|To Be Free
Author: Guede Mazaka
A half-second too soon for the beat, she closed her mouth and pirouetted in place. Faux-vinyl skirt…skittering around her. She took a deep breath, smiled uncertainly and peered out at the row beyond the floodlights. “Well…I’m, um, not sure what to do now. Like I said, this is my first audition.”
Ruud sank lower in his seat. “Pray that it’s her last.”
Cesc took a little too long to respond. At first Ruud thought that that was because the other man was busily scribbling notes. That definitely looked like what Cesc was doing, but then he bent forward and the light glinted off something in his ear. He picked up on it and darted a wary glance at Ruud that instantly turned into a wide-eyed jerk when he saw Ruud looking back. Then he grinned sheepishly and pulled out the ear-bud as he turned towards the stage. “Oh, thanks! Exit right, and make sure to get your coat back from the front desk!”
The girl smiled more widely and walked off without a complaint or a last plea or a tearful, screaming breakdown about more chances and sore throats and her greatest-most-important dream from when she was an embryo in her mother’s belly. “I really should just let you run these,” Ruud said. “Minus ten.”
“Mmm.” The earbud went back in as Cesc pressed the button to signal for the next one to go on-stage. “Um…this actually isn’t going to be something we’re regularly doing, is it?”
Which reminded Ruud of why they were doing it in the first place and instantly turned his exasperated mood sour. “No…call back-stage and tell them this one’s the last for the morning. We’re already five minutes over from when we were supposed to break.”
“They said there’s a ton waiting back there,” Cesc said. He was already reaching for his phone, which said where his opinion fell.
“So they can schedule for another audition day.” Ruud slipped out his PDA and checked for new emails, but all a quick scroll showed him were two messages from Ljungberg, a bunch of nonsense emails from various flunkeys of various minor people in the industry, and…the bottom line flashed, then settled down to show the newest email. From Deco.
Cesc said something. Then he repeated it, only with a stronger inflection of concern in his voice.
“No…I don’t know if we’ll be doing tomorrow’s as well,” Ruud said, unfreezing. He locked his PDA and put it away, then got up. “Take care of this one, all right? I need a piss.”
Deco. Deco never emailed him for business reasons. He either phoned or he passed a message through Cesc, who for some reason seemed to think the man was all right. Well, Ruud supposed he was, for somebody who had ice-water for blood. So much for his seeming concern with Ruud; he’d barely left the country with Cristiano before the mind-games had started. Which…did make him a good agent.
Ruud did go to the toilets, but only to get a drink of water from the fountain outside them. He rinsed out his mouth a few times as he got out his cell-phone. Then he stepped into a small alcove as the call went through.
*I hope you’re calling because you’ve discovered the next Madonna,* Jens growled.
“Sorry, did I interrupt Robin?” Ruud said. “He didn’t bite down, did he?”
He was wincing even before he’d finished saying it, but curiously enough, Jens did not instantly blast out Ruud’s eardrums with a shouting rant. Perhaps Van Persie really was there—ever since his ribs had healed, Jens had gotten so much calmer that even the secretaries commented on it.
*You’re being an asshole again. Good, so that idiocy you tried to pull with Raúl—I did not need my doctor unsettled, thank you—wasn’t just a one-off,* Jens finally said.
Ruud checked his watch: he’d been gone a bit long for a toilet run. “I would apologize to him if he’d take it, but if he would have, then you would’ve made me do that before assigning me to cattle-call duty.”
*And I’ll stop giving you it when you start remembering to be an asshole to people who don’t work for me.* Pause. Jens was beginning to enjoy this, judging from how pleasant his tone had become. *I assume that that was why you were calling.*
“I don’t exactly have a chance to be an asshole to anybody else,” Ruud muttered after a moment. He looked around, but the halls were clear, and they also lacked any particularly interesting sights. He tried to resist for a few seconds longer, reminding himself that Cesc was in the auditorium and all he had to do was ask Cesc what he thought of the newest releases and the other man would offer plenty of distraction.
But in the end, he couldn’t hold out. He took out his PDA, went to Deco’s email and opened it up, knowing that he was already in a terrible mood and that it’d make it worse, and that he probably was going to want to do something very stupid afterward.
*Are you asking for something?* Somebody, probably David, said something in the background and Jens’ hand rasped over the phone as he covered it to answer. Then he came back on. *Ruud?*
It was devilishly simple, really. Just a picture of Cristiano in some little sushi place, perched on a stool and awkwardly holding a pair of chopsticks. It was clearly recent because Cristiano’s dark roots were longer, and some of his highlights had been cut out by his latest trip to the hairdresser’s. And candid, because his hair was mussed and ungelled, and while he might occasionally go color-blind, he’d never let the public see him without perfect hair. And he was smiling, bright and happy and unguarded, like when Ruud had first met him.
His thumb moved before Ruud really thought about it, and by then he’d already deleted the email. Well—no, he’d moved it to the Trash folder. He could still restore it if he wanted. And…he decided that no, he didn’t. Maybe he couldn’t smile yet, but he was past the pathetic moping stage. “I haven’t turned up a good prospect in months, and you took Victoria Beckham off me as well, so that leaves me with basically no acts. Let me start going out of town on scouting trips again or give me a project, or just lose more money on me.”
Jens didn’t answer for a while. At least, not to Ruud. People were audibly going in and out of his office and he barked at plenty of them, but he took his time getting back to Ruud. And when he did…*Where are you having lunch?*
In the office, Ruud started to say, but then he changed his mind. Cesc was still watching him like a hawk, and much as he’d appreciated it, he needed to stop relying on that as well. Not to mention that Cesc wouldn’t be able to keep himself from helping, and if Jens was leaning the way Ruud hoped he was, then Cesc needed to stay out of it. If nothing else, so that Raúl wouldn’t complain to Jens again. “Ah…Corazón.”
*There? That’s far,* Jens absently commented. Papers were being rapidly shuffled in the background.
A little bit too late, it occurred to Ruud that Jens might very well know in whose family that restaurant was, but he couldn’t exactly take it back. He wasn’t quite sure why he’d said it anyway, besides the fact that he’d been trying to think of a place he didn’t often go to and it’d popped into his head first. “So it’s unlikely that the gossip columnists will be looking for either of us there. I saw the morning’s paper.”
*Thanks for thinking of me, but I doubt they’d make that kind of assumption if I were eating with you. She was a bit more clean-shaven.* Acerbic enough, but it didn’t seem as if Jens were going to call Ruud on anything else. “Three-thirty sharp, then.*
The phone clicked off, leaving Ruud in the empty hallway with only the distant chattering of the auditionees to keep his thoughts company. He had the distinct feeling that he was balancing a crystal glass on a knife-blade.
“Ruud?” Cesc’s head popped out of the door, pen stuck behind one ear and loosened collar pulled down to show a small bite-mark on his throat. “We’re done. Where to now?”
“Jens wants to meet me at Corazón—can you get reservations there for a late lunch? Three-ish? After that, you can head on back to the office.” It felt like Ruud was keeping a straight enough face.
“Okay,” Cesc said after a moment. He blinked a few times, then pulled out his phone. “It’s in my family, or did you—”
Ruud thought he did a fairly good approximation of a surprised grimace. “Oh, right, yes. I wonder…well, Jens got a lot of publicity over his date to the British awards. I suppose he’s hoping we can keep the paparazzi out of Corazón.”
“On it.” Cesc wandered off, already talking in Spanish, without the slightest hint of suspicion. So his cousin had never mentioned that conversation to him.
All the worrying was a bit of a moot point if José had since decided to take all of that back anyway, Ruud thought. He’d hold the man to that offer of a free meal, but for the rest, he’d just…wait and see.
* * *
“It’s a very simple thing!” Cristiano snapped. His palms slapped on the table hard enough to set it to rocking and the people standing across from him to nervously twitching. “I come here, I put on an amazing, an incredible, the best show of the year for you and I make your bank accounts swell like—”
Deco tuned that out and finished his email to the stage manager. Much as he’d improved, Cristiano’s flair for the dramatic still tended to take an embarrassingly gutter-level turn.
“—and all I want in return is to come back to my dressing room, have a nice cool drink of Evian, and know that I have a safe ride back to the hotel. A hired car going through the public parking lot is not a safe ride!” Eyes rolling back into his head, Cristiano pushed off the table and dropped back into his seat, completely spent from the effort of making his protest. He wiped at his forehead in such a way that everybody watching could feel sweat beading on their own skin from the energy needed, then looked appealingly at…
“So what alternative can you offer us?” Deco amiably said.
Cue the apologies, the thinly-veiled bribes, all of that nonsense. Fifteen minutes later they were in what was probably the venue manager’s Aston Martin and slipping down a back-alley, and Cristiano was a languid bundle of smugness draped in the corner. “You know, this is actually quite fun.”
“I thought so.” One more week till the tour was over, and then they’d be back at FC. Unexpectedly enough, Deco wasn’t looking forward to that so much now. Ever since that odd moment where Cristiano had invaded his bedroom, the other man had been not only cooperative, but also positively relishing the idea of learning to outwit industry sharks. He still didn’t have that fine finish and that was why they played the double-team, but he was beginning to turn into somebody to really watch.
“It isn’t so hard after all, you know…the way Ruud went around, I really thought that there was some kind of science to it, or something like that,” Cristiano continued, slowly sliding down the seat. His knees went forward till they bumped the back of the driver’s seat, his shirt riding up to show a strip of belly, still golden despite the lack of sun where they’d been traveling.
Between that and the fact that Cristiano was still wearing most of his stage outfit—tight leather and flimsy gauze—it was a good picture of sensual content. Deco flipped up his phone and snapped the shot.
“You’re not sending that to my mother, are you?” Cristiano lazily stretched his arms over his head, yawning. Then he put them down and in the process sent himself slouching another few centimeters. “I know she’s glad for the updates, but I don’t think she likes what wardrobe’s been putting me in recently.”
“No, these are for your fansites.” After taking a few more, Deco went to the Recent Photo folder and deliberated for a few seconds over which one gave off the strongest impression of post-coital glow. Then he emailed that one to Ruud.
A flash of white. Then Cristiano turned his head towards the window, but his shoulders were shaking in a tell-tale way. “I bet you’re lying again and you’re really mailing them to…oh, I don’t know. Lehmann, just so he knows FC’s not going to get embarrassed with another ‘Cristiano wears plaid! Star singer has public breakdown!’ week in the tabloids.”
“I’m glad you can laugh about that. Do you know how difficult it is to kill a situation like that? You’re going to see that photo in every damn retrospective on you from now on,” Deco muttered. He closed the photo folder and went back to reviewing all the messages he’d missed while arguing with those stupid venue people.
He was just about to open one from Jens’ assistant when something bumped his knee. Deco paused, then glanced down at Cristiano.
“You’re getting gel on my suit,” he finally said.
Cristiano rolled his eyes and continued making himself at home, his head shoving at Deco’s knee till Deco was trapped in the corner and his knees bumping into the leather seat and the silver door-handle. “A new suit is like point-zero-five percent of your daily cut. Listen, I want to talk about when we get back. Did they ever finish negotiating for my new apartment?”
Deco looked at him.
And Cristiano looked back, lip faintly curled. “I’m no math whiz, but I can use a fucking calculator. And I can make the water-bottle girl highlight all the numbers in your contract so I can read it without getting stuck in the unimportant sections.”
“The sale for your house was only just finalized. I’d advise holding off on getting another permanent place right now—all the real estate people still think you’re going nuts over a break-up and are going to treat you like an easy mark.” When Deco moved his knee and crossed his legs, the glare from the top light caught a slight slick on his trousers. He rubbed at it and looked up at the driver; this car didn’t have a glass divider, but he’d hired this man in part because he didn’t speak Portuguese. “I don’t know if you want to keep living in town anyway. It puts us smack in the middle of all the label politics, and I hear that’s gotten messy lately. Why not—”
“Why do you want to go back to Portugal so badly? Hmm?” Cristiano raised his eyebrows. Then he shrugged and rolled over onto one arm before pushing himself up. “I’m only just learning how much agents and labels really do, and the more I do, the more stupid it seems to be where I can’t watch them.”
How had the water-bottle girl gotten a copy of his contract? Deco wondered. So technically Cristiano had access to it…so at the time it’d been signed, he hadn’t shown much interest and so Deco had had all copies stored out of reach. Unless Cristiano had magically managed to make friends with FC people while in another country, and when anybody over there who’d met him for more than two seconds would rather eat shit than help him out. “I don’t want to go back to Portugal. But that’s where most of your industry supporters are.”
“That’s not where the fight is, and if they can’t come over and help me where the battle actually is, then they’re not much use, are they?” Cristiano snorted. He began to tease his hair back into shape with his fingers. “What’s going on, anyway? It sounds like there’s a gang war going on in the slums.”
Deco frowned at him. “It’s at management-level. It’s not your fight.”
“Yeah, sure, and I’m not from Madeira.” Cristiano started to roll his eyes, then stopped. He leaned forward and looked more closely at Deco, then laughed grimly. “Oh, Ruud never really told you all about MU, did he? I bet you did a lot of research, but trust me, the really important parts only happened when it was me, him and Alex Ferguson in the room.”
Second time he’d mentioned Ruud, and after a couple weeks of none at all. “Then it’s Ruud’s problem. He brought you over with him.”
“Bullshit,” Cristiano snapped. He jerked himself around to face forward, then restlessly pulled at his shirt and belt. “Why don’t you ask about it first before you make judgments?”
“Why don’t you stop thinking you’re some damn warrior? You’re a singer. You make music. Stick to what you know, or else I can’t be held responsible for your injuries.” Though even as Deco was saying it, he knew the words weren’t hitting home. And not merely because Cristiano didn’t want to listen; a disturbingly knowing smile was playing around the other man’s lips and he had an air of confidence to match. “I’ll ask Ruud when we get back. I doubt you knew enough to listen during the important sections when it was happening.”
That did get through and Cristiano did flinch, but he got over it with commendable speed. He didn’t resort to some quick comeback either, but instead sat and thought for nearly a minute in unnerving stillness. Then he turned around with pointed deliberateness and an unreadable expression.
“I’d like to see Ruud when we get back.” He waited a moment, but his newfound gamesmanship couldn’t yet outlast Deco. “You didn’t think I’d forgotten, did you?”
“You can try getting in his schedule, if you like,” Deco said, tone precisely neutral. He shrugged the shoulder closest to Cristiano. “I understand he’s extremely busy now.”
Cristiano had to visibly restrain himself, but in the end, all he did was turn a stiff back to Deco. “You’re an asshole,” he mumbled. “I will try.”
Back to the five-year-old, Deco thought with some relief. “Go ahead. I’ll be busy working on your U. S. release dates.”
* * *
Ricardo took off his glasses and rubbed at the speck on the right lenses with his sleeve, then started to put them back on. A brownish glimmer caught his eye and he paused, only to startle nearly out of his chair when something warm and slightly damp pressed against the back of his neck. In almost the same second, a hand dropped down on his arm and held him in his chair.
“Working through lunch and making the rest of us look bad, as usual,” Paolo murmured into Ricardo’s ear. He patted a still-frozen Ricardo on the elbow and came around to the front, where he stood poking at the neat piles of paper on Ricardo’s desk. “These look like summations. They can’t possibly be more interesting than lunch at the newest exclusive Italian restaurant in town.”
“Oh…oh. Paolo, I’m so sorry, I completely forgot—” Ricardo stammered. The page he’d been currently reading dropped from his fingers and onto the desk, causing enough of a draft to send the top few sheets of one pile askew. He reached out to straighten it, then pulled back his hand with an irritated shake of his head.
He started to shake his head, anyway. It only took one jerk for him to suddenly remember his glasses were hanging from one ear; the frame bumped his chin and he hastily reached up to straighten those out. Not only had he completely lost track of time, but now he was also—
Paolo lifted one hand and pulled off Ricardo’s glasses, turning them over once before folding the ear-pieces down. His longest finger could nearly stretch across both lenses, but it bent and slipped over the gleaming enamel with easy grace. All his fingers did…from putting the glasses down on the desk to rising towards Ricardo’s face, and Ricardo belatedly shook himself out of his flustered daze only to pitch directly into another one when Paolo kissed him, those same fingers stroking over his jaw and throat in exactly the same fashion as they’d his glasses.
“And that’s so you don’t look too upset when I confess I actually came down to cancel that,” Paolo said, drawing back. His hands drifted to Ricardo’s shoulders, then more quickly smoothed down a few centimeters of Ricardo’s suit-jacket before falling away as somebody went by in the hall. “I just heard that Kahn and his girlfriend are eating there, and given the crowd they tend to draw, a cold sandwich from the corner deli sounded like a better idea.”
Ricardo wasn’t upset in the least. To be honest, he wasn’t actually quite there yet and he certainly wasn’t in sharp enough condition to respond quickly to the ever-present secondary meanings in Paolo’ words. He blinked a few times, hoping to speed up his recovery, but just in case he reached out and wrapped his fingers around Paolo’s left wrist. “I’m sorry to hear that, but maybe we could just postpone it till next week? They can’t eat there every day.”
“I think that depends more on how long it is till somebody has the balls to tell that woman a nice voice doesn’t equal a career,” Paolo muttered. He sounded a little annoyed, but in the next second he was smiling, craning his head to look at Ricardo. Then he pushed up Ricardo’s chin with two fingers. “My life doesn’t absolutely depend on getting a reservation at that place. And honestly, if it’ll let Kahn in…don’t blush over his sake, Kaká. I don’t like the man. He’s clumsy and obnoxious.”
“I’m not blushing over him.” Paolo’s two fingers were still lying against the right side of Ricardo’s jaw, slightly rough but butter-melting warm. Ricardo was somewhat aware of the fact that his office had a window—the blinds were drawn, he thankfully remembered—and of the long talk he and Bobby had had about how to have a workplace relationship, but he was having trouble dragging his attention away from Paolo’s smile.
The fingers moved back along Ricardo’s jaw and then down to press into the hollow beneath it, and suddenly Ricardo felt his pulse leap into a loud thud against them. He swallowed and reflexively tightened his grip on Paolo’s hand. The other man tipped his head to the side, then turned his hand and adjusted the knot of Ricardo’s tie. “It’s not over me, is it? I seem to remember cursing a few streaks in front of you.”
“Paolo—” Ricardo’s throat was seizing up, though Paolo actually had loosened his tie “—you—”
Paolo glanced once at him, and the light in Paolo’s eyes wasn’t nearly as light as his expression implied. Then his fingers slipped into Ricardo’s collar, nails grazing the skin till they caught on some—on the cross necklace Ricardo occasionally wore that his mother had given him. The tiny gold links were body-warm, not cold, from lying against him, but the shivering feel of them sliding out made him bite his lip.
“You’re beautiful all the time, but especially when you blush,” Paolo said, voice low and rough and pitched to make the hairs on the back of Ricardo’s neck prickle. He fingered the cross, his knuckles sliding over Ricardo’s breast, before carefully tucking it back in. “I feel bad about making you do it in front of other people, because they just see the embarrassment and usually they turn it even cruder with bad jokes, but when it’s just me looking at it—”
Somebody knocked at the door. Ricardo jumped and ended up so close to Paolo that he had to let go of the other man’s wrist to catch his balance. His fingertips landed on his desk, on top of the cool smooth paper, and Paolo’s palms were suddenly pressing against his ribs—Paolo kissed Ricardo, fast and hard, and then moved Ricardo aside to walk towards the door. He took another one of Ricardo’s startled gasps with him.
“Your usual sandwich?” Paolo called over his shoulder. “Did you want anything to drink?”
“Water,” Ricardo managed to croak out. He was too busy taking deep breaths to really notice Paolo leaving, or who’d entered, before he’d sat back down. Then he looked up and then he jumped again as he found Cesc leaning so far over his desk that their noses were nearly touching.
Cesc snorted and swung back to his side. “He totally came in here and molested you, didn’t he? You should go ambush him during a conference-call sometime and even things up.”
“He didn’t molest me.” Ricardo sat back up, his spine rapidly stiffening with outrage. “He’d never—”
“Oh, man, Ricky, calm down. I didn’t mean it like that.” Cocked head as Cesc’s PDA beeped and he checked it. “Though I stand by it being unfair. You do realize he’s still messing with you, right?”
Honestly…of course Ricardo did. But he’d seen Paolo do far worse to people Paolo genuinely thought deserved it, and he knew what it looked like when Paolo did something because he believed in it and something because he didn’t know what else to do.
And to be utterly truthful, a tiny part of Ricardo more than didn’t mind having that sort of thing done to him. A tiny and growing part, and he was uneasy about that because he wasn’t quite sure whether it was still because it was Paolo and he trusted Paolo or because he just…liked it. He told himself he didn’t have enough experience to really have an opinion on that, and that once he had, he’d be able to winnow good from bad, and that Paolo wouldn’t do anything really awful to him. He told himself that and he’d started praying about it, too.
Cesc looked up at him, then shrugged. “Well, whatever. Anyway…are you going to be in during lunch? Can I ask you for a favor?”
“Sure. If I can help, I’ll—I can’t leave the building. Bobby said he’d be in and out and needs me around,” Ricardo said, belatedly getting back to the present. He rubbed at his cheek, then picked up his glasses. Then he paused and rubbed at his cheek and eye again; the strain of reading fine font for hours and hours was beginning to get to him. He probably needed a longer break. “What is it?”
“Oh, nothing much. This family thing just came up and I need to leave the office for an hour. But I’m supposed to be doing other stuff, like cataloguing demo tapes…if Ruud comes by, can you just say that the last time you saw me, I was headed to the archives?” Cesc asked. He raised his eyebrows and looked pleading. “I mean, it’s half-true. I’m going there really quick to drop off some things before I leave, and I’ll make up all my work later. It’s just my cousin…well, I gotta go. So can you?”
Ricardo thought about it, then shrugged. “Sure. Though I don’t know why he’d ask me…”
“Because Leo’s got a day off and I told Ruud if I’m eating in, I’m usually with him or you. Which is the whole truth—man, you cannot eat up on our floor. You never know what somebody’s been doing on your desk.” Shaking his head, Cesc got up from his chair. He tugged at his tie, then pulled it over his head and carefully rolled it up before sticking it in a pocket. “Speaking of, I dare you to go and catch Paolo in his office.”
“Cesc! I’m not going to—especially not just because you’re daring me.”
“Hey, he knows you’re not going to go away now, but that doesn’t mean he knows he can’t push you around. You don’t have to like, snog him or anything,” Cesc muttered, scruffing at his hair. He pivoted to check his reflection in the window behind Ricardo, frowned, and then mussed himself some more. “Anyway, that doesn’t really say much. Raúl will kiss me to make me shut up or go away or whatever, but I know he’s gonna let me hang around when he lets me drool on his shoulder.”
And that was a very wise and sensible thing Cesc was saying, but even so, Ricardo couldn’t help but make a face. Cesc caught him at it and shot him a grin.
“Raúl lets his laundry go till he’s got like, one pair of track-pants to wear. And then he does the wash in nothing but that.” Dreamy-eyed, Cesc floated out the door.
Ricardo chuckled a little, but it wasn’t long before he could hear a tinge of wistfulness creep into it. Sometimes he wondered just how Cesc had learned to make it look so easy. It must be really nice to already know what to do.
* * *
José looked up from the supplier lists, then lounged back with a smirk on his face. “Maman caught you good, huh.”
Nose wrinkled and hand furiously scrubbing lipstick off his cheek, Cesc just grunted as he kicked the door shut. He pulled at his hair, grumbling about can’t win, if it’s neat they wanted to mess with it and if it’s messy they want to fix it. “At least she didn’t get any on my shirt-collar this time. My God, the number of times I’ve had to explain to people that no, I’m not cheating on them…my aunties just wear bucketloads of lipstick…so hey, did you get my message?”
“Gave them a quiet window seat in the back. Prime location, but private enough for whatever they need to do. Do I need to put the busboys on special cleaning alert, too?” José asked, getting back to the lists. He picked up the nearest pen and started crossing off deliveries already made, then sighed when he realized how few of those there were. So many late, and that meant he was going to be spending half the day yelling at drivers on the phone…Cesc was choking. “You need some water?”
“No,” Cesc croaked. He turned up big, shocked eyes before limply collapsing in the seat opposite José. “Holy mother of God. José, never, ever make me think about Ruud and Jens Lehmann fucking again. Please.”
Oh…kay. José hadn’t met Lehmann in person yet, but he’d seen the man’s photo in the entertainment section of the newspaper, and he thought Lehmann looked all right. And it wasn’t like he knew what Ruud would go for—if the break-up was that bad, then anyone like Cristiano Ronaldo was probably a no-go. And Ronaldo was dark-haired and dark-eyed, and unfortunately was…José grimaced at himself. “Well, I don’t know who’s fucking who. Okay, don’t need to worry about that. Great. Just let the sommelier know what they drink and he’ll comp a couple bottles. Anything else? I’ve got angry phone-calls to make.”
“Don’t jump my boss.”
After a moment, José put down the sheets of paper and dragged his mind out of the minutiae of stocking a restaurant. He looked at Cesc. Cesc stared right back, apparently serious.
“I remember you were staring at him a lot,” Cesc said, stabbing a finger at José. “I told you, Ruud’s still getting over Cristiano. He doesn’t need another personal life crisis. And I’ll tell your mother.”
“Yeah, thanks. Tell her and she’d end up swooning in bed again for a week, like after she found out about you and Raúl. She’s all fine with it now, but you should’ve seen her then.” José still didn’t really like to think about it. Fine, so Raúl and Cesc weren’t that closely related. And Raúl was the youngest of his mother’s brothers. It still was weird to José—Raúl had been old enough to be the one giving them the puberty talk, and explain that no, it was normal to mess up the bedsheets like that. Just…never mind. “Besides, Maman would probably be happy I’m getting out. She’s gotten so desperate she’s setting me up with Sergio’s friends.”
Cesc and José made mutually disgusted faces, but then Cesc shook himself and went back to glaring. “José, you need a fake-date that badly and I can get you one, okay? You don’t need to hit on Ruud.”
“Who said I was going to hit on him?” Honestly. And Cesc couldn’t say otherwise because José knew he looked sincere. Because he was sincere—when he’d gotten the message, he hadn’t even thought about going out on the floor. He’d been too busy thinking about where he could stand and watch without getting caught at it by Ruud or by his many, many family members who were all strangely obsessed with his personal life. “Cesc, I met the guy once. I think he’s really cute. But you know, we were both busy dealing with your breakdown right then, and besides I bet he’s forgotten all about me. He’s an agent, isn’t he?”
For a moment, Cesc was visibly torn. Then his natural urge to crack wise overcame whatever else he’d been feeling—he did seem to really like Ruud. “He’s a guy with a working prick, too. And an ex who’s a flashy dickhead. Listen, José…you’re my cousin and I’ve already seen how Ruud dates people. It’s not pretty. So please don’t turn into his rebound, okay?”
“Who said I wanted to date him?” José incredulously snorted. He heard a muffled shout from the kitchen and called back, then quickly turned to search through his desk for the week’s receipts. “Mother of God, can I just look at a good-looking man without somebody jumping on me for it? It’s not like I’m Sergio.”
“Somebody called?” The door suddenly swung open and Sergio popped in his head. He was smiling, but not in a pleased manner; he’d obviously overheard a big chunk of their conversation. “You know, I’m really, really tired of everybody talking about me like I’m the boogeyman.”
Cesc and José both looked at each other, having another temporary moment of agreement. Then Cesc twisted around, slinging his arm over the back of his chair. “Not the boogeyman, Gitano. Just the randy goat of the family.”
“Funny, Cesc.” Sergio looked nervously back as somebody shouted his name, then eased himself into the room and shut the door. He pulled restlessly at his hair. “José, your mother just tried to cut my hair while I was napping. I swear I didn’t hit her or do anything—I just yelled at her. I mean, it’s my hair!”
José pursed his lips a few times, decided that yes, the day was going downhill, and put his head down on his desk. “God, why must you test me like this?”
“And shut it, Fàbregas. Before you bagged Uncle and that other guy, you were cruising just as much as I was. I just got unlucky,” Sergio muttered.
“Maybe I was, but you were going to places I wouldn’t take an emergency piss in. How’s the chlamydia, anyway?”
Sergio glowered. “Cured, thank you. And I haven’t even kissed anybody since. That’s a good couple of months.”
They weren’t going to leave. They were just going to hang around here and bicker and—José ground his hands into his temples. “Shut up and fuck off. Please. I’ve got work to do. Cesc should have work to do, and…and what the hell are you doing here anyway, Sergio?”
“The pipes in my place burst and flooded everywhere. I need a place to crash till they fix it,” Sergio said. He sounded a bit sheepish.
“Told you that place sucked,” Cesc snorted. “Of course it was cheap—”
“Stop it. Jesus have mercy, but if you’re going to fight like that, go outside. This is my damn office.” José scrunched up his eyes and willed the headache not to show up. Then he lifted his head, only to find the other two looking at him oddly. “What?”
Cesc shrugged. “Nothing, you just sounded a lot like Raúl right then.” He warily glanced at Sergio. “You swear to God you’re not going to bring anybody home and I guess you can stay at my place. I can crash somewhere else.”
Sergio put up his hands and slapped on an angel-face. “I promise on my mother’s grave.”
Rolling his eyes, Cesc dug around in his pocket till he had his keys. Then he spent a couple seconds struggling with it till Sergio rolled his own eyes, grabbed it from him, and had a pair of keys separated from the rest before José could blink. Cesc snatched them back, still looking dubious. “Your mother’s not dead yet.”
“No, but she does want to meet this other boyfriend of yours and Raúl’s. So if you want me to keep telling her that I have no idea—”
José got up, grabbed them both by the arms and shoved them outside. He dusted himself off, stretched out his legs, and for a moment just enjoyed the relative quiet. Then he sighed and sat back down.
The door creaked. When he looked up, Cesc was peering cautiously at him. “Hey…José. I meant what I said, all right? The whole Ruud-Cristiano thing was pretty bad and I wouldn’t want anybody caught in the middle of that.”
“Believe me, I know exactly what you’re talking about. You’re not the only one who’s seen plenty,” José said after a moment. He probably had seen even more than Cesc; for some reason, when they were feeling bad, people loved taking it out on nice public places like restaurants. Never the fuck mind how hard it was on cleaning up afterward.
“Cool. And thanks for the reservations. I know it was really short notice…have no idea why Lehmann wanted here…” Cesc closed the door, already back into his argument with Sergio. Their muffled voices faded very, very slowly as they walked away.
José looked at his hands on the desk for a couple seconds, then shook his head and picked up the phone. No, he didn’t want to date Ruud. He didn’t want to get into that kind of mess—he really didn’t. But standing and watching from the back…sometimes he did wonder if it was at least worth all the drama. If it at least was a good fuck. If they at least weren’t bored to death.
“Hello? It’s José Reyes at Corazón…no, put—no, I know your fat-ass manager is there and you’re going to put him on now…”
* * *
Ruud had just gotten out of his car in Corazón’s parking lot when his phone rang. He flipped it out while he locked the door, then looked at the ID: Deco’s phone number.
A sudden, sharp urge to drop the phone and grind his heel into it till it was crunched into a thousand pieces went through him. He sucked in a breath through gritted teeth…and was surprised to find that his rage died down as quickly as he did. By now, getting this kind of shit wasn’t such a surprise anymore, and the pain and fury was something he inevitably got used to. He put the phone up to his ear and started across the lot. “Flattered as I am that you’re still thinking about me, I’m not exactly sitting around waiting for you to get back to me. I’ve got a meeting to get to.”
*…you and Deco have been talking?* Cristiano’s voice said.
Oh…Ruud froze in place. Something loud sounded near him and it was as muffled as if there were a dozen meters of cotton between him and it. Then it came again, blistering and crystal-clear, and he hastily leaped out of the way of the oncoming car. He barely saw the driver’s obscene gesture as it pulled on out into the road.
*I don’t—God, I don’t believe this. It was bad enough when I found out you helped him practically kidnap me on this tour, but I thought at least you—you—what are you and him planning now? And after I went through the trouble to pinch his phone to call you!*
“That was for your own good,” Ruud finally said. He looked wildly about, spotted a shaded corner behind a decorative topiary tree, and ducked into it just as another car came around the way. “I’m not planning anything, Cris. I just wanted you out of the way before I ruined things even more.”
*Then what have you two been talking about? What do you mean, ‘get back to you’?*
Ruud absently brushed the hair out of his eyes, then shoved his hand into his pocket. He nearly jerked into the tree when a door creaked open nearby, but whoever had come out was deep in conversation with somebody else. “I haven’t been talking. He’s been emailing me pictures of you. You looked…very happy in them.”
*And you sound very disappointed,* Cristiano drawled. But his voice was seething, and something was groaning in the background…he was sitting on a bed. *What? What? Was I supposed to cry and give up and start talking about dying? Deco sent you pictures. He was trying to upset you—he’s a bastard like that. But he’s a smart bastard, and he wouldn’t send you photos of me happy if—*
“No, no, I want you to be—”
*You don’t if you get upset at pictures of it.* Click.
After a long, long moment, Ruud lowered his arm and stared at his phone without seeing it. Instead he saw a white blaze. It was glaring and painful to look into and that was somehow fitting…his hand was beginning to hurt. Somebody was talking, and then he felt a touch on his arm.
Ruud snapped around and slammed them up against the wall, swearing violently in Dutch. His vision flared completely white, then faded back first in shades of red, and then in normal tones. He blinked a few times.
José stared back up at him, eyes wide. His hand was clamped around Ruud’s wrist and he pulled at it a little, trying to loosen the hold Ruud had on his throat, but otherwise he didn’t move. He just watched Ruud, scared but clearly thinking.
Reminded Ruud of Cesc, and then Ruud winced and dropped his hand. “Sorry. I just had an upsetting phone call and didn’t realize it was you.”
“I see,” José grunted. He sounded too choked for Ruud to analyze his tone, and he turned away to rub at his throat, which hid his expression. “Mr. Lehmann’s already waiting inside. If you’ll just come this way…”
“I really am sorry,” Ruud said. Then he thought of his phone and began to look around, only to stand back up when he realized José was leaving. “Look, I didn’t know—”
José stopped with one hand on the door, head bent away from Ruud. Then he sighed and turned back, poking at the ground with one foot. “I know, I know, nobody ever does.” He put his hands in his pockets, but he was so stiff his arms stood out like wooden molding corners. “Oh, here’s your phone.”
He stooped and picked it up, then handed it back to Ruud. Then he started to pull his hand back, but Ruud caught his wrist. “You’re pretty good.”
“At handling entertainment people?” José’s mouth twisted ironically as he pivoted back towards the door, carefully pulling his hand loose as he did. He absently pushed a couple of rocks off the little sidewalk before it as he opened the door. “Yeah, I know. The waiter should’ve taken Lehmann’s drink order by now…did you want to put in yours on the way in? The rosés are very good.”
“I’ll take water,” Ruud said after a moment. He slowly stepped onto the sidewalk and went after the other man.
They emerged into a billowing cloud of steam; Ruud instinctively narrowed his eyes against the hot sting, then waved his hands. A white-coated figure suddenly appeared out of the haze and Ruud hastily stepped out of his way, then looked about for José. He stiffened when his wrist was grabbed, then swiftly spun and put himself right up behind the other man, sliding his hand up to José’s elbow.
“I didn’t bruise you, did I?” he asked, pitching his voice low. Everyone else seemed too busy saucing dishes or tossing things in flaming pans to be paying any attention to them. And his height worked in that favor as well, since most people were used to tall men looming down to hear what was being said. “Can I—”
“No, it’s fine.” José stopped to let two waiters carrying huge trays out first, then led them around a table. “We’re used to that around here. Standard customer behavior after midnight,” he said more sourly.
Ruud slightly turned his body to shield his hand, which he delicately put on the small of the other man’s back. “—turn around that offer I seem to remember you making me?” he finished. He felt José stiffen even more and spread his fingers a little. “You ever get to eat dinner out, or are you sick of the whole idea after work?”
José twisted his head around till the white edge of one eye was visible. The corner of his mouth that Ruud could see was quirked. “That was for a free meal. And we’re used to having the staff hit on as well.”
“You’re a lot funnier when Cesc isn’t threatening to talk about your childhood accidents,” Ruud dryly commented. Sense of humor aside, José’s ability to disguise his real reactions hadn’t gotten much better. Even if Ruud hadn’t been able to feel the other man trembling, he would’ve known from the way José’s pupil had suddenly widened. “What haven’t other customers already done? I wouldn’t want to be boring.”
The double doors in front of them swung towards them and José caught the edge of the nearest one, then pulled them out into the main room. Lehmann’s head was a few centimeters above the rest and Ruud spotted it right away. He suppressed a grimace, mind already moving into business-mode, and so he almost didn’t feel the bite of being rebuffed.
It caught up with him just as José turned and, with a very correct bow, drew out the chair opposite Jens. “Your seat, sir,” he intoned expressionlessly.
Ruud looked at him, but José stared straight down. The other man moved out of the way as Ruud slowly sat down, then bent down suddenly so his mouth swooped almost too close to Ruud’s ear. He shoved a menu into Ruud’s hands.
“Never fucked me out back,” José hissed. Then he quickly walked off.
“Coming in through the back?” Jens said, nose buried in the wine list. He flicked his eyes up, just in case Ruud didn’t already have enough reason not to glance after José.
After waiting a plausible number of seconds, Ruud snapped his menu shut and handed it to the hovering waiter, who’d appeared out of nowhere. He ordered his entrée and casually looked over his shoulder as he did: José was right up against the kitchen doors and pushing through them, but he darted a quick, half-challenging and half-embarrassed glance at Ruud. Then he swiftly went into the kitchen.
“It was closer to where I parked,” Ruud replied. “Are we talking first, or eating?”
Jens gave his order and passed off his menu before settling back in his chair, looking at Ruud with an odd kind of detachment. Usually he glowered as if taking personal offense at every flaw he saw. “See that man sitting up front, by the bower? That’s Ludovic Giuly. He controls anything organized crime finds interesting about the entertainment industry to the north of here. He left this area alone, but since Moggi’s death he’s made two trips into the city.”
Ruud looked as nonchalantly as he could, though his suspicions about where this was going already had him tensing up. Then he had to cover his cough with a quick sip of water. “He’s smiling and waving. I think he wants you to turn around.”
A flash of annoyance—tempered with what very much looked like the kind of exasperation Jens usually directed at Thierry—went over Jens’ face. “He would. I’ve got reason to suspect that he’s interested in expanding. And in coming to an accommodation with FC.”
“And you’re not handling that talk yourself because…” Ruud smiled politely and nodded at Giuly, hoping to get the other man to stop before it attracted too much attention. “Do you know him already?”
“Yes, and that’s why I want to see you negotiate with him. Robin will send you more details,” Jens muttered. He picked up his glass and drank some water. “But enough of that. Cristiano will be back in a week.”
Ruud looked at his glass, which he was swirling by the stem. “I don’t really have much to say about him,” he finally said. “Deco manages him now.”
Jens looked up again and stared long and hard, which was a little more like him. Then he shrugged and turned to watch their waiter come out with their appetizers. “So let’s talk about your next prospects. If you want to go out of town so badly, then where?”
The appetizers gave Ruud a very-appreciated breathing space. Once the waiter was away, he took up his knife and fork. “Interesting question. I was thinking about…South America.”
* * *
“No, Juan, I’ve got no idea what…” Paolo stopped, eyes flickering. As he leaned against the door-frame, they finally settled on thoughtful. The door continued to swing open till it revealed the large, slightly oil-stained bag dangling from his hand and Riquelme standing behind him.
Riquelme’s eyebrows flew up when he saw Ricardo. His mouth twitched a few times. Then he slid his gaze over to Paolo, eyes narrowing to look almost feline. “Ah, I see you’ve gotten more congenial company. Well, far be it from me to interfere.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding a more receptive ear than mine,” Paolo lightly replied. He turned a considerably cooler warning look on the other man. “Like I told you, it’s been a long time since I’ve done anything with criminal suits.”
“Probably wouldn’t take long to get back on that bike,” Riquelme muttered, walking off.
Paolo didn’t quite flinch. His languid pose solidified into something closer to a wound coil as he watched Riquelme go. Then he slowly shook himself out of it, like a classical statue gaining the breath of life. “I wondered where you’d gotten off to.”
“My office doesn’t have a couch,” Ricardo hesitantly said. He had a fairly clear image of what he was doing, but not much of what words were supposed to go with it. “You like to stretch out your legs.”
Those eyebrows arched even more at him, then gentled their curves as Paolo gracefully swung himself into the office. He set down the bag of food and began to say something as he straightened up, but stopped when Ricardo shifted to one side. He frowned and flicked his eyes up and down Ricardo, then more slowly to the obvious space next to Ricardo.
Ricardo looked at him, then ducked and grabbed at the food bag. He grimaced at his sudden loss of confidence while he got out his sandwich. “What was Riquelme asking about? A criminal suit? That sounds serious.”
The sinking of the cushion beside Ricardo, slow as it was, gave him a jolt. He nearly dropped his sandwich, and was just recovering when Paolo abruptly laughed. Cool fingers teased a few strands of hair back behind Ricardo’s ear. “Please, Kaká. You’re too smart to be a domestic.”
Ricardo pressed his lips together, trying to keep them from saying anything precipitate. Then before he or Paolo could do anything else, he leaned back and put his head against the other man’s shoulder. Paolo didn’t tense up, but he didn’t move either; Ricardo wanted to do something about that, but it was all he could do just to push his cheek against the linen of Paolo’s suit-jacket and pretend he didn’t feel the hot flush in it. “We don’t have to go to a restaurant, or always have it be a formal date. I just like hearing you talk about what you’re doing. I’m sorry if I sound stupid—I know I still have a long way to go till my exams.”
“You never sound stupid,” Paolo said after a long moment. His voice was a little stuffed; he turned his head to the side and coughed into his fist. Then he turned back, and at the same time, his arm slipped down to lie around Ricardo’s shoulders. He leaned forward to snag the bag off the table, then settled back and put up his feet as if they were made of china. “Juan…he’s got some problem with a drug-bust. And for some reason he wanted my advice, but I’ve done nothing but civil suits for the past, oh, seven or eight years.”
He sounded as if he thought his words were made of china as well. Ricardo tilted his head up to smile at him…and felt something drip through the sandwich’s waxed paper and start through his fingers. He hissed and sat up a little to shift the wrappers before he got whatever it was all over them. “Oh—I didn’t even know you’d worked criminal ones.”
“That was back during the last major gang war in this city.” Paolo handed Ricardo a handful of napkins; his mouth might’ve brushed the top of Ricardo’s head while he was at it. Then he pulled out a small plastic container of pasta salad and started to eat it. One-handed, with a plastic fork that was so flimsy its tines kept bending. But when Ricardo went to move out of the way, Paolo dropped his arm to Ricardo’s waist and held him in place. “Messy time. I’d wake up to two or three depositions and usually finish up with a new homicide to worry about.”
“You’re exaggerating again.” Or so Ricardo hoped as he looked up at the other man. “I remember that…not that many FC people were hurt.”
“Officially,” Paolo snorted, brows rapidly rising and falling. He shrugged. “I was happy to switch, boring as tort and contract law can be. I don’t suppose you’ve figured out what you’re going to specialize in yet? You’ve had quite a few tastes by now.”
The words were innocent enough, but the way and look of how Paolo said it…Ricardo caught himself squirming and hastily applied himself to his sandwich. “Well, I…I was thinking…Paolo.”
Paolo blinked in confusion and casually moved his hand from Ricardo’s thigh back to his side. “Above the waist, I remember. But I thought lying on your phone might be a little uncomfortable for you.”
He tossed it into Ricardo’s lap, and Ricardo couldn’t take it because of the sandwich. But he could—and he did smile, first meeting Paolo’s eyes and then ducking to nestle it against the other man’s neck as Paolo laughed again.
* * *
Ruud went out of the restaurant the regular way, about fifteen minutes after Jens had gone—Giuly had left halfway through his and Jens’ meal. He wanted to catch José’s eye and make sure that he wasn’t about to make a fool of himself, but the other man wasn’t anywhere in the main area and Ruud didn’t have any good excuses for lingering. So he walked out and then halfway to his car before angling sharply away to head for the restaurant’s back entrance.
Three silhouettes stood out against the brightly-lit platform for truck deliveries. As Ruud watched, two of them went back inside while the three wandered closer to the edge of the ramp. They turned and he glimpsed José’s profile before the other man turned and dropped something on the concrete. José ground on it with his heel, hands in his pockets. Then he pivoted back, only to jump against the wall when he saw Ruud standing behind him.
“You smoke?” Ruud said, looking down.
Awkward shrug; José didn’t take his hands out of his trousers. “No. But the cooks are always leaving me with their butts.”
Ruud snorted. A couple of seconds later, José realized what that had sounded like and grimaced. He kicked at the half-squashed butt, then blew out a frustrated breath and lifted his head. He was trying to say something, but Ruud ignored it and stepped forward, putting his hands on José’s hips and pushing the other man back. He could feel the other man’s knuckles shifting through fabric as he bent down.
José’s mouth was still open. It went slack as soon as Ruud touched it and his tongue slipped in a little before he’d meant to. He shrugged and came down harder…and José didn’t do anything. Goddamn it, if Ruud had wanted a fucking—José suddenly groaned, his arm swinging up around Ruud’s neck almost before the trouser-fabric had finished collapsing from his hand’s absence, and came to feverish, frantic life.
He sucked at Ruud’s tongue, then Ruud’s lip, and then pulled away to bury his head in Ruud’s neck as his hand knotted up the cloth over Ruud’s left shoulder. His hips bumped up into Ruud’s hands, then twisted as Ruud stripped his trousers halfway down to his knees. José let out a short, harsh whimper when Ruud pushed his fingers between fabric and skin and stroked them along the other man’s prick.
Maybe Ruud hadn’t planned for this—not really; it’d just been some nebulous whirl of thwarted rage and regret—but José obviously knew what he was doing out here. And yet when Ruud searched his pockets and his coat, he didn’t have any…Ruud swallowed back a snarl. Then he thought better of it and shoved his face against José’s throat, down under the collar, and bit down till José protested with digging fingers and low curses. Ruud ignored that too, and after undoing his fly, pushed his prick between José’s legs into the makeshift tunnel formed between sagging trousers and firm young flesh.
It wasn’t great, but it was enough friction to get him off. He grabbed at the wall behind them for balance as he came, then slowly sank to one side while José twisted and bucked a few more times. José’s breathing suddenly stopped and Ruud, knowing the warning signs, swung out of the way. He put his hand back around José’s prick and helped direct the splatters away from José’s clothes, but that was about all that he did for the other man.
“That—” José started.
Ruud threaded his clean fingers in José’s hair and yanked back the other man’s head for a hard kiss. When he pulled back, he let his fingers relax and even stroked José’s head a little while José stared up, too breathless to go on. So Ruud did. “Was not fucking. You want somebody to fuck you, you should pack like it. Or find somebody who’s willing to take you to the ER afterward.”
José swallowed slow enough for Ruud to trail a thumb after the bob of his gorge. His expression was a mix of fear and lingering lust and the kind of slow-burning anger that Ruud knew intimately. But he was young enough so that it was mostly fear. “Sorry. I—”
“When do you get off?” Ruud asked.
Slow blink. “Two in the morning, usually. Are…”
“I’ll take care of it. Just be outside.” Ruud paused, then bent down till his lips were grazing José’s cheekbone. He felt it jump almost immediately as José hissed in a breath and pulled back. “All right?”
“All right,” José softly echoed.
The smile Ruud had on his face as he walked back to his car wasn’t quite a pleasant one. But then, he wasn’t looking forward to later for pleasant reasons, either.