|Lover I Don’t Have to Love
Author: Guede Mazaka
Much as Robbie would’ve loved to think otherwise, he knew he wasn’t going to get to walk out—oh, excuse him, hobble out—on MU just like that. At the very least, the bastards were going to kick up a fuss over the two weeks’ notice clause, and then he expected a couple other niggling suits thrown in just because Fergie fucking hated it when anybody had the bollocks or the foresight or both and fired themselves. It spoiled all the fun for him, probably.
Well, Robbie had mentally flicked a lot of birds that direction since he’d gotten home. He was well enough off to not really need those two weeks’ wages or the rest of the severance package, and as for the legal nuisances…he’d come back to find some of the regular roustabouts in the pubs had grown up and made themselves a pretty good living in that field. Good enough to take on Fergie’s second team, anyway, and with all the hell that had to be breaking loose after Van Persie’s rampage, Ferguson wasn’t going to waste a top solicitor on fucking Robbie Savage.
So yeah. Nothing Robbie couldn’t handle, he figured. Till one day he walked out of Gamst’s kitchen with a jar of Marmite and a couple pieces of half-stale toast—bit crunchy, but still edible—and the fucking front door crashed to the ground. Didn’t blow up a big cloud of dust because Gamst was a bit of a neatnik and anyway the room was carpeted, but…Robbie winced, quickly searched his memory for where the nearest hefty blunt object was, and then swallowed his mouthful of toast. Fuck, he’d left the crutches in the kitchen. “Rio! Doorbell! Use the doorbell!”
Since there wasn’t any dust, there also wasn’t anything to delay or muddle Robbie’s sight of the other man. Rio just stood there, one fist half-raised, blinking like a bloody cow. “What?”
Granted, that had been a bit of an odd response, but it had been relevant. And given the shock to Robbie’s nerves, not the worst one he couldn’t come up with. Now that he’d had some time to adjust, he took it slow in edging over to the coat-closet. “What do you think, you inconsiderate git? This isn’t even my house, and here you go again, just knocking in doors and…and you’ve splintered up the fucking door-frame, Rio. A load of half-arsed drama doesn’t make half the impact that the hassle of getting a new door in—”
Eyes rolling, Rio stepped in around the door and bent down to pick it up. He heaved it onto one end, then leaned it against the wall in exaggerated care. “Stop blathering, Robbie. Like you’d open it otherwise once you saw who was on the step.”
“And I think I’d be very sensible not to,” Robbie snapped. “Where do you—back off, Rio. I mean it.”
“Sensible? What was that fucking phone-call? You tell me you’ve a broken leg courtesy of Van Persie, after we’d just cleared you of his set-up, and you’re leaving? That’s about as sensible as—”
Rio lifted his foot. Robbie shoved his hand behind himself, grabbed the closet door-knob, and got himself a…nine-iron. Okay. It occurred to him that he’d never ever seen Gamst even tune into a golf broadcast, and then it occurred to him that that was interesting but not really important. He swung up the club in front of himself. “Across the room, Rio.”
The other man stared at Robbie, then at the golf club, mouth half-twisted like Rio wanted to laugh, but wasn’t quite sure if he could. “Savage, have you completely lost your mind? It sure as hell looks it…look at you, stumbling around some other bloke’s house in your sweats with fucking Marmite in your hand.”
“That’s because sweats fit over the bloody cast,” Robbie snapped back. Though he could see the point about the Marmite. He would’ve put it down, except he couldn’t remember right now which pieces of furniture were close enough and he was damned if he was going to look around for a spot like a right twit. “I quit, Rio. I can’t stand it anymore—”
“Like hell you can’t. Get a couple of pints in you, then we’ll see what your real opinion—”
“Shut your fucking gob, you oversized Doberman. I’m serious, and this isn’t something you can just—stay over there--”
“If you really meant it you wouldn’t need me to stay—”
A door slammed somewhere else. Both Rio and Robbie shut up, straining their ears to try and figure out who it might be. Robbie had been around long enough to know it’d been the back-door, but that didn’t mean too much. Everybody and their neighbor always came in the back to Gamst’s place; it was how they knew to start stuffing the incriminating evidence under the sofa cushions when somebody knocked on the front.
“Is it that Norwegian porcupine who came to visit you the last time you threw a hissy-fit?” Rio suddenly said. Normal volume, casual contemptuous tone. Not exactly the kind of combination to improve Robbie’s mood. “This is his place, isn’t it?”
And Robbie’s mood was…well, beneath the irritation at the door and the slight lingering shock of Rio’s appearance, it was just goddamn disgusted. Disgusted in a really worn-out, resigned way. “Oh, don’t pull that jealous shite on me, Rio. Even if Gamst wasn’t nice enough to have a spare room waiting for me, I still would’ve gone. I was sick of it. It’s not what I do.”
“What?” Rio oh-so-intelligently asked.
Whoever had come in was coming towards them and would be through the doorway in another minute, but Robbie didn’t really give a fuck. Yeah, fine, he was having a bloody domestic with bloody Ferdinand. But he meant it this time, wasn’t playing hard-to-get, so to hell with bystanders. “Worrying about my legal status. Worrying about fucking Van Persie hacking me, trying to figure out all the time how to get ahead of him. Worrying about who else is going to be in the pub or club every time I walk in. I don’t like it, and it’s not my bloody job anyway.”
Rio blinked a few times, then laughed incredulously. He absently pulled the side of his suit-jacket so it was hanging straight. “Am I supposed to believe that line of bullshit? Because last I checked, you were known for leaving little nasty surprises at all your former employers.”
“Because I was angry, you twat. Not because I enjoyed it much—not like having a good beer, a football match on the telly and somebody to fuck afterwards,” Robbie said. He sighed and started to lower the golf club without thinking. Then he jacked it back up when something creaked behind him. “Look, I do computers. I’m not somebody’s fucking foot-soldier. I don’t like it, I don’t get any kick out of it, and so far all it’s gotten me is a hell of a lot of shite.”
Somebody was standing in the doorway to Robbie’s right, but surprisingly enough, Rio wasn’t even checking that. He just kept staring at Robbie like…like…Santa wasn’t real, or some sentimental shite like that.
“It’s nothing personal. It just isn’t me.” Robbie shifted his weight, then shifted it right back when his cast started to send him off-balance. He grimaced and leaned back against the wall, then pulled up the leg of his sweats to scratch around the cast’s top. God, when it came off he was going to spend a good ten minutes just scratching. “So if you came here to kick my arse, I’d appreciate it if you don’t get all weepy about it. If it’s just because Fergie’s a sore loser and—”
“Your arse is not getting—” Gamst heatedly started from the hall. There was a bit of flailing at the edge of Robbie’s vision, and then somebody telling Gamst to shut up, obviously this was between Robbie and the dogface.
Rio finally glanced over, eyebrows coolly raised. “Ta. Sink-scrubs what you’re into nowadays as well, Robbie?”
Oh…Bentley. Davey had a good brain on his neck and hopefully would deal with Morten. “Now that’s just pathetic. You don’t honestly think that your prick by itself was going to keep me panting over at MU, did you? Jesus, Rio, the sex was fucking good. That’s all. And anyway, what the hell are you doing here? I’d think if Fergie was going to send somebody after me, it’d be Neville or Vidic. They wouldn’t bloody stand around talking me to death.”
“They’d—” Rio started, one hand coming up.
He jerked forward, Robbie tightened his grip on the golf club, and in the hall there was another scuffle. Then Rio stopped and shook his head, shoulders slumping. He started to laugh, a bit bitter and beneath his breath, and still was when he lifted his hand and swiped the back of it over his mouth. “Ah, fuck. Put that fucking club down, Savage. Fergie’s got bigger things on his mind right now and he’s just written you off—he’s already hired a replacement. And actually I’m on vacation. Should be hitting the club scene, but no, I’m…watching you swing a bloody putter around.”
“It’s an iron, you uncultured git,” Robbie said. It looked like Rio really meant it, but even so, Robbie wasn’t about to bet on it.
Even if Rio really…he always slouched around, lazily drawling out of only the one half of his mouth, but right now the way his shoulders sloped looked distinctly uncomfortable. And his snickering was the kind of snickering you did when you really wanted to crawl off somewhere and figure out how to deal with a bunch of shite without everybody watching how messy and awkward it was, but couldn’t. It actually made Robbie feel sorry for him a little.
“You broke the fucking door down when you could’ve been off getting drunk and laid?” he asked.
Rio rolled his eyes, not too impressed with Robbie’s sympathy. Then he shoved his hands in his pockets and idly looked around. “Look, I’ll leave a check for that. Now can I get a drink before I go? Think you at least owe me that for going like you did—no, Robbie, I’m not crying over you, but you could’ve fucking stayed long enough for me to say sorry about Van Persie.”
Robbie blinked. Coughed hard, which cut off his first, very irreverent and probably very bad reply. Then he looked over at the doorway; Morten looked back with a half-nervous, half-disgruntled expression, but it seemed like he was leaving it all up to Robbie.
In the end, Robbie couldn’t help it: he had to know what that meant. “All right, one beer. Long as you don’t break anything else. Swear to God, it’s like nobody ever taught you what those funny round things sticking out round about waist-height on a door were for…”
* * *
The change of scenery was no magic cure, but at the beginning of his second week in Madrid, Ruud decided it definitely helped. He didn’t have to worry about accidentally stumbling into Cristiano—the fear-hope that the other man would come after him was still around, but had receded a bit—and his face-to-face with Cesc or Raúl was delayed as well. Maybe even forever.
Well, no, life was never that easy. Ruud suppressed a snort at himself as he spun his glass around by its stem, watching the dark red wine dregs spin. But at least, he was hoping, he wouldn’t have to deal with it till enough time had passed so that Raúl wouldn’t want to kill him at first sight. Cutting Ruud dead in public and refusing to treat him wouldn’t be pleasant, but would be something with which Ruud could live. And he did want to; no matter how bad he felt, he still didn’t feel the temptation to deal with it the way…the way José had.
He restlessly scraped his heel a few times against the floor, then called for the check. There was still food on his plate and it’d been a pricy dinner, but his appetite wasn’t strong enough now to keep him from sinking into a brood. And damn it, he was going to get some work done. He wasn’t in the same city as Cristiano, he had no shared memories of this place with the other man, and…and in fact, he’d never been here for FC before so nothing should really remind him of any of that.
A quick glance at his watch told Ruud that it still was ridiculously early to start checking out bands. But he couldn’t just sit around, so after he’d paid his bill, he spent a few minutes in the restaurant’s foyer consulting a friendly waitress on a map of the area. Then he set out on foot to the entertainment district; it was a forty-minute walk and normally he’d take a cab, but he thought the exertion might just distract him enough.
It wasn’t that hot, but it was humid and it wasn’t long before Ruud had stuffed his tie in a pocket and slung his suit-jacket over his shoulder. He looked a little more like a local that way, though his height alone kept him from being completely excluded from the tourist-category. Curbside hawkers trailed him a bit longer than they did others, and tended to get a bit closer for that first approach as well.
Well, it wasn’t that bad. Actually, it was a refreshing change from everyone knowing who he was and who he worked for, and always trying to slip him demos. Getting harassed for straightforward business transactions, his money for their goods, was refreshing.
Ruud stopped, then laughed under his breath and shook his head. His mind really wasn’t a nice place to be right now, and he couldn’t blame Cristiano for not wanting to stick through it. He—he gave his head another jerk, looking around for something to take his thoughts in a different direction, and saw some sort of big party on the street. It was sort of on his way, so he wandered over for a closer look.
Once he got closer, he could see it was actually centered in a restaurant, but people had spilled out onto the curb and local vendors had been quick to take advantage of the potential market. He bought an iced drink in a paper cup from one and sipped from it as he wandered around the crowd’s edge. Maybe it was a birthday party, maybe it was a wedding…who knew. Who really cared—the people laughing and dancing and falling against each other certainly didn’t. They were just enjoying themselves.
And for a couple minutes so did Ruud, but then he started to notice likenesses in the dark hair, big liquid eyes, straight dark brows…he abruptly pivoted on his heel and walked on, not needing the reminder. José hadn’t been happy when he’d crossed Ruud’s path, that’d been obvious enough, but he’d had a life and was coping with it. He hadn’t been reduced to a shattered little ruin yet.
Ruud debated a bit on how much of that could be assigned to José’s free will, then just gave up on pretenses and walked straight to the first club. The change of environment helped, but only so much, and apparently tonight was going to be a shitty one. He should’ve scheduled in a few upbeat groups, but he’d done most of those yesterday and was doing the last two tomorrow.
The band in which he was interested was going on in another hour, and the immediate neighborhood didn’t look interesting enough for Ruud to waste that time walking around it. He was tempted to apply alcohol to the problem, but in the end he just ordered a selection of tapas and settled in a dark back corner, pacing himself by nibbling them into geometric shapes.
That worked for about twenty minutes. Then the one glass of wine from dinner suddenly turned oddly in Ruud’s stomach. He breathed in and out slowly, waiting for a confirmation, and unfortunately got it. The one advantage of being this early was that there was no line for the toilets.
He splashed his mouth with some sink-water that tasted oddly metallic, then slowly walked back out with one hand on the wall for extra balance. Ruud didn’t think it was real food poisoning, but he’d still be feeling more than a little—he nearly ran into somebody, then stepped back. “Sorry. I…don’t see you,” he said in broken Spanish.
The bathroom was quite brightly lit but the hallway wasn’t lighted at all, so at first all Ruud could make out was a vague shape that was shorter than him. It moved slightly, closer to the wall, and spoke in English. “You have a Portuguese accent in Spanish.”
Ruud froze. Then he squeezed his eyes shut, hard so white stars appeared on the backs of his eyelids, and after counting to five, he opened them.
José was there in place of the shape, details now somewhat filled in. The whites of his eyes were shockingly brilliant compared to the rest of him, which faded easily into the shadows. He looked up at Ruud, then nervously over his shoulder as somebody in the main room shouted.
A fragment of memory surfaced. “Part of Cesc—your family’s from here,” Ruud said.
“I’m staying with my cousin—Fernando. The one who…punched you.” When José turned his head back, he kept it down so his gaze was aimed at Ruud’s neck. “He’s not here. He’s working.”
“Did your parents throw you out?” Ruud asked. Then he shook himself hard and pushed off of the wall, moving to get around the other man. “Never mind. I shouldn’t even be talking to you…I’ll leave.”
José pivoted to watch, but didn’t stop Ruud. He chewed on his lip and ducked his head a few times, like he was swallowing down what he wanted to say, and he just…kept…staring, gaze raising a sunburn on Ruud’s skin that till now Ruud had gladly avoided. Ruud slowed, then gritted his teeth and kept on walking.
* * *
Robbie pulled over a spare chair, then hauled up his cast with both hands onto its seat. He sat back and idly prodded his bottle out of its little pool of condensation before noticing what Rio was looking at. “Yeah, I wasn’t lying about that.”
Rio looked up quickly, as if embarrassed to be caught staring at the ankle-end of the cast—or maybe it was Bentley’s charming little message in purple marker there that did it—then turned around and swigged at his beer. He swiveled his shoulders a few times, then flinched a little; one hand crept up to gingerly cover the top of his left arm. “Sorry. Really. It—you weren’t ever supposed to get put into that sort of position. If it…makes you feel any better, Van Persie riled up half the city that night. Hasn’t been seen out since and rumor is that Lehmann’s grounded him for fear of his life.”
The fridge didn’t seem to be working right again, as Davey had just pulled their bottles from it but already Robbie’s was on the warm side. Not wanting to waste it, he took a good, long, thoughtful drink. “Did I or didn’t I say I just don’t give a shit anymore? I mean, yeah, if that Dutch arse and I ever end up in the same bus terminal I’ll take a bloody swing at him, but it’s not like I’m feeling I need to launch some crusade.”
“He broke your—”
“My leg. Yeah. I’d noticed,” Robbie snorted, rolling his eyes. He got a bit of hair in them and brushed it out of the way before taking another drink. “And I’m fucking thirty-two. It’s depressing.”
“He dropped a good stone,” Morten said. For some reason, he came walking through the kitchen, jaw visibly set slightly off-edge. He shot Rio a dirty look, opened the fridge, did something in there, and then closed the door and walked back to the doorway, where Bentley was looking embarrassed and exasperated while doing some frantic hand-waving.
Robbie slouched lower in his seat. Gamst was a wonderful seaside vacation after the frenetic booby-trapped rat-race that had been Robbie’s FC-MU experience, but sometimes he just really…Robbie reluctantly nodded in response to Rio’s questioning glance. “Thanks for the apology. But honestly, if you really thought that everybody was going to do their job and exactly their job and nothing but their job…well, where the hell have you been? The entertainment field’s never been like that. Everybody working in it are neurotic greedy wankers who’re professional at taking things personally.”
Rio pressed his lips together, turning away. Once or twice he sat up like he’d thought of a response, but then he’d slack back again. He absently rubbed at the side of his cheek, then flinched and jerked his hand away. Then he tried to put it back, but not before Robbie had gotten a good look at the scab over the cheekbone. And the skin-colored smears.
It was hard to suppress the laughter, and not in the least because Robbie didn’t really feel like being that kind. But he managed to keep it down to just a few chuckles. “Jesus Christ, Rio. Is that concealer? What’s next, you donning eyeliner and fake lashes for the drag bars?”
“Go to hell, Savage,” Rio growled. He sunk lower, till his head was below Robbie’s, and glowered at his fingers as he rubbed the concealer traces between them. Then he sighed and shook his head. “Fuck, already had plenty of trouble with the police just because I was going a tad over the bloody speed limit…forgot it’s so boring out here that they’d got nothing else to do. Didn’t need to look like the poster-boy for urban violence, too.”
The scab looked pretty thick—thick enough to be raised off the rest of the skin. Which meant it was probably old enough to…“He visit you or something? That why you’re so damn eager to have me back? You want the company, because I bet the rest of the lads were giving you hell for getting whipped again by—”
“Fuck you.” Rio ran two fingertips along one eyebrow, then pulled back his head so he could rest it on his knuckles. He stared at the rim of his beer bottle while his foot scraped across the floor. “No, didn’t see him. I had to deal with a bunch of displaced disgruntled Irishmen, and I was doing fine with their fat arses. Then I ran into this big black Frenchie, and he…look, it wasn’t always like this. It was crazy, yeah, but there were—I was just doing my job back then. Do some paperwork during the day, handle the rough stuff Friday and Saturday night. Now it’s every night.”
Robbie looked him over once, and then again, but Rio sounded…well, he sounded maudlin and whiny like an old twit bitching about the by-gone days, but it was also weirdly heartfelt. And just weird. “Why are you telling me this? I’ve got a degree in making the little gold lines on your motherboard dance to my tune, not in…in job counseling, or whatever.”
“You’re about as sympathetic as a brick,” Rio muttered. Then he took a pull of beer and shrugged one shoulder. “And as smart as one. That’s why I bothered taking up with you, you blond twat. Everybody else, they’re all gung-ho and saying all the shite doesn’t matter because it’s for MU, but fuck, it’s getting worse. I’m starting to think I’m the only one not with his head up his bloody arsehole.”
“Usually was stuck up mine. When you weren’t off stuffing your gob with gift baskets,” Robbie automatically said. He drank some more of his beer as well, though he had to make a face at how flat it was getting.
What Rio said did clear up a minor puzzle, and the rest of it was actually something with which Robbie could sympathize. He never had gotten along too well with anybody besides Rio at MU, and for about the same reason as at FC. Well, all right—he’d never, ever, not even in his Stilton-fueled nightmares, wanted to get into bed with Ferguson. But take away the half-baked appreciation for Jens Lehmann’s physical appearance and it was the same at both places: true believerism, so enthusiastic and overflowing that Robbie nearly got throat cramp gagging. He just couldn’t buy into that kind of thing. Music was music, no matter what label was spitting it out, and anyway if it had a label, it probably wasn’t actually that good outside of its marketing package.
“I can’t fucking blame you,” Rio added after a minute. His tone was half-angry, half-envious. He kicked up a leg and braced his shin against the table-edge as he sucked down the rest of his beer. After putting the empty bottle down, he reached into his coat and pulled out a cheque-book.
“It’s not like they’ve got you chained to the place.” Robbie rethought that. “Are you?”
Rio shot him an exasperated look. “Doesn’t work like that, but I still can’t just get up and go.”
For a second there, Robbie was tempted to ask ‘why.’ And he would’ve bet that Rio wouldn’t have had an answer, and would probably have just gotten annoyed and grabby, and…well, that was why he didn’t ask in the end. He had things all straight now, he didn’t owe it to Rio to be the man’s mother and teach him how it worked, and yeah, he might know how it all worked, but he wasn’t a saint. Rio had really known his way around a proper fucking, and Robbie wasn’t going to test his ability not to fall for that again if he didn’t have to.
“Thanks for the beer, Savage,” Rio said. He ripped out a cheque and handed it over, then started to get up.
“And you could’ve hit about three clubs already.” Robbie grinned up at Rio’s irritated expression. He glanced briefly at the number on the little slip of paper, did some quick estimating, and then went back to grinning when he decided that that much was about right. “You’re welcome. Next time you break in a fucking door of mine, I’ll be phoning in an attempted assault, though.”
Rio threw his last comment over his shoulder. Poor bastard was already clicking back into his work-lope, lazy but purposeful and menacing. “Your arse wasn’t that tight, Savage. Bloody middle-aged Welsh pansy…”
Robbie rolled his eyes—thirty-two was not middle-fucking-age—and tilted back his bottle to get at the last few drops.
When he put it down, Rio was gone and Gamst was warily edging into the room. He looked at the cheque Robbie held out to him as if the paper was carrying Ebola. Then he sat down in the chair Rio had just vacated, blowing out his breath and pushing both hands through his hair and just looking utterly relieved. “Thank God. I thought either we’d have to phone and get everyone in to get him out, or—”
His eyes flicked to Robbie. Then he clammed up, rubbing hard at his mouth and nose.
“I wasn’t about to start up with him again,” Robbie sighed. He glanced at his cast, then carefully lowered it to the floor so he could move into that chair and ruffle Morten’s hair. “Believe me, my tolerance for what’s bad for me is shockingly low nowadays.”
A little bit of a grin peeked out from beneath those spiky bangs. Then it was hidden as Morten turned his head and leaned sideways, letting Robbie’s hand slide down the back of his skull to his neck. “So I’m good for you? I think this ruins my cool-factor.”
“Stop worrying about that.” Robbie meant to add something witty about it not being cool if you have to think about it, but instead his mind got a little stuck. All right, he was bloody old. Not ancient yet, but getting there…he idly looked down to see Gamst blinking back at him in silent puzzlement, then shrugged. So he felt sorry for Rio. Bastard was as bastard did, but it never was nice when somebody realized they didn’t really get into what they’d been training and working towards for most of their life.
* * *
Ruud made himself go around to all the clubs and see all the bands and singers that he was supposed to. And didn’t enjoy any of them, and was very tempted to just write this off as another failed trip, except that he did need to show evidence of some work soon. Otherwise Lehmann might rethink things and decide that letting half-assed wannabe coup leaders turn Ruud into collateral damage was less complicated and more budget-friendly than getting him out of the country.
He went back to his hotel sober and frustrated and not at all tired, which somewhat worked against his initial plan to get a good night’s sleep, wake up early and reformulate his scouting plans. Plan B was to rework those plans till he did get tired, but an hour and a half of trying finally convinced Ruud that one, he wasn’t getting sleepy and two, he wasn’t in a state of mind that’d allow for any work at all to get done. He threw his notepad down on the bed and got up. Paced around the room. Thought about the liquor cabinet and the hotel bar; in a place this expensive, someone looking for a no-strings lay was always lurking about.
But the problem was and wasn’t in strings: Ruud was sick and tired of getting snarled up, but he also just couldn’t stomach…well, it might be more like a paranoia at this point. The last time he went looking for something uncomplicated, José had arguably ended up a larger mess than when he’d cut ties with Cristiano. He—
Ruud stopped in the middle of the room and swore a few times. His back ached, so he interlaced his fingers behind the small of it and pulled forward, pressing his knuckles in. Then he swung out his arms a couple times, but that didn’t do anything for the tension stretched across his shoulderblades. He turned around a few times, thinking and then discarding of distractions, and then he swore some more. Loudly, as if there was anyone to hear him.
After a moment, he slumped back onto the bed and picked up his phone. It gleamed as he turned it in his hand and he absently tried to trace the flow of light on the chrome, only to accidentally pop it open. Messages…no new voicemails, and the one text was from Pirès so it was probably asking for clarification on a legal detail. He clicked out of that menu, then stared at the little glowing screen for a long while.
In the end, Ruud scrolled to the number and called. It probably wasn’t going to go through—it did—and the number probably had been changed, because anybody in their right mind—
*Hello?* José said. His voice sounded strained and he swallowed audibly. *Ruud?*
“It’s nearly four in the morning,” Ruud finally said. “And this number shouldn’t work. Your cousin told me he’d raise hell to keep me off you if that was what it took.”
If José had paused, Ruud would’ve hung up. But a shaky, humorless laugh came over the phone, so instead Ruud waited for the reply. *I told them we met at Corazón and nobody asked if I had your number. Anyway, it’s…listed as somebody else. I’m not—I wasn’t an idiot.*
“You’re talking to me, aren’t you?” Ruud looked down at his feet for a couple seconds. Then he figured out why he was looking at them and took off his shoes and socks so leaving the room would be more complicated. “Did you track me down earlier? Madrid has a population of five million, and the odds—”
*If I knew you’d be in town, then Cesc would’ve known first and screamed his head off.*
Four in the morning…Ruud discovered he was in fact fatigued enough to need a moment to figure out the hole in logic, but then he laid down on his back and no, he still wasn’t anywhere near falling asleep. “José, you may not be a very good liar but you’re not bad at half-truths. At least over the phone.”
José laughed again, quieter but more relaxed. *I didn’t know. Really. I was just out…I’ve got nothing to do here. ‘Nando works all day and sometimes at night, and I haven’t seen my other relatives here in—anyway, all they want to talk about is you.* Both a touch of irritation and of twisted amusement crept into his voice. *They’ve got a couple cafés, little shops down here. You went in one and then my third cousin called and said this cute Dutch guy had been in, and that reminded her of my story that I hadn’t told her yet. And you talked to the waitress about how to get to places.*
It made a hysterical kind of sense, Ruud thought after a moment. No matter what he did, he couldn’t get away…and he deserved that. He’d dropped his messes instead of staying to fix them, or at least unravel them, and of course they’d come rolling after him. He hadn’t done anything about the threads linking him and them. “So you ran over to see if it was me.”
*I thought I was going to hit you, or something.* The line went quiet for nearly a minute; José had to be tilting the phone away from his face for not even the sound of his breathing to be audible. *But then I remembered it wasn’t your fault.*
“I’m sorry your family—” Ruud started. Uncomfortable, uneasy, wanting to override the strange resolution in José’s low voice.
*Oh, don’t say that,* José interrupted, going a little snappish. He paused, then sighed. *I was just thinking that that was why I liked you in the beginning. You…you don’t actually care all that much about my family, about who I’m related to and what they could do to you.*
Ruud grimaced. “Which is actually somewhat suicidal, considering my profession. It’s pretty twisted on your end, too.”
*I know.* José spat out a few bitter Spanish words before drawing in a long breath. *My parents actually want to apologize. I just don’t want to talk to them yet. If I could help it, I wouldn’t even talk to ‘Nando even though he’s my favorite cousin and I’m staying with him. Madrid’s better but it—I—Ruud, why’d you call me?*
“Because it’s late and I’m missing the way Cris used to mutter in his sleep, and your accent’s not too far off,” Ruud said, flicking his tongue around the words. They were sharp, so sharp that he could almost taste blood in his mouth. And he certainly could hear the half-catch of José’s breath. “I told you, I can’t fix you.”
The sound of José’s breathing faded, then increased in volume as if he’d been moving the phone around. *Then why are you calling me?*
“I—” Ruud let his head loll back and closed his eyes. He rubbed at the bridge of his nose, then pinched it and pulled down till his fingers slid off. “Because I’m having a guilt-attack and I wish I could. There’s nothing wrong with you, nothing I don’t like. If Cristiano didn’t exist, then I might almost have…sorry.”
*I never was trying to compete with him anyway, so being second-best doesn’t matter to me,* was José’s curious response. *You aren’t…my type long-term, I think. It’s just easier to tell you things.*
“It’ll matter later,” Ruud muttered. “Once you get things straight in your head, it’ll—I’m here for another week. Then I’m flying to Brazil to do some scouting there. You’ve got my number.”
He pulled the phone from his ear and gave it a glance, then snapped it shut. After a moment, Ruud lifted his legs onto the bed and turned on his side. Sleep still wasn’t going to be an option, but he thought he might get to drowsing now.
* * *
Yawning, Robbie raised his arms over his head and gave them and his back a good stretch-out. Then he sat back and shut down his computer, writing off all the rest for the next day; his shin just beneath his cast started to itch again and he rummaged around for a pencil. Once he found one, he wedged it under and poked at the spot till it wasn’t about to drive him into a psychotic fit.
“Hi. Done?” Morten plopped down onto the sofa-arm, frowning at all the cables strewn over the cushions. He grabbed the back of the sofa and slowly, gingerly started off the arm and across to Robbie, picking his way through in a ridiculous-looking tiptoed crouch.
“Nah, but I don’t feel like doing anymore right now. Are you going out again?” Robbie asked, fingering the chunky gold beads around the other man’s neck. While it didn’t usually detract from how much Robbie wanted to shove Gamst up against the nearest wall, Morten’s fashion taste was a bit on the eccentric side. Supposedly that was ‘hip,’ but Robbie had lived through the eighties. “Give Bentley a big thank-you for me for saving your arse earlier.”
That earned him a cuff to the head and then Morten nearly taking off his laptop’s screen when the other man snagged something on a cable and fell. Robbie cursed and grabbed at Morten’s shoulders, hauling him back. Then he started pulling at plugs till he could toss all the cables onto the floor.
“I’m glad I came in when I did,” Morten muttered. He lifted his feet when Robbie needed him to, but every time he moved, he came suspiciously closer to sticking his nose in Robbie’s ear. “You already got a broken leg from that prick.”
“No, I got it from Robin van Persie.” After a peek at the other man’s expression, Robbie sighed and picked up his laptop. He lifted it—Morten ducked under and curled up close—and tossed that to the far end of the sofa. “Look, I want to be very clear about that. Rio never touched me in a way I objected to…except for when he was slinging me around the shower after a pub-crawl…and God, I sound like a teen’s-education special. But honestly, Gamst…you slept with him.”
Morten shot Robbie another dubious look before settling his head against Robbie’s shoulder. He lifted it again almost immediately to take off his necklace, which had been gouging pretty hard, and then put it back, clearly ignoring the smirk with which Robbie favored that. “I did that because it looked like you were going to no matter what. And if he had to be there, I figured I shouldn’t miss it. He was all right. Doesn’t really do his teeth right with a blowjob, but nothing to write home about.”
Personally, Robbie thought Rio had had an excellent grasp of cock-sucking basics, but then, he’d had slightly more expanded preferences. “You really were stuck on me.”
“Are,” Morten corrected. He didn’t get self-conscious till a beat afterward, when he started rubbing the heel of his hand along his thigh. His fingers were positioned so they absently brushed over Robbie’s leg. “Well, it was a while. I thought…I was beginning to think maybe I grow old and move back to Norway before you came back.”
“Could’ve visited,” Robbie said after a second. He frowned down at the shock of gold-tipped hair, staring hard at the soft seal-brown roots.
The other man snorted and shifted, his hand wandering more onto Robbie’s leg. “I did. Then I came home.”
Robbie…did remember that conversation. Rather more clearly than he would’ve normally, which probably would turn out to mean something if he thought about it. “You act like I turned into one of those coke-snorting Armani nuts who tromp around looking for paparazzi to talk about how they hate getting their picture snapped.”
“You weren’t that bad,” Morten said. And that wasn’t a bad attempt, complete with a somewhat-stricken, wide-eyed look that was probably why Gamst woke up every morning to an answering machine full of offers to do the kind of photo-shoots his colleagues would and did poison each other over. “You just…weren’t…”
“I was a good fit for what I had to do, if I wanted to stay up with everything that was going on with my job. And that’s a lot of shite when it comes to the music industry,” Robbie muttered. Then he laughed, running his hand up Morten’s back and then down to cup the other man’s arse. Of all people he really didn’t deserve to have somebody sitting at home and waiting for him, but he wasn’t dumb enough to think turning down a pleasant surprise like that was noble or useful or good for him at all. “Well, I liked it for a while. I guess a lot of people do—it does kind of suit when you’re…well, not sure whether age or state of mind would have more to do with it. But either way, I’m not in that phase anymore.”
Morten h’mmed and pushed his arse back into Robbie’s hand as his mouth started wandering. He dropped his hand between Robbie’s legs, then put the other one there as well, and it wasn’t too long before the damned cast was making things awkward again. Thankfully Morten was flexible and after one or two pinches at his thigh, hoisted himself up to straddle Robbie.
“It’s just sort of odd that you aren’t very upset. For you, I mean,” he said. He mouthed at the line of Robbie’s jaw, and Robbie would’ve been very happy to let that go on. In fact, Robbie was encouraging it with some tonguing of his own at Morten’s ear. But instead Morten settled back again, his hands irritatingly still with Robbie’s waistband pushed only halfway down. “Your leg is broken.”
“And that hurts a hell of a lot,” Robbie agreed. He made a few half-hearted attempts at continuing to feel up Morten, but now that the other man had started up the discussion again…God, one thing he did miss was how easy it’d been to get distracted by sex when he was younger. Of course, that still didn’t explain Gamst right now. “Morten, it’s really nice of you to pretend I’m a Sunday-suit sort of person, but honestly, everybody who knows me would’ve said I had it coming. And maybe I did…anyway, I’m not going to waste any more time on it. I’m already stuck on the couch all day, wasting away into a big blob of lard.”
One side of Morten’s mouth hitched up, and then the other one as he ducked his head, nuzzling back into Robbie’s neck. His right hand drifted up tickle at Robbie’s stomach, and when Robbie pushed at him, he snorted and yanked up hard at the hem of Robbie’s shirt. Which Robbie wasn’t going to argue with, either.
“You’re turning into a stick, not fat,” Morten scolded as he pulled the shirt over Robbie’s head. Then he tugged at his own, only to get stuck for a moment. He cursed when Robbie jerked him down, sending him off-balance, and tried harder to get his arm free.
Robbie rolled his eyes and kept Morten firmly trapped. “You’re turning into a girl.”
“You’re turning into a—” Whatever the rest was going to be was turned into a low, raspy moan when Robbie got his head under the bunched-up fabric and licked at Morten’s nipple. He pressed the flat of his tongue against it till he felt it harden up and poke back, then moved on. “Robbie. Robbie. Robbie. I left the—it’s across the room.”
“Fuck.” Robbie dropped his arms. Then he yelped as Morten suddenly dove in—a knee came pretty close to applying unpleasant pressure to his balls—and kissed him hard, arms going around Robbie’s neck. After a moment, he shrugged and threaded his fingers into Morten’s hair…then pulled the other man back. “Think you’re a clever bastard, do you? You aren’t going out, are you?”
“Not if you aren’t, and you look tired,” Morten said.
He leaned down again, but Robbie slid his hand around to the side of Morten’s face and held him back, just looking. Then he grinned and pulled the other man in. “I am tired. I might be done with Rio Ferdinand and all that, but God, do they leave you with one hell of a hang-over. Think it’s about time to take my medicine for that, hmm?”
* * *
Ruud got up early. Too early to have gotten any useful amount of sleep, but he still managed to get all his paperwork in order only an hour and a half later. He made a note to himself over the room-service breakfast to check all that over before he actually sent it in, and make sure he hadn’t botched half of it like the last time he’d worked on this little sleep. Then he…went out. He was in Madrid, and if nothing, he could time-waste by doing the tourist routine.
He wandered around the Prado for a while because he’d gotten into a tipsy argument over it with one of Cristiano’s relatives at that ill-fated launch party in Portugal, but he didn’t remember what it’d been about and two hours of walking about the place didn’t remind him. After that he just went wherever his feet apparently felt like.
Eventually he noticed he was going in the direction of the district in which he’d been the night before. Probably his unconscious recognizing and following familiar landmarks, but…Ruud found that restaurant where he’d eaten dinner and supposedly alerted José’s relatives to his presence. It didn’t open for lunch, so he stood by the fence ringing the streetside patio and peered at the windows for a good fifteen minutes before he realized that waitress probably wouldn’t even be in yet. Waitstaff showed up last…José had said that. Trying to explain about why he couldn’t get off work earlier.
Ruud gave himself a shake and walked on till he heard a faint singing. And it was actually rather good—lovely soprano that didn’t bother with all that over-elaborate trilling. If there had to be a top reason why Mariah Carey had been bad for the development of the pop genre…
When he tracked it down, he found himself leaning against the wall just inside a dirty, cramped basement bolthole of a café-plus-lounge. The voice belonged to a girl warming up; she seemed to be the night’s act, and the increase in volume hadn’t brought any flaws so Ruud decided to order a coffee and stay around to hear her repertoire. He was actually on his second when what little light was making it through the grimy windows was obscured. Then about two-thirds of it returned as José sat down across from Ruud.
It was still brighter than it had been in the hallway last night. “You look better,” Ruud said. He frowned. “Do you…have a tan?”
“Oh…I guess, a little.” José looked at his hand as he turned it back and forth, then startled when the waiter tapped him on the arm. He haltingly ordered a glass of water. “You look…not bad, either. Your black eye’s almost gone.”
Ruud winced at the memory. Then he surprised himself by chuckling at it. “What does your cousin do? He wasn’t half-bad at—”
A flash of annoyance flitted over José’s face. The waiter came with his water and he turned to take it, then sipped at it as he twisted back. The glass came with a slice of lemon and he pulled that off, squeezed it at the water and then dropped it in. “’Nando sources things for film and theater companies. Props, sometimes filming locations. So he travels a lot and works weird hours. Right now he’s busy finding vintage 1950s cars for some period piece.”
“Doesn’t sound that different from what I do. Aside from people versus inanimate objects.” The girl had taken a water break and was chatting rather intimately with a man and another woman; the woman showed a family resemblance and the man kept his hand on the small of the girl’s back. Ruud watched them when the girl had gone back to her warm-up, trying to figure out if they were around for moral support or more than that.
“Besides the traveling, it’s not that different from what I did at Corazón either, but ‘Nando seems to really like it,” José said. He held up his glass oddly high for drinking, twisting it slightly.
The lack of sleep was getting to Ruud—it took him too long to figure out that José was trying to use the glass’ reflectiveness to see behind him. “Put that down—that’s too obvious. I’m looking at the girl. She has a very nice voice…not sure if I’d have her singing Billie Holiday, though.”
“I don’t think she really understands the words.” José hastily lowered his glass with an apologetic look at Ruud that briefly made Ruud wish his coffee had a shot of something in it. He drummed his fingers around the glass, drawing wide circles in the condensation pooling beneath it. “Nobody ever noticed when I did it at work.”
Ruud blinked, then lifted an eyebrow.
“There’s a rack of wineglasses over the bar. The bartender’s supposed to polish them every day, and I’m supposed to check to make sure he does. You wouldn’t believe how upset people get over finding fingerprints on their cup. Even if they’re only on the outside,” José muttered. His head tilted as he regarded the lemon slice bobbing in his water. Then he rippled one hand up the side of the glass and hooked a finger over to push at the slice. His arm slipped out of his sleeve, showing that the tan and the time hadn’t yet erased the bruises. “I know all these random little things about restaurants and people, but put me in a party and I end up in the corner or embarrassing myself so it gets into everybody’s photo album later. Put Cesc there and he’d come out of it with…how’s he, anyway? I haven’t talked to anybody back home since I left.”
“I think he’s fine. He called me saying he couldn’t work with me anymore, so they transferred him to somebody else.” That last bit had slipped out; Ruud hadn’t thought he was quite to the point where he felt like discussing, however obliquely, his professional downfall with his…his anger-fuck.
José’s head came up and he stared at Ruud, eyes widening and then shrinking back to normal, and then widening again when he worked through all of it. Then he angled his head so the light retreated from his face. “I’m sorry. I told them—all of them—”
Ruud exhaled loudly, and didn’t really truly care when José jumped at it. “José, if you want to learn about people outside of how bitchy they are in restaurants, where it’s the only time most of them get to order other people around…stop thinking it’s all about you. Cesc stopped working for me because he decided he couldn’t do that anymore. I don’t think you would’ve gotten a say in it no matter what the circumstances.”
An objection surfaced in the tightening of José’s hands around his glass, the sudden miniscule tidal wave sent crashing away from his little finger.
“I know, it’s all about your family, but even that keeps coming back to you. Every time you bring up a comparison, you’re just thinking about yourself. What’s wrong with—I’m not a goddamn psychiatrist,” Ruud snapped, cutting himself off. He drank more coffee.
“You’re not bad,” José said slowly, carefully. “Even if you say it won’t fix me.”
“Because it won’t. I held back for too long and wore myself out and now I can’t do that anymore so I’m cruel instead.” The man who’d been possessive with the girl earlier was now being, if Ruud was judging his body language right, contemptuous of what had to be the place’s manager. They appeared to be debating the way the billing for the night’s entertainment had been written onto a blackboard facing the front door. “I think I want to go sit outside. It’s stuffy in here.”
José looked at him again. Then to the side as their waiter went by, muttering complaints beneath his breath. Still looking that way, José brought his glass around and took small sips every few words, as if giving himself breathers for checking their correctness. “Why do you keep staring at that man?”
“I’m trying to figure out if he’s that girl’s boyfriend, manager, or some combination of the two,” Ruud said shortly.
He got up and went outside, settling on a table near enough the window so that the waiter wouldn’t panic. A couple minutes later, José emerged, blinking at the bright sunlight and briefly looking like any other young man walking around town. Then he got close enough for the slight shadows beneath his eyes and the strange exhausted quality of his skin, looking as if the top layer were both thinning and lifting away from the supporting flesh, could be seen.
“He kind of is. He set it all up because he’s friends with a dinner-shift waiter, and he’s getting a cut of the fee. But he doesn’t sound like he’s done this before,” José said as he sat down. He took a sizable swallow of water. “I talked to our waiter. It’s kind of…a professional brotherhood thing.”
“Where you help each other?” Ruud couldn’t help sounding disbelieving.
José almost smiled. “We’ve got politics and infighting too, but it’s…different structure. Anyway, did that help?”
Now Ruud blinked. He moved uneasily around in his seat, not quite sure even what his gut reaction was to that.
“I think I appreciate you at least listening, no matter what your own reasons for it are,” José said in a hesitant tone. He stared at his glass again. “And I think I don’t want you to bang me up again, but I wouldn’t mind if…you could do something without including that.”
Ruud put down his coffee-cup. He was very careful about setting it on its saucer. Then he pushed back his chair and got up, and went up the steps to street-level. The buildings were fairly close together and once he’d gone into the nearest alley, he found that he was almost completely hidden from anyone walking by.
José still found him, though. The other man squeezed in and opened his mouth to speak; Ruud put one hand on José’s jaw and the other on his shoulder, and pulled him forward till their lips met. He used the hand cupping José’s face to make sure they didn’t meet too forcefully, and minded his teeth as he eased his mouth against José’s.
It wasn’t bruising. It was slow and almost contemplative, and even when José raised his arm to loop it over Ruud’s neck, the dizziness that accompanied that was more like the dizziness caused by a hot afternoon than by a sharp blow to the skull. And Ruud was honestly sorry when they pulled apart.
He moved his thumb over José’s lips and they parted, the lower one dragging along the thumbpad. José shivered, then turned his head away and brought up his other hand so he was holding onto Ruud’s lapels with both. “You really do love him, don’t you?”
“I don’t need to keep thinking about it,” Ruud said, a little sharp.
“It’s okay.” When José looked up, he wasn’t trying to lie at all. In fact, he looked like he knew what he was talking about. “I don’t need somebody else to love me—I know my family does. I just—I need to get out more.” He laughed, obviously aware of how sensible and ridiculous that sounded. “I grew up doing Corazón, you know? I don’t think I ever really sat down and said okay, this is what I choose.”
Ruud didn’t know what to say to that, or even if something was supposed to be said. So he kissed José again, and José opened his mouth and…yes, he loved Cristiano and that was like a sliver of glass in him, cutting its way through his body and then back through the healed parts, and he didn’t love José but this was…it had things to recommend it. It was simple, and it felt good, and it didn’t work so that he thought and worried during it. Mostly just after.
“I guess you should go back in and talk to that girl and her boyfriend,” José said about a minute later. He stopped to catch his breath, but wasted his effort when Ruud absently brushed down his shirt and he reflexively gasped. “They’re going somewhere else for lunch and coming back in the evening.”
“Then I’ll talk to them after she performs. She’s good, but I need to know she can stand up to an audience and not lose her nerve.” Ruud noted the flicker of curiosity in the other man’s eyes. He hesitated, then shrugged. “I’m going around tonight, doing more of that. If you want to see how that works.”
José was about to say yes, but something stopped him. He looked down at the ground. “If Cesc’s not working for you, then you don’t have an assistant anymore.”
“No, and I don’t need one. I’ve been sent off and my workload’s been diminished, which translates to an unofficial demotion and exile,” Ruud replied, not softening the words. They actually didn’t sound so bad outside of his head. “Anyway, Cesc came in basically knowing how to do everything. You’d need a lot of training for me to even start handing you assignments.”
“Oh.” That actually seemed to relieve José. “I’ve got a lousy sense of pitch anyway.”
Ruud blinked. “Really.”
“Yeah.” José ducked his head. Then he laughed softly, raising his hand to half-cover his mouth. “It’s part of why Cesc and I don’t get along most of the time.”
“That’s…that works out, then. Because I’m trying myself, but I can’t guarantee—at least that removes that temptation,” Ruud muttered. “I want to see you again, though.”
“Where should I meet you?” José asked more seriously.
Ruud looked at him. Then he raised his hand and touched José’s jaw, the hand José still had up by his mouth, and then José’s lips. They moved and he dropped his hand. He told José while turning towards the head of the alley.