Tangible Schizophrenia


Sorry Go ‘Round

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: NC-17. Some semi-noncon. Bondage.
Pairing: Zlatan Ibrahimović/Alessandro Nesta. Implied Nesta/Paolo Maldini, Henrik Larsson/Freddie Ljungberg
Feedback: Good lines, bad ones, etc.
Disclaimer: This is absolutely fiction and not real and I don’t know these people at all.
Notes: Follows Lover’s Leap. Titled after the song by Poets of the Fall.
Summary: Sandro’s a nosy prosecutor. Zlatan does things like transporting kidnapped lawyers.


“‘Don’t fuck up, Zlatan,’” Zlatan muttered as he jerked the stick-shift. The car hitched slightly, then continued rolling smoothly along the road; at least Henrik had rented a decent one for the mountains. “‘Zlatan, if you do, I’ll track you down and tear you limb from limb for distracting me from my new short-assed boyfriend.’”

All right, Henrik didn’t have a squeaky voice or hair to toss around like a prat, but that had been his underlying meaning. Up till…well, yesterday now…he’d been a very cool, very funny and fun guy to be around. Then he showed up with a cheekbone model and a last-minute transport job, and a ten-foot stick up his ass. An idiot could follow his instructions: drive car to Rome, see a man about a bag of fake evidence, and then leave car in conspicuous place and an anonymous tip with the nearest police station. And Zlatan wasn’t an idiot.

The border hadn’t even been a problem, though Zlatan had taken the trouble of using a false back in the trunk. And he’d plotted a route through lightly populated areas right up till he hit Rome itself, just in case things got messy. He would have to stop soon to sleep, but that was Henrik’s fault for not giving him more advance notice. But otherwise he thought it was an easy, trouble-free way to make a quick wad of money, which was a nice change from the usual. And he got a paid vacation into the bargain, which couldn’t have come at a better time.

So everything was going well—well, no, he was missing one thing. He reached into the backseat and hooked up his duffel bag, then dug around one-handed in it till he found his CD case. After popping in his current favorite, he kicked back and enjoyed the drive.

* * *

He passed tons of cute little bed-and-breakfasts and inns and hotels, but Zlatan ended up pulling into one where the sign was only half-lit and the lobby was empty except for a potato-shaped man who’d perfected the art of doing everything without raising his nose from a crinkly betting form. The place was clean enough, but out of habit and not out of pride or ambition. The parking lot was empty and looked like that was the regular state of things.

He took a room on the ground floor, next to the back door. After checking it out and the ones on either side for any surprises like rats, sound-carrying ventilation, etc., he dumped his one bag on the bed and then went back out to open the trunk.

It was close enough to dawn that the sky was beginning to turn purplish, but still so dark that Zlatan twice stabbed his fingers with the screwdriver while prying out the false back. Still sucking on them, he switched screwdriver for knife and carefully levered the big section free. The lawyer was a motionless black blot behind it.

Zlatan prodded him, then ran a hand over the man’s body till he found the neck. He timed the pulse for thirty seconds, concluded the drugs were still in effect, and hauled out the man, hooded head lolling. After a look around, Zlatan just tossed the man over his shoulder.

The bastard’s feet smacked him low in the stomach, but then they were still, so…Zlatan shrugged and went in; body handling had to be the biggest pain in the trade. Humans just weren’t built for easy transport, and this one had legs like a fucking giraffe. Nice ass, though.

Once they were inside he dropped the man in the bathtub, wincing at the rattle the handcuffs made against the porcelain. Though that did remind him; he went back out into the main room, then came back with ankle manacles and looked over things.

First of all, the lawyer definitely wasn’t going to fit in the tub: he was already folded nearly double and lying that way he could get his feet braced. Secondly, the plumbing he’d have to be chained to looked like about as strong as a paperclip, and Zlatan had already had a shitty experience with burst pipes. He looked some more and his eyes fell on the towel ring.

He took out the white scrap hanging from it and tossed it over his shoulder, then grabbed the ring with both hands and gave it a good pull. It didn’t budge. It’d do.

After dragging the man back out of the tub, Zlatan paused again as he considered wrists or ankles. He finally went with ankles, considering those legs, and hauled them up to cuff them to the ring. He took off the man’s shoes, then noticed Larsson had left the man’s tie on—so much for all Henke’s harping on being careful—and took that as well so the bastard wouldn’t strangle himself. Those went in a plastic bag inside his duffel. Then he brushed his teeth, since he liked having a full set and he couldn’t exactly get reliable dental.

The lawyer started to shift when Zlatan was rinsing out his mouth, so he did another pulse-check and—he froze, but the man didn’t move again. Not a flinch—pulse still too slow for that—probably just an accidental jostle and the head’s weight doing the rest. But just in case, Zlatan shot him up with a half-dose of sedative. And then he went to bed.

* * *

Zlatan’s dreams were full of shit: him getting chased by a Henke obsessed with fixing his nose, like there was anything wrong with it. And Larsson’s new boyfriend showed up at one point along with Olof, and there was something else about a lasagna attacking Zlatan, which was sort of understandable—he’d gotten food poisoning from one two weeks ago—but still just…weird. He was really glad when he suddenly woke up.

And then he wasn’t. The room was too dark and Zlatan suddenly remembered he hadn’t drawn all the curtains. So he’d slept way too long, shit. He stared up at the ceiling, eyes itching because he hadn’t rubbed the crusts out of them, and was trying to figure out what else was wrong when a floorboard creaked near the bed.

Zlatan shoved himself up and to the right just as something heaved up on his left, by the dresser. Where his gun was—he swept his hand under his pillow and grabbed his knife, yanking it up so fast he heard the tip tear the pillowcase. Then he flung out his other arm and grazed something that he instantly grabbed and yanked so it should’ve fallen to his right on the bed, but instead it kicked his shin, throwing off his balance. A cold gunbarrel smacked up against his jaw and Zlatan instinctively ducked his head, trying to get closer to shrink the effective range.

The next few seconds were complicated and anyway Zlatan wasn’t exactly concentrating on breaking down the action. He kicked, elbowed, rolled, and the fucking lawyer did the same, and things didn’t clear up till somebody hit the lamp and it went on. Zlatan heard the click and drove his head up, eyes shut, into a jaw. The lawyer faltered and that plus the sudden brilliance in the room gave Zlatan just enough time to get the knife up and aimed at the big groin artery.

Zlatan opened his eyes at the same time a circle of metal hit the left side of his jaw. He was almost adjusted to the light, but he still needed a blink to settle down the dancing sparks. “Asshole. Are you trying to blow out my brains or my smile?”

“Who are you and who sent you?” demanded the lawyer. He’d gotten his hands around to the front, but the cuffs were still on them. But he was straddling Zlatan, so he’d broken the leg-chain…and how the hell had Zlatan slept through that? That was pretty fucking impressive for a government desker. “Answer me or I’ll get both at—”

He stopped, his mouth snapping shut. A little wrinkle appeared between his eyebrows and the expression in his eyes was startled in a way that Zlatan just had to answer with a grin, and never mind that the situation had just gone to hell in a Formula One racer.

“Put that down,” the lawyer finally said, more calmly. He rose slightly, grimacing when Zlatan adjusted for that, and tilted the gun so it was at a better angle. “I know how to use this.”

“And I know how to use this,” Zlatan retorted. He twisted his hand slightly so his knuckles were up behind the other man’s balls, digging the knife-point into the man’s thigh.

The lawyer wasn’t an idiot. He stiffened and pressed his lips together into a little whitened line, doing mental calculations. He didn’t like the first answer he came up with and ran them again, only to get even stormier-faced. It was a good look on him, with the big smoldering eyes and the long, aristocratically snotty nose. “What’s going on?”

“You’re holding a gun to my head and I’ve got a big knife on your crotch.” The view was pretty, all right, but only as far as the lawyer’s face was concerned. Beyond that, Zlatan was suddenly really screwed, with the possibility that he’d just brought down the wrath of one Henrik Larsson, super assassin, on his head. He liked Henke and he thought Henke liked him, but he wasn’t going to kid himself that that would matter any. “You’re a lawyer, so let’s look at this logically: you could try to shoot me. You might manage it, you might not, but either way I’d stab you and you’d bleed to death. Or you could put my gun back on the table.”

“How do you know I’m a lawyer?” The man narrowed his eyes. “How about a simpler question? Do you know who I am?”

Zlatan arched his eyebrows and kept a calm face on, though inwardly he was swearing. This one was too quick on the uptake. “Forgive me for being rude, but I don’t think introductions matter when you’re dead.”

“Is that what this is about?” the lawyer asked. His weight shifted, driving his toes into Zlatan’s right shin. He couldn’t be balanced that well, with both hands wrapped around the gun. “Yes, let’s think about this. Right now I have negotiating room, since I think we both like living. But if I gave up the gun, I’d be chained to a bathroom wall again and then eventually dead.”

“Not necessarily,” Zlatan said. He experimentally twisted his hand again, sliding his thumb across the inside of the lawyer’s right thigh, following the line of the knife as far as he could, and watched the lawyer’s cheeks go slightly concave. “You’re going to Rome and it’s entirely possible you’ll survive the trip if you behave.”

The lawyer read exactly what Zlatan wanted him to into that and went so rigid it was surprising Zlatan didn’t hear any cracking teeth. His glower got about a thousand times more vicious as he jammed the pistol tip further into the bottom of Zlatan’s chin. “Behave. Really.”

“Really. Zlatan keeps his promises.” Too late, Zlatan caught himself and winced. Shit, he needed to wrap this up quickly. It was getting worse and worse, and besides, he was probably a good six or seven hours behind schedule.

“Zlatan?” The corners of the lawyer’s mouth drew back into a wolf’s grin as he pounced on the slip. “I’m looking forward to finding out who that is. Believe me, if you’re in Italy even a second after this, you’ll end up on my docket.”

Zlatan rotated his hand so it bridged the gap between the man’s legs, then pressed the knuckle of his little finger against the lawyer’s cock. It was soft but the way the smile dropped off the man’s face—he barely kept himself from jerking away. Too fucking bad; this was going to go the hard way. “All right, all right, we’ll do introductions.”

The look of surprise on the other man’s face said he’d just been fishing before. “So you…don’t know who I am?”

“I’m a mercenary. The less I know, the easier a job goes.” With a shrug as disguise, Zlatan began slowly pushing his head back into the mattress as far as he could. “But obviously we’re too close now for this to be a job, so…”

Dark brows drew down. “Are you saying you’d be amenable to changing employers?”

“Possibly,” Zlatan said, shrugging again. He uncurled and recurled his little finger, stroking along the man’s thigh.

The brows snapped back up and the gun gouged at Zlatan’s chin. “You know, I really don’t believe you, and—and stop that.”

“Stop what?” Zlatan did it again, and then dug a few knuckles into the back of the lawyer’s balls, just for good measure.

“You are a disgusting--” The lawyer’s eyes started to flick downwards.

That was enough for Zlatan: he snapped his head sideways, then slammed it into the other man’s forehead; the gun rasped painfully across his neck but didn’t go off. A second later, he’d dragged his hand out from under the other man and had wrapped it around the man’s wrist, slicing his thumbnail across the tendons to make him drop the gun, rolling them. The lawyer swore and ripped at the back of Zlatan’s hand with nails, but he was still handcuffed. When Zlatan got the knife up to the man’s throat, he couldn’t do a damn thing about it.

Except freeze and stare as if he were contemplating how to slaughter and serve up Zlatan’s children, should Zlatan ever have any. A trickle of blood was running from his left nostril. He was still holding onto the gun.

“Let go,” Zlatan said. Nothing, so he dug his thumbnail harder into the wrist till the other man’s breath started coming in pained hisses. “Get your fucking claws out of my hand.”

After a long moment, the lawyer grudgingly did so. Then his fingers slowly uncurled from the gun; he looked like he was dying, slow and hard, from a gut wound when he did that.

Zlatan shoved the lawyer away, then picked up the gun and snapped on the safety as he stuck it in the back of his waistband. He got a good fistful of the lawyer’s suit-jacket and hauled them off the bed, careful to keep even pressure on the knife-blade. Once they were on their feet, he spun the other man around, then gave the bed a quick glance. It didn’t look like any blood had gotten on the sheets, but he’d have to check again for sure.

“Bathroom,” he said, yanking on the man’s arm.

“You almost broke my nose.” The lawyer ripped a couple stitches in his sleeve trying to stay as far from Zlatan as possible. He didn’t try to look at the knife like most people would’ve, but instead kept trying to kill Zlatan with his eyes. “The blood’s getting on my collar.”

“Well, if you hadn’t been so damn difficult, you wouldn’t have ruined your pretty clothes,” Zlatan snorted, badly wanting to eye-roll. But he didn’t need to learn a lesson twice, especially not one where he woke up to an assault, so he stared back. “So what is your name?”

Death-glare. Zlatan swung the man over the bathroom threshold and didn’t wince when bitch-lawyer hit the sink-edge with his hip. Then he shoved the man down onto the toilet, jerking him around till he was facing the water tank. He switched his hold to the handcuff chain and hauled the man’s hands over and behind his head till they were nearly touching the back of the man’s neck. Then he got a grunt of pain then, but nothing else.

The towel ring was half out of the wall, its inner surface shiny with scratches. Damn.

“I’m trying to be reasonable here. I’ve got a job and either I can do it professionally or I can do it annoyed as hell at you.” Zlatan pressed down on the lawyer’s hands, forcing the man’s head towards the water tank. Then he twisted around and with the knife-tip, managed to hook a strip of toilet paper. “I also don’t know the exact condition you’re supposed to arrive in.”

The lawyer’s shoulderblades shifted up and down as he tried to adjust to the strain on his arms. “Am I supposed to arrive alive?” he asked, suddenly very quiet.

To be honest…Zlatan was leaning towards no. The man knew what he looked like, and even though Zlatan wasn’t going to get caught, an investigation carried the risk that it’d get back to Larsson. Which meant Zlatan got fucked, too. But Larsson had been very, very explicit about what was supposed to happen and wouldn’t be too happy about a gameplan change, either.

Zlatan switched the knife to his other hand, then reached around the man’s head and stuffed the wadded-up paper against the bloody nostril. He left a bit trailing that he pushed around with his little finger, mopping up the man’s chin as best he could. “You’re going—”

Somebody rattled the doorknob. It could’ve just been the owner of the place—Zlatan had only paid for one night—but the back of Zlatan’s neck suddenly prickled. He yanked the lawyer off the toilet and onto his knees on the floor. A lunge to kick the bathroom door shut, and then he was cramming them both into the small space between the toilet and the tub. The lawyer swore at him and Zlatan snarled back, shoving his hand into the bastard’s mouth. He hooked his arm over the tub and jerked the knob so the shower came on—dropped his knife, fuck it, but no time to get it back—then squeezed down on top of the other man.

Not a second too soon, since the front door got kicked in right afterward. And then…

…the showerhead was spraying all over the place since Zlatan hadn’t pulled the curtain. He’d turned on the cold water, so at least it wasn’t steaming up, but the drops soaking the back of his shirt and his hair were freezing and their pattering meant he couldn’t hear what was going on outside. He had no idea where the lawyer’s fucking hands were—hopefully stuck under something—and it was all he could do to snake his hand back and get his gun.

The lawyer stared up over Zlatan’s hand, confused but furiously thinking. Fucker. Don’t be stupid, Zlatan feverishly thought at him. Don’t fucking think about it.

The bastard’s eyes narrowed. His teeth suddenly sank deep into Zlatan’s thumb—

--and the bathroom door slammed open. Zlatan spun around and shot as something whizzed by him. Hard little chips stung his back, then fell to crunch beneath his feet as he grabbed the falling body by the nearest limb and flung it back out the door.

It met a firestorm of bullets that sent Zlatan crashing back to huddle against the sink. He covered his face to protect his eyes; hopefully the lawyer had pulled in his legs, because Zlatan had already had his fill of cleaning up the asshole’s blood. The moment there was a lull, Zlatan grabbed the smashed-up jamb and swung out. He shot twice, then jerked himself back.

After two seconds, he peeked out again. Nobody took a shot at his nose, so he edged out further and assessed things. After making sure of one, he ran across the room and checked outside. Nothing. He actually could’ve used a couple more right now. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”

Zlatan elbowed the front door shut, pulling at his hair. His eyes landed on the nearest body and he dropped down beside it, doing a quick riffle of the corpse’s pockets. What he found pretty much confirmed his suspicions, which was just peachy.

He got back up and grabbed his bag, shaking off the plaster dust—and then he remembered. He lunged for the bathroom, falling to his knees as soon as he’d gone through the door, and slid into the lawyer just as the resourceful shit had gotten his hands on a gun. But it went skittering away as Zlatan plowed them into the tub, and damn it, now there was blood on him. “You fucking asshole. I should’ve broken your nose.”

“Those aren’t any kind of law officers,” the lawyer shot back. “What’s going on?”

“Not your fairytale rescue,” Zlatan sneered. “You’re not that important.”

“Alessandro Nesta.” The lawyer lifted his chin a little and managed to look contemptuous, with blood on his lips and a gun to his head and porcelain chips in his hair. “I’m Alessandro Nesta, and the moment you let me go, you’re dead.”

Zlatan—first he spun the gun in his hand and whipped its handle into Alessandro Nesta’s right temple. Then, after the prick had dropped like a sack of shit, he rolled his eyes.

“Drama queen,” Zlatan muttered, getting up. He ruffled more dust and splinters out of his hair, thinking a moment, and then walked out the door. He’d only seen one new car in the parking lot, but there was still the front desk, and possibly cleaning staff.

* * *

One torched hotel later, Zlatan was back on the road with what was rapidly turning into the most annoying job ever belted in next to him because he hadn’t had time to stuff him in the trunk. At least Nesta was still unconscious, which left Zlatan to the complex task of navigating Italy’s back-roads in relative peace. There wasn’t any way he could go directly to Rome now; at the very least, he was going to have to stop again and do some more clean-up.

And…well, he’d have to sooner or later, and he might as well do it now. Nesta was still out and nobody else was around. Zlatan pulled over and then took out his phone.

*You’re not in Rome yet,* Larsson blandly observed.

“Nope. I’ll get there in another day.” Zlatan scrubbed at the side of his face. “…some other business got in the way and I had to change my route.”

Long pause. *I thought you said your week was clear.*

“It was! I had no reason to think otherwise! Back then!” A groan came from beside Zlatan and he just slouched further in his seat, cursing God and thick-skulled Italians. “Bye.”

Later he was going to pay for hanging up like that, but Nesta knew enough without giving him any more on silver platters. Zlatan put away his phone, then reached for the ignition.

“I can put you at the site of a…triple or quadruple homicide?” Nesta casually asked, moving around. He arched his eyebrows when he couldn’t pull his hands from behind his back. “Not drugging me again, I see.”

“It’s still an option,” Zlatan muttered, starting the engine. He turned to see where the road began and Nesta turned towards him at the same time so they ended up staring at each other again. Then Zlatan flicked his gaze towards the bruise splotched over Nesta’s temple. “You like getting whacked around better, I can do that too.”

Nesta’s lip curled so expressively he didn’t need to add words. So instead he picked something to irritate Zlatan with. “Are you in trouble? I don’t think those men were after me.”

“That’s very modest of you.” The car bounced, making Nesta look like he was lunging. Zlatan had grabbed the man’s lapels before he remembered Nesta’s hands were cuffed, but once he’d hauled Nesta over, he figured he might as well not waste it.

He kissed the man. Alessandro was in the middle of saying something so Zlatan’s tongue went right in, getting a full swipe of half-dried blood along the way, then barely pulled it out before Nesta’s teeth clacked shut. Nesta jerked, then literally tore himself away.

Zlatan stared at the scrap of fabric in his hand, then shrugged and stuffed it into a pocket. “Well, no dry-cleaner ever would’ve taken it on anyway.”

“You twisted shit!” Nesta crammed himself into the corner, eyes blazing.

I’m not the one who gets so worked up about a gunfight that I’ve got to introduce myself like Schwarzenegger,” Zlatan snorted. He put the car into drive and then stepped on the accelerator. “Listen, you shut up for the rest of the way and I won’t do that again. How’s that for reasonable, Sandro?”

That got a flinch in response. “Don’t call me that.”

Zlatan started to turn and Alessandro clammed up, lips sealing so tightly a penknife probably couldn’t have pried them open. “Thank God, the silent treatment,” Zlatan sighed.

* * *

It was incredibly out of the way, but Zlatan didn’t really feel like dealing with another fucking hotel. Anyway, Olof owed him about a hundred times over, so the least he could do was not be mad whenever—if ever—Zlatan mentioned he’d borrowed the man’s summer cottage.

Worst came to worst, Henke would get to Zlatan first. And he worked clean.

“Ow,” Alessandro said, stumbling as Zlatan pulled him out of the car. Then he banged his elbow on the door getting up. “I can’t feel my hands. And I think my ankle’s sprained.”

“From wha—well, serves you right. If you’d stayed put, your feet would be fine.” Zlatan hauled him up the front path by the arm, then pushed him down on his knees. The door lock didn’t take too long to pick, but Olof of course didn’t just have that and Zlatan had to work at light-speed to disable the security system.

When he ducked back out, Alessandro had just managed to get to his feet. “If I’d stayed put, you would’ve slept till they shot you in bed.”

“What, I owe you now? I don’t think so,” Zlatan sneered. He hauled Alessandro inside, then began looking for somewhere to chain the bastard up while he did the chores.

The furniture all looked too nice—and too fragile. Zlatan finally wrote off the whole ground floor and dragged them upstairs into the master bath, where the toilet was marble and the plumbing looked like it could take on a tornado or two, à la Twister. He sat Nesta on the toilet lid and recuffed the man’s ankles, threading the chain around the back of the toilet. Then he cut off Alessandro’s suit-jacket and the bloody half of the man’s shirt-collar; the rest looked fine and he didn’t have any extra clothes, so he stopped there.

“Leg-irons in the medicine cabinet,” Alessandro dryly observed. “Kinky.”

“Everybody gets their kicks in different ways. I don’t judge.” Though that was weird—why did Olof keep his gear there?

Zlatan went back downstairs and pulled out the bags of dirty clothes and various other troublesome items from the car. After carrying it to the backyard, he stoked up a fire in the convenient rustic kiln and tossed everything on the flames. Most of it ashed up within ten minutes, but some stuff was going to take longer; Zlatan tossed in more wood, then shut the kiln doors to let it bake. He’d rake the remainder out in about three hours and bury it in the garden.

By the time that was done, he was getting a pinching ache between his shoulders and his skin was coated in layers of ash, plaster dust, general dirt and a couple dried bloodstains. He felt like he’d just dug himself out of an air-strike site.

“Oh, good, you’re still where I left you,” he said, walking back into the bathroom. He checked out the shower set-up before pulling the curtain and turning on the water.

“You’re amazingly cavalier for a—what are you doing?” Nesta’s sarcasm went to a yelp before Zlatan’s shirt had made it to the floor.

Zlatan rolled his eyes and finished stripping, then bagged his clothes to throw in his duffel later. “Taking a shower. Close your mouth, Sandro. You look really stupid like that.”

A stream of Italian invective followed Zlatan as he stepped into the shower, but once he’d switched the head to the water-jet setting, he couldn’t hear it. The hard spray felt good pummeling down his back and he spent several minutes with his hands braced against the wall, leaning into it. His muscles slowly untwisted and he started feeling like he could deal again.

When he got out, the first thing he saw was a blurry back. Zlatan blinked the water out of his eyes and reached for a towel; Alessandro came into focus all hunched shoulders and stiffly averted head. “Hey, I know I’m not ugly. And if you keep sitting like that, you’re going to fall off and break a kneecap.”

“I’d rather do that than feed your ego.” Alessandro did glance up when Zlatan ambled past, but to make up for it he heaved himself around to face the other way. And unbalanced as the leg-chain caught on something so he tipped right off the toilet. His right knee hit with a loud crack and his left wasn’t much softer. A sharp spasm went through his whole body. Then he slowly settled down, pressing his head down against the floor while hissing his breath.

Zlatan looked at him and wondered who the hell wanted him alive so badly, considering how completely unmanageable he was. Then he sighed, tucked the towel around his waist, and bent down to grab Alessandro’s shoulders. “You probably didn’t. That wasn’t that far of a fall.”

“Go to hell,” Alessandro muttered sullenly, staring over Zlatan’s shoulder. He didn’t fight, but he didn’t help either. Then, once he was back on the toilet, he shot Zlatan a strangely reluctant look. “Also, I need to take a piss.”

Zlatan tightened his grip on Nesta’s shoulders, then let go and went to get his keys. “You’re a fucking prize, all right. Christ.”

* * *

Alessandro was a real picture standing there, one hand cuffed to the towel-bar and the other one holding his cock, and a face like fucking Napoleon ordering a charge. “What?”

“Go on ahead. Don’t let me throw you off,” Zlatan lilted mockingly. He could see Nesta in the mirror so he did turn around. After a moment, he heard the spray hit porcelain and picked up his razor, then rubbed his cheek. Yeah, he did need a shave.

“It’s been at least a day. How come this is the first time I’ve needed to?” Alessandro asked. The trickling sound had just died away.

Zlatan turned around with his face a quarter done and caught Alessandro flipping the last drops off his cock, which was nothing to be embarrassed about. And Alessandro wasn’t: he looked pissed off as he shoved it back into his trousers, awkwardly fumbling with the zipper one-handed. “The wonders of catheters and enemas.”

What?” Alessandro went white, then red. He forgot the cuff and jerked his hand like he—well, it probably involved Zlatan’s spine and breakage, judging from his eyes. Then he hissed and fell back against the wall. “Fuck. I can’t—fucking believe this.”

Neither could Zlatan sometimes, but Henrik was the definition of thorough and it was nice not to have to deal with stains from those bodily fluids as well. He shrugged and recuffed Alessandro’s other hand, then returned to the sink to finish shaving.

“No, actually I can,” Alessandro muttered. His voice was so different Zlatan glanced over and found him slumped with his head back, eyes half-closed. He looked a straw’s weight away from collapsing and like he didn’t much care. “I went back last time in an ambulance.”

He wasn’t talking to Zlatan, but that was too random to let go. “Oh, so it’s not just me you’re a jerk to.”

The Alessandro in the mirror was looking at Zlatan as if Zlatan had mascarpone for brains. “Nice to see your humility again. By the way, I’m handcuffed to a wall. And working under the assumption that you’re going to kill me.”

Zlatan lifted his chin and carefully scraped the last bit of foam from his throat, then rinsed off the blade. “Which would freak normal people out, not make them prize bitches—I really sympathize with whoever did put you in the ambulance. They had the right idea.”

“They were selfish short-sighted bastards,” Alessandro spat, glaring at Zlatan but not at Zlatan. Then he bit his lip and looked away, the muscle in his cheek twitching.

After rinsing his face and throat, Zlatan turned around to look for a dry towel. The one around his waist slipped a bit and he absently hiked it up as he crossed the room; of course the damn hand-towel would be next to Nesta. “Who obviously were better at being bastards, since you’re the one who got shipped back on a stretcher.”

Alessandro rolled his eyes, shifting back so he was as far from Zlatan as possible. The cuffs clinked and he winced. “Like you know anything about it.”

“Well, any time you want to stop teasing and tell me, Sandro…” Actually, Zlatan wasn’t really that interested, but Nesta’s habit of ending everything with a contemptuous look made him want to have the last word. He started drying his face. “What? Alessandro’s too fucking long--oh, did they call you that?”

“You’re a lousy hitman, you know, and I’ve met my share. You’re like a five-year-old girl,” Alessandro snorted.

He was backtracking too quick after that flinch of his. Zlatan grinned and patted at Alessandro’s cheek with the towel, and when the other man tried to jerk away, grabbed his chin and held him still. He rubbed hard at the sweat-streaks on Alessandro’s face, and didn’t let up over the bruises. “Is this ‘they’ really a he or a she? What’d you do, cheat on them?”

“You’re an ass,” Alessandro snarled, damn near exploding off the wall. The cuffs caught him up, dropping him back with a pained hiss.

“You need a shave.” Nah, Nesta seemed too much of a straight-arrow—right down to the bone-grating righteousness—to have been the transgressor. “No, let me guess, you caught them cheating. And aw, poor thing, you really believed in faithfulness before that.”

“I knew he was fucking around before we—” Then Alessandro banged his head into the wall in his eagerness to look exactly like a big fat crack had laid him wide open. “Shut up.”

Zlatan lowered the towel so he could see all of Nesta’s face. He slid his hand down to circle Alessandro’s throat. “You’re the one chained to the wall, remember.”

Alessandro bit his lip again, but this time like it was a poor substitute for, say, Zlatan’s throat. Then he grinned, all sharp teeth. “Last time, it took three men about five minutes to get me put into a Roman hospital for a month. This time, it’s taken you what, two days already? And we’re not even in Rome.”

“Your ex had you beaten up? And you hooked up with him when you knew his dick did all the thinking? I’m delayed—you sound like you’re seriously derailed,” Zlatan retorted.

“No, he didn’t do that. He didn’t even find out about it till I was halfway back to Italy.” Older pain shadowed Alessandro’s eyes for a moment, but then it sank beneath that fucking annoying scorn. “You know shit.”

Zlatan pulled him forward, then shoved him back. “Enlighten me, why don’t you?”

“Make me,” Alessandro said, eyes bright and mocking.

Zlatan yanked him forward again and bit down on Alessandro’s lower lip, dragging it into his mouth. His top canine clacked against something, then got pushed a way as Alessandro’s tongue came barreling through like the bastard meant to punch it out Zlatan’s cheek. Guttural, vicious almost-words rumbled out of Alessandro’s throat and he lunged forward as far as he could, twisting his head sideways to force his lips between Zlatan’s. He sucked out Zlatan’s tongue, then chewed on it till both their mouths tasted bloody.

Alessandro didn’t let up when Zlatan slammed him back by the throat, and in the end Zlatan had to drop the hand-towel and grab a wad of Alessandro’s hair to jerk the teeth out of his tongue. He pulled so hard that their mouths popped apart; a long string of spittle hung between them, then broke to slap down Zlatan’s chin.

They stared at each other, the only sound their stuttering breath. Then Alessandro grimaced and jerked his head down and to the side. The chain rattled and he grimaced again.

Zlatan swiped the spit off his jaw with the back of his hand. “Keep doing that and you’ll get nerve damage.”

“Fuck you,” was Alessandro’s mumbled, head-down reply.

“It’ll be a cold day in hell first,” Zlatan snorted. He pushed at Nesta till he could look at the man’s wrists, then swore to himself. The bastard couldn’t even be normal enough to mention the flesh had swollen nearly black around the cuffs, practically embedding the metal in it.

He let go of Nesta and started to step back, only to find that the man’s shirt had gotten stuck to his damp chest. It peeled off like a waxed strip, leaving him rubbing at the irritated skin while he regarded the other man.

Alessandro raised his head. His lip was bleeding and there was a fresh line of blood limning his left nostril. He looked tired. “He could’ve saved me from the beating, and made sure there wasn’t any follow-up. But I would’ve had to pay for it, and I was already paying as much as I could stomach to stay with him. So I left. All right?”

“No, it still sounds pretty fucked up to me.” Zlatan turned on his heel and walked out.

* * *

“Do you have to do that?” Alessandro asked. The cold-water bath his wrists were getting in the sink must’ve been working, since his prickliness had returned.

Zlatan tilted his hand so the gun was perpendicular to Alessandro’s back and snapped on his watch. “The last time I thought you were too far gone, you tried to stick a gun up my nose.”

“It would’ve been an improvement.” Alessandro briefly lifted his head so his amusement was reflected in the mirror. Then he looked down again, gently swirling the water around with his hands. He started to bend over, but stopped when Zlatan ground the gun against his spine. “I’m just going to get some water on my neck.”

“Fine,” Zlatan said after a moment. His shoulder was starting to ache again, so he carefully settled back against the wall, watching Nesta splash his face. He absently pulled at his shirt. “So how long ago was it?”

After pulling his hair out of the way, Alessandro poured a little water over the back of his neck. Then he scrubbed it in with his fingers, working them beneath what was left of his shirt-collar: his hands seemed to be working fine, after all. “Why do you care?”

“You nearly bit my tongue off. You didn’t want me to ask why, should’ve tried something else.” It was funny the way Nesta kept starting, like he’d been expecting Zlatan to just pretend all that shit a moment ago hadn’t happened. “Two months? One?”

Alessandro rested his arms on either side of the sink, his fingers trailing in the water. He blinked a few times at the faucet. “Eight years,” he said blandly.

Zlatan stared at him. “…eight years? And you’re still going on about him? What the hell is wrong with you?”

“I just—” Alessandro cut himself off with a shake of the head. He pursed his lips, then laughed, short and low and not particularly amused. “I just saw him. My fucking job—I move to Italy to get away from him, and Italy sends me back. And it all turns out the same damn way.”

He trailed off into moody silence, looking at his limp fingers. He barely started when handed the towel, taking it and mechanically drying his face and hands. Zlatan took that away and pulled him roughly around, pushing his forearms together in front of him, and Alessandro just watched Zlatan tape his wrists together like it was some kind of boring nature exhibit.

“So much for history lessons,” Zlatan muttered. The quietness was unnerving, and he was relieved when Alessandro arched an eyebrow. “What, he not offer to save you this time?”

“He probably hasn’t noticed I’m gone. He’s fucking this—” Alessandro made an effort not to twist his lips, failed, then went all out with the disgust, inward and outward. “Forget it.”

Zlatan tugged Nesta out of the bathroom by the elbow. Their feet sounded weird, but then Zlatan remembered the leg-manacles weren’t on. “Ah, younger. Prettier?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Alessandro said tightly.

“Why not? I don’t give a shit, so you’re not offending me. Rip the prick a new asshole. I promise I won’t tell.” The guest bedrooms had wooden headboards, but the master bedroom had an iron one…and Zlatan briefly thought again about why Olof would keep leg-cuffs in the medicine cabinet. Then he made a face—way too much information—and shoved Alessandro onto the bed. “Up. You can take a nap for a couple hours.”

Alessandro shot Zlatan a glare over his shoulder as he hauled himself across the mattress. “Are you going to shoot me up with something if I don’t?”

Unless Olof also kept that around, Zlatan couldn’t: the bottle of tranquilizer Henrik had given him had gotten broken in the firefight. “No, head by me and feet by the top. You know, if you were nicer, you might get treated better. Shower, food…”

Zlatan moved around to the head of the bed and snagged the nearest of Alessandro’s feet. He snapped on one leg-cuff, threaded the chain through the bars, and then snapped on the other. Nesta’s socks were getting really ragged, he noted; he’d have to give the man back his shoes.

“So if I sell out and suck your cock, you’ll let me go?” Alessandro mused. When Zlatan looked, he was staring innocently up at the ceiling, but his eyes were glittering. “No, I didn’t think so. Thanks for the advice, but I’m going to keep my pride.”

“I bet that’s a real comfort when you’re having the worst week of your life and your ex is all happy with somebody else,” Zlatan drawled. He pulled all the other furniture out of Nesta’s reach, then did a quick check behind the headboard, under the pillows and between the mattress and box springs. “Eight years. You couldn’t find somebody yourself? Fall out of love with this guy? Who really does sound like an asshole, by the way.”

Alessandro stiffened, then pointedly rolled over so his back was to Zlatan. Nearly a minute passed, and nothing.

“Whatever,” Zlatan pronounced, and left to go see if Olof’s Internet was working.

* * *

*I’ve done some asking around and you are in serious trouble, Ibra,* Henrik said. He was talking in a slow, considering tone, which confirmed his words. *Whatever possessed you to get so fancy? You know it’s harder to account for everyone that way.*

“Unless you’re looking at a layout with people distribution for that night on it, don’t give me shit about how I work, okay? And I know—I had to torch a place because they caught up with me.” Zlatan squinted at the computer screen, then sighed. “Don’t worry, I cleaned up. They can’t find me till I’m in Rome, and I’ll drop off your package first.”

Henrik breathed once. *You. Burned a building. Where?*

“I’ll take care—”

*You are making a complete mess of this.* Click—eeeeeee.

Zlatan yanked the phone from his ear and started to throw it. Then he remembered it wasn’t his house and just turned the damn thing off. For a moment he sprawled in the chair, staring at the computer screen and willing it to give him some good news. But the cursor just blinked at him, so he snarled and shut it down, then stalked back upstairs. He was almost hoping he’d catch Nesta doing something dumb again…but no, Nesta was that annoying: he was lying in exactly the same position in which Zlatan had left him. Still staring at the ceiling.

The bed bounced hard when Zlatan flopped down on it, getting a grunt from the other man. “I thought I was getting a nap.”

“Go ahead.” Zlatan closed his eyes and pressed his fingers around them. The area felt sore: he’d been running on adrenaline for a couple days now and he wasn’t about to sleep when Nesta wasn’t. “I don’t hear snoring. You’ve only got an hour left, so if I were you…”

“If you were me Paolo wouldn’t have touched you with a ten-foot pole,” Alessandro said thoughtfully. He was still looking up when Zlatan rolled over. “He’s got taste.”

Zlatan rolled his eyes. “Is he the ex? You know, now I think I want to meet him, just to see what kind of cocksucker he really is.”

“He’d see you coming and you’d end up in somebody’s car trunk.” The corners of Alessandro’s mouth quirked up; he clearly was relishing whatever mental image he had.

It probably wasn’t all that far off from the one in Zlatan’s head, but he wasn’t so amused. “You’re fucking pathetic. He treated you like crap and you had eight years to get over it, but no, you’re still mooning over him. Even though he’s just fucked you over again—”

“—he didn’t, weren’t you listening—”

“—and you went to see him, didn’t you? You probably thought you could start things up again, only he’s gotten somebody with a backbone and—”

“Shut up.”

“—oh, my God, you did. How sad is that? How fucking—” Zlatan was a little slow to react to the bed dipping and so he just managed to grab Alessandro’s arm.

Alessandro’s tongue was already half-in his mouth, its tip digging at the base of Zlatan’s teeth. He hooked his top teeth over Zlatan’s bottom incisors to keep Zlatan’s mouth open, his hands clawing at Zlatan’s shirt till the collar was stretched nearly to the bottom of Zlatan’s breastbone. Zlatan swore, accidentally poked his tongue into Alessandro’s mouth, and heaved them over before Alessandro’s hands could get to his throat.

His knee slipped unexpectedly between Alessandro’s legs, hitting the mattress. His weight more or less followed and he had to waste a second getting his elbows up. By then Alessandro had hooked his arms over Zlatan’s head and was sliding his hands to—Zlatan savaged Alessandro’s lip and whipped his hand back to grab Alessandro’s elbow. Then he yanked the other man’s arms up and back over, pinning them to the mattress. “You shit,” he said wonderingly, pulling his gun from his waistband with his other hand, “You never stop.”

“Unlike you,” Alessandro hissed. His eyes were on fire, his lip was bloody, his white shirt was now a dirty near-yellow. He was fucking beautiful. “Why don’t you just shoot me?”

“You’re not supposed to die.” Zlatan…hadn’t meant to say that. He stared down at the other man. “You’re supposed to go to Rome.”

“And look how well that worked out last time.” Alessandro managed to indicate the current situation with a couple well-directed flicks of his eyes.

Zlatan opened his mouth, then closed it. His back was beginning to hurt from his strained posture and he dragged his hand up, then remembered he was holding the gun. He looked at it, at Alessandro who jerked up his chin, and at it again. Then he snarled, too fucking frustrated to find words for it, and heaved himself off the other man. He crawled over to the side of the bed and dropped the gun plus two knives on the floor, then turned around just as Alessandro sat up.

The other man lifted his hands and wiped the blood from his mouth off on the tape. His eyes widened slightly when Zlatan wrapped a hand around his left calf, but he didn’t do anything to keep Zlatan from yanking him over.

This time, Alessandro just opened his damn mouth. He made muffled grunting noises, still trying to talk, but his teeth stayed out of Zlatan’s lip and his tongue snaked its way across the roof of Zlatan’s mouth. Zlatan swung his arm around Alessandro’s waist and pulled the other man closer; Alessandro’s idea of returning the favor was hooking his fingernails through Zlatan’s shirt and leaving ten stinging scratches when Zlatan pushed them over.

Something clanked. Alessandro twisted, his knee catching up against Zlatan’s stomach. “My ankles, you idiot. Do I get a foot-soak after this? How about a facial?”

“Shut up. God.” Zlatan ripped his mouth off the other man, but Alessandro jerked him back down by the shirt. He yanked himself around at the last moment, his mouth coming down on Alessandro’s neck instead. Which he bit hard, then sucked at harder till the other man was groaning and trying to get his knee out from under Zlatan.

The leg-chain whipped against Zlatan’s calf. He shook it off, then grabbed Alessandro’s shoulder and flipped him. Alessandro snarled and shoved himself up on elbows and knees, throwing one bony hip right into Zlatan’s balls. For that Zlatan slapped the other man on the left buttock, then reached around and thrust his hand down the front of Alessandro’s trousers while Alessandro was still getting all outraged. In Zlatan’s hand Alessandro’s cock jumped nearly to full hardness and Alessandro shuddered, his knees sliding apart on the slick bedsheet.

He dropped his head and Zlatan threw a leg over, then started to haul himself up Alessandro only to nearly get his nose broken by a sudden head-jerk. He squeezed Alessandro’s prick and raked his teeth over the back of the other man’s neck. “That was my cheekbone, asshole.”

“Sorry, I’ll get it right next ti—” Alessandro started, all drawling sarcasm. He ended on a gasp when Zlatan thumbed open his fly and ripped his trousers over his hips.

Zlatan put a hand on the small of Alessandro’s back and pushed. He worked his other hand down the man’s cock, then rubbed his thumb over the tip while he shimmied out of his track-pants. Alessandro muffled a cry in the mattress and arched, sliding his ass along Zlatan’s belly. Buttons popped. His shirt rode up till Zlatan could see his shoulderblades; Zlatan bent to lick one and Alessandro thumped the heel of his foot into Zlatan’s shin.

“Bastard.” So Zlatan ran his teeth along it instead.

Alessandro dragged his head to the side, eye rolling back towards Zlatan, mouth wide open as he scraped in air. Zlatan leaned over again and stuck in two fingers, watched Alessandro’s swollen torn lips wrap around them. He sucked away the little bits of spit that frothed at one corner of the man’s mouth, then moved to rasp his teeth over Alessandro’s jaw. They caught on the stubble and a low thin noise came from somewhere deep in Alessandro’s throat. He closed his eyes—squeezed them shut, and when Zlatan pulled his fingers out and shoved them in lower down, Alessandro turned his head back to bury his face in the bed.

Zlatan yanked up on Alessandro’s waist so the man wouldn’t suffocate, but otherwise let that end be. He closed his eyes, his cock halfway in Alessandro’s ass and his burning lungs needing a breather, but just for that second. For the whole rest of it, he had his eyes wide open. Watching his flushed cock pump between Alessandro’s paler buttocks, watching the way the man’s back twisted and bowed, watching him claw at the mattress. Watching Alessandro jerk his head around as things peaked, eye snapping open so for that second, their gazes linked.

* * *

Alessandro made a weak attempt at dragging Zlatan off by his shirt, then let his head fall back. His knees shifted restlessly along Zlatan’s hips. “Fuck. He is better off with that kid.”

“I am so fucking tired of hearing of your stupid prick of an ex already,” Zlatan muttered, hauling his head off Alessandro’s shoulder. He jacked himself up on his elbows and one knee. “Can you even stop thinking about him for one second? One fucking second?”

He was ignored. He smacked Alessandro’s face, the bruised side, and got nails in his back and a killing stare. Zlatan stared back, looking for it, and grinned when he got it.

“That’s better,” he said.

Alessandro frowned, not getting it. Then his forehead smoothed out and his fingers uncurled against Zlatan’s back, the tape on his wrists scratching at Zlatan’s nape. He looked up silently as Zlatan touched the blue-black swelling around his temple with light fingertips.

“Best rebound fuck of your life, right?” Zlatan ran one finger down the bridge of Alessandro’s nose.

And nearly got it bitten off. “And then you open your mouth,” Alessandro said, rolling his eyes and snarling at the same time. Zlatan ignored it and kissed him, and eventually Alessandro kissed back, mouth almost suspiciously soft and giving. When Zlatan pulled away, Alessandro’s eyelashes were fluttering.

Zlatan blinked, then shook his head. He glimpsed his watch when he did that, then took a second look. “So much for your nap. Time to go.”

“I’ll sleep in the car.” For a moment it looked like Alessandro was going to add something else, but then he lifted his arms over Zlatan’s head, pulling himself free.

* * *

The alley was chilly and claustrophobic. Zlatan checked the time again, then swore and stepped into the only doorway along the whole stretch. He accidentally rattled the rusty thing passing for a door—probably hadn’t been opened in years—and glanced at it.

The next thing he knew, he was falling onto his knees and his hand had been slammed against a table. He grabbed the table-edge just in time to see his fingers smashed with a pistol-butt. There was a double crack, then a searing pain; Zlatan snarled and reached for his gun, but cold metal touched his forehead. He froze, then pulled his hand away and slowly looked up. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, a blank-faced Henrik slowly came into view. Zlatan’s mouth went dry. “Henke—”

The gun left his head, but Zlatan didn’t have any time to capitalize on that before the side of his head exploded. He toppled over and damn near broke his elbow stopping his fall…but he still was breathing. He touched his head and felt blood but no squishy brain bits—something clicked and he wrenched himself around to see Henrik putting down a camera.

“Henke, what the fuck?” Zlatan hissed.

“Well, I need to show my employers something,” Henrik said mildly. He walked over to the door and closed it, briefly putting them in the dark, before turning on a light. “That said…sometimes I honestly don’t know what Helena saw in you. Or what I do, for that matter.”

Normally Zlatan would’ve had six or seven retorts lined up, but he’d never seen Henrik quite like this. He stayed quiet and still till Henrik waved him towards a car in the corner.

The other man popped the trunk. Zlatan glanced in, then looked sharply at Henrik.

“Now you’re out of trouble with them. But you’ve royally fucked up the other job.” It wasn’t a question, though Henrik raised his eyebrows like it was one. “Fix things or I’ll do it.”

Zlatan didn’t move.

Henrik regarded him calmly and steadily. “You forced the change of plans.”

“I know,” Zlatan said quietly. He dropped his gaze.

* * *

The light was blinding. Alessandro shut his eyes as much as he could without actually closing them and then he managed to make out Zlatan’s outline. The other man pulled off the strip of tape over Alessandro’s mouth, leaving his lips raw and stinging. “I think I liked being drugged better. You’re a shitty driver, especially on left turns.”

“Shut up.” Zlatan reached in and yanked Alessandro out of the car trunk by one arm, then forced him down on his knees.

They were in a deserted lot between two dilapidated buildings. The sky above them was dark gray, smoked over like a piece of glass held above a candle; the light had been from a flashlight Zlatan was awkwardly holding in one bandaged hand. His other hand had his gun, and when Alessandro looked at him, he moved away.

“Oh.” Alessandro clenched his hands, his whole life suddenly swelling in his throat. Then it subsided as abruptly as it’d come, leaving him with just a sore throat and a bittersweet taste in his mouth. “I was supposed to live. But you fucked up, didn’t you?”

Zlatan was standing behind him now. Alessandro stared up at the sky again.

“Thanks for bringing me home, anyway,” he said.

And then the black night exploded to engulf everything.

* * *

“…there? Can you hear—oh, my God! Sandro! You’re awake!”

Something hit Alessandro in the chest, then squeezed so he came back with a wheezing gasp. Then it nearly went away; Alessandro swore and threw himself at it, holding on till light and dark turned into color, till blobs became shapes. A roaring filled his ears, then faded into a constant electronic beeping and somebody else’s breathing.

He looked down. Alberto lifted watery eyes from Alessandro’s chest, then blushed and let go. “Sorry, sir. Are you okay? They said—when they were looking you over, they said you’d…oh, water, right. Sorry.”

Once his mouth didn’t feel like a desert, Alessandro sat up. “How did I get here?”

“An anonymous tip told us where to find you. We think you got snatched at your hotel and taken over the border and…” Alberto stared at the blankets “…tortured. You…do you remember anything?”

“My head hurts,” Alessandro finally said, touching his temples. Both hurt—flashlight.

“…Rossi’s people, most likely. But I’ll show you everything later,” Alberto went on. He hadn’t shaved and there were dark circles beneath his eyes, but otherwise he was practically glowing. “I’m so glad you’re back, sir. Everyone’s been saying it was a…”

He followed Alessandro’s gaze across the room. It was a private room, but another bed had been set up and lying on it was…Alessandro blinked hard. But no, that was Rino.

“He didn’t trust the people the department sent to guard you and stayed up seventy-five straight hours. Then the doctor said he had to get some sleep, he was scaring the nurses, but Rino said no,” Alberto said, bemused. “Dr. Buffon said fine, Rino turned around, and Buffon stuck a needle in his ass and told me Rino would be up in eight hours.”

“In that case, I don’t think I want to see my doctor. Gila, get me some clothes so I can get out of this damn dress.” Alessandro reached for the bed-rail, then paused. “What are those?”

Alberto was almost comically relieved as he pounced on the vases lined up along the windowsill. “These are from the office, and the yellow roses are from somebody named Paolo Maldini—sir, are you all right? Maybe you should lie down. You just did wake up.”

“Alberto.” The other man apologetically ducked his head. “What about the third one?”

“Oh. I don’t know…the florist said it was by phone and we traced the number to a payphone, and the card doesn’t have anything on it except your address.” With a frown, Alberto dug out the little piece of paper and carried it over to Alessandro.

Typed. No clues then, but as Alessandro looked at it, his stomach twisted. He blinked; usually that reaction was reserved for Paolo, but…well, yellow roses. How typical of the man.

“Get me something to wear,” Alessandro repeated.

* * *

*Hello?* Paolo said.

Alessandro lifted his foot, then grimaced as a whole new set of aches started up from head to groin. “Oh, right, I forgot. My number’s changed a couple times.”

*Sandro? Then—* sharp breath *--I’m sorry. I didn’t know—wasn’t told.*

“Yes, I remember that,” Alessandro muttered, gritting his teeth. He grabbed his ankle, pulled it up further, then tugged on his sock. The phone shifted against his ear and he adjusted it, sending a cascade of hair into his eyes. “The roses are beautiful. Pointless, but beautiful.”

Paolo was silent for a moment.

“Just save them for Kaká—I’m sure he’ll appreciate them better. If you really want to do something for me, call the hounds off.” After tucking his hair back, Alessandro grabbed the bed rail. The extra support made putting on his other sock slightly less painful. “Zlatan. Taller than me, brown hair, cocky, eastern accent, speaks Italian and…Swedish, I think. Maybe you don’t know who he is, but you know who to ask to find out. While you’re at it, tell them to back off.”

*Why?* Paolo finally said.

Alessandro almost hung up there. “He’s the one who took me here, so he’s mine to take. That’s my price for buying the story about Rossi’s syndicate being the one behind it.”

Paolo sucked in a whistling breath…then sighed. *All right, Sandro.*

“Thank you,” Alessandro said, and meant it. And then he hung up.

He swung his legs back over and looked down, lining his feet up with his shoes. Then he carefully dropped onto them, and even got his left foot mostly inside that shoe. Crouching down to tie the laces made his head spin, but he was mostly all right when he stood up again.

Somebody knocked softly at the door. Alberto poked his head in. “Sir, we got Rino out, but Dr. Buffon’s coming. He’ll be here in another few minutes.”

Alessandro started for the door, but a flash of color caught his eye and he stopped, staring at the flowers on the windowsill.

“Sir!” Alberto hissed desperately.

Alessandro turned away. Empty gestures—they’d have to be trashed in a day anyway.

But he kept the card.


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