite his teasing. Finally, “In the past…” He hesitated and I could tell it was important. “In the past, it’s just turned cheap, you know? That’s how I hurt people. I make them cheap. I make them mine. I possess them and I destroy them. The minute I touch them, they’re gone.”
It was mostly dark in the room, only a dull light creeping in from the half-open window, casting shadows over his cheekbones. Gaunt and hallow, his face was pale; his eyes were dark, and I could tell this was the fear that was eating him alive.
“I don’t think that’s true, Iker. You make me happier. I’m yours, see? I’m yours and you’re not ruining me.”
He sighed, just a little breath at my ear, and I could tell I had won. “You’re the exception and that’s what makes it so terrifying.”
“And why is it terrifying to have an exception?”
“I guess because I love you.”
We were both quiet for a long time after that and his fingers were cold at my back and his cheek was warm next to mine. I ran my finger up to his hair to flatten down the pieces sticking up, only half of his head this time, and I didn’t know what to say. I mean, I knew, but it wasn’t registering in my mind to actually say it.
“You love me,” I echoed because the words were so heavy on my ears and my heart was racing and my hand had clamped down on his arm. The sheets still felt unwashed and clung to my legs. I twisted around to sit up completely, lean against him that way, and my feet were tangled in the sheets again. I thought maybe that was my favorite thing about being at Iker’s house: the sheets tangling around my legs, hooking me there, anchoring me there, telling me, ‘Don’t you ever leave.’
“Not fair,” he said softly, a little nervously, “You said you’d say it back.”
“I said you would have to wait and see.” There was a long pause and he watched me the whole time, his eyes never narrowing, never doubting. “You already know I love you too.”
“Knowing is different from hearing.” His cheeks were tinged pink again and I let my head rest on his chest. He went back to playing with my hair and it felt like nothing had changed. “You know, I told you once before. Or.. More than once. I said it when you were sleeping all the time. I waited for you to fall asleep and I tried out the words and they’re much better when you can hear them.”
“I love you like you’re the last dream I’ll ever allow myself to have,” I murmured, remembering his words from so many nights ago. “I know, Iker. I heard every bit.”
“I— what?” He cut off, confused and angry, pulling away from me and sitting up completely, not even leaning against his pillow anymore. “You heard all those times?” Slowly, the anger began to fade and only the confusion was left, the bare traces of ‘I could have done it sooner?’
“And you never said anything.”
“Well. Neither did you.”
He sighed like maybe I had a point. “Nothing that counted anyway.”
I looked him in the eye very seriously, said, “Everything counted.”
His hand tightened around mine and mine around his, and neither of us had any intention of letting go.