Tangible Schizophrenia



Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: PG-13.
Pairing: Fàbregas/Casillas/Raúl, V. Nistelrooy/J. A. Reyes, Maldini/Kaká. Implied Nesta/Maldini, Nesta/Ibrahimović, Messi/Ronaldinho.
Feedback: Good lines, typos, etc.
Disclaimer: This is absolutely fiction and not real and I don’t know these people at all. Any resemblance to any real-life record company is completely accidental.
Notes: Titled after the song by Ani DiFranco.
Summary: Crises of confidence can strike the most unexpected people.


“Because I don’t think it’s going to work! And then what are we going to do, send him to South America again? I mean, Fernando’s still being a dick and hanging up every time we mention José,” Cesc snapped. He banged his briefcase down on the chair to his right, then kicked the one to his left out of the way.

It skittered about a yard before catching on a floor tile and tipping so its top hit Raúl’s arm. He cursed and jerked away, then cursed again as he saw the half-minced herbs flying from the tip of his knife. “Cesc—”

“I just don’t understand why we’re not doing anything. José’s happy, sure, and that’s better than when he was trying to self-destruct, but that doesn’t mean he knows what he’s doing now.” Cesc yanked his tie halfway up his head, but then it tightened so he accidentally gagged himself. He snarled and jerked at the stupid thing till it’d loosened, then flung it across the room.

He’d been aiming for the counter, but his aim was off and instead it hit the fridge before falling to hang into the sink. Raúl looked at the tie, then reached out with the herb-flecked knife and flipped it to the floor. “José isn’t a child and shouldn’t be treated like one. For that matter, what last time should have taught you is that you can’t treat him like one, or else you’ll just make things worse.”

“Are you seriously trying to tell me I don’t know what fucking happened last time? I was the one who noticed José was going for Ruud in the first place. You, you’re always lecturing me about being more considerate of the family, and not messing with people, and—and I had to throw up all over Iker to get you to look at me like a man and not a boy.” When Cesc picked up his tie, his fingers brushed against something limp and wet. He scraped it off his tie, which was pretty damn expensive and he’d worked really hard for the money to pay for it. Then he stuffed his tie into his pocket. “You spent years with your head in the ground because El Moro dumped you.”

Raúl stiffened in place, knife over the cutting board. Then he put that down with slow, deliberate movements. His head was bent so his expression wasn’t visible. “Cesc.”

It was a warning sign and Cesc knew very well that it was, but he was just too angry. He worked all day to take care of his responsibilities, and on top of that he helped out a lot of other people, but he just never seemed to get the credit for it. From Raúl, anyway, and fine, he still had issues with FC so he kind of didn’t pay attention to what Cesc did, but…if he really loved Cesc, couldn’t he at least look up once in a while? Or at least cut Cesc some slack on the family bits that Cesc missed because he was busy?

“How much of this could’ve been fixed way before this if somebody had, like, noticed José didn’t really like running Corazón? Or that his whole not-dating thing wasn’t just him being the good boy of the family? You’re his uncle. I’m just a cousin,” Cesc snapped, stomping back to the dinner table. He tore his PDA holster off his belt and jammed it into the side pocket of his briefcase, then yanked out his cell-phone and turned it off as well. “And now at least I’m still trying to talk to him. Okay, José’s grown-up, but that doesn’t mean you can just…toss him out there and leave him to figure everything out on his own.”

“You can’t expect to manipulate him out of staying with Ruud, like you’ve done with other people.” Now Raúl’s hands were down flat against the counter on either side of the cutting board. “Francesc, I never blamed you for not spotting what was happening with José, and I don’t think it’s fair for you to—”

“And there you go again, talking down to me. God! No wonder you don’t want to talk to José. You just know he won’t take it well and you don’t want to get blamed this time if he fucks off with Ruud again, like his mother is doing to poor ‘Nando.” Cesc kicked at the chair. His briefcase wobbled dangerously, then fell forward and something at its side moved, then began to fall free: the PDA. Hissing, Cesc dove for it.

He barely caught it, and in the process whacked both knees and one elbow on the floor, and his head against a chair-leg. Cursing and sucking in his breath, Cesc angrily pushed himself into a sitting position, then began to rub at the aching spot on his head. Now he probably had a bruise to go with what seemed like a permanent migraine these days, with the way the stupid José-Ruud drama just wouldn’t end. He did feel sympathetic towards José—more than he ever had over anything before now—but he was also getting really tired. Thierry had surprised him with skipping the interviewing process and just offering him the assistant’s position, but the other man hadn’t eased up in any other way and so things at work were hectic, and Ricky was gone and Lionel was having issues with Ronnie, and so when Cesc went home he just wanted some peace. He didn’t want to have to get launched into a whole other mess.

“Francesc Fàbregas,” Raúl said, cold and thin.

Cesc paused, then pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. He looked up. “What.”

For a moment, Raúl just stared at him, eyes narrowed and hands slowly flexing against the counter. The other man pursed his lips, opened them, and then abruptly jerked himself around and stalked out of the room.

“Oh, oh, great. Walk off. Yeah, that really worked with El Moro,” Cesc called after him. There was a whole package of pork on the counter, with all that pinkish blood sticking to the plastic wrap, and also some cream and a bunch of other stuff that should be dinner.

Well, Cesc thought, if Raúl wasn’t going to cook, then neither was he. He was sick and tired of cleaning up after other people, and the only reason he was putting away even the meat was because he didn’t like the way it looked. Yeah. Exactly.

He slammed the fridge shut and walked back to his briefcase, then stopped and stared at that for a few moments. Then he turned around and looked out the window, but didn’t see any hunched back sticking out of the herb garden. Usually Raúl went out there and yanked weeds till he calmed down—if he was just mad and not…not doom-minded like he very, very rarely was.

And if he was, so what? He damn well deserved to be—Cesc had been so busy he hadn’t even called Raúl on his continuing grumpiness about work, or his awkwardness with the whole José-Ruud deal. Why the hell José had only wanted to talk to Raúl whenever he called was beyond Cesc, considering that according to Sergio, Raúl couldn’t even pretend for the time it took to get back from the airport that he didn’t have an opinion about it. God. Why on earth did Cesc think coming over to Raúl’s place was going to be relaxing, anyway?

He could leave. Hell, he was leaving.

* * *

“What? Oh, I’m so sorry I called you the other—but if you’re tired—no, really, I’m—what—but Cesc—”

In less than five seconds, Kaká had been reduced to simply nodding confusedly at the snappish crackle coming from the phone in his hand. Occasionally he varied it up with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no,’ but even that trailed off as his expression grew more and more concerned. He put a hand to his forehead, then dragged it through his hair so it fell ever-so-charmingly into his eyes.

“Well, do you want to get a coffee or something later and—no, not now…I’m really sorry but…” Kaká started to turn.

Alessandro slid back down till he was beneath the top of the couch, careful not to move so quickly that he knocked off a telling cushion. He knew perfectly well why Kaká was hesitating about going out, and that was enough: thinking about it would stir his temper and the last few days had temporarily exhausted his capacity for arguments. And anyway, he might appreciate Kaká’s willingness to forgive but sometimes he could do without its accompanying impulse to comprehensively understand other people’s problems.

“If you’re sure…I’ll call you later about this weekend, all right?” The tone was too firm for the question, making it clear Kaká would only accept one answer. For all his mildness, he’d learned something about making demands. “Okay. Bye, Cesc.”

The clicking of the phone as Kaká set it back in its cradle was all the noise that there was for the next minute or so. Then Kaká heaved a sigh and shifted about; papers rustled, so he was probably turning back to the huge legal tomes stacked around his notepad. Somewhere else in the apartment, a door closed. And Alessandro’s phone still failed to ring.

“Ricky?” Paolo’s voice filtered slightly ahead of his footsteps. “Ricky, I just got a settlement proposal and I have to go talk Lehmann into agreeing to it. I’m sorry, but—”

“Oh, okay. I’ll just put dinner in the fridge for you,” Kaká replied. The soft noise that followed was probably him pecking Paolo on the cheek, like a good little…

Alessandro sank further down into the sofa, trying not to roll his eyes so hard that he got yet another injury. A contrite apology to Lippi hadn’t gotten him clearance to go back to Rome, so he wasn’t interested in giving his boss any more to work with. Besides, he wasn’t actually offended by Paolo and Kaká’s ridiculously saccharine interactions. Not…really. Fine, he still had issues with Paolo, but not with Kaká. Except for the fact that most of the time, Kaká was so maddeningly good that Alessandro—all of him, and not just his cynicism—wondered whether poking the shiny surface would be beyond the bounds of common—

Paolo’s head suddenly appeared above him, startling Alessandro into jerking up. Then he realized which way he was going and fell back, but in the process he also knocked off a throw-pillow and banged his cast into something, thus ruining the air of indifference for which he’d been aiming. He irritably wondered how the hell Zlatan managed to fling his lankier frame about so cavalierly without ever incurring similar penalties, then caught himself and was even more annoyed. “Yes?” Alessandro snapped.

The first twitch of Paolo’s mouth was from exasperation, but the second was definitely from dry amusement. “I take it there’s no word from Rome?”

“No.” Actually, there’d been a call earlier from Alberto, but its only interesting point had been when the other man had paused to accept a coffee from Buffon, and then had stammered his way through an explanation of why he was at the hospital again. Which in retrospect wasn’t nearly as amusing as Alessandro had thought at the time. “I’m still stuck here.”

“I’m sorry,” Paolo said. He was clearly just being polite. “Sandro, I have to take the car and I’m not sure when I’ll be back. If you need—”

Alessandro hooked his arm over the top of the couch, then pulled so he was sitting with his face pointed at the TV. His back complained harshly about the maneuver, but he ignored that in favor of taking out his phone. “I can pay for my own taxis, Paolo. Just go…work.”

“I can always go get my car. It’s not that long of a walk to it,” Kaká called.

Paolo’s sigh somewhat overrode Alessandro’s sharpish refusal of that offer. Then the other man rounded the couch to make Alessandro look at him again. “It’s not like you’re imposing on us.”

He could figure out that much, but from the expression on his face, would have no idea why Alessandro had nearly flinched at his words. Not that Alessandro was interested in enlightening him; that could wait for at least the next nervous break-down. “And if you go on with something about how you owe me anyway, as if those are comparable, I’ll…look, I’m fine. I’m just…lacking…anything to do.”

As Alessandro flipped open his phone, a tiny part of him was desperately hoping that he’d have some messages even though the thing hadn’t beeped in hours. But of course there weren’t any, and so he was staring at his phone like a lovesick idiot. Which was not an idea he wanted in his head right now. He snapped the cell shut.

“That’s why I’m asking. You need this vacation, and I know that this isn’t quite where you wanted to spend it,” Paolo said. He sat down on the sofa arm, so apparently this settlement deal wasn’t too crucial.

“I didn’t want to spend it at all, and thank you very much for telling me what I need again,” Alessandro muttered.

Paolo took a slow breath. “Would you rather I tell you about how I feel about uninvited guests in the middle of the night?”

The directness of the exchange made Paolo pause in surprise, and then the scraping of Kaká’s chair over the floor startled both of them. Alessandro twisted round to see Paolo raising a hand, belatedly regretful, but Kaká had already swept up his books and pencils into his arms.

“I’m just going to work in the other room. Don’t want to, ah, bother you,” Kaká said while scurrying away.

Paolo put his hand over his face. Alessandro pinched the bridge of his nose. Both of them were quiet for a few minutes.

“I thought I got down to the laundry room without being caught,” Alessandro muttered.

“My walls aren’t that thick.” The words were delivered in a clipped tone, but not so clipped that Paolo couldn’t imply the unspoken ‘unfortunately.’ He began to go on, but then changed his mind; he’d dropped his hand and was staring after Kaká with a…he was too old for that kind of look, a vicious little part of Alessandro insisted. “I said in Milan I’d leave you alone and I will, but certain things make that difficult…more difficult than I think it could be.”

Though Alessandro suppressed his thoughts, and not out of charity but out of simple commonsense: Paolo looked good regardless of the circumstances. And Alessandro might be bitter, but he refused to be stupid. “I apologize about that. Actually, I apologize for Zlatan even showing up—I suppose Kaká must’ve told you about the…tea, and the…”

“Fàbregas and why I now have no shortbread cookies,” Paolo nodded. He rubbed at his mouth and briefly looked about to laugh, but the glint in his eyes died away when he glanced at Alessandro. Then he shrugged and slid off the couch arm onto his feet. “I still do care about you, even if—I’d just appreciate some advance warning, Sandro. At first I thought you were fighting with some robber, and given why you’re here in the first place…it would’ve been very embarrassing if Ricky hadn’t made me stop and listen harder.”

In all honesty, that interpretation hadn’t even occurred to Alessandro. Though now that Paolo had brought it up, Alessandro could see how plausible it’d be and fine, he was going to blush. He was also going to get up and borrow Paolo’s computer to see if at least Rino was answering his email. “Well, it’ll never happen again so I wouldn’t worry.”

Alessandro went a few steps towards the computer, then sighed and stopped. He hitched up his shoulders before looking over one at the eyebrow he knew Paolo was arching at him.

“While you’re in earshot,” Alessandro grudgingly amended. He turned back around and headed for the computer without another look.

Thankfully, Paolo also decided to go off and continue his farewells to Kaká, which left only Alessandro’s conscience to pressure him on even implicitly admitting that this…thing…with Zlatan had a future component. After all, that cocky bastard had even volunteered that he’d killed people for Alessandro’s sake, and that was an entirely different level of ethical dilemma than the fact that he was an amoral hitman.

Alessandro slumped in the seat and stared at the login-window for his work email account. He lifted his hand, started to withdraw it, and then abruptly shoved it forward onto the keyboard, praying that someone had sent him something else to think about.

* * *

“And I know, I know, bringing in El Moro was a shitty idea and also really mean of me, but sometimes Raúl just gets so…so…” Cesc moved his hands around, trying to sketch out the emotion he meant, and then gave up when he figured out for the zillionth time why that of course wasn’t going to work. He flopped down on the sofa and pressed his palms over his eyes. “He just looks at me, and I know he’s going into uncle-mode, and if that was frustrating before, you wouldn’t believe what it’s like now. I mean, I’m just trying to explain what I mean, but before I even get to finish, he’s already started judging me.”

Iker hummed. The clacking of his keyboard hadn’t slowed since he’d sat back down, still blinking furiously in surprise at Cesc’s appearance in his doorway.

Just looking at Iker’s confused but open face had began to soothe Cesc’s frayed nerves, but maybe that wasn’t as good a thing as he’d originally thought. Because now he was calm enough to really register what else was going on in the room, and he wasn’t entirely sure that it was bothering to include him. “And so I said some stuff that Raúl didn’t deserve and I’ll definitely apologize for it later, but I still don’t think that justifies him smashing a banana cream pie in my face.”

“He might not have meant it the way you’re taking it. People always read others wrong when they’re upset,” Iker said.

Cesc twisted around in his seat and stared at the other man, who still had his eyes firmly glued to his screen. For a few moments, he just heard his own loud breathing.

Then he got up and stomped pointedly across the room. By the time he got to Iker, the other man had noticed enough to look up, but Cesc was too mad again for that to satisfy him. He grabbed the side of the couch and leaned across Iker to hook two fingers into his discarded coat, then whipped that to him. One of the sleeves slapped Iker in the face and he recoiled, then threw out an arm even though the coat was already bundled under Cesc’s arm. “Cesc!”

“Sorry, but you could’ve just said you were too busy to see me. You don’t have to be so damn nice all the time—sometimes it’s not really nice. It’s just annoying,” Cesc snarled.

“Cesc, I’m—” Iker started, his expression melting to apologetic. But as he turned, his line of sight crossed the computer screen, which was pretty blank for all the typing he’d been doing. His brow furrowed and he stopped to frown at the screen. Then he hit a few keys. Nothing happened, so he hit a few more. And nothing again, and his hands dropped to grab either side of his laptop so hard the knuckles were white. “I…I just deleted a review I spent the past three hours on.”

Cesc wanted to feel bad. He really did. And actually, he in fact felt bad, and that was why he was just even more angry. Because he hadn’t meant to make Iker do that, but if Iker had been listening, or had told him to get lost, it wouldn’t have happened. But Iker hadn’t done either of those, so now Iker was definitely having one of his rare fits of temper at Cesc and that was just great. That was just another lousy thing to add to Cesc’s lousy day.

Three hours,” Iker repeated disbelievingly. “And that doesn’t count the two times I had to watch it, because the first time there were technical problems halfway through, and it was such a bad movie it was like…like sticking needles in my eyes.”

“This is why you should’ve told me you didn’t think I was worth listening to.” Then Cesc tossed his coat back on, but something fell out of his pocket onto his foot. He cursed, then jerked up his knee and grabbed his now-aching toes. “Thanks a lot, Iker.”

Something slammed down and when Cesc looked up, he found a laptop-less Iker throwing himself over the sofa. Startled, Cesc hopped backwards, but Iker was just in a hurry to get out from behind the couch and once he’d done that, stalked the rest of the way towards Cesc—who was retreating towards the door, temporarily stunned by the look on Iker’s face.

“You’re welcome! You’re welcome for listening to you and Raúl argue with each other all week, for listening to each of you complain about the other, for getting eaten every time I try to say something I actually mean,” Iker snarled. His hands were whipping about over his head, but somehow he made that look seriously intimidating. “I have a job away from you two! I’m human! I get tired! I want to help but when you keep telling me I don’t know about your family—well, I don’t! I’m not related and I can’t make myself be related and I already keep thinking I’m the odd man out! So thanks! Thank you very much!”

A hard round thing hit Cesc in the back and made him stumble so his heels and head rattled against the door. He reached behind himself and grabbed the doorknob, then twisted it hard. “Iker, I…what? I didn’t—”

“Oh, you did. You did all of it, and so did he, and you know what? Right now I don’t want to see either of you.” And then Iker got Cesc by the shoulder and jerked him sideways.

Cesc didn’t move as far as Iker seemed to want him to, so Iker did that again and this time, Cesc shrugged him off. Iker reached for the doorknob and then Cesc realized what the other man was trying to do. And normally he’d find Iker’s backwards sense of the world endearing, but now it just reminded him of why he’d been pissed off at Iker in the first place.

So he yanked Iker’s hand off the knob, then got the door open and was through it before the other man could do anything. “I’ll leave. God, even when you’re mad you’re nice about it. You ever think that that’s why you don’t get why Raúl and I bitch the way we do?”

Iker shouted something in reply, but Cesc determinedly ignored it and kept on stomping down the hall. Then he stomped into the staircase instead of taking the elevator because the ringing sound of his feet on the metal steps fit his mood better.

But Iker lived pretty high up, and Cesc already was tired, and pretty soon he was remembering that along with everything else. His temper flared white-hot, but died away almost before he could register just how angry he was. And he was annoyed about that, but with his annoyance came a sudden flood of sensation: his throbbing toe, his pounding headache. The sticky cooling sweat-patches beneath his arms and all around his shirt-collar, and the pinching knots of tension all across his back between his shoulders. He was just exhausted. He was exhausted and he now had nowhere to go.

Cesc stopped on the next landing, on God knew what floor, and tipped his head back to look way, way up at all the empty flights of stairs above him. Their undersides were a nasty gray with the occasional garish splotch of faded graffiti, and they just seemed to go on forever, circling about the narrow concrete shaft.

Iker wasn’t coming after him, Cesc knew. He slowly put his head down and gazed around himself, biting his lip. And then he began to walk down the rest of the way, feeling like he’d just had a load of lead thrown over his back.

He needed to get drunk. He’d been the good one of the family for long enough, and if José got to shove that off onto somebody else, then so did Cesc.

* * *

*It starts at two, so hopefully the judge will let us know before dinner. Lippi’s really pushed hard for a quick resolution, and today he even said he wishes you could come back early because even split up, your caseload is killing everyone else in the office,* Alberto said. In the background were the chattering of people and the loud clinking of dishes, so he was probably in the middle of catching a quick—and very late—dinner. *Um, no, thank you. I’m good.*

*Eat it before I write you up for malnutrition. All I’ve seen you take in is coffee, and you can’t live on that no matter what your stupid antisocial boss says,* came Buffon’s voice.

Alessandro absently nibbled at a fingernail, his other hand hovering over the computer mouse. He idly considered his half-written email to Lippi, then highlighted the last two lines and deleted them. “Tell that incompetent quack that I do not live solely on coffee and he’ll have to base his diagnosis on more than sarcasm. Also, was Lippi muttering and pressing his temples when he said that, or looking you straight in the eye?”

*Sir, I’m not saying that. He’s still treating you.* This time, Alberto covered the phone so his and Buffon’s ensuing argument was audible only in spats. *And um, I’m really sorry.*

“Gila, why is he there with you?” Alessandro asked.

Something moved at the edge of Alessandro’s vision. He turned around in rather a hurry, but found it was just Kaká, glasses slightly askew before bleary eyes, rummaging around in the kitchen for a snack. The other man almost dumped sugar over his bowl of leftover pasta, then started and blushed when Alessandro cleared his throat and gestured. Then Kaká grimaced and hastily substituted a shaker of pepper flakes for the sugar.

Alberto stammered a bit. *Well, the thing I saw him about this morning—*

*He’s the only reasonably nice thing about having to treat you at least once a month,* Buffon interrupted. *And he has to see you every day, so the least he could use is a good—*

After some interesting scuffling noises, Alberto came on again. The background noise had changed, so he’d apparently moved. *I’m really sorry about that, sir. I wasn’t expecting you to call me right now.*

Because Alessandro had in fact told the man he’d call much later than he was. He pressed a hand to the side of his face. “No…I shouldn’t be calling.”

*No, it’s fine! Really! I’m just surprised, even though I really shouldn’t be…um, that didn’t come out right. But anyway, Lippi was actually hitting Totti on the head with a folder when he said that,* Alberto hastily said.

“Oh.” Alessandro extended his index finger and tapped the ‘m’ key. Then he kept tapping it. “Oh…then I doubt he’s seriously thinking about bringing me back, but thanks, Gila. It’s nice of you to try. I’ll stop interrupting now so you can eat.”

*But you’re not—*

It was hard not to sigh. “Alberto. I’m interrupting. Hang up and call me in four hours like we agreed this morning.”

Which Alberto meekly did, and which made Alessandro put aside his dislike of Buffon just long enough to wonder what Buffon was doing with Gilardino. It didn’t seem like a natural pairing, but on the other hand, Alessandro didn’t have a lot to stand on there himself. And he was going to stop thinking about that.

“You want anything?”

Alessandro started, then turned. “What?”

Kaká hurriedly finished dabbing the red sauce off his mouth and put down his bowl. “For dinner. I’ve still got another hour of reading to do, and anyway I don’t really trust myself to cook right now, so I was just going to order in.”

“Oh. Oh, no…I’m not hungry now. When I am, I can find something myself,” Alessandro said. He began to turn back.

“Are you sure? Because I’m calling anyway…I was thinking Thai, maybe…”

“I’m fine,” Alessandro snapped. Then he grimaced and jammed his foot into the ground so the chair stopped moving. “Look, I appreciate the concern, but I can take care of myself. Even if it seems I make a lot of…” he looked at the cast on his wrist “…stupid choices.”

Something clicked, but it turned out just to be Kaká picking up the phone. He had a take-out menu in his other hand and was trying too hard to act like he was reading it. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you think that. I’m just asking because you looked sort of bored, but if you’re okay, I’m just going to go back and study some more.”

Alessandro looked at the computer screen: his email was all lines of ‘m’s. He chewed at his lip, then began highlighting and deleting blocks. Then his frustration got the better of him and he just canceled the whole email. There wasn’t a point in writing it anyway, since he knew damn well that Lippi wouldn’t change his mind. “Not so much bored as clueless, to be honest. I don’t know what to do on a vacation.”

“Did you want to go out? Because you can borrow my car—I can go get it after I’m done studying.” Then Kaká cleared his throat and put in his order to whoever was on the other end of the line. “Is there anyone you’d want to see? Or maybe your…um…boyfriend—”

Whatever happened to Alessandro’s face just then hurt. He ducked his hand and rubbed his hand over his cheeks till his skin felt smooth again. “Zlatan is not my boyfriend. He…tends towards gross exaggeration, so keep that in mind for anything he said to you.”

“Oh,” Kaká said. He told the phone to buzz to be let in, then take the left-hand elevator, and then he hung up that. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.”

“Because he basically is, except for the fact that I shouldn’t and can’t see him, and God, I thought I learned my lesson the first time,” Alessandro mumbled, slowly sinking in the chair. He scooted down till he had nearly slid off the seat. “I have a whole career built on honoring the law. Why can’t that matter when I’m making decisions about my private life?”

“Doesn’t it?” Kaká blinked, then put up his hands with the palms out. “No, sorry, that came out wrong. I meant…that’s why it’s a lot harder when it comes to personal issues, isn’t it? It makes those worse.”

Alessandro sat up a little. “What would you know about it?”

The other man stared back, looking faintly reproachful. Then he twisted his hands together and looked down at them. “I’m not blind or deaf. I know…everything my professional ethics course said not to do, Paolo’s probably done at some point,” Kaká quietly said. “So maybe I should turn him over to the courts, but then I wouldn’t be able to be with him. And that really matters to me, too. It’s selfish, but I ask myself how hurting me too helps anything, and then I feel guilty because the law should apply regardless of the circumstances.”

“That’s a stupid thing they feed you in law school,” Alessandro said after a long moment. He raised his brows at the shocked look Kaká gave him. “Seriously. Yes, the law’s meant to bring order, but if all it did was enforce that, it’d be tyranny. Law is…law’s meant to order society by preventing hurt, and by fixing hurt when it occurs as best it can. Which is usually imperfect, but anyway, you can’t fix a hurt without taking into account how it was inflicted. And no two wounds are the same, so you should always interpret the law through the circumstances.”

Kaká continued to silently look at Alessandro, eyes wide and startled, to the point that Alessandro almost felt as if he were trespassing on…something that was Paolo’s. But then Kaká smiled in beautiful relief. “You know, I’m going to have to talk to the priest about this because now I feel like a bad Christian, but thinking about it that way makes me feel better than when I was telling myself it’s all up to God in the end.”

“I’m glad you feel better.” Alessandro kept his mouth open a few more seconds, then shut it. Then he turned back around and opened another new email, but this time he addressed it to his parents; he hadn’t written them in a couple days. “Paolo’s trying to change, at least. And if it’s up to God, he’s got a chance to make the good balance the bad.”

“I think everyone, as long as they’re alive, have that chance. It’s never too late,” Kaká said. He sounded like he was leaving the room, but he still managed to hear Alessandro’s snort. “A question’s never really settled till you get an answer, isn’t it?”

Alessandro turned around again, but he was alone in the room. A flash of irritation went through him and he started to rise, but then he thought things over again and instead went back to his email, laughing lowly at himself. Kaká wasn’t the one he should be asking, after all.

* * *

Stood up again. Lionel kicked at the door-jamb as he trudged into the tech office, then at a passing chair. He briefly thought about calling Ronaldinho up and giving the perpetually-late jerk a piece of his mind, but rejected that idea because he knew he’d just get Ronnie’s voicemail again. And yelling at a computerized voice just wasn’t as satisfying.

So instead he figured he’d do some work on the bass lines for the Chels’ songs and plopped down at his desk, only to have his foot hit something that yelped.

A moment later, Lionel was crouched down on the floor and staring at a flushed, glowery, rumpled Cesc, who was both curled around a bottle and stuffed into the leg-space of Lionel’s desk. “Cesc?”

“Hey, Leo. I’m getting drunk.” Cesc attempted to swig from the bottle as some sort of emphasizing gesture, only to knock the bottom of the bottle into the underside of the desk. Anyway, it looked like he’d already drank it empty. “Because I suck.”

Lionel pushed his hand into his hair and tugged at that, momentarily wishing Cesc had let him give Reyes a piece of his mind. Between work and trying to deal with Ronnie’s streak of memory problems, he’d been pretty out of things, but he hadn’t missed how increasingly frazzled Cesc had been looking. He’d just sort of hoped that the other man would make it to the weekend, when they had time to go out and complain to each other. “No, you don’t.”

“I totally do. I just pissed off Raúl—really pissed him off.” During the dramatic pause, Cesc’s eyes drifted till they crossed, then snapped their focus to Lionel. “I brought up El Moro. And I got Iker to yell at me. But I walked out on him first, so he didn’t do that. But Raúl did.”

“Um, Cesc, that doesn’t mean you suck. If anything, that means they suck.” After a quick rundown in his mind of people likely to still be in the office, Lionel sneaked his hand into his pocket and thumbed open his cell-phone. He nearly winced at the loudness of the keys’ beeping, but Cesc didn’t seem to notice so he…went back to worrying about the other man. “You wanna come out of there? You’re out of stuff to drink.”

Cesc appeared to think about it. “Yeah, but I shouldn’t be drinking anyway. I mean, if I’ve screwed up my personal life, I still have work to worry about, and at least I’m good at that. I’m really good at it. I’m so good at it that I fix everyone’s problems, but I’m totally shit at fixing mine. And José’s. And Raúl’s and Iker’s.”

“That’s not your fault,” Lionel protested. “Also, it’s total crap that you’ve been doing so much lately. You’re an assistant.”

“But Lehmann was in Germany, and Thierry takes care of all the legal stuff when Jens isn’t around, and there was a lot of it because Ruud’s bringing so many people from South America. So there wasn’t anyone else,” Cesc said. He wiggled the bottle in his hand, then looked more closely at it. Then he frowned and shoved it out in front of him; he looked surprised when Lionel took the chance and grabbed his wrist, but didn’t protest. About that. “Well. Okay. There was Freddie, but he’s still learning his new job. So he’s messy. And grumpy. So there’s nobody else who knows what they’re doing.”

“That still doesn’t mean you do everything yourself. I mean, there’s Senderos and David, and…Larsson.” Somebody was coming down the hall, but Lionel didn’t dare look to see who it was. He just crossed his fingers. “Why didn’t you ask any of them to help?”

Cesc looked at him, then let go of the bottle. He watched Lionel whisk that away without any particular expression on his face. Then he put out his hand and Lionel thought he was trying to get the bottle back, but instead Cesc ended up grabbing Lionel’s shoulder. He looked at his hand for a moment before abruptly falling on top of Lionel, nearly sending both of them over.

Lionel barely caught himself on one elbow while his other arm reflexively dropped around Cesc’s back. He started to push the other man off, but stopped when he felt a ragged shudder go through Cesc.

“Because I don’t want to need help,” Cesc mumbled. “I’m not José. I know better than him—I don’t want to be mean, but I think I’m smarter than him and I definitely know a lot more about how to get people to cooperate. But I just, I just couldn’t do that with him and Ruud, and I knew that they were going to be trouble, I knew they’d get together but I—I couldn’t stop it, Leo. And all these problems have come from it and I should’ve been able to make that not happen. But I didn’t do it, and I don’t know why.”

And with that, Cesc was crying. In huge gulping sobs, his hands digging holes in Lionel’s shoulders, and Lionel gave up on trying to reason with him and just made soothing noises. He twisted around while petting Cesc on the back and thank God, Michael was in the doorway.

“He needs to go home,” Lionel hissed. “You got a moment?”

“I just got off work, so I’ve got plenty of time. But shouldn’t we call Raúl or—”

Cesc sobbed louder. Michael winced, apparently getting why that was the wrong thing to say, but just in case, Lionel dragged himself and Cesc up so Michael would lend a hand with that instead of talking any more. Which Michael did, and Torsten was doing a really good job of sharpening the other man’s social instincts. Good thing, since otherwise it would’ve taken Lionel forever to get Cesc down to the parking garage, and Cesc was already looking a little greenish as well as blotchy and tear-stained.

But fifteen minutes later, they were unfortunately not in the privacy of Cesc’s apartment. Stupid water-main breaks and traffic diversions—Lionel pounded on the door again, and this time it opened. Shirttails out and face half-shaved, Ruud stared at them. “What?”

“Excuse me, I’m really sorry but the circumstances are forcing us to adopt a hasty contingency plan and—” Michael did a really awesome job of babbling like an idiot while simultaneously levering himself and a hiccupping Cesc past Ruud and inside the apartment at nearly a dead run. They’d probably make the bathroom in time. Probably.

Lionel tried to slip in after them, but Ruud moved. Luckily, José walked in from somewhere else just then, which gave Lionel the chance to put his simmering temper to good use. “Cesc got into another argument with Raúl over him—” pointed at José “—and now he’s upset. Your apartment was closest.”

Ruud blinked. “But I thought…”

“Look, you’re dating José. You’re pretty much family now, so move it. I need to go start the coffee for when Cesc finishes throwing up,” Lionel said, squeezing inside.

* * *

“So what brings you here? I haven’t seen you in ages,” Victor said, leaning much too far over his drink. His loosened tie dipped dangerously low, brushing off some of the colored sugar from the rim of his martini glass. “Seen that American special-effects travesty yet?”

Iker thought to himself again that this was not what he should be doing right now. Then he picked up his own martini and swished it around till the olive accidentally bounced out. “What, you mean the Die Hard movie? I liked it. I liked the other ones, too.”

“Oh, of course you do. Sorry. I forgot you have shit taste in action movies. Bet you liked the latest Clive Owen movie, too.” Victor bent over to grab the rolling olive before it fell off the bar and his tie finally slipped into his drink. A stain instantly began to spread up towards the knot, and was halfway there by the time he noticed. He frowned and pulled the tie over his head. “Luís called me in today and made me cut out half of my review of that one. And then he made me sub in to interview whichever blond airhead’s best friends with Paris Hilton now.”

A vague memory of the tabloids from the last time Iker had gone grocery-shopping came to mind, but he found himself recoiling from it without quite knowing why. He sort of knew who Victor was talking about and wasn’t too fond of the woman, but that couldn’t be it. “Were you going to violate a lot of libel laws again? Victor, we’re supposed to evaluate movies based on their merits, not on the gossip the assistant producers tell you in bed.”

“I was just giving my honest opinion,” Victor sniffed. He slapped his drenched tie against the bar, possibly thinking that maybe that’d help it dry, before suddenly slinging it over his shoulder. His chin jerked up, then wavered sideways as he drained his glass. “Besides, I’m writing a review column, not a TV script. A couple curse-words should be okay.”

Iker looked at him. Victor ate Iker’s olive before flicking the toothpick at the bottles behind the bar. It pinged off some rum, then fell into the cognac row, and as it did, Iker dropped his head into his hand. He didn’t want to get drunk, actually. He was upset and this was what he’d used to do when he was upset, but emphasis on the past tense because now it felt…weird. And wrong. And he’d rather go grocery-shopping with Cesc, even if that always took twice as long as he figured it would, except for the fact that he was mad at Cesc. But maybe he’d calmed down now, because he didn’t feel mad so much as…he just really didn’t want to be here.

“Earth to Iker.” Something snapped in front of Iker’s eyes, making him start, and then the rest of Victor messily flopped onto him. It smelled like Victor had gotten into more than one martini—for that matter, probably more than one kind of drink. “Besides, if Figo’s going to send me into a possible sexual harassment situation, he shouldn’t blame me for how I defend myself. At least not till he sees what ‘excessive abuse of expletives in adjectival form’ he’s got to cut out of my interview write-up, right? How come you never have this problem?”

“Um, I do, I think he just doesn’t yell at me in public,” Iker muttered, trying to get his hands unwedged from Victor’s hips. He managed to wriggle his left up beneath the other man’s arm, then jerked till he got the other free. “Look, I actually have to go. Sorry.”

Victor rolled his eyes and continued to be dead weight so when Iker tried to get off his stool, the other man nearly toppled to the floor. So Iker grabbed him again to keep that from happening and Victor promptly pivoted around, slinging his arm over Iker’s shoulders with a dexterity he definitely shouldn’t still have. “Wait, so you really have hooked up with somebody? That’s what everybody’s saying, and I did notice that Figo hasn’t been muttering about your lack of socialization lately, but I honestly didn’t think it was possible.”

“Thanks a lot.” A couple more seconds of struggling quickly proved that getting away from Victor would take longer than dragging him to the door, so Iker reluctantly opted for that. If Victor was as tanked as he smelled, he’d pass out in the backseat and Iker could just drop him off with Luís, who probably was already expecting him. “Victor, we don’t want to sleep with each other, remember?”

“I wasn’t making a pass at you, Casillas. Just can’t walk right now, and I can always count on you for a free ride,” Victor muttered, his stubble rasping Iker’s ear. He actually was attempting to walk and Iker wished he wasn’t, since that was skewing them worse than if he’d been still. “So sometimes I hear it’s this doctor, and sometimes it’s an FC agent. Which is it?”

“Both. Raúl’s an FC doctor.” Iker leaned Victor against the alley wall while he got out his car keys. Then he stepped away and Victor began to slowly slide down the wall; with a sigh, Iker resumed hauling along the other man. “And Cesc works for FC too, but he’s not an agent…Raúl?”

Who was leaning against Iker’s car, hands stuffed in his pockets and a concerned expression moodily sitting on his face. He quirked an eyebrow when he saw Victor and Victor made an attempt at a wave. “Hi. Same Raúl he was just talking about? I’m Victor and he’s not my type, especially since sometimes we work together. I’m just using him to get a ride home.”

“All…right,” Raúl slowly said, frowning at Victor. Then he gave himself a shake and looked at Iker. “I’ve been looking for Cesc for a few hours now and I can’t track him down. I tried to call him, but found his phone at your place. The man in your lobby said I could try looking for you here.”

“Oh. Right, he left it after we…Cesc came over and was upset, and then he kind of accidentally got me mad enough to delete an article I was working on, and…well, I don’t know where he went. He left and I left, and…” Iker began to gesture, but was abruptly reminded that he was holding onto Victor. Had been holding on.

Victor caught himself by his fingertips on Iker’s car, then slowly dragged himself up. He sort of slumped there while Iker hurriedly unlocked the doors and Raúl continued to stare critically at them. “Something the matter?” Victor said.

“Nothing, I just think I screwed up twice because I got mad when it was partly my fault, and then I walked out because I didn’t want get madder, but I think he took it the wrong way and I really should’ve explained before I left. But instead I went to here and that’s a crap idea because I’ve got something good and I might’ve just lost a chance to keep it and I always do this! I’m an idiot! Idiot!” Suddenly Iker was dizzy and his head really ached. He gripped whatever was in his hand and took a deep breath, trying to figure out what had just happened.

Then he started to straighten up, but halfway through somebody grabbed him and Iker jumped, hitting his head against the car roof. Which hurt a lot more than it really should’ve.

“No, stop doing that,” Raúl hissed. He shoved Iker’s hand away and poked at the sore spot on Iker’s forehead, looking deep into Iker’s eyes. Then he sank back a little. “Oh, thank God. At least you didn’t concuss yourself. Iker, look, whatever you were—wait, what did you say you were doing here?”

“Getting drunk and picking up fucks,” Iker said miserably. He tried to push away, but could only manage to get his arms up between them to block out Raúl’s face. “It’s what I used to do before I, well, met you and Cesc. When I was feeling really stupid. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t even have…this was a stupid idea. I should’ve just made Cesc wait.”

Raúl was silent, but his hands started to prod at Iker’s arms. When those didn’t move, he wriggled his fingers between them, then forced them down so they were looking at each other again. Curiously enough, he didn’t look mad. “Look, you did come here but obviously nothing came of it, and…you know what? I think it was a stupid idea too, and I’ll tell you why later, but everybody has stupid ideas. I had a stupid idea that this was one of those times Cesc just needed to cool off and then I could come back when I didn’t want to break his damn neck, but it looks like I was wrong. And if I’d guessed right, you wouldn’t have had your fight with him.”

“So what, you’re trying to say it’s all your fault?” Iker asked. His voice was shaky, and not just because he didn’t believe Raúl.

“No, because it isn’t. But—but you know, figuring out who’s at fault is pointless without talking to Cesc, and even with Cesc, it might still be a pointless conversation.” Raúl paused, then put his hand up to the side of his face. His eyes slowly closed and opened. “Iker, I don’t care right now what you were doing. I just care that I found you and you’re fine and you still want to see me, because if I have another breakdown on my hands I don’t know if I can deal with it too. And I’m getting really worried about the fact that I can’t find Cesc. He’s always been a lot more forward than José and I’m afraid—I don’t know if he might’ve…”

“So are we looking for him now? I’m sure you two can finish making up on the way, and I’m also sure this Cesc hasn’t left town. You leave when you’re scared or depressed, not when you’re mad. When you’re mad you get drunk,” Victor said. When Raúl and Iker looked, they found Victor’s feet hanging out of the open back door. “And yes, I’m an obnoxious drunk. That’s because when I’m sober, I’m much better at being a normal human being than Iker.”

Iker took a deep breath, then slid out from beneath Raúl. He got Victor’s feet all the way into the car and closed the door. “He is, actually. So where have you checked?”

“Every relative in town and all his friends besides Lionel, who should be out on a date right now so I don’t think he’d be with Cesc. And there’s José, but that’s the last place Cesc would be,” Raúl said. He got into the front passenger seat while Iker rounded the car.

Victor snorted. “Call and check anyway. He’s drunk. He won’t be thinking like usual.”

“We don’t know Cesc is drunk, and anyway, you’re also drunk. And I’ve seen enough of those to be wary of this so-called ‘wisdom in a bottle,’” Raúl muttered, but he was taking out his phone anyway.

Iker watched him do that before turning on the engine. “I don’t think he would’ve left, but then…I just haven’t known what’s going on lately. I want to help, but it doesn’t seem like either of you want what I can do.”

Raúl went still. Then he slowly looked up. “That isn’t your fault. That especially isn’t your fault.”

“You all just got your heads up your asses this week. It happens. And it’s not wisdom, it’s just saying what you’re normally too chicken to say,” Victor called to them. “Though you’re both sober, so if you screw up again, I don’t think I can do anything for you.”

“Victor, shut up,” Iker snapped. Then he stared at the steering wheel, slightly surprised with himself. He blinked a few times. “So is Cesc there?”

* * *

“No, José’s not here.” Ruud made pointed gestures that had José and Lionel both staring at him. When he saw they didn’t understand, he rolled his eyes and went back into the other room. A couple moments later, Michael came in and had a quick whispered conversation with Lionel that saw them both go out into the hall.

José sighed and dropped back onto his knees beside Cesc and the toilet. “I think Raúl’s on the phone and they’re trying to tell him you’re not here. He won’t believe Ruud.”

“If Leo or Micha get on, Raúl’ll know for sure that I am,” Cesc mumbled. He spat out a vomit-laced mouthful of spit, then let his head hang down so José had to squish down his hair to keep it from touching the dirty sides of the toilet bowl. “Wow. Nervous breakdowns really suck. And I haven’t even gotten to the hangover yet.”

“Yeah, I know.” Though Cesc’s version of a breakdown seemed to be like a summer storm, here and then gone, and José was just a tiny bit envious of that, since that was probably how normal people were supposed to be like. They had their screaming fit, got it all out of their system, and then pulled themselves together. “I’d offer to get on, but I still can’t lie very well. And anyway, I don’t want to make this worse than I have.”

Cesc spat again. He kept his head down till José had handed him a towel and he’d wiped his face off. Then he slumped down beside the toilet, staring blearily about himself. “Oh…honestly, José, at this point it’s kind of past you. I mean—I’m sorry, but you’re turning into this excuse for all these arguments and…yeah. It’s not you. We just all suck.”

“Thanks. That really helps my self-esteem,” José muttered. Then he blinked in surprise as Cesc’s head whipped around towards him. “And that was a really bad joke, by the way. I know that that’s what’s going on—I’ve seen it happen plenty over you and Sergio, and…well, this sounds bad, but it’s just sort of weird to have it happen over me. Except for ‘Nando, which I do feel bad about, but I’m not sure if I can do anything there.”

“I guess tracking him down and banging his head on something hard is out of the question?” Before José could reply, Cesc threw up a hand and irritably shook it. Then he dropped the towel on the floor and pushed himself back till he could lean against the wall. “No, never mind. You know, you called him, he knows where you are…that’s not about you either. Now it’s just about him being an idiot who can’t swallow his pride.”

José smiled briefly, but stopped when he heard Ruud raise his voice. He popped his head out the door, but didn’t see anybody. “I still feel bad. And actually, I probably could go try and see him—helping Ruud with visa paperwork doesn’t keep me that busy. I’m just…”

“That what you’re doing now? I thought you thought agent stuff was stupid,” Cesc said.

“I thought agents were assholes. I didn’t really…” José looked at his hands, then pulled himself back into the room “…it’s just something I can do for now. I kind of like it, but I don’t think I want to switch to what you’re doing. No offense.”

“Hey, I can’t really blame you. I’m a pretty bad advertisement for it right now, anyway,” Cesc snorted. He let his head fall back against the wall. “I really do like it, though. I want…I want to do it for the rest of my life. But it’s so easy to screw up or fall behind, and that sort of thing sticks, so I’m always worried about if I’m doing enough. I mean, one misstep and bam, you’ve lost your touch. You’re out of the game.”

After a moment, José reached over to flush the toilet for lack of any better response. “If it helps at all, kicking yourself out of things really, really sucks too. I guess it is possible to get over it, since…I’m trying to do that, but that’s not any fun either. I wouldn’t recommend it.”

Somebody giggled. Then they outright laughed, and when José looked, he found that it was indeed Cesc doing that. The other man snickered into his hand, his reddened eyes nearly squeezed shut as he tried to keep the noise down. “Man, José, we really have to stop talking like this. This way feels totally shitty. Can’t we just do lunch, or something like that?”

José hesitantly smiled and began to reply, but a sudden loud argument cut him off. He twisted around and frowned, listening. Then he started to get up, but was brushed aside as Cesc stumbled out into the hall with surprising speed.

“Raúl? Iker?” Cesc called. He almost immediately fell into the wall, but just kept pushing his shoulder along it so by the time José was out of the bathroom, Cesc was in the front room. “Hey. I’m ready to be miserably apologetic n—”

Raúl had grabbed first, but Cesc’s voice had been suddenly muffled by Iker reaching around to cup his head and soundly kiss him. It all looked very awkward and teetering, but the clutching went on and on and finally José just inched his way around them, feeling more than a little out of place. This part had to be what confused and, to be honest, made him jealous the most: how people could have storming fights, go off and cry, and then the next time they saw each other, get to the forgiveness before actually settling the argument. Somehow it never seemed to work that way with him. At least, not with the other person towards him.

“Oh, so they’re kind of related and Iker met one through the other? I could’ve sworn I saw a half-dozen shitty excuses for art-house French films with that plot last year.” That came from a stranger in a rumpled suit who was slumped in the doorway, one hand idly ruffling his black hair. He started to ask Lionel something else, but then noticed José and looked up. Then he kept looking, to the point where José glanced off to the side hoping to see Ruud. “Hey. You’re not related to them too, are you?”

“I’m Raúl’s nephew and Cesc’s cousin,” José said, still searching. Come to think of it, he wondered where Michael had gotten off to.

Raúl finally let go of Cesc, then took hold of him again to get him and Iker to stop making out. “First of all, Cesc? When I walk off like that, I’m trying not to get so mad I do something silly, like all that running I did from Fernando. Secondly—”

“I yelled at you at the wrong time,” Iker interrupted. He paused as if he hadn’t meant to say that, then shook himself. “You didn’t deserve it today, but I’d like to be able to tell you what I think about some argument you and you—” he nodded at Raúl “—are having without getting my head bitten off.”

The stranger snorted and lazily hiked his thumb at them. He was still staring at José. “You have their taste for exhibitionist spats? I’m not into that, but you all do look very nice.”

Lionel had been trying to shut the door, but at that he stopped and made a startled squeaking noise. José blinked. “Thanks, but we’re in my boyfriend’s apartment,” he blurted.

And thank God, but Ruud finally came back from wherever he’d been, and judging from the look on his face, he’d heard the comment. “José? Is everything all right now? “

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” the man said, now staring at Ruud. His upper lip twitched. “Iker, you’ve been seriously holding back with me. You’ve met so many interesting people lately.”

“I’m glad you’re so entertained,” Ruud drawled. He absently handed José a cup of coffee, then strolled forward to put one hand on the door and the other on the opposite side of the door-frame, crowding out the other man. “And what was your name again?”

José looked at the coffee, decided it hadn’t been touched yet, and started to drink it. He wasn’t Cesc and he needed that much of a break in between sudden mood shifts. When he was done, he’d help Ruud chivvy everyone else out—they had a pattern, José suddenly realized. He might not have everything else in place yet, but sometimes he did know what to do, and when he did, Ruud would help out without really asking about it. They could work together.

He smiled into his coffee, listening to Ruud snarl at the stranger and Micha asking what had gone on and Cesc apologizing, and he thought things might be actually be okay.

* * *

Alessandro looked at the cell-phone screen, then put the phone to his ear. “Zlatan.”

*How’d you know?* For once, the other man sounded wary.

“Because I’m not getting a number or even an ID, and I don’t know anyone else who’d have to call me like that. And why are you calling me anyway?” Alessandro muttered, pushing himself up on one elbow. He checked the time on the bedside clock, then silently groaned. Then he changed that to a grimace as a muffled thud filtered through the walls.

Zlatan regained his usual insolent good humor in record time. *Because I missed your voice! Who wouldn’t want to hear you being bitchy all the time? Actually, if you really want to know, I’m trying to kill some time before I can kill—*

“Do you have to tell me about those?” Another thump came and Alessandro put his hand over his face, then pushed it up into his hair. Paolo wasn’t being vindictive—it could’ve been a lot louder—but predictably enough, the other man also was no monk. “I already know what you do and your bragging doesn’t make it any easier. Which may not matter to you, but…”

*Didn’t know it bugged you that much.*

Alessandro picked at the sheets over his legs. “Zlatan. I work for the Italian government. In a prosecutorial capacity.”

*I can’t believe you talk like that at this hour. And stop being so whiny. I know what you do. I just didn’t know it mattered that I talked about my jobs—I mean, with you always telling me how much you’d like to put me in jail, I figured you’d appreciate that. But okay, you don’t. I’ll stop.* Pause. *See, that wasn’t that hard. Anything else you want to bitch about?*

“I’m not whiny,” Alessandro said, and found his lips twitching at Zlatan’s full-throated laugh. He reached up and pressed his fingers to them till they stopped. “And I hate cut flowers. It’s stupid and wasteful to give something that’ll just die in a couple days.”

*God, you’re depressing. Don’t you ever look on the bright side?*

When the next thump came, Alessandro got up and moved over to the window, and he found that he couldn’t hear anything from there. So he pulled the chair to the spot, then sat down. The view wasn’t very good, which was why he supposed this was the guest bedroom, but it wasn’t like he was interested in nice views.

“I’m talking to you, aren’t I?” he eventually said, very quietly.

Zlatan was silent for a moment. *They’re having sex, aren’t they?*

Alessandro hit the heel of his hand against his forehead, then slumped down in his chair. Then he snorted and rubbed at his mouth again. “I’m going to hang up now.”

*No, you’re not. You’re going to get all worked up and tell me about how pissed off you are while trying to tell me you’re not pissed off, and I’m going to laugh because you’re really funny when you’re mad,* Zlatan cheerfully said.

And the annoying part was that he was right, but at least that wasn’t the most annoying part. Which could wait till morning, and possibly just wait forever, depending on how embarrassed Kaká was at breakfast. Because he was right too, but that, in Alessandro’s mind, didn’t exempt him from turnabout, and Alessandro honestly was looking forward to that.

“I hate you,” Alessandro said, settling in for a while.

* * *

--But you know, I still…love you. So I just want to say I don’t think I could ever want you dead. I think I want you unhappy right now because I’m angry, but I don’t know how long that will last either. So…bye.

The tape player clicked off, but Ruud waited a little longer before he popped out the tape and stuffed it deep into his desk. He looked around the dark, quiet room, thinking a little, and then gave himself a hard shake and got up.

When he slipped into bed, José stirred a little but didn’t wake. The other man did mumble a bit and press back at the kiss Ruud dropped on the back of his neck, but otherwise he was slack and still, a warm mound in the sheets. Ruud wrapped his arms around José’s waist and rested his chin on the top of José’s head, eyes open.