|Running on Faith
Author: Guede Mazaka
The door to the interview room needed its hinges oiled. Badly. Badly enough for Jens to want to grab the detective standing by him and squeeze all the grease from his slick of a hairdo and just do it himself.
Instead he continued reviewing the file before him. Once he put his hand in his pocket, but stopped when he heard the door click. He glanced up to see the detective’s large, watery eyes fixed on him. Jens controlled his urge to strangle and pulled out his bottle of aspirin. He pointedly gave the other man a moment to see it, then rattled out a few pills into his hand.
“Do you want any—” the detective started, his thick accent slurring all over the place with nerves. He stopped when Jens tossed the pills into his mouth, an absolutely revolted look coming onto his face. It only got better when Jens cracked the tablets between his molars and chewed loudly instead of swallowing.
The saliva was going to deactivate a lot of the active ingredient before it ever hit his bloodstream, but Jens really needed the bitter taste in his mouth: it was a nice way to get it out into the open so he could think about other things. He chomped on a few extra pills to compensate, then went back to reading while the detective had a quick discussion with his colleague, who’d just entered the room. The floor was bare concrete, so he could easily track the movements of the others by the scrape of their soles against the ground.
Once things had settled down a bit, he glanced up and saw a clerk seating himself in the corner. Jens paused, then snapped the file down on the table in front of him. “What is this?”
“We need a record of what’s said. You’ll also be—” the detective said. He was interrupted by somebody in the hallway.
They had a brief, low, nasty-sounding argument before the detective abruptly went into the hall. The man who took his place was probably the one Freddie had spoken to. “Mr. Lehmann? Look, I think we’ve been extremely reasonable so far, and I don’t know what you think entitles you to special treatment, but the law states that if you’re not the lawyer—”
“Right now I am the lawyer,” Jens replied, turning his head. He barely kept his voice to a monotone. He flicked his eyes down to the cell-phone at the man’s waist, which was buzzing. “I think you should take that call.”
The man frowned and opened his mouth, but at the last minute decided to be sensible and unclipped his cell. He put it to his ear, immediately looked shocked and tried to speak, but then shut up and listened. And still listening, slowly waved the clerk out. He probably shot Jens a dirty look as he closed the door behind them, but Jens had already turned back.
The right side of Robin’s collar had been ripped off his shirt. He’d gotten a chance to wash up, but it didn’t look like he’d gotten much treatment for the bruises on his jaw or his cut knuckles. His face was a sick white beneath the fluorescent light and his eyes were glittering almost feverishly. “I was wondering how you’d get in. Did you already have the fake papers on hand, or did you actually talk Ballack into forgery?”
“No, I just showed them my own. I’m not licensed to practice in this country, but we can’t get anybody who is for another two hours. Fortunately for you, I have enough on enough high-ranking cops to make my law degree stretch for that long,” Jens said. He picked up the file again between two of his fingers. “I wasn’t thinking of you—those were safeguards in case I needed to pull Ronaldo out of another hole. And now I need to do that and deal with you.”
Robin shifted uneasily in his seat, rattling something below the table. He lifted his hands a moment later and put them on top so Jens could see the manacles around his wrists. “Jens—”
“Shut up.” Jens pulled out his PDA, setting it to the application that hopefully should tell him whether they really had turned off the room’s recording equipment.
“Whatever the hell they told you, they didn’t get it right,” Robin hissed. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
He ignored Robin till his PDA told him things were clear; he didn’t feel entirely comfortable trusting in the program since one, Robin had come up with it, and two, he hadn’t really road-tested it yet, but they didn’t have enough time for him to physically check the room. “What did happen?”
It was silent for long enough that Jens raised his head to check, grimacing as he did because a stray hook of migraine pain got through the aspirin. Robin was staring hard back, mouth held tight so the lines of exhaustion around it seemed cut with a diamond knife. What might’ve been a plea flicked through his eyes just before he abruptly pulled himself up.
He flinched as the chains jerked his hands short, then slowly wrapped his fingers around the manacles to rub at his wrists. “You got in really fast. I thought you weren’t leaving till tomorrow, but you had to have already been on your way to get here now.”
His tone was clipping things out. “Did they tell you what they want to charge you with? Sexual assault, Van Persie. Start talking.”
“What? I—what—I didn’t even—where did that come from? It wasn’t remotely like that!” Robin said. He seemed to be genuinely startled, and then genuinely pissed off. “Who the fuck are they holding against me?”
“Van Persie.” Jens waited till the other man sullenly ceased talking. Then he leaned forward. Gritty dust on the table made itself known beneath his palms. “You want to tell me why my own agent is leveling that kind of accusation against you?”
This time, Jens was certain Robin hadn’t been expecting that. He could see how the information didn’t even sink in till a few seconds later, and then how it made the blood drain from Robin’s face. Robin’s jaw dropped and he just stared at Jens, eyes wide and pupils hugely dark in his white face.
After a few aborted attempts, Robin managed to ask a question. “Ruud?”
“Apparently. Cristiano can’t be found and that’s bad, considering that he’s supposedly the victim here,” Jens added. He sat back down. His mouth was dry and tasted awful thanks to the aspirin, and the time-lag was beginning to catch up to him. “What happened?”
“You said ‘supposedly.’ You don’t…you’re still withholding judgment, right?” Robin’s voice cracked and he flinched instead of grimacing. His hands curled around the edge of the table and began to squeeze at it. “Jens, I hate—I mean, I can’t stand Ronaldo. I’d vomit if—I want to vomit just thinking about it. And besides, you were flying in tomorrow.”
He widened his eyes slightly and looked pointedly at Jens, as if that was supposed to mean something more than it did. He wasn’t lying, but assault didn’t mean somebody had to like the target, and tomorrow meant twenty-four hours without Jens where Robin could get easily bored. “What happened?” Jens repeated.
Sharp inhale. Then Robin jerked himself straight in his seat again, the light in his eyes flaring into an angry blaze. But his hands were shaking. “Goddamn it, you should be able to know what I’d do by now, even if you don’t trust me. Look, I can’t tell you everything. The only time I saw Cristiano was at that club, and I…believe me, I’ve been thinking long and hard and I still have no idea what was going through his head.”
* * *
Six Hours Earlier
It probably was a good thing Robin didn’t understand a word of Portuguese, since that meant he didn’t know what everyone was saying when they went up to Cristiano with those smarmy smiles and greedy glints in their eyes. The champagne wasn’t bad, but anything wine in general wasn’t really Robin’s thing, so that wasn’t nearly a big enough plus to make up for the incessant repetition of nothing but Cristiano’s goddamn Euro-pop on the club speakers.
Ronaldo wanted a private party back in Portugal with his family before his album’s official launch. Yes, he wanted to invite other singers and musicians with ties to MU. Yes, he knew that was stupid but he couldn’t help it if most of the people he knew still dated to the years he was signed with MU. Yes, Robin wanted to punch him in the face for making work that much more difficult.
Robin had also wanted to take a swing at Jens for sending him out first without mentioning that Jens himself wouldn’t be coming along for another day, but that been back when he’d just been looking at a night cramped into the back of the club with his laptop. Now, looking at three or four more hours of Cristiano’s music, he’d just settle for Jens fucking him till he screamed himself deaf and dumb.
He flinched as a screech cut through the speakers, then sighed in surprised relief as silence instead of music followed. But that only lasted a moment; somebody started talking, and when Robin looked up at the stage, he saw Cristiano grinning and babbling into a mike while a band was getting ready behind him. Jens was a bastard.
And Robin wasn’t putting up with this, damn it; he shut down his laptop and jammed it back into his bag. There were enough security guards on the floor to keep the peace, plus Cesc had apparently been assigned to be Ronaldo’s shadow—whenever anyone important was looking, Fàbregas was all smiles, but the moment they weren’t, he made faces like he was gagging on lemons—so it wasn’t like they needed him down here. He could just take a page out of Jens’ book and hang out upstairs in the security video-feed room.
He hiked his bag onto one shoulder and shoved his way to a door, getting out almost scot-free before somebody barged into his shoulder. That knocked him back into the main area just as Cristiano started to warble. “Watch where you’re going, asshole.”
“What?” Oh, damn it, it was Ruud. Thankfully, it didn’t look as if Ruud had actually heard Robin; the other man looked quizzically down while pressing his hand hard to his ear.
Robin gestured towards the hall and Ruud backed out, then turned as Robin followed him. He stood so he could see the stage, and was clearly not paying much attention to anything or anyone else. It irked Robin. He just couldn’t figure out why the hell Ruud would waste so much time on Ronaldo. “I said, think it’s going to be this good back home? The audience?”
“If Cris can keep it together,” Ruud said in a sour, absentminded tone. Then he seemed to remember who he was talking to. “Where are you going?”
“Just upstairs. The music’s giving me a headache.” It wasn’t like Robin got paid to be a music reviewer, so he wasn’t going to lie about that. “I checked the whole place before the party started and didn’t find anything.”
Ruud managed to drag his eyes from the stage long enough to think about that. “But if somebody’s calling out, or planting anything right now…”
“If somebody’s phoning in reports, the bouncers and Cesc are supposed to catch that. I’m just one person and I can’t cover the whole floor,” Robin patiently explained. They’d already gone over all of this earlier in the day, but pointing that out to Ruud probably wasn’t going to help him remember. “I’m tracking what kind of signals go in and out of the club and I don’t have to be down here to do that.”
He waited for a few moments, then just left when he didn’t get a response. If Ruud had heard him, fine. If not, then it wasn’t like he was going somewhere the other man couldn’t find him. If Ruud remembered what question he wanted to ask by then.
The video-feed room was blessedly, blessedly quiet, and it didn’t take much to get the men manning it to move downstairs; they were both die-hard Cristiano fans, apparently. They probably weren’t going to get the autograph they were hoping for, but just getting within speaking distance of Cristiano might kill them with joy from what Robin could tell. God, he wished he was somewhere else.
Well, if everything went well, then he had an outside chance of talking Jens into taking a break and fucking him at some tourist attraction once the other man showed up. Sighing, Robin gritted his teeth and sat back down to work.
He occasionally looked up at the monitors to get some relief from eye-strain. Cristiano was singing. Cristiano was in the middle of a bunch of family-members who were toasting him. Cristiano was hugging some girl—Robin looked around till he found Ruud, then snorted when he saw the other man’s carefully blank expression.
Nothing seemed to be going on at Robin’s end, so he called up a new window and started poking away at a few other projects he’d been putting together. Down in the club, Cesc was helping to haul off some rowdy drunks while Cristiano strutted along on top of the bar. Cristiano sang some more. Cristiano…Robin looked again, then sat back as the screen showed Cristiano and Ruud doing a bad job of not making their argument obvious to everyone else. Cesc was several rows of people back, distracted with talking to the band, and so he was way too far to get to Cristiano when the other man abruptly whirled and stomped off towards the men’s toilet.
It looked like Cristiano’s relatives were actively blocking Ruud’s way, so Cristiano soon was…damn it, none of the guards were moving that way. They were all standing around watching Ruud snarl at Cristiano’s uncle or father or whatever, and on the other monitors, Robin could see that some MU-connected people were in the toilet.
He sat and drummed his fingers on his laptop for a few seconds, thinking to himself that he couldn’t believe he’d even think about—but any fuck-up and Jens would be so busy Robin would be lucky to get a glimpse of him. And after all that Robin had had to put up with so far, he deserved some time getting fucked. At least.
He got down to the men’s toilet just after Cristiano did. Someone Robin vaguely recognized from MU’s list of up-and-coming acts was trying to talk to Cristiano, but the other man just kept shoving him back, trying to get into a stall. A last snarl in Portuguese and some bared teeth finally saw Cristiano free: he stalked into the nearest stall and from the sound of things, started kicking the toilet.
It was still too early for most people to be coked up and drunk, so they did the sensible thing and started to move towards the door. The man who’d been talking to Cristiano stopped to watch with a puzzled look as Robin walked towards the stalls, but he got moving again before Robin had to do anything.
A barrage of angry Portuguese greeted Robin as he reached the stall door, which started to swing shut. He got his hands on either side of the stall and banged his knee into the door, then gave it another shove when he heard Cristiano stumble. “Ronaldo, please tell me you’re not sniffing it up in there. Last thing I want to do is run screaming out of here for an ambulance.”
After a long moment, the door suddenly swung all the way open, with Cristiano squeezing to the side of the toilet to let Robin in. He sullenly picked at his shirt, pulling at the strings where the top button had popped off. “Like you’d even call it in.”
“I would. I’d be jiggling your stretcher every chance I got and hoping you died, but I’d call it.” Robin glanced over his shoulder and saw that they were alone, so he left the door open. “You’re high enough on Jens’ priority list without on adding on another rehab trip.”
“Lehmann. Oh, right,” Cristiano said, pulling back his lips. He spoke in a razor-edged drawl; his eyes were a little red and wet at the corners. But his pupils still looked normal, and his sleeves were down so he hadn’t gotten anything into his bloodstream yet.
He saw where Robin was looking and angrily jerked his pockets inside-out, dropping his cell-phone, some change and a pen on the floor. Then he fell back against the far wall, lifting his chin and haughtily waving Robin away with one hand.
“Okay, see, I’m not doing anything, so go back to licking Lehmann’s shoes. I’m just standing in a toilet stall—I can do that, can’t I?” he snapped. He was slurring his English a little bit, and now that his mouth was open, Robin could tell that the alcohol smell was mostly coming from that and not from the damp stains on his suit.
For a moment, Robin was tempted to punch him for being a stuck-up prick. He glanced over his shoulder again, but didn’t see anyone to whom he could hand off Cristiano. “If you want to look even more pathetic than you already do.”
“Oh, shut up about being pathetic. I’m not pathetic—it’s everything else. It’s all business--fuck.” Cristiano hauled off and slammed his foot into the toilet again. He let out a little hiss and grabbed for the flush-handle, staying bent over, but otherwise he took the pain pretty well. Considering it was self-inflicted. “If they do it with each other for business, then what makes me not business, too?”
That didn’t make much sense to Robin and he didn’t ask for any explanation, since it was obvious the other man was drunk. “My God, stand up. You’ve got millions in the bank, big record execs bending over backwards to protect you from everything, and you’re still whining?”
“Bending is right,” Cristiano said, viciously twisting the first word. He snapped upright, then scrambled to grab for the top of the stall wall to keep his balance. He swayed a little, needing a moment to focus on Robin, but once he did, his stare was all rage and acid. “Ruud and Lehmann were fucking. Fucking. Did you know that?”
Robin had a little difficulty swallowing to clear his throat. “Yes, actually.”
“Oh.” After a moment, Cristiano just threw up a hand and slumped back again. He shook his head, smiling like he’d just been told his contract had been canceled because the morning astrology column said it was a good idea. “Well, everyone else knew, so you’d know. And—” Cristiano’s eyes shot back to Robin “—you think I’m pathetic? Lehmann’s only screwing you because it’ll keep you loyal. If that ever changes, he’ll drop you like a rock.”
Okay, Cristiano could OD himself to hell for all Robin cared. They still were alone in the bathroom, but if Ronaldo wanted to sulk, then he could have it all to himself.
But Cristiano needed his audience. He started up again the moment Robin turned around. “He’s a good manager. It’s what he does for a living. It’s work.”
Robin stopped, then spun back. Cristiano had his finger waving in the air and it nearly poked out Robin’s eye. He grabbed it and used it to throw the other man backwards. “Look, you spoiled little shit, has it ever occurred to you that people might not act the same with other people as they do with you, because you’re just a whiny, self-centered jackass who couldn’t put a decent song together without—”
Cristiano jerked forward, faster than Robin would’ve thought he could move in his condition; Robin backed up, but got his arm caught on the stall door, which had started to swing out again. He paused to get his arm around and that gave Cristiano time to haul himself forward and seize Robin’s wrist. The other man was surprisingly strong, yanking Robin into stumbling forward a step even though Robin had a grip on the stall wall.
The only reason they didn’t crack skulls was because Robin managed to jerk up his head in time. Totally oblivious, Cristiano rammed his head into Robin’s shoulder, then lifted it to hiss in Robin’s ear. “I may be pathetic, but that’s because I’m in love, God help me. You’re just easy—Ruud said he got you to come because you thought he’d fuck you, and now you’re with Lehmann because he’ll screw you with his big German dick, but he’s done that before. He stopped with Ruud because now he can just hold me against the cost of my rehab, and he’ll stop with you when he’s—”
“Shut up,” Robin snarled. He got his hand up and smacked it into Cristiano’s chest, rocking the other man back. Cristiano’s grip loosened and Robin twisted his arm hard, almost getting it free. When it didn’t come, he threw his forearm sideways at Cristiano’s face, and never mind about the man’s fucking poster-boy looks. “Shut up.”
“I’m not lying! You know I’m not lying.” Ducking the forearm, Cristiano somehow managed to swing them around and into the walls. He stumbled and lost his hold on Robin, but Robin knocked his knee against the toilet while trying to get up and fell as well. Before he could recover, Cristiano had barged across the narrow space, slamming the door shut on the way, and plowed into him. “I’m not—” he laughed hollowly at Robin “—oh, you already know. You know and you’re still staying. Hey, did you still want to fuck Ruud? I bet you do. I bet you could talk him into fucking you—just tell him you can help him with Lehmann, and—”
“Shut up!” Robin forced the words out as he drove his arms up between them. He momentarily broke them apart, but then slipped on the floor and fell into Cristiano.
Who reached up, grabbed his head, and kissed him like a desperate whore, putting all the goods out there. Sheer shock had Robin standing still for a moment, but then he ripped back his head and slammed his lips together. His feet skidded backwards and he banged one elbow, then the other against the wall in trying to lever himself off of it. Cristiano hissed something about if there had to be whoring, he could be a man and do his own, his nails digging into the sides of Robin’s face. He lunged up and pressed his tongue against Robin’s mouth.
Robin swore, letting that tongue in, and then bit down. But he mistimed it and caught Cristiano’s lip instead, and the other man deliberately pushed his hips up into Robin, rocking against him in a parody of sex because neither of them were hard at all. Fucking opposite—Robin grabbed Cristiano’s arms, yanked sideways to break the other man’s balance, and then threw him into the far wall. Cristiano’s hands flew up, one catching Robin with a glancing blow on the cheek, as he rattled down the steel panel.
His ass finally hit the ground, his feet going in opposite directions so he sprawled down there. He was looking up at Robin with a shocked, pained expression when the door suddenly was pulled—right off its hinges. The metal screeched and groaned as it was forced in the way opposite to how it was supposed to swing.
“Get him—” Robin started.
The blow caught him mid-turn, landing on his jaw so his head snapped back. He never even saw who it was.
* * *
“That must’ve been Ruud.” Robin’s incredulous realization was mixed with more than a little anger. He absently started to lift his hand to his face, then glared at the chain when it cut his movement short. “Well, he doesn’t have to worry about any little crush I might have on him now. They’re both crazy, him and Cristiano. Crazy and paranoid jealous.”
And Jens had to work with both of them. No wonder it’d been quicker to get in to see Robin than it had to get Ruud to sit down and talk at length about what had happened.
At the time, using Ruud’s guilt-complex over Cristiano had seemed like a reasonably good idea. Van Nistelrooy had made it clear he’d been expecting to have to put in extra to get what he wanted for Cristiano, and all that displaced desire for Ronaldo had needed some kind of outlet. But now Jens honestly wished he’d just set Ruud up with a regular prostitute or something like that. Justifying that expense would’ve been tricky, but it wouldn’t have led into such a long-running debacle as keeping it in-house had turned out to be.
“Jens?” Robin said after a moment. His voice was uncertain and tentative, and so was the look in his eyes above that cocky smile. “So can you clear the charges?”
His smile slowly died as Jens failed to answer. He looked down at his hands, which he was twisting together. “You know it went how I said it went. Look, I’m sorry if I didn’t handle it the way you would’ve wanted and kept it cleaner, but it wasn’t like I was expecting Cristiano to lose it like that. I thought he’d just try to claw out my eyes. I—it meant about as much as Cesc’s pass at me did.”
“Are you suggesting I haul you out of that chair and fuck you over this table?” Jens finally replied, keeping his voice modulated to cool.
Robin didn’t make the mistake of taking that as a serious offer. If anything, he looked more anxious. “Goddamn it, Jens. I was just trying to keep Cristiano from ruining your trip.”
“I know.” Jens checked his watch, then got up when his cell rang. He was aware of the way Robin reacted, straining as far as the chains would let him, but he ignored it. The ring-tone currently going off was David, and Jens had a good guess as to why. “Don’t tell them anything till the other lawyer comes.”
“Jens—damn it, Jens, wait--”
The detective from before, plus a few cops, was standing outside the door. They popped in the moment Jens came out, giving him filthy looks; they probably had turned off the recording equipment if they looked that frustrated. And they were probably going to take that out on Robin, so hopefully Robin had the sense to not rise to the bait.
Odonkor had left a text message saying to come out to the front. Halfway out of the police station, Jens sent a message to the local lawyer they’d managed to get about checking for excessive use of force by the police. The less of this that ended up on record, the better, and Jens was quite willing to use as much leverage as necessary to accomplish that. He’d just have to cut his losses and try to stay out of Portugal till he’d restocked on favors owed.
At first Jens didn’t see anyone, but then light flashed in a nearby alley. He warily made his way over, then briskly walked the rest of the way once he recognized the car. The back door on the driver’s side popped open as he approached, so he swung himself inside without stopping.
Cristiano was slouched at the other end of the backseat, holding an ice-pack to his head and looking half-dead. He did pay attention when David swung over the top of the front seat.
“Found him with his family doctor, getting something for a light concussion plus hangover,” Odonkor said. He glanced between them. “Uh, should I take a walk?”
“Yes,” Cristiano muttered. He just shot Jens a defiant look when Jens glanced at him.
Jens checked his PDA for recent messages, then nodded as he put that away. “Go wait on the curb. Freddie should be along with the lawyer in a moment.”
“Ooookay.” With a sigh, David got out of the car and ambled off.
After rearranging his legs—this car was incredibly small—Jens sat and waited.
“David said that Robin’s in jail, and Ruud was pressing charges,” Cristiano finally said. He arched an eyebrow at Jens. “It’s something Van Persie is used to, isn’t it?”
“What happened?” Jens asked.
Cristiano swore and threw back his head, jamming the ice-pack in behind his neck. He stared at the ceiling for a few seconds. “I don’t know why I should even talk to you. I don’t like you, you don’t like me, you don’t give a damn about—”
“Ronaldo, I do give a damn about you. I give a damn because you’re responsible for the largest portion of my team’s profits, but that’s still giving a damn. And even if you still want to be idealistic about it, you know that I care more than a lot of execs, who would’ve stocked the studios with crack as long as you kept recording.” A twinge of pain went through Jens’ forehead. He took out the aspirin and ate a couple more pills while he waited for Cristiano to think it over. “I need to know what happened. I need to know whether I have to transfer you to another agent for either your or Ruud’s own good. I need to know who I need to—”
“Okay, okay, you don’t need to tell me about your hit-list,” Cristiano muttered. He rubbed at his nose and mouth, then lowered his head to look at Jens. “Did you just talk to Robin, or Ruud? What did they say happened?”
After a moment’s thought, Jens summarized Robin’s account. He’d also spoken to Fàbregas, but Cesc hadn’t seen or heard most of it so that hadn’t been too useful. Cesc had had a couple sharp guesses about what had gone on, but that was mostly more notice to keep an eye on him and not so relevant to the situation at hand.
Cristiano listened with a fairly blank face, though the side of his mouth occasionally twitched. When Jens was done, Cristiano snorted and fiddled with the icepack. “No, he’s right. I didn’t say anything important in the Portuguese parts, except insulting Ruud’s and your family. Ruud said Robin attacked me? The bastard probably wouldn’t have minded, but he didn’t and that’s just Ruud thinking I’m so weak and I can’t be trusted to act for myself and—”
“What did Ruud say to you?” Jens interrupted.
Instead of answering, Cristiano shifted forward to look more closely at Jens. “You don’t care that I heard about you and Ruud?”
“I care…” Jens took a moment to get it right in his head “…insofar as it’s damaging to our reputations, it means I have to watch my personal life more carefully, and it means it’ll be a lot more difficult to maintain a professional relationship with you and with Ruud. But I think you have a good idea of why I got into bed with Ruud in the first place.”
“You really are a coldblooded son of a bitch,” Cristiano said. His expression seemed to be unsurprised and observant, but his tone was unreadable.
Jens shrugged. “I am and I’m good at it and it works for me.”
“I…have to respect that.” Cristiano added something else in Portuguese, and since it had Ruud’s name in it, it probably wasn’t complimentary. His overall reaction was shockingly subdued, considering it was him. “All I did was ask him how he’d gotten you to release the acoustic song instead of the one we’d planned as the single.”
* * *
Six Hours Earlier
“Does it matter? You got it,” Ruud snapped. He downed the glass he’d been holding in one vicious movement, then grimaced as he studied the bottom of the glass. “Sorry. Look, I’m just spoiling your fun.”
He’d been in an increasingly bad mood all day. Cristiano had been asking, but every time, Ruud put him off with a ‘don’t worry about it, enjoy your family and your party,’ and he honestly was sick of it. “So what’s the matter? It’s a little hard to have fun when every time I look over, you’re either yelling into the phone or glaring at somebody.”
“Nothing. It’s just—don’t worry about it.” Ruud twisted his arm behind him to tap once on the bar, shifting to look past Cristiano at a group of dancers who’d formed a circle. He didn’t turn around when the bartender set down his new glass, but instead just blindly reached.
He groped around for a few minutes before he figured out that Cristiano had taken his glass; Cristiano met Ruud’s glare with one of his own. “Stop saying that. You’re worrying about it, so there’s obviously something. Stop acting like I’m an idiot.”
“God, Cris, I—I don’t think you’re an idiot, all right? But this is just…what I’m paid to deal with anyway,” Ruud sighed. His eyes kept going to the glass in Cristiano’s hand.
After a moment, Cristiano leaned over the bar and poured it out in the sink. “And people say I’m the addict. Maybe you’re paid to handle it, but if it’s about me, then I’ve got a right to know. I—” one of Cristiano’s cousins squeezed out of the crowd, a daiquiri in either hand, and he had to stop and smile “—hey, thanks. Did you shake this one up just for me?”
She grinned and tilted over, like she was drawing a circle with her head—a little buzzed on something—as she handed him one of the glasses. Then she swayed back the other way as she pressed the other one into a startled Ruud’s hand. “And for your boyfriend. Mom added a little—she says he shouldn’t still be wearing his tie and coat. He needs to relax.”
“Thank you,” Ruud said in a tight voice.
Cristiano shot a look at him. “Yes, they know. They’re fine with it, and none of them are stupid, either. It’s not like they’re going to run to the gossip pages.”
A little bit of the tension between Cristiano and Ruud was starting to filter into his cousin’s brain as she continued to watch them. Then something caught her eye and she squealed, grabbing Cristiano’s arm to point out somebody to him: one of the bassists he’d worked with while at MU. “Yeah, see, I told Momma he was your boyfriend and not that…what’s his name, Lahmann? Lehmann?...that that guy over there said. You two are so cute! Okay, bye, I need to go deliver more daiquiris!”
And she bounced off, not noticing how the tension had just gone up by ten times. Incredulous, Cristiano wheeled around to stare at Ruud. He hoped as hard as he could—but no, Ruud had that guilty look on his face. “Lehmann. You’re joking. What was—was that why you didn’t want to sleep with me? What the—he’s bitter and crazy and nasty all the time!”
“Oh, for…” Ruud switched to world-weary, looking down his nose at Cristiano as if he were some eighty-year-old wiseman. It didn’t fit with the strained way he was holding himself. “Damn it, don’t be a romantic. I did it to talk him into putting up with all your problems. And I’m not anymore anyway.”
“Don’t--treat me--like I’m a child,” Cristiano said. He sounded like he was stuttering. That was because he was shaking so hard; he put one hand on the bar to steady himself, but instead ended up gouging at the wood with his nails. “I didn’t ask you to do that for me. I wouldn’t have wanted you to do that for me. I—do you have any idea what it feels like, knowing you did that to protect me? God, am I supposed to be happy about it?”
That hadn’t been what Ruud had been expecting. He started to reach for Cristiano, but then flicked his eyes away to check if anyone else was around, and wasn’t that just typical. He was so worried all the time about what other people thought and lucky them, because he never seemed to think about what Cristiano thought, and—Cristiano slapped away Ruud’s hand. Ruud looked back at him, a livid flush starting to crawl up his cheeks. “Goddamn it, cut the sanctimonious bullshit. You needed it. You’re so used to being waited on hand and foot that if you’d gotten thrown out on your ass, then you wouldn’t have the first idea what to do—I kept you from that. And I decided the way I did it was something I could live with and that was my decision, so I don’t see why you have a—”
“How would you know? How would—I waited for you, and I almost destroyed myself for you, and I’ve talked till my throat gave out about what I need and now I know you never once were listening,” Cristiano hissed. People were staring now. He didn’t care. He’d publicly humiliated himself in worse ways when drugged out—and yes, realizing what he’d done and what people thought of it had hurt—to feel ashamed over this. “You’re not doing any of this for me. You’re doing it all for you. Even when you feel bad, you tell yourself it was because of me, but was it really? Or was it because you just wanted to feel like shit?”
A burst of rage made Ruud’s eyes flash. He took a step forward, then retreated when he noticed some of Cristiano’s relatives moving towards him. “I saw you plugged into a hospital bed because you couldn’t deal with me rejecting you. Don’t talk to me about—”
Cristiano couldn’t take it anymore. The shakes got to him and he jerked around, then quickly made for…for where the least number of people were. He just needed to get away and not—and not look at Ruud, and wonder if he’d ever really known the man while being firmly, awfully certain that he still loved him.
He thought it’d been all done when Ruud had finally accepted his advances. So that part was also his fault, but it…it wasn’t his fault that Ruud was still thinking the same way as when they hadn’t been together. It wasn’t his fault if he was trying to make things work in his life, and Ruud just wanted to make everything stand still. It wasn’t his fault if he was…stronger.
* * *
“After Ruud hit Robin, I shoved my way out and ran. I still didn’t want to deal with him, and…well, if you really want to know, I went looking for a hit. But I was standing there with the money in my pocket and a dealer looking at me, and I went to my old doctor instead,” Cristiano said in a toneless, quiet voice. He idly scuffed his feet along the floor. “I wanted the high so badly, but I still want Ruud more. But he’s not—he can’t cope.”
Jens listened and watched, and from what he could tell, Cristiano had spent a good deal of time thinking about everything he was saying. Frankly, it was a little alarming to hear mature thoughts coming out of Cristiano’s mouth; there hadn’t been enough time for Jens to figure out how this new version of Ronaldo worked.
“I’ve thought about it and I don’t care what you did. I’m not going back to MU—I think Rooney still wants to break my neck, for one thing—and you’re crazy, but you don’t pretend not to be. So I want another agent. I can hire him, you can hire him…whichever, but I’m picking him. He’s an old friend of the family…and I know you’re going to find a way to scare him off if you can’t work with him, but I think you’ll be okay.” A little bit of the old Cristiano showed through there with his assumption that it mattered whether or not he could deal with Jens’ share of the situation. His contract was iron-clad for another five years, and just because Jens had been playing relatively clean with him didn’t mean that had to be the way it was. “Hey. Did you do it because it convinced you to be nice to me?”
According to Jens’ watch, they’d been in the car for twenty minutes. Ten minutes ago, a car had pulled up to the curb, but David was still talking to whoever was inside. He wouldn’t stall much longer. “No, I did it because it seemed like Ruud needed to have to give something to get something. He was getting too paranoid around me when I was just asking him to do a good job. Look, I’ll consider your idea, but first you’re going in there and getting the charges against Robin dropped.”
Cristiano blinked. “Is that Robin’s problem, too?”
“I’m working and I don’t have time to share, Ronaldo,” Jens sighed. “Get out.”
He called over Freddie and the Portuguese lawyer, then left David to sneak them and Cristiano past the cluster of reporters that’d gathered around the police station. He made a phone call while walking down the street towards a nondescript coffee-shop on the corner.
Ruud showed up about the same time Jens’ cup of coffee did. He slotted himself into the other side of the booth. Dark circles ringed his eyes. He’d lost his tie and his collar was crumpled almost flat. “You found him,” he said flatly.
“What, did I pull you out before you got a word with him? Good. From the way he sounded a moment ago, he’s still more likely to punch you.” Hopefully Freddie had the sense to keep Cristiano and Robin apart, since it wasn’t like Cristiano felt any friendlier towards Robin. He was going to get Robin off, but he hadn’t apologized to Jens for mauling Robin, so he wasn’t likely to apologize to Robin either. “Though all in all, he dealt with things better than you. Did the martinis kill your brains? What were you thinking, filing sexual assault charges against a coworker without calling me? And losing track of Cristiano?”
“I didn’t—” With a long sigh, Ruud sank back against the seat. He rubbed at his face with his hand. “Look, one of Cristiano’s relatives called in the police, and one of them asked who’d attacked Cristiano and I said Robin without thinking. I was upset. I haven’t even filed anything yet. Right afterward I tried to get them to not book Robin so I could figure everything out, but they jumped the gun. I tried to tell you earlier, but…Cristiano was missing.”
Jens considered that, then decided it was more in line with what he’d expected from Ruud than what Robin had said. The police down here got payoffs from the tabloids for info on big scoops, so no wonder they’d be eager to start a scandal. “All right.”
“What else?” Ruud muttered, still pressing his hand to his face.
“Cristiano’s informed me he’s not happy with you as his agent. I’m…” Jens offered up a prayer that this wasn’t about to make things more complicated “…I’ll be seeing about getting him a different agent, though he’s still under contract to us no matter what. By the way, he suggested it, so don’t even think about yelling at me.”
Ruud paled, dropping his hand. He had started to say something, but he made a visible effort to stop himself.
“And God, if you’re going to share an apartment with him, get one that’s in a more exclusive location,” Jens sighed. “Security to keep the paparazzi off your current place is ridiculously expensive. And don’t make me order you to see him. I don’t want any more problems with you two. Come on. I want tonight’s mess cleared up now.”
Whatever Ruud was thinking, he kept it to himself on the way back to the police station. The moment they saw Cristiano, Ruud made a beeline for him and cut him out of the crowd to drag the two of them into a quiet corner for a heated conversation.
“All clear,” David said, coming up. He looked exhausted, but relieved. “I’m just wrapping things up, Jens. You want me to forward ever—”
“Yes. Good work.” Jens moved on. He gave Freddie, who was still arguing with one unhappy-looking cop, a quick nod, then turned to face Robin.
The other man was slouched behind a water cooler, a little apart from the rest. He pointedly watched himself rub at the twin sets of parallel red marks on his wrists. “Well, that was fast. Thanks for making me worry when I didn’t have to. Was that supposed to be a lesson? Because I didn’t do anything wrong and I don’t know what I’m supposed to be learning here.”
“Do you know why I was flying in early?” Jens asked. He gave Robin a moment to understand that the subject had changed. “Because back home, the tabloids are all splashed over with news that Oliver Kahn’s girlfriend might not have been of legal age when they started dating. And they have some very convincing evidence to offer.”
Robin flinched. His error. “No kidding.”
“Don’t—I know it was you. Also, I know that I didn’t tell you to go after Kahn. Damn it, Robin, I did not need two wars on my hands. And I didn’t need for MU to get a golden opportunity to embarrass my label on a fucking platter.” Jens watched Robin’s expression go from surprise to disappointment to annoyance. He felt a little more than annoyed himself, given that he’d finally been thinking Robin had some brains and could understand—but no. The idiot just liked trouble-making. “If you did it thinking I’d thank you for it, then you should have—no, you should have known better. I’ve told you enough.”
“You told me you hated the bastard and yeah, you’d like to beat him fairly, but if you couldn’t, then you’d go with other ways. What was I supposed to think?” Robin snapped.
“Did I ever mention that I’d given up on beating him fairly yet? Because I hadn’t. You overstepped yourself.” From the looks of things, Ruud and Cristiano had finished their talk. Neither of them looked happy, but they weren’t walking on opposite sides of the room.
Robin shrugged, leaning his head against the wall. “Well, sorry. It’s not like you gave me a clear job description,” he sarcastically said.
“That wasn’t work and you didn’t want it to be work, but I wish it had been now. Then it wouldn’t matter that you don’t give a damn about what I really care about,” Jens retorted. He took a breath, then turned around. “Thanks for the mess, Van Persie.”
He pushed his way back through the room; behind him, he could hear Robin cursing and trying to come after him, but the cops weren’t too eager about getting out of his way. Jens grabbed Ruud’s arm, ignoring the other man’s glower. “Take Van Persie with you. You landed him here, so you can get him and Cristiano out.”
“Where are you going?” Ruud asked.
“A story about Kahn’s underage girlfriend blew up back home. One of the star sources for the tabloids lives an hour away by plane, so I thought I’d do Olli a favor while I was in town.” At least Kahn would owe Jens for this, as long as he never figured out where the whole story had originated. He probably wouldn’t. But just having to do something for Kahn put such a bad taste in Jens’ mouth that even having the other man in his debt didn’t do anything—Robin was almost within polite calling distance.
Jens pushed on till he was outside and trotting for his car. He started thinking about the options he had, and what the best way to nip the scandal in the bud would be.
* * *
Robin had ended up coming along quietly, but the moment they’d arrived at the hotel suite, he’d locked himself in one of the bedrooms. Since Ruud hadn’t really been expecting any other reaction, he gave up after two or three tries at getting Robin out and went to find Cristiano.
The other man was sitting on Ruud’s bed, his shirt unbuttoned and hanging loosely from his shoulders. He was idly paging through a magazine, but he put that down as soon as Ruud walked in. “It’s not that I don’t want to see you. If you think you have an excuse to break up with me now, then you’d better get ready to see me in a hospital bed again.”
Wincing, Ruud wedged off his shoes and then came over. At first he stood in front of Cristiano, but the other man purposefully moved over, so he sat down on the bed. “I’m sorry.”
“So am I. You were right for a while—I was being a baby. I let you do all the thinking,” Cristiano said, staring at his hands. “But I’m not doing that anymore. I—Lehmann?”
“I just…didn’t want people to take advantage of you.” Aside from himself, Ruud mentally added. “I’ve worked in this industry for a long time. I’m used to it. That’s not a skill I’m really proud of, but I have it.”
“And I don’t want you to use it for me.” Cristiano abruptly looked up at Ruud, all earnestness and pleading. He put out his hand and touched Ruud’s chest, then slowly moved his palm up to rest on Ruud’s shoulder.
Ruud reached up and cupped Cristiano’s face, then drew the other man to him and slowly, carefully eased his lips over Cristiano’s mouth. Moaning, Cristiano opened it and wrapped his lips around Ruud’s tongue, sucking on it while his hands pushed at Ruud’s shirt. He sat up a little, then threw one arm over Ruud’s neck and pulled them tightly together.
They went over and then rolled onto their sides, just kissing with the occasional exploratory hand. Like always, the feel and taste and scent of Cristiano seduced Ruud into yielding up everything, but much as he wanted to, he was too exhausted and drained from the evening’s events. And it seemed like Cristiano felt similarly; his hands were pulling at Ruud more to get closeness than to invite anything serious.
“You make this so much harder than it should be,” Cristiano finally said, nuzzling at Ruud’s neck. “Now I have to go back and tell my whole family we’re not fighting anymore and to not hate you.”
“I still can’t believe you told them. What if they hadn’t—”
“Then they would’ve been stupid and I don’t need their approval.” Cristiano wriggled his hands beneath Ruud’s shirt and stroked along the muscles of Ruud’s back, following the spine. He arched and made soft approving noises when Ruud rubbed one hand up his thigh. “The one I want for my new agent—you met him tonight. He…you really don’t like the idea.”
“Mostly because I’m worried about if they’ll get greedy and sell you out. I know he’s a friend of the family, but money changes so many things.” Ruud pressed his mouth to Cristiano’s temple, cheekbone, jaw. He traced the lines of the muscles of Cristiano’s chest through the shirt, then dipped his hand inside the fabric to tickle the other man’s belly. “You have to watch out—”
Cristiano leaned back to look closely at Ruud.
“—if it’s put up with someone else managing you, or turn into somebody who you’ll leave, then I’ll trust you,” Ruud finished. His throat constricted and he had a little trouble getting the last words out, but he did it. And he meant it, too.
Cristiano’s eyes went dark and…and why he still wanted Ruud, Ruud had no idea, but kissing him was like being saved and Ruud couldn’t give it up. It was too…
“Did you hear something?” Cristiano said, frowning.
“That was from Robin’s room, damn it,” Ruud hissed, jumping up. He was over to the door in a flash, Cristiano at his heels, but he had a feeling…and when he finally got the lock picked, he was proved right. Robin had taken off. Swearing, Ruud whipped out his cell and frantically dialed for Jens.
* * *
Jens arrived at the right house, but the lights were off and it looked like the occupant wasn’t going to return any time soon. He waited for twenty minutes before gritting his teeth and heading back to the airport; he had too much to do to be tied up here any longer and would just have to try and find somebody free who could hang around in town to talk to this friend of Kahn’s mistress. But the wasted trip put him in an even fouler mood than before, and then at the airport he didn’t find out till after he’d gone through customs that he’d have to wait several hours for the next flight out.
He spent the plane ride back to Portugal working on logistics for the official launch party for Cristiano’s album at Premier. It didn’t have anything to do with either of the messes on his plate, and he didn’t have to talk to anybody to do it. He ignored all the emails and other messages he got, and that wasn’t very professional but he was just…too enraged and had nobody to take it out on. And he couldn’t call Thierry because Thierry was tied up working with Legal back home.
By the time he got into his hotel, it was late the next day and he was finally calm enough to start running through his emails and voicemails. He’d gone through about a quarter by the time he walked into the bedroom, and then he stopped because somebody was lying on his bed.
After a moment, Jens walked across the room and bent over Robin. The other man didn’t move: his body was thrown over the mattress with the slackness of the extremely exhausted. His skin had a gray cast to it, and there was blood crusted over the side of his face, his hands and when Jens carefully lifted the hem of his shirt, his side. His shoes were still on. He had a duffel bag next to him, to which Jens moved next while making some urgent phone calls.
The duffel bag had, among other things, a couple videotapes in it. Jens transferred them to his luggage, then carefully started to change Robin’s clothes to a clean set. He put the dirty ones in a plastic bag to be burned and buried later. Robin stirred a few times, making small pained noises, but he didn’t wake up.
“If you were awake, I’d probably break your neck,” Jens muttered. He laid his hand on Robin’s cold forehead for a moment, then went back to work.
* * *
Three Days Later
Robin moved a little, bit back a cry of pain, and stayed where he was. Which was…he rubbed the crusts from his eyes, then squinted out at the world. A face slowly came into focus.
“You had a serious concussion, and you still have bad bruising and lacerations on your left temple, left hand and left ribs,” Raúl told him. “But you didn’t break anything. Mostly you’re in that bed because of severe exhaustion and the efforts of exposure, but you should be presentable in time for Ronaldo’s album launch party in three weeks.”
“Why would I want to go to that?” Robin asked. It came out a croak and he swallowed a few times, then opened his mouth to try again.
Somebody moved behind Raúl, who stomped out muttering in Spanish. Jens seemed mildly amused as he watched the other man leave, but when he turned back, his face was blank.
Well. He’d brought Robin back. Though that might just be because he wanted to kill Robin where he knew he could take care of all the clean-up details.
“You’re going because I’m telling you to,” Jens finally said. He slid one hand under Robin’s head and lifted it while pressing a glass of water to Robin’s lips. “The story about Kahn blew over. Two sources have retracted in videotaped confessions, while a third died unexpectedly in a car crash.”
Robin hesitated, then decided he was gone anyway so it didn’t really matter how much angrier Jens got. “That ended up being an accident, actually. He wasn’t watching the road. I just got myself out through the window when the car caught on fire.”
“Body was so badly burned that it had to be identified using dental records.” Jens set the glass of water on the table. He sat down on the edge of the bed and folded his hands in his lap, like some professor. “They didn’t find any evidence of you.”
“I know you didn’t ask me to do it, and it’s not how you would’ve liked to do it, but I thought as long as you were throwing me out, I might as well clear things up first. You know, not leave a mess like Savage did,” Robin said. He moved his gaze to the glass of water. He really…he really hurt. He didn’t remember too much after the crash, only flashes of getting on the plane and somehow making it through the flight and to someone’s hotel room before passing out. “It’s not as easy as you seem to think to figure out what you want. You know, long as I’m confessing…I went prying into your background, too. You covered up pretty well, but I still found some things on the other ones you’ve fucked.”
The other man didn’t say anything. He probably was still watching Robin with that icy blank stare of his, waiting for the chance to let rip.
“I’m not some tool you pay off after you’re done. I’d rather you finished strangling me and dumped me in a river or something like that—at least then I’d know you didn’t think I was just another number on payroll.” Robin gritted his teeth after he’d finished speaking and rolled onto his right side. It hurt, but at least he wasn’t cramping up in his back anymore. “In other words: I’m pathetic and I let this get very, very personal, and deal with it.”
“Besides you and Ruud, every man I’ve taken up with turned out to be either a corporate spy, or tried to sell me out within the label for a promotion,” Jens finally commented. He sounded serious. “Same for the few girlfriends I’ve had.”
“I bet you pissed most of them off first.” Making Robin think he was going to stay locked up. He was still annoyed about that, actually, but he was more afraid than anything else, and it was the kind of cold, creeping fear that would lurk at the edge of his vision in the day and come roaring to life night after night. He’d been so damn terrified that Jens would leave him in Portugal that he hadn’t—if he had to deliberately crash that car to fix things, he would’ve been okay with that. “Well, you pissed me off and I went out and did your work for you, and I nearly got myself killed, so that should tell you something about how I’d—”
Fingers seized Robin’s chin and pulled it up, and Jens kissed him and he was moaning, starving for it and going liquid at the knees even though he was lying down. His ribs hurt like hell, but he twisted around and tried to get his arm over Jens’ neck, and when Jens pulled away, it hurt the worse. Robin stared blearily up at the other man, still trying to make his stiff, swollen fingers clutch at Jens’ shoulder. “Jens. Please. I made a mistake but I won’t again. Just please don’t throw me out.”
He was begging and he really didn’t care. He just cared when Jens moved down again and God, he wouldn’t get kissed like this if he was about to be tossed, would he? Like Jens wanted to bite down to his heart and eat it.
Robin whined again when Jens tried to back off, but calmed a little when he realized the other man hadn’t moved his hands. Jens cautiously traced one finger around the bruising on Robin’s temple. Oddly enough, he looked a little nervous himself, though he clamped down on it once he picked up that Robin had noticed. “Raúl says you’re staying here for observation for another day, thanks to that concussion. By the way, Ruud sends his apologies.”
“For the time he whacked me back in Amsterdam, or for Portugal?” Robin flippantly said. Then he winced, not sure if he could do that yet. “Do I get to come home after tomorrow?”
Jens looked puzzled for a moment. Then his eyes briefly shuttered. He ran his thumbs along Robin’s jaw and Robin leaned into it, hiking his arm up over Jens’ back. “I’ll be coming late; I have a long workday. Don’t do anything—everyone’s being watched closely and I’m not risking anything till they relax a little.”
“Okay. I’m serious—I won’t.” Robin pulled at Jens. “I won’t. Do you believe me?”
After a long moment, Jens said, “I’m tempted to.” He tugged sharply, and this time Robin couldn’t hold him back. “I need to go to work.”
Robin watched the other man go, forcing his fingers to curl into the mattress till they were making his eyes water with the pain.
* * *
“Thierry, I have a problem with Robin.”
“Oh…is this where I finally get to hear what’s actually been happening? I think I need to get some wine out.”
“He calls my apartment ‘home’ and he doesn’t think twice about breaking his neck for me, and if I was hearing him right, he’d probably kill people if he thought I’d like it. It’s worse than Cristiano with Ruud. At least Cristiano seems to have his head straight now.”
“Never mind about the wine. I’ll get the brandy.”
“Thierry, you don’t sound that surprised.”
“Well, I am about Cristiano—is this the same person as the boy who got caught trying to have sex in a public fountain and offered the flic a turn with the girl? But Robin…it’s been obvious for a while that he adores you.”
“He’d kill people for me.”
“And you don’t sound completely horrified. I am not surprised about this either, by the way.”
“I’m not going to deny that it’s somewhat flattering, but I’m not so insane that I can’t tell this isn’t normal.”
“It probably is for you and him.”
“You’re supposed to be my voice of commonsense, Thierry.”
“Well, commonsense says that he basically listens to just you, from what I can tell, and you like him more than you did any of the others, so sending him back to Holland would result in a disaster. Keeping him around might increase your chances of disaster, but at least you have opportunities to stop them from happening.”
“This isn’t that—damn it, I have to go. I need to take him home before Raúl gets fed up enough to shoot poison into him, and damn. This is a long-term issue, isn’t it.”
“You want me to come over and cook dinner for you two? That’ll leave you one less worry.”
“That’s helpful. Thanks.”
“Oh, my pleasure.”