|Sympathy for the Devil
Author: Guede Mazaka
Riquelme sat down while flipping out his newspaper. “Kaká’s found a new place to have lunch.”
The last time Robert had been in, he’d taken that odd little magnetic toy Paolo’s nephew had given him for Christmas and built a reasonably good replica of the Guggenheim in Bilbao out of the pieces. Earlier in the morning, Paolo had been poking at it and the whole damn thing had collapsed on the magnetic platform. He’d felt momentarily annoyed at himself, since it really had been quite beautiful. Though it’d also been another sign that Pirčs was, uncharacteristically, losing it over something.
“He doesn’t eat in his office anymore, and I hear that he’s not eating with Bobby either. I suppose he could be trying out all the cafés and favorite lunch spots in downtown, but in that case, I would’ve thought one of the secretaries would have come rushing back to faint about it by now,” Juan added.
Paolo picked up another piece and carefully touched it to the edge of the curve he was building. He felt the magnetic attraction take hold and tweaked the piece to fall in line, then let go. And the damn thing promptly swung down to stick lengthwise instead of standing edgewise, triggering a total collapse that saw all the pieces clunking into a little mound. “Damn.”
“Are you even listening to me?”
“No, not really. So Ricardo’s having lunch with someone. It’s probably a nice, well-brought-up girl who’s the death-knell to the hopes of everyone in the office. Including the vultures who are too lazy to trawl the clubs for their pretty young men,” Paolo drawled. It was a slow week in the office when the gossip was reduced to where Kaká was having his lunches.
Juan huffed and got up to go bother someone else, which was perfectly fine with Paolo. Ever since he’d gotten stood up by some Argentine one-nighter, he’d been in a bit of a midlife crisis, wondering whether he still had it. Which made him prickly and ill-humored and a little stupid, considering he was even thinking about Kaká. Everyone knew about the kid, knew about his stunning good looks and virginity and parental connections to the company’s board of directors. And so everyone watched—with varying degrees of hunger, but without making the slightest move. If Kaká didn’t like them, he could theoretically get enough strings pulled to have them blackballed out of the industry.
Personally, Paolo doubted the idea would ever cross the kid’s mind; Ricardo didn’t seem to have that natural bent of mind. But it was just as well anyway, since Ricardo was also patently not your average one-good-Frenching-and-they’re-yours virgin. It was his mind as well as his body that needed deflowering, and though Paolo thought his colleagues were all very good solicitors, most of them wouldn’t know what really to do with Kaká if somebody handed them a manual.
Pirčs would have, but Bobby had to be the only person on the floor who wasn’t interested in getting Ricky into bed because Ricky was, somehow, not his type, and because he was the kind of polite, charming man who’d made up his mind years ago and wasn’t about to be converted by a nicely curved rump. Which was why Kaká’s parents, presumably smart people, had asked Bobby to take him on as an assistant.
Actually, if Bobby wasn’t having lunch with Kaká anymore, then that might be something to check into after all. Paolo was interested in what could possibly throw an experienced, commonsensical man like him. Little Guggenheim Bilbao replicas, indeed. Somebody had suddenly decided to get restless fingers.
* * *
Kaká was still coming in to Bobby’s office at the usual times: once in the morning to pick up mail and files, and once in the afternoon to put in any file retrieval requests and drop off outgoing mail. The door had been open, but when Paolo peeked in, he only saw a tousle of black hair. So he knocked on the door-frame.
The other man jumped, then scrambled for the computer mouse as he turned around. He probably hadn’t had any practice at it, and he let Paolo have a good look at what had been on the screen before he whirled his chair around. “Paolo! I didn’t hear you come in. Were you looking for Bobby?”
“Well, I did sneak up on you.” Paolo didn’t pretend to be an exceptionally good man, but he did try to be an honest one. “What on earth is Lehmann up to if you’re researching scented dildos?”
Honesty didn’t equal no teasing, and red cheeks suited Kaká. He stammered and flailed at the keyboard behind him, almost knocking it to the floor. “Oh…that. I was…it wasn’t really research. I just…this is embarrassing. The other day I was sitting in on a meeting with Bobby and Cristiano Ronaldo and his old and new agents, and there was this anecdote that came up, and…”
“Oh, Ronaldo and last year’s New Year’s party gifts. I think that story might be one of the true ones, much as Lehmann tries to deny it,” Paolo laughed. “Should I ask how it came up during a contract negotiation?”
Kaká relaxed enough to smile brilliantly, though his flush was still going at full force. “I have no idea. It just…it was a very weird meeting. I asked Cesc about it later and he looked worried but wouldn’t say why, so I thought I’d—”
“Cesc?” Couldn’t be one of the agents, or else Paolo would’ve recognized the name right away. But it still sounded vaguely familiar.
“Francesc Fŕbregas. Van Nistelrooy hired him as an assistant a couple months ago,” Kaká replied. His blush slightly intensified, and his tone turned a little too serious. Then he shook his head, scrubbing at his cheek, and half-turned to pick up a planner from the desk. “If you’re looking for Bobby…let me see…”
“Oh, it wasn’t anything important. I just wanted to see how he’s been. Haven’t seen much of either of you since you took on Lehmann.” Fŕbregas by itself didn’t ring a bell. But who would Paolo only know by a nickname? Somebody he’d only heard of, probably. He couldn’t put a face to the name either, which supported that conclusion. “So how is it up there?”
Kaká blinked a few times, then shrugged. “It’s fine. I think Lehmann’s happy with our work, and Robert really seems to like the people we’re working with, so the arrangement might be made permanent.”
“Who are you working with mostly? I know Van Nistelrooy, but I can’t imagine that lasting past the contract negotiations.” Paolo felt his PDA buzz and took it out to check on the message. It wasn’t that important, but it probably meant he should cut this little visit short to start preparing.
“Oh, well, he and Cesc have been it for now. No, I’m wrong—there’s Thierry Henry as well. We haven’t really seen much of Lehmann since he’s been out on business for most of the month,” Kaká said, putting the planner back. He picked up a pen and fiddled with it, then checked his watch. When he saw the time, his brow furrowed and his lips thinned and if he’d been anyone else, he would’ve sworn. Instead he just snatched up his briefcase and got out from behind the desk. “Paolo, I’m very sorry but I’ve got to run.”
Paolo waved away the apology and obligingly moved out of the way. “Well, I suppose when you’re young, you need to sprint. When you get to my age, you’ll learn to appreciate the time-wasting stroll. It boosts your billable hours.” He grinned at Kaká’s half-scandalized look. “Go on, don’t waste your time trying to reform me. Go help Bobby save the label.”
A vague flicker of…shame?…crossed Kaká’s face. “I’m…going to meet up with Cesc right now, actually. I won’t see Bobby till almost the end of the day…did you want to pass on any messages?”
After a moment, Paolo restrained himself. Ricardo really was a nice boy, and he probably would be all right with unsullied ears for a little longer. “No, that’s all right. Enjoy the day, Kaká. Look out the window once in a while. Or look at Cesc, if that’s a better…oh, well. Don’t trip—at that speed you’re likely to break something.”
* * *
“Cesc Fŕbregas?” Juan paused and thought, then resumed doing his crossword. “Oh, that’s Raúl’s…third cousin or something. Raúl González. You remember, Lehmann’s house doctor. He’s had to give testimony in a couple drug cases. Well, well, so we’ve hired the kid. I think I only saw him once when he was a teenager, but he’s probably good-looking. He has the family background for it.”
“Well, there’s your lunch mystery solved.” Crossword done, Paolo dropped his newspaper on the table. He grinned at the annoyed look Riquelme shot him.
Not that Juan threw a fit and was discouraged from continuing his own efforts. He did the crossword to educate himself and not merely reap the cheap satisfaction of completion, or so he said. It hadn’t escaped Paolo’s attention that Juan could waste a good two hours researching crossword clues instead of legal precedents.
“Then my sympathies for Kaká,” Juan said. “I hear Raúl got himself a pick-up at Cristiano’s album launch and Cesc stormed out when he heard about it.”
“Still sorry you couldn’t get in with Raúl after El Moro?” Paolo teased. “I still think you deliberately dragged out Morientes’ contract termination paperwork so you could keep stopping by.”
Juan rolled his eyes. “You’re free to think whatever you like as long as you don’t act on it and turn it into malicious intent. By the way, Thierry Henry stormed into Bobby’s office about twenty minutes ago and neither of them have come out since. So there’s your mystery solved.”
“Thierry? But he’s straight! He turned down Jens Lehmann. And all those pretty young producers Lehmann keeps picking out of university and…well, I don’t know what the world’s coming to.” Shaking his head, Paolo got up and began to consider doing some work. He probably should file a few injunctions to keep his answering machine free of irate messages. “Good catch for Bobby, though. I wish him the best of luck.”
“You would,” Juan snorted.
* * *
“I wouldn’t go in there just now,” Paolo said when he came upon Kaká loitering outside of Bobby’s office. The light appeared to be on inside, but the shade over the door’s glass inset had been drawn, and the only sounds coming from the room were vague scuffles and thumps.
Kaká started, then turned quickly to look at Paolo. He was a little red about his shirt-collar, but otherwise seemed to be controlling himself pretty well. “I…I guessed. The thing is, I need to drop off some files for Bobby before I can go home. I…should I knock?”
“I don’t know. How far do you think they’ve gotten?” Paolo checked his watch. Nearly half an hour now, but it was Bobby so maybe they were still at the kiss-and-chat stage. And somehow he didn’t see Thierry as the kind of man who, upon discovering a new side of himself, would want to jump into the physical side right away.
“I…” Now the blush spread to Kaká’s lovely cheekbones, which could’ve satisfied Michelangelo’s search for perfect forms. “I hope their clothes are still on.”
After a stunned moment, Paolo did happen to remember the one bit of rumor that set Lehmann’s team apart from the others at the label. “Oh, now. Have you been getting a bit of a visual education upstairs? Do tell.”
“Paolo,” Kaká stammered, eyes wide and voice half-pleading. “I—it was just once. And I didn’t see that much. Cesc shut the door.”
“Cesc?” Paolo arched his eyebrow. “Well, I hadn’t heard he’d taken to being that naughty, though I gather he does have a little—”
“No. No, no, no, it wasn’t him, he just shut the door when he noticed we’d—we were looking—these other two—you’ve been asking after him?” Kaká’s expression clicked from highly embarrassed to defensive to slightly accusing in about a minute. It was the most expressive Paolo had seen Kaká; the man was pretty but the constantly sunny attitude could get monotonous. “Paolo, why on earth would you do that?”
Sympathies indeed. After a glance down the hall, Paolo took Kaká by the arm and pulled him into the next office over: Juan had gone home early today, probably so he could hit Premier’s open-mic night later. “I know your opinion on rumors, but you’re going to have to accept the fact that this business runs on them. People have noticed that you’re meeting often with Cesc, and I was just curious as to what he was actually like. I’ve never heard about you eating with someone from work before, aside from Bobby.”
“I’ve had lunch a few times with you,” Kaká pointed out. Not accusing, not ironic—just puzzled and trying to correct a perceived factual error.
“Well, if it was with me, I wouldn’t have to hear about it, would I?” Paolo arched his eyebrows and smiled.
Kaká smiled uncertainly back, fidgeting with the files he had. He looked out through his wispy bangs, which really could use a trim. “Oh. Well, I don’t know what you heard, but Cesc’s nice. He just got over the flu…he was working even while he was sick, and didn’t stop till he practically collapsed. He’s had a really hard time, what with…”
And then Kaká visibly realized he was straying into inappropriate territory and clammed up. He did laugh at a few of Paolo’s jokes, but he refused to say anything else despite Paolo’s best attempts.
“All right, all right, I’ll leave you be,” Paolo graciously said, knowing a lost cause when he saw one. He reached over and lightly patted Kaká’s cheek with his palm. “If they aren’t out yet, I suggest you just slide the files beneath Bobby’s door and go home, or go to see Cesc, or whatever it is you do after work.”
He started to go by, but stopped when something touched his arm. The touch fell away and nothing followed, but curiosity made Paolo turn back.
“Listen…” But then Kaká apparently changed his mind and put away whatever question was shining out of his eyes. Instead he smiled. “Thanks.”
“You’re…welcome,” Paolo cautiously said. He’d never seen Kaká smile with reservation before, and now that he had…well, he preferred the unbridled version. It looked like whatever Kaká’s hopes had been, he wasn’t about to get much further without learning a few lessons.
* * *
Fŕbregas had a foxy air about him, from the way his eyebrows slanted towards his temples from the top of his nose to the sharp, slightly forward tilt of said nose, as if he were perpetually sniffing for a track. He certainly was attractive in classic Spanish fashion, and the intelligence in his eyes said he’d grow up to learn how to wield it. If he didn’t already; foxes grew up fast compared to dogs.
“Paolo!” Kaká called, denying Paolo the chance to slip quietly away. The other man waved, then leaned over to speak to Fŕbregas. Then the both of them came arrowing towards Paolo.
With a sigh, Paolo stopped by the elevator. He gave the button a jab, but he doubted he was going to get it in time. Even if it hadn’t been just after lunch and thus the lift traffic was guaranteed to be heavy, it was just that kind of situation. “Kaká. And…”
“Francesc Fŕbregas, but call me Cesc.” He stuck out a hand with a smile that could charm birds from trees into his sharp teeth. An entirely different quality from Ricardo. “Paolo Maldini, yes? I’m Ruud van Nistelrooy’s assistant.”
“So I’ve heard.” Paolo watched the way Cesc registered that, then decided the other man was indeed quick enough to recognize similarities when he saw it. He settled for politely disengaged. “I’d love to chat with you, considering how friendly you and Kaká seem nowadays, but I’ve got a few lawsuits to work on. Rain check?”
Cesc did react a little oddly to the first part, almost shooting Kaká what seemed like a guilty look, but by the time Paolo had finished talking, he’d composed himself. “Sure. Ricky, I’ve got to run too—Ruud brought in a third of the acts for tonight’s Premier shows and I’ve got a lot of prep-work to do. See you later.”
Kaká’s face visibly fell, though he said and did all the right things as he saw Cesc off. Then the elevator arrived and he jumped a little at its chime.
“Up or down?” Paolo asked. When Kaká said up, he held the doors for the other man; it took a second for Kaká to notice and then hurry in, muttering apologies. “He calls you Ricky?”
“Cesc says he feels weird calling me Kaká. Something about being babysat by older girl-cousins.” A furrow briefly appeared between Kaká’s brows. “Anyway, I don’t mind either one. So there’s a closed-call tonight?”
Paolo shrugged. Then he happened to think of something and lifted his briefcase, propping it up on one arm as he opened it. He used his chin to hold up the lid while he dug out the appropriate file, and was going to pull it out when the weight suddenly lifted off his arm. He looked up, saw Kaká looking back at him over the briefcase, and murmured a thanks as he took out the file. Then he took his briefcase back from the other man. “Apparently. I don’t really keep track of that.”
“Isn’t that a little odd, considering where we work?” Kaká hesitantly asked.
“I don’t think so, but that’s only my opinion. I went to a few of those when I first started here, back when Michael Jackson was still a legitimate pop star, and I quickly figured out it didn’t have much to do with what I did. They make the music, we make the contracts, and really, it’s best if you keep the two as separate as possible. Especially if you like the music.” That little detail Paolo had been wondering about was as he’d remembered it, so maybe his crazy idea would work. Of course, it’d mean he’d have to stay later today, but he hadn’t done that in so long that it’d probably feel novel and exciting. And he was making himself laugh. “You’ve never been to one.”
Kaká shifted uneasily, rubbing at his jaw. He watched Paolo shuffle papers with far too much concentration. “No, I haven’t. You’ve at least been to one before you decided…well, I don’t know.”
“So go. You should try things before you dismiss them, you know. Give them a chance to prove themselves to you before you get too old and fossilize in your ways,” Paolo remarked. He reordered the papers in the folder, then stuffed that under his arm as the elevator chimed for the floor. He took a step out, then turned around and walked back in.
The other man stared at him for one second before hurriedly jabbing at the ‘hold’ button. “Paolo, this is your—”
“I know, I know. Look, if you want to go with Cesc, why not? You don’t have to drink if you don’t want to, and it’s probably a good idea to learn how they pick up acts in the first place. Cesc should know his way around the place, so he can tell you where to go if it gets too overwhelming,” Paolo said. He patted Kaká on the shoulder. “He’ll probably like you coming along.”
A funny frustrated look flashed over Kaká’s face. Then he turned, because the elevator had beeped to signal it was being held too long, and hit the ‘doors open’ button. He walked out, looking over his shoulder.
Paolo sighed and went after him. A few yards away they came upon a fairly isolated corner and he took Kaká by the arm to stop him. “Listen, I’m sorry if I gave you any bad advice just now. I’m bad at being helpful; that’s why I usually don’t try.”
“No, you’re not,” Kaká said. His mouth quirked in a half-smile and he looked up at Paolo as if he were looking at somebody else. Some self-effacing saint in utero like himself, perhaps. “No, thanks. It’s just—I think I might know what you’re saying. I might be wrong, because I don’t really…Cesc has somebody already. He’s…off the market, I guess you would say?”
Obviously Paolo hadn’t been paying enough attention to Kaká, if the other man was having realizations like that.
A second later, Paolo irritably reprimanded himself. Of course he hadn’t been paying attention. That’d been deliberate and so he could actually, in genuine innocence, take the stance that he hadn’t known. “Ah, I see. Though I’m honestly still a little puzzled—why are you asking about going to Premier, then?”
“I—I’m just—curious,” Kaká stammered. He rubbed hard at his cheek, then pushed the hair off his forehead. “I—never really knew what went on at a closed-call night, but Cesc was telling me…and he invited me to come along. We are friends.”
“Oh. Well, then go. No harm in that.” Paolo watched the other man’s face much more closely this time.
Kaká bit his lip, glancing down and then back up. “He says he’ll be really busy so he can’t really talk to me or show me around, though.”
There was something else, some other reason Kaká couldn’t quite give in to his desire to go, and though it might as well be written on his sleeve, it wasn’t in a language Paolo could read. That was probably for a good reason. Besides, Kaká might not be as worldly as some people, but he generally had good instincts and if he couldn’t convince himself, there was a point in that, too.
Someday, Paolo told himself, he was going to curb this rampant need to try, to experiment that he had. “All right, Kaká. I’ll take pity on you and be your escort. Remind me at the end of the day to dig out my earplugs, would you?”
It was almost stunning the way Kaká brightened, and almost laughable the way he simultaneously ducked his head in shame. “Thank you so much, Paolo. I really appreciate it—I know you’re giving up a lot.”
The ‘almost’ being due to Kaká’s sheer sincerity, which gave his brilliance a dull base and his missteps a favorable gloss. “You probably don’t,” Paolo muttered.
“Nothing. I’ll come by at the end of the day and walk over with you.”
* * *
Paolo looked Kaká up and down. One part of him did secretly—as far as Kaká was concerned, since Paolo wasn’t afraid of enjoying beautiful things—revel in it, but the rest of him was sighing. “We can’t go yet.”
“Why not?” Kaká asked. Then he twitched and looked away. “Oh, I know, I’m not really…Cesc said a suit is fine.”
Well, if they wanted to pretend they were working…and that wasn’t a bad idea, actually. It’d keep other people at bay and maintain a nice, comforting barrier against the blacker parts of Paolo’s sense of humor. “Yes, but lose the tie. And…”
He stepped forward and lifted the lapels of Kaká’s suit-jacket between his fingers. The other man glanced at his hands, frowning. “What are you doing?”
“Trying to decide whether this’ll do as an evening suit.” Paolo reached up and tugged at the knot of Kaká’s tie, then pulled that over Kaká’s head. He handed it to the other man, then went back to rubbing the jacket lapel between thumb and forefinger. A little on the heavy side, and of course the cut was too stuffy, but it was winter. It’d probably be all right. “At night you usually want to go a little lighter, silkier. See—” he picked up Kaká’s free hand and pulled it towards him to run its fingertips over his suit lapel, then pushed it against Kaká’s lapel “—the difference?”
Kaká was still frowning as he lowered his hand. He shook his head as he carefully looped up and tucked his tie away in a pocket, but then he flashed a smile. “No, not really.”
“Then again, you’re not planning on making a habit of this, so I suppose it’s all right. Worrying about your wardrobe is one of society’s more unnecessary costs,” Paolo shrugged. He stepped back, then swept out his arm. “Shall we proceed?”
“Paolo,” Kaká laughed. “You’re being ridiculous.”
“Being ridiculous is a perfectly legal coping mechanism. Saves a lot of trouble during blame assignation.” And resigning himself to what amounted to one of those fairytale dates where everybody had their sexual wants and needs replaced with the tendency to burst into song at inappropriate moments. If Paolo couldn’t make fun of it, he’d have to drink himself through it, and Kaká meant that wasn’t an option. “Maybe you should pull out your shirt-tails.”
They had just turned into the short corridor that held the elevators, which had mirrored doors. Glancing incredulously at Paolo, Kaká stepped up to press the ‘down’ button. Then he moved back to stand rather stiffly. After a moment, he moved his chin up and half-turned his right foot and Paolo suddenly realized what Kaká was awkwardly doing.
“Yours are in,” Kaká abruptly said, looking at Paolo’s reflection.
“Yes, but I’m old and have wrinkles and fat to hide.” Paolo noted the return of the red streaks along Kaká’s cheekbones.
Kaka laughed again, a little more uneasily. In the doors, his reflection turned to gaze at Paolo. “You do not. You’re awful.”
“Stop flattering me,” Paolo said, giving Kaká’s hair a ruffle. He paused to look at the results, then put up his hand again and did some more rearranging over Kaká’s hair over the other man’s weak protests. The boy didn’t use much gel or anything else; his hair felt as soft and silky as the fur of a kitten’s underbelly.
Once Kaká reached up to snatch at Paolo’s wrist, but Paolo twisted it out of the way and in the end, Kaká dropped his arm. His hand fell to Paolo’s shoulder and he pushed weakly at that, pleading half-heartedly with Paolo to let him be. Ignoring him, Paolo twitched and twirled and finally had things mussed enough so that Kaká had somewhat lost the pristine choirboy air. Well, the pristine part—hopefully it’d dampen down on Kaká’s magnetic innocence.
“What’d you do to me?” Kaká asked. He sounded a little short of breath, his mouth half-parted even when he wasn’t speaking. He looked at Paolo, shot a wondering glance at the doors, which were finally opening, and then went back to looking at Paolo.
Who knew very well what that pang in his gut was, and who was really, truly too old for this. “Just freshened you up, Kaká. Elevator.”
“What?” Kaká glanced, then made a noise from the ‘eep’ family and dove inside to hold the doors. “Oh!”
Paolo wondered if he could possibly sneak a tiny glass of something, just to make sure all the stiffness stayed in his spine.
* * *
Ruud appeared to be concentrating on pop, which meant that at least the acts auditioning tonight had some sense of melody. It still wasn’t what Paolo would’ve had piped over a state-of-the-art volume-pumping sound system, but it was tolerable.
“Cesc said he’d be backstage most of the time,” Kaká shouted. He gesticulated a good deal more broadly than was strictly necessary and leaned so close that Paolo could feel how his breath divided up into words. “Paolo?”
“I heard you.” The combination of lip-reading and mild precognition needed for successful communication in a place like a nightclub was, apparently, one of those skills that was impossible to lose. Though clearly Kaká hadn’t gotten the hang of it yet; Paolo repeated himself more loudly. Then he took Kaká by the arm and pulled him towards the wall.
He kept Kaká between himself and that as they moved towards the back-hallways, which more or less let him intercept any approaches. In the five minutes it took them to get there, Paolo was groped more times than he’d ever been back when he’d been young enough for people to call his eyes ‘beautiful’ instead of ‘interesting.’ Of course, they’d all been meant for Kaká. He mentally shook his head at Fŕbregas; that one wasn’t so stupid, so how on earth did he expect Kaká to ever make his way around Premier without help?
Of course, the answer was obvious once it was handed to Paolo a few moments later: Cesc stopped, stared wide-eyed, and then whirled to impetuously hug Kaká when he saw them. “Ricky! I thought you never came to these things.”
“Well…” Kaká started. He hugged back, smiling, but he’d hesitated a telling second.
Cesc hadn’t missed Paolo, but he didn’t comment on it, which showed a remarkable degree of maturity for his age. He also didn’t let Kaká get in a word, which was probably just garden-variety calculation. “I’m really glad you came, though. Hope the music’s not too terrible. Ruud’s upstairs watching from one of the private rooms because there’s better view and sound, and I’ve got to run some stuff up to him. Are you thirsty? Hungry? The VIP room down the hall’s serving stuff, so help yourselves, okay? See you in a bit.”
Then he bustled off, leaving Kaká staring after him with mouth a bit agape and arms still half-raised. After a moment, Kaká put down his arms and shook his head. “Sorry. I didn’t—”
“No, that’s how it always is. I bet by the end of the night, Cesc would’ve run through the soles of those nice shoes he has on,” Paolo generously said. It didn’t appear as if Cesc was leading Kaká on, and he couldn’t fault the other man for being polite. “I could use a snack, actually. You?”
“I did eat dinner, but I’ll come and keep you company,” Kaká replied. Speaking of polite…
“A loaf of bread, a bottle of wine and thou…” Paolo dismissively rolled his eyes when Kaká gave him a questioning look. “Oh, don’t mind me. My mind’s just wandering again.”
Kaká snorted, which like everything else was terribly attractive on him, and fell into step with Paolo. “You pretend to be so old when you’re not. I can’t understand it.”
“Old and wise logically follow each other, so perhaps I’m hoping that the act becomes the reality,” Paolo said. He reached out and brushed aside a lock of Kaká’s hair that appeared to be giving the other man some visual trouble. “For example, I should’ve left myself enough time to eat a proper dinner and I doubt they’ll have more than hors d’oeuvres. Oh, no, not your fault. Completely mine. But we’ll see—maybe I can still sustain myself on little crackers and pastes.”
* * *
A couple of the agents with whom Paolo had previously worked were milling around and they, being professionals beneath the excessive partying and debauchery, all came over to say hello. It was a good idea to stay on good terms with the man who kept them out of jail, after all.
It took a good twenty minutes to get through them all, and then Paolo discovered he’d lost Kaká. He stood where he was for a moment, looking around, but people weren’t clumped into the tight gossipy knots they would’ve been if Kaká had been taken away so the other man had probably just gotten uncomfortable with the shoptalk and wandered off. He was over twenty and not completely helpless, and the array of hors d’oeuvres did look appealing even if not a single one was bigger than a bird’s mouthful.
Sighing, Paolo picked up a plateful of tidbits and then went back out into the hall to track down his errant date. He munched on some smoked salmon thing as he tried the area near the security room, which was quietest. He did spot a tall, lean figure ahead of him and quickened his step, but a second before a bulkier figure stepped out between them, he realized the first man was wearing a casual zippered jacket.
Then the second man happened to turn into the light as he stopped the first man, and Paolo was sure. Kaká certainly wouldn’t be grabbing Jens Lehmann by the waist and tipping up a chin to flash a pale throat at him.
“Ribs,” he heard Jens snap. “Five weeks to go.”
“I’m not asking you to fuck me against the wall here. I just—” He stopped and turned towards Paolo. Early twenties, good eyes and cheekbones, a petulant kind of mouth that easily converted to a wide, white smile. The man moved a bit stiffly, but still had a nonchalant sensuality to him. Had to be the rumored boyfriend.
Jens raised an eyebrow when he saw who it was. He was keeping a good fifteen centimeters between himself and his would-be assaulter, but his hands were firmly on the other man’s sides. “Paolo. I don’t think I’ve seen you down here in years.”
“My younger colleagues have informed me I needed to put in an appearance before the bouncers forgot what I looked like. I was looking for a wet bar—hoping I didn’t have to go out there for a nightcap,” Paolo said. He determinedly ignored whatever Jens’ companion was whispering in Jens’ ear, both the sound and the action of it.
“Go down to the end of the hall and take a left. Second door on that side,” Jens coolly said.
Paolo thanked him and went on in that direction, which probably wasn’t going to yield up Kaká since it led back to the dancefloor. But for the sake of appearances, Paolo would go at least around the corner. He resisted the urge to glance back, even when a low moan cut under the driving beat pounding the air around him.
After he’d taken the turn, he went on past the door Jens had pointed out. The muffled sounds of clinking glasses and laughter filtered through it, seriously tempting Paolo—but no, he was past walking into roomfuls of strangers and making himself at home. Remembering what Fŕbregas had said, he instead headed towards the second-floor private rooms.
Two ways were possible: one would take Paolo through the dancefloor, and one would loop behind the stage. The second one was longer and meant he’d have to go so close to the speakers that he’d be lucky not to have a few teeth rattled out, but in the end he elected that one.
He’d just finished his food when he reached the beginning of the corridor that’d take him past the woofers; he could feel the tiny bones in his ears rattling, and when he put one hand on the wall for balance, it was palpably shaking. Paolo dropped his plate in a trashcan, then started to turn and almost rammed his shoulder into someone. “Sorry…” he said in Italian. Then he reconsidered and repeated himself in English.
“Oh, so sorry. I didn’t see you at all. My apologies,” somebody gasped. Spanish, voice roughened because he was trying to catch his breath and scramble at the same time. He raised his head just long enough for Paolo to get a look at his face—intense eyes and brows, thin lips, sandy hair—before a black blur cannonaded into him sideways, sending him stumbling down the hall.
Cesc’s head separated itself from the tangle and lifted, eyes alert and sparkling. He grinned madly and hugged the other man tighter when he spotted Paolo; his tie was around the other man’s neck, and he had one hand prominently digging in his friend’s trouser-pocket. “Mr. Maldini! Hi! Were you looking for something? The only thing back there’s the woofer controls.”
“I’m just passing through, so don’t mind me.” The beat pounding through the walls suddenly changed, startling Paolo into a short quickstep. He composed himself and then smiled back. “Fond of this beat, are you? It does have that pelvic quality.”
The man with Cesc turned scarlet enough to light up the dim space, and even Cesc may have pinked a bit. But he just laughed and said he needed to report back to Ruud on the vibrational quality—cheeky little bastard—and dragged his friend off before Paolo could see exactly how deep into his pocket Cesc’s hand was.
Shaking his head, Paolo stepped into the hallway beyond. Fŕbregas wasn’t the first by far to thank God for the invention of the drum machine, and he certainly…
…near the other end of the hallway, somebody suddenly took a step back. Paolo paused, considering the chances, then sighed. Of course. Never mind the objective improbability; the limited range of emotional variables made it almost inevitable that the wrong person would always walk into a dark tunnel at the wrong time.
Kaká did have enough dignity to wait in place instead of running away. He made an attempt to act as if nothing had happened, but his hands were jammed in his pockets and even that wasn’t enough to hide their fidgeting. “Were you looking for me? I’m sorry I left, but you seemed busy and I was looking for the men’s toilet…”
“Probably just as well you didn’t find that either,” Paolo said, cursing himself for not giving any warnings about dark corners in nightclubs.
“What?” Kaká asked. He raised his voice to nearly shouting; the tremble in it became more pronounced, clashing badly with the drumbeat steadily resonating around them.
Paolo started to repeat himself more loudly, then stopped and instead put a hand on Kaká’s arm. The other man flinched, then shook himself like a rattled dog trying to reassure itself after a scare. He opened his mouth and Paolo put his finger across it—Kaká twitched again, sharply inhaling so air whizzed by on either side of Paolo’s finger—before pointing at first his eye, then his own mouth.
“Watch.” Under the circumstances, speaking louder was just going to work on Kaká’s nerves even more. Of course, it wasn’t the best time for lip-reading lessons either, but Paolo would work with what he had. “Let’s…go…back. Quieter there.”
He wasn’t sure if Kaká could even catch that, but when he pulled on Kaká’s arm, the other man came readily enough. Perhaps Kaká was just so stunned that he was allowing Paolo to make the decisions, which Paolo supposed would do just as well. It was lucky that it was him and not Juan Kaká had asked, though.
They had to go back past the woofers to get to the exit. It seemed as if Kaká would be all right, but when they’d reached the halfway point, he suddenly stopped and refused to go on. He didn’t give any warning and he damn near yanked Paolo’s arm out of its socket; as it was, the force of the recoil was enough to swing Paolo back to look questioningly at Kaká.
The lights here were a low, unkind yellow that highlighted the dark hollows and gleaming black pupils of Kaká’s eyes. He looked as if he’d been sculpted from brass—him, the golden boy—and he staggered a little under the intense reverb that surrounded them. Then he caught himself against the wall and gazed wildly around, saying something—he wouldn’t turn so Paolo could get a good look at his lips. Though Paolo could guess. “It’s the feeling.”
“What?” Kaká turned to look Paolo face-on, brows drawn down.
“The pressure, the blow--” Paolo hit the wall with his flat palm and watched Kaká recoil as if they could really hear that over the music “—and release, the whole visceral experience. The way it gets in your blood. The humming in your bones.” It was obvious Kaká couldn’t hear a word, so Paolo said exactly what he wanted to say. “The lyrics of everything you ever wanted to say to the beautiful boy or girl you’ve watched forever and the primitive pull of sex in the rhythm. It makes the fuck beautiful. That’s what it’s about.”
A few times, Kaká pursed his lips as he was going to speak, but he never did. At first his eyes flicked between Paolo’s eyes and mouth, but as Paolo went on, his gaze settled on Paolo’s lips and the sheer concentration of it almost made Paolo want to take a step back. Manage the heat, don’t fly too close to a flame. But Kaká didn’t—couldn’t possibly understand, and his ignorance was a blessing, a safety valve to let out some of the tension building in Paolo.
“It’s a very popular dating spot. Dark and noisy to cover up things,” Paolo ended. He lifted his voice a bit for that, just enough so that Kaká would be able to figure out what he’d said. Then he began to turn. “Come on, I think a quieter spot right now would be—”
A hand caught him on the arm, then spun him. Kaká stepped right up to Paolo, brows knitted, and laid two fingertips against Paolo’s upper lip. They were worse than a barrier between Paolo and Kaká’s own mouth, which was bare centimeters away, plumped up by the harsh shadow the light carved out beneath his lower lip.
He licked nervously at it. “What—what else did you just say?”
Paolo forced his eyes up to meet Kaká’s damnably inquisitive stare, which in the end was a bad idea. When he’d been looking at Kaká’s mouth, he could’ve pretended it belonged to any number of stale memories, but looking at Kaká’s eyes, with their hunger of which Kaká couldn’t possibly be conscious, it was impossible not to see the boy. “I’m—I’m a little too hungry right now. I was going to leave and get a late dinner somewhere.”
He took a step back and Kaká pushed forward, his fingers slipping to press into Paolo’s jaw. The hand he had on Paolo’s arm was flexing in time to the bass half-beat. “Wait. Paolo…that wasn’t it. What were you saying? I couldn’t—hear.”
Bobby…Bobby was going to kill him, Paolo thought. Kill him and then serve his remnants up to the board of directors, but well, he’d die with a clear mind. Sometimes things couldn’t be done gently, and he’d done all he could before Kaká had forced the issue.
He opened his mouth and at the same time, twisted his arm around to snag Kaká’s wrists. Paolo pushed them down and back as he turned, quick enough to startle Kaká into stepping backwards; when the other man had lifted his foot and was momentarily off-balance, Paolo shouldered forward and made sure that Kaká’s back hit the wall with a thump he’d feel, if not hear.
Kaká’s eyes widened. His lips parted in a soft gasp—but Paolo restrained himself from going for that easy route. It wasn’t Sleeping Beauty he was about to tell Kaká about, after all. “Paolo—”
Paolo ignored that. He let go of Kaká’s wrists and seized the man’s hips instead, pressing them back into the wall. The bass only came on every third beat now, but when it did, Paolo hitched up Kaká’s hips in time with it. He lined up himself and then stood up on his toes and leaned forward, throwing his weight onto the other man, thigh to thigh and knee to knee: Kaká’s knees were shaking. He’d put up his hands to push at Paolo’s shoulders, but before he could do more than get them positioned, Paolo tugged his hands free of their bodies and grabbed Kaká’s head.
He wrapped his fingers about the curve of Kaká’s neck, stroking his thumbs firmly up alongside the other man’s bobbing Adam’s apple before digging them into the soft flesh beneath the jaw. Not too hard; just enough pressure to make Kaká’s throat tighten. The other man was staring at him, dark soft shocked eyes—Paolo closed his own eyes and drew in a deep breath, pressing his forehead forward so he could feel the slight movements of Kaká’s eyebrows as they arched in surprise. His nose rubbed alongside the other man’s and he breathed in deeply again, smelling the small puff of air Kaká gasped out. He threaded his fingers into Kaká’s hair, letting his thumbs drag along the hairline, dip into the warm smooth shells of Kaká’s ears, and kept his mouth well away from the moist, parted lips he could sense as if they were drawn on the backs of his eyelids in fluorescent pencil.
Kaká shifted his leg and Paolo angled his to push it back, then leaned hard till they were matched from knee to belly. He arched up on the downbeat, driving himself against Kaká, pressing with his fingers to keep the other man’s head from turning, then sagged with a ragged gasp of his own. Kaká sucked in air over his teeth, his hands pushing at Paolo’s shoulders. His head turned into Paolo’s right hand so his mouth momentarily touched the inside of Paolo’s wrist; Paolo immediately crooked it away and then slammed himself forward again on the next beat. This time he felt Kaká give in, then bend into rhythm.
He instantly let go and pushed himself off. Paolo needed a moment to regain his bearings, but that was quicker than Kaká, who was still slumped against the wall, eyelashes fluttering and mouth slackly open, tongue sliding absently over his lower lip. How the hell Kaká wasn’t Bobby’s type--then again, Pirčs was damned lucky that way.
“Where—where are you going?” Kaká weakly said.
Do not, Paolo firmly told himself, think about that mouth. “Dinner.”
He almost offered an apology for abandoning the other man, but that would’ve slowed him down. Anyway, he could be polite but he didn’t have to be, and this was one of those times he didn’t care to employ manners. That’d been the point, after all.
* * *
The waiter just served the second canapé and was walking out the door when there was a sudden commotion. Raised voices. Paolo recognized both and promptly topped up his wine-glass. He picked that up and stood up just as Kaká, breathless and disheveled, burst into the room.
Kaká spoke first. “Why did you do that?”
“Because you wouldn’t let it go. I would’ve been perfectly happy with walking out of that tunnel and sitting you down with some hot tea, but if you’re going to insist on knowing what people do in a hallway of grinding vibrations, then you’re going to find out,” Paolo said. He sounded tired. He was tired, and a little frustrated, and more than a little fed up with the real state of things. It would’ve been nice to be idealistic for a few seconds.
Something changed in Kaká’s face, making its expression…clearer. Sharper. “No, why did you…did you leave?”
“Because I’m not a Spanish heartthrob and I’m not anywhere near your age. And because you just had a shock, Ricardo. Sit down and have the canapé, and by the time you’re done chewing, you’ll remember it’s just sex. It’s not what’s important to you.” Paolo sat back down. He waved at the other chair, took a long swallow of the wine, and then lifted his plate and put it down on Kaká’s side. “Sit. Eat.”
Kaká warily looked at him, which was all Paolo needed to know he’d, God help him, done the right thing. Then he sat down and peered at the little porcelain dish.
“Oysters and pearls. Tapioca pudding, a fresh oyster, and caviar on top. I know it sounds odd, but it’s very good.” Another third of the wine in Paolo’s glass disappeared down his throat, and damned if he wasn’t feeling it at all.
“What do you like about it?” Kaká suddenly asked. Then he jerked his hand up, interrupting Paolo’s attempt to answer. “No, what do you like. I can hear fine here. You can’t—”
“I was a little irresponsible about that. My apologies, but I have told you I’m not nearly as good a person as you are,” Paolo said. He looked at Kaká for a moment, at the set jaw and the fingers dancing restlessly on the tablecloth. Then he sighed and slouched back in his seat. “I like it because of the textures. The pudding is silky around the bumps of the tapioca pearls, the caviar rasps the roof of your mouth, the oyster’s firm and seems to twist a little in your mouth as you bite down on it…it reminds me of sex. And it’s salty, which reminds me of—”
Kaká’s eyebrow rose. So did the color in his cheeks. Brave boy. And now misguided, but that was all Paolo’s fault. “Come?”
“All right, I know that virginity and ignorance aren’t the same thing. Give me some credit, Ricardo. Actually, don’t eat it. There’s vermouth in it.” Paolo drank more wine. “Pass it back.”
“I don’t live in a bubble. I know what goes on—my choice is to not participate myself. I don’t pretend it doesn’t exist and I don’t close my eyes. I—it just does look different on a movie screen or a billboard than when it’s real,” Kaká said. He started out aggressively, but gradually eased back onto the defense. His eyes started to drop and his blush deepened. “I’m sorry, Paolo.”
When Paolo picked up the wine bottle, he discovered that half of it was already gone. Curious…he still wasn’t feeling as drunk as he should’ve and wanted to be. But well, maybe he hadn’t tried enough. He refilled his glass. “You’ve got nothing to apologize about. You’ve made your choices, and for excellent reasons, and I really, genuinely admire your determination to uphold them. I’m sorry I tested you on them, but rest assured in knowing that you’ve passed with flying—”
He stopped. Kaká had a spoon in the little porcelain dish and a resolute look on his face. The other man dug up a good heaping spoonful of pudding, topped by the oyster and some of the caviar garnish, and then put it in his mouth. He took out the spoon and put it down as he chewed thoughtfully; like always, his feelings were easy to read from his face and Paolo saw surprise, pleasure, embarrassed understanding. Desire.
The second time, Kaká picked up his spoon a good deal quicker so Paolo had to hurry to take back the dish. He knocked over his water-glass as he did and cursed, hastily dropping the dish on a clear spot so he could right the glass before the tablecloth sopped up too much water.
“I know you’re not Spanish,” Kaká said.
“I can’t marry you, either.” Paolo paused. “I wouldn’t want to marry you, so forget about flying to Spain or the Netherlands or…never mind. It doesn’t mean to me what it does to you.”
Kaká looked irritated. “Why does everyone assume they know what things mean to me? Or what I know about things? I don’t need to be protected. I can decide for myself what I’m going to avoid.”
“Well. All right. Of course, I’d like to say that whatever the state of one party, it still takes the consent of both and I’m currently withholding mine,” Paolo muttered. He lifted his glass and drank deeply from it. Over its rim, he saw Kaká get up and move around the table, and so he didn’t swallow. He just held the wine in his mouth, letting his cheeks bulge a little to make sure that Kaká saw.
He probably looked like a clown, even if Kaká was staring down at him as seriously as he’d look at a holy relic.
“Why?” Kaká asked.
Paolo’s mouth was conveniently full. He pointed at it and in return had the novel experience of seeing Kaká actually huff in irritation. Kaká glanced off to the side and started to say something, but cut himself off. He looked back at Paolo, his annoyance fading in favor of nervous determination.
He started to get down, but partly lost his balance on the way and made a grab for the table and the arm of Paolo’s chair. Startled, Paolo instinctively reached out one hand. He also swallowed some of the wine, which was beginning to taste sour in his mouth, but managed to get hold of himself. Kaká might have a grip on his forearm, but that was all he was getting.
“I sat and ate, and I thought about it,” Kaká said. He put his other hand on the chair-arm. Bent the way he was, his back already had to be aching, but he seemed completely focused on Paolo. “And it wasn’t even Cesc all this time. He just reminded me of you—of how you make fun of things, but you really do care underneath. How you pretend not to work but you juggle more cases than anybody else. I do make my choices, and—”
He leaned forward. Paolo accidentally gulped the wine a moment before their mouths touched because he was trying to get out of the way, but Kaká grabbed him by the shoulders and it was unavoidable. He had one taste of Kaká’s lips, and even with the acid wine lingering on his tongue, he couldn’t help falling for it. Classic misstep.
He sat back down and put his hands on Kaká’s sides, then slid them down to the other man’s waist. Kaká leaned forward, trying to balance himself, and then slipped so his weight landed on Paolo’s knee. It was a bit more than that joint could really take, but Paolo told it to put up with it for a moment and wrapped his arm around Kaká, helping him sit more firmly; creaky knees were nothing in the face of damnation wrapped up in innocence.
At first Kaká was surprisingly aggressive. He wasn’t that bad, either—he’d gotten out on a few dates, apparently—but once Paolo stroked his tongue over the other man’s lower lip and into his mouth, he sagged down with a moan. His head went back and he opened his mouth wider, all but begging Paolo to plunder it.
Paolo somehow managed to wrench himself away, even if he couldn’t convince his arm to take itself away from Kaká’s pliant leanness. He tried not to look too long at the dazed expression on Kaká’s face as he reached for his wine-glass again. “This isn’t going to work, Ricardo. I’d like to fuck you and I can’t wait for years and years. Frankly, the only way it did work was when I knew that I couldn’t proposition you in the slightest.”
“Okay,” Kaká said. He gasped a couple times to catch up on his breath, then dropped his arm around Paolo’s neck. He used that to hitch himself up, then looked Paolo in the eye. “No, I want—I want you to.” He did stutter a little, but his gaze didn’t waver. “Take me to—to bed.”
“Excuse the language, but how the hell do you know I’m it? I’m worth all the trouble, all the…for all you know, two months from you I could say ‘thanks, you were great’ and throw you out,” Paolo snapped. He heaved at Kaká, but the other man was too weighty to shift. So he jerked the wine towards him instead.
And Kaká reached out and pushed his hand from Paolo’s elbow to his wrist, then curled around to tease the glass-stem from Paolo’s fingers. He put the glass back on the table. “Because I know.”
“You do realize I’ve said that to people before. And done it. And not regretted it much. Fŕbregas probably would be better for you than I would.” Paolo tipped back his head and looked closely at Kaká. He sighed when he didn’t see any change, and shaking his head, reached for his glass again. “I also enjoy my wine, thank you.”
“I’m not—” Kaká irritably exhaled, then abruptly grabbed the wine-glass and drained it. It was only a quarter-full by then, but the force of it was still visible in Kaká’s face. He went very still for a few moments, just breathing slowly, and then carefully resettled himself on top of Paolo. “That—that is the only time I’m going to drink wine, and the only time I’ll do it to keep you from having it. I need you to understand that I’m not going to demand you change. You’re the only one who can do that. But I—to me, you’re worth it. You’re why I’ve waited. Whatever happens later, I refuse to regret my decision.”
Paolo—saw a lost cause. He lifted his hand and gingerly touched the side of Kaká’s face, trailing his fingertips over the high cheekbones, the dark brows, the finely-molded jaw. Watched the light in Kaká’s eyes change, darkening and turning intimate, and the way the other man’s long, silky lashes lowered. “Matters of the heart aside, I need to eat and then I need to sleep. I’m not young enough to stay up all night now. So you’ve got one last chance to come to your senses.”
Kaká closed his eyes completely and tipped his head, just a little, and Paolo did help himself to a second kiss. Then he pushed and Kaká got off to go back to his own seat. He did so slowly, gazing with absolute certainty at Paolo. “I’ve made up my mind.”
“Well, for my peace of mind, we’re going to put this off till the morning,” Paolo said. He reached for the wine-bottle, then pulled his hand back and instead buzzed for the waiter. He took a deep breath before raising his head and smiling at Kaká. “Did you want to try anything else? The sweetbreads are quite good.”
A moment of confusion, which was shorter than Paolo had expected. Then Kaká put up one arm and rested his chin on his hand, smiling back. “If you say they are, then I’ll have a little. But I’m really not that hungry.”
“We’ll see,” Paolo muttered. “We’ll see.”
* * *
The next morning, Paolo got up and brushed his teeth, washed his face. Dressed himself except for his socks. Walked barefoot into the kitchen and watered his plants, started cooking sausages for breakfast. Remembered about the paper and went to the front door to check if it’d been sent up yet, only to find a rumpled Brazilian man with the face of an angel and a cardboard carry-tray of coffee standing there.
“You did go home, didn’t you?” Paolo asked.
Kaká looked embarrassed and pushed at his wrinkled shirt. “Yes. I just…I need to do my laundry. But I wanted to come over first, since it’s the morning.” His clothes-brushing took on a nervous quality, and he kept looking at Paolo’s feet. “Can I come in?”
It was a hell of a time for Paolo to find out he couldn’t gracefully surrender to the inevitable. So much for avoiding difficult heroics. “I’m still not convinced.”
“I…thought that might happen. I was hoping, but…” Kaká shrugged, then stiffened his shoulders and lifted his jaw “…so I brought coffee. I want to talk to you about it.”
“Do you really think you can talk me into it?” Paolo snorted.
He regretted it when a pained expression came over Kaká’s face. “Paolo, I—I meant what I said about not talking you into things. But I want to talk. And whatever your decision is, mine hasn’t changed. Maybe you wouldn’t marry me, but to me, marriage is a vow, not a ceremony. And I’ve just taken one.”
Paolo briefly closed his eyes, asking God to help him out just this one time. Of course he remembered his record and knew the probabilities, but God supposedly accepted all penances no matter what the timing, didn’t he?
Except when he opened his eyes, Kaká was still there and still gazing at him like that. He opened his mouth, shut it, and finally just took the carry-tray from the other man. “Come in,” he quietly said. Then he put up his hand to stop Kaká when the other man was halfway over the threshold. “Don’t expect much.”
Kaká just looked at him, and for a moment, it seemed like Kaká knew everything and Paolo knew nothing. Then Kaká leaned over and his lips brushed like angel feathers over Paolo’s cheek. He stepped all the way inside. Paolo shut the door, cursing beneath his breath.