|Number One Crush
Author: Guede Mazaka
Ruud hadn’t been back to the Netherlands in a few years, so he easily justified his trip as a talent search through the local music scene in Amsterdam. It didn’t require much of a stretch; there actually were a few bands he’d heard about and wanted to check out, and once he was in town, he dutifully did so. Two of them seemed overblown, one was fine but didn’t have the right sound for Jens’ division, and one was a possibility, but further inquiries revealed that the lead singer—the best part about the whole group—on the night Ruud had seen them actually was a substitute. He got contact information on her, made a note to go and see the band with the regular fronter, and then turned his attention to finding Robin van Persie.
Amsterdam hadn’t changed all that much. The people he’d been used to going to for fast information were pretty much the same, though a couple had dropped out of the scene. By his second night in the city, he had an address, several warnings, and plenty of more explicit gossip than Ballack had been willing to bring up.
He took a taxi to within a few blocks, then got out and walked the rest of the way. The dress code in this neighborhood didn’t lean towards the suit Ruud was wearing, but he didn’t get very many odd looks. The smells of coffee and marijuana were equally strong here, more or less covering up the odors of sewage and sweat and alcohol that should have been present as well, judging by the state of the streets. It wasn’t quite the red-light district, but it was close enough so that the occasional breeze brought in the sounds of shrill laughter and drunken singing.
After he’d found the boarding house, Ruud continued to walk around, occasionally pausing before a coffeeshop or a bar. It was too early in the night for Van Persie to be home, and after some thought, Ruud had decided it’d be better to see how the man conducted himself in public before approaching him.
He’d found a picture of the man in university records, but was mentally prepared for a much more roughened version, given his previous experience with so-called ‘wild spirits.’ Much to his surprise when he finally spotted Van Persie, the man looked virtually unchanged—even taking into account the distortion of all the smoke in the tiny basement club. He was deceptively fresh-faced and boyish, and the only real difference that Ruud could see was that in the photo, Van Persie had had hair almost short enough to qualify as a buzzcut. Since then he’d grown it out, and currently he had it gelled back with a few spikes around the front.
A terrible pop band was whining in one corner, mostly as background noise to all the transactions going on in the rest of the place. The middle was brightly lit by the only two lights, but towards the edges it got so dark that Ruud couldn’t see what was bumping up against his shoes. He slipped up along the wall to the bar, successfully managing not to attract any attention, and ordered a vodka shot. He hadn’t touched vodka since three weeks ago when he’d hauled Cristiano out of that bathroom stall, but he needed a drink and he wanted something with a high enough alcohol content to deal with any sanitation issues.
At first, Ruud thought that Van Persie was there with a group of friends, but after watching for a while, he could see that at most, Van Persie was familiar with one or two of them. And even then, he’d sling an arm around someone’s shoulders or let a girl kiss his cheek, but he’d be coolly looking off in another direction. He was conducting business, not socializing.
Some stoned woman teetered up to Ruud just then and propositioned him, which he declined. He also took it as a sign to leave and finished up his drink, then headed out.
The fresh air was a little bit of a shock after the thick smoke. Ruud moved to the side of the door, stepping around an embracing couple, and took a few deep breaths of air. He checked his watch.
“Hey. Were you looking for somebody?”
It wasn’t necessary for Ruud to turn to see who it was. “I have a business proposal and thirty minutes.”
“If it’s the kind that happens in an alley, you could fit in three or four business proposals,” Robin said. He had a worn-looking leather jacket slung over his shoulder, and when a chilly breeze stroked down the street, he swung it off and began to put it on. The look he shot Ruud was a very good approximation of coy heat, but again, his eyes gave away how he was holding himself apart from the situation.
“It’s not. I’m a signing agent for FC Records,” Ruud said.
Robin straightened up and dropped the flirtatious manner for a dryly sarcastic tone. “Well, I know a couple good candidates for the Nederpop version of the Spice Girls, but I’m not known for my voice or—”
“I was looking for computer skills.” The couple near Ruud had rapidly progressed to shedding clothes, so he eased past them while he still could and stepped out into the street. He could hear the jingling of bicycles somewhere near by, but nothing emerged from the slight fog. “Security-system-based.”
“Oh.” The other man’s eyebrows went up and he put his fingertips to his mouth, then lowered his hand to dig in his pocket. Something jingled in there, though when he took out his hand, he wasn’t holding anything. “That, I do have. How much are you willing to pay?”
It was tempting to take the out and treat it exactly like another deal, but Ruud had paid attention to his conversation with Ballack. Even if Michael had some unusually strong morals for a Lehmann hire, he did seem relatively savvy, and he’d made a couple surprisingly good points. “I don’t even start talking about contracts until after I’ve seen evidence of capability.”
No emotion in particular flicked over Van Persie’s face, but something definitely had caught his attention. He was looking directly at Ruud now. “I don’t start talking unless I know it’s worth my while. I have to go through a lot of trouble to do what I do—funny, but nobody ever feels like paying the legal costs after the job’s done.”
“Because that should be your problem, if you’re that bad,” Ruud said. He checked the time again, then stepped further out into the road and began heading for the nearest semi-lighted spot he could see. If he could catch a cab, then he’d be able to make a decision about the last band and get back to his hotel room before midnight.
He went a few meters, listening carefully, but it didn’t seem as if the other man was following. After another minute, Ruud chanced a look over his shoulder: the curb in front of the bar was empty except for the two people having sex up against the wall. Ballack was right so far—it wasn’t really about the money. Which would be an interesting change of pace from most of what Ruud dealt with on a daily basis.
* * *
Without the girl, the band was a typical nu-metal disaster. After five minutes, Ruud shoved his way out of the place and took a taxi back to his hotel, pressing one hand to his ear to try and stop the ringing in his head. Unfortunately, he had to keep the other one free in order to call first the girl and leave a message for her, then call and leave a message for Lehmann that he had a potential signing. He still had a headache when the car pulled up to the discreet VIP entrance of the hotel.
Thankfully, Lehmann’s belief in intimidating people extended as far as putting up his agents in the best hotels so they could shell-shock and dazzle all the naïve young artists out there. This one had a sensible concierge who kept a small pharmacy beneath his counter, so Ruud got a few paracetamol gel-caps and dry-swallowed them on his way to the elevator.
The pain in his head was just beginning to stop when Ruud’s phone went off, starting it up again. He grimaced and took out his cell, assuming it was Jens returning the call, but instead it wasn’t a number he recognized. It did have a company tag associated with it.
After a moment, Ruud thumbed the button to take the call, hoping to God it was Billing or Legal so he could just blow them off. “Hello?”
Ruud stilled. He stared across the elevator at the shiny brass-plated doors, looking at his distorted reflection. The colors were off as well so his skin was jaundiced and his eyes were an ill black.
*You changed your number. I had to wake Odonkor to get this one, and he was so irritated he cut off before I could ask where you are. Is the timezone bad?*
Cristiano’s English had drastically improved, Ruud vaguely noted. Still thickly accented, but the grammar was almost unrecognizably good. “I’m in Amsterdam, Cris. How did you get back already? I thought—”
*I’m still in Bath. In the—this hellhole. I just have a phone now.*
The elevator pinged. It was a soft sound, but it made Ruud almost jump into the back wall. He caught himself with his hand, then slowly walked out into the hall. There was a…a lounge around here somewhere, he remembered, and turned in the direction that he thought it’d be. The hour was late enough so that he didn’t see anyone else in the halls, and the hotel was good enough so that he couldn’t hear what happened in the other rooms, and the people in them couldn’t hear him. “You came up as a company number.”
*Well, I’m still with the label, aren’t I? You aren’t going to drop me.*
“Technically, that wouldn’t be my decision.” The lounge wasn’t down the first way Ruud tried, so he spun on his heel and headed back the opposite direction. The headache had turned into a band of pressure just inside his head that pressed agonizingly at the backs of his eyes. He briefly closed them, then opened them when he remembered he needed to see where he was going. “How is…how is rehab?”
*Are you asking how I like it or how I’m doing?* Cristiano’s tone alternated between sharp and reticent. Then he laughed a little hollowly. *You don’t want to have this talk, do you? I can hear that.*
Ruud finally found the lounge, but the moment he sat down, tingles started in his legs and he had to stand up again. He kicked at the floor a few times, then started to pace around. “No, I’m surprised. It’s been a while since you’ve sounded like…since—”
*I wasn’t drugged up enough for you to ignore because I was lou—I was crazy? I’m detoxed now. They hooked me up to these things and they filled me with things and now my skin crawls but I can think.*
“That’s good to hear. I was getting tired of doing it for you,” Ruud said. He swallowed, and when his throat relaxed afterward, it brought up a sour bile taste.
For a moment, Cristiano just breathed into the receiver. *You think you’re always doing things for me. You weren’t. It was all for you, you, you. Goddamn it!*
“At least I never thought it was a good idea to let Ferguson pipe crack into my blood. Do you have any idea how lucky you were not to end up needing a liver transplant? Goddamn it—if you want to talk about ‘goddamn it,’ Cris, how about that? How about having to drag you out of that shitty bathroom—”
“Cris? Cris…goddamn it, you spoiled little bastard,” Ruud snarled, yanking the phone from his ear. He looked disbelievingly at the display, but Cristiano had indeed hung up on him. On him. It hadn’t been so long ago that no matter how mad Cris got, Ruud had to pry him off with a fucking crowbar.
And…and now the man was hanging up on him, like Ruud had been secretly wishing for. After a moment, the nasty funny side of it struck him and he laughed beneath his breath as he shut off his damn phone.
The chuckles died away pretty quickly once he started towards his room again; if Cristiano was allowed to have a phone again, then he’d be discharged soon and then Ruud would have to deal with him in person. All the time that he’d been in the rehab center, Ruud hadn’t made an attempt to contact him or visit, and he’d be offended at that. Maybe he’d be offended enough to ask to switch agents, but somehow Ruud doubted that. Cristiano preferred to keep everything, whether it was peace or war, personal. He—
--someone was standing in the doorway of Ruud’s room. As he got nearer, they moved out so he could see scuffed leather, pale skin, dark spikes of hair.
“You can call this Exhibit A,” Robin said. “Records say you’ve used this hotel before a couple years ago, so you should know something about their security.”
“What’s my company expense account number?” Ruud asked after a moment. He walked around the other man and got out his keycard.
A hand covered the slot before he could insert it. Robin eased past him, eyes on Ruud, close enough for his jacket to whisper over the front of Ruud’s suit. He flicked out a white, blank plastic card like a magician pulling a coin out of thin air, then stuck it into the slot. A few muffled touch-tone noises came inside Robin’s coat, and then he pulled out the card. He twisted the door handle, gave it a little push, and the door swung open.
“Exhibit B. And the expense account number was easy, so how about we call the phone number of an extremely private drug rehab center where a certain famous Portuguese star is currently seeking treatment Exhibit C?” Robin backed up, then made a sarcastically elaborate gesture for Ruud to go ahead of him. He flashed white teeth at the shadow of alarm that was probably showing on Ruud’s face. “Well, when I found out you were his agent, that was easily the most obvious secret to dig out. People have been talking about his next album and all its delays for months. By the way, good system—it was a real challenge.”
Good, but not a mind-reader. Relieved, Ruud ruthlessly suppressed any emotion from his expression and went inside. He used this particular chain of hotels a lot and by now they knew how to set up his room no matter where he was staying. For example, there was always a large black umbrella placed beside the door.
He reached out and grabbed it without breaking his stride, tossing it up so he could grab the middle. The moment he did, he rammed the handle through the space between his arm and side into Robin’s stomach; like he thought, the other man had been following very closely behind and he didn’t have to push more than eight or ten centimeters behind him.
Ruud pivoted when he heard the grunt, looking down where he thought Robin’s hands would be. They were actually a little higher and the second he lost meant Robin could recover enough to flip the knife around in his hand for an overhand stab. Before he could bring down his arm, Ruud whacked his wrist with the umbrella. He cursed and the knife fell, and before he could do anything else, Ruud reached out and seized the collar of Robin’s coat.
He jerked the other man forward as he brought up his knee, making sure it connected with Robin’s solar plexus. Then he let Robin drop, gasping frantically and curling up on himself, onto the floor and stepped over him to get the door. While he was at it, Ruud scooped up the knife as well.
After the door was locked, Ruud came back and pulled up a chair, then sat down so he could see Robin’s face. “You probably know that MU Records is my label’s main rival. I used to work there, but I fell out with Ferguson and switched to FC. But he’s a vindictive bastard and lately he’s been using illegal methods to try and poach the singers and bands under my supervision. He’s very careful so we can’t get him through the normal channels.”
Robin still was choking and coughing, his hands pressed hard to his chest. He rolled away from Ruud, then hauled himself back onto his side so his face was pressed into the floor. The blow Ruud had given him wasn’t hard enough to do any permanent damage; it’d just wind Robin and, if he’d never been hit there before, give him a scare since it’d feel like he was breathing all he could and no air was getting through. Though actually, he already looked like he was recovering. He lifted his head enough to shoot a question with his eyes.
“I work in the music industry, for one. For two, I work in it as a signing agent, which means that I’ve been walking into the worst neighborhoods in Europe while talking loudly about money for years,” Ruud snorted. He glanced down at the knife Robin had had: it was a switchblade, so he snapped it shut. Then he put up his elbows on his knees and rested his chin on his hand. “It’s harder to talk sometimes with a bodyguard hanging around, so I make do with myself.”
“Looks like you more than make do,” Robin rasped, the admiration coming through the hoarseness of his voice. He took a deep breath and pushed himself over onto his elbows, rested for a moment, and then slowly pulled himself up into a sitting position. “But you don’t know anything about computers?”
The attempt to rattle him breezed right over Ruud. After Cristiano’s phone call, nothing could get under his skin. “I know how to use a computer. But I’m busy, and also if I want to keep my job, I have to follow legal restrictions.”
“Wouldn’t paying me to break those ‘restrictions’ be illegal?” Robin had almost completely recovered from the hit to his chest, but he was still rubbing his wrist. Beneath his fingers, it looked like a bad bruise was developing.
“Are you concerned for me?” Ruud asked, raising one eyebrow.
For nearly a minute, Robin sat and appeared to be thinking. Oddly enough, he didn’t look to the side or down like most people would have, but instead continued to stare straight at Ruud, though his eyes slightly unfocused. Then he shook his head and blinked. “Okay. Looks like you can pay me—how do you want to send the specs to me?”
“You’d have to leave here and come back with me. Ferguson moves fast; you’d have to be right there in order to react in time,” Ruud said. “Do you have any commitments here that you need to see to? I can compensate for that, too.”
Robin looked long and thoughtfully at Ruud, head cocked to one side. One corner of his mouth briefly flipped up in a smile that could’ve been either pleased or challenging. “Nothing that I can’t deal with before you leave. You want me to fly back with you, or separately?”
Just for the sake of caution, Ruud wanted Van Persie where he could keep an eye on him, but getting seats on the same plane would be too obvious. And anyway, if Ruud was reading Robin’s sudden interest correctly, it’d probably be good to get in some distance. “Separately. Take a flight before mine and then…I assume you know where I live. We’ll work out concrete details for payment after that.”
“All right.” But for several more moments, Robin remained on the floor. He finally sighed and held out his hand. “Can I have my knife back?”
“The next time I see you,” Ruud said, getting up.
He stayed standing till the other man had left. Then Ruud took a shower and got ready for bed, but instead of sleeping, he just stared at the ceiling for two and a half hours. After that, he got up and he got out his PDA to reread all the status reports Rául had stubbornly forwarded to him. He’d never answered any of the messages, but after going through a few, Ruud finally replied to one of them telling Rául that that would be sufficient.
* * *
No matter what the airports tried, a garage was still a garage. About the only difference between the normal ones and the VIP ones, as far as Ruud could tell, was how good the door locks were. Other than that, they all smelled like shit and were depressingly industrial.
He hiked up the strap of his bag on his shoulder, then dug out his keys. Then he happened to glance up and something about the back window of his car made him momentarily slow. Not for long—Ruud should’ve seen that one coming, except he was tired from handling the singer airhead he’d just signed in Amsterdam and the jet-lag wasn’t helping much either.
The shadow in the backseat jerked when Ruud pressed the button to lock all the car doors, then turned completely around so he could see Robin, who gave him a sarcastic thumbs-up. Ruud barely managed to not roll his eyes as he manually unlocked the trunk and then loaded his bags into it; what was it with him and cocky young bastards?
After going around, Ruud unlocked the driver’s door, but didn’t get in. “Get into the front seat.”
“Wouldn’t that make it really obvious that I’m associated with you?” Robin asked, not sounding particularly concerned.
Ruud hit another button on the arm-rest and the windows rapidly tinted to opaque black, though from the inside the view was perfectly clear. One of the few times he really appreciated the obscene chunk this car had taken out of his income. “I’ll worry about that, all right? Get up here.”
“That was the only knife I had, if you were worried about that. I’m a hacker, not a killer.” Though Robin was already hauling himself up anyway. He took a lot of care to keep his shoes off the leather covering, and he didn’t seem to be doing it so Ruud would notice. “How was your flight?”
“Still the worst part of my job,” Ruud muttered, getting in himself. He started up the car and then began maneuvering it out of the space. “Did you get everything taken care of?”
Robin settled back in his seat with an audible sigh of appreciation. He tilted his head back, then pulled himself forward to fiddle with the seat till the back went down about ten centimeters. Then he laid back, closing his hands. He stroked the armrests with his fingers, drawing lop-sided circles. “What, you mean what I had going on in Amsterdam? Those were all short-term things anyway. It’s been a long time since I’ve bothered doing a long-term project.”
“Too risky?” The traffic wasn’t too bad today, it seemed.
“Too easy,” Robin murmured. “I checked out Ferguson. He really seems to know his computers, or at least found somebody that does. Interesting.”
Ruud drummed his fingers once against the wheel before he caught himself. He switched to one hand driving and reached into his pocket with his other, searching around till he found the mp3-USB recorder. After plugging that into the socket beneath the CD drive, he waited a moment for the files to upload, then turned on the music player.
“You don’t look like a flamenco-beat man,” Robin commented after a few minutes. “You seem to take your time about things and not rush to finish.”
“This is work. These are demos done by a band I signed a few months ago—their album’ll be out in two and a half weeks and I’m fine-tuning the marketing campaign.” Probably not something Robin was interested in, or needed to know, but talking about his job made Ruud feel a little more comfortable. He wished the damn man had just met him at home like he’d asked.
Robin stretched like a cat, saying something about the long wait in the car, then asked a question that literally was about how Ruud signed musicians and singers, but implicitly was begging Ruud to lose his temper. He obviously had the idea that the compensation would be of a certain non-monetary nature, at least partly, and while Ruud had deliberately let that happen, it didn’t mean Ruud liked it.
Thankfully, the light traffic level held and Ruud was able to get to his apartment building relatively quickly. He fended off Robin’s attempts to corner him via offering to help with the luggage and then holding open doors with increasing irritation, and by the time they arrived at his floor, he was gritting his teeth to keep from just knocking out the other man. And then they stepped into the short hallway and not only was Lehmann standing there, but so was Cristiano.
Ruud stopped where he was. Cris looked…like a ghost. His skin was still olive, though a few shades lighter, but its golden tones were underlaid with an ashy gray. Even at his worst, he’d made some attempt to maintain his appearance, but his hair flopped into his eyes without any gel to hold it back, and he was wearing a conservative funeral suit that normally he wouldn’t have been caught dead in.
“Friends?” Robin said, whispering without really making an effort at it. He lounged at Ruud’s side with elaborate casualness.
Cristiano’s eyes went to Robin, then to Ruud, then to the ceiling. He made a disgusted face and snapped something coolly denigrating to Lehmann, who like usual was pristine as ice.
“Shut up,” Ruud told Robin. He jerked up the strap of his bag so it wouldn’t throw off his balance, then walked forward. “Jens.”
“Welcome back. I listened to those samples you sent, and I think you’re right—the moment she comes in, I’ll have Timo start working with her.” Jens talked easily enough, as if they were just in another meeting and not standing in the middle of a rising hurricane of tension. “Incidentally, Cristiano’s been released from the center. The doctors say that he’s provisionally fine as long as—”
“I’m right here,” Cris snapped. In German, which was a rare event for him; he understood the language fine, but didn’t like the sound of it and didn’t speak it much.
Lehmann looked at him like he was an insect beneath Jens’ shoe. Then Jens pointedly drew back and turned to face Ruud more fully. “Obviously I’m concerned about any second attempts Ferguson might make, and I’ve been considering possible preventative measures.”
“So have I,” Ruud said. “Not that it seemed like something you wanted to discuss in our recent meetings, but I thought it was my responsibility just in case.”
“Yes, I can see that.” Dry as a desert while Jens’ gaze slid past Ruud’s shoulder to Robin, who was ambling up with deceptive slowness. He shrugged and put his hands in his pockets, though with Jens that never gave off a casual air. More like the impression of a coiling spring. “Ruud, Ferguson’s a calculating man. Blind attacks aren’t going to work.”
Robin stepped up beside Ruud, in between him and a Cristiano who looked like he wanted to break necks, and lifted his chin to arrogantly look Jens in the eye. “It’d only be a blind attack in that nobody’ll see it com—”
Ruud didn’t even have time to react. Things beside him blurred, air ripped by him, and he jerked back, but by then Jens had already whirled around. He slammed Robin up against the wall before Robin had even finished gasping, then held him there, high enough so Robin’s toes just grazed the carpet.
“It’s my team and my people and my reputation at risk, so I’ll decide who sees what,” Jens said, voice a low, stunningly controlled snarl. He paused to shift his feet, getting a better position for using his body weight against Robin, then started again. “Listen, you little cocky prick, you do not come in and start acting like you know what to do and how to do it. I do that. Whatever Ruud said to you, I’m the one he answers to and I make the decisions around here.”
Spitting and gagging, Robin half-hissed a comment full of curses about Jens’ parentage. His hands were clamped around Jens’ wrist and hauling on it with such force that his bulging arm muscles were threatening to burst the seams of his sleeves, but he couldn’t loosen Jens’ grip at all. A couple times he tried to kick out at Jens, but Jens just swerved and bent like he was dancing. Cristiano looked reluctantly impressed. And satisfied; at one point, he moved to where Robin could see him and deliberately lifted his hands in the air before putting them back down.
“Look, Ruud, Cristiano—believe it or not, I do give a damn whether or not Ferguson ruins your lives.” The effort of holding a grown, fit man against a wall wasn’t even making Jens’ voice tremble. “But I don’t care about it so much that I can’t see what’s really going on here, which I think makes me the best-qualified person to say that this is not a good solution. For the moment, I’m going to respect your intelligence and not tell you what probably is, but I’m getting very frustrated with you two and I will intervene further if I have to. Is that clear?”
“Yes. Jens, he’s turning blue—don’t ki—” Ruud hissed, grabbing Jens’ shoulder. He yanked hard at it, putting his whole weight into it, but Jens didn’t shift.
Instead the other man casually lifted his free arm, then gave it a shake to pull his sleeve up enough for him to see his watch. He sighed, and then he dropped Robin. “I hope you appreciate the fact that I had to rearrange the entire day’s schedule to fit this in. I had to cancel a meeting with John Terry about setting a timeline for the Chels’ first performance at Premier, and right now he’s looking like a better prospect than Cristiano here.”
Robin fell like a sack, limply collapsing with his hands rubbing furiously at his throat. He coughed so hard that that action itself looked painful.
“He had to cancel business in Amsterdam and pay for his own plane ticket,” Ruud said. He didn’t feel very guilty over that, but he did prefer keeping his word about things, even if the situation was less than ideal. Breaking the law was one thing—losing what made up the core of a person was something else.
Cristiano snorted. “Oh, poor thing,” he sarcastically muttered in Portuguese.
Ruud started to glare at him, but had to look at Jens when the other man bent over. Jens grabbed Robin’s arm—something Ruud thought he recognized passed over Robin’s face, and then the other man stopped resisting—and hauled the other man up; Robin still couldn’t stand straight and was wheezing curses. “I’ll take care of him. This time, Ruud—and it’s also coming out of your paycheck.”
“Well, of course.” After a moment, Ruud reluctantly raised a hand. “Jens, I think he would be missed—”
“Why, please tell me, does everyone think I run the mob now? I manage agents who manage overfed egotistical singers, not assassins. Ferguson’s the one who runs a black market business on the side, if you’ve forgotten,” Jens acidly replied. He wheeled about and dragged off Robin so quickly that the other man only got around to look once at Ruud before the elevator doors closed on them.
Silence slowly fell, but not much of the tension had drained away. Ruud stared down the hall at the elevator for probably a couple minutes, not sure what to do but knowing he had to do something.
There was a rustle beside him, and he turned to see Cristiano with head down and one hand nervously working around the other wrist. Red marks were appearing on the skin there; Cristiano was digging in his nails.
“I’ve showered three times and I still feel like I’m back there,” Cristiano finally said. “It’s like ants are running over me all over.”
“Are you sure that’s not the withdrawal?” Ruud asked.
Cristiano flung up his head, glowering contemptuously at Ruud. “Of course it’s the fucking withdrawal. I’ve been dragging myself through the fucking gutter for months now. It’s not going to go away just after a three-week trip to a rehab center.”
Ruud blinked. He thought his mouth might be hanging open a little bit as well, but he…he was at a complete loss of words.
After a moment, Cris turned away. He ducked his head, then tipped it to the side so Ruud could see a little more than half of his humorless smile. He switched to English. “I should have known. Well, I’m back. I thought you should know.”
“Your English is much better,” Ruud said, mind still disengaged from mouth.
“Yes, well, the doctor was very, oh, helpful. He liked to talk to me, to get to know me,” Cristiano hissed, leaning forward. Malice lit up his eyes and his tongue curled tauntingly around each word. He edged closer and closer till on the last word, he was barely a hair away from Ruud’s mouth. “He was interested in helping me.”
Ruud’s teeth slipped so they made a grating sound; at some point he’d closed his mouth and started to clench his jaw. He had to press his fists against his hips. “And did he? Are you ready to be a singer now instead of a tabloid joke?”
“I was always a singer! I—” Cristiano jerked his head to the side. He took a quick, deep breath, then exhaled much more slowly. Then he turned his head part of the way back towards Ruud. “You still think of that and that and that. You know, it was never about the drugs, or about Ferguson, it was about—oh, God, you know, I’m never going to start them again. They’re not good enough. I don’t know…maybe a bullet would be the only thing that might work.”
“Now you’re getting hysterical. You always get like this. Why can’t you just—” Ruud started, voice tight.
“Because I can’t get rid of you!” Cristiano shouted, throwing up his hands. The movement sent him forward so he almost pitched into Ruud. He stumbled and his arm hit Ruud’s side, and then he grabbed Ruud’s arm to pull himself up.
Ruud already had his hands up and around Cristiano’s face, fingers splayed so their tips were tangling in the other man’s hair. He pulled Cristiano up, desperate to taste and feel and hold as much of him as possible. His nails scratched at Cristiano’s skin in his haste, and he messily caught Cristiano’s lips with his teeth, feeling the soft flesh bruise hot, but Cristiano pressed forward and didn’t give him any time or space for cautionary thoughts. His fingers raked grooves in the back of Ruud’s head and shoulder, and he forced his body up against Ruud till it seemed as if he were trying to climb inside Ruud’s body.
But when Ruud pushed back, Cristiano gave way. He kept himself molded to Ruud—God, he’d lost weight and jutting hip- and collar-bones slid up against Ruud as well as lean muscle—but he backed up, and up, and then he was against the door, head laid back in Ruud’s hands and mouth open to whatever Ruud wanted to do. And Ruud had had a very, very long time to think about that.
Cristiano moaned; the door rattled hard as he arched up against it. He dropped his arm down Ruud’s shoulder, then pushed it beneath Ruud’s arm and back around so both his hands were hanging off Ruud’s shoulderblades as if letting go meant death. His right knee jerked up Ruud’s leg, creating a little space between them, but then slid out. He crooked it so Ruud could press in further, hooking it around to urge Ruud on, and breathed in short, heavy pants into Ruud’s mouth. Ruud stroked his hands up and down Cristiano’s neck, feeling the groans trembling deep within it, and ran his tongue over Cristiano’s upper lip.
“Please,” Cristiano said, shuddering.
He shouldn’t have. Because Ruud had to concentrate to figure out what Cristiano was saying, and then he could think. He struggled against the sudden, fierce need to just—and moved back. “Wait.”
“What?” Outraged, Cristiano glared up at him. Then Cris’ face flinched, then closed off. After a moment, he closed his eyes and inhaled long and deep, letting his head fall back against the door. He held the breath for a few seconds, then exhaled and raised his hands with an abrupt, cold motion. He used them to smack sharply at Ruud’s chest. “Fine. Get the hell off me.”
Which Ruud did, but the moment his weight was off of Cristiano, the other man twisted away with enough speed to make it clear he was running. Ruud grabbed his arm and pulled him back; Cristiano twisted around and hit out, swearing violently, till Ruud finally seized that arm too. He dragged at Cristiano and got both wrists in one hand, then fumbled behind himself till he got the door open.
“No, you’re not leaving—” he said, hauling them through it.
“Why the hell not? You don’t want me here, and I’m so damn tired! I’m tired, Ruud! I’m tired of being an idiot just because you think I’m not good enough, because you don’t have the grace to tell me no, because you—you make me even stupider than when I was on the cocaine.” Cristiano thrashed and jerked, getting in a few good blows to Ruud’s legs. One of his other kicks hit the door and sent it flying shut so hard that the artwork on the walls clattered.
He went still for a moment, then abruptly threw himself to the side, but Ruud had been expecting that and turned to direct Cristiano’s momentum into the couch. Ruud let go so Cristiano could use his hands to break his fall, then got around the coffee table and sat down on Cristiano’s waist. He patiently waited for Cristiano to try and punch him, then intercepted both blows and forced Cristiano’s wrists back down to the couch.
“You want to know why? Then you have to stay around long enough to listen to me, Cristiano,” Ruud snapped. He paused to catch up on his breath. “I’m not your agent, Cris. I’m the label’s agent. I’m supposed to work as hard as I can to get everything that’s possible out of you for the label. Except you—I can’t do that to you the same way I do to the others, and if we do this, then I have that to use against you. If I don’t, then at least you can keep something back.”
Eyes wide and glassy, Cristiano stared silently up at Ruud for so long that Ruud started to fear the man had suffered some kind of attack. But just when he was about to bend down to check, Cristiano’s face twisted into a snarl and vicious fury lit his eyes. He twisted, spitting the words up at Ruud. “And how hasn’t that happened already? I haven’t kept anything back. You didn’t touch me and I gave you everything anyway.”
“You weren’t supposed to.” It sounded stupid in Ruud’s head, and even stupider after it was out of his mouth. He grimaced, trying to reword it better, but nothing would come. “Goddamn it. You weren’t—this is why I made us leave MU. Ferguson was pushing me, and the moment I fucked you, he would’ve been at the door with things for me to make you sign.”
“Like giving away my soul?” More than a little hysteria turned Cristiano’s voice shrill. He jerked his head, biting his lip, and then seemed to get himself under control. Then he slipped further into exhausted resignation. “Ruud, I gave you that, too. They can rehab me for the drugs, but they can’t do it for you.”
Ruud sat back and looked at Cristiano, and he really tried to think of a way to break the loop, but he’d run out of ideas. Ideas and willpower.
“That’s not a smart thing to do,” he finally said, voice heavy.
A ghost of a smile touched Cristiano’s lips with irony. “I’m an idiot about you. That’s my problem.”
“Not just yours,” Ruud rasped, leaning over. He caught a glimpse of Cristiano’s disbelieving expression just before their lips touched.
It was much slower, their earlier frenzy burned out and their raw words having stripped away any potential fuel, but it reached just as deeply and fiercely. Ruud kissed Cristiano with years of wanting, of suppressed rage and desire and bitterness, and Cristiano met him halfway with everything.
He’d held himself back for so long that now he wanted all of it: every breath, every touch, every sweat-drop and hiss and ache and shiver. His hands tore into Cristiano’s clothes, ripping off the menacing omen-color till around the haze he was glimpsing warm tanned skin instead of black. He bared his teeth and pressed them into Cristiano’s lips till he tasted blood, then craned his head around to sink them into the side of Cristiano’s throat; Cristiano groaned and bent his neck up and pulled Ruud’s head to it with his hands.
Insects were crawling on Ruud now, prickling all over and irritating his skin, making it sensitive, making the scratch of his suit against him intolerable. He dragged his hand away from the curve of Cristiano’s side to yank off his tie, then pulled at the collar of his shirt; a button popped through his fingers to land on Cristiano’s breast. Ruud chased it off with his tongue while Cristiano fumbled with the other buttons.
Cristiano’s hands traveled urgently lower. They pressed up against Ruud till he could feel their heat burned into his bones, then moved down, peeling away fabric as they went. When he’d gotten far enough, he rocked one hand over Ruud’s erection, shaping it while he undid Ruud’s fly with the other. He moaned at the same time Ruud did, as if it was his own cock he was caressing.
Ruud had to force his hands away from Cristiano’s face, but once they were moving, they seemed to go on of their own free will, memorizing planes and angles and also scars. He rubbed his thumbs over the raised pinprick rough spots in the bend of Cristiano’s elbows, the tender underside of the wrists, and at the same time the hunger died a little, overwhelmed by the self-recrimination so his kisses turned longer but shallower. Snarling a little, Cristiano bit at Ruud, and then hauled up his knees to either side of Ruud so his stiff prick was pressed right into Ruud’s belly. The heat roared back up, and the next time Ruud’s mouth came down on Cristiano, it left a vivid red pressure-bruise behind.
He cradled Cristiano’s hips and lifted them, getting a sense of the heft of the other man, then worked his fingers around and slipped Cristiano out of his dress pants. The other man’s cock rose into Ruud’s hand; Cristiano squirmed, whining and raking his nails demandingly down Ruud’s back. He caught enough of Ruud’s coat to finally make Ruud lift his arms to pull that completely off, and then the thought came to Ruud’s mind—
--damn it, it wasn’t like he fucked people in his living room every day. He snarled wordlessly and jerked his head up, looking around for something, anything—
“I’ve got it. Trousers. Pocket,” Cristiano gasped.
A ping went off in Ruud’s head, but by now he was so lost that he just shoved down his hand and grappled around till coarse cotton turned into a smooth plastic tube. He popped off the cap and squeezed out the contents, getting it all over his hand because he was only using the one; his other hand was pulling up and down Cristiano’s prick so it flushed redder and a corresponding hot red flooded Cristiano’s cheeks and forehead.
Ruud tossed the tube aside and pushed his hand down between Cristiano’s legs. His fingertips touched damp hair and he traced them over a few curls that were plastered to Cristiano’s thigh, but then Cristiano bucked up and Ruud moved on, rubbing further back. He let his fingers glide back till they hit a slight ridge of flesh, then rode them up over that barrier so they sank straight into Cristiano when they came down.
Cristiano bowed back and cried out, his nails gouging lines of holes down either side of Ruud’s spine. The half-crescents Ruud’s teeth had left on his neck, now gone to purple, begged for attention.
“Please,” Cristiano hissed.
And this time, Ruud didn’t object. He gouged his knees into the couch to brace himself, hands too busy sliding over Cristiano to be of any use there, and then fucked the other man till he could taste himself in Cristiano’s mouth, feel his blood flushing against Cristiano’s skin. He’d wanted this for two years and he’d bit it back, swallowed it down, crushed it till all the life should have gone from it—but the moment he took off the pressure, it roared through him till it was the whole world. Nothing but Cristiano.
* * *
Later, lying in a tangle on the couch with semen turning sticky on him and drying sweat making his clothes stiff, Ruud couldn’t say that he still thought this was a good idea. Actually, he now definitively knew it was a bad idea, but something about Cristiano’s head cradled against his shoulder could turn all his commonsense into so much dust in the wind.
“If you turned me away again, I told myself I’d go right out and get fucked till I didn’t think of you anymore. Honestly, that’s the only thing I haven’t tried yet,” Cristiano mumbled, slurring Portuguese into his English. “It wouldn’t have worked, though.”
“I wouldn’t have put up with it. Cris, you almost died—you ever do anything that stupid again and I’ll ki—” Well, that was a little redundant. The momentum of Ruud’s sudden fury at that disaster made him stutter to a stop. He pressed his lips together and jerked his head aside so he could put it back against the couch arm. “I’ll walk. I can walk away from you. I proved that, so don’t count on me continuing to put up with anything you can throw at me.”
Cristiano went tense, then relaxed. He twisted around to half-lie on Ruud, holding up his chin with his arm. “Yes, you can walk, but then what? I show up, and before I even say, Lehmann’s driving me down to your apartment? I don’t think you were doing so well with not calling to see how I was.” Bite in that. “Some Dutch wannabe punk boy?”
“Robin—that wasn’t for sex. God, you only focus on one thing, don’t you—he’s a hacker, and I got him down to take care of Ferguson,” Ruud snorted. He glanced over and noticed that he’d been absently stroking Cristiano’s back. “He’s overconfident and tactless and doesn’t know a thing about the music industry. He’d be a pain in the ass for anything besides work.”
“So you say.” Eyes narrowing with calculation, Cristiano arched into Ruud’s hand, letting a ripple go down him and drag Ruud’s fingers from shoulder to just the top of the buttock. He pushed himself up so the tips of their noses grazed past each other, then abruptly ducked his head to press his cheek against the side of Ruud’s jaw. “If I have you, the drugs and the other people and all the rest…they’re nothing,” he said in a quiet voice. “If you say…”
Ruud pulled his hand back up to safer areas, but still couldn’t completely remove it. Walking was more of a bravo’s threat now than a real option. “This is exactly what I said—”
Cristiano’s fingers clamped down on Ruud’s shoulder. The other man’s breath rasped harshly past Ruud’s ear. “Stay.”
“You’re going to regret this,” Ruud said after a moment. He started running his hand over Cristiano’s back again.
Instead of answering, Cristiano turned his head to lie it in the crook of Ruud’s neck and settled down, apparently content. He’d be the only one.
* * *
“You really need an assistant,” Freddie said. He briefly lifted his eyes from the papers they were going over to check Ruud’s expression, then went back to scanning legalese. “Look, for once forget we’re competing for Lehmann’s attention. We’re also trying to get talent to feed to the sound team, and we’re all overworked there but we’re still not getting in enough. Kahn’s out-signed us again this month.”
Ruud tapped his pen against the table, only half-listening. Part of Cristiano’s outpatient routine was supposed to be close monitoring for relapses, which Cristiano had seized upon as an excuse to demand Ruud go everywhere with him. Though frankly, Ruud was all right with that because other than avoiding illegal substances, Cristiano did a horrible job of staying healthy. Right now he was downstairs trying to ease himself back into work with Lahm, and probably in a half-hour Ruud would have to make him eat so he didn’t faint and send Lahm into hysterics again. “Exactly. I’m barely managing to scout half my prospects as it is, so when am I supposed to find the time to interview and hire one?”
Ljungberg blinked, surprised enough to keep quiet for nearly a minute. Then he shook his head, muttering something about seeing a pig fly earlier. “Well, if it wouldn’t offend your independent ethic too much, David could refer a couple to you. He’s already been looking for a second one for Jens.”
“That’d be—” A sound came from the door and Ruud looked up, then stabbed his pen down into the table and held it there. “—very helpful, Freddie. Thanks.”
“No…problem,” Freddie slowly said, turning around. He paused, then glanced at Ruud. “Appointment?”
“No. And this needs to get done—I’ll be a minute in the hall,” Ruud muttered, getting up.
Robin still had that lazy, close-lipped smile on when Ruud walked out a moment later. “Sorry to interrupt, but I just wondered if I could get my knife back.”
Warning bells were going off in Ruud’s head. Jens preferred to move at light-speed, so the fact that Van Persie was still around was…extremely worrying. The bruising that showed above his collar and coat-cuffs paired with his self-satisfied air turned the worry into a serious suspicion. “Yes, you—I don’t have it with me, but—”
“No, that’s okay. I don’t want it back right now, anyway,” Robin said. He took a few steps back, then turned around. “I just wanted to know if you were hanging on to it.”
One of the mail-boys came around the corner before Ruud could call out, and by the time he disappeared through a door, Robin had already exited the hall. That was going to be trouble.
“Hey, Ruud? You ever coming back?” Freddie called.
“Yes.” Though it was another moment before Ruud went back inside the room. Lots of trouble.