Author: Guede Mazaka
“Vacation,” Alessandro indignantly snorted.
The sound of his voice dragged out a little before dying off in the pristine, ultra-organized corners of the room, the echoes clean and crisp in a way usually found in the sweeping Classical sculpture halls of art museums, where the marble on display didn’t absorb much noise and the few viewers didn’t dare risk a vulgar comment. He grimaced and turned around. And turned around again, but no matter how he looked, he couldn’t see a damn thing that needed to be done. It’d only taken two days to clean out and re-organize his entire apartment, down to the fancy formal silverware his mother had foisted on him one Christmas that he’d never even unboxed.
Well, now it was, and displayed nicely in that curio cabinet he’d inherited from an uncle but also never gotten around to filling up, and at that point Alessandro decided he’d better eat lunch. He was starting to pick at his cast and if he was going to have a nervous breakdown, he didn’t want to give the hospital any reason to send in Buffon again.
On the way to the kitchen he passed his carry-on bag, packed four days ago for a trip to check on some suspicious activity in Piacenza, which of course had been canceled. He could unpack that, or…no, when he’d seen them yesterday his family had been adamant that he stay home and rest instead of coming over to help around their houses. Alessandro made another face and instead irritably slapped together a sandwich. One-handed. Didn’t even get his sling, which right now was hanging slack against his chest, dirty. Lippi didn’t know what he was talking about sometimes.
Except it didn’t matter whether he did or not, because all that counted was that he’d said two weeks and two weeks it was. Alessandro stared at his sandwich, having suddenly lost all appetite.
A couple minutes later, the sandwich was still sitting uneaten on his kitchen counter and he was in the small utility closet where the furnace, water heater, and pocket-size stacked washer-dryer unit were all stuffed. He’d just remembered the last time he’d been stuck home—freak rainstorm had flooded his area of town for a day—he’d done some cleaning but no organizing. Instead he’d just piled things into boxes and then stored them back here. Later he’d taken a few back out and dealt properly with them, but there still should be…his foot bumped into something and he stumbled, his hair falling into his face.
After clearing that out of his eyes, Alessandro pounced on the box he’d found with an emotion he was determinedly calling ‘mild surprise’ and, with some creative application of his feet, he managed to maneuver it out into the hallway. Then he tried to open it, but for some reason he’d taped down the flaps and finally he had to go back to the kitchen for a pair of scissors.
Though when he got it open and looked inside, all that tape suddenly made a lot of sense. So did why he’d left that box in there for so long, and…and really, the only thing he was wondering was why he hadn’t just burned or trashed—Alessandro shook himself sharply, finding that reaction just too ridiculous. Even in his current mood. Even though…even though…
He sighed and dropped down to sit against the wall, and for a few seconds he just stared at the mangled flaps. Then he snorted, bringing up a hand to rub at his nose, and sort of saw the funny side to it. Here he was, on vacation, and so desperate for something to do that he’d go and dig up this without realizing it.
Then again, he could be more desperate.
Alessandro fought the idea. He really, honestly did. But then he looked around his echoing, dust-free apartment, and down the hall to his luggage just sitting there, and…well, Lippi had told him to leave the country, too.
Which was a stupid excuse, but that didn’t stop Alessandro from getting to his feet with a sense of—of not purpose, but at least of direction. He popped into his bathroom to collect his shaving kit and a couple other essentials, made a quick phone call, and in about forty minutes, that sandwich was still sitting in his kitchen but he finally was going somewhere.
* * *
“Stop fussing,” Jens wearily said. He checked his own reflection in the elevator doors before turning to glower at the man standing next to him.
As usual, Robin failed to listen but instead continued to tug and prod at his collar. “I haven’t looked this stupid since my dad let my crazy aunt dress me for some fancy school thing. And we’re still sober. And what the hell is this thing, anyway?”
“You look good. My parents asked if I minded sharing a ride with them before I could duck out of the conversation. It’s a cravat.” Jens glanced at the number of floors still left to go, then reached over and quickly straightened out the wrinkles and tucked back the loops in Robin’s collar set-up. “If you’re going to act like a two-year-old, I’ll treat you like one.”
“Which means what, spanking?” Robin grumbled. He wiped the back of his hand over his nose, then pulled it across again in the other direction.
This elevator, Jens thought, was extremely slow. Perhaps the hotel was picturesquely antique, but they surely could’ve found some way to keep the fittings while updating the utilities. “It means I don’t screw underage brats. If you get snot on your sleeve…”
The other man rolled his entire head, throwing back his shoulders as if he simply couldn’t bear the weight of his irritation, before finally cocking it at Jens. “And if I do behave?”
Jens looked up at the floor dial. Then he reached over and got Robin by the shoulder, and pushed down hard on that while he mercilessly kissed the annoying shit till his lips went numb; to judge by the precipitous way Robin’s grunt thinned into a whimper, Robin was even more affected.
When Jens withdrew, Robin’s eyelashes were still fluttering and he was tipped so far forward that Jens had to push him back onto his feet. As his heels jolted down, he opened his eyes and stared up at Jens with pure dazed longing. And not a wrinkle in sight. It almost made Jens smile, but then the lift chimed and he had to face forward to prepare for his parents, who would be waiting with their noses all but pressed to the other side of the elevator. “I won’t get so drunk at the reception that I can’t fuck you through that ridiculous gingerbread four-poster this place calls a bed.”
“Oh,” Robin said. He still seemed a little woozy, but then the doors opened and Jens’ mother was smiling tightly at them. Robin hastily suppressed a shudder and a side-glance at Jens. He squared his shoulders before he walked out.
Beer and playing around with that cravat, Jens reminded himself, and dredged up a smile as he followed. Hopefully it wasn’t a long drive.
* * *
“I’m coming! I’m sorry, I just—” Under Ricardo’s horrified eyes, the top book slid one way and then the one just beneath it slid the other way. He suppressed a hiss and silently begged, but…
…they fell out of his arms anyway. And ow, onto his feet and nearly tripped him up as the doorbell went off again and he instinctively scrambled through the books to get to it. He cast an apologetic glance over his shoulder, but since Paolo wasn’t due back till dinner, he had no idea who might be calling now and he’d really kept them waiting too long already.
So Ricardo forged on and finally fell against the door with a sigh of relief, pressing his forehead to the wood. Then he recalled what he was doing and, with a sharp shake to clear his head, undid the lock and opened the door. “I’m really sorry, but I was in the back—”
He stared. In front of him the door was still shuddering in its frame. Ricardo gingerly put out a hand and touched it, then looked at his watch. Then across the room at a calendar clock on a book-shelf, and then he pinched himself. And after all that…he bit his lip, reminded himself that compassion and an open heart were among the most important virtues Jesus Christ wished his followers to possess, and very, very slowly re-opened.
Alessandro Nesta was still standing there, in more or less the same position he’d been in the first time. The only possible difference was that before he’d looked a little surprised, while now his expression was more like grim amusement. “Kaká. Can I have a minute?”
“Why?” Ricardo blurted. He winced at himself and forced his hand to push the door open a little wider so he wasn’t—well, so at least he wouldn’t look like he was hiding behind it.
“I just want to say that I’m sorry you got caught up in something that wasn’t any of your concern last time, and that I’m not here to start that again. I’m just dropping something off with…for Paolo.” For most of it, Nesta’s voice was rock-steady and actually, not even sounding that particularly interested in what it said even though he did seem sincere, but then it wavered a little with the name. He seemed to realize it and shifted slightly, glancing down at his feet where a large cardboard box was sitting. “I was clearing out some old things and I found—these are his.”
Ricardo looked at the box. It was…a box. He winced again and absently scratched at his nose, then pushed up his glasses when that made them slide a bit. “Oh. Okay. Um, he’s not…he’s at work.”
“Well, I’m dropping it off,” Nesta repeated, a bit more bitingly. Though when Ricardo looked up, the other man had half-turned and was staring down the hall. He lifted his hand as if he was going to go, which was when Ricardo noticed the cast on it, then paused rather reluctantly.
Ricardo promptly clutched the door again, but Nesta just snorted and shook his head, then stalked off. He didn’t look back even when Ricardo poked his head into the hall to watch and fell over the box, and by the time Ricardo had scrambled to his feet, the other man had disappeared around the corner. For a few moments Ricardo continued to disgust himself by dithering about, but he finally managed to pull himself together.
First he dragged the box inside and closed the door. Then he grabbed his cell-phone from the side-table and started to dial, but in the middle of that he changed his mind and scrolled to Cesc’s number instead. Paolo was in court right now and he’d have his phone turned off, and Ricardo wasn’t sure how else to get to him in there but Cesc probably would know.
Cesc, thankfully, answered on the first ring. *Ricky?*
“Nesta’s here!” Oh, he sounded ridiculous. Yes, it was worrying, but he didn’t need to squeak about it. “He just showed up at Paolo’s place, and he dropped this thing—this box off, and—”
*What? Where is he?* An ear-splitting clatter on the other end of the line suggested Cesc might’ve fallen off some piece of furniture. *Crap, Ricky, I’ll—I’ll be there in ten minutes, okay? But don’t lose him. Make him stay there, or else God knows what he’ll do before I can get anybody on this. Okay? Bye.*
Frowning, Ricardo took his phone from his ear and stared at it. That hadn’t really been what he’d expected—but the last time Nesta had whipped around to about five different places in one morning and gotten all of FC bent out of shape before anybody had had a clue why he was there. And he’d just left, and Ricardo had told him Paolo was at work—Ricardo tossed his cell over his shoulder and yanked open the door, then tore down the hall.
* * *
Just as Alessandro stepped out of the elevator at the parking level, his cell-phone went off. A woman was trying to get in at the same time, so he turned sideways to let her through and then edged over to the wall as he flipped out his phone. Gila. Eyebrows rising in surprise, he put the phone to his ear. “Alberto, I appreciate the updates, but I had a message from Lippi yesterday night and I don’t want you to risk your—”
*Sandro! You’re all right! Thank God, sir, because your car’s been blown up.*
Alessandro…ran that by his mind again as he absentmindedly resumed walking, and so he was a bit confused when he happened to glance up and saw his taxi where he’d told it to wait for him. “What?”
*This morning around five-thirty, where it was parked at your apartment. Only one person was injured and it’s not serious, but nobody could find you and we were all really, really…sir? Where are you, anyway?*
Currently in the middle of a dense fog of incomprehension, but industriously seeking a way out, Alessandro sarcastically thought. He glanced around himself with more caution before starting to cross the garage; if anybody was looking for him and trying to go on reason, then they’d never think to check any of Paolo Maldini’s residences, so he figured the taxi was safe enough. “I left town for a short trip, and took a taxi to the train station since that…since my esteemed doctor strongly suggested I refrain from driving this week. Do you have any leads yet?”
*Well, no, because we were trying to find you first. But we’re all working on it—Lippi’s really upset that you keep being targeted and he’s been roaring around that he won’t have his men intimidated and shit. Sir, I’m really sorry but I can’t say anything more, except that Lippi wants you to call him as soon as you can and to make arrangements to stay somewhere else.*
He would, but honestly, did he think keeping Alessandro out of the loop was going to make things safer? It’d be better if Alessandro could at least keep up on who and what and where he should avoid. “Gila, come on.”
*Sir, Lippi was really…* Alberto was audibly squirming.
“Well, I’ll call him, but you’ll probably see him first and you can remind him that I’m already on vacation. Out of the country, and I don’t think I’m required to say anything else right now,” Alessandro said. He felt faintly guilty for putting Alberto in the middle of another squabble with Lippi, but then he got to the taxi and the driver honked impatiently. “Sorry, Gila, but if it’s one thing I hate more than people trying to kill me, it’s being kept in the dark.”
After hanging up, he rounded the car and yanked open the back passenger door on the left side, ready to just grab his one bag and tell the driver to fuck off without a tip. But then the back of his neck prickled: he automatically shuffled backwards so the strip of metal between the side and back window blocked him from the driver’s line of sight, then quickly bent down to check the man’s silhouette. And then he jumped backward as far as he could.
He would’ve been fine if the unfamiliar weight of that damn cast hadn’t thrown him off; as it was, he just stumbled a second. But that was long enough for the driver’s door to open and let a hugely inappropriate grin pop over the top of the car. “Sandro! You’re not in zillions of little bits in Rome!”
“What?” Alessandro yelped. He scrambled backwards a few more steps so he was partially shielded by a concrete pillar, digging frantically about with his good hand at his pockets and back. But he came up with nothing, and damn Lippi again, and ow as his shoulder smacked into the pillar. He temporarily paused then, trying to catch his breath, his wits, and any belief in the fairness of life that he might ever have possessed. “What did you do with him? Where’s the body?”
Zlatan marginally reduced the size of his smile and rested his chin on his arms, which he’d folded on top of the cab, but otherwise maintained his usual—God, Alessandro hated to admit he could use that word—air of nonchalant mayhem. “Oh, relax. I don’t kill everybody we meet—I mean, look at your ex. Your driver’s off buying a sandwich around the corner, and when he comes back he’ll never know I broke into his car to freak you out. Oh, and I also paid for your ride already. You got any stuff in the trunk?”
“I—am—not—” Alessandro made himself breathe “—relaxing when you’re anywhere near me. And don’t touch my bag.”
“Is that where your gun is? That’s what you were looking for just now, right?” Zlatan asked, far too amused for his own good. Before Alessandro could reply, he’d swung the driver’s door shut and pulled the one next to it open, and to judge from the grunting, had just hauled Alessandro’s bag out of the backseat. “God, talk about cold welcomes. I take a red-eye over and waste about two weeks’ worth of money in two hours to make sure you aren’t splattered across some stupid Roman parking—”
There wasn’t a gun in the bag, and that was again thanks to Lippi and his damn vacation mandate. But there were other things in it that Alessandro would rather die than let Zlatan get his hands on, and so he went around the car to get his luggage back. “I never asked you to spy on me.”
“If I were spying on you, I wouldn’t have been so worried. And go ahead, pretend I can’t possibly, actually care about whether you’re dead or not.” The grin remained, but for a moment Zlatan’s eyes cooled. Then he was jerked down a little as Alessandro pulled the bag’s handle away from him and his head dropped. He stiffened, then abruptly looked up. “Hey. What happened to your wrist?”
“I broke it.” Alessandro tried to tug his bag behind him, but one of the wheels caught in a crack and the whole thing suddenly began to tip, wrenching hard at his arm. He grimaced and let go, flipped his hand and just caught the handle again before it fell.
But not, unfortunately, before Zlatan could move forward about fifteen centimeters. He also managed to get his right hand around Alessandro’s jaw before he stopped. After one blink, he glanced over at his shoulder and the heel of the hand that Alessandro had planted against it.
“How’s this, by the way?” Alessandro asked.
“Still has stitches in there. And that’s your broken wrist.” The smile had finally left Zlatan’s face, but the light dancing in his eyes more than made up the difference in brainless daring. He leaned in as he turned his head back so Alessandro had to tip his own head away to keep their noses from touching. “Sandro, you’re being kind of tame here. Not even a punch. I’m getting worried again.”
And then his thumb pressed into Alessandro’s cheek, forcing Alessandro into his mouth that was warm and wet and oddly careful. Alessandro did shove at Zlatan’s shoulder, but a pang went through his wrist and he jerked his hand back, then slammed it into his own shoulder so he could bring up his elbow in between them.
He fell back against the car while Zlatan went back a step, then regathered himself. The other man rubbed at his chest and coughed, snorting. “That’s still not really…” Zlatan abruptly spun, his head going up like an alerted dog’s. “…and what the hell are you looking at?”
Alessandro looked over, then sagged against the taxi and wondered whether it was too late to call Lippi and ask to stay in the local Interpol office, or something like that. He had the sinking feeling that his face was growing increasingly picturesque, but he made himself meet Kaká’s wide-eyed stare without a shielding hand. “Kaká? Did I drop something?”
“No, I…just…” Well, credit to Kaká. After the first moment of utter shock, he managed to pull himself together and to even assume what he probably thought was an imposing pose. The glasses nearly dangling off his nose and the ruffled hair ruined it, but he did try. “Ah…Mr. Nesta, are you all right?”
The ‘mister’ threw Alessandro, though on second thought, that was probably the nicest form of address possible under the circumstances. And that second thought was a delay he shouldn’t have let happen, since suddenly Zlatan was pushing forward with what he assumed was a charming smile on his face. “Nah, he’s okay. I was just trying to kiss him hello and he’s being cranky.”
Alessandro’s eyes snapped to Zlatan, and then he started to push himself off the car, but Kaká was already blinking again. “Kissing?”
“Yeah, you know, what you do when you’re dating?” Zlatan breezily said. He put out a hand and introduced himself, and Kaká, who apparently lacked any instinct for danger, took it before the strangled noise in Alessandro’s throat formed itself into a warning. “Nice to meet you, Kaká, and do me a favor: call him Sandro before he starts acting like a schoolteacher, too. So what’s up?”
“Oh, well, I was just thinking—Mr. Nes—I mean, Sandro…and you…have been traveling and I was just…making tea, and…” Kaká started out all right but quickly floundered as Zlatan turned their handshake into an opportunity to throw an arm over his shoulder.
Fuck keeping the bag on its wheels. Alessandro lunged for Zlatan’s other side and hauled him away before he got a full hold on Kaká, who did start to jerk away from the fuss but then slowed to look back with a good dollop of hopefulness inexplicably mixed into his startled expression. Zlatan grunted and started to reach for his bad shoulder, but then swung so his arm dropped around Alessandro’s waist. He grinned at Kaká. “Tea! Thanks, I’m really thirsty.”
“You are not,” Alessandro hissed, trying to get off that arm and make his bag bounce onto at least one wheel so he wasn’t just dragging it. “He’s joking. Kaká, thanks, but—”
“Oh, it’s no problem.” Kaká’s eyes were rapidly flicking between Alessandro and Zlatan, but he wasn’t running so nothing in that pretty little head was connecting sensibly. “I’ll just…Cesc! Oh, hi, you remember Cesc who’s a friend who was coming over and—”
“Hey so Ricky probably left the water running or something and we’ll meet you upstairs,” said a scruffy-headed blur who came out of nowhere to skid himself and Kaká into the open elevator waiting behind them.
In the two seconds Alessandro had before the doors shut, he thought the newcomer looked familiar but he was a little busy tearing himself free of Zlatan’s grip. Not that did any good: his hands slapped down on cool steel as a mocking chime began to issue from above his head. Alessandro snarled and stabbed at the ‘up’ button with his thumb, and of course nothing happened. He lifted his foot to kick the wall…and then thought the better of it and spun around while putting a hand to the back of his neck, which had started itching again. “Dating?”
Zlatan shrugged. “Well, you weren’t coming up with anything.”
“Because—” The sheer intensity of the incredulity that swept over Alessandro made him spin back around. He stared at his gaping reflection in the elevator doors, just—just trying to understand. “Because I don’t need to! We’re not cooperating! You aren’t even supposed to be here, and—and what the hell are you looking at now?”
The slightly smudged Zlatan in the shiny steel belatedly lifted his eyes, but otherwise looked completely indifferent to Alessandro’s reaction. “Your ass. First time I’ve seen it in jeans, and it looks amazing, by the way.”
Alessandro whirled back around and slammed up against the doors. His foot knocked into his bag and almost made it fall over, and he knew that wasn’t even the only reason Zlatan was snorting into his hand now, but he was very quickly giving up on anything besides pure rage. “You’re not having tea, or coming upstairs, or doing anything except leaving immediately.”
“Oh, stop worrying. I can’t do anything to those two anyway and it’s got nothing to do with you,” Zlatan said, eyes rolling.
Which was extremely interesting, but before Alessandro could even open his mouth, the other man had suddenly and silently glided forward so his raised arms caged in Alessandro’s head. Alessandro reflexively jerked back, only to bang head and his elbow, which still occasionally ached and now definitely hurt again. The handle of his bag jarred free from his hand, but instead of wasting time groping after it, he pushed his palms up against Zlatan’s stomach. He meant to get them higher, into that weakened shoulder, but Zlatan pressed forward before he could.
“I’ll be nice.” The bridge of Zlatan’s nose grazed Alessandro’s cheek. When he jerked away, Zlatan snickered and something hot and wet flicked against Alessandro’s jawline. “Honestly, what are you going to do? Try to arrest me again?”
The words crammed up into the top of Alessandro’s throat, thick and sour. He made the mistake of trying to breathe past them and was genuinely surprised by the violence of the choking sound of rage he dislodged instead. His hands drove hard into Zlatan’s chest and he wasn’t thinking about what kind of injury that’d do, or even of what he was doing, period. He just wanted away.
The barrier in front of him hissed and gave a little, but then the doors behind Alessandro abruptly gave way. He fell, then was pulled up with a jerk by the arm hard enough to make his eyes water and his head spin.
Not smiling now, Zlatan used the grip on Alessandro’s forearm to shove him further into the lift. He ducked back for Alessandro’s bag, then came in himself and actually let Alessandro go before he was forced to. Alessandro still pulled his arm back across himself, pressing it into his stomach, before he stiffly pushed the button for Paolo’s floor.
“You sure you’re okay for tea? I can’t let you bite off their heads either,” Zlatan said. He was trying to sound sympathetic and it didn’t suit his drawling voice very well. “Even if Jesus, your ex sure went for the usual mid-life crisis model, didn’t he? All kiddie eyes and bouncy ass. Is Kaká even—”
“Shut up and leave me alone,” Alessandro muttered. He deliberately turned his head so his hair blocked Zlatan from view. Not that he expected that or his request to actually achieve anything—and when it did grant him some silence, he wasn’t at all grateful. He just wished he was back in Rome.
* * *
Something nudged Jens in the back, but when he looked over his shoulder, no one was there. Then a hip jammed up against his other side and he turned his head to nearly break his nose on the back of Robin’s head. “Jens, your aunt is hissing at us.”
“No, she’s hissing at you. You’re not taking any emergency phone calls and you’re supposed to be inside,” Jens hissed. Then he looked at the door to the nave and winced. “And Robin, that’s my cousin. She’s two years younger than me—Cesc? Repeat that.”
Robin just backed up further. One of his heels slipped painfully over Jens’ toes. “I’m not going in there! They said the traffic’s so bad the bridal party’s not even gotten out of the courthouse parking lot yet! And your fucking cousin, aunt, whatever just asked somebody if escort services charge extra for long-distance trips!”
“You’re going in there and you’re getting us good seats. If I have to sit through a traditional Catholic wedding, I’d damn well better be able to see what’s going on.” Jens turned hard around so his elbow would catch Robin in the back and pry him off, then ducked further into the alcove in which they were standing. He especially wanted to see the bride, who’d better be the catch of the century for not only making Jens’ cousin convert for this, but also forcing his whole family into going along with it. “Fŕbregas?”
Instead of leaving, Robin just glued himself tighter to Jens and started yammering on about why was Cesc calling and so forth so Jens once again missed what Cesc actually said. He suppressed a snarl and jammed his arm across the alcove, forcing Robin out, and asked for another repetition.
*…Nesta! He’s here! I mean, he’s not in FC but he’s in Paolo Maldini’s dining room, and his boyfriend’s here, and Maldini’s not, and Ricky’s giving them tea for now but—*
“Jens! You need to come in and take your seat! They’re coming!” hissed some female relative. “And bring your—”
After swinging his hand over Robin’s mouth, Jens stuffed the other man and his indignant retort into the alcove. He waved the relative off without really looking at her and she gasped, then sniffed and marched off, which meant it could’ve been—never mind that. Boyfriend? As far as Jens knew, Nesta hadn’t had a social life since…goddamn it, that was his mother now, and he couldn’t brush her off. “Did Nesta say why he’s there?”
*Um.* Dishes clattered in the background. *He said he’s on vacation and he was just dropping off some of Paolo’s stuff.*
Vaca—Jens winced, then mustered up an apologetic face and a nod for his mother, who was standing in the doorway and tapping her fan against her arm. He really didn’t have the time now to figure this out, Thierry couldn’t leave the office today, Freddie…damn. Triage time. Jens gritted his teeth, then reached back and hooked Robin’s arm. He swung out the other man to where his mother could get to him and hoped that’d get him another two minutes. “What’s he wearing?”
*Huh? Oh, well…short-sleeved shirt, no suit, jeans. Sneakers. Um, I think they’re Adidas. They’re really ratty.*
“Call me back when he puts on a tie,” Jens snapped. Then he hung up and crossed the room just as his mother was gingerly poking at Robin’s spiked-up bangs with a look of exquisite disgust. “Sorry, mother. There was an emergency at work.”
She started to say something about rudeness and punks ruining civilization, but then the organist misplayed a chord. Jens took advantage of her grimace to sweep himself and Robin into a back-aisle, then kept on going.
“Thanks a fucking lot,” Robin muttered. He squirmed away from somebody’s raised hand, though Jens didn’t think that person had been trying to touch him. “Oh, my God, how long is this? Who are we sitting by? Are all your cousins dried-up old—”
“Stop insulting my family, and remember, you’re here because you had such a problem with the idea that people hate me enough to want to kill me.” Before Robin could turn that shocked face into sharp words, Jens slipped his hand behind the other man. He touched the small of Robin’s back, then slid his fingers across to dip into the side-pocket of Robin’s trousers as they started to move into their pew.
Robin twitched, started to grin, and then just as quickly glared when Jens removed his hand after dropping his phone in Robin’s pocket. “Right now I completely sympathize with those people. What was that?”
“Get Maldini and send him home. And if Cesc calls back, you’ll have to take it. From this point forward I can’t look distracted,” Jens muttered. He nodded to the man sitting on his other side, pushed his feet into the miniscule space behind the next pew, and tried very hard to ignore how much his knees were already aching.
* * *
“What’d he say?” Ricky asked. The tea-towel in his hands was beginning to unravel at the corner from his fidgeting, and after every word he ducked around to peek at the two in the next room.
Cesc stared at his phone. “Call back when Nesta puts on a tie.”
“Yeah, I don’t know either. But I think—oh, crap. He must’ve been in the middle of the wedding. He’s stuck in there for a while.” Well, Lehmann had survived bombings and had known Nesta for a while, so he must know what he was talking about. Though Cesc still wished it hadn’t sounded so much like a boot-camp version of InStyle.
Ricky twisted around again to look, then turned back so fast his glasses fell off. He made a scrambling dive for them and managed to get them back before they hit the ground, but he dropped the towel. “So what do we do?”
“Um.” And Thierry already hadn’t asked questions about why Cesc had to abandon him in the middle of the day, so calling him was kind of a only-in-case-of-Armageddon thing. So…crap, crap, crap. “Did you call Paolo?”
“He’s in court. He won’t have his phone on and…and anyway, I don’t know if I want him and Nesta in the same place. The last time that happened Paolo came home, but he was so…wrecked, and I don’t know…” Ricky pulled anxiously at his hair, then pressed his hands to the sides of his face. “Cesc? How long have we been standing here?”
A while, though when Cesc peeked into the dining room, not much had changed. Nesta was still sitting there, arms locked over his chest and irritated expression fixed on the far wall, and this Zlatan guy was playing with the sugar bowl. A couple of the shortbread cookies were gone, but that was it.
Then Zlatan looked up. Cesc flinched, then took a deep breath and came all the way out of the kitchen. “Hi, sorry but the kettle’s broken. Ricky’s still heating the water.”
Nesta…stared at the wall. Zlatan blinked a couple times. “How is it broken?”
“Oh! It’s electric. Must’ve blown a circuit,” Cesc said, pulling out his I’m-innocent-auntie-or-uncle smile. He gestured frantically behind his back, then waited till he heard Ricky rattle some cupboards before he cautiously took a seat across from the other two.
He and Zlatan stared at each other. Nesta stared at the wall. From the kitchen came a whoosh and very briefly a faint smell of gas as Ricky turned on the stove.
“So…Ricky said you two are going out?” Cesc hesitantly lilted.
Mouth-twitch from Nesta: “We’re not.” “Yeah, for about—” Zlatan started. Then he went very still and his lips thinned out.
Cesc glanced at the table, which had shaken a little. “Um, Zlatan, so what do you do?”
“Lots of things.” Zlatan slanted a look at Nesta that wouldn’t have been out of place on a bored Robin bugging Jens. “Eat, fuck, sleep. Drive cars, go to clubs. I can do all kinds of things.”
Nesta resumed being a statue and didn’t look back. Rolling his eyes, Zlatan re-sprawled his gigantic limbs and didn’t elaborate any more.
It was taking Ricky an awfully long time to boil water. Maybe Cesc should go…check on that. Even if it was sort of chickening out on the situation, but God, was this weird, and not in a good way. But it was helping out Ricky and Ricky deserved a break, and so Cesc tried one last time. “How’d you meet each other?”
This time Nesta actually moved his head to look at Cesc. It was kind of like a cat turning to look at the annoying insect who’d just been stupid enough to wake it up. “We don’t talk about that.”
Zlatan raised his eyebrows. “Really? We don’t?”
“I’ll be right back,” Cesc said, and fled to the kitchen. He knew a brewing fight when he saw one.
* * *
“So how long are you going to pull this silent-treatment crap?” Zlatan asked.
Alessandro wondered whether they were actually boiling water in there, or if in between the foot-shuffling and whispers one of them was making any phone calls. He remembered where he’d seen Cesc before and he would’ve thought FC would have been put on red-alert long before now. “I’m under duress. Anything I say wouldn’t have any meaning anyway.”
“You’re sitting there looking like somebody told you the Italian government’s closed all its jails and declared that from now on criminals just get slaps on the wrists.” Wood creaked and crockery rattled. There were crunching noises as well, so Alessandro assumed Zlatan was downing more cookies. “I mean, what? You want me to just tell them I’m the guy who their record label hired, kinda, to—”
Oddly enough, Alessandro’s first instinct was to violently reject that idea, and for all he knew Cesc and Kaká had already heard something about that. But even so, he thought, there was no reason to give them a chance to talk about it, like they had any real idea. Especially Kaká, who already had gotten to judge Alessandro once despite being one, too damned young to—Alessandro viciously cut himself off, jerking around to face Zlatan. “Why are you here?”
Zlatan started to answer, but stopped himself and instead looked Alessandro over, frowning slightly. “Wanted to check that you weren’t dead.”
“Well, I’m not. So why are you still here?” Alessandro snapped, turning forward again.
“Why haven’t you threatened to turn me over to the police?” Zlatan riposted.
Alessandro bit the inside of his mouth, but the blood he drew wasn’t enough to cover the sudden sourness that came up. “I already told you I’d do that if you showed up again. Telling you again would be redundant.”
The other man shifted to drop his chin on Alessandro’s shoulder. “Fine. Why aren’t you trying to do that right now? What’s wrong with you?”
It should’ve been Kaká, Alessandro thought. That man knew more than Zlatan and had more reason to be pushing at Alessandro’s sore spots, and yet who was it that was asking that question? “If anything’s wrong with me, it’s you.”
“Bullshit. You dealt with me fine before, and that was with your ex around, too. Now you’re all…” Zlatan lifted his chin and sat back so he could draw random shapes in the air with his hands “…quiet. You’re not doing anything. Why aren’t you doing anything?”
“Well, what the hell am I supposed to do?” Alessandro snarled, swinging around. His knees hit the side of Zlatan’s chair and he had to catch himself on the edge of the table, but Zlatan at least had the grace to look shocked. “What? You just—show up, and you expect me to run around like some idiot because ta-da! It’s Zlatan, and the world has to go crazy now that you’re here, and never mind that I’m sitting in Paolo’s fucking apartment waiting for tea from my—and only because—because—”
Alessandro shook his hands impotently in the air for a few seconds, but words just weren’t sufficient. And sitting wasn’t, either; he was boiling beneath his skin and the muscles in his jaw and arms were pulling so tight that he needed to do something or else have them snap on him, and then they did and the momentum pushed him onto Zlatan. He got one knee jammed in between Zlatan’s right thigh and the chair-arm and a hand on a shoulder, and then his other leg was still tangled in his own chair but enough of him was on the man for that to not mean a thing. His cast got awkward, but then Zlatan grabbed it and held it out of the way so Alessandro could bend down.
Zlatan’s mouth was partly open, which made things—not easier, but they required less thinking to accomplish. He dropped his head back under the pressure so Alessandro had to push himself up over the other man, digging his fingers hard into Zlatan’s shoulder. He opened his mouth more to fit the shape of Zlatan’s and beneath his lips he felt movement, warmth; a hand skimmed down his back, featherlight over the vicious itching in Alessandro’s skin.
And then it fisted in his shirt, and Zlatan’s other hand dropped Alessandro’s wrist to come up beneath Alessandro’s jaw. That one pushed, hard and up, and then the other one yanked down so Alessandro’s hip jarred into the chair-arm as he was sat back. Zlatan stared at him, pupils dilated with plenty of interest but no actual spark.
The blood started to burn along Alessandro’s cheekbones and up his throat. He jerked his chin free, then shoved at the hair in his face; some of the strands caught on his cast, then tore out. “What? You didn’t have a problem with people or places before.”
“Yeah, but that was when you were fucking me. Right now I’m not sure if you’re even fucking Maldini here,” Zlatan said.
For a moment, Alessandro looked at him. It took that long for the rage to build up.
Then it exploded and drove Alessandro’s head forward. He felt his forehead hit flesh and heard Zlatan’s curse, but then something slammed into his midriff and knocked him backward. His back hit the edge of the table, then scraped down it brutally fast as he fell off the chair. Alessandro instinctively curled to protect his head and his wrist and landed mainly on his hip and shoulders, which was painful but…only at bruise-level, he found a moment later. Grunting, he rolled over onto his good arm and looked up.
“Are you okay?” Ricardo stammered from the kitchen doorway. “What happened? Where’s—”
Zlatan, of course, was nowhere to be seen. And though in a second he’d get up and make a thorough search of the place, Alessandro already knew the man was long gone. He hit the floor, and then he hit it again, swearing. And then he put his head down so he could rest his aching forehead against the tile, ignoring Ricardo’s attempts to check him over.
* * *
*Hello? Who is this?*
“It’s Robin van Persie and why the hell do you have everything turned off? Did you join a monastery or something?” Robin hissed. Then he thought he heard heels clattering towards him and he ducked further into the bushes, glancing over his shoulder. “Maldini? Where are you?”
The wedding ceremony had just ended so he wasn’t desperately trying to pretend the beeping and whirring noises weren’t coming from him, but frankly, he’d take the death-glares right now. At least then people couldn’t move around, and—he winced and jammed a finger in his other ear as every goddamn car horn in the city suddenly went off at once.
“What?” he shouted.
If he clenched his teeth and concentrated very hard, he could just make out Maldini’s voice. *I’ve just come out of court. It was a closed-door hearing, and…why are you calling me? Aren’t you and Lehmann in Germany?*
“That doesn’t matter! Go home!” God, the horns were loud. Robin was beginning to wonder if he’d have to jam his head into the dirt when, very gradually, they began to taper off. Apparently the car parade had finally gotten underway, and good riddance. Even the prospect of alcohol at the reception wasn’t so alluring now as getting back to the hotel and locking himself in. “Home! Your apartment! Nesta’s there!”
*Sandro? He’s in town again?*
What the hell was Maldini’s problem? He wasn’t the one getting blasted—and then the bushes suddenly parted and Robin froze.
“No, he’s here! Jens, I found your boyfriend!” giggled the one on the left. She looked a little flushed, the lucky bitch. “Oh, I think he’ll be a moment, Robbie. He’s found the beer we had in the car trunk.”
“So, while we have a moment,” the one on the right breathlessly said. She crunched cleavage-first further into the bushes, teetering dangerously on her heels. “We’ve been soo curious ever since we heard. What’s it like? Is he really gay, ‘cause my mom says he’s had girlfriends—ooo, are you bi or gay? We don’t even know, isn’t that funny?”
“And you’re cute, too. Ever consider helping Jens get closer with the family?” The first one blushed and chewed at her fingertip. “I’ve always had kind of a crush on him, actually…”
Maldini was still talking on the phone, but as far as Robin was concerned, he’d done his duty there. He snapped shut his cell, briefly considered it as a bludgeoning weapon and then started looking around for—something. Help, Jens, something.
“Really?” said the second to the first. “But he’s so…angry…”
“Girls, you’d better hurry to the car or you’ll miss the sägen,” scolded a third voice. A couple moments later its owner appeared in the form of another woman. But this one was thirties, not twenties, and in about a minute had efficiently packed off the idiots, pulled Robin to his feet, and was quickly walking him towards a quieter corner of the parking lot. “Sorry about that. I would’ve gotten to you sooner but Jens, that moron, didn’t describe you very well.”
After he figured out she wasn’t trying to grope him or mess with his hair, Robin half-tuned her out to look around the lot and finally spotted Jens. Who was moving towards them, and about time. That bastard was going to be lucky if Robin let him sleep in the same bed tonight, let alone fuck him. “He just said I had good bones, right?”
“How did…oh, this involves his mother, doesn’t it?” the woman said. When Robin took a second look at her, she just grinned and patted his shoulder. She might’ve been older but she was better-looking than those girls had been, and was calm in a way that was friendly but vaguely intimidating, like she could use a crowbar if she had to. “I’m Conny, by the way.”
“His fake-girlfriend from law school?” Robin blurted. Then he winced and pulled at his nose.
But Conny smiled again and nodded. “Oh, he actually told you about me! I’m impressed. Usually I find myself explaining in the middle of the getaway.”
They went a couple more paces. Robin watched Jens break free from the rest of his family and walk towards them: Jens’ stride was still steady, but his collar was open and he had that glint in his eye that meant Robin already would have to be the designated driver.
“I’ll help get you through the reception if you make the same deal he did with me—I want to hear about you two,” Conny said. She dimpled a bit, then shook her head at Robin’s look. “Oh, not that, though I’m tempted. I just want to know how Jens has been. He doesn’t call enough and on emails he’s hopelessly short. I’m always reading extra details in the paper weeks later.”
Robin slowly started to smile. “Nice to meet you, Conny. I’m Robin. You get us out early and I’ll tell you about that, too.”
* * *
“Are you sure?” Cesc asked, fiddling with his tie. “It’s still going to take Paolo like, an hour to get here with traffic. I can hang around that long.”
“Thanks, but I think he really is on vacation.” A noise in the next room made Ricardo lean to see around the corner, but he turned back to Cesc when he saw Nesta was just adjusting his icepack. “And…well, I don’t know what’s going on but I don’t think he’s here to cause trouble or anything like that. He just seems really…I think he’s hurting too much to do anything.”
Cesc looked dubious. “Yeah, well, from the sound of things he was hurting a lot last time, too. And his boyfriend or whatever was weird. And since when did he have one of those? I thought you said he wasn’t over Paolo.”
“I didn’t think he was, but—”
“And what happened to not wanting him and Paolo to run into each other? I mean, it’s not like he’s asked to see him.”
Ricardo started to reply, but realized he had no idea what he was talking about and instead dropped his head into his hands. All the unanswered questions and uncertainty had gotten to him long ago, but till now he’d been able to shove them back and at least try to carry out the demands of common courtesy. “I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t know what Nesta might do now and I don’t…I can’t even think about how he’ll react to Paolo.”
“Yeah…man, it makes you wonder how they were like when they were together,” Cesc said. He paused. “I mean, Nesta’s just so intense even when he’s not talking. Though I guess that could go either way…the sex could be really, really good—”
Ricardo yanked his hands off his face. “Cesc!”
Cesc flinched, then scrubbed at his face, looking embarrassed and suddenly very tired. “Sorry, Ricky. I just kinda drifted—Raúl and I have been arguing since my cousin came back, and after we both snapped at him a couple times Iker’s just been avoiding us, and so I haven’t gotten any in a while. Which is a stupid excuse, but…yeah, sorry. But really, are you sure you want me to leave?”
“Yes,” Ricardo said after a moment. “Last time he was angry. I’m not sure what he is now, but it’s not that. And…and Paolo said that was over, and I said I believed him. I can’t be scared to trust that, or else I was lying.”
“You know, it’s okay to be freaked out by somebody like Nesta,” Cesc started. Then he looked up at Ricardo and sighed. “Okay, okay. I’m going. But I’m keeping my phone on.”
Ricardo smiled at that. Then he reached out and opened the door. “I hope you and Raúl can make up soon.”
Exasperation flicked over Cesc’s face, but he quickly wiped that away and substituted mutter about hope springing eternal. He still looked tired as he walked away, so that was something Ricardo would have to ask about later. If he’d known in the first place, he wouldn’t have called the other man.
After he’d shut the door, Ricardo slipped back into the kitchen and finally made up the tea. He started to take down a tray, but then thought that looked a little too much like he was hiding behind things again and just put the cups on their saucers. Then he carried them into the other room.
Nesta was sitting on the edge of the couch and fingering his wrist-cast, but he looked up at Ricardo’s approach. His eyes went to the tea and the corner of his mouth moved a little. “I’m fine. You don’t have to nurse me.”
“So I won’t ask if you want me to get you another one of those,” Ricardo said, nodding at the icepack lying on the table before the other man. It was nothing more than a bag of water now.
He set down one cup in front of Nesta and, after a moment’s hesitation, walked around the table to seat himself on the other end of the sofa. Then he tried a sip of his own cup and only clattered the bottom of it a little against the saucer, which he thought wasn’t bad.
An uneven low laugh, more like a raspy exhale, came out of Nesta. He tipped his head but didn’t look over at Ricardo. “The last time I saw you, you were hanging off Paolo’s shoulders like a jealous wife. And with good reason. You don’t need to feel sorry for me.”
“Well, I can’t help it.” Ricardo ducked his head, immediately regretting the sharpness of his tone. He sucked at his lip a little, watching his thumb run along the side of the cup. “Anyway, I didn’t bring you that just because I feel sorry for you. I brought it because you looked like you might need it, too.”
Nesta glanced sharply at him and Ricardo hastily shoved his face towards his cup. He overshot the rim and got a bit of tea up his nose, but luckily it’d cooled down so he just snorted and sniffled in embarrassment. Then he heard a clinking noise and hesitantly looked over to see Nesta picking up the cup and saucer.
For a moment the other man just held those in both hands and stared downwards. He put out a finger and touched the side of the cup with its tip, then moved it to curl it through the handle. Then he lifted it off the saucer and put that back on the table. “I actually wanted to run into Paolo. Not that I’m interested in trying to get him into bed again, but I did want to talk to him.”
“He’s at work,” Ricardo said.
The side of Nesta’s mouth curled upwards, then straightened out as he put the tea-cup to his lips. “I know. I knew he’d be.” The muscles in his throat moved, but he didn’t have the cup up for long enough to have taken anything but the smallest sip. “I thought no one would be home right now.”
“I’m…not working. I’m going back to school in a few weeks, and I come over here to study sometimes.” Ricardo started to spin his cup around, realized he was doing it, and made himself stop. “He could’ve been, actually. He usually is now. It’s just there was some last hearing he had to go to himself today.”
“Really? What, is he suspended? Or promoted? I can’t always tell with FC,” Nesta muttered, looking away from Ricardo.
“No, he’s retiring,” Ricardo said, surprised. He flinched a little at the stare Nesta instantly turned on him, but didn’t blink. “He didn’t…I thought you knew. He did it because of what happened to you when he went back to Milan a couple weeks ago.”
Nesta’s stare increased in intensity till Ricardo almost wanted to put up a hand to see if his face was peeling. Then Cesc’s comment popped into his head and he almost giggled, of all things; he had to duck quickly and drink more tea to settle his nerves.
“If he is, it’s not for me.” The saucer on the table rattled as Nesta put his cup down on top of it. “Anything he can do now doesn’t affect me.”
“He is, and it is for you. It’s not about what it can do to change your life—I think that’s the last thing he ever wants to do again. But it’s still about you. He does these things because he’s thinking about what he did to you, not because—not because he’s thinking about what he wants to do with me.” Ricardo took a big gulp of tea, big enough to messily let a bit of it slip between his lip and the cup-rim. He hastily wiped that away with his fingers, then pushed the tip of his index finger into his mouth to bite at it. Then he pulled his hand down. “He’ll stop. He’ll get past you—I believe that, with all my heart. But you make it harder every time you show up. That’s why you frighten me.”
He was almost out of tea. All that remained in his cup was a pale tan sliver of liquid and a few dark specks floating around in it, swirling into strange confusing spirals. Then those shattered as Nesta abruptly exhaled.
The other man was looking at Ricardo again, gaze cooler but no less penetrating. “So why are you offering me tea? I mean, now—I know the first time you were just trying to stall me.”
“Because you don’t look all right.” Ricardo shrugged, feeling the awkwardness of the explanation but not able to offer a better alternative. “I don’t think Paolo deserves to spend his whole life unhappy—I don’t think you deserved what he did to you either. So I do feel sorry for you, but it’s not like…I’d like for you to stay that way. I don’t think anybody deserves to be unhappy forever. At the very least we all have God’s unconditional love, but I like to think…a person can be forgiven and loved by others, too. Whatever they are or have turned into, everyone’s still human beneath it.”
Nesta glanced at his hands, then back up at Ricardo. Then he leaned back against the sofa, bringing up his cast to lie across his belly while he pulled and rubbed at his face with his other hand. He pinched the bridge of his nose before abruptly dropping that hand to just stare out at the room, and for a moment he just looked…lost.
“Paolo’s coming,” Ricardo added quietly. “He’ll be here in maybe a half-hour, if you still want to talk to him.”
“You’re too good for him.” Rather sharply, Nesta pushed himself forward and took up his tea again. He tossed it back as if it was some stronger drink, then sat back again. Then he looked at Ricardo, a small dry smile playing about his mouth. “But honestly, I hope he keeps you. The damnable thing is I don’t want him unhappy either, even if that means I’ve got to write myself off as a failure there.”
Ricardo frowned, not quite understanding. He put his cup and saucer on the table.
Nesta’s eyes glittered, then went dark. Then he turned away, reaching for the TV remote on the side-table. “Kaká, once upon a time I thought I knew what was in the way between me and Paolo’s humanity, and I thought I could get past it. It didn’t happen. Though it wasn’t all his fault…I never even got past myself.”
He stretched out his arm and turned on the TV, then let his arm fall slackly against the couch. His chin went up a little, but its rigid lift only highlighted the slump of the rest of his body. Every inch of him seemed to be expecting some kind of blow, yet also too exhausted from the ones he’d already taken to put up a defense.
Ricardo took off his glasses and put his hands down on the cushions, shifting in place. Then he scooted down the sofa till he bumped into Nesta’s cast. The other man lifted it out of the way and Ricardo sensed a startled look being directed at him, but tried not to pay any attention to him. Before Nesta could put down his arm, Ricardo had wrapped his arms around the other man and rested his cheek against Nesta’s shoulder. He didn’t look up.
A sharp breath. The body beneath Ricardo tensed till it felt like he was lying on an iron statue…and then Nesta gradually relaxed. Something grazed Ricardo’s shoulder. Then Nesta put his hand down behind Ricardo. After a few seconds, he shifted his arm to very lightly curve across Ricardo’s back so the heavy cast was resting on the top of Ricardo’s hip, and then he let out a long, tired sigh. Suddenly sleepy himself, Ricardo closed his eyes and waited for Paolo to come home.
* * *
“I’m beginning to think he doesn’t like my nose,” Zlatan said, voice muffled beneath the giant icepack on his face.
Henrik suppressed a sigh and prodded Zlatan’s elbow. When the other man lifted the icepack, he quickly checked the black eye beneath it. “Well, he missed it and you’ve stopped bleeding. But you might have to use an injection to get the swelling down. Concealer isn’t going to do it by itself.”
Zlatan paused with the pack halfway down. Then he tossed that onto the kitchen counter and levered himself up till he was sitting on the edge of the table. “Henke, I’m not flying back tonight. What’s the rush, anyway? You said FC isn’t on alert and Nesta’s not about to start telling them anything.”
“But that’s still two more people who know what you look like and that you have some sort of connection to Nesta.” Which was not the correct word, but Henrik had gotten off work and promptly walked in on Zlatan digging about in his freezer. He wasn’t equipped, physically or mentally, for that discussion. “I already told you, his car-bombing wasn’t professional. It’s organized crime and unless you’re about to take on the godfather to The Godfather for the next hundred or so years, you can’t do anything about it.”
“Now who watches too many late-night movies?” Zlatan muttered. He started to rub at his eye, caught himself with a wince and laid back down. When Henrik dropped the icepack next to his elbow, he ignored it. “Well, something else is up. He was already here and he’s acting weird. I went through his luggage and no gun, no police ID, only one suit.”
Henrik opened his fridge and flipped open the butter compartment. After giving the syringes there a good long moment of consideration, he sighed and took out a stick of butter, some eggs and a head of cabbage. “Because he’s on vacation. He doesn’t get a pass to bring firearms over country borders.”
Getting out the other ingredients for dinner—thank God he’d gone to the grocery yesterday—took Henrik a few minutes. Then he began to get out a skillet and realized he hadn’t heard anything from Zlatan during all that time. He turned around, but Zlatan was still on his kitchen table.
“Vacation?” Zlatan repeated.
“Paid and official. Didn’t you check his status before you came over here?” Henrik asked.
“No, and don’t start on me. Mellberg fucked up and canned somebody he shouldn’t have, and I’ve been covering for him all week. I just got a moment to check and bam, first thing I see is Sandro’s car is blown up when he’s on fucking vacation. God, that son of a bitch has to make things so damn difficult. He could’ve just said.”
The icepack hit the floor at roughly the same time Zlatan disappeared onto the fire-escape. Henrik looked at it, thinking that he hadn’t gotten any warnings or apologies or farewells. Then he sighed and stooped to pick it up. His lower back twinged on the way up and he grimaced, pressing his hand to that, before turning to look at the food on the counter. After a moment’s thought, he put half of that back and took out his phone. At least now he could get Freddie over for dinner and explaining to him how an open-mic night worked.
* * *
Robin flopped onto the bed, arms out and eyes shut. “Thank God.”
The bed dipped near his waist, and then a hand started to push up his stomach. He shoved at it, then jerked his hand back when Jens tried to grab it. In reply Jens shoved his nose into Robin’s belly and rubbed at Robin’s knee, holding it down when Robin tried to use it to push off the other man.
“Oh, now you’re up again,” Robin muttered. “You’re comatose while I get you away from those perverted cousins of yours with the frosting, while I haul you in and out of the taxi, but—Jens, goddamn it. Jens.”
Jens continued to mouth around Robin’s bellybutton as he slowly wrenched the shirt-tails from Robin’s waistband, his tongue stabbing ticklishly down at the worst times. Or the most convenient for him, and Robin knew he hadn’t been that drunk. He’d—he—he was undoing Robin’s shirt-buttons with his teeth. Shit.
“I’m tired.” Robin squirmed as said teeth dug a bit too deeply. “You’ve been an asshole all day.” He pushed at Jens’ shoulder, then tried to roll out from beneath the other man. “Fuck, Jens—Maldini hasn’t called back yet. Maybe Nesta killed him.”
The other man raised himself and looked at Robin. His eyes were considering, but not in the usual ice-cold planning kind of way, or even the snapping blind rage kind. Instead they were…well, lust was definitely a big part of their warmth but that wasn’t what was weird. The part that threw Robin was the fact that Jens actually looked relaxed about it, like he was enjoying staring at Robin and wasn’t thinking about having to get back to work or how frustrated he was or really, anything except…he was staring at Robin’s throat in a way that almost made Robin cover it with an arm. Shit.
“I don’t think so,” Jens said. He wasn’t slurring his words much, and when he dove down he moved as fluidly as a cat.
Still, he wasn’t moving very quickly and the whole relaxed thing meant he was telegraphing his motions, so Robin should’ve been able to avoid him. Or at least not end up with his hands over his head, desperately trying to twist them out of the loops of cloth that were snaking tighter and tighter. And then Jens sucked at his neck and Robin stupidly groaned, and in a flash his wrists were tied and his collar was flapping open. He swore and yanked at his arms, then tried to pull up his legs and at least get off his back, but Jens was still licking at his neck in long, hard swipes that ended in knee-jelling swirls just beneath Robin’s jaw, and…and he was losing. He was losing and Jens’ hands were running down his sides to just slip fingertips beneath his waistband, and they were starting to convince him that wasn’t totally a bad thing.
“He wasn’t wearing a tie.” Jens nibbled at Robin’s ear while stroking two long fingers exasperatingly short of Robin’s prick. Then he scooted back, for some hellish reason, and stared at Robin again. “I think this is the first time I’ve left a family gathering vertically in years.”
“More like at sixty degrees, and that was just because—” Robin hissed as Jens ducked down, licked at the top of his breastbone, and rose again “—Conny held up your head.”
Jens cocked his head. “Did I say thank-you to her?”
To her? For a moment, Jens’ hands in his trousers notwithstanding, Robin almost spat at him. Fine, Conny didn’t treat Robin like a newly-discovered species and had a wicked sense of humor, but—but Jens would fucking think about thanking her right now? “You are such a bastard sometimes.”
“I like fucking you a lot better than crawling to bed drunk and depressed,” Jens suddenly said, casual as all hell. He nibbled along the right side of Robin’s collarbone, popped up again for another stare, and then bent to run his tongue around Robin’s right nipple. “You know, Conny and I almost got married?”
When he said that, Robin had been in the middle of arching up into his mouth and so Robin almost threw out his back coming back down. “What?”
“Well, she had her kids from her first marriage and she wasn’t sure if she could support them by herself, and my parents were getting on my nerves. We thought we could work out some arrangement.” Jens pressed down hard on Robin’s nipple with his tongue, then swirled that away and bit hard at the pebbled-up flesh. His hands did something that suddenly loosened Robin’s trousers around the hips and let Robin’s frantic jerking at least do a bit towards getting that out of the way. “But then she got a great job and I got recalled to FC’s headquarters, and thank God. She’s understanding, but I respect her too much to force her into a double life, so I would’ve had to divorce her.”
“What?” Robin gasped.
Jens sighed and lifted his head while rolling his eyes. “What do you think? I’m not married to you, but it’s the same thing. I couldn’t have lived with you and her.”
Then he went down again, and for a couple minutes Robin tried to string together a response, but Jens kept—petting him and licking him and then Jens started stripping, and Robin really, honestly almost yelled at him to knock it off. Because it really felt like Robin should say something, only…only he couldn’t think of anything even remotely good enough. God. That even made up for leaving him to the mercies of those horny female cousins of Jens.
“I’m drunk, Robin,” Jens murmured, nuzzling Robin’s neck. His prick slid up Robin’s thigh and Robin automatically hitched up his knees; Jens absently mouthed one that came near his head before pushing himself in. “Call me a bastard tomorrow morning, when I’ll feel like one anyway. Right now I want to fuck you.”
“So fuck me.” Robin forced his shoulders down into the bed and pressed himself onto Jens as far as he could, tipping back his head. “Oh, God, please, yes.”
* * *
“Ricky?” Paolo called, opening the door. He dropped his briefcase the moment he was through the doorway, then caught himself and made himself pause long enough to shut the door. Then he went through the quiet, dark apartment with a sick clenching feeling in his gut. “Ricky?”
“You’re going to wake him up,” said Sandro’s voice.
Paolo came to a stop so suddenly his shoe skidded on the tile. He turned his head, and then he slowly went into the living room, only to stop about a meter inside next to the couch.
Sandro looked up at him, expression carefully noncommittal. On his shoulder was Ricardo’s tousled head, and the rest of Ricardo was slackly draped around Sandro’s side, with the slow lift and fall of his ribs the only movement from him. He looked comfortable.
“Actually, I wouldn’t mind that because my shoulder is numb and he’s drooling, but I don’t know how he takes to being shaken and I didn’t want you to walk in and get the wrong impression,” Sandro dryly added.
“He’s not violent, if that’s what you mean.” After another moment, Paolo rounded the table and took a seat on the free end of the couch. He absently noted the remote balanced on top of one of the two tea-cups out on the table. “So…”
“I found some things of yours I still had. God knows how. Boxed them up and brought them here.” When Sandro lifted his arm from around Ricardo, his eyes went to the cast on his wrist. Then they moved past it to Paolo, and then the other man turned away. “Someone’s apparently trying to kill me again—probably not anyone you know. I’m on paid leave.”
Paolo loosened his tie, then pulled it over his head and looped the strip of silk around his left hand. “I would’ve thought you’d mail the box and spend your vacation somewhere more—”
“Relaxing? Paolo, I haven’t had a vacation that wasn’t due to a hospital stay or government holiday since…since I went back to Italy, I think. Anyway, I didn’t ask for it. They blackmailed me into it.” Sandro smiled at nothing as he tipped back his head. Once it touched the top of the sofa, he half-closed his eyes and the smile slipped away. “I was a basket case before the end of the first day. I scrubbed down my apartment and then took the first goddamn excuse I found to come see you again.”
“I always said you worked too hard,” Paolo stalled. He hadn’t known what to expect after Van Persie’s phone call, but even his worst-case imaginings hadn’t stretched to encompass this.
“That was when you were trying to fuck me so I didn’t notice you were tampering with my witnesses.”
Paolo reached up and pinched at his left shoulder just where it joined his neck. Then he slid his fingers beneath his jacket and eased that off to swing between his knees. “Yes, but it was and is still a valid observation. It wasn’t just flattery when I was telling you you were more than your work, if you’d ever bothered to find out for yourself.”
A great gust of air expelled itself from Sandro’s lips, though he didn’t move his head. “I’m over thirty and yet when I need to talk to somebody about what a mess I am, I show up at your damned door. I didn’t even want to see you, you know. Or—” he jerked his chin towards Ricardo “—who’s entirely too nice and who just reminds me of all the chances I missed. But I can’t see anyone else. Even if they could completely understand it, explaining things would take too long.”
“And I’m sorry that what I’ve done before makes this so painful for you. But Sandro, I never…even when I didn’t know how I felt about you, I never did want to just break things off. I didn’t want to just have you disappear for eight years,” Paolo slowly said. He rubbed at the side of his face, then tossed his tie and coat on the table and pressed his fingertips into his temple. “Admittedly, back then it was self-preservation—if you were still going to be in town and prosecuting against FC after we ended things, I didn’t want a bad break-up to add to that. Of course I know that sounds hypocritical, and this will too—I don’t know if it’s possible now, but I’ll always be open to trying friendship.”
For a worryingly long time, nothing came from Sandro’s direction. Paolo dared a look, but the other man was simply staring into space, no particular expression on his face. He didn’t move when Paolo turned further, or when Paolo gently began unwinding Ricardo’s arms from around him. Ricardo stirred a little when his head was lifted off Sandro’s shoulder, but seemed to find Paolo’s own an acceptable substitute and quickly settled himself again.
“I don’t like myself very much,” Sandro suddenly said. He snorted, as if he didn’t believe himself. “I can see you’re more likable now but I still don’t really like you, and I hate what you did to me. But when I’m not working, Paolo? I start thinking about what I did to myself, with the excuse that it was to better stand up to you, and I hate it even worse.”
“You did what you had—”
Sandro irritably tossed his head, then pulled himself forward to rest his elbows on his knees. He pushed his face into his hand and breathed in and out a few times before his shoulders abruptly sagged. When he spoke, his voice was completely devoid of any trace of anger, bitterness, or anything related to pride. “It’s just that you and my family are the only ones who remember what I used to be like, and family’s biased. But was I ever anything…could I have been…”
Paolo drew in a breath. Without thinking he looked down at Ricardo’s dark head, at the little glints in the black waves. Then he looked back up, into Sandro’s eyes and that face whose years had suddenly been shaved away by the shadows. “Sandro, you were beautiful. You still are.”
At first he wasn’t sure if Sandro would believe him, so long and hard did the other man stare at him. But very, very slowly, like a cloud slipping off the moon, he saw it.
Then Sandro ducked away. He looked at his hands twisting around each other, and when he looked back at Paolo, he was thirty-one and injured and unflinching again. “It’d be so much easier if I could hate you, instead of just dislike you. Though you know, if you do what you did to me to him, I think I will hate you.”
“If I ever do that again, I’ll kill myself. Because he won’t leave like you did,” Paolo said. He felt Ricardo move, then realized he’d tightened his grip on the other man and loosened that.
“Well, I hope you at least tell him he’s got a nice ass more often,” Sandro muttered, starting to get up. Judging from his face, that hadn’t actually been meant for Paolo’s ears and it wasn’t going to get explained either. “I need to go find a hotel…”
Paolo temporarily forgot Ricardo as he sat up and had to scramble a bit to keep him from falling to the floor. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve got a guest bedroom, and I did hear you say someone’s trying to kill you. I want to talk about that.”
“Like last time?” Eyebrow arched, Sandro looked mulish.
He wasn’t the only one who could be stubborn, and it looked like Paolo was a bit fresher. After a moment, Sandro sat back down with a put-upon sigh. He drummed his fingers on his knees, then started to rise again.
“I’m paying for my own dinner, anyway. Does he eat pasta?” he said, nodding towards Ricardo.
He didn’t wait for an answer, but instead disappeared into the kitchen, presumably to phone in their order. Since Paolo still kept those numbers in the same place on the fridge, he let Sandro go.
“…Paolo?” Ricardo blinked owlishly up at him. Then comprehension and memory returned and Ricardo’s eyes went wide. “Oh! Nesta—”
“He’s in the kitchen.” Paolo kissed Ricardo’s forehead, then pressed his cheek to the spot. “He’s…I invited him to stay the night. At least. I’ve never seen him in this kind of mood before.”
After a moment, Ricardo shifted to let his head lie on Paolo’s shoulder. His hand slipped around Paolo’s fingers, then curled tight. “Earlier he was even…um, Paolo? Did you come in while I was…well, I didn’t know what else to do so I hugged him, and then I think I fell asleep.”
“You did, and I think you drooled on him,” Paolo said, smiling. When Ricardo’s head shot up, he darted in for a quick kiss. “I’m sorry I didn’t get back sooner.”
“It doesn’t matter. You’re home now,” Ricardo replied, kissing back.
* * *
Alessandro was lying awake for a good hour before he heard anything. He sat up and looked around the dimly-light room, then threw back the covers and got off the bed. After ducking into the hallway and—thankfully—not hearing any noise, he went over to the window and opened it. Then he leaned against the sill and waited. And waited.
He checked his watch, then grimaced. “Zlatan, either get down here or go away. I didn’t sleep on the train and I’m tired.”
“Or what? You’ll not phone it in?” A moment later, the room darkened considerably as Zlatan’s bulk filled up most of the window. He swung in one leg and grabbed the top of the window, his grin brighter by far than the moon weakly shining behind him and almost making Alessandro miss his black eye. “You could’ve said your asshole of a boss was threatening you with suspension if you did anything.”
“If you knew my car got blown up, you should’ve been able to find that out,” Alessandro snorted, crossing his arms. It was a warm night, but a slight breeze was coming in through the window and making the hairs on his arms stand up. And Zlatan was staring openly at his bare chest and much as he hated to give the other man the satisfaction, it was unnerving. “Lippi’s not an asshole. He’s a very good director and he cares about his people. I respect him.”
Zlatan appeared to absorb that in all seriousness. “Even when he’s cutting you off?”
“He probably was right to do that…and anyway, why do you care? Shouldn’t you be overjoyed I can’t do anything to you?” Alessandro backed up a little, shaking his head as the wind blew a few strands into his eyes.
“Sandro, if I cared about how safe I was around you, I’d just not come around,” Zlatan snorted. He ducked his head in through the window, but otherwise stayed put. “Anyway, what I like about you is that you’ll get out there and pull shit. When you’re just sitting around and moping, you’re pretty pathetic.”
“You like a man who’s tried to shoot you more times than he’s let you fuck him.”
“At least I’ve got a sense of self-respect and I don’t fuck people to fuck myself over.”
Alessandro bit down hard on his lip and dug his nails into his palms. He turned away and looked at the bedroom door, thinking for a moment about calling out. Or about pretending to lunge for it, and while Zlatan was distracted, grabbing the lamp from the bedside table and smashing it over his head. Or being honest with himself, now that he’d been made to have a chance to do that.
“You actually like me?” he said.
The sill creaked and bent as Zlatan stepped onto it, then put his feet down so he could sit on it. Now he looked wary. “You know, I don’t know what’s your problem, with the coming to see the asshole ex all the time and having more people after your neck than I even have, but do you at least get that people usually want to fuck people they like? And you’re such a pain in the ass to get to that I’d better like you, to go through all this trouble.”
“Because you’re an idiot,” Alessandro muttered. He squeezed at his biceps and took a step forward. Then he took another step, so he was standing in front of Zlatan, and he unfolded his arms. He lifted his hands, hesitated, and then put them on Zlatan’s shoulders. “I’m on vacation. Don’t make me think about this.”
“God, no. You do that too much by yourself.” Though Zlatan waited till Alessandro had nearly leaned all the way before he suddenly slid forward, his mouth coming down hard on Alessandro’s.
His hands came up faster, slipping so fast over Alessandro’s back that he almost doubted he’d felt the touch. The grab at his hips and then ass he definitely felt, and surprised himself by groaning just at that much. But—he wasn’t thinking now; he’d done plenty of that already today. So he just let the feeling dictate things, bending up into the grasp and throwing his arm around Zlatan’s neck. His tongue ran over Zlatan’s teeth, then dropped beyond them and Zlatan opened his mouth wide, almost trying to bite into Alessandro’s whole chin.
They suddenly pivoted. Caught off-guard, Alessandro reflexively tightened his hold on Zlatan and as his back was pushed up against the wall, a low laugh skimmed up the side of his neck. Zlatan’s hand was already pressing between his legs, fingering his balls and rolling over his cock through the thin fabric of his sweat-pants. He could feel the other man’s erection beginning to rise into his belly and he arched, rubbing himself against it, and was rewarded with a sudden start from Zlatan.
Then Zlatan rasped his mouth down the side of Alessandro’s throat, throwing his whole weight against Alessandro. “And what’s with fucking in your ex’s houses?”
Alessandro grunted at the sudden pressure. His cast had gotten trapped between them and was twisting his shoulder rather painfully; he strained his fingers and scratched hard at Zlatan’s chest, and when the other man jerked away, pulled that arm up and around to bang it into the back of Zlatan’s neck. Zlatan bit his lower lip and Alessandro hissed, pushing his hips up into the other man. With his other hand he shoved at his sweat-pants, but Zlatan was too close to let him push those down. “They’re nicer than a cheap hotel.”
Zlatan laughed again, then pushed his hand down Alessandro’s pants and wrapped it around Alessandro’s cock. Then he leaned back in, kissing Alessandro hard and deep while his hand worked Alessandro first straining, then breathless and finally helpless, too weak to force Zlatan back or to push things to their conclusion. Alessandro just gripped Zlatan’s shoulders and neck and tried to stay standing.
When Zlatan finally backed off, Alessandro’s knees gave way and Zlatan had to help pin him up with a shoulder. The other man dealt with his own clothes in a few sharp jerks and some cursing, then grabbed Alessandro’s thighs and pulled him out of the sweat-pants puddling around his feet. Whatever he came up with to ease the way was sticky and had a pungent smell that momentarily cut the haze and touched Alessandro’s rational mind, and he did wonder how thick the walls were and how in the morning—but then Zlatan shoved him up the wall, so high Zlatan’s mouth skimmed Alessandro’s left nipple, and by the time Alessandro had worked himself back down, mouth-level with Zlatan and strained around the man’s cock, he was back to not thinking. Not thinking, just flesh and blood writhing around a lashing core of heat, with Zlatan’s sweaty hair in his mouth and no sourness at all.
That came a little later, when they were lying on the floor and Alessandro had to keep dragging Zlatan’s head back up because the other man kept licking and sucking at the splatters streaking the insides of Alessandro’s thighs. Then he could taste it when he kissed the other man, when he moved and ached not only in his groin but in his wrist and head as well.
“I saw this cartoon the other night,” Zlatan suddenly said. “There was this dog and this wolf, and every morning they’d punch in for work and spend the day beating the shit out of each other. Then they’d punch out, and they were all friendly till the next morning.”
Alessandro squeezed his eyes shut, but felt Zlatan’s head moving down his stomach again and opened them. He tried to twist so he wasn’t facing the other man, but ran out of breath. “Stop doing that. Paolo’s down the goddamn hall, and I’m not explaining the floor on top of the wall.”
“You might be on a break, but I’m self-employed. I don’t get days off, really.” Zlatan licked insistently at Alessandro’s stomach, sliding with Alessandro’s turn. His hand closed over Alessandro’s cast. “For a moment I really thought you were dead.”
Alessandro glanced down, but all he saw was the top of Zlatan’s head. He looked at the ceiling. “I’m on vacation till next Friday. Then I’m going back to work, and if people want to kill me, I’d like to see them try.”
“Wish I could see that. It’d probably be fun,” Zlatan said, raising his head. He looked oddly wistful, and right then younger than Kaká. When Alessandro reached out to touch his bruised eye, he flinched before he grinned and snapped up to suck that finger into his mouth. But then he let Alessandro pull it away. He began to sit up. “I have to leave in a second and I don’t really want to have to concuss you again. You’re probably two steps from a vegetable already, the way you work.”
“So don’t. I’m on vacation,” Alessandro said more sharply. He paused, then rolled over and pulled himself out from beneath the other man. Without looking back, he toed up his sweat-pants and then stumbled towards the bed. “Close the window.”
He let himself fall face-forward. The cool sheets billowed up around him, then settled. Everything was quiet.
Alessandro counted to thirty before he looked. Zlatan was gone, but the damn window—oh, it was warm enough. He dragged himself the rest of the way onto the bed and just closed his eyes. He’d shut it in the morning.
Something jingled, soft but adamant.
Groaning, Alessandro elbowed his way over to the side of the bed and groped around till the jingling stopped. He put his cell-phone to his ear. “What?”
*Sir? Sorry, did I wake you?*
Alessandro lifted his head. “Gila?”
*Sir, I’m not supposed to be doing this and I don’t have a lot of time, but I thought you’d want to know—Stockholm sent you something again. It’s on a Zlatan Ibrahimović. I didn’t look any more and nobody else knows it came in, so…*
“Thank you, Alberto. I really appreciate this. Now, have it overnighted to—” And Alessandro stopped there, staring at his cast. He thought for a long moment, and then he took a deep breath. “—I suppose my apartment’s a crime scene right now?”
*Yes, though Rino’s making sure that nobody messes with your stuff—*
“Tell him thanks for me. Just…hold onto that file till I come back,” Alessandro finally said. He laid back down, rubbing at his eyes. His thumb slid towards the ‘end call’ button…then moved back. “Gila, how’s the investigation on the car-bombing going?”
There was some quick breathing on the other end of the line. Then, reluctantly: *We have a couple leads, but only one that seems really plausible. You remember the…sir, I can tell you but please, please don’t come back till Lippi says it’s all right. I really think these people mean business.*
“I’m staying on vacation till I’m officially cleared to return, Gila. So just tell me what’s going on over there.” Alessandro rolled over onto his back, pushing away the fatigue, and got ready to listen very carefully.