Author: Guede Mazaka
Rio said something through the massive wad of tissues he had stuffed against his bleeding nose and cheekbone.
“I need to know now,” Ruud repeated.
The other man took the tissues away from his face. “I heard you the first time, you fucking turncoat. I’m just trying to figure out why I should take you to Gary when I could just have a go at beating in your head.”
His nose wasn’t bent despite all the blood, so presumably it wasn’t broken. The cut on his cheekbone, however, stretched from his eyebrow down to midway below his eye and was going to need stitches. The rest of him still looked in one piece, but when Ruud had walked in the door, Rio hadn’t gotten up so the other man probably was badly bruised beneath his clothes.
“It’s not FC—” Ruud started.
“Bollocks.” Rio turned his head and spat a bloody streak on the floor. He grimaced and gingerly touched the swellings along his jaw. “Gaby’s got a dislocated shoulder and Carra says it was Van Persie, no question. He got a great look at Lehmann’s bloody fucking Dutch-boy before that cunt swung him into the window.”
Ruud bit back both his surprise and his irritated realization; he didn’t have time to find out what Robin had been doing and he’d just have to pray it hadn’t been too awful yet. Though it’d been a few hours already, and Robin typically worked at lightning speed. “Well, somebody tried to stick a piece of dynamite in Jens earlier tonight.”
That brought up Rio’s head, his eyes wide as they scoured Ruud’s face. His expression gradually went to believing, and then he shook his head and let out a low whistle. “Jesus Christ. All right, now I have to say I don’t know what’s going on. I didn’t see who tried to toss me in a dumpster, but I thought that was a little crude for you. You lot do love your gloating.”
“I take it you’re saying that wasn’t you?” Ruud asked.
Rio snorted, then shook his head. He stuffed a fresh tissue against his cheek and used another to try and clean some of the blood off his chin. The barman briefly showed up to drop off a wet rag for him, then left them alone at the bar; the only other people were busy trying to tape plastic over the shattered window-front. “You think it was us?”
“Why else would Van Persie be out? We prefer to fight financially, like sensible businessmen, but FC’s not going to gracefully fold if you bring different weapons.” Ruud dug around in his pocket till he had his phone open. He texted Cesc—at least, he hoped he’d sent it to the right person—to get to Ljungberg or Ballack and have them deal with Robin. “Don’t look at me like that. You probably were meaning to do the same thing before he showed up.”
“Yeah, well, we still might. Maybe you didn’t do the first couple of the day, but you sure as hell were responsible for the latest few,” Rio muttered. Defiant, but mostly mechanical. He knew something. He wasn’t quite as thick as most of Ferguson’s strongmen and occasionally he woke up enough to listen.
Rolling his eyes, Ruud took his hands out of his pockets and folded them in front of himself on top of the bar. “Rio, it’s obviously a three-way fight here. You go after us and we’ll have our hands full defending ourselves, and in the meantime side number three wins. You hate us or you hate losing more?”
“You fucking arse,” Rio sighed after a moment. “You got sent here just because you do know us, right? Fuck, well…Keane. I mean, Keane’s men. He brought a bunch of idiot lackeys in and then left ‘em while he hied back to Ireland, and I’m beginning to think he was doing a bit of house-cleaning. Give us all his troublemakers.”
“We’re working on helping to settle the streets. Once that’s done, then perhaps your bosses would like to sit down and civilly discuss how to divide up things.” Ruud checked his watch; he’d have to come up with an excuse to go into the hall if they couldn’t wrap this up soon. “I’ll tell you now though that—”
Rio blew his nose into a tissue, checked what’d come out, and then tossed the bloody wad into the trashbin on the other side of the counter. He snorted a second time in derision. “Lehmann doesn’t want his sweet Dutch arse touched, yeah? The boys won’t like that…I think after tonight they’ll be thinking of him about how they think of Mr. Ljungberg.”
“They seem to have come to terms with Freddie’s continued existence. I’m sure they do the same for Robin,” Ruud icily said. “We’re offering to root out your imported mess, and all you have to do is not get in the way. I think that—”
“Fine, fine. Jesus. All right. I’m swallowing my vomit here, but all right.” Something buzzed and Rio looked Ruud up and down, then shook himself in annoyed realization. He reached into his pocket and took out his phone, then grimaced at the caller. Flipped the phone open before glancing up at Ruud, eyebrows raised. “What?”
Ruud snorted himself. “No ‘I’ve got to check with Gary’ anymore?”
Rio briefly looked furious with himself. Then he shrugged and was prodding his cut cheek again when his phone rang. “Well, fuck, it’s you. No, Gary’s got better things to do now, so he leaves this sort of shite mostly to me. And how about you? Things go like you wanted since your transfer? I don’t remember you going for this sort of negotiation back when—”
“I don’t remember that so many of them were needed, but times change, of course,” Ruud retorted. The useful part of the conversation was apparently over, so he got up and headed for the door. He didn’t need the temptation of getting into a sniping fight with Rio.
Just as well, since he was barely on the sidewalk before his phone rang. He checked it, then answered.
“MU’s thinking it over,” he said.
* * *
*Savage, why the hell are you calling me now? Even if you’re as sloshed as I bet you are at this hour, you’ve got to have noticed that—*
“Actually, I’m dead sober and in a hell of a lot of pain,” Robbie said. Not dryly, because he couldn’t even work up the energy for sarcasm. Stars were still dancing in front of his eyes from when the doc had set the bone, and he could barely keep the phone to his ear. “Since when does Van Persie know where you live?”
Pause. *What?* Rio intelligently said.
“Oh, never mind, I can guess. Anyway, just thought I’d call and let you know about why I’m forwarding the doctor’s bill to MU. My leg’s broken. Odd, since I don’t use that to program, but then, Van Persie did look a touch disconnected with the world.” Lucky man, actually--fuck, that’d hurt.
The doctor stopped slapping the plaster strips around to give Robbie the eye, and tempted as Robbie was…he jerked his hand to turn down the offer of painkillers again. He needed the use of his brain for the next few hours.
*And I just bloody told Ruud—fuck! Fuck!*
“’fraid not.” Robbie stared up at the ceiling. He hurt and his pride hurt and he was thirty-two and honestly, he was just tired. Well, there was humiliation too, but it wasn’t leading to the usual indignation and hunger for revenge. There just was a lot of aching. “Interesting as it’d be work out a way around the cast…Rio, it’s just not enough to make up for this shite. I’m tired of it. I never cared much anyway, and now my fucking leg--”
*--hold him down and let you—*
A small laugh got away from Robbie, which was a relief. He’d been beginning to think he’d lost his sense of humor as well, and that’d just be a terrible thing on top of everything else. “That’s lovely of you, Rio, but no. I quit. And I’ve got all my stuff already, so just fudge whatever paperwork you need to, since I won’t be in town to contest it.”
*Savage, you stupid shit, you’ve still got—*
Robbie hung up. And for the first time in probably months, actually felt like he was going somewhere. Wasn’t sure where, but he was definitely moving along.
* * *
“So let me see if I have this correctly,” Ludovic said. “Jens was last heard being cut off by an explosion. His boyfriend is terrorizing the town—”
“Was,” Thierry interrupted.
Ludovic blinked, shrugged and sat back in his chair. “Anyway, he basically went after everyone Jens has ever bitched about, and so now they’re all mad at FC and it’ll be a little difficult at this point to figure out who was mad at FC…five hours ago. That was when—”
Thierry nodded, mouth small and tight with deep grooves etched around it. He hadn’t touched the wine and food Giuly had ordered them, though Giuly hadn’t had any such qualms. “I don’t know if that was connected to you…”
“Oh, it was. I’m pretty clearly here on your side, and I understand that makes me very unpopular with certain other parties.” Not seeming terribly offended or concerned by that, Ludovic popped another bit of veal in his mouth. He chewed thoughtfully, added some wine to the mouthful, then swallowed.
He was surprisingly short, especially since the people he had working for him were all about one-eighty centimeters. It was like taking the white elephant in the room and splashing it with hot pink paint…and it was deliberate, Deco suspected. He decided he found it pretty damn amusing. “Are you?”
“Hmmm?” Ludovic arched a brow.
“Last time—” Thierry started.
Snorting, Giuly flicked down his fork and leaned back, pushing his hands against the edge of the table in a stretch. “Oh, God, Titi. Last time I was young and proud and itching to make a name for myself. Now I have a big enough organization so that Jens can’t treat me as a lackey. If he hadn’t learned that the first time around, and he usually catches on quick.”
“I hope you learned then how long his memory is as well,” Thierry muttered. He put both his elbows on the table and interlaced his fingers over his plate, then rested his chin on them. “Anyway. We want you here, so it’d be very foolish and wasteful of us to then go after you. I know Robin…well, he’s distraught. You have to excuse him.”
“I’ll have my accountant send you a bill for that,” Ludovic said, and for that moment he was humorless. Then he shook his head, a smile creeping back onto his face. “Well, well, so what do we do? Somebody obviously doesn’t want us around.”
Thierry dipped his head and briefly pressed his lips to his fingers. Then he lifted his head and he and Ludovic proceeded to get into the gritty details of planning a counterattack. It was sprinkled full of interesting references that Deco automatically noted for further research, but otherwise it didn’t really hold his interest. He’d heard it all before and this time it didn’t directly concern him, so he let most of it go past him.
What did concern him was Cristiano’s newfound penchant for wheeling and dealing—Deco grimaced and kicked himself for not seeing that coming. He had been thinking maybe he’d need a few years to turn Cristiano into a competent human being, but Cristiano was already an actual competitor. And a good one, too. He’d done his homework: his contract not only locked him to FC but also locked Deco to both, and he still did have control over his finances. And his threat regarding that scandal in Brazil carried weight as well.
This, Deco irritably thought, was exactly why he didn’t go for complicated fucks anymore. He’d gone for that damned law degree as well, but so far it wasn’t helping him in seeing a way out of this. So never mind that; he’d have to take acting as Cristiano’s representative as a given and work around it.
“I’m going back to the office with the others, but Deco will stay here as FC’s contact,” Thierry said, bringing Deco’s attention back to that conversation.
Deco didn’t bother trying to object, though he did have a certain grim curiosity about why Thierry would trust him with a line of communication and not Senderos, who was still around—Ballack had taken Van Persie back to the office for treatment. He just sat there and watched Thierry and Ludovic hug in farewell—stiff on Thierry’s part, faintly gleeful on Ludovic’s—and drank his wine.
“So why are you staying?” Ludovic asked. He was ambling back from seeing Thierry out; his demeanor hadn’t changed but that of the people quietly moving about him had instantly turned more brisk. Nobody had interrupted while he’d been talking to Thierry, but now every few minutes, somebody would slip up and whisper in his ear, and either he’d nod or shake his head. “Is your name really Deco?”
“It is if you want me to respond to you,” Deco shrugged. He hadn’t touched his food yet since Thierry hadn’t and though he was here under protest, he wasn’t about to make himself look like an idiot. But Thierry was gone, it looked like he’d be here for a while, and he was hungry. He picked up his knife. “I’m staying because—”
Ludovic told a tall, elegant black man to call him when they heard from Stockholm, then grabbed the top of the chair by Deco. He spun it around and sat down backwards on it in one carelessly graceful motion. “You’re not actually FC. Cristiano Ronaldo pays you.”
Deco paused, silently cursing FC’s nonexistent confidentiality. Then he started to cut up his steak. “So I do.”
He began to eat while the other man watched with a knowing, bemused expression. At first it was easy enough to ignore him, but something just emanated from Giuly in a constant reminder of his presence. He managed to make Deco feel as if Deco were eating at his bidding, and if it was one thing Deco hated…he finally put down his fork. After wiping his lips with the napkin, he turned around and looked the other man full-on. “What?”
“Just wondering whether Thierry did this on purpose—in which case I’ll have to say he’s learned a lot—or if it was one of his accidental insights,” Ludovic said, tone nonchalant.
Then he reached over, grabbed Deco’s wrist, and yanked them to the ground. Deco’s chair upended so he hit the table-leg—plates clattered and he instinctively twisted away, remembering about knives, and ended up rolling under the other man. Ludovic was on him like a cat, pinning Deco on his side before Deco could even orient himself to which way was up.
Old habit kicked in anyway, but Ludovic’s reflexes were good and he sent the knife spinning over the floor. “Oh, that’s better than I was thinking you’d be,” he said.
Right before he slammed Deco’s wrist down so hard that the whole joint went numb. Then it screamed in white-hot pain and he dug his teeth into the floor. He lost a crucial moment of struggling then, and by the time he’d recovered—he hissed in shock and arched as a hand wriggled its way down his waistband. It drove down with fierce directness and wrapped around his prick just about the same second that Ludovic raked down Deco’s collar with his teeth to sink those into the side of Deco’s neck.
It’d been a long, long time since that last—since Larsson. And since then Deco’s frustration levels had been jacked up to the max without any break, and now being manhandled around as a possible deal settlement mixed fury and humiliation into that—Deco cursed and slammed himself upwards.
He heard a click as the back of his head snapped into Giuly’s face. And then another one, as the other man headbutted him right back and he barely avoided getting his nose broken. The floor’s impact left him dazed and reeling, and in that time Ludovic wormed his hand all the way down Deco’s cock till his thumb swept across the sensitive tip. Deco swore again, slipping into Portuguese, and twisted hard, but Giuly laughed and bit harder. Pushed harder, ground his thumb over and over the head of Deco’s prick while Deco squirmed and gouged mouthfuls of carpet out. All that rage was like a white burning spot in Deco’s head, and the more Giuly fought him down, the bigger it grew. It swelled till it’d filled his entire skull, till it was leaking out his eyes and he couldn’t see anything, and it was totally out of control. He was out of control—he was moaning and jerking around and not knowing a damn thing that was going on, except for the hand on his prick pulling and shaping and directing, and finally it steered his climax out of him and his head blew up in an explosion of pure white.
“Our Father in Heaven,” somebody reverently said. “Well, I guess Cristiano doesn’t get this in his service package. You’ve been holding that in a while.”
Couple of years, Deco blearily thought. Couldn’t chance it after that whole mess…not even with strangers like Larsson. His head was still recollecting himself, but he was gradually becoming aware that he was sprawled out with his trousers full of come and sweat sticking his clothes to him in rumpled folds, breathing so hard and fast the breaths were tripping over each other. And Ludovic was already up, his shiny shoes in front of Deco’s face.
“I’m still putting my intelligence network together,” Ludovic said. One shoe retreated as he bent down on one knee and cupped a hand beneath Deco’s chin, lifting it so Deco had to look at him. “So I don’t know the details of your job. But I’m flexible—I can offer part-time.”
“Part-time what?” Deco managed to gasp. A reviving part of himself was beginning to recoil; it sounded like switching from one picky martinet to another. Well, except for the part where Deco doubted martinets wore mismatched socks. Or knew how to fuck out somebody’s brains with just a handjob.
Ludovic glanced down, then chuckled. “Oh, I haven’t really unpacked yet either. But as to what I’m interested in…I know Jens runs a much tighter operation nowadays, but I’m just a curious person. I feel much more comfortable when I know what’s going on—you don’t and maybe you get blown up now.” His grip tightened. “I’m not flexible about threats to me.” Loosened. “Benefits, however, we can discuss.”
Deco blinked a few times. Looked the other man over. Then he pushed himself over and turned to lay his head against Ludovic’s shoe, putting his mouth just a hair from the leather. Giuly’s hand stilled, then smoothly stroked back along Deco’s jaw to sink nails into Deco’s nape just hard enough. “So let’s talk about it,” Deco said. “Ludo.”
“Anderson,” Ludovic snorted. The corner of his mouth twitched up as Deco stiffened slightly. “Ah, well, you’ll answer to that when I say it, I see.”
* * *
“Philippe had to knock him out. He’s been tearing up the town…oh, that’s so many more cases you might have to deal with,” Thierry muttered, pushing at his scalp. Sometimes he wished he had hair to pull—right now, he desperately wished he could risk ripping off skin as well. But Raúl was out of touch for some reason, and once they did reach him he’d have to do Robin first. “I don’t know how careful Robin would’ve—usually he is, but…oh, I don’t know.”
“And where is Freddie? David?” Thierry spotted the other man running down the hall, two cell-phones to one ear and a third to the other, and waved him down. “Freddie?”
David frantically shook his head and kept on jogging away, not pausing even to breathe from the sound of it. Swearing, Thierry wheeled back into his office. His heel caught the door rather hard and he started to turn to catch the door, but then he thought differently and instead gave it a true kick shut. “My God, what’s going on? I don’t know!”
“Thierry.” Robert snagged Thierry’s flailing arms and pulled them down so Thierry had to look at the other man. He held them gently but firmly till Thierry stopped trying to pull them free, and then he let go to take hold of Thierry’s shoulders. “One at a time. Ah…I sent Kaká home. He was getting too sleepy. Paolo’s been checking police reports and the hospitals trying to keep track of who’s gone in. It seems like mostly MU so far, but—”
“What about Jens?” Thierry asked. He knew Philippe had talked to the police already, but they’d been so busy that he hadn’t had time to corner the other man and find out anything. It was bad enough when Jens went out of town—at least then he briefed Thierry on what he had going on. But trying to pick things up from where he’d left off blind…it just wasn’t what Thierry was good at. But he was the only one left to do it right now. “Anything?”
The way Robert didn’t answer immediately was a good enough response in itself. Thierry swore explosively, then tried to turn himself free of the other man. He meant to—Robert wouldn’t let go. Instead he kept pulling and tugging at Thierry, not hard enough to hurt but hard enough to matter, and talking softly and Thierry just couldn’t take it. He put up his hands and shoved hard, breaking them apart.
Then he stood back a step, breathing hard and staring at the other man. He brought up his hands and ran them over his head, then let them waft back down to where he could stare at his palms…Thierry bit his lip hard. Then he reached out, grabbed Bobby and buried his face in Bobby’s neck. He inhaled sharply when the other man’s arms went around him, then went limp so fast he nearly lost his balance.
Of course Bobby steadied him. He rubbed at Thierry’s back while Thierry struggled not to get his breathing get short and ragged, and then didn’t say a word when Thierry lifted his head and just…asked. Instead Bobby slid his hands up to frame Thierry’s face between them and kissed him.
Thierry sank gratefully into it, desperate for something to take his mind off all the responsibilities crushing down on him. He knew it was a little unfair to Bobby—God knew the other man wasn’t any less busy—but he just really—he needed it.
They backed up till Thierry’s heel struck the wall. Bobby said something that sounded like ‘couch,’ but that was too far: Thierry yanked urgently at Bobby’s shoulders. He didn’t mean for Bobby to drop down, but then Bobby had and Thierry was just staring. His hands had slipped off—something about that felt wrong and he slid down the wall a little so he could touch the other man. But the shiver that went through him when cool air hit his bare skin, and then the shock of Bobby’s mouth on him—Thierry’s hands jerked to Bobby’s hair. And knotted themselves in the silky strands as Thierry’s head thumped back.
Bobby didn’t draw it out or give Thierry any time to orient himself, which was perfect. Thierry was already spinning out of control, and he just needed that extra whirl to get it to the point where he knew he didn’t have a hope of getting his balance back. Then he could fall and crash and realize that he could, after all, survive it.
He blinked, and then blinked again to get the sweat out of his eyes. The world sharpened with almost nauseating quickness, then settled into a pair of concerned eyes. A quick glance into them, trying to reassure the other man, and then Thierry let himself slide all the way down the wall so he could hook his arms over Bobby’s shoulders. He owed the man so much and he wished he could immediately try to repay some of that debt, but…he was too exhausted. Much more refreshed in mind, but not in body. “Later I’ll—”
“—get me anything you have on Giuly’s connection to Kahn?” Robert interrupted. He shook his head, then pressed his mouth to the side of Thierry’s forehead. “I’ll have to ask him, too, but I don’t think he’ll be helpful right away.”
“Bobby,” Thierry started again.
Robert sighed, head bent. Then he eased up onto his feet before giving Thierry a literal hand. “Don’t worry about it. I’m sure I’ll have a collapse and then I’ll need you. Probably very soon, if Kaká and Paolo…” he glanced at a noise in the hall “…is that Freddie?”
Thierry was instantly on his feet. A second later he recalled Bobby and was a little chagrined, but the other man was already standing off and Freddie wasn’t alone. Much as Thierry wished—it was back to business. He grabbed the door-knob and swung himself into the hall. “Freddie?”
Freddie pointed to the man he’d brought with him, who arched his eyebrows and looked Thierry levelly in the eye and basically seemed perfectly at home with having his hands bound in front of him. “Henrik Larsson. Hired by Keane to kill Ruud and Ludovic Giuly. Ruud wasn’t home—I can’t reach him at all, but I checked his answering machine. Cristiano left a—”
“So what?” Cristiano appeared out of a nearby office with a steaming cup of coffee, which explained where he’d gotten off to. Behind him, an embarrassed David darted across the hall with another cup in hand. “I was worried about him, and obviously I was right to be.”
“Weren’t you trying to get him fired earlier?” Freddie snorted. He grinned at the death-glare Cristiano shot him. “Ruud hadn’t listened to it, by the way. I didn’t see his cell-phone anywhere and his car wasn’t in the garage.”
“MU hired you to kill Giuly?” Thierry stared at Larsson in disbelief. “Do you have any idea who he is?”
Larsson blinked once, but it didn’t give off the sense that he was surprised. “Yes, I know who he is. I’m told Keane’s no longer in the country.”
“He’s not.” A glance at Freddie told Thierry he needed more, so he half-turned and pointed towards his office. “I can show you a clip from a security camera at a private airfield in Dublin. I can also tell you—actually, Ludo can tell you himself that more than one person’s tried to assassinate him today, so it appears you were double-booked.”
This time, Larsson’s blink was surprised, and was also decidedly offended. He pursed his lips, glanced at Freddie for some reason, and then subtly shifted himself so his posture was less…at-the-ready. More negotiable. “That’s…very untrusting.”
“Well, I could tell you things about MU and…yes? What is it, David?” Thierry asked, glancing past Larsson.
David gestured wildly, mouth open and not quite controlled enough to fully form words. His hand nearly hit Cristiano, who’d sunk back against the wall in a sort of stunned prelude to another temper tantrum, and that seemed to bring him back to himself. “Thierry, Robin’s gone. The window’s open.”
“But—we’re so many floors up--damn.” Thierry couldn’t help shooting Cristiano a glower. Or wishing he could turn around and fall into Bobby’s arms again, but—he firmly took hold of himself and reminded himself that that had to wait. “Go get Philippe. Tell Ballack, too.” Deep breath, then turn to face Larsson with a cool face. “Well, here at FC we like to be a little more professional. Perhaps we could talk…I believe Ludo’s usually willing to give suggestions in favor of stable business arrangements a fair consideration as well.”
Larsson mulled over it for a moment, then nodded. In the back Cristiano started up with an obvious protest on the tip of his tongue, but David smartly intercepted it and dragged him off. Not much relieved, Thierry waved Larsson and Freddie towards the door.
“No time like the present. Ludo and I both prefer speedy talks as well,” Thierry said.
* * *
It had to come sooner or later, but Ruud was only marginally thankful that the call came when he wasn’t driving. In his state of mind…well, that was why he’d gotten assigned to this, after all. He knew he had his broken and bent places, but self-deception wasn’t one of them anymore. Which was a mixed blessing.
He sat in his car and put his phone up to his ear while watching another car pull up to the restaurant across the street. “Hello?”
*Ruud, lad,* Ferguson said. *It’s been a long time.*
Ruud suppressed a snort. “Rio reports straight to you now, does he?”
He wasn’t surprised to see Thierry and Freddie get out of the car after it parked. The third man he didn’t recognize, but the way Freddie positioned himself in relation to him and Thierry told Ruud the stranger wasn’t considered friendly.
*Everyone reports to me sooner or later.* Ferguson was pulling his slow, cool voice-of-death act. Once upon a time it’d genuinely terrified Ruud, but then he’d discovered what being in love with Cristiano was like. *I’ve considered FC’s offer of a…*
“Ceasefire,” Ruud muttered, mouth quirking.
*And MU accepts.* There was a click in Ruud’s ear as Ferguson hung up.
The ‘for now’ didn’t need to be voiced either by him or by Ruud, and wasn’t included in the text that Ruud sent before he started to get out of the car. He meant to go in and join Thierry, but—his phone rang. Frowning, he looked down: it wasn’t a number he recognized. At this hour it wouldn’t be a…he resumed pulling his legs out of the car. Then he swore under his breath, got back in, and answered the damn phone. “Hello?”
It took Ruud nearly a minute to place it, during which the other end of the line breathed in ragged, near-hysterical pants. “José?”
*What did you do? They saw! My parents saw and met me at the door, and they asked—well, they could see. Now I’m standing outside of Corazón because they couldn’t grab those keys from me when they—and Fernando isn’t picking up, and—”
Ruud stared out the windshield. Then he slumped down and put his hand over his face. “Fernando?”
*My cousin. Only person who’d listen now, I know, but I don’t—I can’t—I can’t get him!* José’s voice had been slingshotting between enraged and despairing, but then it abruptly went low and thready, so quiet Ruud could barely hear it. *It’s really cold out.*
Cesc. He’d gotten the number from Cesc—he had to have, since Giuly had always made the reservations. Then Ruud grimaced and gave himself a light smack on the side of the jaw. He didn’t pretend to be the best possible man in the world, but earlier, when he’d been driving José home…well, Ruud had thought that he had his problems, but whatever was driving José to the edge was far worse. And terrifying to see in someone in that young.
*Never mind,* José suddenly sighed. *I know, I know.*
He hung up. After a stunned moment, Ruud cursed while mentally blessing the fact that Corazón was only a few minutes’ drive from where he was. He hit the accelerator almost the instant the engine revved.
Ruud barely had time to send a quick text to Thierry on MU—that was highly unprofessional of him, and anyway he wasn’t that—he hissed and slammed on the brakes, yanking the wheel aside just as José’s pale face flashed into the headlights.
The car jumped the curb. Probably fucked with the suspension, but at least it didn’t hit anything that kept Ruud from flinging himself out the moment he’d yanked the keys out of the ignition. He didn’t know if the door finished swinging shut behind him, and honestly, he didn’t care. He just stalked over to José, who was still standing frozen in the middle of the goddamn street, and then shook him by the shoulders. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?’
“What—what are you doing here?” José stared wildly at him, then abruptly tried to jerk around. “Ruud, wait—”
“You! You—” long stream of Spanish invective “—get off him!”
Ruud turned just in time to see a fist. He instinctively ducked, but only had time to have the punch land on his eye instead of his nose. The vision in both eyes suddenly exploded black and he felt José’s sleeve slip from his hand as he staggered back a step. His right hand had come up to cover his hurt eye, and he grabbed at his knee with his other hand, trying to regain his balance.
“’Nando! No, don’t!”
“But—but—” The sparks of black occluding the world gradually cleared up to reveal a tall, freckle-faced man, close to Ruud in height, facing off with José, who strangely enough had thrown himself with spread arms between Ruud and this ‘Nando. Presumably José’s cousin, given how he looked as if he’d like to mince Ruud and stuff him into sausage casings.
Hurried discussion in Spanish, of which Ruud could only guess at every third word. He concentrated on standing back up, and did so just in time to be in a position where he could make a hasty grab at José, who suddenly crumpled. He got one arm around him before Fernando irritably shoved him away and gathered José up against himself: José appeared to be crying, but wasn’t making a sound or a move aside from the occasional sharp hitch of the shoulders.
“I asked him if he was in love with you, if that was it, and he said no, but then he said it wasn’t your fault either,” Fernando said. He looked at Ruud over José’s bowed head with a mixture of confusion and lingering rage. Then José shifted, pressing his face further into Fernando’s neck, and some of the tension in Fernando almost imperceptibly drained off. More that he was resigning himself than that he was pacified, though. His gaze flicked to Ruud’s eye. “You need to see somebody about that.”
“You’re suggesting Raúl, aren’t you?” Ruud replied, feeling his guts hollow out. Not that he’d had that much still left in there, but…well, he couldn’t have gotten lucky for long. It was a wonder Cesc hadn’t already called.
Fernando’s mouth briefly curved in a tight, unpleasant smile. “He’ll want to kill you.”
“Oh, he already does.” Ruud looked around, but didn’t see any obvious suspects. “Did you drive here?”
“No, I ran over. I was staying at José’s and came in right after he did, and his stupid mother…never mind,” Fernando muttered. He glanced past Ruud.
“It’s fine. Get in the backseat. Or I can get in there and you can drive, if you don’t—”
Fernando snatched the keys from Ruud before Ruud had done much more than take them out of his pocket. Then he had to stop and resettle José, who apparently had totally collapsed, mind and body. He looked at his cousin, at Ruud, and then at the car. “We’re in the front.”
Ruud shrugged. He didn’t expect anything else after the night he’d been having.
* * *
His eyes were blurring all the letters and numbers together, so Michael took a break from trying to figure out Robin’s set-up and went to call Torsten. He got the other man’s answering machine—no surprise once he saw the time—and was just too damn tired to think of what to say, so he hung up. But before he could walk to the kitchen and get himself the drink of water he badly needed, his cell went off. He picked it up. “Hey.”
*Hey, did you just call? Isn’t this a little early even for you?*
“Actually, I haven’t gone to bed tonight. God, it’s been—” Something beeped and Michael paused, then ducked back into the next room. It took a second for him to determine what had emitted the beep; once he had, he crouched down by the laptop and squinted at the screen. What had he been doing on this one…
*That bad? But Leo’s usually…oh, didn’t you say he was bringing some friends of his along? Micha, Argies and the bar scene tend not to—*
…this one was tracking Robin’s cell-phone signal. Which was moving again, and Philippe hadn’t called so shit. Michael lunged for the laptop.
A moment later he noticed he didn’t have his cell anymore and then realized he’d hung up on Torsten. Wincing, he picked his phone up from where he’d dropped it and started to dial, only to have it whirr in his hand as a text came through: Torsten, asking what was wrong. If he was texting, he was half-way out the door—Michael texted back that there was trouble at the office. Someone there had to be around to talk to Torsten. Meanwhile Michael had to…he tried calling Senderos while watching the screen for a clue as to where Robin was going, but Senderos’ line was busy.
And Robin was heading for…he’d been in that area when Philippe had caught up to him. He might be more than a little unbalanced in Michael’s opinion, but he was thorough…it’d make sense if he tried to pick up where he’d left off, and Michael was out the door.
Not because he was raring to take care of it; Michael was frantically calling everybody else all the way there, but either their cell-phones were off or busy. And so he was there, and…he swore while he got out of the car, which he’d parked down the street. Swore some more as he jogged to the restaurant, and then when he saw the trashcans stacked up against one side of the wall, kept his mouth shut but cursed nonstop in his head. He looked about, wondering why a bigshot like Giuly wouldn’t have a good enough security system to pick that up, and then noticed the PDA spliced into a bundle of cables running along the wall.
Michael grabbed it and leaned his back against the wall as he frantically cracked the password and got into the main program…okay, Robin had set an alarm for an intruder coming in through the basement. So…Michael looked up.
Nothing. He crossed his fingers, typed for all the outside lights to come on at once, and then hit ‘enter.’ Then he threw up an arm and cursed again, because he hadn’t been expecting so many—up on the roof had to be blindingly bright.
Some whirring noise got Michael’s attention, and by the time he tried looking at the road, it’d turned into a screeching. He squinted hard and had just sort of recognized the car zooming towards the restaurant when something clattered above him. He moved back. Then some instinct told him to duck sideways—good thing, because Robin deliberately snapped his heel back into the wall as he jumped down onto the trashcans, right where Michael’s head had been.
The sound of his landing was horrendously loud, but Michael did his best to tune it out as he grabbed for Robin. The other man snarled and his hands—Michael let go, not knowing what might be in them, and ducked out from under Robin. Something caught him hard on the side, but it would just be a bruise…he whirled just in time to see Robin lose his balance and fall to the ground.
Robin rolled, but then had to scramble away because that car had just jumped the curb and was squealing to a stop less than a meter from him. He momentarily had his back to Michael and so Michael just snapped his fist forward. Sucker-punched Robin, then stooped to catch him.
“Got your voicemail,” Philippe panted. He’d been the driver. “Is he out?”
“I think—” Michael jumped and nearly dropped Robin when his phone went off. He grabbed up the other man again, then tried to reach for…damn.
Thankfully Philippe stepped forward and took Robin off Michael’s hands so he could answer the call…from Timo? Oh, God, had that gone wrong?
“What happened?” Michael hissed. “Who’s hurt?”
Long pause. *Micha…nobody’s hurt. More or less.* For a reassurance, it was delivered in a remarkably flat and unconvincing tone. *All the drunks are safely tucked in bed.*
“Oh…good. But…what’s wrong? Why do you sound like—”
*I went back and asked Phil to let me in, and he didn’t. He’s never—we always make up in less than a day,* Timo said. *Micha, I don’t—I can’t—*
Philippe cleared his throat. “Michael, Thierry and Freddie are inside. I told them we were going to get Robin out here.”
Shit, shit, shit. Michael stared at Robin, then at his phone. Then he spun around and pulled at his hair, which didn’t really make him feel better but which just seemed appropriate. Like that mattered--shit. “Timo…wait, hang on.” He covered the phone. “Do I need to be here? Can I go now?”
“Probably,” said somebody new. Both Michael and Philippe whirled to stare at Ruud, who was slowly loping up. He looked like he’d had a pretty rough night—he had an icepack against his eye. “You’re getting good at knocking out people in a timely fashion, Ballack. Don’t worry about saying thank-you—just call the office and tell David or whoever’s left to get the lawyers ready for a briefing as soon as we come back. Also, Raúl’s free so you can take Robin to him. He looks like he could use it.”
Blinking, Philippe awkwardly shifted Robin around. Something clicked, and then Philippe let Robin’s arms fall to show their hands cuffed together in front. “Where has Raúl been? Robin needed him hours ago. And where were you?”
“Busy. That’s to both questions.” Ruud stalked by them towards the front door, where somebody was now standing and staring at them. “On second thought, you might want to bring Robin in with you for now. Ballack, go already.”
Michael wasn’t about to take Ruud’s word for it, but when he looked at Philippe, the other man reluctantly nodded. “I think the talking gets rougher than the doing from here,” he said. “Besides, your friends…if they need help…”
“Well, all right. Ah…good luck with yours,” Michael finally replied. After telling Timo he was on his way to let the other man into his apartment, he walked back to his car with the hairs on the back of his neck on end. He knew he was leaving an unresolved mess behind, but to be honest? He was almost relieved to be going from it to Timo, where at least he wasn’t fearful that people were going to die.
* * *
Cesc came back from his night theater-hopping with Iker, all refreshed and relaxed, and walked into a full kitchen. He blinked hard.
Raúl was standing in the doorway on the opposite side of the room and doing the same thing—he looked like he’d just come in from a house visit, his hands slightly whitish from that powder they put on latex gloves and more smears of it on his cheeks. His gaze shot across the room to Cesc, then sharpened. “Did you turn on your phone?”
“What?” Quick check: the battery had died sometime during the night. Swearing, Cesc started to turn, then figured Iker would hear the voices and know to stay away. So instead he rummaged around for the charger. “Why? What happened? What’s everybody doing here?”
José, seated at the table, lifted a blotchy, bleary-eyed face. He just…stared at Cesc. Then he put his head back down; his shirt peeled back from his neck to reveal dark purplish bruises. Cesc paused, then edged over for a closer look.
“That’s from your asshole boss,” Fernando snarled. He was leaning against the counter with his arms folded over his chest. “Oh, don’t look around. He got some important phone call and sneaked out after he got an icepack.”
“Icepack?” Cesc asked, stomach sinking.
Fernando opened his mouth, but José got to it first, shooting a weird, teary kind of glare at Fernando. “Look, Ruud and I fucked a couple of times. I know what you said but you know what? I don’t give a shit. I wanted him to and he wanted a reason to scare off Cristiano, and Cristiano came back and so it’s all over. We’re not fucking now.”
“José—” Fernando started.
“You didn’t need to punch him. I’m not a fucking girl you need to defend,” José snorted. Sniffed. He covered his face with his hands and rubbed it hard, his shoulders starting to shake. “I wouldn’t tell my parents what had happened and they said fine, then I can leave.”
Cesc…Cesc…didn’t believe it. His mouth was hanging open and he was so busy not believing it that he didn’t have the attention to spare for pulling it shut. He just turned in place and looked for something that made more sense…and saw Sergio slouched in the corner. The moment their eyes met, Sergio put up his hands. “Look, I didn’t know where else to put them. There was some huge explosion and what’s-his-name, Timo, he came in and said Leo’s roommate told him to get everybody out.”
“Who?” Cesc asked in a faltering tone.
“Leo, Ronnie, a bunch of Leo’s Argentine friends. Miguel Torres. And I did, so Torres and Gago and Higuaín, I took them to your place. Leo and Saviola went with Ronnie. And when Leo sobers up, you tell him his friends were fucking smashed.” Sergio switched to jabbing his finger at Cesc. “Not to mention he started it by telling them to help him win some bet that I couldn’t go without sex.”
“You…you screwed Leo’s friends? While they were drunk? In my apartment?” That started out disbelieving, but by the time Cesc had finished, he’d worked up to outraged. “Sergio! Which one? Ones?”
No immediate answer.
“All three? Oh, my God, I should—” Somebody said something behind Cesc. He spun around, then hastily suppressed a nasty comment when he saw it was a wide-eyed Iker.
“I’ll, um…just go home…” Iker muttered, quickly back-shuffling.
Raúl finally had a reaction then: he glowered around the room, then threw up his hands and went after Iker. “Why are there so damn many of you—Cesc, Lehmann got into trouble and FC’s on red alert. Charge your phone up and check your voicemail.”
Cesc gaped after him for a good minute. Then he slowly turned back, only to catch Sergio hastily rearranging his expression. He narrowed his eyes. “Were you staring at Iker?”
“Um, well…well, what? It’s the first time I’ve seen him!” Sergio shrugged defensively. “And he’s nice to look at.”
“You—you fuck Leo’s friends in my place and now you’re staring at my—”
What happened next wasn’t real clear to Cesc. He had the impression that he went up and that his knee banged the edge of something, and then Fernando was swearing at him and Sergio and swinging Cesc around by the waist like they were dancing, only with a much bigger chance of Cesc smacking his head into the counter. “Cesc! Damn it, stop it! Or if you have to get mad, why isn’t it at—”
“Don’t start blaming him, ‘Nando. He warned me plenty,” José muttered. He pressed his hand down his face again, then took a deep sharp breath and stared out at the room. But it didn’t look like he was seeing anything, or…he just looked lost. And José never looked lost—he might’ve been a perpetual wet blanket, but you always knew where he stood on things.
Raúl came back in then with a double armful of medical supplies. He tossed a small box at Sergio, then jerked his head towards the hall. “You know how to take your samples. Go do that so I can send them in to the lab tomorrow.”
Sergio opened his mouth. Closed his mouth. Blushed red and reluctantly went to do that; Cesc wanted to laugh, but he also didn’t really appreciate the implication that Leo’s friends might be carriers of…of course, that was really nothing right now. He tugged himself free of Fernando, then sat quietly down while Raúl tried to swab at the side of José’s face. José held still at first, but then tried to get up and leave. And when Raúl and Fernando moved to hold him down, he swore and—“Don’t. I deserve it.”
“You do not,” Raúl said, voice low but strong. When José looked up in surprise, Raúl carefully took his chin in hand, looking him right in the eye. Then he cupped José’s face. “Nobody does. José, listen, if something is wrong it isn’t your fault. It’s not something that should be punished—it’s something that should be healed.”
José’s back slowly started trembling. Then he suddenly fell forward, his arms going around Raúl’s neck. Raúl hugged him back hard, then eased up when he noticed the wincing.
“Aren’t you supposed to be checking up on work?” Fernando snorted, eyes flicking to Cesc.
“Why?” Cesc asked dully. “I’m quitting as soon as I can, so it’s not like I need to know what’s going on.”
Everybody but Raúl looked startled; José twisted completely around and Fernando’s eyes widened. “I thought you loved work,” Fernando said.
It made Cesc a little irritated. “My God, I might not get along with José but he’s my cousin. I thought—I know Ruud has problems but I didn’t think…if he fucks with my family, then I just can’t…work with him.”
Raúl fiddled with the cotton ball in his hand, then passed it to Fernando. “Here, I’ll be back in a moment. I need to talk to Cesc—”
“Got it,” Fernando nodded.
Cesc twisted and turned, trying to see if José let ‘Nando touch him, but Raúl shoved him out into the hall before he got a chance. Then he held onto Cesc’s arms till Cesc got tired and finally had to give up on wriggling.
“What?” he snapped.
For some reason, Raúl just kind of looked at him, like he was about to crack up or something. Then Raúl put up his hands around Cesc’s face and pulled in for a kiss, and somehow Cesc’s hands went around and up and squeezed Raúl’s shoulders, and…and well, Cesc wasn’t going to crack up—José already had that covered—but he’d needed that.
“Are you okay with quitting?” he whispered afterward, putting his chin on Raúl’s shoulder. “Oh…I mean, I’m quitting, but I can’t speak for, you know…whatever you do…”
“I didn’t take it that way.” Raúl backed up a little, and now the way he was looking at Cesc made Cesc want to duck his head. He absently brushed some hair off Cesc’s brow. “No, you do whatever it is that makes you happy. I’m staying—” his mouth twisted “—because I work for Lehmann and so far he’s been…fair. But you were working directly with Ruud.”
Cesc smiled. Then he sighed and leaned against the other man. “Thanks. But I…really do like work. I just can’t…well, I think I’d punch Ruud at this point.”
“Then…maybe you should hold off on quitting,” Raúl said. “FC, I mean. You can tell Ruud you’re not working for him anymore without being fired.”
“Really?” Frowning, Cesc tilted back to check Raúl’s face, but the other man looked serious enough. “I can do that?”
Raúl quirked his mouth again. He muttered something beneath his breath, then shrugged and nodded. “I don’t usually like to get into things, but I’ll go…talk to Lehmann. Right after I tell my sister that she treated José like—never mind. No, don’t look at me like that, because I’m not telling you, you gossip.”
Cesc fake-pouted, but could only hold it for a couple seconds before he was grinning again. He hugged Raúl, then kissed him, sloppy and quick. “Thanks.”
* * *
“No, just go home. I have enough for now,” Robert insisted. He stayed bent over the stacks of papers on his desk. “I’ll call you when I run out, all right?”
Well, maybe Paolo didn’t always turn it down, but he certainly recognized a fight that he couldn’t win. So he went home.
He didn’t bother to turn on the lights, stripping off socks and tie as he went straight towards the bedroom. After tossing them onto a chair just inside the door, he took off his jacket and belt and piled it on top. And then he happened to look at the bed.
Two minutes later, he’d gone back out and seen the snack set out on the kitchen counter. Paolo debated a bit, decided to eat it, and then made sure to brush his teeth before he went back to the bed. He sat down on the edge and looked at Kaká, who was sound asleep and curled towards Paolo, one hand tucked beneath his chin. Paolo bit his lip, then shook his head and leaned over. He gave the other man a peck on the cheek—Kaká stirred slightly—before gingerly easing in behind. After a moment, he put his arm over Kaká’s waist and pulled him in.
Kaká apparently woke then, his head lifting. But then he put it back down and slid his hand over Paolo’s, settling back into sleep with the slightest whistle of breath. Paolo wasn’t yet ready for that, but he did feel a good deal more…peaceful. Till morning came, anyway.
* * *
“Well, that should be settled,” Ludovic said. He and Henrik shook hands, watching each other with a detached kind of caution. Then they both sat back down and Ludovic turned back towards Thierry. “Now, lovely as this has been, I hope you understand our arrangement is merely for this situation.”
Thierry stiffened up, and behind him, Freddie stopped watching Robin, who was lying on a couch and apparently still unconscious. Though Ruud wouldn’t have bet on it, and almost moved over there himself to cover before he noticed Philippe—sitting by Robin’s head—still had a hold of the man’s shoulder. So he stayed put and instead kept what attention he could spare on Deco. He’d been more than a little surprised to see him present, and something about Deco’s meticulously perfect appearance bothered him. Ruud hadn’t had time to catch up on how everyone else was, but he knew it’d been a rough night all over and for Deco to still look fine when even Thierry had crooked shirt-cuffs and a scuff on his shoe…
“I don’t understand at all,” Thierry finally replied. “We’ve shared our resources with you and helped defend your life, and now you’re…what are you saying? That you now will turn your back on us?”
Ludovic made a comically exaggerated face of shock. “Oh, no, no. Far too extreme. But if you want stability, then obviously you can’t expect me to overly favor you when you don’t have total control of the whole city.”
Thierry pressed his lips tightly together.
Robin stirred, then jerked around. He didn’t manage to shake off Senderos, but he did get himself twisted around so he could see the room. His eyes were barely open, let alone comprehending, but even so, he already looked furious. He opened his mouth.
And Ludovic nodded pointedly at him. “Besides, I’m still a little bit dubious about whether we can conclude a bargain in good faith. After all, I think it says something that I’m a prime target when you’re in crisis.”
“Take it as a compliment. You usually do,” Jens said from the door.
Ruud sighed in relief; he’d been wondering what had been keeping Lehmann. Then he glanced up…and around the room…and frowned, a bit taken aback by the sheer shock on everyone else’s faces. Freddie, Thierry…Ludovic…Robin. Robin was sitting bolt upright, his jaw hanging open and his hands limp on his lap, eyes huge and wild and painfully ecstatic. His whole face was—he was glowing, and then he started trembling so he fell back against the couch.
Jens had several butterfly bandages closing a long cut running down one side of his face, and one of his hands was taped up so almost no skin was showing, but otherwise he looked normal. Suit, cufflinks, shoes polished to mirrors. He sauntered across the room, completely ignoring Giuly for the moment, and bent down over Robin, who immediately tried to put his hands up. His first attempt to grab Jens was thwarted by the handcuffs on him, so instead he just seized fistfuls of Jens’ shirt and suit-jacket, pulling himself up by that to bury his face in Jens’ neck. His shoulders shook hard once—hard enough to shake the couch—and then he melted upward, legs swinging freely as Jens gathered him up, turned and then sat down with Robin curled across him.
“He tried to kill me,” Ludovic finally said. “Twice.” Blink. Then a bemused shrug. “Well, so you’ve not only got nine lives, but you’ve also found someone who thinks—”
“You stabilize the criminal element in this city and you ensure that FC and MU can deal with them on a reasonably business-like level, and I’ll be satisfied. I know you’re not going to play alone, but as long as you play fair, I’ll do the same. We’re not in the same positions we used to be.” Jens’ hand automatically curved to lay his fingers down over Robin’s belly. He deliberately relaxed a little, sinking into the cushions, before shooting Ludovic a sharp look. “I’m in a bad mood, Ludo. Somebody tried to blow me up. I suggest you not keep me waiting with an answer.”
Blown…up? Ruud glanced at Freddie, and then at Philippe when it was clear Freddie wasn’t going to stop staring at Jens. Senderos noticed and shrugged, still looking dazed himself. “It happened at a club. One person did die and…we all thought Jens was dead.”
“I suppose that would ruin your night.” Giuly rocked his head from side-to-side a few times, then twitched his shoulders. “All right. So…”
“We’ll work out the details later,” Jens said. He got up and hauled Robin onto his feet, then purposefully started for the door. And by some kind of tacit agreement, everybody else stood and followed him as well.
Out in the parking lot, Thierry finally got back his voice and grabbed Ruud, then pulled him over while hissing at Jens. “You weren’t dead? Then where were you? Why didn’t you call anyone?”
“I did—I called Ruud and told him to deal with MU immediately so we didn’t get bogged down in a turf war, which was the whole point of voluntarily subjecting ourselves to Ludo’s snide little comments again,” Jens calmly said. He opened the back door to a car Ruud didn’t recognize, then tossed the keys to Philippe, who’d already moved to the driver’s side. “Then I called Raúl because I needed some treatment. I…” finally looking a bit sorry, but without any regret in it “…couldn’t call anyone else till I knew where MU stood. If they’d been behind it, or been trying to follow up on it, then they’d have gone through anybody with me to finish the job.”
“You didn’t know he’d been in a bombing?” Freddie snapped at Ruud.
Ruud glared at him and didn’t bother answering. He doubted that Jens’ singling him out like that had been complimentary, and he got a confirmation in the way Jens’ gaze flicked over to him. “I didn’t know what you’d do if I were dead,” Jens told him.
“Fair enough.” It was just good sense, Ruud knew. “You probably don’t want me as Giuly’s contact anymore either, yes?”
“I’d be willing to take that over,” Deco said. He calmly raised his eyebrows at the stares he got.
Thierry muttered something to Jens to the effect that Cristiano had made a couple important business propositions, and Jens’ expression went subtly more glacial as he looked at Deco. Then he shrugged. “Like I said, we’ll discuss details later. Right now, I’m going home. I need a shower.”
Hanging off his arm, Robin laughed and nuzzled up to Jens’ throat. His still-cuffed hands slid up Jens’ chest. “Then I’m going to keep these on for now, hmmm?”
“They’d rust,” Jens snorted, turning towards the car. He still was stone-faced, but his tone had gotten a weird trace of playfulness. “Get in. Actually, you need the doctor first. What the hell have you been doing?”
Robin’s smile abruptly died, though his hold on Jens tightened. He stooped as Jens shoved them into the backseat without ever breaking eye-contact with Jens. “I missed you,” slipped out of the car, low like a surprise punch to the gut.
Ruud turned away at that point. He knew they’d be wrapped around each other in a moment, Jens for once forgetting about public appearances, and he didn’t need to see that. He didn’t seem to need to stay either, so he walked back to his car. And drove home.
His apartment smelled like sex and alcohol, both hollow, bitter aromas without people to make them crackle. And he didn’t really count as a…Ruud sighed and went to get the cleaner, thinking at least it was something to do. His eye happened to catch his answering machine as he did and he paused, then turned to it and pressed ‘play’ for most recent to oldest.
There were several frantic messages from Odonkor, a chilling one from Raúl and a stammering, half-sad and half-angry one from Cesc. And then at the very end there was one from Cris.
Ruud had just finished listening to it when his phone clicked, signaling a brand-new one. He had set it to do that instead of interrupt because it annoy—he gave himself a shake and hit the button to listen to this one.
*…Ruud? It’s Cristiano. Deco just called and said you’re…you’re, well, alive. And…I was really glad to hear that. What you’ve done, what you’re doing—I can’t live with it, and I don’t know if I can help you. You won’t let me help. But you know, I still…love you. So I just want to say I don’t think I could ever want you dead. I think I want you unhappy right now because I’m angry, but I don’t know how long that will last either. So…bye.*
The answering machine turned off then, but Ruud stood there for a long time afterward.