→ AU; "a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different", or: Toni is good a very specific number of things, and for everything he's terrible at, there is James.
He tells everyone that it's a spontaneous decision, something about expanding his horizons and seeing the world--but really, Toni starts looking for a way out the moment he flips open the journal publication and finds his name below that of a freshman chemist who had transferred in mid-semester.
"Don't take it personally," his professor advises when Toni brings it up. "I know how much work you put in, but the weight of contributions is decided by the board." Toni nods like he understands, and submits his application to study abroad that very night. London responds, as do Barcelona and Manchester, but the head of department in Madrid telephones him directly and says to him: "Yes, we have seen your work and we would be glad to have you."
In the end, grants and stipends aside, the personal touch ends up being the deciding factor. He offers placations to his friends and family, but remains steadfast in his decision right up until the moment when his roommate drops him off at the airport.
"You're a braver person than me," Bastian says, shaking his head. "I mean, Madrid? If it were London or anywhere else in England, I'd understand. Even Barcelona is pretty lenient with its internationals, but Madrid only offers courses in Spanish. Do you even know anyone in Spain?"
And suddenly, Toni isn't so sure.
The climate of Spain is warmer than the climate of Germany, and for the first few months, that's all the difference Toni has time to notice. To begin with, the lab is a mess, open windows and loose-leaf papers lying around in haphazard stacks that make Toni's eye twitch.
"Don't worry my friend," the ginger-bearded postdoc with surprisingly passable English says to him. "We'll clean this mess up." Two weeks later, he transfers to another university--in Germany, of all places--and the task to reorganize falls to him and another second-year graduate from Croatia, who always looks alarmingly confounded. To his relief, Luka speaks English and his mind is even sharper than Toni's. By the time the semester is underway, they're running the lab at a satisfying efficiency.
One day, he heads home early and notices that how narrow the streets are in the sunlight, and how the cobblestone is warm and baked brown even though October has already begun. Another day, the lab runs out of pipettes and Toni catches himself grimacing as he thinks, this would never happen in Munich. It goes downhill from there: one day he's late for lunch and finds all the shops closed for siesta; another day he's early to dinner and his stomach has stopped rumbling the time the restaurants finally open their doors late in the evening.
Not to say that it was all bad, all of the time. Sami is in Madrid too, and they take turns dragging each other out to commiserate over watery Spanish beer. There is Luka, and with Luka comes Gareth, and between the two of them, it seems, comes every other international student in the graduate program. There's no shortage of company even though his hours rarely allow for it.
(Still, when his headphones can't seem to block out the sounds of laughter and music as his neighbors come to life late at night, Toni can't help but long for grey skies, dark beers, and silence.)
Then a few things happen at once, as they have a tendency to do. Ancelotti, who'd only previously hinted at the success of the tests, begins pushing them for better results too--even though he knows as well as Toni and Luka do that any reaction of any kind is a success within itself. Then Toni finds out Spanish universities require midterms, even for his lab-only courses--and that he'd have to take them in Spanish.
At the end of two weeks living in and out of the library, Toni trudges back to his apartment after his final (and most fatal) exam had wrung the life from him, and thinks for the first time that he's made a terrible mistake coming to Madrid. He drags himself up the stairs, rounds the corner into the open airway, and finds his neighbor across the hall heading in from the other side. It's probably a testament to how utterly unkempt he looks that James ("Ha-mes", he'd corrected Toni with a sunny smile on the first day of their meeting) openly double-takes at the sight of him.
It's probably more telling how Toni has to make a concentrated effort to feel irritated by James's slack-jawed gape, the end result being that--nope, he just doesn't have the energy. He fumbles for his keys, mind occupied by thoughts of his refrigerator, and whether anything he'd left inside of it was still edible, when James speaks.
"Pardon me," he says. "Do you want..." and that's all Toni can decipher.
"I'm sorry?" Toni ask, tongue curling uncertainly around the words. Too late, he thinks he probably used the apology that's an actual apology rather than whatever you were supposed to say when you didn't understand.
James tilts his head, eyes lingering at the line just above Toni's eyes--to which Toni has to actively quell the urge to adjust his bedraggled hair. Then he speaks. "Food?"
"Oh." Toni says, taken aback. There's a moment of blank panic as Toni racks his uncooperative brain for a good reason to refuse, but then he remembers that he's hungry and without an immediate source food. So he says "Yes, please", and remains a little disbelieving even as when James's door opens and he motions Toni in.
James's apartment has the same layout as his own, mirrored, and Toni immediately smells the perfume of spices and cooked meat. There are peppers and onions hanging in the same net above a freshly washed cutting board in the kitchen, and a large comforter sits in a midway slide off the couch. Most notable were the large, patterned quilts hanging off the walls casting a warm, homey glow to the entire room--so nothing at all like his own apartment, in the end.
"Sit" James says and puts a plate of what looks like a random assortment of food in front of him: red beans, rice, meat, an egg, and some other things Toni can't immediately identify. Toni sets his backpack down on the floor, sits, and proceeds to inhale the entire plate. When he finally feels human again, he lifts his head up and finds James staring at him, eyebrows raised, an expression caught between amusement and befuddlement. Toni feels his face heat up.
"Sorry" he says again, this time meaning it in the proper apology way.
"It's fine" James says, face falling into a broad grin as his eyes go soft around the corners. Toni offers a small, sheepish smile in return. "So why..." And that's all Toni catches in the flutter of words that spill forth from James's mouth, but then James makes a vague motion with his hand that Toni presumes encompasses him and all his current state.
"I have exam," Toni replies. "Had exam. Many exams." His tongue can't quite manage the effortless sway and his Spanish sounds rough, even to himself, but James smiles like they're sharing a private joke and Toni feels something inside him relax at the sight of it. Then, James says something else without speaking any slower (or louder, thankfully) and Toni pauses a beat too long, considering, before forfeiting.
"I didn't get a word of that," he says honestly, in German. That makes James laugh outright, but it's a good, friendly laugh. They converse like that for the rest of the night. Toni and his entry level grasp of Spanish manage to work out that James is actually from Colombia for his first year of graduate school--"to look at stars" he says, making a blinking motion with his hands. His classes fall on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which explain why Toni has never seen him on campus. Like Toni, he lives by himself, and like Toni, he doesn't particularly enjoy it.
They stumble through conversation like that, Toni understanding just enough, until an impolite hour. At the end of it, Toni's almost reluctant to leave.
"Tomorrow?" James asks him as Toni shrugs his jacket on for the three step shuffle across the hall.
"Sure" Toni says, even though he has no idea what exactly he's agreeing to.
He finds out the next night when James shows up at his door with the same cheerful smile and a pot of something hot and delicious that has Toni wavering between "all knowledge is good knowledge" and "ignorance is bliss".
"Intestines," James says, pointing to his lower belly with a lopsided grin that looks like a challenge.
(The night after that, Toni is stuck in the lab, but then the night after that, Toni knocks on James door with a culinary challenge of his own.)
"I do not like to roller skate." Toni says slowly.
"How excellent." James replies very seriously. Too seriously. Toni scowls and kicks him under the table, which only makes James smile.
"I do not like the beach also," Toni adds, maybe a bit triumphantly.
"You are..." James says, still smiling. "Everyone likes the beach."
Toni pauses because James had used the informal "tú"--but then he frowns because it had been followed with the word for "strange".
"You're strange," Toni snipes back maturely. He tosses the language book aside like it'd personally offended him as James laughs and laughs. "I return to actual work," he adds, picking up his lab notebook pointedly, as though he hadn't been the one to break the silence in the first place. James shakes his head and bends back over his textbook, still smiling.
They are at James's apartment that night because it is the start of the week and James has a table large enough for them to comfortably spread their books out upon. Later in the week, Toni thinks, they'll probably still be here because the temperature is finally dropping, and James's couch is more comfortable than his couch. Also, Toni doesn't have a couch.
"You're getting better," James remarks two hours later, in the middle of Toni's calculation.
"What?" Toni says, looking up after the ten minutes it takes for him to finish.
"Your Spanish," James repeats. "You're getting better."
"I am?" To his horror, Toni flushes from the praise, feels the kind of heat that turn the tips of his ears into an unsightly red. He quickly bends back over his notes, biting back the smile that threatens to break out on his face, and pointedly ignoring the sight of James's shoulders shaking with laughter in his peripheral vision.
November arrives and Luka rotates out so a first-year graduate could get some hours in the lab. Isco is bright, he catches on quickly, and Toni can even understand him most of the time--but he and Luka had a rapport. It would take time to build a new one, no matter how good either of them were. James nods sympathetically to his story as his character on-screen avatar sends a bullet through the head of Toni's avatar.
"How are you this good?" Toni asks, dropping his controller in his lap as he waits for his character to respawn. "I think you are trying to distract me."
"I'm not trying, I'm succeeding." James retorts nicely.
Toni frowns and picks his controller back up, determined not to be caught napping a second time. He succeeds up until the point where James decides that throwing his legs across Toni's lap was a valid form of distraction.
(Not to say that he's wrong.)
"I should have been studying," James moans into a pillow. "Why didn't you make me study?!"
"No, I am not your mother." Toni quips dryly, which only makes James's wails increase in volume. He is being unfair, of course. By some stroke of luck, his own finals had all concluded by the first week of December--Toni had just taken for granted that James's schedule ran the same timeline. James's face detaches from the pillow briefly to glare at Toni and even in the dim light of the loading screen, Toni can see that something's not quite right. James's face is splotchy and his eyes are wetter than what a yawn would produce.
A wave of panic seizes him and Toni waits, like watching a vase fall to the ground, for something to break. But James doesn't. He takes a deep, uneven breath, but his cheeks remain dry even if his expression deepens in misery. Toni only means to put his arm around James--something he'd rarely even considered doing before Spain--but James turns into him as he does, and the well-intentioned arm over the shoulder becomes something like an embrace instead, James's face buried in the crook of Toni's neck, Toni's arms slipping around James's waist and holding him there.
The tears never fall. At some point they shift by a mutual, unspoken agreement because of leg cramps, but the game powers off on its own and James's head is still resting on Toni's shoulder. Sometime during the shift, the comforter had found its way on top of them, and James's fingers sink into it suddenly.
"It reminds me of home," he says quietly, like a confession.
Toni feels his chest tighten. Sometimes, he forgets how far away Colombia is, and how despite James understanding the language, how it still wasn't home. He thinks about saying something but--what can he say? He can't say he's sorry, can't offer promises or assurances that's not in his power to keep--and then too much time passes by and Toni's left saying nothing at all. So he doesn't, but doesn't let go either.
Even the lab slows down for the winter. Toni drops by on a Thursday afternoon--just to check if everything has been put away--and finds a note on the door from Carlo: Toni, go home.
It brings half a smile to his face, but Toni goes in for a quick look anyway. Everything is seemingly in order, when he sees a note taped to the whiteboard with TONI scrawled across the front.
I swept the floors. Merry Christmas, you clean freak baby. Also if you get this note before the New Year, Carlo owes me fifty. -- Isco
Toni takes a perfunctory glance at the ground and--yes, it'd been swept. Mopped, even. Toni could appreciate that level of dedication to a bit, so on his way out, he dutifully reaches for his phone and sends Isco a text, to which his only response is an emojii of a little man dancing disco. He's passing through the union on his way out and finds it completely deserted, except for a few people on the lower level playing table tennis.
Then he sees James, laughing at the antics of a cheerful dark-skinned fellow with an infectious smile. Across the other side was a tall, dark-haired man who is eye-catching--objectively so--in a way that seemed almost unfair. The cheerful one slams one past the taller one and bursts out into loud whoops that carry across the empty room, before running to James, to celebrate. The taller one follows, hands on hips, head cocked indignantly to one side. He sidles right up to James and looms demandingly. James shies away, face pink, smile bashful---
Toni's stomach drops to the floor.
He telephones his mother, tells her: "Yes, I think I'll be home for Christmas after all."
Every time the rational part of his brain tries to reason with him, it's promptly stamped out by the louder, irrational part of his brain, who pulls up never ending images in his mind: James and the tall one (the orange one, Toni thinks viciously) sneaking kisses as Toni tries to duck past them without drawing attention to himself. James and the tall one holding hands coming up the stairs, not letting go as they shift to one side, to let Toni pass by.
Each time, James waves goodbye apologetically as he's pulled into his apartment. Each time, the door closes behind him. Every time, silence.
The knock on his door comes five minutes before six and James sweeps into Toni's apartment without waiting for an answer, like he always does. Toni freezes at the sight of him, remembering then how he'd unconsciously given up the habit of locking his door (at least when he's at home during waking hours) just so he could see James walk in and drop his coat on the ground and make the space his own--like he belonged there, Toni thinks despairingly.
"I passed" James announces, cheeks pink and smile broad. Then he takes in the sight of Toni, frozen on the floor with clothing in neat stacks strewn around an open suitcase, and his expression clouds. "What's this?"
"Um," Toni says, feeling very much like a child with his hand halfway inside the cookie jar. "I...I might go home for the holidays, after all."
"Is something wrong?" James asks, immediately concerned.
"No." Toni stares at his hands and continues to pack, thinking that perhaps he's not handling this very well.
"So when you said you were definitely staying for the winter..." James says, voice hardening, but not enough to paper over the hurt that seeps through. It does a bad thing to Toni's insides to be the cause of that hurt, but then he remembers how James had smiled earlier that afternoon.
"You'll be fine," he says, the words falling out of him before he can force them back inside. "Your boyfriend will be here, won't he?"
"Excuse me?!" James sounds outraged. Toni bites down on his tongue--he hadn't meant to say it like that. "Do you have a problem with me having a boyfriend?"
"No!" The 'I hope the two of you are very happy together' sits on the tip of his tongue, but he makes the mistake of looking up and the raw hurt on James's face halts him in his tracks. However badly Toni thought this evening could go, it turns out he really doesn't have it in himself to be cruel. So he takes a deep breath and swallows them away for a time when he can say them sincerely. "It doesn't matter to me," he mumbles instead, turning back to folding with new determination.
He hears a shuffle and expects it to be James picking up his jacket. Toni waits for the sound of a door opening and closing, but instead, the footsteps come nearer as James drops down on the floor beside him. "Ay, Toni...."
--and that's all Toni understands. He glances toward him, more out of surprise than anything else, as James continues to speak, scrubbing at his face, sounding exasperated; but he's speaking too fast and his words run into one another. At length, Toni realizes that perhaps he's speaking his own Colombian dialect rather than whichever one it was they normally conversed in. At the end of his monologue, James's forehead collides with Toni's shoulder from behind as his eyes shutter close.
"Idiot," he says. Toni considers defending himself, but then James winds one arm around Toni's torso and Toni's higher level brain function shuts down.
"I'm not" Toni says hoarsely. He puts one hand on top of James's--to pull it away, he tells himself, in protest--but indecision means it just lays there. James's pinkie winds around his and Toni's hand closes just enough to trap it.
"I have friends, you know," James says. "Same as you."
"I know," Toni says, feeling the embarrassment hot on the back of his neck. He twists around in the direction of where James laid against him, meaning to apologize, but James's face jostles from the sudden movement and they freeze, faces centimeters apart. James's face goes red and his tongue darts out over his lips; and Toni's eyes follow the motion unwillingly.
They meet in the middle.
For one moment, the only thing Toni can hear is the sound of his own heart beating wildly in his ears. Then James's plump, soft lips move against his and they shift around each other, James pushing forward eagerly, pressing Toni into stacks of clothing as Toni's fingers curl around the back of James's head and sinking into the short hairs at his nape, pulling a happy, pleased little noise from him.
They kiss like teenagers--which to be fair, Toni had never done even when he'd been a teenager--but it feels the proper term to use with this kind sweet, shameless abandon. There are other bits of him responding like a teenager, he notes vaguely as James grinds against him in a motion that feels so blindingly good that the heady moan he'd been trying to hold in slips out, and Toni forgets to breathe.
Suddenly, he hears a loud rumble and James pulls off of him with a loud pop, cheeks flaming, expression so comically mortified that Toni lets out a short breath of laughter. His reward is a sour look as James glares at him, looking comically betrayed; but he doesn't move from his perch on Toni's lap, and when Toni extends his arms imploring forgiveness, James falls between them easily enough.
"I haven't eaten," he says, almost petulantly.
"I haven't either," Toni replies.
Neither of them make a move to rise.
"I didn't buy plane tickets yet, actually." Toni adds, after a long afterthought.
"Good," James says immediately. "They're too expensive right now anyway. Just stay here."
Toni smiles again, contentment and fondness mixing in his chest. It occurs to him then that he hadn't a clue how to confess his feelings in Spanish. Of course he knew how to express liking for a food or an activity, but it could be a different for people, and he didn't want to get this wrong. He's still pondering when James sits up, looking quizzically at him.
"I think you're cute," Toni says, in German. "I like you."
"Oh!" James's face lights up like the sun. "I like you. Also." He laughs self-consciously. "That's all I know."
(His pronunciation is a little atrocious, actually.)
(Toni understands him perfectly).
+ Many thanks to kratynoi for hand-holding throughout and sideriasleep for listening to me whine.
+ I know so very little about life in Madrid/Germany/Europe, so most of the lifestyle information is probably a little outdated, though I think I'm mostly on point with the language and grammar bits. Also, I was vague on their schooling because, again, I know so very little about science-type graduate programs. I like to think that Toni is some sort of biochemistry (think biology/pharmaceuticals) while James is some kind of astrophysicist who deals more in theory. The point is that Toni is someone who puts two and two together and records the outcome in order to draw a conclusion, while James is someone who needs to pull a conclusion from theories, and I wanted to do that opposites-in-the-same-area attraction thing, because that's how I view their football.
+ I didn't have time to write James's side of the story, but if Toni got on more with Luka/Gareth/Karim, then James was definitely snatched up by Cris/Marcelo/Pepe. In fact, let's say James chose Madrid because Cristiano, who is a star (HA) in the study of stars (DOUBLE HA), attends Madrid.
+ I'd like to think that if this story continued, James and Toni would eventually discover the truly ridiculous amount of overlap among their group of friends and then at some point they'd all start playing football together. I'd also like to imagine that once their relationship got all settled, Toni would be the kind of person who'd gaze adoringly at his boyfriend all the time with hearts in his eyes to the point where Cristiano--spray tan, perfectly arched brows, and veritable cloud of cologne wafting about him Cristiano--turns to Toni at some juncture and tells him (full of judgment): "Dude, you are way over the top".
+ and to my recipient: I know you expressed a preference for florist au, but after about a week of brainstorming, I went in a different direction. I hope you enjoyed the end result, and a (belated) Merry Christmas to you!! ^^