Author: Guede Mazaka
Ruud had planned to go walk around the block and come back when both José’s cousin and that horrifically bad band were gone, but he’d barely turned the corner when his phone went off. He took it out and frowned when he saw Pirès’ number on the screen. If he had the time-zones right…no, there was no normal reason why Robert should be calling him now. “Hello?”
*Ruud? I’m sorry for the late phone call, but it’s an urgent matter,* Robert said. *Lehmann would like you to leave for South America immediately. All the travel arrangements have already been seen to.*
For a moment, Ruud just held the cell-phone to his ear. Then he sighed and slowly walked that half-meter to the edge of the curb so he could hail a taxi. “It seems interesting that he’s having you call me instead of doing it himself. Or even assigning it to Philippe or David. Am I supposed to read any extra meaning into this change?”
Pirès was no idiot and knew plenty about what went on in backrooms and boardrooms, but he’d never really given Ruud the impression that he enjoyed the machinations. An odd characteristic in a lawyer, but…Robert sighed himself. *It’s come to Lehmann’s attention that José Antonio Reyes is also in Madrid, staying with his family.*
And neither the fact that Lehmann could find out that sort of thing nor that he’d react like he apparently was surprised Ruud very much. He started to reply, but just then a cab pulled up and he had to get in. After telling the driver to head to his hotel, he returned to Pirès. Whom Ruud didn’t dislike, but whom he didn’t particularly like either, and though he was not surprised, he was in an even worse mood than before. “And why would this person concern me?”
*Because it seems possible that you may renew your liaison with him, and FC considers that relationship an entirely inappropriate one,* Robert answered, tone laboring under his restrained irritation.
Well, he could be irritated. Ruud was irritated. Ruud was irritated and depressed and angry and Lehmann via his damn French lawyer wasn’t helping with any of those, despite the fact that they were negatively affecting Ruud’s productivity. “How inappropriate?”
*I’ll be in Madrid in…an hour and a half to meet with you to discuss that.* Then Robert gave Ruud a gate number.
“Oh. That much so.” Shit. If Pirès was already on the plane…for a moment, Ruud wanted to tell him to fuck off, to take the stupid orders back to Lehmann and stuff it up his asshole where Robin could suck on them. And the fury was warming and felt good, but sitting in a taxi while the driver jerked his way through traffic wasn’t conducive to maintaining it. One jolt sent Ruud out of his thoughts, and thinking his way back through meant…well, thinking. “I’m guessing that you’re also bringing enough to prove to me that I don’t really have a choice.”
Robert sounded like he was taking sips of something in between his replies. Probably alcohol, judging from his tone. *Ruud, you shouldn’t need me to explain things to you.*
“No, I don’t, but I have to admit that this is new to even me. I was always under the impression that as long as it stayed out of the papers and didn’t keep me from working, I was in fact allowed to have a private life,” Ruud muttered, sinking down. He doubted that the taxi-driver could hear anything over the nauseatingly cheerful pop blaring from his radio, but since he needed to be extra careful now…
*You’re not the only FC employee potentially affected. And to be honest with you, I believe Lehmann currently considers your well-being of less importance than the others due to your relative levels of contribution,* Robert quietly replied.
The breath snagged in Ruud’s throat, and hard so it almost felt as if something had torn. Then he slowly exhaled, and the air passing through was painful at first, but as he breathed, it got better, as if some blister in his throat had finally burst. “Ah. I see. Well, thank you, Robert. I’ll be there. I suppose bringing my luggage would also be a wise idea.”
It took a second for the other man to reply, so perhaps the sympathy in his voice was real. Not that it really mattered. *It would be. I’ll…see you there, Ruud.*
Ruud took his phone down, but let Pirès be the one to hang up. He watched as the display on his phone changed, and then—it changed again as somebody else called. He put the phone back up before he’d even read the ID, but as it turned out, he didn’t need to.
Shaky long breath. *Ruud?* José said. *Ruud, I—I just told Fernando to leave me alone, and I’m not sure but I think he’s going to kick me out if I can’t stay away from you.*
Something hit Ruud’s knees, and he looked down to find that he’d slid so far forward he’d run into the driver’s seat. The driver naturally protested and Ruud absently slung an apology his way before propping his arm up on the window so he could cover the end of the phone better with his hand. “Why the hell did you do that? How many family members do you have left that’ll talk to you now?”
*Because—because I use them like a crutch.* Pause. Then a short, surprised laugh. *I think I just figured this out…maybe I am the stupid one. But anyway, I do, and no wonder I can’t figure myself out apart from them. But wait…I thought you…is something wrong? Did you change your mind?*
José didn’t sound all that mad or afraid of what he’d done. Actually, up till he’d noticed the strain in Ruud’s voice, he’d sounded almost excited. Ruud ground his nails into his jaw and cursed Lehmann and cursed José’s overprotective family, and also cursed his goddamn lack of foresight. What a time to start caring. “Your cousin’s not the only one who found out that we’re in the same city. I’m being sent to South America early.”
*How early?* From excited to crushed and small and shaking in a heartbeat.
“Tonight,” Ruud made himself say. He put his other hand up and pressed the hair out of his eyes. “I always told you that I can’t help. I’m not going to be an alternate crutch for you—even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. I…”
José…had hung up. Ruud yanked his phone down and—his thumb almost hit re-dial. Even though he’d been utterly honest with every word, and what could he possibly have said, given more time…but the driver spared him by pulling up sharply and telling Ruud they were there. Then he said so a second time, more rudely, when Ruud didn’t immediately move.
“Thanks,” Ruud replied in a tight tone. He slowly slipped his phone back into his pocket and pulled out his wallet to pay the man. Paying…he was fine with it, but he was tired of seeing others be forced to contribute more than their involvement warranted.
Once he was in the hotel, he went down into the basement to the linen department. A small bribe got him the use of their phone, and after looking up the number in his cell, he dialed.
“Don’t hang up, it’s about José,” Ruud quickly said. He waited, and when he didn’t hear a click, he didn’t make the mistake of heaving a sigh of relief. “Cesc, I’m sorry to be calling you, but I’d like you to just listen for a moment. This is going to be a long explanation, but the reason I’m making it is that I want to make sure that José has somewhere to go.”
*…what is this about?* Cesc finally said, slow and reluctant. But listening.
* * *
A man with remarkable cheekbones and blue eyes stood by the front desk, impatiently tapping his fingers on it, as Andriy and Lilian walked into the restaurant. He glanced over and Lilian tensed slightly, but the man simply snorted and looked away. Lilian still seemed less than pleased to find him there. “Monsieur Ljungberg,” he said in slow, measured French.
Then something about what he was doing there, and Ljungberg replied with something about another man named Larsson—French to Italian was an imperfect correlation. It didn’t seem to concern Andriy so he ignored them and took in his surroundings: vaguely French bistro, well-kept but in a lived-in way. He idly walked over to one of the walls and rapped it with his knuckles. Surprisingly enough, he didn’t hear any hollow echo, which meant that this Ludovic Giuly was different enough from the usual run of crimelords to have actually sprung for substance over style.
Lilian finally gave up on arguing with Ljungberg and came back to tap Andriy on the shoulder. “Through here. Sébastian will put your things upstairs.”
He led Andriy behind the bar and into a few rather twisted hallways before they finally emerged in what seemed to be part of the kitchen. It was full of people either in white cook’s coats or in dark suits; the cooks were all screaming at each other, but not moving, while the suits weren’t talking but were running about with somewhat more panic on their faces. As loud as the kitchen staff was, they seemed to have their area of expertise under control.
It smelled quite wonderful and Andriy was tempted to just stop at that, but he was interviewing still, wasn’t he? He plucked a paper towel from a nearby counter and blew into it—Lilian shot him a dubious glance—as they made their way through the room. When they were almost at the opposite end, Lilian started to make a turn, only to be intercepted by a frantic young man with pale green eyes. They talked in rapid French and Andriy wiped off his nose a last time, then took a good sniff.
He slowly pivoted on his heel about forty degrees, sniffed again, and decided he had it. A look at Lilian said that he was preoccupied, but Andriy waited anyway till a cook pushed a loaded trolley their way. Then he slid from beside the other man, put the trolley between them, and walked over to a small hallway. He passed a liquor rack as he went and it had a bottle of vodka, so he grabbed that. Then he turned into the hall, went a few steps while rolling up his sleeves, and ducked into a door that was opening.
The one who’d opened it said something, but Andriy just said, “Docteur, medico…oh, fuck, just move. And tell that idiot a pressure compress isn’t going to stop bleeding like that.”
Something must’ve gotten through because people got out of the way and let him get to the man lying on the table. There was a full field surgery kit lying next to him along with several bowls of steaming water, which was nice. Andriy turned, spotted a small sink and got a bowl of cold water. He sloshed a couple shots of vodka into it as he went over to the table as a nod to hygiene without risking first-degree burns to the patient, then set it down. More vodka went over his hands; it didn’t look like he had time to scrub with soap, but he did check under his nails.
“Something something French,” said a worried-looking man to Andriy’s right. He looked frustrated when Andriy stared uncomprehendingly at him, then grabbed Andriy’s shoulder. He held up a nine-millimeter bullet and nodded to the arm spewing blood.
“Oh, okay. Is it in there still?” Andriy asked, picking up a clamp, a probe and a strip of rubber. Then it was his turn to be exasperated at the language barrier; he started to gesture, then shrugged. “Never mind, I’ll see for myself in a moment. Trying to talk—” check watch “—wastes too much—” tie tourniquet “—damn time.”
He slammed his arm over the wounded man’s elbow, pinning him, then plunged the clamp and probe into the bullet-hole. One minute, clamp the spurting vein, check for exit hole. None, so minutes two through four, find bullet. Minute six through nine, extract bullet and check for more severed major blood vessels. None, lucky bastard, so minute ten, pack hole and undo tourniquet.
“I need—shit.” Andriy blinked rapidly to get the blood spatter out of his eyes, then reached for the surgical kit. He picked up the roll of suture thread and one of the needles, then cursed in Russian as the man lolled about so blood got on the front of his shirt. “Damn it, can someone hold him still? He’s not going to have a pretty scar anyway, but at this rate it’ll be—”
Lilian suddenly loomed up on Andriy’s other side, barking out a translation of Andriy’s Italian. In an instant, the man was being held by two others while a woman appeared to swab the blood out of the way so Andriy could see what he was doing. They were…Andriy frowned, then turned around to track their gazes past Lilian to a…very short, swarthy man in an impeccable Armani suit, with impeccably Gallic good looks. He grinned at Andriy like a wolf would at a fresh kill—Andriy wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to be the kill or the other wolf who’d did the killing—and said something while extending a hand.
“Monsieur Ludovic Giuly,” Lilian said. Sounding damn near reverent, and if that wasn’t a slight bow from the waist, Andriy had more blood in his eyes than he thought. “He says excellent work, and he would like to offer you the job. But there is the outstanding condition that you must learn French. Spanish would also be helpful to you, but that is a suggestion only.”
Andriy shrugged. “Of course. For now, please tell him thank-you and I accept. And I would shake his hand with the greatest gratitude, but unfortunately I’m very dirty at the moment.”
Lilian gave him another one of those sidelong judging looks, which clearly concluded that the flippancy was not appreciated, but hopefully related the gist of what Andriy had said in the right tone. Ludovic’s smile widened and he made a no-matter gesture with his hand. Then he pointed to the man behind Andriy, apparently ready to let Andriy get back to work. Which was a nice change, Andriy had to admit.
As he turned back, Ljungberg from the front lobby showed up and began to aggressively address Giuly, who seemed…even more amused. And then a third man showed up and took up all of Ljungberg’s attention while Ludovic quietly exited himself from the discussion. Something about the tension between the three was very intriguing, but Andriy was in the middle of an operation. Oh, well—he’d been hired, so he probably had time to find out about that. He went back to figuring out what size needle to start with.
* * *
Ricardo partially woke when Paolo tossed the sheets aside, but didn’t become fully aware till he felt breath on the back of his neck. The other man leaned over him for a moment, then sighed and moved away, shaking the mattress as he flopped down. “I thought I told you to go to sleep. You’re too young to have bags under your eyes.”
“I did. I woke up when you came in,” Ricardo said, twisting around and pushing himself up.
Paolo’s hands were still in the air, fingers stiffly half-curled as if he could only relax his body by sections. He was still dressed—he hadn’t even taken off his socks and belt—and hadn’t pulled the sheets over him, either. His half-shut eyes tiredly watched Ricardo move around, not even flickering when Ricardo tentatively put both hands flat against either side of Paolo’s ribs, slotting his fingers into the grooves.
“Are you done?” Ricardo had to take his hands off to get closer, but once he was seated next to Paolo’s right hip, he put them back and undid the first button of Paolo’s shirt.
Fingers closed around his wrist, but didn’t do anything more when Ricardo moved to the second button, the third. “Well, I figured out what filing system I was using back then. My eye-strain is getting too bad, so I thought I’d opt for doing work during regular business hours instead of charging overtime.”
“I don’t have much to do tomorrow since Bobby’s gone. I could help, if you want,” Ricardo said. The sides of Paolo’s shirt eased apart a little after each undone button, but Ricardo didn’t yet push them further to see what that strip of shadow turned into.
Paolo shifted, tipping his head sideways on the pillow. His hand recurled around Ricardo’s wrist so the pad of his thumb traced circles on its inside, locking chains of warmth around the tendons there. “You already got in my bed, Ricardo. Now you want to be my secretary as well? You know it usually goes the other way.”
Ricardo stopped, hurt and not quite sure why or how. He breathed in sharply, but though there were many words on the tip of his tongue, he didn’t think any of them were the right ones.
Something in Paolo’s face changed; it was too dark to identify it, and then he turned his head sideways anyway. He grunted as he pushed himself up and Ricardo instinctively reached out, only to have Paolo catch that hand as well and pull it to his mouth. The dark wasn’t enough to hide the green glitter of Paolo’s eyes as his lips played softly over Ricardo’s knuckles, each touch plucking a shivering chord deep inside Ricardo. Then Paolo looked down, almost meditative as he rolled Ricardo’s hand. He pressed his mouth to its side, just below the little finger.
“I’m tired,” Paolo said. Curt, without his usual elaboration, but somehow it seemed as if he were saying much more with those two words than he’d admitted in the past few weeks. He released Ricardo’s hands and leaned back; the pillow had gotten pushed up against the headboard so he couldn’t lie completely flat.
Ricardo quickly undid the last two shirtbuttons, then pushed himself up and over Paolo’s legs. He let his weight fall on the mattress by Paolo’s left hip, but left his legs lying across the other man’s thighs. His movement had dragged the left half of Paolo’s shirt with him so the smooth planes of Paolo’s chest and the slight concavity of his belly was bared. For some reason Ricardo had been expecting pale skin, but even among the most perpetual office-dwellers in the building, Paolo’s face and hands had always been colored by the sun. And the rest of him wasn’t any different.
His eyes had opened a little wider, watching Ricardo intently as he leaned his head on Paolo’s shoulder and slowly placed his hand at the top of Paolo’s chest, where the muscles dipped into the rise of an elegant collarbone. Warm and soft, like spring sunshine on Ricardo’s head…though they tensed to the stiffness of steel when he started to move his fingers. He wondered at that little hint of power that he could sense, and that something as little as his fingertips skating down Paolo’s breastbone could make it rise.
Paolo slipped his arm around Ricardo’s back, startling him so his head dipped and his mouth grazed skin. He froze that way for a moment, then carefully settled down in the new position, tentatively putting his lips against Paolo’s throat. His hand was on Paolo’s stomach now and it contracted, making a part of the flesh lift in an odd way beneath Ricardo’s fingers. Or so he thought; he pressed his hand flat and kissed Paolo under the chin so it happened again when he could watch, and no, it was normal. But it felt differently from how it looked.
Slightly roughened fingers stole up Ricardo’s shirt and tickled the small of his back before settling along there. The thumb, however, dipped beneath Ricardo’s waistband to stroke along his buttocks and—he twisted before it could slide between them, wondering if that particular part of Paolo had a little devilish mind of its own.
“I really am tired,” Paolo said. Less seriously than before, and possibly a little chagrined. “The whole ‘spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’ idea isn’t merely medieval sophistry.”
Ricardo honestly didn’t know why he did it, because he wasn’t even really thinking about what his hands were doing. He was trying to figure out how to answer Paolo, and his hand just slipped lower on Paolo’s belly till it wasn’t even on that anymore, and Paolo gasped and jerked as if he were trying to bring his knees to his head, his arm dragging Ricardo along. “Oh—”
Paolo, sorry, are you all right, did I do something wrong was what would have followed, if they hadn’t been kissing as if this was the last time before the world would end. Ricardo went slack against the other man, groaning as Paolo held his head in strong hands and trapped his fluttering heart up against his breast. One touch of Paolo’s tongue was like a shock—Ricardo unthinkingly pushed down with his hands, trying to get some balance, and Paolo twisted again, hissing.
It made Ricardo think he’d hurt something and he started to move his hand, only to have it seized in an iron grip and shoved back. Paolo kissed feverishly along Ricardo’s jaw, burning the shape of his mouth into the bone as if to say, now this will never fit anyone else’s mouth as well as it does mine, and Ricardo tried to form his own agreement with his fingers. Though he couldn’t see, and he fumbled his way even with Paolo’s hand there to guide him and curl reassuringly over his own once he’d reached flesh damp with sweat and heated with pulsing blood. He must’ve made more than one mistake, he knew it wasn’t as good for Paolo as Paolo had made it for him, and he thought if I had a moment, if I could see, if—
--and when it came, he didn’t even really know it. Paolo’s head went back and his eyes squeezed shut, his lips peeled back from his teeth so Ricardo flinched, seeing their flash as if they were knives’ edges. His hand tightened and the cock in it seemed to flinch as well, so he tried to see if he was holding it too hard, and instead saw a sudden burst of white arcing from its tip. Then he looked up and Paolo was slowly settling on his elbow above Ricardo, eyes wide and dazed and mouth open with ragged breaths.
“I was tired,” Paolo said, blinking. He breathed. “Still am, actually. I wonder if this is what they really meant when they recommended virgin sacrifices for restoring fertility.”
It…was ridiculous. But charming, and the humor of it surprised Ricardo into a much-needed laugh. He gazed up at Paolo feeling somewhat better about the botch he’d made of it; if it’d been really bad, Paolo wouldn’t bother trying to distract him. “But I’m not really one now. Though I know, we haven’t actually…um…Paolo? If I didn’t just…do that right, you’d tell me, right? Because I want to know what you like.”
Paolo stopped blinking, and without the intervention of his lashes, his eyes were almost too intense to meet. Then he sighed and bent to peck at Ricardo’s forehead, sliding his other arm up to lean on it as well. “That was fine, Kaká.”
“No, I mean it. I don’t want you to be doing everything…” Ricardo brought up his hands to help balance himself, then stopped as something on one of them caught his attention. He pulled it to where he could see the white smears, which were…actually quite white. Almost snowy. He’d always…expected it to look…dirtier.
“I’ll get a towel—” Paolo started.
It tasted much less appealing than it looked, but not terrible, Ricardo thought. He risked a glance up at Paolo, then froze that way. The other man was just as still, not even breathing, his eyes molten and mesmerizing.
“You’re going to kill me,” Paolo finally said. Low, matter-of-fact, brooking no argument. His eyes swept up and down Ricardo and their passage felt like scorching lasers; Ricardo moved slightly and Paolo shook his head. “Don’t do that.”
So Ricardo didn’t. Paolo moved up on one arm and casually, in the space of a minute, flicked out all the buttons on Ricardo’s shirt. He leaned down and pushed it open with his nose and mouth, tongue dancing over Ricardo’s trembling body, and his hands dealt with Ricardo’s trousers in similarly teasing fashion, and Ricardo dug his nails into the mattress. Then Paolo whispered a fingertip up the inside of Ricardo’s left thigh and Ricardo couldn’t help pulling himself up.
“No, lie down,” Paolo told him, hand clamping Ricardo’s errant arm back against the mattress. He kissed Ricardo’s head back as well, and then his mouth slipped down to tickle Ricardo’s ear as he wrapped his other hand around Ricardo’s erection.
And he did tell Ricardo what had been done wrong—he told and he showed and he’d barely started before Ricardo was already breathless. And it wasn’t long before Ricardo was pulling at his trapped wrist and pushing himself desperately into Paolo’s grip, but Paolo refused to be hurried and instead continued to murmur in his ear. Filthy, wonderful, terrible things all in that low, calm voice framed by lips that could caress or punish. It was terrifying, and yet Ricardo couldn’t find it in himself to stop it. He just—listened, mouth dry with no possible responses to fill it, and finally, finally Paolo seemed to come to the end. And allowed Ricardo to come with him.
It left Ricardo limp and nearly fainting, and so he almost missed what Paolo said. Which was probably why Paolo had spoken then, but…it didn’t matter. Ricardo was getting used to the other man’s timing. “No, I don’t.”
Paolo paused. “What?”
“I’d ask you again,” Ricardo said, slowly turning over. He found himself only a few centimeters from Paolo’s hand, and so it seemed appropriate to kiss its back. “I’m sorry if it wasn’t the best time for you, though.”
Long exhale, which ended in lips pressed to the end of Ricardo’s right eyebrow. “Oh, you will kill me. As early as tomorrow morning, when I have to wake up…”
“I’ll wake you up,” Ricardo offered, shifting his head into Paolo’s mouth. He felt a hand try to squeeze beneath him and lifted himself, then rolled to help Paolo gather him up. “I promise.”
* * *
Cristiano blew air out irritably through his mouth and glared at the man sitting across from him. “You’re not even pretending to listen to me anymore.”
Deco shook his head, but didn’t look up from his laptop. “The plumbers say that they can arrive first thing tomorrow morning, and if they’re not here by ten, it’s free. I’ve just gotten in the preliminary numbers for your tour’s profit and they are impressive, but the new tax law they passed last month means we need to get a lawyer on it now if you want to keep a decent chunk on it. And your old hair-stylist had a bad break-up while we were in Russia and moved to Milan.”
Okay, he was listening, even if he was doing about ten other things at once that he probably didn’t have to get to now, and was only doing because it made him look busy. And Cristiano did not think he was being naïve about that: the laptop and PDA might be legit, but the notepad had only shown up in the past couple days and the kind of headset Deco was wearing—also new—could be connected either to a phone or a music player. When they’d just gotten back from the tour, Deco had been off-balance and easily irritated, but now…it was almost like when he’d first taken over.
That made Cristiano narrow his eyes, because if there was one good thing that’d come out of the mess so far, it was knowing that he could run his own life. And he was damn well never letting anybody take it over again. “Can we get him to move back?” he said, watching Deco carefully.
“Probably not. He’s sleeping with his landlord now and seems very happy. Cristiano, just a thought, but if we don’t find you a tax specialist, you might have to give five percent to the government. Of your share, not FC’s profit.” Deco’s eyes didn’t leave the laptop screen. Or blink. He did pause to pick up his buzzing PDA without looking and press a button. Then he did something to the headset and began to talk quietly in Spanish into it. “I have a list of—”
“I’ll look at it, but if I don’t like any of them, you’ll have to find somebody I do like. And damn it, a new stylist is important. My image is as big a part of my act as my voice is,” Cristiano snapped. He sounded so whiny that he had to suppress a grimace at himself.
And Deco’s reaction was to shrug. “The list along with résumés is in the folder.” He did look up when he handed that over, but his gaze merely brushed over Cristiano as if the sight were completely uninteresting. “Stylist…do you have anyone in mind, or do I need to get somebody on that?”
He was being very calm and helpful and deferential, and it all just made the warning bells go off in Cristiano’s head. After what Cristiano had put Deco into, the other man should’ve at least been simmering with resentment, but instead it was like Deco had…more than accepted and adapted. “I’ll look for that. You do dress well, but I’m not really sure what you know about style besides that.”
Deco flicked a look over the top of the screen. “All right. Anything else of substance, or are we simply insulting me now?”
Cristiano was tempted to any number of nasty answers, but he saw the glint in Deco’s eye and he knew that’d just be a slip on his end. So instead he sighed and heaved himself out of his chair to prowl around the stacks of boxes in his new apartment. He would’ve loved to dig into them and get them into some sort of order, but the damn bathtub leaked and had ruined a lot of the carpet, and he was waiting for both to get fixed first. “So what do you say about me getting a personal assistant?”
“For things like the stylist? I think it’s not a bad idea. You do seem to have such a complicated life that some help in running it would probably be a relief,” Deco said. He didn’t sound like he was mocking Cristiano, but he definitely was. At least he wasn’t going to put up a fight over this point…but damn it, now that was suspicious as well. “Just keep in mind that they’ll be handling extremely sensitive and personal matter.”
“I know. I’m no idiot, all right?” Cristiano snapped. He stalked around a stack of boxes, then turned back to Deco to see…no change in the man’s infuriatingly serene expression. What the hell was making him so smug? “I’d better not get any bitching from Lehmann about it, though. He’s always saying how great his spin-control is, but have you read the papers? They’re all saying I ticked off some Russian mobster during the tour and that’s why somebody tried to bomb Lehmann. I—where the hell do they get that? You might as well say Ruud was actually a spy for MU.”
Deco stopped typing to pick up his glass of water from the side-table and take a sip. Afterward, he rubbed his thumb thoughtfully over his mouth. “Well, even if that were true, it wouldn’t be a problem. I understand Van Nistelrooy’s in South America for two months, with an option to extend his stay. Madrid got too complicated—that Reyes showed up again.”
Cristiano stopped, one hand pressed flat on top of a box. It held dishes, delicate porcelain antiques, maybe. It’d probably make a really loud crash if it fell—no, damn it. He yanked his hand off and went back towards the sofa. Then he stopped and stared at Deco, at the glass casually dangling from his hand, at his intent but calm expression that was focused on the laptop. “It was good for me and him to spend some time apart, but don’t think that you saved me all by yourself, with what you did.”
“I think your ingratitude was clear enough when you volunteered me as gangster fodder. But it doesn’t matter—that is how business is done,” Deco said with a shrug. “I’m still your agent and your relative, and I know that my success is tied to yours. So don’t worry about that.”
“I wasn’t,” Cristiano snarled, turning on his heel. To hell with this game; he wasn’t getting anywhere right now and Deco was just getting a bunch of laughs. He was going out.
* * *
About ten minutes after Cristiano’s footsteps faded away, Deco rolled his eyes and made a couple rude gestures at all the junk the brat—he’d decided he liked Cesc’s nickname for Cristiano—had accumulated. Then he packed up his things, dropped them off in his apartment, and headed over to Ludo’s restaurant for a late dinner.
The Closed sign was on both the front and back doors, but Ludo had had the decency to get Deco a set of keys. Which actually worked; Deco walked in through the back and instantly had a good idea of why the restaurant was closed: this part of the kitchen had been converted into a makeshift operating room. That curly-haired pet of Giuly’s had a bandage taped over his jaw and his left hand wrapped up, and was being helped off a counter while beyond him, a familiar blond-haired man was stitching up someone’s arm.
“What are you doing here?” Lilian loomed up out of nowhere, peering coldly down through his spectacles. Cobalt lenses today, which picked up on the blue tint of his skin.
Deco shifted slightly to see past the other man and watched as Andriy Shevchenko pivoted to drop his bloody surgical tools in a bowl. Somebody came up to speak to him and he stared blankly as they slowly gestured, absently pulling at his rolled-up sleeves with equally bloody hands. “I just wondered how my recommendation was working out.”
“Oh, Sheva. He’s been hired.” Thuram didn’t precisely thaw—he seemed like the type who would fail to function if his body temperature ever got above freezing—but he did stop angling himself as if ready to toss Deco over the counter. He turned, saw the pair and went over with a sigh.
When he spoke to Andriy, it was in Italian. And Andriy seemed to be quite fluent in the language, interestingly enough. He shrugged and made some vague writing gestures; the third man instantly whipped out a pen and a notepad at Lilian’s murmur, to which Andriy responded with a slow blink. Then he shrugged and was in the middle of rattling off what Deco thought were names of drugs, only to stop with a wide, knowing smile when he spotted Deco. “You! You…I was not knowing…you remembered.”
“Your English is still terrible,” Deco said.
Andriy made a little helpless gesture with his hands. Then he looked down at himself, rolled his eyes, and asked Lilian something like where was the fresh hot water he’d asked for a few minutes ago. “Well, I mostly learn English at bars, and…alcohol and surgery…” head shake, expressive crushing-together of the hands “…so thanks. I think, yes?”
“You’re…welcome.” Deco made a note to himself to start learning Italian, since he probably could do that faster than Andriy was going to improve his English.
Lilian retook control of the conversation at that point, clearly a little perturbed. He sent Andriy off, presumably to get cleaned up, and then started ushering Deco towards the second floor. “Is he like that when he’s drunk as well?”
Deco pretended as if the question had startled him. “Hmm? Oh…more or less. I think the lack of concern just is part of his personality. But he’s a very skilled doctor.”
“I assume so, since there was some difficulty in getting his former employer to release him,” Lilian said. He showed them up a staircase, then stopped Deco at the top. “He’s your recommendation, even if he has been hired.”
“Yes…” Eyebrows raised, Deco waited for the rest.
But instead Lilian just withdrew, not even throwing a baleful look over his shoulder. Then again, that probably would’ve been overkill, and Thuram so far was more the ascetic-type. With a shrug, Deco proceeded on to Ludo’s office. He knew where that was by now.
Ludo was just sending out a dazed, disheveled young man when Deco got there, but typically, his greeting kisses to Deco’s cheeks didn’t lack for enthusiasm. Or his hand’s plunge down the front of Deco’s trousers, and after a day of Cristiano’s constant whinging--Deco contentedly yielded to the mauling.
“Obviously you’ve got deep resources, Anderson, but I honestly never saw you as the type who’d have somebody like Shevchenko lined up,” Ludo said about twenty minutes later. His fingernails skittered over the stubble coming up around Deco’s cock, which was already itchy and sensitive. “Amoral, efficient, and with an iron stomach.”
Also prone to talk too much when he drank, and if he hadn’t had a partiality towards Deco before, he should now. Once they managed the language barrier, they should be having some interesting discussions—Lehmann wasn’t the only one who could incorporate his medical staff into his intelligence network, Deco thought. And then he stopped thinking as Ludo’s fingers slipped lower. “I just tried to think of what you’d need.”
Ludo laughed, licking at the back of Deco’s neck as his fingers sank deep into Deco’s body. “Very good. Very.”
* * *
Ruud watched Robert walk down the terminal towards the gate for his return flight till the other man disappeared into the masses thronging the airport. Then he turned and slowly walked into the lounge. It was an opulent, well-run executive rest area, with the usual bar against one wall, and he did regard that option for quite a while.
But in the end, he dragged his luggage to a secluded corner and sprawled out in a chair. A gigantic fern shielded him on one side and on the other, he had a floor-to-ceiling window view of the arriving and departing planes. His latest departure wasn’t going to be in for at least two hours, so he had plenty of time to think over his and Pirès’ discussion.
Pity there hadn’t been much to talk about: Ruud had asked what would happen if he didn’t leave early, and Pirès had laid out in detail how he would not be fired, but how that actually would have been the kinder fate. Of course, quitting wasn’t an option either—the moment Ruud left FC, he took away any motivation for Jens to keep mouths gagged about his various indiscretions. And now he supposed he also lost his protection against bodily harm—he’d been on an assassination list? For an ally of FC’s? Ferguson could hold his grudges, but that seemed extreme even for him.
It also mattered, Ruud admitted, that quitting FC would mean no chance of getting near Cristiano again. Even if it was just a two-minute chat at some label party.
So he couldn’t leave the label. He couldn’t dwell on it—that’d just see him staying longer in this slump, and not help in figuring out…well, he knew why he wasn’t in a position to negotiate. He didn’t have any bargaining chips worth a damn to Lehmann, and before he could start leveraging for what he wanted, he needed to get some. He hadn’t seen a band in Madrid that’d give him that, but in South America he might. And yes, this was making the best of the damn situation, but it wasn’t like Ruud could do anything else right now.
He slouched lower in the chair and stared out the window. At least he seemed to have turned Cesc’s opinion of him around a bit. Cesc probably was still glad he was working with somebody else now, but he had promised to see what he could do about José. So that was one less thing on Ruud’s mind. And he had even less to occupy his time now. There wasn’t even any movement outside.
Somehow, despite it all, Ruud ended up falling asleep in that chair. The next thing he knew, one of the airline staff was gently tapping his shoulder. “Sorry, yes?”
“Sir, your flight is—” Beneath her polite smile, her face had a telltale tightness to it. She glanced at the clock on the wall.
“Goddamn it.” Ruud jerked himself to his feet and grabbed everything but one bag, which the woman grabbed while telling him not to worry, she’d show him there and make sure he made the boarding.
She probably just wanted to guarantee a tip, but the help was appreciated. They did indeed stumble into the first-class area five minutes before the doors shut, and though that meant he had to put his bag in the overhead compartment while everyone stared, it was better than having Lehmann send somebody else down. Probably would’ve been Ljungberg…the woman got her tip. And Ruud sat down and reached for his inflight magazine, only to flinch backwards when somebody fell heavily against the seat in front of him and nearly made it hit his head.
“Sorry—oh.” José looked down at him, face flushed and mouth open as he panted for breath. Then he startled, glancing up and left as a flight attendant asked him to hurry up and be seated. He quickly did so, sliding into the empty place beside Ruud.
“What are you doing here?” Ruud hissed. “Do you—your family—”
“Now who keeps bringing them up?” José gasped. His eyes were bright and though he was obviously tired from running, he couldn’t keep his hands still. In the end he slipped them under his legs. “Cesc. Cesc. You called him, didn’t you? He called me, and—and he got me a ticket. He really is good.”
Ruud stared at him.
Some of the light in José’s face faded and he scrubbed at his cheek and eye with his sleeve. He was still wearing the same clothes and didn’t have a bag. “I…I told him I needed to see you. And that if it’s such a problem for the family, then…then they can just stop thinking of me as one of them. If nothing else, I can’t keep comparing myself to them this way. And you won’t lose your job. Cesc said he’d take care of that.”
The sound of the safety demonstration film coming on finally snapped Ruud out of it. He turned to face frontwards again, blinking hard. “It’s funny to think that he’s an assistant, you know. He’s not got much left to learn; Jens might as well bump him up to full agent status.”
“Ruud…” José’s voice dropped to nearly a whisper “…I haven’t lost my mind or anything. When this plane lands, I can take care of myself. I just—really needed to see you—”
The arm-rest got in the way, but Ruud managed to wedge his hand under it and squeeze José’s forearm once. He couldn’t do much else with the flight attendants walking around checking the seat-belts. “This flight is over twenty-four hours long with layovers. Stop that—I can’t do anything right now.”
José glanced at him. “So…”
“So at this rate I’m probably going to end up working for Cesc,” Ruud snorted. He rubbed at his nose as he pulled his arm back and flipped the magazine to cover his lap. “When we land, I need to start working right away. I need some major signings or my career’s gone, and it’ll be completely my fault.”
“Oh.” Something pressed up against Ruud’s thigh. Then it was gone, and José was digging into his seat-pocket with both hands for the Rio tourist magazine. “Can I do something? Maybe not help you pick them, because I don’t know what’s a good sound, but…”
Ruud chewed on the inside of his lip. Twenty-five hours. Persona non grata with Cristiano and FC. And yet…things were looking better. “We’ll talk about it.”
* * *
It was some dumb goth bar on the crappy side of town, where the bouncer didn’t even recognize Cristiano, but that was fine. He wanted to get drunk and he didn’t want to wake up to Deco, Lehmann and a big stack of tabloids in the morning, so it was perfect.
The place wasn’t too crowded, but it was so dark that that was good for many reasons. Cristiano staked out a place by the bar, so getting drinks would be easy, but so nobody would think he was cruising. Because he wasn’t. Ruud could go fuck that fucking Spanish fuck who was related to Cesc or something, but Cristiano wasn’t going to drop to that level. He didn’t need a rebound to know that he didn’t have a problem. He—needed his first drink. Where the hell were the waitstaff? Was there even any? Or were they too crappy even to have that?
He hauled himself up to the bar to look for the bartender, but didn’t see anyone. Cristiano frowned and scanned the room—yes, people were holding glasses, so somebody had to be here. To have been here. “God, this place sucks.”
“Oh, the guy went off for a smoking break and hasn’t been back in fifteen minutes,” a familiar voice said. “Just help yourself. It’s been what I’ve been doing.”
The hairs on the back of Cristiano’s neck rose and stiffened till they pricked his fingers like needles when he ran a hand over them. He slowly turned around and Gaby sort of rolled into the dim circle of light around the bar, clearly at least tipsy. The other man waved his glass vaguely in Cristiano’s direction as he leaned way over the bar. He came back up with a bottle of rum, which he handed to Cristiano.
“You liked this one, right? Unless you’ve changed a lot more since you left. Ruud did.” Gabriel didn’t bother softening his words, but he didn’t seem to mean them maliciously either. He hooked himself up onto a barstool, half-lidded eyes watching Cristiano in an…odd way. At least, he’d never looked at Cristiano like that back then.
Ruud would’ve killed him, for one. Ruud—was not somebody Cristiano wanted to think about right now. So Cristiano looked at Gaby, looked at the open collar and the uneven rolled-up sleeves. And thought about that and Ferguson’s strict dress code. “Did you get fired?”
Gabriel snorted and downed his drink in a quick toss. Then grimaced, lowering his arm much more slowly. “Your coworker Van Persie? He dislocated my arm. And afterward I couldn’t keep up so they hired a temp, but the temp was so good they said I’d have to compete with him. After five years with them. I quit. I feel sorry for all the times I hung up on Ruud now…I can understand where he was coming from.”
Damn him for the reminder. Cristiano resentfully twisted the bottle around in his hand, then frowned and looked down as the cap came off. He stared into the top, the rum’s sharp fumes stinging his nose, and remembered he’d shown up to get drunk. Because Ruud had already left the country and now was leaving the continent, and because it was probably for the best and because the best thing for Ruud wasn’t him. Fuck. Maybe he needed the ego-boost after…he stopped, then looked up at Gaby. “You hate Van Persie a lot?”
“Well…he did do my shoulder in, and that still hurts. But he wasn’t the one who couldn’t give me a week of sick leave after five years,” Gabriel said, mouth twisting. Then he shrugged and leaned forward, putting out his hand. “If you’re not drinking that…”
“You really quit?” Cristiano asked.
Gabriel paused, then sat back and stared hard at Cristiano, his eyes narrowing. Then they opened up as he looked injured and confused. “Yeah, I did. Cris, come on. I know the way you left was crappy, but you’re not holding that against me, are you? That was business—I thought we were still all right with each other. I’m sorry we haven’t met up since then, but that…was…”
“Business made it hard,” Cristiano agreed, coming up to sit on the barstool to Gaby’s left. He handed back the bottle and Gaby took it with a grin, sprawling so his knee bumped Cristiano’s. Something about their whole conversation reminded him of Deco, and that reminded him of how alone he was now, with Ruud—well, nobody else was looking out for Cristiano first, not even Lehmann. He’d known that forever. And he was taking care of it now. “Hey, so you still looking for work?”
MU had fired Gaby…well, they’d see if that was true. In the meantime, this would get Lehmann and Deco blowing their tops, and then once Cristiano had explained—to Lehmann—maybe some more respect.
* * *
Cesc tiptoed through the whole house with his heart in his throat, but as it turned out, Raúl was nowhere to be found. Which didn’t make him feel any better. For a moment, he actually seriously considered the possibility that Raúl had just up and moved, like after he’d broken up with El Moro. But then he noticed that the laundry basket was nearly overflowing, and Raúl would never leave with it like that. So…no, his bag was still where it should be too, so he wasn’t out on a house visit.
The only place Cesc hadn’t checked was the backyard, so he went there. He wasn’t sure why Raúl would be out there at this hour, with dawn beginning to flush across the sky, but he’d look first before he freaked out and called Iker and Leo.
He’d checked most of the open area and was just rounding the herb garden when his foot was grabbed by something. “Ahhhhhh!”
“Cesc, Cesc, it’s just us! Shhh! It’s still…” Iker finished the roll with him on top of Cesc, breathing heavily while Raúl peered over his shoulder. “…early. You’ll wake people up.”
“Mother of God, you’re loud,” Raúl said. Like he hadn’t known that for years.
But if he was annoyed, he wasn’t furious. Or something like that—anyway, Cesc let all his breath out in a relieved whoosh and grabbed at Raúl’s hand. “Raúl, I was just trying to do what seemed like the best thing. I’m sorry if everyone’s upset, but I talked to José and he really seemed to know what he was talking about, so I ended up agreeing with him.”
The other man blinked, then frowned, and suddenly Cesc had the horrible idea that maybe Raúl didn’t even know and now Cesc was going to have to tell him all about it. And it’d just sound all wrong, and Raúl would yell at him with Iker around not knowing any—Iker might not like how it sounded either, and then---
Two hands folded around Cesc’s face, tilting it so he looked back at Raúl’s serious, concerned face. “Cesc, Fernando called me and said what had happened that he knew about, and then José’s mother called with the message he left on their answering machine. I don’t know what part you’ve heard or done in this, though.”
Cesc swallowed hard. He was still holding onto Raúl’s hand and he squeezed it; Raúl’s mouth twitched slightly, but he didn’t shake Cesc off. “Ruud called me and said José had gotten into a fight with ‘Nando, and thought ‘Nando wasn’t going to let him stay with him because of what he wanted to do. All Ruud wanted was that José would have somebody to go to. And…and I thought it was a little weird he’d call about that, but he seemed to mean it so I said yeah.”
Iker was glancing between Raúl and Cesc like he half-understood, so maybe they’d been talking about it. That was a good sign, since at least Raúl would’ve skipped the bottled-up rage stage.
“So I called José to check, and…and he said it was true. He said he wanted to go with Ruud, but Ruud was getting sent to South America. And he was already trying to figure out how to get there, so—I mean, if he’s going, I might as well make sure he gets there okay, right? Otherwise Auntie would really kill me,” Cesc said, flashing a tentative smile. It didn’t get much of a response, so he wiped it off his face. “I still don’t know what’s going on with them, but when he was talking about Ruud, José actually…sounded like he had a plan. Knew what he wanted to do, you know. He hasn’t sounded like that for a while.”
Raúl didn’t say anything. He didn’t take his hands off Cesc’s face either, so maybe it was a good silence. But whatever it was, it was freaking Cesc out. His fingers twitched and his toes curled in his shoes; the grass poking him in the neck was suddenly too much to bear. He tried to sit up, but Raúl wouldn’t let go. Then Cesc kind of lost it and shoved him in the shoulder, and he cursed and pushed back, and Cesc panicked and whipped himself around, trying to drag himself out from beneath the other man.
“Hey, hey. Hey.” A hand closed on Cesc’s shoulder and pulled him back. He hit it, then hesitated when it was Iker’s voice swearing. Iker didn’t, and bundled Cesc back till he was stuck under him. “Cesc, calm down. Raúl hasn’t even said anything yet.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m—” Cesc went still as a warm mouth stopped his lips from going on. He sagged back against Iker and stared as Raúl slowly pulled back, only to rest his forehead against Cesc’s.
“Was I honestly that strict when you were little?” Raúl sighed. He turned slightly so they could sort of look each other in the eye, his hands rising to lightly rest on Cesc’s throat and jaw. “You’re always afraid of me.”
Something in his voice made Cesc wince. “I’m not…I just don’t want to disappoint you,” he finally said. Iker’s hands loosened slightly, settling on Cesc’s stomach, and he took that to mean it was okay to put his hands on Raúl’s shoulders. “How come you aren’t on a plane? I thought you said you were going.”
“He was, but I couldn’t really understand why he was skipping dinner at my place, and by the time he finished explaining, I guess he changed his mind,” Iker said.
Raúl lifted his head so Cesc could see him roll his eyes from close-up. Which was kind of gross with how he could see the little veins under Raúl’s eyelids, but the quirk of Raúl’s mouth made him want to kiss it. “In other words, Iker stayed around while I calmed down and thought about it, and I ended up thinking the same way you are. Before José left I got him to talk a little, and it’s not black-and-white…he wants very badly to be able to make up his own mind about Ruud, but he’s not pretending that Van Nistelrooy isn’t doing this right.”
“Ruud did call to make sure José would be okay,” Cesc tentatively offered.
“Which makes me feel a very, very tiny bit better.” That twist to Raúl’s mouth got tighter. “I still think this’ll end badly, but this might be a time where you just have to let people find out for themselves.”
Cesc kissed the twist, then grinned a little when Raúl jerked in surprise. “Like me and medical school?”
“You…” Raúl rolled his eyes again, then leaned forward and kissed Cesc back when Cesc was distracted by Iker’s hand moving over his stomach. “That was not a disappointment, by the way. You’re not a disappointment at all—though you’re unbelievably infuriating at times, Francesc.”
And that was when Cesc knew it was all fine. He smiled and snuggled close to the two of them, ignoring the grass stains on his suit.
* * *
“Now I’m starting to see why you were so wound up all week,” Torsten said, fidgeting. He checked his watch again, then started digging in one of the kitchen drawers. “Says he’s going to call and they’ll talk over lunch. And I believed that…I should’ve known they’d just do it all now. Those two just aren’t meant to be apart.”
Michael refrained from saying ‘I told you so.’ More because the pain in his bladder was beginning to transition from irritating to desperate, though he was also trying to repay Torsten for putting up with aforementioned bad moods. “They do lock themselves in the toilet for the same reasons.”
“Well, I’m sympathetic to romance, but Lahmi’s had two hours in there. If he needs to have a conversation in a small space, my closet’s pretty roomy and also comes with a light.” Torsten pulled out a couple of screwdrivers and a long L-shaped strip of metal. “You want to grab him, or get the door?”
“I think I’d better get the door,” Michael said, reaching for the screwdrivers. “Everybody says I’m so good at that…”
Torsten laughed and stole a kiss as he stuck the metal strip under his arm. “I really need to update your profile. All right, let’s go take back my bathroom.”
* * *
Ricardo didn’t in fact rouse in time to wake Paolo up, but Paolo didn’t hold that against him. It might’ve been a pleasanter awakening than the high-pitched buzzing of Paolo’s PDA—which he had forgotten to shut off—but rolling over and having the black-on-white of Ricardo’s lashes curled over his cheek be the first thing to come into focus more than made up for it.
Paolo wasted quite a bit of time just looking down at the other man. Animated Ricardo was eye-catching enough, but in repose, with sleep allowing Paolo the time to see how the soft, almost childish curves of the face sharpened into the more maturely angular lines of throat, shoulder and hip. The hand Ricardo had up by his face was large, long-fingered but not delicate, palm strong enough to hold its ground when Paolo slipped his fingers beneath and pressed up into it. A man’s hand.
He bent down and kissed Ricardo’s knuckles one by one, letting their bumps force a reshaping of his lips. With Kaká inexperience didn’t equal coldness; on the contrary, he seemed to respond to everything. Even asleep, he sighed and opened his fingers so their tips curled over the side of Paolo’s hand instead of into the calluses of Paolo’s palm. His head tipped towards Paolo, offering up a smooth cheek, and Paolo couldn’t refuse.
If he pressed down hard enough with his tongue, he could feel the unevenness of stubble, but a light graze yielded up only silky skin and a half-murmur that had the elements of his name woven into it. Paolo breathed in the soft sounds, closing his eyes.
“I used to pick up boys like you at every corner. No, I caught them, because back then they fell like overripe fruit from trees,” he whispered. His lips brushed Ricardo’s earlobe, and then he moved to take that into his mouth. He just held it for a moment, letting it lie on top of his teeth, before allowing it to slip out. “I’d tie them down and devour them whole, and go away full of their lust and spirit and dreams. They might have been ripe for it, but I was the one who pressed my thumbs into their flesh till it bruised. Would you let me do that? Would you forgive me then? Would you like it? Would I still like it? I’m not sure these days.”
Ricardo stirred, his fingers rippling over Paolo’s hand. He didn’t wake, but his body still could express itself in the arch of his back, the stretch of his neck, the way his lips parted under the stroke of Paolo’s thumb.
“Angel. Angel, yes, but are you a fallen one or do you still have God’s ear?” Paolo wet his thumb with his tongue, then brushed it over Ricardo’s lips again, leaving them redder and with a slight carnal gleam. “The Devil’s supposed to be very beautiful when he chooses to be—he still has the form he wore in heaven.”
Paolo withdrew his hand and Ricardo tucked his head down, apparently seeking it in the mattress. He pulled up a moment later, the dampness wiped from his lips, and his eyes momentarily cracked open so Paolo could see the dark of the irises and pupils tracking from side to side. But he still hadn’t woken, and so there were no answers in them.
With a long sigh, Paolo straightened up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He stood, then bent again to twitch at the sheets so a soiled spot wouldn’t touch Ricardo should he roll over; he’d have to send an extra load to the laundry later. Then he rounded the bed to whisper one last thing into Ricardo’s unhearing ear.
“I do love you,” he said. “But I don’t know how.”
The morning light was pouring into the room now, banishing the shades between none and full black. The PDA beeped and Paolo snatched it up before it could wake the other man; business was intruding once again, a reminder that this wasn’t a Sunday in the confessional. He turned on his heel and went to make breakfast.