Tangible Schizophrenia


Are You Happy Now

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: PG-13
Pairing: Fàbregas/Raúl(/Casillas), Raúl/Morientes, implied Frings/Ballack.
Feedback: Good lines, bad ones, etc.
Disclaimer: This is absolutely fiction and not real and I don’t know these people at all. Any resemblance to any real-life record company is completely accidental.
Notes: Titled after the Michelle Branch song.
Summary: Raúl’s ex is back in town. Presto! Instant personal crisis.


Ruud was working through the dozens of demo tapes in his backlog when his PDA went off. He started to reach for it, but it stopped ringing before he’d touched it. After a moment, he moved his hand back and swapped the next tape into the tape player.

His cell rang. He had it out in time to see who it was, but as he was flipping it open with his thumb, Cesc abruptly hung up. Ruud checked his PDA, saw that had been from Cesc as well, and then was dialing for the other man when Cesc called a second time. In a flash Ruud had the phone to his ear. “Cesc? Hello?”

And…no sound. Enough noise to suggest the phone was in a car moving along a street under construction, but…then a click in Ruud’s ear as Cesc hung up again. For a moment, Ruud stared at his phone. Then he looked at his desk. Then he got up, stuffed everything on it into his briefcase, and was on his way out in ten minutes.

Of course, he had no idea where he was going. He didn’t know where Cesc was, and he wouldn’t be able to call Robin for at least a week…anyway, he didn’t really want to let Van Persie in on it if Cesc turned out to be in trouble. He knew well enough how much he’d been depending on Cesc to not risk having him compromised.

In the end, he sat in his car and scrolled through his cell contacts list till Lionel Messi popped up. And then Ruud wanted to hit himself for not thinking of him in the first palce, but that would’ve wasted more time. Instead he hit ‘call’ and waited, drumming his fingers on the wheel.

Messi picked up after the third ring. *Ruud? Why are you calling me? Oh, look, never mind. Listen, I’m kind of—*

“Is Cesc over there—he is. I can hear him. What happened? He gave me a couple strange calls,” Ruud said, starting the car. He backed out one-handed and not entirely paying attention to what he was doing, either; he could hear Cesc talking to somebody else in the background, sounding like he either had been or was still crying. “Are you at your apartment or his?”

*Um…uh…wait, are you coming over? Are you mad at him? Does he need to do something? Can it wait?* Lionel’s tone ricocheted from panicky to prickly and back to panicky.

Ruud sighed. Then he suppressed a couple curses as he side-swiped the curb on the way out. Holding up the phone was making him turn the wheel too much. “Yes, no, no, not applicable. I want to know what happened. I sent him home early, and I do need him for the next few days, so if something’s wrong I want to get it taken care of before that.”

Somebody interrupted Messi while he was replying. There was some frantic whispering on his end before he finally came back on the line. *Mine and Michael’s place.*

“I’ll be there in another ten minutes,” Ruud said.

* * *

Michael looked helplessly at Torsten, who twitched his shoulders and hands towards the Cesc-and-Lionel comforting bundle. Then Torsten turned towards the kitchen and mimed setting a kettle on the stove.

Yeah, that might be a good idea. God knew Michael didn’t have any better ones. He left Torsten to it and gingerly went around the sofa to the unoccupied end. That had him more or less facing Cesc’s butt—he hastily looked for something else that he could…pat or squeeze in sympathy without giving the wrong impression, but most of Cesc’s upper half was buried in Lionel. He had his arms around Lionel’s waist and Lionel was bent nearly in two as he rubbed at Cesc’s back.

“…asshole! He’s an asshole and he moved to an asshole country, and why did he come back? What is he doing here?” Cesc went stiff, as if he were going to jerk himself upright, but then the next moment, he’d collapsed into Lionel’s lap again. He said something else, but between Lionel’s stomach and his sniffling, it was impossible to understand.

“I know, I know. Well, um…I don’t know, but—but it definitely can’t be for a good reason. He’s the one who left,” Lionel said. His expression alternated between concerned and about as angry as Michael had ever seen him. “Cesc…Cesc, c’mon…Raúl turned him down once, and it’s been two years—”

“There was tongue! What’s two years to that?” Cesc cried. And he sounded so genuinely distraught that the way he’d phrased it wasn’t funny at all.

Okay, Michael did still feel a little residual annoyance at not getting out with Torsten for dinner before Cesc had shown up, but he felt all kinds of guilt over that. And he was staying, and patting at the parts of Cesc’s back that Lionel wasn’t, so that sort of made up for that, didn’t it? “Maybe…maybe he caught Raúl off-guard.”

“Yeah. Probably.” Sniffle. Clutch at Lionel’s knee; Lionel briefly looked pained before assuming a pose of suffering tolerance. “But still, they were in the kitchen and that meant Raúl at least invited him inside, and they’d been talking before that, and why didn’t Raúl say that that bastard was going to be in town?”

“Maybe he didn’t know either?” Michael didn’t have nearly enough details to keep going like this. He looked desperately at Lionel for some help.

Lionel rubbed harder at Cesc’s shoulders and opened his mouth. Then jumped as the doorbell rang. He jerked his head, but Michael was already halfway there.

He side-stepped Torsten, who was going over with what smelled like dosed-up coffee, and nearly grabbed the door open. Then he sort of stuttered to a stop, because the guy standing out there was nearly ten centimeters shorter than Ruud, black-haired, and—

After a quick, puzzled glance at Michael, the man hooked his hand over the side of the doorway and leaned in, craning his head around. “Cesc?”

--Spanish. Michael moved out of the way and started to close the door, but he happened to see Ruud getting out of the elevator down the hall and instead stayed where he was, waiting for the other man to come up. In the meantime, the newcomer somehow divined that Cesc was on the couch and made a beeline straight for it. He got there just as Cesc raised a tousled, red-eyed, blotchy-cheeked head and blearily looked towards him.

“José?” Cesc said, blinking. Then he jerked back and fell over Lionel, with only Torsten’s quick reflexes keeping those two on the couch. “Wait a second! Did Raúl send you to look for me?”

José stopped dead in his tracks. His back was to Michael, but his posture was so uncomfortable that even Michael was leaning towards that being a good guess by Cesc.

“Fuck him. I don’t want to talk to him right now,” Cesc snarled. He angrily slashed his hand over his eyes, then dragged it back to grind into his right eye. His shoulders slumped, and then he put his head down on the sofa-back and started to cry again.

Lionel threw a protective arm over him and glared at José. “God, did you even ask what was wrong?”

“Are you kidding? Raúl calls me up and asks me where Cesc is, like I’d know, and I thought he was going to kill me,” José said, raising his hands. He spread his palms and shook his head as he edged towards the couch. “I just guessed, honestly…and look, Cesc, I haven’t called him. I won’t call him if you don’t want me to, okay? I—I don’t think I even want to know what this is about, but it’s just Uncle’s freaking out and it’s scary.”

Ruud made it to the door just about then, muttering a thanks. He came inside but stopped there so Michael had to reach awkwardly around him to close the door. “What’s going on?”

Michael started to answer, but a loud crash interrupted him and he whipped around to see what had caused it. He started to step forward as well, but Torsten popped up long enough to wave him back. Then the other man went down and Lionel came up, climbing over the back of the couch.

“Shit,” he muttered. He turned back and reached down for something, then stopped as somebody told him something. With a shrug, he hopped into the kitchen. He seemed to be going for the paper towels, while José and Cesc had switched to Spanish and were vociferously arguing over something. “Oh…Ruud. Stay over there a second. There’s spilled coffee…Micha, where’d we put that cleaning powder stuff?”

“Under the sink. I’ll get it.” Actually, the can had somehow migrated to under the left half of the counter, but Michael was pretty sure this wasn’t a good time to be wondering if they had rats. He handed the powder over to Lionel, then went back in for something to scrub it into the carpet. “Ah…Leo? What—what are they—”

Lionel twisted a long strip of paper towels around the can, then tossed it across the room to Torsten, who seemed to be explaining things to Ruud. For some reason, Ruud was taking off his tie and suit-jacket…Lionel was talking. “…learn Spanish, hombre. José’s asking Cesc what did he and Raúl fight about, and why is Raúl so angry, and Cesc’s saying Raúl is a liar and a two-timing bastard and—”

High-pitched scream of shock, which might or might not have actually consisted of words. Frankly, Michael was glad he hadn’t understood that.

“—and I think José just found out that Cesc and Raúl have been screwing,” Lionel sighed, pushing at the hair in his face. He twisted the strands around his fingers and nervously pulled at them, then shook his hands free and went back over to the couch like he was marching into a war-zone. “Man, why couldn’t Raúl have called Torres? ‘Nando would’ve taken it so much better…”

Michael watched Lionel go, then shifted his eyes past the other man to the couch. Mostly he saw flailing arms, with the occasional black-haired yelling head appearing in between them. He wondered if it’d be really, really, really bad of him to sneak out. It wasn’t like he’d just run off and leave Lionel to deal with it; he figured he could go pick up dinner for everyone. Or something.

The couch coughed up Torsten just as Michael was about to ask that aloud, which given the usual state of his life probably would’ve ended up starting a new mess. So Michael asked him instead.

“Yeah, we might as well. Think they’d all be okay with Indian take-out?” Torsten pondered, glancing over his shoulder. Then he shrugged and put out a hand to help Michael to his feet. “Well, if they don’t, they can do something about all those frozen pizzas crammed in your fridge.”

“It’s Lionel’s fridge too. I mean, they’re not all…okay, I’m a programmer. It’s a basic instinct to have that on hand at all times,” Michael muttered. He took a look at the others, but it seemed like they were all distracted. Except…“Where’s Ruud?”

Torsten’s mouth twitched, and he didn’t reply till they were in the hallway. “Van Nistelrooy is cleaning your carpet…I guess somebody had to. Messi’s busy trying to referee the Cesc-José argument.”

“Ruud is…cleaning. The carpet.” Michael…Michael actually needed a couple seconds to realize that Torsten was pulling his arm because he’d stopped dead in his tracks.

“Yes, I know, but Micha, if that shorts out your brain then I don’t know how you’re going to get through the summer launches,” Torsten said. Straight-faced, he glanced at Michael, and then he laughed and put up a hand to lightly tap Michael on the back of the head. “No, seriously, he was but I think it was an excuse so he could listen and figure out what was going on without interrupting them. I know he knows Portuguese and that’s not too far off from Spanish.”

“Do you know what’s going on?” Michael said. A little bit snappishly, which Torsten didn’t deserve; he ducked his head, but only managed to ram his chin into a hand.

Torsten arched a brow as he pushed the ‘down’ button for the elevator. “Hey, are you all right? You’re getting jumpy again.” He studied Michael a second and apparently got something out of how Michael was opening and closing his mouth like a fish. Which resulted in just as many words as a fish would’ve been able to produce. “I’m pretty sure that it won’t involve clandestine surveillance operations.”

“I hope not,” Michael eventually said. He sucked his lower lip into his mouth, then let it out little by little. Then he gave himself a good shake. “No, you’re right. I don’t know how you’re right, but…never mind.”

“I heard Cesc say ‘El Moro’ is why. You know, Fernando Morientes? I don’t know what the deal between Cesc and Raúl is, but Raúl and Morientes were together for a long time. It was kind of a…well, if you worked for FC then, that was as much a part of El Moro as the music and profits was,” Torsten replied. The elevator doors opened and he walked in, then turned to wave Michael in. He frowned when he saw Michael’s expression. “What?”

Michael blinked. “Not much. I just feel very sorry for Cesc now. He annoys me a little but he doesn’t deserve to be treated like that—oh, sorry. Let me explain…”

* * *

“Why the hell did you give him my address?”

Bam. Stacks of files shivered, then slowly toppled over to spill out their contents on the floor. Pens and paperclips rattled, bouncing or rolling outward from the white-knuckled fists Raúl had just slammed into Fredrik’s desk. Eyes burning, nostrils flared to show red, Raúl was trembling so badly that Fredrik honestly considered yelling for help.

He didn’t go that far, but he did unobtrusively push himself back from his desk. “What? Who? What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Morientes! He told me he found my house from you, and he showed up not warning, you—” Raúl’s English rapidly deteriorated into furious snarling Spanish, which Fredrik was happy to let completely pass over his head. Otherwise he’d probably…well, he might have to tackle Raúl anyway—never mind, the other man had suddenly wheeled around to throw himself in the nearest chair, and now was staring blindly out in moody silence.

Fredrik eased his legs completely out from under his desk to aid any possible physical action he’d need to undertake. “What the…I did tell him your address, but so what? I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to tell him, and anyway, anybody on the floor could’ve told him. I’m just who he saw first. And I’m surprised he didn’t know already.”

“He didn’t on purpose. Are you so stupid going on your drunken bar-brawls that you didn’t notice I moved when he…oh, never mind,” Raúl mumbled, dropping his head into his hand. He’d calmed down enough for Fredrik to see that the disheveled ragged appearance wasn’t just due to the temper tantrum. He looked like somebody had just died on him and left him nothing but heavy debts. “What is he doing here?”

“I can’t really say,” Fredrik replied after a moment.

Well, he was still a little shell-shocked from having Raúl go off on him. He’d seen the man seethe and snarl often enough, but actually flat-out losing his temper? About as often as Jens got publicly drunk—Fredrik winced and dragged his mind away from that just in time to notice the long, coldly considering look Raúl was giving him. And remember that Raúl actually had been employed by FC longer than he had.

“I’ve treated you for times when Jens and Thierry didn’t know you were getting into fights. Or with who. Tell me what he’s doing here,” Raúl slowly said. He put his arms down.

Fredrik matched the other man’s stare for nearly a minute and didn’t see any wavering. Then he sighed. And mentally flicked an obscene gesture Morientes’ way; he didn’t need this at the end of the work-day, and he sure as hell wasn’t risking his career over some has-been rocker who wasn’t even signed to FC anymore. “He’s in town to try to arrange for a joint tour between a couple of his protégés and the Chels. Business-wise, anyway. I don’t know why he went to see you, so don’t ask.”

“I didn’t need to anyway.” Without saying thank-you, Raúl got up and walked out.

To be honest, Fredrik had been leaning against Morientes’ proposal. It would have given the Chels a lot of publicity and probably have been very profitable, but he had been around for Morientes walking out on FC. And in the one meeting they’d had so far, it didn’t seem as if El Moro had changed much. He still wanted control over everything.

So Fredrik let Raúl go. And didn’t go running to Thierry or Jens, though he did wing emails those ways. It just looked like telenovela nonsense was going down, after all—Raúl’s threat didn’t work if he quit FC, so obviously it wasn’t that bad.

* * *

“Sorry, I…honestly, I don’t even remember calling you, Ruud. My vision was going all blurry and I didn’t know who I was calling…I know I had to try twice before I got Lionel. So sorry you came over for a lousy reason,” Cesc mumbled. He scrubbed at his eyes with his sleeve, then irritably pushed Lionel away when the other man tried to pass him tissues for that. “It’s nothing much, really.”

José, who’d retreated as far as the armchair, sat up with a disturbed look. “What? But Raúl—”

“Oh, would you shut up? See, this is exactly why I didn’t want to tell anybody. Oh, my God, if you tell my mother or your mother or—”

“Cesc! It’s Raúl! He’s—he’s related.”

“Holy mother of God, José. He’s your uncle, not mine.”

“But you still call him ‘uncle’…” José weakly protested. He was rapidly crumpling beneath the withering glares both Cesc and Lionel were giving him. His feet scuffed at the edge of the huge wet spot on the carpet. “Okay, okay, I’m sorry, I—it’s just weird for me, okay? I need a second. And anyway…that isn’t the big deal. I just…I mean…he and El Moro were together for years. Didn’t you see this coming?”

That definitely wasn’t the best way to put it, and José realized that about the same time that Lionel tried to fly at him like a tiny ball of mop-haired rage. Cesc held Messi back, but not before José had thrown up his arms and babbled apologies while trying to merge with the armchair.

“Ruud, look. It’s really nothing you need to worry about,” Cesc said. His voice was shaking and he was obviously trying to steady it, but without much success. He hissed something to the effect of leaving José alone to Lionel, then attempted a wry smile. It came out pained. “I’ll be in to work tomorrow.”

“It is something I need to worry about if it’ll affect your work, either now or in the future. I—Cesc, I’m not about to fire you over this, all right? So don’t worry about that. What I want to know is that when you work, you really will be able to handle it and you won’t just be putting off a breakdown till later.” About halfway through, Ruud picked up that he was speaking from a lot deeper than somebody concerned with straight-up efficiency or even Cesc’s emotional state. Not that he could do anything about it; once he’d started talking, he just had to finish. “And if you think working in proximity to Raúl will be a problem, then I also need to know so I can make alternative arrangements.”

Cesc blinked a few times, clearly not expecting that. He looked at Ruud, briefly dropped his eyes to watch his fingers twist together, and then returned his gaze to Ruud. “Thanks,” he finally said.

He was intelligent enough to have picked up on the undercurrents as well—even José was looking a bit oddly at Ruud—but thankfully, he didn’t comment on them. After a moment, he rubbed at his face again and mumbled something to Lionel, who reluctantly slid off the couch and walked towards the bedrooms.

“I…I’m kind of a mess,” Cesc muttered, nervously picking at his clothes. “Look, can I wash up and then we can go back to talking about this? I mean, if you don’t mind…you had a lot of work on your desk and I don’t want to—”

“I brought it with me. I wasn’t planning to sleep anyway.” Ruud carefully suppressed his bitterness from reaching the half-smile he offered the other man, and Cesc eventually seemed to buy it. He went off after Lionel while Ruud cracked open his briefcase and rummaged through the demo tapes for the one with which he wanted to start. Then he thought of something and sent off a fast email to David before going back to the tapes.

Uncomfortable cough. It startled Ruud, who’d actually forgotten José was still in the room. He looked up and the other man awkwardly gestured, not quite looking at Ruud. “So…you’re…you’re Cesc’s boss?”

More like he was Cesc’s work-in-progress. He felt a little bit guilty about knowing that part of his interest in helping was self-preservation, but shrugged it off. Fine, he wasn’t exactly the most altruistic man at the label. If he had been, he would’ve been able to keep Cris—never goddamn mind. “Yes,” Ruud calmly said. “You…hmm, I can see the family resemblance a little. Raúl’s never mentioned you, though.”

José’s mouth twitched. Then he sighed and threw himself back in the seat, twisting sideways so he was partly facing Ruud. “Wouldn’t surprise me. Raúl doesn’t talk about work to us either, and half the family’s perpetually annoyed at him for that. I can get it, though—there’s nothing interesting about jerks, no matter how rich and famous they are.”

Ruud paused in the middle of putting his earphones in.

Wincing, José cursed and briefly buried his face in the armchair. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean you. I just work at Corazón, you know what—yeah, so I see famous people come in all the time and they order crazy shit at two in the morning and are assholes over nothing and harass the waitstaff.”

“Oh…right. Cesc mentioned his relatives owned that restaurant.” After making sure the earbuds wouldn’t fall out, Ruud popped in the first tape and clicked ‘play.’ Twenty seconds later he’d heard plenty and was trying not to drop the tape as he hastily swapped it out. “I’ve never eaten there—I had an appointment once, but the meeting was canceled. It’s on the other side of town for me.”

José still looked distressed. “I didn’t mean any of your clients either. I’m, um, sure that they are all—”

He was a terrible liar, his eyes flicking all over the place and his foot jiggling as if one of the nerves running through it had just exploded. He didn’t take after the family that way: Cesc could convince chickens to jump into the pot, and Ruud had occasionally seen Raúl deadpan a lie well enough to have made a fortune at poker, if he’d been inclined that way. But honestly, it was a little refreshing to be around someone who was that transparent. “No, you’re right. A lot of them are asses.”

The corners of José’s mouth wanted to go up, but he obviously wasn’t sure if that was appropriate. He kicked at the floor a few more times, then looked up. Then he did smile anxiously, but at somebody over Ruud’s shoulder. “You look a lot better,” he said in Spanish.

“You don’t need to still be here,” Cesc sighed in English. He went on in that language, which was a secret relief to Ruud—knowing Portuguese meant he could get the meaning of anything said in Spanish, but a lot of the nuance flew over his head and this was mostly a situation of nuance.

“I want to know you’re going to be okay.” José looked a bit mulish as he lifted his chin. Then he awkwardly moved his shoulders and scuffed the floor with his foot again. “And you know, if Raúl runs into me again, I’ll try not to give you away but—”

“You suck at keeping secrets. Okay, fine, stay. Whatever.” Cesc slouched onto the end of the sofa opposite to Ruud. He’d washed his face and made an attempt to straighten out his clothes, but his eyes were still reddened. He started to ask Ruud something, but a noise at the door made them all turn around.

Ballack and Frings made their reappearance—Ruud had temporarily forgotten they’d even been around—laden with bags of food, perfectly timed to catch Ruud’s stomach off-guard. He winced as it growled. Then he noticed José was grabbing at his belly for the same reason and felt a little better; the other man gave him an embarrassed smile.

“Food! Micha, brilliant idea.” Lionel came flying out of the bedroom and within two seconds, had relieved Michael and Torsten of their bags and was popping open containers.

Ruud’s PDA quietly buzzed. He looked at it, then—and José made things easy for him by getting out of the armchair and wandering over to the food. He put out an arm to keep Cesc from doing the same, then showed the email when the other man looked at him. “This is why Morientes is here. David says we didn’t have more than a day’s advance notice.”

“Thanks,” Cesc said after a moment. He didn’t sound as if the news had done anything in particular for him. Then he grimaced, rubbing at the back of his neck. “I…do you want dinner? While you’re here?”

“No, I’m fine.” The signs were pretty unmistakable for Ruud: Cesc was stuck, too much coming down on him at once and him not being able to even process it. So he was stalling. Which was a marginally better reaction than flipping out, but still wasn’t a viable long-term solution. “Look, we’re talking about this now. I can’t devote my whole evening to this.”

That approach seemed to get through to Cesc and strike a chord with his work ethic. He nodded and looked solemnly at Ruud. He was about to say something in reply, but then Messi came over with some of the food. Ruud let Cesc get away with it for now because the other man did look like he could use something in his stomach, but he stayed standing till Cesc reluctantly came back. He wasn’t about to let another problem fester out of hand.

* * *

Raúl looked at the phone in his hand, then sighed and hung it back up on the wall. Then he looked slowly around Cesc’s dark, empty apartment. His gaze had just reached the front door when it moved; he frowned and tensed up as the door slowly swung inwards.

“You still have the same car,” Fernando said when he’d come in.

“Knew I forgot to get rid of something,” Raúl snapped. He snatched up his car keys from the counter and stalked out, taking the other man with him. After making sure the door was locked, he wheeled and took off down the hall. “Go away! Goddamn it, I can’t find Cesc and Iker just hung up on me, and why the hell would I still want to talk to you?”

“Who the hell is Iker?”

The elevator would take too long. Raúl went for the stairs instead and slammed the door in Fernando’s face when he tried to follow. He didn’t even look to see what sort of expression the other man had, but instead clattered down the stairs as quickly as possible. Cesc wasn’t at work or at his apartment, and the secretaries had said that Ruud had let him go home early so there’d be no point in calling Van Nistelrooy—oh, damn, that’d been why Cesc had been there.

First thing he did after getting unexpected free time was come over to see Raúl, and he ended up walking in on Fernando trying to stick his tongue in Raúl’s mouth, like that had ever solved anything between then even before the break-up. But it wasn’t all Fernando’s fault—Raúl should’ve insisted they go to a public area. Or just slammed that door in his face. Or—

Raúl cursed and lunged back, but Fernando had an iron grip on his arm and yanked forward. After teetering for a moment, Raúl grabbed the railing and barely kept himself from falling on the other man. He yanked his arm free and moved that hand to the railing as well.

“We didn’t finish talking.” Fernando caught the slight jerk of the head Raúl made and abruptly went up to the first step, forcing Raúl further back. “I’m not moving till we do, and if you run up, you’ll just get stuck.”

He stared at Raúl. Raúl stared back. Neither of them moved. More time was wasted.

Finally Raúl threw up his arms and sat down on the steps. “Fine. Fine! Say what you want to say. It’s been too long anyway—it doesn’t matter if I go or not, because it’s already been too long for me to catch either of them.”

“Who?” Fernando asked. His voice curled viciously, like he had any right.

“Cesc. And Iker—Iker Casillas, who I don’t think you know, but I’m not about to introduce him to you.” If Raúl could even get near the man again. Before he’d hung up, Iker hadn’t been trying to stiffen up and do the “honorable thing.” He hadn’t even been stammering. He’d been silent, and then the phone line had gone dead. “What do you want?”

Fernando was still standing. When Raúl looked up, the other man’s expression was an odd mix of dawning comprehension and chagrin. “You’re…”

“I was making an attempt, yes. But I think by now it’s been too long to talk to Cesc, and Iker was out of town in the first place.” Raúl gripped his knees and pulled at them as he leaned back, feeling the bones in his spine pop. It didn’t result in any relief from tension; he slumped forward again and mechanically pushed at his throbbing temples, not really believing he deserved to have the migraine go away. “And I thought Cesc was going to be the one taking it for granted.”

Cesc. When I was here, his mother was still dressing him.”

“Shut the hell up,” Raúl snapped. He put his elbows on his thighs and dropped his face into his hands. “You left. You don’t have any say in my life anymore.”

After a long, tense few seconds, Fernando sighed. His feet moved out of Raúl’s view. Metal creaked as he sat down on the step beside Raúl, which was so narrow that their feet were forced to bump up against each other. Something touched Raúl’s arm and he jerked away, banging his other arm on the railing. He had to lower his hand from his face as well, and did so just in time to see Fernando looking at him with a strange wistful expression.

“I guess that’s really it then,” Fernando said. His lips turned up a little and parted enough for a flash of white to be seen, but then he turned away and ducked his head. He ran his fingers through his hair, sweeping it out of his face. “I knew it was stupid to hope you were waiting for me.”

“You gave me an ultimatum.” Raúl stayed leaning against the railing, even though the sharp edges of the vertical bars were digging into his head and shoulder. He sounded tired when he was still pretty goddamn upset, but…well, he was tired of it. “You told me you couldn’t come to an agreement about a new contract and you were leaving—leaving the whole country, and you said I had to choose. I—‘Nando, you’d already booked your damn flight! I had family here, I had the job I’d always wanted…and you gave me two days’ notice.”

Fernando grimaced. “It was that bad. I keep wanting to remember it wasn’t, but…all right, I’m an idiot. This has been established. I just—I was upset about what FC was trying to pull. When they signed me, they were about to go bankrupt. I brought them out of it and then they were—”

“You know, this is why it didn’t work out,” Raúl muttered. “No, I know, I learned afterward about all the details and they were trying to treat you like shit. You had every right to leave like you did and take your success with you. But that’s your success, that’s your music. I’m a person. You can’t order me to uproot myself like that. You can’t—you can’t try to pack me up like your master records.”

“I know. I’m—I’m sorry.” A hand came up to forestall Raúl’s incredulous reply. “I know I’m late. I know that can’t make up for it. I know I let my pride throw away eight years of a wonderful thing. But I wanted to say that to you, finally.”

Raúl still had his mouth open, but he could feel his retort wither on his tongue. Instead he sighed and looked away, down at the stairwell door. “Thanks. Thank you…I know what that means, coming from you. But I still wish you’d just called. Why--why did you come? To my house? And what the hell made you think you could kiss me?”

Something about that didn’t agree with Fernando, and he obviously was about to say so. But then he looked sharply at Raúl—hopefully he noticed Raúl was not in the mood for etiquette debates—and just got to the point. “Look, I have a good life and I’m much happier now. But honestly, I still miss you. I just…I don’t know. I wanted to see how you were. The kiss was stupid, but you…you looked good. You still look good.”

“You’re an idiot, ‘Nando,” Raúl muttered after a second.

“Yeah, I…you know, I even miss you telling me that.” Fernando was looking at Raúl for something, staring as hard as he could, and in the moment before he finally turned away, Raúl could see a ghost of hope rise up, then slowly dissolve in the other man’s eyes. Then Fernando laughed a little bitterly, shaking his head and looking at his feet. “Well, I made my bed. I’ll sleep in it. I just had to know for sure.”

A little bit of something that had been buried so deeply in him Raúl had forgotten about it suddenly crumbled away. It might’ve stung, but it was over so quickly and once it was gone…well, Raúl was fine without it. “So you do now.”

“Cesc must have turned out really well,” Fernando said, scratching at his ankle. He absently pulled at his socks, head tilting in thought. “He actually called me an asshole. He—are you laughing at me? Raúlito?”

“Maybe,” Raúl admitted. Though his smile was at best half-hearted and faded almost immediately. “He did. He’s smarter than I was at his age, I think.”

“If he is, then he’ll give you a chance. I didn’t—eight years and I didn’t know who you’d pick, me or the label…and I know now that you staying didn’t mean you were taking FC. But…never mind, I’m too late.” Fernando half-smiled, genuine regret tempering his affection. And that was still real, lingering on. But he touched Raúl’s cheek and it was like the warmth of a fire coming through thick glass. “Do you want me to talk to him?”

Raúl smiled a little and turned his head so Fernando’s fingers slid off. He shook his head as he got up. “No…no, I think it’d just be better if he didn’t see you. I’ll do the talking. If I can find him. He’s not at work or his flat, and none of the family know where he is. I don’t know where to look now.”

“What about his friends? What about that one he was always running around with…the short one who always had earphones on?” Fernando said. He made short slices through the air with his hand, gesturing at about waist-level.

Who could he be…Lionel. The headache, which had simmered down a little, came roaring back and added to it was angry embarrassment. “I didn’t even think of Leo. Of course Cesc would go to him…they’re so close for the longest time everyone thought they were…”

He started down the steps, trying to figure out whether or not Cesc and Lionel would still be at Lionel’s apartment, and then remembered. Raúl turned back and gasped a little in surprise as a hand seized his chin. Fernando’s mouth was down on his before he could move, but it was gone almost immediately, and then Fernando was easing past Raúl towards the door. He shrugged, rueful expression not quite matching the more intense emotion in his eyes.

“I didn’t kiss you goodbye either. I wanted to fix that,” he said. He put his hand on the doorknob and pulled at it, then paused. When Raúl didn’t move, Fernando’s eyes shuttered and he abruptly jerked his head away, sighing. “Good luck.”

“Thank you,” Raúl quietly said. Then Fernando left, and Raúl gave him about two minutes to get out of the way. Then Raúl was running for his car.

* * *

“What does Ruud want to talk about that takes this long?” Lionel grumbled, stabbing at his noodles with his chopsticks. Then he swore as he accidentally poked a hole through the side of the container. “Heartless bastard. Can’t he see Cesc’s a mess?”

“He’s not talking about work! He’s asking Cesc is he okay, what exactly is the deal with Morientes…you’ve been leaning far enough over trying to eavesdrop. Didn’t you hear any of that?” José hissed back. He’d been contorting himself around to watch those two as well, but to Torsten’s eye, he was more preoccupied with Ruud.

Lionel shot José the kind of irritated, contemptuous look that only developed after long acquaintance. Usually including a good chunk of childhood. “Yeah, I know. So? If he really wants to help, he should go kick El Moro out of the country again or something like that. God. Can you believe that? Showing up again after two years?”

José replied in Spanish. Whatever he said was something Lionel seriously objected to, and the two of them proceeded to get into a bit of a squabble while unnoticed by them, Ruud gave Cesc a pat on the shoulder and apparently took his leave. Cesc absentmindedly came back to the kitchen and was picking at some shrimp before Lionel finally saw him and yelped, jumping in his seat.

“Where’d…did Ruud leave?” José asked, looking around.

Torsten honestly would’ve bet on Cesc remaining in the zombie state for at least a few more hours, but it looked like Fàbregas was a little more resilient than that. He nodded and poked at a shrimp, then frowned. One sharp look at José later and Cesc was tiredly shaking his head. “Don’t even. He just broke up with a total diva and you’d be a rebound. No, worse than that—he’s a mess and you’d be a punching bag.”

“What—what does that have to do with anything?” Well, the blush on José’s face and the way he couldn’t keep his eyes on Cesc said it had a lot to do with Ruud finally getting around to shaving regularly again. “Look, I’m not an idiot. He fucking works for a music label. I know what those people are like. Even if he seems okay so far.”

“Ruud’s all right, but he just…you know, I don’t want to argue about this.” More in Spanish from Cesc, and all of it sounded exhausted and emotionally wrung-out. He moved the shrimp around on a plastic lid, but didn’t look like he was going to eat it.

“I think you can go now if you want,” Michael mumbled to Torsten. He finally looked like he wasn’t about to jump out of his own skin, but relaxing just meant he seemed resigned to sticking around and offering support.

Which was nice of him, but honestly, Torsten thought Lionel and José had things covered. Besides, Michael had had a bad week himself and he’d really…he still needed to get out and have some fun, or else next week Torsten would have nearly two meters of sexy, socially awkward but endearing computer tech having a melt-down on his desk. Again. “Only if you’re coming with me. Maybe you should stay over at my place tonight. Then Cesc could stay here.”

“Oh, Micha, would you mind?” Lionel said, whipping around. He’d appeared to have been intently following the Cesc-José bickering, but he really had a gift for keeping track of multiple conversations at once. “I don’t think Raúl’s thought to look here, and if he does show up, it’d be easier to keep him out.”

“No, it’s okay. No, really, it’s fine.” Cesc finally put the shrimp to his mouth, but just nibbled at it. He picked up on Lionel’s silent disbelief and slowly turned to look at the other man. “I can’t exactly hide from him forever, Leo.”

Lionel looked like he was about to suggest ways in which Cesc could try. But surprisingly enough, José got the first word in. “You probably shouldn’t see him yet, though. I mean, he was really, really scary. I’ve never seen him like that.”

“You didn’t irritate him on a regular basis. It’s probably because I called El Moro an asshole,” Cesc snorted. His feet started to kick against the floor. He stared at the shrimp in his hand with growing annoyance, then abruptly flicked it into the trashcan. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. This is so pathetic. I’m supposed to be an adult now, and I’m hiding from Raúl. I never did that even when I was young enough for him to send me to my room. I—you know what, he’ll come here sooner or later. Let’s go out.”

José and Lionel stared at him as if he were crazy. So did Michael, but only for a second. Then he looked at Torsten, and they were definitely thinking the same things: one, it had to be the shock, and two, this was not a healthy solution.

“Out?” Lionel repeated. “Like—”

“To a club. Not Premier…I don’t know, somewhere where people are having fun and the mood’s lighter.” Cesc put his hands on the edge of the table and shoved himself back. He nearly tipped his chair over, but managed to recover with José’s help and kept on going for the door. “Well, I’m going. I’m sick and tired of sitting around like this.”

José looked at Lionel, widening his eyes and frantically gesturing. Then he jumped up when Lionel took too long—not really his fault; he was crammed into the corner and blocked off by Michael on one side—and ran to grab Cesc’s shoulder. “Wait, Cesc, I don’t think this is a good idea…”

Cesc wheeled around with enough fire in his eyes to make José rapidly back-pedal. “Why the hell not? What else should I do? I could—fuck, Iker. Fuck. Well, I’ll call him and suggest he come join me, and then that should show—”

“None of us are dressed for it,” Torsten interrupted. He raised his eyebrows when Cesc switched his glower to him, then gestured around. “Well, you and José could pass, and Micha would be all right, but Leo and I would need to change. It wouldn’t take that long.”

Frown. “You live twenty minutes away,” Cesc said.

“No, he just moved. He’s in walking distance of here.” Michael shot Torsten a confused glance and Torsten gestured for him to keep going. Which made Michael look more confused, but he manfully continued. “He’ll just be…ten minutes?”

“More or less. It’ll take you that long to think of a place we can go to anyway,” Torsten said.

José had no clue. Lionel either did or was drawing on his improvisational instincts as he emphatically nodded. “Your shirt’s got a stain on it, Cesc. I’ve got one I think you can borrow—it’s huge on me.”

“Okay,” Cesc finally said. He backed away from the door a bit, then slowly turned towards Lionel. “But if you’re late, we’re going without you.”

That was to Torsten, who shrugged. “Fair enough.”

Lionel quickly ushered Cesc out of earshot and just as quickly, José pounced on Torsten. “What are you doing? He can’t go out! It’ll make things worse!”

“I’m stalling,” Torsten snapped. “Where is Raúl? Do you know? Call him and tell him if he wants to salvage anything, he’d better get over here fast.”

“What if he says he doesn’t?” José asked.

Michael grimaced as he and Torsten got up. “Well, call Ruud too. Ruud’s Cesc’s boss and can tell him to stay in and sleep on it.”

José blinked, nodded and then took out a cell-phone. And then he actually started to dial so Torsten had to tell him to go hide in Michael’s bedroom to do that. Then Torsten started out, since he suspected Cesc might actually be timing him.

“I actually picked up on what you were doing,” Michael said in a surprised tone as he walked Torsten to the elevator. “I didn’t know what it was, but I knew you were doing something…I guess this is what I’ve learned from FC.”

Torsten looked closely at the other man, trying to see exactly how Michael meant that. “So sometimes that can be used for good.”

Michael glanced at him and then away, a smile flicking over his face. “I hope,” he said, pushing the elevator button. Then he checked his watch. “Shit. I’ll try and stall with Leo, but come back fast. I’m still pretty lousy at that.”

* * *

Ruud honestly hadn’t expected it to work, but when he dialed Raúl’s number, the other man actually picked up.

*What.* Flat and curt. Traffic noise in the background.

“I’m standing on the ground floor of the apartment building where Messi and Ballack live. Just talked to Cesc,” Ruud said. Something clattered in the background and he turned around, then walked over to the elevators just in time to see Torsten get off.

The other man’s eyes widened a little when he saw Ruud, but then he nodded. He pulled out his cell-phone and typed a text-message on it, then held it up so Ruud could read.

“Who would be getting ready to go out and get drunk over your stupidity, except I’m about to go tell him if he does that, I’ll fire him,” Ruud added. Somehow he managed to keep his voice calm and cool while shooting Torsten an incredulous look. He’d only left ten minutes ago, at the most, and then Cesc had seemed about ready to collapse in bed. Clubbing? Seriously?

Torsten nodded again and lowered the phone to type out something else.

*Thanks. So he’s still there?* Raúl was so distracted he actually didn’t sound grudging about it.

“Right now, yes. Whether he’ll be there when you get here is a completely different matter.” Ruud squinted to read Torsten’s next message…which was just asking who he was talking to. He mouthed Raúl’s name and Torsten visibly relaxed. Then the other man started typing furiously again. “So I suggest you listen very closely.”

*Are you threatening me?* Disbelieving laugh. *Ruud, I could—Jens would boot you in an instant if I told him how you’d been abusing my prescriptions in addition to the alcohol. You know his drug policy for FC employees.*

That…Cesc had told him. So that was where the bottles had gone—Ruud turned away so Torsten couldn’t see his expression and silently swore. While thinking furiously, because at the time that probably had been the smart thing for Cesc to do, and anyway, he wasn’t about to lose in one exchange to a doctor. “Go ahead. He can’t call me on the carpet to chew me out till tomorrow. But you need to talk to Cesc now, because he’s the one who wants to leave. So what you should really be considering here is whether I feel like helping to stall him or helping him go.”

The tap on Ruud’s arm startled him a little, but he made himself turn around at a normal speed. And he looked closely at Torsten’s expression, but couldn’t see much. Frings had a pretty damn good deadpan…but he was pointing to his cell anyway, so whatever his feelings were on Ruud’s approach, they weren’t strong enough to make him take action.

His new note said…Ruud didn’t get a chance to read it because Torsten’s phone went off just then. Torsten hissed in irritation and looked at who it was, then slapped the phone to his ear and walked off a bit, his voice dropping too low for Ruud to hear. “No, it’s okay, he’s here with me…”

*I hope you remember this conversation the next time you come in with the starting stages of alcohol poisoning. Or if Cristiano ever ODs again,* Raúl slowly, coldly said. *What do you want?*

“I don’t know exactly what you and Morientes have going, but I—” and this was going to tip more of Ruud’s hand than he would’ve liked “—need Cesc happy, because when he’s happy, he’s focused and sharp and on top of things. So if you’re breaking it off with him, you’ll have to postpone it for a month, minimum.”

Torsten hadn’t gone so far away that he couldn’t hear Ruud; he wheeled abruptly around and looked sharply at Ruud. But once he’d figured out he had indeed heard that…the deadpan came out again. Not one to interfere at the drop of the hat, but then, he was a veteran of the label as well.

On Raúl’s end of the line was nothing but slow, steady breathing. And then the breaths rippled, small at first but increasing till finally he was laughing. *I’m not breaking up with him. I’m—I’m going to remember you tried to do this.* Probably not in a complimentary way, to judge by his tone. *Stall him. I’m parking.*

He hung up. Ruud put away his phone and jabbed the ‘up’ button for the elevator, then glanced at Torsten. “Coming back with me?”

“We’re coming,” Torsten said to whoever he had on his phone. He nodded to it as he flipped it shut. “José. He says Cesc’s about to storm out.”

“No, he’s not,” Ruud muttered. He glimpsed the other man looking at him oddly as he got on the elevator, but he ignored it. First he need this to go well. If he could handle Cesc and see this situation properly resolved, then he had a chance of tackling his own life.

* * *

“You’re just trying to keep me inside,” Cesc snapped. He yanked his arm free of Lionel, then turned around to stare hard at him and Michael.

Predictably enough, Lionel pulled out the big-eyed innocent look. Less predictably, Michael forewent blushing for blinking rapidly, like he also had no idea what Cesc was saying.

Well, that still left José. Cesc promptly wheeled on him. “Aren’t you? Torsten’s not going to change—he’s going to get somebody. He—did you send him to get Raúl? Did you?”

José stammered a “No.” His guilty look said “Yes.”

“Oh, my God. Isn’t it obvious that he’s the last person I want to see? I mean—” the door behind Cesc opened and he whirled around “—and Frings! You couldn’t even…I bet you just went down and stood in the lobby for ten minutes!”

“More or less.” Ruud stepped out from behind Torsten. “Cesc, you’re not going clubbing. At most you’re going home.”

“I just need to get out. I’ll be in to work on time—have I ever been late? Have I?” Cesc knew he should be speaking a little more nicely to Ruud, but his temper was flaring and he couldn’t get it under control. And it sure as hell didn’t help when the next person rushed in, breathless and disheveled and so not—

So Cesc made a dodge and a run-around for it. And in the middle of his dodge, was scooped up into the air so suddenly that by the time he thought of kicking Ruud, he’d already been put down. In the bathroom. He snarled and grabbed the towel-bar, getting ready to fling himself out…only somebody shoved Raúl in so Cesc had to back up. Then the door slammed shut and that was followed by an ominous clicking sound.

* * *

“Uncle is going to kill me,” José moaned, staring at the door. Rolling his eyes, Lionel grabbed his elbow and slowly tugged him towards the kitchen.

Messi had a brain on his shoulders, even if he did usually look like the bastard cross of a squirrel and a ball of brown yarn. He wasn’t tall enough to deal with Ballack, but it seemed like Torsten was willing to handle that.

“I think the door’ll hold,” Torsten was saying, hand casually moving up and down Michael’s arm.

“But is this actually going to work? Locking them in like this?”

“It does more often than you’d think,” Ruud snorted, checking his watch. He went and got his briefcase from the living room, then dragged a chair out of someone’s bedroom and started getting himself settled. “I know what to listen for, so I’ll stay. There shouldn’t be too much damage to your bathroom.”

Michael still looked dubious, but Torsten whispered and tugged and finally got him away. Ruud put in his earphones and grimacing in anticipation, set up his tape player again.

* * *


“I don’t want to talk to you. Leo’s bad at this kind of stuff. He’ll feel guilty in about ten minutes and come to check, and then I’m getting out of here.” Till then, Cesc was sitting in the bathtub. No, actually he was going to lie down, because he was tired and because it was a lot easier to pretend Raúl wasn’t also in the room that way.

The tub was the usual white, but it had some weird black stains near the drain, like somebody had been rinsing ink down it. The stains didn’t come off when Cesc picked at them with his thumbnail, which was weird. It was like they’d soaked down into the porcelain.

Somebody leaned over the edge of the tub, blocking out the light. “Cesc. I’m not getting back together with Fernando.”

“What, did he dump you again?” Yeah, that wasn’t nice of Cesc. Big deal. Sometimes he didn’t feel like being nice.

Pause. “Francesc Fàbregas, I was careless. I admit it and apologize for it and will do whatever I can to make up for it. But right now, you’re being a nasty, thoughtless little shit.”

“Well, I’ve been stuck on you since I was sixteen and I did everything I could to get you to look at me, and then I tried to be good, to be the choir-boy you wouldn’t yell at and I come in to see you kissing him?” Cesc snarled, turning around and sitting up. He banged his shoulder on the soap-dish on the way, but barely felt it. “Of course I’m being a brat! How else am I supposed to keep from crying?”

Raúl winced and ducked his head, his shoulders hunching. He had his arms resting on the edge of the bathtub and at first his hands were dangling down to press their palms against the side, but now they lifted to lie against each other. He touched their sides to his lips. He better be damn well praying.

“Two things, Francesc,” he finally said. “I didn’t know he would be in town till he was on my doorstep, and I didn’t know he was going to kiss me.”

Despite all his best efforts, the corners of Cesc’s eyes were beginning to sting again. He angrily slapped his hand against one and then the other, then rubbed the moisture off on his trousers. “…he kissed you? Not the other way around?”

“He asked me to go back with him and I told him no. The last time I would have was two years ago, and he didn’t ask me then. He just told me to do it.” A little bit of old bitterness crept into Raúl’s voice then, but when he lifted his head, he didn’t look as frustrated and furious as he once would’ve. He just looked…sad. And then he shook himself, waving his hand in a dismissive way. He’d never done that when El Moro was the subject—he’d cut someone off, yeah, but not drop the subject himself like it wasn’t worth talking about. “Cesc, I’m sorry you had to see that. I’m sorry…I’m sorry I let you think I’d even think about leaving. But the truth is, I let go of Fernando a long time ago. I just—couldn’t get over the way I had to do it, and that was stupid, and…well, I’m stupid sometimes.”

“…you said no? Why? Because you’d have to move to another country?” Cesc asked. His fingers were trembling so his nails were clicking against the bottom of the tub. He sat on his hand, then moved to grab onto a bar set into the way when that only resulted in his whole leg shaking.

Raúl stayed down on his knees so he was looking up at Cesc. “It wasn’t about moving back then—it was about how he thought of me. And it’s not about moving now. It’s about how I’m happy, and right now I’m happy with you and Iker. If…you two aren’t about to leave yourselves.”

Cesc’s lip twitched. He bit into it, but the shivers spread to his jaw muscles so his teeth ground back and forth over his lip. Something else was rattling and he glanced over to see it was the bar his hand was gripping, white-knuckled. He looked back at Raúl and Raúl was still on his knees, his hands pressed together, staring up with desperate hope in his eyes, and Cesc just didn’t care about getting right compensation or fixing the blame or guilt-tripping. He was just happy to hear he hadn’t lost out.

He let go of the bar and lunged for Raúl. The other man caught him, instantly wrapping arms tightly around Cesc so his face was pressed hard into Raúl’s neck, and it was the most wonderful feeling in the world.

“Thank God,” Raúl said. His hand skimmed up and down Cesc’s back before settling on Cesc’s hip. Then he winced. “Damn. Iker hung up on me, and he hasn’t returned the messages I’ve left him.”

“I’ll make sure he comes back. There’s no way he’s hiding from me.” Cesc contentedly nuzzled Raúl’s neck. “But you’re doing all the talking.”

“I know. I just hope he’ll listen.”

* * *

“Hey.” José hesitantly gestured from the end of the hall. He was crouched down, as if Cesc or Raúl could see him through the door, and was doing a bad job of whispering. “It’s really quiet. Are they okay? They didn’t kill each other, did they?”

“No, they just made up.” And wouldn’t be listening to Ruud, even though he was talking loud enough for it to get through the door. He wrote down another note about the tape he was currently listening to, then shifted his earbud to the other side. Using only one of them so he could also hear what was happening in the bathroom was making his ears go sore quicker than usual, since he had to crank up the volume a bit. “I’m giving them five minutes before I knock and remind them that this isn’t their bathroom. Where is everyone?”

Relief meant José sagged against the wall and whooshed out a breath while wiping his face with his hand. And with him, it seemed to be his natural reaction and not theatrics. “Oh, thank God. It’ll be bad enough when the family finds this out…would’ve been worse if we had to say they’d already broken up. Oh—Ballack’s staying over at Frings’ place, I think. They left. Lionel’s on the phone with his boyfriend.”

Something twisted hard in Ruud—hard enough for him to have to stop breathing. The tension slowly lessened, and after a moment, he tried an exhale. It didn’t hurt too badly, and when he inhaled, the pain grew even less.

That was goddamn life. Other people had lovely, domestic, cute relationships and could patch up fights just fine. It happened. He’d have to get used to it.

He looked up again when José came nearer. “That was really nice of you,” the other man quietly said. “Getting Raúl for Cesc. We thought you’d just gone home.”

“I left my things here,” Ruud snorted, turning away. As he did, he thought he glimpsed a look he recognized on José’s face. He paused, then shook his head at the ridiculousness of it. “Look, don’t think you weren’t right before, because you were. I’m an asshole agent like all the others. I really need Cesc and I don’t have the time to find and hire somebody as good as him. That’s all this was.”

“So it wasn’t nice. It still was helpful.” José’s brows were drawn together as he looked at Ruud. He was taken aback, but still not too put off. “Look, I know Corazón is far for you, but if you ever feel like stopping in…it’ll be on the house.”

Ruud frowned at his notepad, then turned around.

“Cesc said you just…got out of a bad relationship.” Actually, José’s face said Cesc might’ve been a little more descriptive. “And okay, you’re a label agent. But Cesc and Raúl are family, and if I can pay the debt they owe you for this, then it works out. So the offer’s still open.”

Raúl wouldn’t be all that grateful to José for extending it, and Cesc might not be either. Anyway, Ruud’s need to have either of them owing him—frankly, he still was paying back Cesc—was currently nonexistent. But in the end, Ruud decided against a blanket ‘no.’ “All right. I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Great.” José winced, belatedly realizing that might not be appropriate. “Um. All right,” he said, quickly walking off.

Ruud watched him go, the shrill stylings of another Madonna wannabe filtering through the earbuds. Nothing like Cristiano. Not at all.


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