|Oh No No Not Another One
Author: Guede Mazaka
“You’re not Cesc,” Lionel blurted.
Sergio paused, then leaned against the doorframe and shoved his hands in his pockets. “Nope. That your boyfriend down the hall? Do you have to stand on a stool to kiss him?”
“That’s really creative. If you’re looking at the short-haired one, that’s my roommate Michael. I’m going out with the one with the buck-teeth, ponytail, and biceps bigger than yours.” Lionel stepped on Sergio’s foot hard as he pushed past the other man. He walked into the apartment calling Cesc’s name, but it only took a couple glances to see that Cesc wasn’t in. “Ronnie might not be a fashion model, but I’ve got no complaints about what he dishes out. I mean, at least it doesn’t include anything nasty like—”
“—oh, my God, I’m cured, now can everyone stop bringing it up? Like I’m the first one who’s ever…Cesc’s not here,” Sergio said, turning. He rubbed the toes Lionel had stomped along the calf of his other leg, looking more than a little pained. “He gave me the keys because my place is flooded from crap plumbing and went off to stay with Raúl.”
That would explain why Cesc hadn’t been answering his phone, and boy, was Lionel going to have a couple of words when he caught up with his friend. Busy, still on cloud nine after seeing off El Moro, whatever: Cesc still should be less air-headed and let his friends know when he was switching residences. Otherwise how the hell was Lionel supposed to keep taking him out to the hippest underground raves?
Dork. Lionel stopped in the middle of the room and put his hands on his hips, not really that upset but still a little piqued. He hadn’t seen Cesc much lately and he was used to that—Cesc tended to get himself super-busy in cycles and would disappear into whatever it was till it was done, and tonight wasn’t really that important—but honestly, Cesc could’ve called.
“So where are you going, little Miss Mop-head?” Sergio added. When Lionel turned around, the other man was eyeing him speculatively. Not in that way, but Sergio was definitely showing signs of impending inviting-himself-along jerkitude. “You’re all dressed up.”
“Ronnie’s got a gig helping with this big battle of the samba bands and he invited us along. What, you into South Americans these days? I thought you stuck to your own countrymen,” Lionel shot back.
But instead of the expected quip, Sergio just grimaced and took a step back into the apartment. Then he turned and walked into the kitchen towards a big stack of books on the counter. “I’m not into anybody. That STD shit really wasn’t fun—I’m not dating at all now.” He paused, clearly sensing Lionel’s disbelief. “At least till I’m out of school. It’s just too risky—I had to drop out of a competition because the antibiotics I had to take had a banned substance in them.”
“Are you serious? What’s the difference when you graduate? You’ll still be playing volleyball.” The more Lionel stared at him, the more genuinely serious Sergio looked. But it couldn’t really be true…unless Lionel had missed the demons fleeing up from a frozen hell because he was indoors. And just then he had an idea, and it was kind of evil, so maybe it was all true. “Hey…”
“The difference is that I won’t be so damn tired from studying, and I’ll have time to pick better,” Sergio muttered. He picked up a thick textbook as if he were being forced at gunpoint to pick up a clump of shit.
“…you wanna come? If Cesc’s over at Raúl’s, he’s going to be busy—” Lionel tried to keep a straight face “—and Ronnie’s got all these free tickets. It’d kind of suck if they got wasted. C’mon, it’s good music.”
Sergio glanced up at Lionel, then down at his book. Up, then down. Then he snorted and tossed down the book with palpable relief. “Yeah, what the hell. I studied this morning, and I hate this class. Gimme a minute to change…and hey, tell those two to come inside already.”
“Cool!” Lionel bounced to the door and called Michael and Ronaldinho in, and then after he’d made sure Sergio was in the bedroom, started ringing up his friends. No more dating his ass…Sergio wasn’t the most irritating of Cesc’s relatives, and could actually be a lot of fun, but he’d given Lionel way too many noogies for Lionel to let this chance go.
* * *
Rio banged around in the closet for a couple minutes before emerging mostly-dressed, with only the tie to go. He left that in favor of grabbing his watch and cell-phone from the counter, and of giving Robbie’s arse a slap. “Not a good night to go out, so if you’re in the mood for a drinking spree, keep it inside, yeah?”
“Or fucking what, you presumptuous tosser?” Robbie grumbled. He would’ve kicked out or thrown something at Rio if he hadn’t been in the middle of trying to delicately reroute some finances on his laptop. “That hurt.”
“Or you might get your head knocked in or something worse, and I won’t even have time to sweep up the bloody bits.” Now Rio dealt with his tie, and his concentration on the task did seem a little more than just trying to get the wind up Robbie’s back. Maybe he was talking about something going down, and not just trying to turn Robbie into a house-pet. “Vidic just called in with a sprained wrist he got from walking into somebody who’s not FC or MU trying to shake down a strip club. It’s getting nasty out.”
Robbie snorted. “What, I thought you were finally getting things back under control. Keane not work out?”
“Keane’s in fucking Ireland,” Rio spat out, angry enough to make Robbie roll over and stare. The other man yanked his coat off a chair and stabbed his arms into the sleeves, then stalked towards the door. “Something about personal crisis there, has to be loyal to his base…he just up and left, and didn’t take a bunch of his idiots with him so now they’ve got ideas of their own. If I’m late for fucking dinner, it’s because I’m booting their arses out of town.”
The door whammed itself off the wall, then slowly shuddered its way into shutting behind Rio.
After a moment’s thought, Robbie shrugged and got back to work. Ferdinand could watch his own back, and considering that Robbie had just had his hearing over that trumped-up assault charge, he wasn’t all that interested in getting stuck in the middle of that. Though maybe he’d nip down to the corner store later and stock up on liquor.
* * *
“’Nando! I thought you were still in Madrid!” Dropping the appointment book, José rounded the desk and hugged his cousin before Fernando had even gotten all the way into the room.
Not that Fernando stopped to call him a kid, or did anything but squeeze him back, laughing. They stumbled out into the hall and one of the waiters cursed at them for getting in the way, but Fernando joked the guy into grinning. Then he slung an arm around José’s shoulders and started dragging them towards the front. “Yeah, well, that crazy German film director wanted five hundred pounds of pastries. I’m gonna get it for him, but I talked him into turning it into a couple days’ trip back here. I needed the break before I went nuts. Or starved. Or both.”
“You do feel really bony,” José said, prodding the other man’s ribs. He jerked his hand away before Fernando could smack it, then snickered. “You know you are when I notice.”
“Well, Uncle’s already thrown a ham my way, and I think your mother’s packing up enough food to feed a whole film crew. Which she calls just dinner.” Fernando shook his head, but not at that. “This one’s just really insane. I think as soon as it’s done, I’m asking to go back to sourcing props for theater productions. They usually have a sense of reality. Hey, so how’s everything? How’s the family? I got this weird call from my mom a couple of weeks ago: it’s three in the morning and she wants to know if Sergio and I have ever…and then if you and I have ever…”
José blinked. Then he dug his heels in and made them stop so he could stare at Fernando. “Are you serious? What’d you say?”
“I told her no. Which made me feel a little bad because it’s kind of a lie…” Fernando tilted his head and thought “…well, nah. I don’t think I even hit Sergio’s mouth.”
“And you two were both completely smashed. You were talking like you thought Sergio was some Mexican chick,” José said, snorting at the memory. “We’re not having the party here when Sergio graduates because of what else you two did that time.”
Fernando grinned and ruffled José’s hair, then patted it back down again. Then he turned and started walking companionably besides José, hands in his pockets. “He did look like Luisa from the back. Same hair. Oops…well, anyway, so why is my mother all obsessed with incest now? It’s like she thought because you’re the cousin I see most, I’m secretly in love with you.”
He didn’t have to explain and José didn’t ask why she’d think Sergio might also have been involved. “Oh, it’s Cesc. Turns out he’s with Raúl. You missed the whole part where he got in a three-way phone call with my mother and his mother and your parents and screamed out the family tree for eight generations back. But everybody seems pretty okay with it now.”
“Well, if one of them was a girl, they could legally marry,” Fernando thoughtfully said. Not snapping it like José was some idiot and didn’t know how his relatives were connected to each other. “That explains why Papa’s been so smug too…he’s been joking for years that Cesc would be better for Uncle Raúl than that Morientes guy.”
José glanced at him. “You don’t sound surprised either.”
Fernando looked back with a shrug. He side-stepped to let another waiter go by them, then pushed through the door and went on behind the bar. While José grabbed the glasses, he got one of the special wines, the ones they charged an arm and a leg for unless it was returning family, who always got a glass free. “I always kind of thought Cesc had a crush on him. You ever notice how Cesc would dress up a little when he went over to Raúl’s place?”
No, José hadn’t, but when Fernando saw that, he just shrugged and poured the wine for them. No comments about how oblivious José was, and that was just so nice.
“The other thing’s that Cesc’s also with this third guy. And I think Raúl is, too…I don’t know how it works and I don’t really wanna ask, since Cesc still seems so pissed off over the family barging in,” José said. From here they could see a third or so of the front dining room, and he idly started checking the faces of the customers to gauge the atmosphere. He’d gotten halfway around the room when he saw somebody who rang a bell, though he didn’t quite recognize the tone. “Oh, and Sergio’s sworn off sex.”
Fernando sputtered, then bent over and coughed into his fist. He put his glass down with a shaking hand and José realized the other man had been drinking and winced, immediately apologizing. Waving him off, Fernando grabbed a water pitcher and got himself a glass, then sipped cautiously at it. “Really? Oh, man…I wasn’t in Madrid for that long…little Francesc picked up a threesome? Holy Mary, mother of God…well, actually he probably can pull it off. Gitano, though…is there a betting pool on that yet? There’s no way Sergio can…”
José looked at the man he’d noticed again and finally remembered: he’d been a customer the day Ruud had shown up. And, as if José had tempted somebody upstairs with that thought, Ruud walked in through the door. Said hi to the hostess, who after a brief check led him to the very table at which José had been looking—wait, Ruud hadn’t been on the reservation list at all.
“…hey, José? You all right?”
At the same time, something tugged at José’s arm. He startled and nearly stumbled, but Fernando grabbed his elbow and got them righted before anyone had noticed. Then Fernando squeezed in front of José to get his glass, and in the process did José the favor of shielding him from the room. If José hadn’t been so busy realizing what an idiot he was, he would’ve hugged his cousin again.
“Something new with you?” Fernando asked, low and curious, but not too pressing. “I don’t think anybody picked up on it.”
“Good.” José took a big gulp of his wine, but it didn’t steady him all that much. He turned around and tried to will his face into looking cool and composed—why the hell he could never do it and practically everybody else in the family could was something he’d never figured out. “Last goddamn thing I want is getting quizzed about my personal life over the staff paella.”
Fernando blinked a couple times, then twitched his shoulder and pivoted to lean against the bar. He sipped his drink. “The tall one, right? He looks Dutch, with the, um, face and everything.”
Did they look weird with both of them standing with their back to the room? And suddenly…José didn’t want to care. He gave himself a shake and downed more wine, wishing he was thinking about the customers and staff when he’d had that thought, but knowing he’d only had one person in mind. Fuck—he was going to check the list later and see who that other man was. Fuck. Maybe Ruud had lined up more than one fling to toss in Cristiano Ronaldo’s pouty face. Fuck.
“Sorry…was he a one-timer?” Fernando quietly asked.
José twisted his mouth and pressed it to the rim of his glass till he almost thought he was going to shatter that. “Worse than that, ‘Nando. He’s Cesc’s boss.”
“…Cristiano’s old agent? Who was—”
“Screwing him, but they broke up or something. Cesc would throw a fit if he knew. He thinks Ruud’s not over Cristiano yet,” José muttered. He stared into his wine, watching how it left a thin transparent residue on the glass. “Which Cesc is right about, and as soon as Cristiano’s back to get jealous, I’m gone. But till then Ruud’s really fucking good in the sack.”
He tossed back the rest of the wine, then turned to rinse his glass out. He couldn’t help glancing up as he did…Ruud was sitting with his back to the bar, and José had to shake his head at himself.
“…what the hell did Cesc do to you this time?”
“Not a damn thing. He never does a—” José bit down a snarl, then made himself take a deep breath. Some of the waiters were coming over to fill drink orders and it wouldn’t do to meet them with a scowl. “It’s not about him, ‘Nando. Really. All he did was introduce us.”
Fernando drummed his fingers on the bar, staring intensely into his glass. He startled when a waiter asked him to pass over the cognac, then shrugged and handed over the bottle. Once the guy was gone, he went back to looking at his wine. “You know what you’re doing?”
“Yeah. Yeah, actually. It’s just not very like me.” José stacked his glass on the rack, then snagged a mint from the bowl on the counter and popped it into his mouth. He chewed it quickly, swallowed and then huffed into his hand to check the smell. “I’m not telling anybody because I just know they’ll ask first who do I think I’m playing at.”
“What’s ‘you’?” Fernando asked, frowning. “What?”
“Oh, c’mon, you know. Cesc’s the boy genius, Sergio’s the athlete, you’re the hope of the future, and I get to run the family restaurant,” José muttered, staring at the counter. He tilted his head, then slid to the side and looked again. And that was definitely a water-stain, and later he was going to have words with the bartender when that asshole came in for the night, but for now he just got out a rag. José swiped at the spot, then belatedly realized it’d work better if he got the towel wet first. He leaned over to the sink and glimpsed Fernando’s expression, then sighed. “No, look, I’m okay with that. Working here’s fine. I just…I don’t know, need a vacation.”
Fernando was still looking at him as if the other man was trying to gauge the danger José posed to society. “And…you gotta go all the way to Holland? Instead of somewhere nice and sunny? I mean, you can always come back to Spain with me for a week…say you’re looking for new suppliers.”
After a moment, José settled on a half-smile. Shaking his head, he scrubbed that damn spot off, then flung the rag back into its bin. “’Nando, you don’t need to put yourself out for me. Holland’s got its good points.”
“Yeah, well, if you say so,” Fernando muttered. He looked out over the bar at something, then reached over and squeezed José’s shoulder. “Gonna go say hi to Josefina, okay? Promise I won’t violate any food codes.”
He walked off as José was standing up, not sure whether to laugh or call Fernando back to explain where that’d come from. But then somebody cleared their throat and José turned, and he wasn’t confused anymore.
Ruud tipped his glass towards José. “Just some water, please. My waiter looks hung up with another table.”
“Hang on a second.” José thought he stayed pretty calm for that, but he still was glad for a reason to duck beneath the counter.
He kept one hand on the bar for balance, but he needed to slam his other one against the floor when two long fingers curled over the back of his hand, then pushed up beneath his sleeve. They stroked over a bruise on his wrist, then feathered their way off.
One breath. Two breaths. Then José grabbed the water pitcher from the shelf and carefully stood back up, not quite sure how his balance was going to be. He was ridiculously relieved when he didn’t bang his head or the pitcher on the bar-edge. “You want ice as well?”
“Sure.” Ruud held out his glass. He didn’t say anything while José poured, looking as if his thoughts were completely elsewhere. But as he turned to go, a whisper: “When you get off tonight. My apartment.”
José didn’t look at him, didn’t reply, and basically didn’t do anything except duck down again. He held the pitcher with both hands and watched those tremble; eventually he realized he needed to breathe and did that. Then he put the pitcher away. He pressed his forehead against the bar for a second, then stood up. Everything looked okay out front, so he headed towards the back, trying to figure out how he was going to get out early.
* * *
“Hey, Ronnie!” Lionel took a stumbling leap, somehow made it into his boyfriend’s arms—Ronaldinho not only had very good reflexes, but must also have a backbone of steel, Michael thought—and promptly turned into a piece of human cling-wrap. “…good maté…mmm…mm…”
Shrill giggling from the other corner of the booth would’ve given it away to the slowest person, but just in case, Ser—no, it was Lionel’s friend with the long hair—said, “Yeah, it’s great maté. Hey, German, you want some?”
“Rude ass. Go stuff your head in your butt till you lick out some better manners, Boca dick.” Gonzalo aimed a half-genial cuff at…Gago? No, that was just his last name…before hopping over the chair back and grabbing up two mugs from the table. He sniffed at them, then handed one to Michael and one to Sergio, who’d wanted to eat right away and who’d gone to the bar first to put in his order. “Mi-ka-hel talked the bouncer out of booting you for general stupidity, so we’re ordering him real alcohol, not the crap we use to see Leo get—”
“—whoa. You better give him something to keep his clothes on,” Sergio said. Though he was craning his head and seemed more than a little fascinated with how Ronaldinho’s hand was slowly converting from support for Lionel to a butt-massager.
And all right, Michael was just going to slide down in his seat and remind himself that he could’ve rented a movie or taken up Bastian and Lukas’ open offer for a Playstation contest, but nooooo…Torsten was busy and he wasn’t, and so he’d decided to come out with Lionel. He picked up the water he’d been careful to get from a waitress while the others had been busy finding a table and drank a good, icy gulp of it. “Thanks, but that’s okay. Um, Ronnie, I think that the manager there wants you…Ronnie?”
Ronaldinho gradually freed his head from Lionel’s hands and mouth, which from Michael’s angle looked something like getting free of one of those plastic suckers used to hang things against windows. “Hmmm…oh, yes. Need to work.”
“Wanna come. Can I?” Lionel slurred. He did something that was wiggling from behind, but from the way Ronaldinho’s expression changed, probably involved a lot more than that.
Something fell into Michael’s lap. It snickered, then rolled slightly and thumped down beside Michael just as an equally giggly man fell on top. Michael thought the one underneath might’ve been Gonzalo, and had no idea about the other one.
“I think maybe I keep him in the DJ booth till he sobers up,” Ronaldinho finally said. His eyes flicked between Lionel, now loudly sucking on his neck, to the bunch of hysterical Argentines falling over each other and Michael. It looked like they’d been sampling the mickey before they’d slipped it to Lionel. “You can only see us from shoulders-up, so…”
“Yeah…it’s less obvious than a bathroom stall.” Shrugging, Sergio waded into one side of the overstuffed booth and elbowed his way into getting a seat and a spot for his plate of finger-sausages. “Just bring ‘im back down when you’re done. I’m pretty sure he left a message for Cesc at some point and my cousin’s gonna call back and then kill me if we can’t have Leo babble into the phone for a couple seconds.”
Ronaldinho said something that sounded as if he were agreeing, but just then a foot flew at Michael’s face and he was somewhat distracted. He grabbed the ankle and wrestled it down, only to have its owner twist up in his face cursing.
“Yeah, hey, that’s mine,” Gonzalo said. He grabbed the other man around the waist and pulled him away from Michael and onto a slightly disgusted-looking Gago.
“Have some pride, you idiots. Ronnie’s Brazilian—do you know what your fathers would be saying if they could see you now?” Gago snorted. He happened to be drinking from a bottle, not a mug, and that possibly explained his greater degree of sobriety. “Conejo? Saviola, I’m talking to you.”
The one snuggling-hitting Gonzalo rolled his eyes. “They’d be saying strip down and prove to that Brazilian punk Argentines are better at carrying off their boyfriends for hot samba lo—mmm…”
For a moment, Gago and Michael just stared down. Then Gago leaned over and stuck his hand in Michael’s glass. Michael opened his mouth in protest, but Sergio shushed him—the other two didn’t hear and consequently started up like furious cats when Gago started flicking water on them. Thankfully, Ronaldinho came on over the sound system and introduced the first band, which kept anyone else from noticing them.
“No, they’re ashamed,” Gago stubbornly continued. “Ashamed that their descendents are not only still mostly short-assed, but also can no longer hold their drink—shit, Pipita!”
Michael sighed and grabbed Gonzalo’s ankle out of the air. He jerked till he got it under the table and Gonzalo consequently was sitting upright. Saviola was still lying down and probably doing things to Gonzalo under the table, but Michael was determinedly not looking. He wedged himself up till he could sit on the top of the booth and wave over a waitress for a new water glass.
“Damn, guys. If you wanna play kick-around, do it when the bouncer’s not staring at us. I’m getting tired of moving around to block his view.” Sergio pointedly re-sat himself down by Gago as he spoke. Then he looked at Michael and snorted. “Hey, you aren’t really going to just have that, are you? I think you’re gonna need—”
The first band started and…for some reason there was a guitarist. Maybe Michael didn’t know much about music, but he didn’t think samba bands came with those. Also, the guy really needed to tune up.
Wincing, Sergio flipped his hand at the stage. “That’s what I mean. The bartender says their dark beer’s the best.”
“You want one too while I’m at it?” Michael asked, sticking a finger in the ear closest to the band. After he got a nod from Sergio, he waved for the waitress again. Then he started to sit back down, but his cell went off and he stopped to take it out. “Hello?”
*Micha? It’s Timo.*
“Hey, so you’re Cesc’s cousin?” Gago was saying. He put his arms back and stretched them out, then lifted one hand to pat at Sergio’s hair. “How come I don’t remember running into you?”
Gonzalo broke out in a fresh set of giggles, was dragged down out of sight, and the subsequent bangings and rattlings coming from beneath the table were ignored by everybody still sitting with their heads above it. Michael took his finger out of his ear and tried shoving his palm against it. “Timo? Hey…I’m out with Leo and some of his friends, so that’s why it’s noisy, sorry.”
*You apologize before you even ask me what’s up…man, you really need to be at whichever club then.* Timo laughed edgily, and even with all the background noise Michael could still hear the awkwardness in how it trailed off. *Never mind. I don’t want to bother you.*
“No, no, we’re just sitting here. What’s up? Is something wrong?” Michael said. He waited a few seconds, then repeated himself more loudly.
Sergio glanced at him, but Michael was speaking in German and he didn’t think Sergio knew the language. Anyway, the other man didn’t look curious—he had the oddest expression on his face, incredulous and pained and frustrated all at once. He awkwardly reached around and pulled down Gago’s hand…and Gago seemed willing to let it keep going down, but Sergio jerked it right back up and pushed it against the table-top. “Well, my side of the family actually lives in Sevilla, but I go to university here.”
“Nah, that’s ‘Nando and Cesc. I got in on a sports scholarship,” Sergio said easily, not looking embarrassed or defensive. Though he did when Gago grinned and scooted closer. “Oh…shit. Hang on. Wait a second.”
*…it’s kind of stupid. I need a place to stay for the night,* Timo finally said. *Phil and I had a fight, and…I kind can’t go home now. It’s just for tonight, ‘cause I’m going back tomorrow and we’re goddamn well talking--sorry. You don’t need to hear about that.*
Gago frowned. “What?” Something long and defensive-sounding in Spanish that was too colloquial for Michael’s still-basic understanding. “’cause none of it’s true.”
“No, it’s not Lionel. It’s just…um, I can’t.” Sergio was hunching over and repeatedly shoving his hair behind his ears, and even in the dark his flush was obvious. “I…I got hit in the balls in a match a few days ago really hard, and the doctor says I shouldn’t. Too bruised.”
“Oh…oh, I’m sorry.” Looking sympathetic, Gago lifted his hand and reached towards Sergio. It awkwardly hovered for a moment before Gago finally patted Sergio on the shoulder. “Shit. Well…it’ll heal. So you’re going to be coming out with us from now on, right? You just hit this town, you’re gonna need a guide…”
Now Sergio almost looked panicky. “Oh, thanks, but you don’t need to go through all that trouble. I do have family here, and I—hey, Miguel! Miguel, over here!”
He stood up and waved at the door. A couple of seconds later, a man with a gauzy nest of black hair pushed his way through the crowd, grinning and reaching for Sergio. “Hey, Gitano!”
“No, it’s…are you okay? Do you…” On second thought, trying to talk about it with Timo now was a lousy idea. “…sure, you can stay over—wait, damn. Leo’s sort of liquored up and I’m the designated driver, and I don’t know when I can go…unless you want to meet me here.”
*Well, where are you? Come to think of it, don’t know if I want to sit around either…Christ, I don’t know what that—* Timo’s voice faded as he moved away from the phone, and deepened as he started getting angry again.
Michael gave him the address, made him promise to come down immediately, and then got off. He meant to call Torsten and see if the other man had any ideas as to what was going on, but was nearly knocked down before he could.
“Jeez, Sergio. I’m just saying hi,” Miguel said. He irritably pulled at his shirt till it was hanging straight from his shoulders again. “No need to jump over the table.”
“The last time I saw you, you weren’t sticking hands down people’s jeans!” Sergio flailed behind himself, grabbed something and got himself off of Michael’s lap before they both fell over backwards. He scrambled down the other side and stared wildly at Miguel and Gago, who was alternating between looking pissed off and speculative. “You…you…you kind of filled out. No more stick arms—um, never mind. That—doesn’t—it’s really great to see you, but I’m really tired tonight.”
Miguel narrowed his eyes in incredulity. “University’s that much work? Well, lemme buy you a drink and you can relax.”
“Get him an ice-bag, too. He says his balls are sore,” Gago snorted. He glanced up at Miguel, who at first looked irritated at the interruption. But then the two of them kept staring at each other and they were obviously coming to an understanding.
Michael decided he’d better go. “I’ve got a friend coming over and I’m going to meet him out—”
“Great, I’ll come too,” Sergio said, glomming onto Michael’s arm. Then he let go as if that were a red-hot poker and stared warily up at Michael. “Uh, you—you’re seeing somebody, aren’t you?”
“Yeah…” And now Michael couldn’t really call Torsten, but in the face of Sergio’s obvious panic, he couldn’t bring himself to tell the other man no. So they both went out front, and Michael really, really started thinking he should’ve picked something else to do for the night.
* * *
Ruud woke up irritated without being quite sure why. He looked at the time and it did say that he’d only been out for a few hours, but that wasn’t really that annoying.
When he turned over, his arm bumped into something: José, still around. The other man was lying with his back to Ruud and his shoulders pulled down, as if he’d been trying to curl into a ball when sleep had caught up with him. There were darkish splotches on his upper arm, not quite bruises and lying about two-thirds of the way to his elbow. He still looked deeply asleep, so Ruud put out a hand and carefully, gingerly fit it to the marks—a muffled thump came from the front and Ruud accidentally touched the other man.
He jerked back his hand, then suppressed a couple choice words as he got out of bed. Now he could hear cloth rustling behind him, but he didn’t look as he threw on a pair of trousers, a shirt and then went out to see who was calling on him at this hour.
By the time Ruud got to the door, it’d been a good minute so he looked through the peephole. He saw the top of a dark head, its curls half-gelled into place, and the knowledge of who it was socked him in the gut. His solar plexus spasmed and he slapped his hand against it, then turned around and put his back to the door. He heard the hinges rattle, so that ruled out pretending he wasn’t home—Ruud grimaced at himself. There was being practical, and then there was having no balls.
He looked up at the bedroom door, wondering just how awake José was. Then Cristiano knocked again and Ruud jerked his head to the side before he could help it. “Ruud, I know you’re in there. I asked the doorman.”
“You’re back early,” Ruud finally said. His voice sounded on the rusty side, and the bit of his breath that whuffed up in his face made him wrinkle his nose. Little vanities, but thinking about them got him moving: he pushed off the door and rubbed at his eyes while scraping off his tongue against his top teeth. “Where’s Deco?”
“Deco’s making sure people unpack properly. What, is he still emailing you? I told him to knock that off,” Cristiano replied. He, on the other hand, sounded faintly scornful, like he knew what he was talking about instead of like he was using loudness to cover up his ignorance. “Can I come in? I want to talk. I—Ruud, I’m sorry I snapped at you the last time. I don’t know what’s gone on between you and Deco, and I shouldn’t jump at you till I do. So can I come in and ask you?”
José appeared in the hall to the bedroom, shirt on but unbuttoned and carrying the rest of his clothes in his hand. He looked quizzically at Ruud, who mouthed ‘Cristiano’ without really thinking that José would be able to understand him.
“What the—Ruud?” Cristiano called. “Deco knows I’m here, and maybe he doesn’t like it but he’ll just have to deal. He’s not running the whole show and if he goes to Lehmann or anything, I can deal with him, okay? So can you let me in?”
Well, José seemed to get it now. His face froze in an unemotional expression, but his eyes were suddenly raw like the shiny faces of freshly-cracked coal—then he turned around with a jerk of one shoulder and went back into the other room.
“Why are you here? Just to ask me about what I’ve been doing? Cris—tiano…” Ruud made himself extend it into the proper name “…we can talk about that at work. I don’t have a business connection to you now and it’d be improper of me—”
“Bullshit!” The abrupt violence of that word was mirrored by the sharp blow that shook the door. “Ruud, what the hell is going on in there? Goddamn it, I can take a lot of things but not when you keep lying and lying and lying—”
Ruud bit his lip and buttoned his shirt with slightly shaking fingers. He tucked its tails into his trousers, then ran one hand through his hair. Then he unlocked the door and opened it.
Cristiano stopped mid-flow and rocked back on his heels, eyes widening. After a moment, he opened his mouth. His hand lifted slowly, then jerked back down and went behind him. “Ruud—”
“We broke up,” Ruud said flatly. “I wasn’t lying about that.”
That clearly floored Cristiano, but he was moving into Ruud’s space only a second later, chin up and eyes demanding answers. “You broke up because you thought I needed help and you couldn’t give it to me. We’re going to talk about that, but right now I’m back and I survived the tour--without you--and I want to come in.”
“Why?” Eyebrow raised, Ruud put up his arms and grabbed either side of the doorframe so Cristiano couldn’t slip past him. “To ask if we can get back together? You think one little tour’s enough when you’re back here begging the moment you get home?”
Cristiano started to respond, then stopped. His eyes narrowed and his head tilted, and he just looked amazingly determined and comprehending, and the time apart really had done him a lot of good. He carried himself differently, he spoke from a different level, he fell back onto a different foundation.
“You’re being an asshole again,” he said simply. “Let me in.”
If telling him they were over had been gut-wrenching, then this just completely pulverized Ruud. It was so bad he felt as if he’d just completely separated from his body and was watching someone else calmly snort in Cristiano’s face. Then they shrugged and swung back. “Let me get rid of José first.”
It took Cristiano a second to understand. Ruud had spoken loud enough to be heard in the bedroom, and so he wasn’t too surprised when a still-disheveled José flung himself out into the room. He was, however, shocked enough to come back to earth when after a few glances, José whitened with palpable anger.
“You miserable fuck,” he snarled. He threw himself forward, abruptly backtracked and then came out again holding his coat and…and one of the vodka bottles Ruud had managed to sneak past Cesc? At any rate, José didn’t stop to let Ruud check and went on at a furious enough pace that even Cristiano, who was rapidly paling himself, didn’t get in his way.
“I didn’t wait for you,” Ruud added. Needlessly, since Cristiano might’ve been speechless, but his expression told Ruud that everything that’d had to be done had been.
Cristiano stared at Ruud for so long that Ruud started to wonder if the other man had gone into cataleptic shock. But then, very slowly, Cristiano’s hand moved. It came up and pressed into the side of his mouth till two bloodless rings appeared around them, then abruptly jerked back over his hair. He turned his head, then looked back at Ruud with the incredulity of a child who’d just been told that people don’t live forever. “Who are you?”
“I’m tired of pretending for you.” Which, Ruud numbly thought, was the truth.
Mouth open. Mouth shut. Mouth a tight pale line slashing over the golden-boy face. No, man: Cristiano kept his head up as he slowly spun away from Ruud. He staggered with the first step, but by the time he got to the end of the hall, he was walking normally.
Ruud watched him go, sick and proud at the same time.
* * *
Timo showed up after about twenty minutes, which was fine with Michael since the first two bands were less than wonderful. He found Michael keeping the front bouncer company in the entry-well; Sergio had eventually gotten tired of trying to pry dirt out of Michael on Cesc and had warily gone back inside.
“Samba?” Timo tiredly greeted Michael. He looked fine—his hair was a bit mussed was all—but he gave off the kind of air that usually signaled near-collapse. The skin beneath his eyes was a bit dark and sagging. “Oh, well, whatever. When do you think you’re leave—you know what, it doesn’t matter. Let’s go get a drink.”
“What happened?” Michael did turn to let the other man in, but just as they walked through the door, they had to jump back from a crashing tray. The waiter who’d dropped it alternated between swearing and sobbing, so they beat a retreat back into the little lobby while the bouncer got down to help with the clean-up. “Hey, I’m driving. I want to know what I’m driving home.”
Timo’s chin jutted and for a moment, it looked like he’d rather hit Michael, but then he dropped into a slump against the wall. His eyes fell dully to the ground. “Fair enough. Phil and I had a fight about Hargreaves. I wanted him to move—”
“He’s still staying with you? I thought they got all that settled,” Michael said. Then he grimaced. “Sorry, didn’t mean to talk over you.”
“Nah, it’s okay. And yeah, he is. He’s got his own place but he’s taking forever to move out his stuff, and he’s always taking Phil aside to talk to him, and…I don’t know.” Mouth twisted, Timo restlessly tossed his head about. “No, I do know. I got stupid and got jealous, and Phil didn’t get it because he’s oblivious like that, and I’m out for the night and Hargreaves is still there.”
Michael…really wanted to say or do something, but he had no idea what. He was still absorbing the idea of there even being trouble between Timo and Phil, who were like…like…pillars of stability and commonsense at work. He—
--saw Senderos walk by? Frowning, Michael went over to the door and pushed it open to look, and it was Senderos adding change to a parking meter. “Philippe?”
The other man went still, then turned around with a blinking, quizzical expression. Timo shifted up to stand next to Michael. “Jesus, this doesn’t mean Jens is around, does it? With Van Persie? The last thing I need tonight is to run into my boss and his—” he started.
The corners of Philippe’s mouth turned downwards in a faintly humorous expression of embarrassment. “He’s upstairs talking to the club owner. We’re supposed to have an act playing here next week.”
“Ah, hell,” Timo groaned, turning back inside.
“Robin isn’t here,” Philippe added.
Michael was more than a little relieved to hear that; Robin out on the town was never a good sign for a peaceful time. “We’ll just stay inside till he goes…do you know when…”
He trailed off as something cracked sharply above them—glass, maybe. Philippe’s head went up like an alert hound, and whatever he saw happening on the second floor had him sprinting around the corner a second later. Michael briefly wavered, then hissed over his shoulder to Timo that he was going to look and chased after.
* * *
Eventually Ruud had to think about moving from the doorway. He wandered back into the bathroom and listlessly finished preparing for the day, only to notice that according to the clock, he still had a good few hours before he would’ve even needed to start thinking about waking up.
It was pointless to go back to bed—he wouldn’t actually sleep. He went back out, saw that he’d left the door open the whole time, and couldn’t really work up a lot of irritation over that. After grabbing his keys, he did make sure to lock up before heading for the stairwell. He could get into work early and write down the points for his meeting with Jens about Giuly’s demands. He could…
…somebody was sitting on the stairwell platform, dark head crammed into the corner and sockless feet stretched out before them. Ruud slowed, then stopped a step above José, who barely glanced over as he raised that bottle he’d taken and took a long swig from it. He made a face and sputtered into his hand afterward. “I hate vodka.”
“It’s my usual drink,” Ruud said after a second. He jiggled his keys, then slipped them into his pocket.
José had had about a sixth of the bottle, which was enough to make his movements slightly exaggerated but not enough to account for the brightness of his eyes. He jerked his head up at Ruud, then lifted the bottle over his leg so he could rest his arm on his knee. “It’s a good brand. I took it because I thought might as well get something…since I wasn’t getting anything else. I wanted you to fuck me, not fuck me over. I didn’t want to be there when he showed up, you fucking bastard.”
“That’s not what you were saying when I tied you to the headboard last night.” As comebacks went, it could’ve been better. Ruud blamed his shaken state.
Rolling his eyes, José let his head loll from one wall to the other, their join cradling his head. He flicked his fingers. “That’s fucking me. That’s fine. That…I left my socks up there.”
Ruud went down the last step, walked over and bent down. His first grab was evaded, but he successfully pried the bottle from José on the second try. He wiggled its neck between his fingers, then shrugged and sat down beside the other man. “Sorry.” The vodka burned a trail over Ruud’s mouth and down his throat, chilling his flesh till it felt like his head. “But if I’d fuck over Cristiano, what made you think I’d spare you?”
José had started up when Ruud had gotten down, and he didn’t quite settle now, eyes carefully searching Ruud’s face. “I don’t know. Why’d you do that to him, anyway? He actually looks good in person. And he didn’t even hit you from what I can see.”
“He is good. But he needs to stay away from me. I told him that, but I don’t think he gets that there were two people in the problem.” And one was out but the other one was still struggling, Ruud thought. He chased it down with a good drink of vodka. “I shouldn’t have to tell you…you saw me coming and you still showed up. What’s wrong with you?”
“How would I—anyway, why would I tell you? Give me that—that’s mine,” José snapped, yanking at the bottle. He wasn’t put off when Ruud wouldn’t let go and just pulled at Ruud’s wrist till he could tip some into his mouth. Then he let go. The side of his mouth bulged for a moment before he swallowed.
Ruud rolled the neck of the bottle between his palms, then wrapped one hand around it. He got one foot under himself for support before reaching around and grabbing José by the arm. He dragged the other man down till José’s head banged against his knee, then upended the bottle over José’s face.
It was good vodka; Ruud only let out a couple splashes before righting the bottle and letting go. Then he leaned back and drank some more while José sputtered and cursed and clawed his way off of Ruud. The other man cursed violently in Spanish and scraped at his face with his fingers before yanking his cuff over his hand and using that to try and dry it off. “You—”
“You were hoping I was going to hold you down, weren’t you?” Ruud dryly said. He took his answer from the way José went still. “That’s not something I see in Cesc. Or Raúl.”
“Well, I’m not goddamn—” José cut himself off, still hiding his face with his sleeve. Then his shoulders slumped and he dragged his hand down to his chin. “I don’t know. I have a good job, a great family, no big problems…it’s like those articles where they say ‘and he didn’t seem unhappy, so we don’t know why he shot himself.’”
Ruud tilted his head so he could get something of José’s expression. Then he reached out and encircled the other man’s wrist with his fingers. After a moment in which José didn’t move, Ruud pulled till José was straddling him, then dropped his arm so José couldn’t lift that hand. “I’m too tangled up with myself. I’m not going to help you figure things out.”
José gave him a twisted smile, shaking his head. “At least you’re different. You’re not the same-old same-old…”
The corner of Ruud’s mouth wanted to wrench itself back towards his ear as well, but he kept his lips pressed together. He jerked at José’s arm a couple times before raising his other arm and pushing the top of the bottle up against José’s chin. He leaned forward and kissed José, lessening the pressure every time the other man moved in for it, while he dragged the bottle down José’s throat. The sharp un-smell of the vodka cut at Ruud’s nose. Grimacing, he leaned back and watched José jump as he poured a little down the other man’s collar. Then he moved in—fast before it all evaporated—and licked after the drops, laving José’s throat from chin to collarbone where the cottony taste of José’s shirt gave the alcohol a taste.
José suddenly dug fingers into Ruud, head falling to the side so something as light as a butterfly wing touched Ruud’s cheek. Only after Ruud had dragged them to their feet did he realize it’d been eyelashes. He didn’t meditate for too long on his flinching away from that, and just dragged them back up the stairs.
Once inside his apartment, he shoved José to the floor, then ungracefully got down on his knees. José was already fumbling with the buttons of his shirt, but Ruud pushed his hands aside and yanked till they popped off. He snorted at the flash of irritation that went over José’s face. “Like I care how you keep this from your family.”
Ruud turned over the bottle again, and this time he let the vodka liberally flow till the folds of José’s shirt were sopping flat against the floor and excess liquid was pooling around the other man. The empty bottle went spinning away, and Ruud spent another second on practical matters and got their trousers down before he put himself over José, leaning hard on the other man’s wrists, and just did whatever he wanted.
Sucked beads of icy fire from beneath José’s jaw and the hollows of his throat, bit at his collarbones. Traced nonsense over the other man’s chest before pressing his open mouth up and down the ribs—his lips felt swollen and fever-hot against cooling wet skin—and running down their lines with his teeth. He felt José’s prick rise up to tap against his belly, but ignored it in favor of licking at the other man’s stomach, chasing it down as it curved and shivered beneath him, corkscrewing his tongue in the belly-button and testing the thin, thin skin there.
The vodka led downwards and Ruud followed it for a while before skirting the first dustings of coarse curls. He tickled his way along them, shifting to lie on José’s knees when José tried to lift his hips, before moving back up. Didn’t go near the nipples, but instead attacked less obvious places in the slight inward scoop of the shoulder, the base of the throat, opting for surprise to worsen the teasing. José was begging in Spanish, voice hoarse and breaking and so close in the long vowels and the—wrong pitch. Goddamn Ruud’s profession.
He let go of José’s right wrist and started to crawl towards the kitchen, but José pulled him back by the arm, words fumbling out of his mouth in a mix of languages. But his legs spread in clear enough meaning, and so Ruud went back, did it with spit and vodka-laced sweat, and then wrenched himself into José. He gave the other man time enough to adjust so there wouldn’t be tearing, even with the paucity of lubricant, but otherwise he didn’t spare José at all. And José didn’t ask him for mercy, either.
* * *
Deco jerked his head down with a wince, then raised it to see a Cristiano in full fury storm across the room. The door behind him was still shaking on its hinges, and in the hall past it, Deco could see a trail of gaping, frightened faces.
He opened his mouth.
“Shut up,” Cristiano hissed, rounding on him. The other man’s eyes were blazing so hot that Deco almost thought he felt a real scorch on his skin. “Yes, I went to see Ruud. Yes, he was an ass. Yes, you predicted it and you helped it along and don’t say a word or I’ll ship you home in pieces.”
Without breaking his stride, Cristiano stomped into the next room. He kicked at that door, sending it into the wall, but a minute later and no other thuds had followed, so Deco chanced getting up to see. It did look like Cristiano had discovered the limit of his patience with Ruud, but Deco was family. Cristiano wouldn’t be literal…he thought.
He did approach the door from an angle that’d help him duck if anything came flying out, just in case. Though as it turned out, that wasn’t necessary: Cristiano had thrown himself across the bed and was scribbling on the hotel stationery so hard that the paper was ripping. He also had the phone on speaker. “…because he’s a menace. He’s losing his mind and he has so much on me and on you and on FC…aren’t you worried that he’d start talking to the wrong people? It’s a matter of internal correction.”
Slight crackle, plus some odd thudding that might be hurried footsteps. *Since when did you start caring about internal affairs? I thought you liked everything in public,* Lehmann said.
Cristiano paused and jammed the end of his pen so hard into his mouth that it was surprising he didn’t break a tooth. He read what he’d just written—from the unevenness of the line length, Deco would bet on new lyrics—then crossed out a few words. “I was very young and I got very famous very quickly. I didn’t learn my lessons properly. But now I have…and I thought you’d appreciate that, not argue with me about it.”
*If you’re beginning to take an interest in the business side, then believe me, I appreciate that.* Lehmann’s dry tone came in even through his shortening breath—he must have been running off to some clandestine meeting when Cristiano called, and of course he wouldn’t stop to take it. *But firing Ruud is out of the question.*
Deco…casually leaned on the door and told himself to get over his utter shock that this was Cristiano, because this was also fascinating as hell. He’d started sending those emails to make up for that phone call where he’d accidentally bared a bit of his real opinion to Ruud, and then continued them because he thought Cristiano might be developing into somebody who could really challenge Ruud on some level besides the appeal of an injured bird. But he’d honestly never seen it going to this.
Cristiano didn’t quite contain his annoyance. “Why not?”
*Because then you lose control over him. Legally, as well as several lesser but still important ways. And also because I’m not going to fire a man who’s still a good employee just because you and he can’t get along anymore. You don’t have to see him,* Jens said.
“And I’m locked down by contract. But that doesn’t last forever, you know,” Cristiano muttered. He turned and spotted Deco, who gestured as if patting something, trying to get the other man to take it down a notch. His eyes narrowed, but Cristiano did modulate his voice a little better. “I’m still worried about how good you’re going to be at making sure he doesn’t jeopardize me.”
Jens sighed. *I think our team’s record in that area should speak for itself. If you don’t believe me, you can always check the gossip column archives for just how much of what you’ve done has shown up in…in…*
“That’s not the same. That was about bystanders, not people like Ruud who know—Lehmann?” Frowning, Cristiano dropped the paper pad and rolled over to sit over the phone. “Lehmann?”
*…you? What are you…oh, that is so stupid.*
Followed by something Deco didn’t quite catch, but that was bad enough to send Cristiano leaping for the phone. Literally: Cristiano grabbed it off the cradle and then twisted, turning his landing into a roll along the floor. “Lehmann? Lehmann! What the—”
Then he flung the phone from him, face draining of color. It clattered once before settling on its side, the distinct sound of an explosion coming from it. Cristiano stared at it, then looked wildly at Deco.
Deco darted in and snatched up the phone. He listened very carefully for several seconds, then swore and yanked it down to dial. At that Cristiano started up, but Deco waved him back and the other man was uncertain enough to obey that. “Where was he? Do you know? What did it sound like he was—damn it, Thierry’s not picking up. We…you were on the phone to him. That might show up in records…you need to leave. The country, I think.”
“Like hell. Lehmann just—I don’t know what happened there, but anybody going for him is thinking big enough to not stop with him,” Cristiano said. He got up and scrabbled at his pocket, then flipped out his phone. “Call Freddie Ljungberg. I heard once that if Thierry’s turning off his phone, he lets Ljungberg know so he can cover. I’m—Deco, do it.”
“They won’t go after you except to try and offer you a better deal. You don’t like Lehmann anyway,” Deco pointed out.
Cristiano paused, thought about it, then shook his head and stared at his phone. When the call went through, he put it to his ear. “I don’t like him but he’s been the best so far, and…and look, maybe I was coked up a lot of the time, but I’ve been at FC longer than you. I know the people. They’re…they’re crazy-loyal, and they aren’t going to let people be neutrals. So I’m going to bet on their side…especially because I’ve met that Dutch asshole Jens fucks—Robin? Yes, it’s Cristiano, but shut up and listen because I was just on the phone with Jens and something happened. I heard an explosion and he didn’t come back on the line, and—Van Persie?”
After a moment, Cristiano closed his phone. He had an odd, almost sympathetic look on his face. But then his expression smoothed over and he glanced calmly up at Deco.
“You’re my agent,” he said. “You’re supposed to make my decisions into action. And if you don’t want to, I guess I have to mention that I know you got caught fucking that politician’s stepson. And his wife. At the same time.”
“That was in Brazil.” Deco should’ve come up with something better, but he was…well, was floored that Cristiano had found that out. He hadn’t gotten caught—he’d covered his trail well enough once he’d realized that the wife was going to confess to having an affair with somebody. “So?”
Cristiano was calling somebody else. “So I talked to relatives over there and got some interesting stuff, and you know, that politician’s got family in Portugal. Just like us. You wanted me to learn how to play the game—I learned. And I think Lehmann is a good card to have in my hand.”
After a long, long moment, Deco turned the phone over so he could reach the buttons with his thumb. He pressed the right numbers, and when Ljungberg came on, said what he needed to say. And thought that one, he was impressed, and two, that he could stop thinking about Cristiano as somebody to protect and start thinking about how to undercut him.
The other man had turned his back to Deco to make his second call, but he didn’t lower his voice quite enough. “…Ruud? Listen…I’m not calling about before. I don’t even want to think--never mind. But you should know…Lehmann’s in trouble. And…you know, I still don’t want you dead. Okay? I…well, I hope you get this message really soon, because—fuck. Bye.”
Which, Deco was thinking, was still doable.