|Nothing Could Come Between Us
Author: Guede Mazaka
Andriy opened the door and blinked a few times at the man standing there. Then he started to glance to the left, but in the middle of that remembered what he’d been doing and lunged for the kitchen. “Shit!”
He got to the stove just before his dinner collapsed into a lump of char, but too late for it to be remotely edible. For a moment he simply looked at the meat, mourning the loss. Then he shrugged, flipped the chunk into the trashcan and tossed the pan in the sink.
When he went back out into the other room, Lilian was still standing in the hall, but had pushed his spectacles down his nose so he could stare at his watch. “Someone slipped Philippe a mickey and he’s complaining of headache, blurry vision—Shevchenko.”
“Breathing? Pulse? Anyone take his pulse…damn it, where is it? I just had…oh, right.” The stomach pump kit was, thankfully, still under the couch where Andriy had accidentally kicked it last night—early this morning—when he’d finally stumbled home. He got down on his hands and knees and pulled it out, then spotted his cell-phone and keys on the way back up. After stuffing those in his pockets, he looked around the room while mentally going down his list of…“Jesus!” he yelped in Russian.
Lilian had finally come inside and was now so close that their noses bumped before Andriy jerked back. The other man didn’t seem to register the motion, but instead continued to stare disapprovingly at Andriy; his spectacles were off and now he was tapping them against the back of one hand. “Are you drunk again?”
“No.” Andriy hooked up his doctor’s bag with his foot and stuffed it under his arm with the stomach pump. Then he tried to walk past Lilian, only to be hauled back by the elbow so Lilian could peer into his eyes. “I was cooking dinner. The smell’s from the wine. That I was cooking with.”
The difference in odor between wine and vodka should’ve been apparent enough, especially for someone with as long and high-bridged a nose as Thuram, but nothing changed in Lilian’s face. He did let go of Andriy’s arm, but only so he could start moving his index finger about in front of Andriy’s eyes.
Which Andriy rolled as he swerved around Lilian. He dodged the attempt to intercept him and got to the side-table just inside the door, where he rummaged through the stacks of mailers till he found the breathalyzer. After huffing into it, he held it up for Lilian to see. “Okay? You know how much more of whatever drug it is could’ve made it into Mexes’ bloodstream in the five minutes we’ve been talking? A lot. And then we have to drive there—”
“He’s in the stairwell.” Lilian pivoted on one heel and seemed to glide out the doorway in the same stride. “It happened around the corner and we did try to call, but your phone isn’t working.”
Andriy dropped the breathalyzer and hurried after the other man, nearly tripping as he pulled the door shut with his foot. “I know. It’s still disconnected because you told me to do that till you figured out how Abramovich got my new number.”
“I was referring to your cell,” Lilian said. He was moving quickly but it couldn’t have been that serious, since he still bothered to sound faintly annoyed.
“I…” After briefly trying to juggle his bags, Andriy gave up and tossed the general kit to Lilian. At least, he tossed it in that direction and instead of a thud he heard a curt grunt, so he assumed the man had caught it. Then he took out his cell and hit the power button, only for nothing to happen. “Oh. I forgot to charge it. Oops.”
They reached the stairwell door. Andriy gave it a push and it yielded a few centimeters, but then stopped. Someone started to challenge them and he snapped that it was him in bad French, rolling his eyes. The door opened and he immediately dropped next to the prone Philippe, who was glassy-eyed and very pale. He flipped up an eyelid, then pulled down Philippe’s lower lip. “How long’s it been? What kind of drink was it? Do you have any of it with you? Did—Lilian? Lilian, damn it.”
“You need to keep your phone on,” Lilian muttered, and then he started to translate.
* * *
“Wait a moment, the reception’s not very good.” Ruud let a gaggle of Japanese tourists go by, then walked across the hall and towards the huge glass windows overlooking the parking lot. He felt a wrench at his wrist and looked over his shoulder to see that his bag had tipped onto the left wheel, twisting the handle. After straightening it out, he continued on to the window. “All right.”
*I said, watch your back.*
“Rio?” Ruud lilted. He put his hand over his face and then closed his eyes anyway.
There was a short pause and then a frustrated snort. *Yes, it’s me! What, did South America toast your brains or something?*
Ruud dropped his hand a little so when he opened his eyes, he could see over it to the window. Then he swore and moved away, ducking behind a nearby cardboard ad for some upcoming Bruce Willis movie. “How did you know I was in—”
*Word on the street. Listen, I don’t exactly have a lot of time here. I just wanted to call and let you know that that contract on your head? I just heard it’s still active,* Rio said. *Plus Keane and Giuly’s fought each other to a standstill over here, so—*
“You’re…wait, then you’re in Britain? What are you doing there? Ferguson—” Shit. Shit, shit, shit. Well, there went making a great returning impression with the new signings that Ruud had made. He’d thought that Lehmann had taken care of that nonsense about the hitmen and if that hadn’t been done, he wanted to know why. He still was a long way from paying off his debt to FC, but not at that expense. “Rio?”
The line had gone quiet, but now a slight cough came through followed by a mutter. *Fuck. I—fuck, well, I’m taking a long vacation. Which Fergie never really got told about, and I’d like it if you pretended I never…never mind. Just wanted to let you know…I’m just really tired of all this shite, and don’t want your face showing up on the evening news, all right?*
“Oh, well, thank—Rio? Rio?” But Ruud heard nothing but the dial-tone. He swore and lifted his foot, then put it down when he remembered where he was; kicking over huge movie ads would attract attention and right now, that was the last thing he needed.
Staring at his phone wouldn’t help either, so Ruud put that away and looked up and out over the busy airport. It suddenly struck him just how many people were moving through it, and how utterly vulnerable its vast open spaces were. It’d been so easy—he grimaced and cut off that train of thought, and then forced himself to get out from behind the cardboard display. First he needed to…something tapped his back and he jumped away, then spun around.
“Sorry, I…” José blinked, then hiked the strap of his bag higher on his shoulder and hurried up beside Ruud, who’d immediately started walking. “What’s wrong?”
“Not much,” Ruud muttered, stuffing his coat up beneath his arm. He began to scan the space ahead of them for the quickest way to the exit, then gave himself a shake and adjusted to look for the way that’d lead them through the most people. “We just get here and I get a call saying that—you remember I told you they hired some Swede to kill me? Well, apparently whoever that is still wants me dead, is all.”
They walked quickly and silently for several minutes, with José occasionally pushing ahead so he was between Ruud and a heavy baggage cart or an especially large and noisy group going by them. It didn’t seem to be conscious, since José was rubbing nervously at his face and frequently had his eyes covered or closed so Ruud had to pull him out of the way of several columns.
“Crap,” José finally said. He let out a shaky, high titter, then ducked his head in embarrassment. “Um. Sorry. Um, can I do any—oh, there’s Uncle…and Sergio?”
José lifted his arm and started to dart forward, but then caught himself. He grabbed at the back of his neck and threw an awkward glance at Ruud that made Ruud wish he’d waited to tell José about the call, since for a moment the other man had been literally transformed with excitement. “It’s fine, just go,” Ruud said.
“But—someone’s trying to kill you!” After a moment, José shook himself and pressed his hand over his right eye. “I’m really sorry, I know I sound like some movie chick. I…this is just weird. This kind of thing actually has never come up before in my life. I mean, with my cousins…”
“Which is a good thing, and I wish I could say the same. But look, you’re not a trained bodyguard and an airport’s a little public, and anyway I need to make a couple calls now. Go say hi to Raúl and your cousin.” Most of it was the truth, and the part that wasn’t was an educated guess, Ruud told himself. Whoever it was, at this point they had to be out of pocket enough to not be hiring anyone high-end enough to risk doing it here.
Still hesitating, José ignored his cousin’s calls and arm-waving and stared up at Ruud. “You’re being really calm about this.”
Well, last time Ruud hadn’t cared too much because he’d been too depressed to care about anything. This time…this time, he decided, he was just angry. He’d worked hard, he’d dragged himself around, and after everything else he did not need this in his way. He’d suffered enough and he wanted to be happy now, damn it. “Thanks. Now get over there. I’m not getting any closer to your uncle. I’ve seen him lunge at people before.”
“Stay…stay where I can see you?” José uncertainly said. He waited till Ruud nodded and then he smiled brilliantly.
It only lasted for a moment and vanished as if someone had flipped a switch, or as if José had recalled Ruud’s problem. José backed up a few steps, then turned and crossed the security barrier at a slight angle to his relatives. He paused again once he’d gotten within a meter of them, looking at Raúl who was clearly struggling to come up with the correct response, but the cousin solved the issue by flying over and hugging José so hard his feet came off the floor. José’s startled laugh drifted back to Ruud as he took up a place leaning against a Plexiglas barrier.
Ruud looked down to select a number from his speed-dial, then back up in time to see Raúl, finally smiling, embrace José with what looked like genuine welcome. He smiled himself, but only till someone answered his call. Then he turned away, pushing the hair from his eyes. “Ljungberg? Ruud. I just landed and there’s a prob—no, not with any of the signings. They’re all on iron-clad contracts and guaranteed. It’s a security issue. I would’ve called Lehmann direct but he said—yes, that bad.”
* * *
“Ferdinand’s lost it, had a total nervous breakdown. He just walked out while you were in Madrid and hasn’t been around since,” Fredrik said, but he was already out of his office and in the hall. Thierry had gone home early, so worn out Bobby had actually started scolding Fredrik for letting it happen before Thierry had saved the peace by nodding off on Bobby’s shoulder, and Jens had locked himself in his office to try and get things wrapped up before his personal trip. So that left…shit. He popped out his PDA. “Hang on.”
*I’m in the airport, Freddie. With Raúl and some of his family, and if I’m in danger they might be, too. I can’t--*
God, but Ruud had come back with an assertive streak. Too bad he hadn’t gotten any more patience with it. “Look, just for ten minutes. Get a coffee from Starbucks or something. I’m emailing Robin and then I’ll send a car for you. You’d better make Reyes go home with his uncle.”
*That’s—* A frustrated sigh came over the line. *All right, I’m calling back in ten minutes. Exactly.*
“Hey, calm down. It’s not like you’re the only damn one who’s had—Ruud? Fuck.” Sighing himself, Fredrik snapped his phone shut with one hand. With the other, he hit ‘send’ on the email to Van Persie, who now had an excuse to sneak into the office and be a bitchy lazy ass, as if Jens had never banned him from there on pain of…of…never mind. “Henke?”
Henrik had already whisked himself around the corner, a neat fan of folders in his hand. “These are for the—”
“Oh, thanks. Right, tomorrow I’m meeting with…” Fredrik blinked, then shook his head. “Forget about that. You remember Van Nistelrooy, the guy you got double-booked for?”
“His plane landed fifteen minutes and thirty seconds ago,” Henrik said, as if commenting on the weather. He absently adjusted his tie and Fredrik briefly got distracted again. “Did he not get off? The airline’s system said he got on and that the flight was normal.”
The folders were still in Henrik’s hand, and taking them gave Fredrik an excuse to stall till he’d taken a breath. “He just heard from a knowledgeable source that the contract on him’s still out. Someone needs to go get him and bring him here till that’s looked into—no, it can’t be you.”
Henrik paused, then put his foot back down and turned away from the elevators. “Why not? I actually was just coming to ask if there was anything else you needed me to do…”
Already? Fredrik thought, and if anyone could’ve heard his thoughts he would have freely admitted to the undertone of panic in them. It’d only been a few days since his promotion and he hadn’t had to account to Jens for another mess yet, and if he could keep it that way till Jens came back from Germany, he figured then he could believe he could do this. “Because you tried to kill him, remember?”
“Well, does he know that? We never met,” Henrik said, sounding mildly confused. Aside from a few moments when skirmishing with Frings over the billing system, he’d apparently taken his change of career in unbroken stride, but curiously enough, that didn’t really help Fredrik’s nerves. It just highlighted how jangled they were.
“No, but he knows it was a Swede and there aren’t a lot of—and anyway, I need you to look into that contract. I thought that wasn’t a problem anymore.” Fredrik backed up to his office and dropped off the folders, and while in there he took a surreptitious deep breath as well. He told himself the only difference really was that he wouldn’t have to call Thierry after the fact to let him know what’d been done, then went back out. “If it is, it needs to be solved.”
Henrik was looking at him as if there was something wrong with Fredrik’s face, but instantly assumed a thoughtful expression the moment Fredrik looked back. He stared off to the side for a moment, then frowned and pulled out his phone. “It shouldn’t be. I checked it out afterward, just to see who’d actually be stupid enough to double-book a job, and took care of that.”
It was a little funny, but while Fredrik hadn’t minded Henrik being a hitman when he’d actually been that, he couldn’t help but twitch now at being reminded of it now. So far word hadn’t gotten out—even Fàbregas had kept his mouth shut—and it had to stay that way. “You mean you…”
“I don’t like having my time wasted like that. He should’ve known better,” Henrik absently said, dialing. When Fredrik grabbed his wrist, he looked up and blinked like a stunned owl. “Then again, it took me a few days. By then the contract could’ve gotten bought out or transferred to a new bankroller…I’ve got some col—old colleagues in England who can see at least if it’s still Keane’s operation behind it.”
“You mean Zlatan? He’s in England? Shouldn’t he be on a different continent from Nesta? At least?” Then Fredrik snapped his mouth shut and dropped Henrik’s wrist. He turned around, telling himself he was starting to sound like an anxious kitten. And also he didn’t really have a good excuse for just staring this way down the hall, so…he stomped back into his office and stuffed the files into his briefcase. “Never mind, just…do that, but not in here. I think Robin’s been fiddling with the cell-phone signal encryption again. And…is Hildebrand still in? He’s not bad in a fight and he knows a little about computers, even if—Jens?”
Who came swooping past the door, arguing vociferously with the cell smashed into his ear. He did raise his head and see them, but his step didn’t even hitch. “…formal suit, so of course. If it was comfortable it’d be a leisure suit and…Robin, you have to buy one before they close and I’m already paying them overtime and for a rush job. And my tailor was taking your inseam and not feeling you up, he’s happily married and I swear to God if you do anything to him I’ll kill you. I went through ten idiots before I found—Freddie, Larsson. Robin says it’s the same contract but seems like someone else took it over. Different bankroller. Fix this.”
And Jens went on past them, now snarling something about ties. With the kind of expression usually reserved for watching nature specials on disgusting yet vaguely fascinating habits of insects, Henrik slowly pivoted to watch. His thumb moved slightly so his phone beeped. “Never mind. I don’t need to call England to find out about that.”
“Don’t kill anybody,” Fredrik blurted.
Henrik shot Fredrik a puzzled, faintly irritated look. “You know, I keep getting the feeling that you’ve got a problem with my old connections. I know I said—”
“Huh? No, I’m fine as long as they don’t ever implicate FC. Listen, get a name for me on that. I—you know, I was about to close up for the night. I’ll just go get Van Nistelrooy myself. Be back in an hour.” And then Fredrik spun on his heel and hurried to the elevators before the other man could reply. Well, he thought, at least this gave him an excuse to keep Henrik from trying to get them into bed. He was already starting to run low on those.
* * *
Andriy sat back on his heels and lifted his hand to wipe the sweat from his forehead. Then he stopped and looked at it. Grimacing, he glanced around till he spotted a wad of gauze pads that wasn’t completely soiled. He picked it up, folded the dirty parts in and then dabbed with the one clean spot. “Okay, no solids for two days, keep him in bed and ask him questions every couple of hours to make sure there’s no mind deterioration. Prelim lab tests back tom—I mean, tonight, and better ones in a week.”
While Lilian repeated all of that in French, Andriy got up and started to tidy up his living room floor, to which they’d moved Philippe after he’d stabilized. The kitchen would’ve been better, but…Andriy poked at the damp, stinking stain in his carpet, then sighed and went into the bathroom. He dug out a can of cleaning powder from beneath the sink and set it aside. In doing so he happened to glance at his watch—he looked again, then cursed and pulled himself back up to his feet.
He splashed his face and ran his wet fingers through his hair till it was all lying flat, if not in the same direction. Then he reached for the can of shaving cream, but somebody called his name and his hand jerked, knocking two bottles into the sink. One of them was glass and it broke, and in an instant its contents had swirled down the drain.
Andriy sucked in a breath, held it, and then put one hand on his hip and the other against his brow as he muffled a groan into its palm. He moved his hand to press against his right temple, then exhaled and turned on the water. Wary of the glass fragments, he shaved quickly and then ducked into the bedroom to change his shirt and get a tie.
On the way back to the living room, he did grab the cleaning powder but he let the sink be; he was already running late and he’d just have to clean that up later. Philippe and the one who’d carried him in were gone, but Lilian was still there, of course. He looked up at Andriy’s entrance and maybe he didn’t actually snort in disdain, but he certainly did everything but that.
“Are you ready?” Lilian asked, tone faintly arch. “You’re twelve minutes late.”
“Because I was treating a patient on overtime, so why don’t we just say I started early and bill that as regular time?” Andriy muttered. He shook out a small heap of cleaning powder on the stain, then dropped the can on the table as he hunted about for his jacket. After throwing that on, he grabbed his bag and…
…Lilian was already in the hall, shaking out his car keys. Andriy looked at him and very badly wanted to—but no, never mind. It wasn’t worth the long-term trouble and anyway, he had an entire night to get through. If he started getting angry now…he sighed and went out into the hall. He definitely was having a nightcap when he finally got off in the morning.
* * *
José leaned his head against the car window and looked at his hands, which were twisting in his lap. He ran his thumb along the side of his palm, then bit his lip and stared outside; they were just entering the city and the houses zipping by were low, mostly woodframe and all lurching about like men holding their heads in despair. He’d told Ruud the change of plans was fine, and at the time he’d meant it, but now he wished he hadn’t. Except that was selfish, and he was supposed to be done with that. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“Oh, no, he’s fine. Uh, I mean…” Sergio’s voice went muffled a moment before his head thumped into the back of José’s seat. “He was really upset when you ran off like that, but ‘Nando didn’t go crazy or—I mean he cared, but—oh, fuck, this isn’t coming out right. Man, where’s Cesc when you need him?”
“Fernando still isn’t talking to your parents and he’s working too hard, but he snaps at anybody that tells him so,” Raúl said, adjusting his hands on the steering wheel. He glanced at José, still a little wary, before looking back out at the road. He obviously wasn’t comfortable with everything but he wasn’t trying to butt in right away or to pretend things hadn’t changed, which was something.
At any rate, it was easier to take than Sergio’s awkward attempts to beat around the bush. “He’s really mad at me, isn’t he?”
Raúl shrugged, then put up an arm on the windowsill and leaned his head on his hand. “I don’t know. He won’t even talk about what happened that night—I had to get that from Ruud. Did you ever try to call him?”
“Yes—no.” José squeezed his eyes shut and ground the knuckles of one hand into the palm of the other. “Well, I called when I thought he’d be out and then left a message when I got his machine. I know it’s pretty chicken-shit but I just couldn’t…really…I did call my parents yesterday.”
“And my sister is very happy, and planning a gigantic dinner.” The way Raúl said that made José flinch, and Raúl must have noticed since he suddenly shook his head. “No, no, Cesc and I and Sergio aren’t even going to show up, unless you want one of us there. I meant big as in food. She’s been cooking since she heard you were coming back.”
Something flopped onto José’s right shoulder and he jumped, then sat back when he saw it was just Sergio’s hand. The other man pulled it away to wrap in the seatbelt, then used that to pull himself forward so he could drape his arm across José’s chest. “If you do need back-up, pick me. I need the food and Cesc will bitch because tomorrow’s supposed to be his off-day.”
“Cesc will not. Gitano, sit down before I have to brake suddenly and you fly through the windshield,” Raúl snapped. His tone was straight from their childhood and made Sergio’s arm disappear and his ass slap the seat before Raúl had even finished speaking. Then Raúl turned to José, the annoyance in his face smoothing away to hesitancy. “You said you were staying at Ruud’s apartment so we didn’t…”
He hadn’t sounded like he’d liked that idea on the phone and in person he clearly disagreed with it even more. But he was trying. José did appreciate that, once he’d gotten through the irrational flash of anger at Ruud—who might be in serious danger, for real, and who hadn’t needed to offer to share space in the first place. “He said somebody named Ljungberg said it looked like a misunderstanding and it’d be cleared up in a couple days, so I’ll just take a couch somewhere.”
Raúl paused, then made himself say it. “Well, we can find you one for sure, but your mother’s also been dusting off your room…”
“No,” José said sharply. Then he grimaced and sank down in the seat, rubbing at his eyes. He took a deep breath before going on a little more quietly, aware that Sergio was now listening so hard he was unconsciously bouncing on the backseat. “No. I haven’t told her yet, but I’m just staying with Ruud till I find a place of my own. I’m not living with them anymore.”
“So they can’t lock you out again?”
“Sergio!” This time Raúl went so far as to twist about and glower into the back. He stayed that way till José heard a weird little whimper, then turned around. Raúl opened his mouth, closed it, then looked back at the road in time to see the huge truck cutting just a hair in front of them. He eased up on the accelerator till they were a safe distance behind, then sighed. “José…well, how much of your savings do you have now? Will it tide you over till you get a job, or are you still working at—”
José bit at his lip again and pried his heel out of the hole it was trying to grind in the floor. He breathed carefully a couple times. They were in a car and he couldn’t go anywhere, and anyway Raúl was trying and—and damn it, on the plane he’d been fine. On the plane he’d had everything worked out in his head, and nothing had changed since then. “I’ll be fine, Uncle. I thought about all that.”
“All right, but I just—”
“Don’t worry about it,” José said, voice edged. He winced at himself and didn’t look at Raúl, just hoping that the other man would drop it. For God’s sake, that was more than he would’ve said before and…before he realized what he was doing, he’d rolled his head back and let an aggravated sigh drag out of him.
Raúl jerked about to stare at José, brows down and eyes flashing. He stayed like that for a moment, his mouth a little open, and then abruptly turned back. His arms straightened out till he looked like he was trying to force himself through his seat-back.
“He can stay with me.” Sergio’s voice tiptoed between them. “A mattress, not a sofa. I just bought a new one and haven’t gotten rid of the old one yet—nothing’s really wrong with it, there’s just this big hole in one side.”
“Fine,” Raúl said.
“Fine,” José sighed.
* * *
Van Nistelrooy wasn’t taking things too well, at least according to Fredrik’s view. The man had just gotten off a transoceanic flight to be told that somebody here still wanted him dead, and what did he do? Trail around after Fredrik with his laptop balanced on one arm, asking about hotel arrangements and Premier trials for the prospects he’d picked up in South America. And he’d gotten together a surprisingly large group, as if he hadn’t been going through a messy personal crisis at the same time.
Fredrik stopped in the middle of the hall and stared down at his PDA. All right, he admitted, Ruud was acting like a stone-cold professional. And it was really, really fucking annoying. “Look, Henk—Henrik faxed all of that info to you yesterday.”
“And I got it, but there are issues that need to be fixed before Pato and Denilson get here, and Aguero’s coming only a week later.” Pause. Then Ruud lowered the laptop screen. “Also, who the hell is Henrik?”
“Oh, nobody told you?” Fredrik grinned. “I’ve been promoted. Henrik happens to be my assistant.”
The muscle in Ruud’s jaw twitched rather hard, but his eyes stayed coolly disdainful. “I was told, and so that was why I assumed you would now be capable of helping me deal with these problems so I wouldn’t have to go over your head, like before.”
Asshole. But it was nice to know that Van Nistelrooy could still royally fuck things up for himself: he’d just ruined the only bit of fun Fredrik probably would have in the next few hours and he was going to pay for that. And for dragging in his shit and making Fredrik pull an unscheduled all-nighter. “And I assume that you’d want to be alive and kicking when your starlets show up? Look, I can’t get Thierry till tomorrow morning and Jens is taking off for Germany in two days, so right now the office is basically me. So don’t expect an army jumping up to help you out, all right?”
Ruud visibly restrained himself. “Robin? Ballack?”
“Robin’s going with Jens and they’re tying each other up.” Fredrik ran that sentence through his head again and winced. He rechecked his email to get the images out of his mind. “Ballack’s out of town, at some tech-geek convention. He’s back tomorrow afternoon. And before you ask, Fàbregas is one, Thierry’s assistant now, and two, buried in work.”
“Well, I’m just sitting here,” Ruud said.
“We just got here ten minutes ago. Don’t you want to check your office, see if anything’s missing after a couple of months out?” Fredrik snapped. He turned around and ducked into his office, but Henrik wasn’t there either. But he should’ve called if he’d left the building, so…Fredrik started for Ballack’s office, where the best computer was.
His footsteps were, annoyingly, immediately echoed. “Why would something be missing from my office? You know what, never mind. Just tell me where I can reach Henrik and after I get the hotel contact info off him, I’ll go off in a corner and work.”
As if Fredrik wasn’t? Honestly, sometimes he just wanted to—but no, no hitting coworkers. Jens would kill him, and Fredrik was on eggshells as it was. “Henrik’s busy trying to find out who’s got your contract now so we can buy them out or something.”
“Well, then, don’t you have a copy?” Ruud persisted.
“Look, I am really fucking…” Not in Ballack’s office either. Goddamn it, but Henrik would pop up like a ninja when Fredrik didn’t really want him around and then disappeared when Fredrik did need to talk to him. Except, Fredrik suddenly thought, if he found Henrik while Ruud was still tailing him, Van Nistelrooy might start getting more interested in him. Which was bad, and so Fredrik promptly did an about-face and headed back where he’d come. “I do, actually. Wait a moment.”
He left Ruud in the hall and threw himself into his office with a gasping sigh of relief. Fredrik collapsed on his desk and pressed his palms and forehead to the cool, cool glass, savoring the sudden lack of pestering.
And then he got up to look for the file and saw Henrik standing in the corner, holding a sheet of paper and wearing a startled expression. “Christ!” Fredrik yelped, jumping back. He flinched again when Henrik made a movement towards him, then caught himself on the edge of his desk. “Oh, for the love of God, could you stop doing that? I know you’re good! I’ve seen you at it! What, do I have to ask you to wear a bell?”
Henrik blinked. “Freddie, I think you need to calm down.”
“I’m calm, I’m calm. I’m so calm I’m going to—fuck.” Fredrik spun back towards the door and flung it open. “Ruud, could you—”
Well, finally somebody was listening to Fredrik’s prayers. Ruud wasn’t paying him the slightest attention, and in fact seemed to have missed the entire rant. He was standing very still, with a face like an Edvard Munch painting except for the bloodless grey undertone to his tanned skin, and staring down the hall.
Cristiano was at the other end, looking basically the same except where Ruud had a laptop, he was carrying a beaten-up notebook. And Gabriel Heinze was standing behind him, and never mind, Fredrik would’ve preferred his prayers have gone unanswered.
* * *
Giuly wasn’t currently in town, but his recent purging of the cookstaff meant the kitchen was very subdued and skittish, with normally friendly line cooks and dishwashers shying away the moment Andriy looked in their direction. The food was a lot better, but all in all he thought he preferred the previous conditions.
“The chef had a methadone addiction and was embezzling money to pay for it,” Lilian explained. He peered through those blue-tinted glasses of his at half of a broken baguette while squeezing it with one hand. Then he looked up and nodded to a nervous waiting cook. “The bread is acceptable.”
The cook all but danced back through the kitchen doors to tell the others. Thuram began to nibble at the baguette the way a cat did at a mouse they’d caught when not particularly hungry, occasionally pausing to stare at Andriy sucking up his bisque.
“That alone would have been something we could have handled, but he also began talking too much to his dealer, who is not someone we know.” After flicking the crumbs off his fingers, Lilian moved his eyes to a tiny dot of orange that had just appeared on Andriy’s sleeve. His lips thinned. “You’re remarkably uneven about your appearance. I suggest you do not begin to practice medicine in the same fashion.”
Andriy looked at his sleeve, then at the bowl, which was still half-full. Then he put that down on the bar and shoved it away. “All right, that’s enough. I can’t take this. Look, you stupid French Elton John, you can sneer at a lot of things about me. You can sneer at the vodka, at my lousy French, at my taking five fucking minutes to look nice for a fucking long day with nothing else nice about it, but you do not touch my profession.”
“As the representative of your employer, I am concerned—”
“No, no, no. You are concerned about bullshit. Bullshit,” Andriy snapped, getting off the stool. He slammed up the hinged section of the counter and went behind the bar to jam his sleeve beneath the sink. “You just want to be disgusted with me because I don’t act snobby French like you. Yes, I drink vodka—but never at work. I never drink when I’m being a doctor. Never. It would make a lot of it easier and me care less, but I don’t do that. And you know why? Because I am a doctor, first before anything else. I am not one of those glitzy boys who think the degree looks nice on the wall, I’m not a psycho who just wants to cut people without getting arrested. I went to fucking Italy and I learned to be a fucking doctor, damn it.”
And if Lilian had spent as much time in that country as his command of the language said he had, he’d have some idea of how damn hard that had been; medical school in Italy required bribing first, with money and with flattery, and learning a distant second. He shouldn’t have been looking like somebody had hit him with a lead pipe.
The water from the faucet angled off Andriy’s sleeve all over the counter, then splashed up into his chest. He hissed at the coldness and knocked off the flow before grabbing a towel. “I get up at all hours and I don’t complain, do I? I miss dinner to watch somebody die on a fucking table, I miss sleep because I’ve got to sit up and pump drugs into people so they can get up in the morning and go out and do their job before they’re fired, and what? I get drunk when I have free time. I try to show up to work looking better than I feel. I chat with the cooks. I don’t ask you where all the money and all the patients come from, and I don’t want to know because what does that have to do with the doctor? Nothing. The doctor heals, and it’s the man who feels pain. Okay?”
When Andriy looked, that spot on his cuff had faded slightly but it was still there. He pumped some hand-soap onto his fingertip and scrubbed it into his sleeve, then rinsed out the fabric. Then he looked again but the damn thing was still there. He swore, but halfway through the word he was already giving up. Well, he thought, he had to do the laundry anyway.
“I didn’t realize you actually took pride in it,” Lilian said after a long pause. He adjusted those stupid glasses.
“Of course I do. What I did for Abramovich ruined my reputation as a man, so it’s what’s left,” Andriy muttered. He got out from behind the bar and headed for the back-stairs. “I’m going to take a nap. When somebody comes in, just shake my shoulder and I’ll be up.”
* * *
José was so relieved to be away from Raúl’s simmering irritation that he didn’t notice till after he’d come out of the bathroom that Sergio had company. He rubbed his still-damp hands against his thighs and tried not to let out any sounds that actually fit his mood.
“Oh…shit, I overslept,” Miguel Torres said. He nervously scratched at his tousled head and pulled at the threadbare sweat-pants barely hanging onto his hips. “Um, hey. Welcome back. I, uh, hope you had a good vacation.”
“Bill, bill, bill—no, hey, my class schedule! Finally!” First a handful of mail came in, and then the rest of Sergio followed. He continued to sort through the envelopes while he kicked the door shut and somehow did up the locks with a strange but fluid combination of elbow, crooked wrist and head. And then he looked up. “Shit! Miguel! What are you still doing here?”
“I overslept,” Miguel snapped, glancing over his shoulder. With a friendly clap to José’s stiff shoulder, the other man ambled back into the bedroom and shut the door.
José finally decided that he couldn’t reasonably have expected Sergio to change much in two months and a couple weeks, and went into the kitchenette to pour himself a glass of water. “Not that mattress, right?”
Sergio stuffed his mail behind an ugly terra-cotta thing that might’ve been meant to be a key tray, blushing so hard it was surprising blood didn’t seep from his cheeks. He sort of shuffled sideways into the kitchenette. “No. We were…trying out the new one. We’re um, kind of trying the dating thing. And yes, we’re both clean and Jesus, don’t start.”
“I’m not going to,” José muttered, taking a big gulp of water. He put his head and the glass down and looked around, then pulled over a stool and sat on it. “So that whole drunken orgy worked out for you, after all.”
“Yeah. Life, huh?” Sergio said. He put a self-conscious hand to the back of his head and stared at the floor. Then he jerked as if he’d been electrocuted. “Shit. Did you just make a joke?”
José closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment. Then he drank more water and wondered if maybe he could go back into the bathroom and give Ruud a quick call. Get a rant out to the man’s voicemail, at least. “Gitano?”
“Sorry, sorry. I suck and it really should be Cesc here, but he got stuck—like, literally—in this huge traffic jam and he wasn’t going to make your flight in time. He’s gonna be here later, though.” Like university students the world round, Sergio dove into the fridge for comfort. He banged things and made other things slosh before finally coming up with some take-out boxes from a popular tapas place. “I know I missed most of it and I’m not going to start asking, so don’t worry, but I just wanted to say you should’ve taken a vacation years ago.”
“Thanks, but…” Frowning, José went back over what Sergio had just said. Then he turned around. “Years ago?”
Sergio had just stuffed something in his mouth so he held up a finger, then went back to the fridge. A moment later he returned with several bottles of beer in his hands, and after swigging from one, he replied, “Yeah. Now that I think about it, and look at you, you were seriously depressed. I mean, you never really got to go anywhere like me and ‘Nando did, so that anyway…uh, I don’t know a lot about Ruud so I’ll just…leave that to Raúl.”
It should be left to José by himself, José thought, but he didn’t have to work too hard to smile at the other man. “Thanks. I—thanks, Sergio.”
“No prob. Hey, so help yourself while I get Miguel out,” Sergio mumbled, chomping down half a chorizo. As he licked his fingers, he crossed the apartment and went into the bedroom with a determined set to his shoulders.
José was actually a little hungry, come to think of it. He pulled a couple of the boxes over and peeked into them, then settled on one. He was just picking out his first mouthful when his phone rang.
It was Ruud, and José nearly embarrassed himself by dropping the cell in his eagerness to answer the call. He had to fall off the stool to do it, but he managed to grab the phone before it hit the floor. Then he slapped it to his ear and drew in a breath.
And didn’t offer a greeting, and instead listened, and listened. And then he hung up and looked at the cell for a second before slowly climbing back onto the stool. He put it down on the counter and his elbows up on that, then dropped his head in his hands. He’d been doing so well. So fucking well. But now—José looked blindly up and stared at the far wall, trying to convince himself that over two months really had done something for him. Maybe he looked better, but…
His phone rang again. José glanced at it, thinking hard, then snorted and turned it off. Then he reached out and picked up the nearest bottle of beer. He started to chuckle as he twisted off the cap, and he still was laughing when he put it to his lips, because actually, he had changed and yet he was still so completely fucked up. Fuck.
Well, he thought. Sergio had gotten one thing right. He’d sure as hell gotten a sense of humor.
* * *
The moment Fredrik moved, so did Ruud and Cristiano, and both in the same direction: Ruud spun on his heel and immediately stalked towards his office, while Cristiano took a moment to look aggravated before running after him. Fredrik missed his chance to grab Cristiano while wondering if he really, absolutely had to get in the middle of this, but he still would’ve had been able to catch up if something hadn’t grabbed his shoulder.
He snarled and tried to jerk away, but instead ended up back in his office and looking at a rather miffed Henrik. “Freddie,” the other man started.
“Look, update me later. I have to go make sure our bankroll star doesn’t kill Van Nistelrooy.” Fredrik pulled at his arm again. “God, no wonder he has a price on his head.”
Henrik refused to let go, though he did at least start walking so maybe, just maybe they’d get there before the bodies cooled too much. “Freddie, I realize this is a bad time but that’s exactly why I need to know why you’re so jumpy around me. There’s enough going on without adding that.”
“You…” The denial never made it any further, and not because just then they turned the corner and found Cristiano banging on the door to the men’s toilet. Fredrik didn’t see Ruud but somebody was arguing with Cristiano through the door, so…okay, they weren’t going to kill each other right away. “Henke, I’m nervous because you’re a professional assassin.”
“No, you’re not. You knew that before I started working here and…” Henrik’s eyebrows rapidly rose and fell “…is that it? All right, I can’t change my former life but when I signed on the employment papers I put all of that away. You’ve got my word, so…I’m not really sure what else I can—”
“Yeah, I know, and I believe you on that. But I’ve also been here a long time and believe me when I say this industry doesn’t make a good criminal retirement program,” Fredrik said. A loud thud made him flinch and he glanced to the side, but while the door had opened a bit, it still looked like all Cristiano and Ruud were doing was bitching at each other. “No matter what you do, your past is going to come up somehow. Maybe you have to do something you said you’d never do again, maybe it’s somebody you wish you’d never meant, but something’ll turn up.”
For a moment Henrik looked somberly at him. Then the other man snorted and turned away, his hand coming up to rub over a disbelieving grin. “Freddie, I know. That’s how I got hired in the first place. But when I say my former life, I mean it in the sense that…like you’d talk about childhood. It happened and now it’s over and I’m doing something else. I’m fine with my past and whenever it comes up again, I’ll just handle it rationally.”
“Which is great for you, but what about me? If your ‘handle it rationally’ fucks up, then it’s my goddamn head on the line,” Fredrik snapped. “Jens and FC were here first and I…can’t…I don’t know if I can put them at that kind of risk.”
It was more than a little hypocritical and Fredrik knew it, and all right, it made him flinch just to admit it but that didn’t make the reasoning behind it any less valid. Though he still couldn’t look Henrik right in the eye, despite the fact that the other man had gone frighteningly quiet.
They stood there for several seconds while in the background Cristiano’s hissing suddenly rose to a loud, sharp, desperate, “So what? You get two months away and decide you can’t even call to let me know you’re back? To look at my face? I just wanted to say—”
“Because it still hurts to look at you!” Ruud snarled. He inhaled sharply. “I still miss you that much. Separation was the right decision, Cris, but only if I can stick to it and I--can’t--when you’re right in front of me.”
Something brushed Fredrik’s arm and he looked up to the side of Henrik’s head. Then Henrik pulled himself back around the corner. His hand went up and around to cup the back of his skull and he gazed at Fredrik, still steady but now visibly frustrated. “Freddie, I work here now. You and the rest of FC are my priorities. I want to say just trust my professionalism if you can’t, or don’t want, to trust anything else, but actually, I don’t know if that really is the problem. If I’m the one you aren’t trusting right here.”
“You’re too calm about this,” Fredrik said after a moment. “You loved your old job, and don’t give me any bullshit about that. I could tell.”
“Yes, well…I did. But eighteen years of it is a lot. Lot of effort, lot of focus, lot of prices to pay.” Henrik’s lashes briefly fluttered as he shrugged. “To be honest, I was looking to wind down and try something new before I met you. I wasn’t planning to give it up like this, but I wasn’t planning to turn fifty doing it either. And your tackle basically closed the deal.”
Fredrik made a genuine effort to understand what Henrik could possibly mean by that. He tried so hard he even forgot anyone else was around, or anything else he was supposed to be doing, but in the end he had to ask. “What?”
“No one’s successfully sneaked up on me in…oh, fourteen or so years. And I don’t think it’s that I’m slipping.” A disarmingly self-conscious look flitted through Henrik’s eyes. “I hope not, anyway. It works much better if you just are that good.”
“If that were bullshit, we wouldn’t be talking. I would’ve just knocked you out and left town long before now. I don’t stay if I don’t think it won’t be worth it,” Henrik said. “So will you calm down and realize that you’re not actually in over your head here?”
For a long, long moment, Fredrik stared at him. Henrik looked serious, sounded serious, and ‘serious’ was what all of Fredrik’s instincts were reading off the other man. So the only other option was to think that Henrik didn’t know what he was talking about, but that would mean believing that he was an idiot with bad people-judgment. And he wasn’t.
“I…” Fredrik started, staring straight at Henrik.
Then both of them swore and ran around the corner at the same time to just barely get in between Cristiano and Ruud as the top hinge of the bathroom door suddenly cracked out of the wall. Henrik hustled Cristiano away while Fredrik spun about and backed into Van Nistelrooy, grabbing either side of the doorway to block the other man’s way.
Ruud didn’t seem to notice and continued to yell over Fredrik’s shoulder. “Goddamn it, Cris! Not everything in my life is about you--now--and—”
“You were calling that Spanish whore!” Cristiano only paid enough attention to Henrik to determine that he was an obstacle and to try to elbow his way over Larsson.
An angry breath hissed by Fredrik’s ear. Then Ruud took a step back, and when Fredrik glanced over a shoulder the other man wasn’t even looking at Cristiano. “I was calling José, and I should be because he had to change his plans last-minute for me,” he said in an icy tone. “It’s called being responsible for your actions and I’m trying very hard to remember how to do that. Whereas I’d like to pretend that I just imagined Gabriel Heinze was standing—”
“He’s my personal assistant,” Cristiano hissed, jerking up his chin. His eyes were glittering. “I found him, I hired him. I’ve got plans, too. And you thought I never could cope without you—well, I’m not just doing that. I’m running things. People don’t get to keep secrets from me any more.”
“I was wrong before and I underestimated you then. But…Cris, that doesn’t make my concerns about why you should’ve left that sort of politicking to me or someone like me any less valid. Those are dangerous waters for anyone.” A sharp beep cut through Ruud’s words. He cursed, then looked at his phone and cursed at greater length. “And frankly, I don’t think you’ve got the stomach for them.”
Cristiano’s gaze dropped to the cell in Ruud’s hand and if life was a cartoon, the plastic would’ve flash-melted right then and there. But as he watched Ruud redial, his expression changed, anger running into an envy that was equally passionate but…sadder. He really loved the long-faced bastard, Fredrik thought wonderingly.
And he did have a backbone beneath all that diva nonsense, since the moment Ruud looked up, all of that had been wiped from Cristiano’s face and had been replaced with a tight-lipped, stony-eyed determination. “Well, you don’t get to have an opinion on that anymore,” he said.
Then he shook Henrik off and spun on his heel to stalk off. He pointedly yelled for Gaby as he reached the corner, and then lifted his hand in a greeting as a muffled reply came back from somewhere—hopefully that meant Heinze had just done like a smart assistant and gone off to get coffee while the battle raged.
“No, I don’t,” said a curt, low voice behind Fredrik. When he turned around, Ruud was staring over him at Cristiano’s retreating back, but then a painful-looking spasm went through Ruud’s face. He pressed his hand over his eyes and half-turned, then gave himself a shake. “Shit. Shit—Ljungberg, José probably overheard some of that before I got to talk to him and now he’s not answering his phone. I need to go make sure Raúl and Cesc both don’t decide to drop their neutrality there, so I hope you’ve dealt with the other people who want me dead.”
Fredrik gaped for a couple seconds and frankly, didn’t feel too ashamed about it. That emotional u-turn would’ve given somebody with multiple personalities whiplash.
“We’ve only had a few hours,” Henrik gracefully interceded. He dusted at himself, then straightened out the wrinkles in his suit with a few efficient flicks of the hand. “But we do know who’s taken over funding the contract on you. It’s a…” Henrik pulled out his PDA “…Patrick Vieira?”
After getting over his own astonishment, Fredrik peeked at Ruud. The other man was still blinking in surprise, but once he realized he was being watched, he pulled himself together. “Oh, him. Well, it figures. So he’s not in Asia anymore?”
“Vieira used to work for FC but was fired after Ruud taunted him into jumping a table of movie stars and trying to strangle him at a very high-profile charity dinner—this was back when Ruud was working for MU. Last anybody heard he’d hooked up as a consultant to some shady start-up labels in China,” Fredrik explained to Henrik. “He’s…going to be hard to reason with—wait! Giuly knows him!”
“So you want to owe Giuly that big of a favor?” Ruud asked.
Fredrik flicked a contemptuous look at him. “If it’s Vieira, you’d better be grateful we’re even considering going that far for you. Anyway, keep your nose out of it. The less you know about how we’re going about this, the better. Oh, and with the whole Reyes thing—couldn’t you have waited a fucking minute and gotten Cristiano away before calling your boyfriend? You might be calmer but you definitely didn’t get smarter over in—”
Ruud’s eyes narrowed and the muscles around them and his mouth pulled so tight the planes of his face looked like they were made of metal. He started to take a step forward, Fredrik grinned and cracked a couple knuckles, and then suddenly Fredrik was staring at the back of Henrik’s head.
“The group originally supposed to carry out the contract were decimated by the…mayhem the night someone tried to bomb Lehmann, but their employment wasn’t fully terminated till recently. Then it went to somebody else, whom we’ve been able to convince to wait a few days to see what happens with Vieira.” Somehow Henrik managed to get all that out without sounding irritated, frightened, derisive, or anything except evenly informative.
The interruption gave Fredrik enough time to collect himself and remember that no matter how much better a fight would make him feel, it wouldn’t help in the long run. Besides, some of the things Henrik had just said rang a little weird to Fredrik. “Fine, go straighten out Reyes. But Henrik is driving you and making sure you’re back here in three hours.”
Ruud just nodded, still messing with his phone. The moment Fredrik and Henrik moved out of the way, he swept by them with his head down and his cell up to his ear. Apparently he’d managed to get somebody, since he was talking in a harsh whisper. He tossed over his shoulder that he’d wait by the elevator, and then he was around the corner.
“Yes, I happen to know the professional in question,” Henrik said. “I called in a personal favor, no cost to FC. As for Vieira…he’s not in the country but he’s within a four-hour flight and technically…”
“No. I need to call him now before we can do anything else, but I’m almost certain that Jens will say to try Giuly first.” Then Fredrik looked over.
Henrik shrugged. “All right. I’ll see you in three hours.”
“Should we sync watches?” Fredrik asked. When the other man’s expression didn’t change, he grimaced and flapped his right hand as he dug out his phone with the other. “I was joking. You’re too good at this for me to have to do that.”
“Really? Because honestly, I don’t really know what I’m doing yet.” Looking sheepish, Henrik rubbed at the back of his head. “The rules of working in this industry can be so…capricious.”
“And you haven’t started listening to demos yet,” Fredrik grinned. “Now go before Van Nistelrooy thinks he can fuck off by himself again. Oh, and Henke? Get him back in less than three hours and then we might actually get to go home before the workday starts.”
* * *
Andriy stared at the steaming, fragrant cup and saucer that had appeared before him. “Coffee?”
“French,” Lilian said.
“Can I put on my trousers now?” Sébastien plaintively asked.
It took a moment for Andriy to figure out what he’d said, and not because it’d been in French and Lilian hadn’t sped things up by translating. Then he blinked and turned away to strip the gloves from his hands. “Yes. Stop fucking with dish soap. Use lube.”
As Sébastien, face flaming and belt still unbuckled, fled the room, Lilian turned to watch with an air of regal amusement. “‘Liquid soap,’” he corrected. “Otherwise, your French wasn’t as shitty as usual.”
The latex had trapped sweat against Andriy’s skin and over the course of the night it’d gradually turned into a thick slime, so he took a moment to wipe his hands off on a towel. Lilian was still holding out the cup, so Andriy took it. He looked warily into it, then took a sip.
“Coffee and what?” he asked after catching his breath. That had been one hell of a burn going down his throat. But good. Very good.
“It’s French.” Lilian adjusted his spectacles and walked towards the door. “Better than vodka.”
That was like any other day, down to the stiff pivot and the deliberate presentation of the elegantly insulting back to Andriy. But for a while Andriy stared out at the empty doorway, and when a muffled noise from the kitchen below finally roused him, he didn’t move towards the bottle he had stashed in his kit bag. Instead he lifted the cup and took another sip.
After rolling it approvingly about his mouth, he leaned against the examining table and slowly began to let himself relax. The weak gray light of false dawn was beginning to stretch down the hall, past his door, and it was the end of his day. So he finished the coffee.