Tangible Schizophrenia


Lover’s Leap

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: NC-17
Pairing: Kaká/Maldini, H. Larsson/Ljungberg. Implied C. Ronaldo/Van Nistelrooy.
Feedback: Good lines, bad ones, etc.
Disclaimer: This is absolutely fiction and not real and I don’t know these people at all. Any resemblance to any real-life record company is completely accidental.
Notes: Titled after the song by Looper.
Summary: Presenting two different ways to handle difficult Italians.


When Cristiano stepped on the board, it groaned and the other end levered up so one of the bodyguards tripped and almost fell. They were all Deco’s hires so Cristiano didn’t actually mind, but he still put on a good pissy face. “What the hell? Am I actually supposed to do a performance on this piece of crap? That’ll make a great birthday gift…I’m in the middle of a song and suddenly I fall off and break my neck.”

Down in front of the stage, Deco immediately took up where Cristiano had left off with the nightclub’s manager and owner. Of course, he was a lot more polite about it and didn’t use hand-gestures, but he’d get it fixed before dinner. He was good for that.

“Seems okay besides that,” Gaby said, coming up with a cardboard drink tray. He handed Cristiano a latte before taking a sip from his cup. “How old’s the lucky…um…”

“Sixteen-year-old girl.” Cristiano checked to make sure none of the people standing around them were from that twit’s loaded father, then made a face. “I had to wish her a good morning already over the phone and she screamed so loud my ear’s still ringing. Then she wanted to know what I was wearing ‘so she wouldn’t clash’ and she asked if I like high heels or low ones. I don’t think this is going to be a good one.”

Gaby wasn’t sucking at his straw quite hard enough to keep from grinning. “Well, it’s just a private concert. Puff-piece. What are those going for now, thirty minutes for fifty thou?”

“Oh, I have no idea. Deco does all the numbers,” Cristiano said dismissively. Actually he did, and if tonight went like that phone call was hinting it would, he was upping his rates for the next one. He was all for adulation and that stuff, but people thinking they were owed some piece of him was a whole different story. “This latte’s kind of cold.”

“I had to go up to the next-door building’s roof and jump over to get around all the paparazzi,” Gaby replied. He and Cristiano looked at each other for a couple seconds, and then he snorted and reached out for the cup. “Are you seriously still that bad?”

Cristiano flapped Gaby’s hand away and began to walk towards the edge of the stage. “Was I that bad before? There should be a microwave somewhere around here, right?”

“Yeah, but you’d better let me see that then. Unless you’ve gotten better with microwaves since the time you—” Gaby ducked the half-hearted smack Cristiano aimed at him, then hopped off the stage. He turned around and put up a hand, and this time Cristiano did give him the latte before getting down himself. “That’s still a fond memory for me. Gary Neville, popcorn stuck all over him with garlic-flavored butter.”

Whereas Cristiano had completely forgotten all about that, but once he’d recalled the incident, he had to agree with Gaby. He grinned, but had to dodge sideways in the same moment as Cesc slewed around the corner; Cesc muttered an apology and sped on towards Deco, who was getting shown into a backroom office by the club owner.

“Not while you were with u—with MU,” Gaby said more quietly. He lifted up part of the bar and walked through, then held it up for Cristiano. “You knew way too much about hair-care, but other than that you were fine…well, I didn’t get to talk to you much. Ruud…ah…”

“You can say his name.” Cristiano wandered along the counter, dragging his finger over the wood. It’d been carved full of initials and symbols and short messages, but somebody had covered it with a thick layer of acrylic so there wouldn’t be any new graffiti added. “God, why does everybody think something bad’s gonna happen if they talk about him?”

Gaby went into the kitchen behind the bar and opened something. Then he closed it and the sound of electronic beeping filtered towards Cristiano. “You want me to be honest?”

Please. I’m so sick of people lying and thinking I’m too stupid to notice. Everybody does it—” Cristiano paused, then shrugged “—everybody. FC, MU, whatever.”

Across the room, Deco came out of the office and scanned the room till he found Cristiano. He frowned, Cristiano smiled and waved vigorously, and Deco frowned even more before popping back in. Rolling his eyes, Cristiano turned around and found Gaby standing there with a now-steaming latte. He took it, sipped it, and then nodded his thanks.

“No problem,” Gaby said. He picked up his water from the bar, then turned around and leaned against it. He put an elbow up, but then took it down to retuck his shirt, which had gotten partially pulled out at the back. “Well, honestly…Ruud went to Portugal a really friendly, normal guy—as far as agents go. He could be a hardass but he wasn’t psycho till he came back with you. Then it was like…if we drove you home without asking him, he’d show up at the door later and threaten to break a leg or something worse.”

Cristiano stared at him. “Are you serious?”

“Don’t tell me you never noticed. I mean, everybody knew—and we all thought that you were sleeping together and that was why, but then after you left, we found out…” The rows of glasses behind the bar were suddenly fascinating for Gaby. “You said a lot of shit to a lot of people when you were high, Cris. I’m really sorry, but half the town knows every detail of what you felt about Ruud right up till he sent you to rehab.”

That…that was kind of predictable, once Cristiano thought about it. He just didn’t like to think about how he’d been back then, so he’d never wondered before.

“I’m sorry,” Gaby repeated. He started to nervously muss his hair.

“Yeah, well, you should be,” Cristiano muttered. He stared at his latte for nearly a minute before he realized he didn’t want to drink it anymore. Then he put it down on the counter and drummed his fingers, but that didn’t help much. “Ferguson’s the one who got me hooked. He paid people to talk me into it…I bet you all knew about that, too.”

“No!” Wincing, Gaby hunched over and moved back into the kitchen, out of view of all the eyes now staring at them. Then he turned around and looked so desperately pleading that Cristiano reluctantly went in after him. “No, really—I didn’t know till that fuck Van Persie dislocated my shoulder. Then I heard Gary talking…I’m telling the truth, Cris. I didn’t. I…you remember that time I helped you break into Ruud’s place to surprise him for his birthday?”

And that’d been the first time Cristiano had forced Ruud to turn him down. Yeah, Cristiano remembered. If Gaby had been trying to put him in a better mood, it hadn’t worked.

Gaby seemed to get that, because he aborted his step towards Cristiano. “Well, after that I wasn’t allowed to get near you. I could still talk to you if we ran into each other, but I didn’t work on anything that involved you or Ruud, and I didn’t get told anything. I heard you’d gone downhill after you left, but I always thought it was down to Ruud getting to you.”

Cristiano looked at Gaby for a long time and didn’t see anything suspicious in the other man’s face. And he didn’t want to think so, because Gaby was one of the few memories of MU he had left that hadn’t ended up rotten yet, but he’d been through a bit too much.

In the end, he picked up his latte again. “It was that, too. But Ruud’s gone, so…”

“Where?” Gaby asked. He seemed a little too interested, and he also flinched a bit at the odd look Cristiano gave him. “I thought that was weird, too…a guy like Ruud doesn’t usually just vanish. There’s all kinds of bizarre rumors floating around.”

“Like what?” Safer ground, if still painful, but Cristiano knew to take what he could get nowadays. He wasn’t about to bet on Gaby not knowing a thing about what had happened to him, but maybe Gaby—and MU—really didn’t know where Ruud was now. So it’d be interesting to see what their guesses were.

* * *

Cesc knocked on the door, then walked in. “Hi—oops, busy?”

Thierry looked at him, then at Bobby, who was sitting on the other side of the desk. Bobby was shutting his briefcase, but something in Thierry’s expression told Cesc he probably should’ve given them another ten minutes. Well, maybe fifteen. They were both around thirty.

“No, it’s all right. Bobby was just leaving,” Thierry said regretfully. He and Bobby both got up, though only Bobby walked out. “What’s the matter?”

“Well, Cristiano called and said Gaby had quizzed him on if he knew where Ruud was. He put him off, but he was kind of worried. And then Deco called and said Jens is on for dinner at Monaco.” Cesc glanced over his shoulder, then pulled the door shut behind him. “Thierry, I don’t think this is working out. Both Deco and Cristiano know I’m sort of reporting straight to Jens. I’m sorry to bring it up now, but…”

“No, no, it’s fine. We’d want to know about that right away, too. It’s important that you’re comfortable,” Thierry hastily told him. Then he even rounded the desk and came over to sling an arm over Cesc’s shoulders. “I’m sorry it hasn’t worked out, Cesc. We really—”

On the one hand, it was really flattering that they’d be taking this much trouble over him, when he still officially was just an assistant: a gofer with a slightly higher security clearance. On the other hand…Thierry did remember why they wanted to retain Cesc so badly, right? “Hey, no, I’m not going to quit or anything. No need to get out the soft soap. It’s just…well, if a spot opens up elsewhere, can somebody tell me?”

Thierry smiled and gave Cesc another squeeze round the shoulders before finally letting him sit. “Of course. I’ll let Jens know about dinner. As for Cristiano…how concerned was he?”

“Well, he tried to act casual but he was nervous. He kept trying to find out if I knew how to get to Ruud, but I told him we didn’t work together anymore, so…” Cesc shrugged. Actually, Cristiano had been a lot ruder and had started trying to pry about José, but Gaby had come in and they’d had to stop talking about it. Thank God, because if Cristiano had kept going, Cesc would’ve have to punch him. No way was he telling Cristiano a fucking thing about his family. “I guess Ruud’s taking the whole no-contact thing seriously?”

“I hope so. It’s been difficult enough and I personally would like to see a healthy resolution to it,” Thierry muttered, briefly looking annoyed. Then as he went back behind his desk, he gave Cesc an odd long look. “Ah…do you…with your…”

It took a moment for Cesc to get it. He blamed the delay on the lingering effects of trying to stay polite to Cristiano for the whole morning. “Oh…José calls every couple of days, but just to say he’s alive and okay. He doesn’t say where he is or what he’s doing, and—if you don’t mind, I’d really rather not say anything else. Anyway, Raúl usually takes the call.”

“No, that’s fine. I was just wondering if your cousin was still—well, never mind. You look like you’ve had a day already, and it’s not lunch yet. I don’t want to make it worse.” Thierry smiled at Cesc while reaching to the side to turn off his computer’s screensaver. “Listen, if Cristiano asks again, just tell him to direct his inquiry to me or Jens.”

“Okay, thanks. I don’t have anything else, so I’ll just go, unless you want me to do anything?” Cesc asked. He started to get up, but his cell fell out of his pocket and he had to stoop quickly to grab it. “Um…Thierry? MU…they can’t get to South America, can they?”

Thierry didn’t answer right away, which made Cesc a tiny bit nervous; lately he’d been sitting in on a lot of important conversations instead of having to eavesdrop, but he wasn’t sure yet if that meant they really trusted him that much, or if everybody was just that stressed. If it was the second case, then he might be in trouble later. Even though it wasn’t exactly his fault.

He stayed crouched down as he slipped his phone back into his pocket and carefully peeked over the desk, only to find that Thierry wasn’t even looking at him. Instead the other man was staring at the far wall, brow furrowed as he pushed himself back with one arm.

“Not as far as we know,” Thierry finally said. Still wearing that thoughtful expression, he looked back down at Cesc. “They shouldn’t have tracked him to Madrid, and anyway MU isn’t very strong in South America so I don’t think they could do anything. But we’re keeping an eye on it. Your cousin’ll be all right, and so will Ruud, I think. At least in regards to that.”

“Thanks,” Cesc gratefully replied. He grabbed the edge of the desk and pulled himself up, then offered Thierry another grin. “Thank you. I really…I was kind of worried, too.”

“No problem. It was my pleasure.” After dismissing Cesc with a nod and another smile, Thierry turned around to his computer. He frowned at whatever was on the screen and put his arm up on the desk, then rested his chin on his hand.

If he pulled off balancing Deco, Cristiano and all their little side-games, Cesc thought, he was going to ask if Thierry needed a second assistant. He figured he’d have done enough to deserve it, and Thierry definitely would be his top choice. Besides, Ljungberg seemed to spend so much time running around that it looked like Thierry could use in-office help.

Halfway to his office, Cesc passed Bobby heading away from Jens’ office and made sure to get into his line of sight so he’d know Thierry was free. Then Cesc remembered Ricky hadn’t called him back yet—and come to think of it, he didn’t think he’d seen Ricky or Maldini yet today even though he had been to their floor twice. He checked his watch—he had a few minutes before Deco was expecting his call back—then pulled out his phone.

* * *

Ricardo’s phone went off and he started, then hissed as that sent everything sliding off of his lap: folders, notepad, pen, sheets of paper. He tried to scoop it all back before it hit the floor, but that just seemed to make things worse. He—he made himself take a deep breath. Then he slowly got off his chair to pick things up one by one, so he could sort them as he went.

“Kaká?” Accompanied by a rap on the door.

He jumped again and cracked his elbow on the side of the desk so pain instantly blossomed through his whole arm. He bit his lip and lost his balance, sitting down hard as he grabbed at the elbow: the same one he’d banged up the other night. “Behind the desk.”

“Are you all right? What are you doing?” Paolo’s head briefly appeared as he leaned over the desk. Then he came around it and silently took in the situation. “Kaká?”

“I’m—I hit my arm, but I think it’s just bruised.” Though it hurt a lot. Ricardo couldn’t stop pressing his hand against it or it hurt even more so he had to get up without his hands.

Paolo reached out and touched Ricardo’s sides, and Ricardo jumped backwards. His legs hit his chair and he dropped into it like a falling rock, but it was on wheels and it rolled upon impact so he panicked and seized the edge of his desk. He dragged himself back those…few centimeters, and then he glanced up at Paolo’s carefully blank expression and realized the other man had just been trying to help him up.

“You were very quiet the other morning,” Paolo finally said. “But then, it sounded like you had a hard time getting back from the university. I was wondering if you were up to lunch—I need to drop off some things downtown and there’s a nice bistro on the way, but…”

Ricardo rubbed at his arm and chewed on his lip. He’d been hoping his head would have cleared up the morning after, but it hadn’t. He’d kept looking at Paolo and Paolo had kept catching him at it without asking about it, and the whole time Nesta’s card had been burning a hole in his pocket. He’d finally ducked out of breakfast and then avoided Paolo for the next day—and he’d left the card at home, but it was like its ink had managed to seep through Ricardo’s clothes and into him because he kept thinking about it.

After a few moments, Paolo sighed; his fingertips brushed over the top of Ricardo’s head almost nervously. “You really should go home, Kaká. I think Bobby can pull some summer intern out of the mailroom to run errands for a day. I’ll see you later.”

“Why does Alessandro Nesta hate you so much?” Ricardo asked quietly.

When he didn’t hear anything, Ricardo looked up, but Paolo wasn’t there. The other man had went back around the desk and seemed to be heading out. Ricardo started to stand.

Paolo turned once he’d laid his hand on the doorknob. He looked back at Ricardo, then pulled the door shut. “Plenty of reasons. He never won a case against me and he knew I was using irregular methods, but he never could catch me at it. He didn’t—and doesn’t—think much of me, but I still got him into my bed. He deserved somebody who’d be as faithful to him as he is to what he cares about, but I never was. With anything.”

Ricardo slowly sat back down. He pressed his hands flat against the desk and stared at the way the webbing between his fingers would whiten if he used enough force.

“I told you,” Paolo said, and uncharacteristically didn’t elaborate. When Ricardo checked, the other man was leaning against the door, one hand still on the knob and the other absently plucking at the hem of his suit-jacket. Paolo looked tired, and sorry and resigned.

“I know. But you…make it sound so horrible, so why would he come back to bother you? Don’t most people try to stay away from bad experiences?” That was what nagged at him the most, Ricardo suddenly realized. There’d been bitterness and frustration and fury in Nesta’s voice, but something else had been pushing those to the forefront.

Because that’s what I do when I’m here.

Paolo had been the one to walk away from that—whatever ‘that’ was. Nesta had ended up standing there with the door shut in his face. Given the kind of man he seemed to be, he shouldn’t have found himself in a position where that might happen to him. But he had, and no matter who he was here for, Kahn or Lehmann, that couldn’t have helped with catching them.

“I have no idea,” Paolo said after a long moment. He rolled his shoulders to relax them; his brow smoothed and the deep furrows that ran from the bottom of his nose to the corners of his mouth nearly disappeared. “I thought he was long gone, and I honestly wished him well. He doesn’t seem to believe that I’ve renounced my old ways, so he’s not looking for that. But otherwise, I don’t know. And truthfully, I don’t really want to ask Sandro.”

“Oh,” Ricardo said. And he didn’t say anything else, though the questioning stare he got from Paolo was almost unbearable. He couldn’t meet it, but he found that if he concentrated hard enough on his hands, he could almost ignore it.

Eventually Paolo left, saying something about the bistro and next week and talking to Bobby. Ricardo only half-listened: there was a pounding in his head and he could barely hear anything past it, and when he tried anyway, he got a headache.

Sometime after Paolo left, Ricardo put up his hands and rubbed them over his face. Hard, till he felt the blood rise up. Paolo had been lying at the end—Ricardo had seen him do it to others before, but not to him. If Paolo didn’t want to tell him something, he stalled, changed the subject, made a joke out of it…did everything but flat-out lie to Ricardo’s face.

He reached towards his desk phone, then pulled his hand back. Then he reached out again and this time his fingers actually touched the cool plastic before he yanked them back, cradling them against his chest as if he’d just been burned. Maybe he had. If he took the lie, it’d mean less of a fuss. But then he might as well admit he didn’t want all of Paolo, after all, and then he wasn’t really in love with the other man. But if he did…

Ricardo pulled out his cell-phone. He slowly traced around it with his thumb, then wedged that in and flipped the phone open. Then he remembered he’d left the card—and that it didn’t matter, because he’d already memorized the number. Maybe that meant something. Maybe he wished he knew whether it was encouragement or warning, and maybe all the ‘maybes’ were making his head spin so he didn’t know. He just—didn’t know.

“Damn,” Ricardo muttered. And dialed.

* * *

“No, two days now and still no call. I was going to check with you first and see if you needed anything, and then ask Larsson what the fuck’s up,” Fredrik mumbled around the cardboard envelope in his mouth. He finished signing the delivery man’s form and handed the clipboard back, then turned to spit the envelope onto the table just inside his apartment door. He’d look at it later. “How’s it going at the office? Jens okay? He try to strangle Kahn yet?”

*No, actually it appears that Kahn’s police interview went very well. Once he saw the sense in telling Jens so.* Thierry sounded ragged, so probably Kahn and Jens had had to get into a public argument for that to happen.

To be honest, Fredrik would’ve let Kahn fuck up and get shopped, and just worked extra hard on making sure nothing Kahn said could be traced back to them. He knew that was bad strategy, and that was why Jens was the manager anyway, but it would’ve been a lot more personally satisfying. “How about the other stuff? Anything new turn up in Holland?”

*Hang on, I’ll call you back,* Thierry said. Which meant switching to a secure line, and if Thierry was resorting to that instead of coded language, Robin must’ve dug up something really good. That Dutch ass was…well, an ass, but at least he usually pulled through.

It’d take a couple minutes for Thierry to do that, so Fredrik locked up and then headed for the stairs so the phone signal wouldn’t get all fuzzy. He was about a quarter of the way down when Thierry rang him again. “So?”

*Robin got hold of Nesta’s case notes. It’s a fishing expedition: they know that somebody from Italy killed Moggi, but they don’t know who here helped with that. Kahn and Jens are prime targets due to past history. Jens is talking to Ludo, and after that we’ll decide what to do.* Thierry’s voice briefly faded out and static crackled. Then he came back on. *Sorry, dropped a pen. Anyway, for now just trail Nesta. The decision’ll come in soon.*

“Am I telling Henrik this or is somebody else calling him?” Fredrik asked.

Maybe another pen fell, since it took a while for Thierry to reply. *He’s been contacted and should call you any time now. Freddie…about the other night…*

“Yeah.” Grimacing, Fredrik rounded the staircase turn, then stepped aside as a man went past him with a double armful of groceries. Then he resumed trotting down the steps. “I slept on it—for two nights—and I still want to fuck him. I know this isn’t exactly what Jens meant when he said be nice to the man, but…it would help, right? Since we can’t sign contracts with him.”

*Are you doing it because of that? Because Freddie, believe me, we have other—*

Fredrik bit his lip. “No. I…just thought it’d be a good bonus. Since, you know, sleeping with a hitman is not exactly keeping a low profile and we’ve talked about that.”

*Are you doing it because he reminds you of Jens?* Thierry gently asked.

This bite drew blood and a silent wince from Fredrik, who’d have to watch the alcoholic and citric drinks for a few days. “Well, it’s hard not to have that in there. But I’m not some deluded idiot, Thierry—I know a stand-in is a stand-in. And…honestly, I don’t think I’m going to be screaming the wrong name. They’re not that alike—wait, aren’t you supposed to be dissuading me for the good of my professional career?”

Thierry sighed. *Freddie, like you say, you’re not dumb. You know what chances you’re taking, and it’s not like I can forbid you to see him. That only worked with Ruud because one, we sent him out of the country, and two, he was ready to cooperate. All I can do is say that I trust your judgment, and that besides business success I also want you to be happy.*

“Which is a damn good guilt trip,” Fredrik said. He chuckled to cut off Thierry’s sharp breath and the apology that had been about to follow. “Thanks, Thierry. I’ll be careful.”

*I’ll deal with Jens.* That came along with a slight groan. *Freddie, just try not to make anything explode till next week, all right? Bobby and I have tickets to the premiere of that new Vincent Cassel film this weekend and right now I still think we can make it.*

“No problem. Hey—call’s coming in. Probably Larsson.” After saying goodbye, Fredrik switched to the other call and put the phone back to his ear just as he walked out into the parking garage. “This is really late for breakfast. Two days?”

The line was silent for a few seconds. *My apologies,* Henrik finally said, wary.

“If we can get dinner somewhere besides Monaco, that might start to make up for it. Believe me, there’s better French food in town than there,” Fredrik said. He unlocked his car, then slid behind the wheel. It’d been a hot day and the interior was at a nice temperature for boiling water, so he cracked open the windows before pulling the car out.

Henrik didn’t say anything, though Fredrik got the impression of a puzzled frown.

“You ever take out an assignment on Jens and Thierry and you’d better make sure to get me first, because otherwise you’re dead. And I know where you live. Have lived,” Fredrik quietly added. The somberness rounded out the words in a way he wasn’t used to and he had to clear his throat before continuing. “That said, I do have the damnedest time dealing with the adrenaline crash. You know, you get into a brawl and then you’re all jangling and need to burn off the extra energy. So you want to help out with that, I’m interested.”

*…what kind of food do you like?* Now it sounded like Henrik had just swallowed rather hard. *Actually, I never eat at Monaco. I just like the conversation.*

Fredrik paused for a moment at the garage’s exit before shrugging and turning towards Henrik’s place. “You have my phone number even though I never gave it to you, but you don’t know my favorite food. I’m beginning to wonder about your research skills.”

*Your tastes seem to change pretty often, so I didn’t want to presume,* Henrik replied, bemused with a little extra tinge of interest. *As for my research skills, we can talk about that over dinner. There was a nice sushi place I tried last week, right next to an excellent café. So you can have your salt first and cream afterward.*

Fuck, red light. After slamming on the brakes, Fredrik slouched back and blinked at his windshield. “Shit. Tell me we’re doing a lot of moving around tonight. I’ve been stuck indoors doing paperwork for two fucking days and I need the exercise.”

With a laugh, Henrik gave him the directions to the sushi place. “I can arrange that.”

* * *

“You can’t arrange that,” Jens said.

Ludo stared at him, hands frozen in the air over his half-cut mutton. “Why not?”

Jens stared back. Then he put his elbows up on the table and slowly dropped his head into his hands. After the last few days, he couldn’t even work up the energy to give a shit about looking composed in front of Giuly. “Because he’s a prosecutor at the national level. I think if he died here, somebody would care. And that somebody would probably follow up with more prosecutors, and you can’t dump them all into the sewers.”

“Why not?” Ludo was grinning before he’d even finished speaking. “I’m kidding, sunshine. I need those spaces for other nuisances, so at the very least the body would get shipped back to Italy. Eat your duck. You look a bit peaked.”

Jens was heartily regretting not eating beforehand now. “Nesta is not dying, and it has nothing to do with my stomach. He’s here looking for Italian links to the local rackets. Whoever sent him thinks that Moggi was a spearhead for Italian gangsters moving in. So far that doesn’t necessarily connect to us, so why can’t he just find some expat Italians to deport?”

“Because there aren’t any,” Ludovic said off-handedly. He finished cutting off a chunk of mutton and swirled it in the sauce before popping it into his mouth. He chewed. Then he seemed to remember Jens was still there and looked up, a little embarrassed. “I’ve just finished clearing them out—you might’ve tipped the Italians to where their lost sheep had gone, but the butchers they sent had local help. I don’t trust anyone who’ll betray their leader like that.”

Jens counted to ten, then sipped some water. He absently noted that that explained quite a few recent news stories. “They’re all gone?”

“Yes, so you can relax about Nesta walking into a turf war, since it’s already over, thank God.” Giuly put his hand to his breast, rolled his eyes upward, and briefly mocked religious fervor. Then he dropped his hand and grinned at Jens. “But I didn’t save any for scapegoating. In my defense, I wasn’t expecting anyone to care where they were stopped.”

“Well, all the more reason to get Nesta out of here. The blame should go to organized crime in Italy and if he stays, that gets less likely. If he’s dead, that’s even worse,” Jens said. He prodded his vegetables till the different colors were evenly distributed about the plate, but that didn’t make it any more appealing. In fact, he suddenly wished he had a bowl of Thierry’s pasta. “Nesta alive is important. He’s one of the most stubborn men on earth and if he believes that the people he wants are in Italy, he’ll run them into the ground. In Italy.”

And that would reduce chances of diplomatic incidents, Nesta pestering them ever again, and tie up a lot of Giuly’s regional competitors. All of which had to be percolating through the man’s mind, though at the moment he seemed utterly fascinated with something in his snowpeas.

“All right, you’ve convinced me. So what exactly is Larsson doing for you?” Ludo asked. He paused to nibble at a snowpea, then shot a sly look at Jens. “What? I’m not dumb. You send Ljungberg here with a placeholder message and he leaves with Larsson…I called off Lilian right then and there because I wanted to see what you were up to.”

Jens gave up on the duck. If Robin didn’t have leftovers from whatever he was having for dinner, Jens would just order in Thai. “Nesta needs a good scare to get his blood up, but also one that’ll seem like it originated in Italy, not here. I’m taking care of him, but I don’t have the resources to turn up evidence all the way back in Rome.”

“Ah,” Ludo said. His knife slipped on the plate and made a grating sound, at which they both winced. He repositioned his fork and cut again, and so vigorously that the red juices splattered out to the plate rim. “So are we considering this a joint action to mutual benefit?”

“Do you?” If he thought it was a trade…well, Jens would agree to get out of the damn restaurant, and then he’d call Deco and play a hand early.

Ludovic tipped his head to the side and pursed his lips, then shrugged. “More or less. Now, are you staying for the cheese course? We just got in a very nice Fourme D’Ambert.”

* * *

Ricardo arrived at the address half an hour early and wasted it pacing about in a nearby alley, wondering if he was doing the right thing or making the worst mistake of his life. He kept checking his watch to see how much time he had left, but the minutes seemed to drag by, as if highlighting his inability to come to any sort of conclusion.

In the end he finally decided to at least see if Nesta had shown up—he’d gotten the man’s voicemail and had received a curt text message in return—and walked into the library. It took him a while to find the right archival room in the rat’s nest of back-hallways, so by the time he got to it, he was five minutes late.

He didn’t see anyone in the hall, but the door was propped ajar with a little wooden wedge. After a moment of staring at it, he put his foot against it and slowly shoved the door open. The cool air from the hallway rushed in with him, then dissipated so he was enveloped in the stale, parched atmosphere that invariably accompanied large amounts of paper.

“You showed up.” Nesta’s voice came from an aisle about two down, and he wasn’t visible so he probably had missed Ricardo’s jump. “Good God, you’re nervous. I’m surprised you ever let Paolo close enough to kiss you, the way he tends to come at someone.”

Or not. Ricardo opened his mouth to reply, only to be cut off by a strange grating sound coming from near his hand. He looked down but didn’t see any—he frowned and pried his hand off the handle, which snapped back into place with a rasp. His fingers ached a bit from the hard grip and he flexed them a few times. Then he glanced up at the sound of approaching footsteps.

“How far have you gotten?” Nesta asked, turning the corner. He had a thick binder of microfilm tucked under his arm and another that he was skimming; he glanced up as he passed Ricardo, but didn’t stop as he continued on to the right.

“That’s none of your business.” The dead air in the room made their voices stand out, though neither of them were talking at even regular conversational volume. The bookshelves stretched nearly wall-to-wall, and when Ricardo walked down a few meters, he didn’t see anything on the other side but dull tan paint.

The whole thing didn’t make him comfortable, but Nesta wasn’t waiting for him and in the end Ricardo reluctantly followed the other man after shoving the doorstop back in place. Nesta appeared to be headed for a row of microfilm viewers in the back.

“You’re still thinking I’m wrong and you’ve shown up to prove it to me,” he called to Ricardo. Once he’d gotten to the viewers, he dropped off the binders on the table beside them. Then he stepped back and put his hands behind him…stretching, apparently. “Well, my back’s opinion of that isn’t very much. Where on earth did he find you, anyway? A convent?”

The bookshelves ended a little before the table, leaving a small clear area behind it. Ricardo hung back, leaning against the last bank of shelves. “I don’t know why you keep talking like you know exactly what’s going on, if you don’t know the least thing about me.”

“Because I know Paolo, and I had a front-row seat as strings of nice boys like you went through his bed.” Nesta relaxed slightly with his hands still pushed up under the back of his suit-jacket. His eyebrows rose as he glanced at Ricardo. “Believe it or not, I used to be one of them. I know, I’m not very polite now, but—you can’t have been with him that long. Otherwise you’d be sick too of what it takes to cut through the torrents of charming nonsense he resorts to whenever he’s asked a difficult question.”

A sharp pain went through Ricardo’s arm and he had to temporarily straighten up; he’d accidentally leaned all his weight on his bruised elbow. He suppressed a grimace and started rubbing it. “I’m sorry, but this just sounds like you have a personal grudge against him. And you’re trying to find something to prosecute him with, so I don’t find this very con—”

“Of course it’s personal. That’s Paolo’s talent: making it personal,” Nesta snapped. He jerked up and for a moment—but then he withdrew, shaking his head, and pulled out a chair from the table. He sat down as if he were trying to drive his feet through the floor, and before Nesta reached for one of the binders, Ricardo glimpsed the other hand clamped white-knuckled around the chair-arm. “You know, the first time he fucked me was in the courthouse men’s toilet? During the last recess. Then we went back in and he won that one, even though you could’ve convicted an angel with the evidence we had.”

Ricardo flinched at ‘fucked’ and inadvertently tightened his hand around his elbow. That made it hurt again, but he didn’t loosen his fingers. “He told me.”

“Oh?” Nesta said serenely, flipping through the binder. Then he snorted and yanked out a piece of microfilm so roughly it was shocking it didn’t tear. “Did he tell you everything? How it really was? Stalking his opposition, sending people to harass them? Bribing witnesses? Getting stars off the hook for everything up to and including murder? He’s a lawyer, Kaká, and a good one—I doubt he can even turn off his spin-doctor mode now.”

“And I work at FC. I’m not blind or ignorant. I know—” Ricardo surprised himself by needing a breath already “—it was different years ago. But it’s not like that now. Paolo’s not like that now. He…he regrets what he was like. He doesn’t work like that anymore. He doesn’t try to hurt people now. What—the other night, it isn’t like that at all.”

Nesta paused, then turned abruptly to rake his eyes up and down Ricardo. The corners of his mouth twisted harshly, then slackened; his eyes turned thoughtful, almost melancholy. He’d slung his arm over the back of the chair and his dangling fingers began to curl up, then relaxed a little. “Who are you trying to convince, Kaká? It’s no good for me to know that—he could apologize till his face turned blue and it still would be too late.”

“Then what good is this? All you talk about is how he was to you, and—and I’m sorry it didn’t turn out well, but I’m not you and he’s eight years older,” Ricardo desperately said. Somehow it felt like he was losing the argument, losing his grip on his thoughts, and he couldn’t figure out how it was happening. “He is sorry. He talks about you like…like you’re the biggest mistake he ever made, even before you showed up. I think he still misses you.”

That startled Nesta: he straightened and stared hard at Ricardo. But then he shook his head, twisting back to stick a piece of microfilm into the viewer. “I miss him,” he muttered, so low Ricardo could barely hear him. “That’s the worst part of it. Even with all—”

“What happened? What—why did you leave? What…did he do?” Ricardo squeezed his elbow till he had to bite his tongue against the pain.

Nesta blinked, bent over the viewer. Then he lifted his hands from it and braced them against the table edge. He shoved himself sideways and turned at the same time so he ended up facing Ricardo, sprawled in the chair like a great cat pretending not to notice a herd of passing antelopes. He jerked his hand towards the viewer. “Take a look.”

Ricardo took a shaky step forward, then stopped. After a moment, Nesta seemed to understand and pushed himself farther away, and then Ricardo crossed the rest of the way. He put his hand on the focusing knob and slowly started to bend over.

“I’m not going to molest you again, so you can stop worrying,” Nesta said. He shifted to the left, then pulled himself completely to his feet, giving his clothes a few absent tugs. “Sorry about the old-fashioned technology, but when I went looking online, I couldn’t find anything, curiously enough. Luckily this library’s volume for that month was misfiled, and it looks like nobody’s been in here to straighten up in years.”

Even so, Ricardo couldn’t help glancing at the other man a last time before he finally peered into the eyepiece. It took him a second to adjust the focus—he didn’t have his glasses on him—but after that he could read fine.

The item Nesta had picked out was an old newspaper article about a severe assault that had taken place near a nightclub, notable because…because…

“He said he was sorry back then.” Despite his words, Nesta had drifted dangerously close to Ricardo…and Ricardo couldn’t stop reading long enough to look at him. “He said he didn’t know, and if he had he would’ve done it some other way. Getting put in the hospital, I more or less expected. Watching my replacement fuck up the case while I healed was bad. But what I couldn’t take was Paolo—Paolo playing God, wondering why I didn’t kiss his feet when he told me he could’ve saved me. He wanted to wrap me up in cotton.”

Ricardo finally took in the last word and slowly leaned back, snippets of newsprint swirling about his head. He was dizzy and sick to his stomach, and it was all he could do just to raise his head to meet Nesta’s gaze.

The other man actually looked regretful, standing there with his hand stuffed into his pockets. “He still does that, doesn’t he? He decides how to ‘protect’ you. Well, he might be more well-meaning these days but I doubt that he’s gotten any more clear-sighted about it.”

Nesta left after that, head down and lifting a hand to push at the hair in his face. And Ricardo stayed sitting there, trying to work through it all and just getting shakier and shakier till he barely knew which way was up. He stared at the microfilm viewer and wondered what had happened, how everything had changed so fast…and slowly realized nothing had really changed.

* * *

“That’s fine. When I’m done—oh. All right.” The words drifting on the weak breeze preceded Henrik only by a few seconds, a formality to warn Fredrik he was coming. Though by the time he rounded the corner, his phone was already out of sight.

“See you on Monday, Thierry. Enjoy the movie,” Fredrik said. He snapped shut his phone and raised his eyebrows. “That what I thought it was?”

Henrik lifted and dropped a shoulder as he pulled a latex glove on his hand. He caught Fredrik looking and made a little embarrassed face. “I tore the first one on something in his briefcase. He’s about a week from the latch breaking.”

Fredrik rolled his eyes and turned to take in the rest of the room: Nesta rated a pretty nice hotel, considering he was a government employee. “That’s not what I meant and you know it. I take it you did finish editing his paper copies?”

Instead of answering, Henrik drifted about the room, adjusting this lamp and that notepad. To Fredrik’s eye it had all looked pretty pristine, but Henrik was a perfectionist: he was even tweaking a few of the bedsheets’ rumpled folds to fit whatever mental image he had.

Fredrik checked his watch, then padded quietly over to stand behind the other man. According to Robin, Nesta wasn’t coming anywhere near here for a few hours, so…unfortunately, Fredrik didn’t have any of those nice slick gloves to keep his fingerprints from getting on things. So he stuck to what had come in with him and put his hands on Henrik’s hips. Henrik was still bent over the bed and stayed that way, just stiffening a little.

“You know what we’re doing now?” Fredrik asked, slipping closer till he was pressing up against the other man. He leaned over to watch Henrik hastily adjust a few more wrinkles, idly letting his right hand curl around to the inside of Henrik’s thigh. The muscles in it jumped, even through the heavy fabric of the man’s trousers.

“You do get excited,” Henrik observed expressionlessly.

Fredrik snorted and abruptly dipped his left hand in between Henrik’s legs, doing a rough assessment; Henrik hissed a little and shoved back, but didn’t exactly threaten Fredrik’s balance. “No, now I’m just trying to get a damn answer out of you, Henke. Excited’s for when I don’t have to worry about fucking Italians getting jealous over each other.”

Henrik took a measured breath, then craned his head about in the same way. “Henke?”

“Freddie.” Fredrik grinned, taking a quick nibble at Henrik’s ear. “Nice to meet you.”

* * *

Paolo opened the door while trying to slit open an envelope at the same time. That done, he looked up. And he continued to look, though after the first few seconds, he did manage to remember himself enough to toss the envelope aside. “Kaká. Bobby was wondering where you’d—”

“I called him and explained,” Ricardo said tightly. The whites of his eyes were webbed with red and the flesh under them was drawn and shadowed, but not puffy. Wherever he’d been for the whole afternoon, it’d left its marks on his clothes: his shirt was pulled up a bit from his waistband and there was a long streak of dust across his left shoulder. “I need to talk to you.”

“Of course,” Paolo replied.

He backed up, but Ricardo stayed in the hall, staring with an unnerving intensity at him. The other man wasn’t holding himself like he’d just received shattering news. He was standing there, shoulders slightly forward and chin up, like he was about to go forth and do battle. He looked…grim. And strangely enough, it seemed to suit him, settling easily on features that any passersby wouldn’t have hesitated in calling boyish, unweathered.

“No, we need to talk. I—” Ricardo’s eyes flickered; he took a slow step into the room “—ran into Nesta. Out in the hall the other night, and then earlier today. And he told me—showed me—why he really left.”

Paolo had known that, more or less: he hadn’t known about the meeting today, but he could’ve predicted it if he’d spent any time thinking about it. He hadn’t, of course, because Ricardo had come in and slept next to him, and he was too much of an opportunist to waste that. Especially since he’d had the feeling it was the last time. “I see. Kaká, I…tried to tell you, as best I could, from how I saw it. I know he sees it differently.”

“No, you didn’t tell me at all. You lied. It wasn’t over a one-night-stand at all.” Ricardo flinched and dropped his gaze at his own words, but then, head still down, he quite deliberately put his foot back to toe the door shut. Then he looked up again, skewering Paolo in place. “The other night you knew I’d run into him, but you pretended he hadn’t even come here. You’ve lied, and even when you did tell me the truth, you never gave details. You let him do that. You--had him do that. Why?”

“I,” Paolo said. He seemed to run out of breath and had to stop, though once the clutching sensation in his throat had faded, he found himself exhaling. He did manage to do Ricardo the justice of meeting the other man’s gaze, but that was it. His voice petered out into a whisper and he pressed his hands into the small of his back, feeling their clamminess spread over his skin and up his wrists. “Because I know I leave things out, I can’t bring myself to talk about them even now. I flinch, my guts turn to water. Sandro doesn’t have that problem.”

The only sign that Ricardo was listening was a slight widening of the eyes. He’d stopped walking; they were standing about a meter apart, out of reach of each other. “That’s not what I meant. Paolo, I want to know why you let him get to me. Scare me.”

Paolo had to drop his eyes there. He pulled his hands around to the front and looked at his fingers; a dark spot on the back of one caught his attention and he dug at it with his nail. But it was an age spot, not dirt, and so all he did was gouge his flesh into hurting. “I’ve done too much for it to stay buried forever, I know that. And I know you can’t forgive all of it—” he heard the shuffle of feet and snapped up his gaze “—you can’t, despite all your good intentions. You’re human—you’re a wonderful example of humanity, and I’d like you to stay that way. I don’t want you to end up choking your conscience for my sake.”

“You’d…like. You’d like?” Ricardo repeated, his voice rising and roughening with anger. His eyes flashed and his whole body jerked up so he was on the balls of his feet.

He didn’t lunge, but Paolo had thought he would and had taken a half-step away. But then Ricardo fell back, the fury completely washed out of his face. His shoulders drooped, he spread his hands in a clear attempt to express a helplessness he was struggling to put into words.

“Kaká—” Paolo started.

“Don’t call me that!” Ricardo winced at his own shout, then turned his head to the left and rubbed hard at his face. “Don’t…call me that, when it always means you’re thinking I’m the boy who was given that nickname. I’m not a boy. I’m a man and I love you and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”

Paolo did have a response, but the swear-word, crude and heavy, sank it back into his throat. He stared.

“You don’t get to decide everything. There are two of us, and—and I know you didn’t care much about morality back then,” Ricardo said more quietly. He raised his head and he suddenly looked very tired. “I know. Sandro’s told me and so have a lot of others. And it doesn’t change the fact that I love you. I don’t love that you did those things, but I love you. I love you even though you tried to use Nesta to drive me away, I love you even though—even though I don’t know, Paolo. I don’t know if I’m what you want. I’m nothing like Sandro.”

“I never said you had to be,” Paolo blurted out. He took an impulsive step forward.

“I don’t know if I make you happy, though, and that matters to me. If you’d be happier without me, if you’d be happier hurting me…” Ricardo’s face twisted, then smoothed over as he settled on something. When he looked at Paolo now, it was with absolute, calm certainty. “I’d love you even then, you know. I love you, not your actions. They don’t change anything.”

Another step forward, and Paolo was within touching distance. He lifted his hands: they were shaking, and only trembled harder once they were resting on Ricardo’s sides. He just laid his fingertips there, taking in the warmth coming through Ricardo’s shirt. Then he raised them, running their backs along the inside of Ricardo’s lapels, till they were against Ricardo’s jaw.

“Like you said, there are two people and each with their wants. And I’ve changed since Sandro, I think for the better, and I want to stay that way. But I don’t know—I haven’t tried to love someone since him. I don’t know if I’ve learned how to do that differently.” Paolo closed his eyes and leaned forward till he felt their foreheads bump together. “I don’t know if I can stay out of the past.”

“Then let me help. I’m here, right now. I’ll remind you,” Ricardo whispered. He tilted his head and pushed forward till his lips just grazed Paolo’s mouth. Then he backed off, only to return in the same breath, pressing harder. His hands cupped over Paolo’s before sliding down Paolo’s arms to wrap around the backs of Paolo’s shoulders, pulling them closer together.

He tasted so—Paolo groaned, sank precipitously into it. Instead of cradling Ricardo’s face, he used his hold to keep the other man still, feeling his fingers press into soft flesh. He worked his hands down the jaw and throat as he slipped his tongue into Ricardo’s mouth, traced patterns on its hard roof and then stroked along the side of Ricardo’s tongue, shyer but still trying to follow Paolo’s—example, God help him.

Paolo wrenched himself away, but ran up against the iron bands that were Ricardo’s arms clenched around his back. “I heard him talk to you that night. I was standing there with the door cracked open, listening.”

It hurt Ricardo, hearing that. His eyes were like bruises and his mouth parted as if—but then he pressed his lips shut. His hands ground against Paolo’s back, burning through the thin fabric keeping them from leaving their own marks on Paolo’s flesh. “Did you like doing that?”

“No. No. I wanted to kill him,” Paolo admitted, words rushing out. He took a deep breath and it felt like a knife slivering his throat. His hands were running away with themselves, pulling apart Ricardo’s collar and then shoving unceremoniously inside it.

The pupils of Ricardo’s eyes widened and the brown of his irises darkened till they nearly disappeared into the black center. Then his mouth was on Paolo’s, like fire to brittle old tinder, and Paolo wasn’t pulling at Ricardo’s clothes anymore. He was ripping at them, trying to find some sort of unbreakable hold, but they kept giving first. Ricardo didn’t help here, with the way he rolled his shoulders one by one to let the suit-jacket fall, the little moans he made instead of pained hisses when Paolo stepped on his feet to drag off shoes and socks.

They backed into the kitchen and Paolo only knew that because the floor beneath his feet changed in texture. He didn’t look up till his hands were suddenly crushed between Ricardo and the wall. Ricardo gasped, his head falling back, and stared dreamily up at Paolo. His mouth was the color of crushed strawberries.

Paolo’s breath caught and he bent his head, looking instead at the crumpled loosened shirt-collar framing Ricardo’s long throat. He dipped more and pressed his mouth to the fluttering pulse, the cords that stood out whenever Ricardo swallowed; his hands moved slower, more deliberate, knowing now as they slipped button through buttonhole what was beneath. Knowing despite his best efforts, it still was his.

And only his, he wanted to say. He’d lost his sense of time and place for a moment, listening to Ricardo struggle with Sandro, and seen nothing but his hands around Sandro’s throat. When first Alessandro had been a challenge and then a regret, and—being able to be that angry at him had frightened Paolo, showing him a side of himself he didn’t quite recognize. But he didn’t know this either, this man who could shiver at a simple kiss and lose his soul to an inexpert hand sliding down his stomach.

“Please,” Ricardo breathed, ragged and fervent. His fingers clumsily pulled Paolo’s fly open, pushed his trousers halfway down his hips. They clutched at Paolo’s hands and pushed them from Ricardo’s stomach to the strained inseam of his trouser-leg, and then once his clothes were slipping to the floor, even further. His mouth crushed the protest, question, prayer—Paolo didn’t even know—back into Paolo’s lips. “Now. Please.”

Paolo acquiesced. He pressed shut eyes into the curve of Ricardo’s neck as he worked fingers slick with oil—olive oil and a kitchen wall, so utterly unworthy and yet the quick graze of fever-hot lips against his forehead seemed to sanctify it all—into the other man’s body, trying to soothe the flinches and pained arching with his other hand. Ricardo dug his fingers into Paolo’s shoulders, left-left-right, and then when Paolo pulled his hand from between those pale thighs he pushed down on them, hiking himself up the wall in one shuddering breath.

He got his left foot braced against something—on the half-wall, maybe—and wrapped his other leg around Paolo’s waist and wrapped his arms around Paolo’s bowed neck. He must have been gouging into his own arms then as Paolo pressed himself into his shaking body, going as slow as possible, because Ricardo’s mouth against Paolo’s stayed soft, not biting or going rigid in pain or anything except taking Paolo in wholeheartedly.

His lips slid away once Paolo was fully within him, but only as far as Paolo’s cheek and throat. And they went no further, pressing themselves against Paolo’s skin so he could feel them finally tighten, then peel back for a touch of teeth. Just a touch, though—a graze at the height of it before Ricardo’s head fell to loll against the wall, his eyes still dreamy despite there being nothing to see except Paolo, too shattered to hide his raw true self.

“I love you,” Ricardo whispered, accepting the feverish kisses. Paolo ripped an inhaled breath to sobbing shreds, then bent his head as Ricardo cradled the back of his neck in one hand, stroking away the ache. “I do.”

Paolo kissed him again, slow and quiet, and let them slide down the wall, careful not to jaw the other man. Once he could get on his knees, he did and he bent over to lay his head on Ricardo’s breast. He felt fingers comb through his hair and closed his eyes, unable to speak.

* * *

The door swung open and Paolo was standing there. Hair a mess, trousers barely hitched over his hips and bare-chested under the wrinkled suit-jacket. Glowing, a healthy flush in his cheeks and his mouth a swollen red. He’d never looked more like a visual slap to the face.

He blinked. “Alessandro.”

“You haven’t used my full name since we met.” Alessandro bit the inside of his lip, but the blood in his mouth didn’t make the bitterness taste any better. “Don’t look surprised, damn it. At the very least you have a peephole in your…”

Something moved behind Paolo. Then it came close enough to resolve into that angel-faced Brazilian, dressed in Paolo’s shirt: Alessandro recognized the cut. Kaká came up and wrapped his arms around Paolo’s waist—Paolo started, then stared down at the hands clasping over his stomach—and put his chin up on Paolo’s shoulder. He looked long and challengingly at Alessandro, determined and fully comprehending. Michael with the sword of flame, maybe. Then he turned his head towards Paolo and the lines of his face softened, became uncertain and adoring and human, and he silently bowed his head to lay his cheek against the back of Paolo’s shoulder. Now all Alessandro could see of him was tousled black hair, but that hardly helped.

“…door,” he finished. He sounded dejected. He was dejected, damn it, and he didn’t know who he hated more for that.

“Sandro, I’m sorry about everything I did to hurt you.” Paolo said. He, on the other hand, had undergone something of a transformation since the other night. Then all his words had been a front, with nothing behind it. Now he sounded like he was ready to back everything up with his life. “I don’t know if I can do any—”

“Save it, Maldini.” Alessandro knew when he’d been outflanked and he didn’t need the sympathizing lecture to rub it in. He turned on his heel and left.

The drive back to his hotel room wasn’t long enough and was too long; he had too much time to ask himself why the hell he’d even go back to see Paolo, after thinking he’d managed to ensure the man was sing—damn it. And then he had too little time to compose himself. The parking valet and a member of the cleaning staff, both innocents, suffered from that, and Alessandro was sure that the hotel would be glad to see the back of him.

So would FC when he was done with it, he thought as he slid the card into the door-reader. The label definitely wouldn’t have had a sudden crisis of—

Somebody grabbed him from behind and a wet cloth was forced up into his nose. He snorted and tried to kick out, but his legs suddenly failed. And then the world went black.

* * *

Zlatan was still staring at Henrik’s neck. He jumped when Henrik dropped a bag by his foot, but his eyes didn’t move. “What the hell is that?”

“It’s a bite,” Henrik sighed. He and Freddie had had to wait almost three hours for Nesta to show up at the hotel and though they couldn’t chance much, Freddie had done enough to grind down Henrik’s considerable patience. And right now Freddie was waiting outside, and Zlatan was hard to take even when Henrik wasn’t sexually frustrated nearly to the point of spontaneous combustion. “I have someone waiting, so can you listen?”

A scuffling sound came from the trunk. “I am,” Zlatan snorted. He popped the trunk while Henrik dug the syringe kit out of the bag slung over his shoulder. “Drive car and contents to Rome, Italy. Meet up with contact who’ll have props to strew around when I dump car. Check bank account for payment. If payment’s not there, come back and say hi to your date.”

Nesta wasn’t moving much, just enough to indicate dawning consciousness. Henrik measured out a dose, then tugged the man around till he could get at the thin skin over the collarbone. He carefully slipped the needle in. “Look up his name and I’ll kill you.”

“Yeah…you know, I never would’ve figured, but you have no sense of humor when you’re getting laid.” Zlatan sounded absentminded, which usually was a warning. “Looks like he doesn’t, either. Olof couldn’t have been that offensive. It’s Olof.”

“He’s here?” Henrik pulled out the needle and turned to see Freddie and Olof getting into an argument; Zlatan muttered something about resupplying. Probably Olof just wanted to know what Freddie was doing here but—a second later, Henrik was out the door and between them. Freddie could take the other man, but Olof could hold a grudge like no one else.

When he came back in, Zlatan was bent over the still-open trunk and Henrik began to get the sinking feeling that he was never going to get to a bed and have Freddie make good on all the filthy things he’d been whispering.

“He’s pretty for a lawyer,” Zlatan mused.

“Stop that.” Of course Zlatan didn’t and Henrik had pull the hood back down over Nesta’s head himself. “He has to think other people did this. He can’t see you.”

“He’s unconsci—ow!” Zlatan snarled and ducked Henrik’s second cuff. “Okay! I’ll be good, I promise. And Zlatan always keeps his promises.”

Henrik didn’t lower the gun from just in front of Zlatan’s left eyeball. “What Zlatan is going to do is not mess this up,” he said pleasantly. “Because if you do, I’ll find you.”

Zlatan nodded vigorously. After another moment, Henrik clicked the safety on and slid the gun back into his shoulder holster. He shut the trunk, then walked back out to Freddie’s car.

“I think that hardass bought the bit about me waiting here while you bought the cocaine from your pet dealer,” Freddie said. “But I think he also thinks I’m going to be your kill later.”

“That works out—then Olof isn’t curious.” Henrik got into the car. As Freddie backed out, Henrik reached around for his seatbelt, only to hiss when a hand groped between his legs. “Zlatan’s top-class. I can’t get away from my other jobs, but he’ll take care of it.”

Freddie h’mmed along with his squeezing hand till they had pulled into the road, and then he didn’t have an excuse to lean over Henrik, sadly. “I damn well hope so. Because believe me, you’ll want me to fuck you again, and if your guy screws up, I won’t have time for that.”

“You haven’t fucked me yet,” Henrik mildly corrected. And finished getting his seatbelt on; he refused to risk being delayed for a stupid traffic citation.

“I’m going to.” Freddie shot him a hungry, sharp smile. “Oh, I’m going to.”