Tangible Schizophrenia


The Backdoor

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: PG-13
Pairing: Frings/Ballack, implied Van Nistelrooy/Cristiano and Lahm/Hildebrand
Feedback: Good lines, bad ones, 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.
Summary: Michael gets creative. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.


Two weeks later and they were still talking about Cristiano’s alleged collapse in Premier. Granted, him getting secretly sent off to England and then nobody, from his agent to the company, issuing anything but the shortest statement to the press, was kind of asking people to pay attention, but Michael still thought it had long since passed ridiculous. He meant no ill-will towards Cristiano, but there seriously were more important things going on in the world.

Okay, he was grumpy because he’d managed to figure out what was going on at work so his day was full but not overwhelming, and he’d gotten out enough to find a few coffeeshops he liked, but the only time he ever saw Torsten was for the ten or so minutes the other man hung out with the rest of Lehmann’s group in the morning. He theoretically could’ve brought up something then, but Torsten always had bloodshot eyes and rumpled clothes, as if he’d spent the night at work. Which he reportedly did most of the week. Michael had casually asked Philipp once and Philipp had said he usually tried to get down at the end of his shift to check on Torsten, but the other man was always busy.

And that was with the crazy hours the producers and sound techs worked—apparently Michael’s first day had been a weird one from top to bottom, since he’d later come to see that his coworkers almost never were all in at the same time. Philipp was a complete night owl, Lionel preferred to go days working around the clock and then crash, and Bastian and Lukas were just spotty. For the first time in years, Michael felt like he was the slacker, and he’d already developed such a serious coffee habit that he often found himself buying a triple espresso before he even got in to work.

“…stupid pretty little shit like that, you can practically see it coming. Jesus, it’s not like he’ll get his kicks from something like hitting the dog-pits—too much of a chance it’ll screw up his face,” said the guy in front of Michael. Loud, English, creaking and clanking with leather and chains. Like some mixed-up, hideous flashback of that night in Premier. “I hear that got all sliced up and they had to fly him out for emergency plastic surgery.”

“Oh, bullshit. Look, it was nice talking to you, but I’m in a hurry. Hey, mocha latte, go easy on the—”

“Where’s the rush? Besides, I was ahead of you when I decided to strike up a nice chat ‘cause of the long wait—”

He needed that espresso. Last night he’d kicked off earlier than he’d wanted to, thinking it was more important to tackle really delicate work with a clear and fresh mind, and now he wanted to get in and get the problem fixed before it turned into a disaster.

“—fucking move!”

“Why don’t you fucking move, you prick?”

Michael woke up as somebody was shoved hard back into him. He went up on his heels, then threw his weight forward and pushed back, mostly meaning to get the other person off. Then he saw it was the English guy and he opened his mouth to apologize, but the other man had his fist up and clearly wasn’t going to wait.

“I bet you’re a Ronaldo fan, you look like—” the man started, swinging his arm forward.

It was pretty crowded, so halfway through his duck, Michael caught his elbow on somebody’s side. He pulled in his arm and yanked his head down, feeling the wind of the punch rip over him, then straightened up. And honestly, he just meant to throw up his arm to block what he thought was another punch coming, but whoever was behind the guy must have shoved at him, because suddenly he was down on Michael’s feet, grabbing at his face. Michael started to apologize again, but caught a flicker at the edge of his vision and instinctively whirled around.

“Oh—geez—go, go on ahead. You can go first,” stammered a man nearby.

This…definitely wasn’t a good beginning to the day, but a quick look around told Michael he didn’t know anybody. Getting out of the place probably was the best idea, so he carefully stepped over the English guy, who seemed to be recovering, and hurriedly placed an order. Muttering apologies all the way, though nobody seemed to hear him. The cashier almost forgot to charge Michael for it and he practically had to jam his money in the girl’s hand.

Getting his change back wasn’t a big deal compared to how eerily quiet the shop had gotten, with everyone just staring at him. Unnerved, he grabbed his cup and rushed out. He thought he heard somebody calling after him, but he ignored it and just walked as fast as he could down the sidewalk. When he checked over his shoulder a couple hundred meters later, nobody was following, so he decided he probably was okay.

It looked like everyone was either out or busy in studio when he finally made it to work; he’d come in too late and missed even the morning coffee-gossip session, which was his best chance of seeing people. Fine, seeing Torsten.

“I need to get out,” Michael muttered to himself as he headed for his office. He was supposed to be pretty good at being patient. He wasn’t supposed to be acting like a whiny, wound-up teenager. Maybe he hadn’t gotten laid in months, but—anyway, he didn’t want to meet up with Torsten just for that.

Michael sat down, took a deep breath, and then turned on his computer. He could be calm. He could be collected. He could get through a damn day and do good work and take care of the nasty little surprises Savage had left behind in the group’s computer systems. And then later, he could do something productive about his frustration, like…something. He didn’t have to figure out that now.

It was a little hard getting started, mostly because he’d been so tired last night that where he’d stopped was a bit hard to remember, but once he got into it, he was nicely distracted. His fingers flew over the keys and his ears tuned out the occasional random noise, and even Lukas till the other man crept right up to him, cupped hands around his ears and then blew hard into them. “Ahhh! Goddamn it, Poldi!”

“Don’t hurt me!” Lukas yelped, scrambling down to the floor. He neatly avoided Michael’s flailing arm and scooted back so he could safely stand again. “Wow, Micha, you’re scary-intense sometimes.”

“Because I’m busy.” Now that he wasn’t, Michael’s body was making the point that he had a backache. He really needed to get out and spend some of his first paycheck on a decent chair; the one he had was designed for someone four inches shorter and the backrest completely flipped out at the slightest touch. “What?”

Lukas grinned off the reprimand and came back to pull at Michael’s arm. “It’s Leo. He’s got the Chels in his studio and his computer’s frozen him out. If he weren’t so excited about them, he’d be down here himself screaming at you.”

“He probably just mistyped his password too many times.” With a sigh, Michael quickly got himself to a place where he could pause his work, then let Lukas drag him up. He shook off the other man and bent back and forth at the waist a few times before going out.

Lionel’s studio was the closest and Lukas wanted to tell some weird story about Ljungberg and underwear, so Michael didn’t get a chance to say a thing before they were there. The door was closed, but he could hear animated, though muffled, conversation going on behind it, along with loud barks of laughter. He knocked once, then tried the knob: it wasn’t locked. Michael pushed open the door and saw the guy he’d punched in the coffeeshop.

They blinked at each other. A nasty-looking bruise curved around the left side of the man’s jaw, and he had an ice-pack in his hand that was dripping water. The men around him were dressed fairly similarly to him, and suddenly Michael realized who the man had to be.

All right, Michael had to do something about his lack of knowledge of musicians—at least, of the ones that FC Records had signed. And he was going to sink through all the floors and die now, so at least he didn’t have to worry about going nuts over a man he barely knew.

“Holy shit,” the English guy said. Oddly enough, a broad smile spread over his face and he came forward, hand out. He hesitated when Michael flinched, then shook his head. “Oh, no, I don’t want a rematch. Not with you—you got a wicked right, you know?”

“I’m—really sorry. I didn’t—” Michael started. He vaguely registered Lionel in the corner just behind the door and Lukas beside him, both of them staring at him.

The other man shook his head again and pushed forward the last few centimeters to offer his hand. “No, it’s all right. I was being a total pissant anyway—probably needed that. Was hung-over and my head was…but yeah, still my fault. I was calling after you to apologize, but you’re pretty damn quick.”

One of the other men, who till now had been mostly blocked from Michael’s view, moved forward. John Terry was nodding and grinning. “This is the one? Honestly, Lamps, not only a coffeeshop, but one of the guys we’ll be working with now? You really corked it.”

After a moment, Michael realized how long Lampard had been holding out his hand and grabbed it, giving it a quick shake. “No hard feelings?”

“Nope. On the contrary, I wasn’t all that sure if this was a good idea, but now I’m convinced this is the label for us,” Lampard said.

“Oh. My. God,” Lukas incredulously whispered. He nudged Michael’s side. “You punched out Frank Lampard?”

Michael started to put his hand to his face, but at the last moment pushed at his hair instead. He ducked his head and slid further in, getting behind the computer in the corner as quickly as possible. “I didn’t know who he was. Leo, what’s the problem here?”

Lionel was bug-eyed. He made a couple of hand gestures before finally saying that he’d been trying to log in when the computer had just crashed on him.

Somebody sat down on the edge of the table just as Michael had started to override the computer. He looked up and Terry nodded, shoving his hands in his pockets, before turning back to the others. Terry’s hair was spiked and he had a silver ring in one ear, but otherwise he was dressed pretty tamely for a modern punk icon: casual black suit, white shirt. “Anyhow, we were thinking that now that we’ve got a proper studio, we’d like to fix the bass. I guess you know—”

“—Terrible. I can’t believe they let you release with issues like that in the low register,” Lionel said. His words tripped each other up, he was talking so quickly. “No, no, I know, I was so annoyed, they totally overwrote the bass solo and then all the drum flashes—”

“Done,” Michael muttered. He got up, then twisted to the side to avoid Lionel’s absent slide towards the computer.

He stayed long enough to see that Lionel logged in properly, then sneaked out of the room. It looked like Terry and maybe the quiet one in the corner wearing the lone other suit noticed, but by then Lionel, Lukas and the rest of the Chels were in animated discussion about reverb and so nobody stopped Michael.

However, Michael had only gotten a few meters down the hall when he heard footsteps and then someone calling his name. He glanced over his shoulder, then slowed up for Lukas.

“Wow, you look all quiet and laidback, but you can really have a temper,” Lukas said, boinging up. Someday, Michael really had to check his shoes for hidden springs.

“I am quiet and laidback. I wasn’t even trying to hit him—he just…sort of…fell that way.” Michael tried to demonstrate the set-up with his hands, then decided the lame-factor overrode any educational value. He started looking around for an exit. “So those were the Chels?”

Lukas nodded and fell companionably into step with Michael. “Yeah, and their…manager? I think? The other one in the suit—he’s kind of cute, isn’t he? His hair’s as curly as Jens’, only brown.”

“Do people who sign with FC Records usually have their own manager?” Since he’d started working, Michael hadn’t seen any managers or agents who said they worked for one of the acts, and not for Lehmann. That had bothered him, but his knowledge of the music industry basically consisted of what he’d read in the occasional tabloid mag someone else had left lying around, so he’d just chalked it up to that.

“Um, when they’re touring, they always do. A lot of them have their own agents, too—you know, Ruud and Thierry and them, they negotiate for the label, not so much for the stars.” Something about that visibly struck Lukas as odd and he fell briefly silent, looking thoughtful. Then he shook his head. “The acts’ agents usually don’t come down here—they meet with Lehmann or our agents. But you’ve just seen Cristiano, really, and he’s kind of weird. He doesn’t have one of his own. Ruud acts like both his and FC’s agent.”

Michael glanced around; Van Nistelrooy could be eerily silent at times and he seemed to spend more time than any of the other signing agents down in the studio area. Weird, since everyone said he didn’t like sound people, but at any rate…okay, he wasn’t here. “Is that still true?”

A second later, Michael was kicking himself for giving in because Lukas’ eyes lighted up. He grabbed Michael’s arm and pulled him close to conspiratorially whisper. “Everyone pretty much says that Cristiano’s still in Bath, though Bastian heard that Kahn’s saying he got sent to some rehab place in America. But that’s Kahn, and he totally just wants to pretend that he’s in charge of our—”

“Let me know when we’re going out for lunch, okay?” Michael pointedly said. Probably too loudly, but Ruud honestly had just popped up out of nowhere, and the moment he’d spotted them, he’d stopped like he needed to talk to one of them. “You can finish telling me then—I’ve got to run the rest of this cycle first.”

Lukas blinked in confusion, then turned and glimpsed Ruud. He looked briefly panicked before his expression smoothed over into an expert look of innocence. “Sure. Hey, Ruud.”

He was the more logical choice for Ruud to speak to, but the other man just gave him a nod and a “Podolski” before turning to Michael. “Can I speak to you for a moment?”

Michael tried not to look too surprised as a counterbalance to Lukas’ jaw-drop. He had no idea what this might be about, but Ruud wasn’t giving off that air of repressed rage he usually had, so it might be okay. Or so Michael hoped. He wasn’t all that interested in getting into two useless tiffs in one day. “Yeah, sure…do you mind if we go back to my office and I do some work, too? I had to freeze part of the accounting system and I want to get back to it before their department calls me up.”

“All right,” Ruud said in a neutral tone.

Lukas jaw-dropped some more. If he stayed like that any longer, the whole thing might just fall off the rest of his skull.

Ruud stared coolly at him. After a moment, Lukas pulled his mouth shut and backed up, mumbling incoherently. The moment he had some space, he darted away.

Well, now Michael knew what they were going to talk about at lunch: the rest of the guys were going to grill him over this for the whole time. It almost made him seriously consider just ordering in and maybe hiding somewhere. His office was out—the whole floor was out, since Bastian and Lukas didn’t have any compunctions about hunting him down and glomping him till he couldn’t stop them from dragging him away. But he didn’t really know his way around the building anywhere, except for…

…that was an absolutely brilliant idea, and it’d even fix multiple problems for him. And it was really obvious. Suddenly Michael felt like the slowest genius ever. Not that he was a genius anyway, of course.

“Here…oh, I’m sorry I don’t have another chair yet,” Michael winced. He walked into his office and jiggled his mouse to turn off the screensaver, then unlocked the computer. “Usually if someone’s in here for that long, I grab one from—”

“This shouldn’t take that long.” Ruud flicked some nonexistent specks of dust off his suit. From the pristine way he looked, the night two weeks ago had been a complete aberration, but something about him set Michael’s teeth slightly on edge. Not in a disgusted way—more like a wary way, like whatever was off with Ruud might potentially explode and catch people in the crossfire.

It was a little like looking at a missile in a museum, Michael thought as he sat down. It didn’t look that harmful, and some of them even had a little bit of industrial beauty to their tapered shape, but he always wondered whether they’d really been properly disarmed. “Well, what can I help you with?”

“Thierry mentioned in passing that you hacked a few secure databases to get him the information he needed to get Thompson arrested and a gag order put on his trial process,” Ruud said. He glanced around, then leaned against the side of the door. “What if I wanted you to do something similar?”

Michael paused with his hands over the keys. Then he started typing again calmly enough, but inside he was kicking himself. Well, thinking about it, because frankly, he didn’t regret what he’d done with Cristiano’s attacker after he’d read through the records he’d pulled. But he still didn’t like the idea of making a habit of it. “I’d say you probably know the legal department and what their opinion would be better than me. And just practically speaking…” pause while Michael collected his thoughts, wanting to be firm but not offensive “…programming and hacking aren’t quite the same thing. The security systems I had to deal with weren’t that hard, so I could cover up my tracks fine. But I don’t specialize in that kind of thing, and you know, anyone with something to hide and half a brain will be smart enough to get a really good system.”

That was slightly underestimating Michael’s abilities, but it was mostly truthful. He’d never been too interested in encryption code till right after he’d been fired by the university, but he’d known a few classmates who had. What he could do and what they could do were oceans apart.

After a moment’s thought, Ruud appeared to accept that and shifted to look out the door. He crossed his arms over his chest and drummed his fingers over his elbow. “So where would I go to find someone who does specialize in it?”

Michael hesitated again, then turned around to look directly at the other man. “Can I ask why you’d need somebody like that?”

“Why would it concern you?” Ruud replied. That was a little bit snappish.

“Because generally those people aren’t ones for laws and stable societies and even keeping their promises. Like Savage, the guy before me? He left all these nasty tricks in the system he built, like this one here that I’m fixing.” Now Michael was getting a bit curt, but he thought it was justified. He liked his job, but damn, had Savage left him a lot of headaches to deal with. “If you try to uninstall a program from Bastian’s work-station, it triggers a worm that invades the finance department and eats all the files for five years back. Luckily, Bastian didn’t try that yet.”

A brief flash of surprise passed over Ruud’s face. He started to say something, then abruptly stopped himself and walked out.

Well…okay. After a moment, Michael shrugged and turned back, only to jump when something rattled. He looked over his shoulder, then twisted around as Ruud came back in, hauling a chair along with him.

The other man closed the door behind him and kicked the chair up to the far side of Michael’s desk, then sat down. “So you’re saying they don’t honor contracts.”

“I think most of them think ‘contract’ is a swear-word. Well, no, not…it’s just if they like breaking through firewalls and that sort of thing, they don’t think like normal people. Some of them have weird personal…rules?...but you have to figure them out for yourself,” Michael muttered. He leaned back, widening and then relaxing his eyes to relieve some of the strain from the tiny font. “It’s just—what would you need someone like that for? You’d have to go through a lot of trouble with them, so it’d better be worth all of it.”

“It would be. With what happened to Cristiano—” slight clip of breath over that name “—I now know that Alex Ferguson has been taking this vendetta of his to the street level. I need to deal with it before he gets to any of my other signings.”

Michael hit ‘enter’ and watched his program run, holding his breath. But after nearly thirty seconds, it hadn’t stopped, so it probably was going to run to completion this time. “You don’t hire a freelance hacker to protect you. You hire them to send somebody else down in flames.”

He looked at the screen for a while longer before he risked glancing at the other man. What he’d said had stung Ruud, and that still lingered on Ruud’s face, but overall Ruud seemed…oddly thoughtful. Considering. It was almost like he and Michael were strategizing together.

“Well, that too,” Ruud finally said. He sat back and rolled his shoulders, stretching them. “Look, I took his best and most profitable star from him—I can understand Ferguson being upset. But he crossed a line. He used drug addiction because he figured if it didn’t lure Cristiano back, it’d kill him. So now I’m okay with crossing lines, as long as I can put Ferguson down where he can’t ever do that again.”

It was pretty clear that Ruud wasn’t talking about his ‘other signings’ again, which honestly, made Michael both more sympathetic and more uncomfortable. He could understand, fine, but maybe that meant he knew better than most people why he should be nervous around Ruud. “Being vindictive’s not really healthy for you. Or…for any hacker, it’s not that great either. Getting emotional’s a great way to screw up on a hack. Computers are calm, so if you want to beat them, you should be calm, too. Or at least not doing it because of something you feel for a person—the best hackers are a little in love with the code, with matching up against it.”

Ruud looked at Michael for a few seconds, then snorted. He might have flashed a small, humorless, close-lipped smile as well. “I didn’t realize you did psychiatric counseling on the side.”

“Like I said, I’m not good for real hacking,” Michael said. He checked his computer again, but the program was still going. Good for it and his work, bad for giving him something to occupy his mind. “Look—”

“I don’t care about being healthy aside from it letting me do what I need to do. And I need to take care of Ferguson,” Ruud interrupted, leaning forward. His eyes were glittering and his voice had dropped, compressed so it was harsh and intense. “I didn’t do anything to him besides leaving—he came after me. If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t…want…”

Michael probably was going to regret this at some point, but something about Ruud just then convinced him. It wasn’t the threat of violence: Michael disliked that, but wouldn’t run if he had to face it. And anyway, that hadn’t even—that was it. Ruud didn’t sound angry right then so much as extremely concerned. The office gossip filled in the blanks for Michael with that.

“Well, if you have to…a big hacker city is Amsterdam,” Michael said. “I had a classmate who I think went back there, though he’s from Rotterdam originally. Robin van Persie.”

“Friend?” Ruud asked.

Before he could help himself, Michael made a face. Then again, that was how he really felt. “No. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention me at all…if he even remembers. We didn’t move in the same circles, but there were a lot of rumors about him. Though the university actually expelled him for something to do with drug possession.”

“Sounds perfect.” Ruud was back to neutral again. He pushed back his chair and got up, then paused. “Thank you.”

Michael blinked. “You’re…welcome.”

The other man took the chair with him when he left, which saved Michael the trouble, but Michael got up anyway and walked around the office a few times. His leg was cramping, but that wasn’t all of it.

Well, he hoped Ruud was still welcome, but it wasn’t like he could stop the other man, short of knocking him out. He could—he probably did want to mention this to Jens, but on the other hand, the discussion he’d just had with Ruud seemed oddly private and he had the impression Ruud didn’t do that much. The other man hadn’t seemed as icy as he usually did.

He’d bring it up obliquely, and see if Jens thought it was enough of a concern to ask for more details, Michael decided. He did like this job, and if it came down to making sure people didn’t get hurt, there were all his new friends here who’d been nothing but helpful.

* * *

The first couple times Michael stopped by, Jens’ door was shut. Normally he would’ve asked David where Lehmann was, but David didn’t seem to be in, and Lehmann’s secretary always seemed to be on multiple phone calls at once so Michael never felt comfortable bugging her. Technically, he supposed he could’ve tried hacking in to check out Jens’ calendar, but that just seemed like overkill.

He needed a break if he was going to keep from needing glasses, so instead of heading back to his office, Michael wandered towards the studios. For once, Bastian and Lukas appeared to be hard at work, headphones on and wearing intent expressions as their fingers danced over the boards. The ‘recording’ light by Timo’s studio wasn’t on, so Michael lifted his hand to knock on the door. Then he paused, thinking, and then slid down one door to check Philipp’s studio.

Philipp wasn’t in there, and Michael had just passed by the shared offices and the break area so he knew the other man wasn’t in there, either. He went back to Timo’s door and listened more carefully.

“Hey, Michael.” Lionel strolled down the hall, waving his hand. His headset was slung around his neck and he didn’t notice or didn’t care that the wire for it was trailing haphazardly behind him, with the plug bouncing along the carpet. “They snuggling again?”

“Sounds a little more energetic than that,” Michael snorted. He backed off just as a muffled moan came from inside the room. “I feel so sorry for the cleaning staff around here.”

Eyes rolling, Lionel kept on walking as he dug in his pocket. He pulled out a stick of gum and began to unwrap it. “Oh, those two are neat. It’s Schweini who got banned from taking dates into the studios. Speaking of, Bastian just got in a box of pastries his mom sent him—want to go grab some?”

Michael opened his mouth.

“No, no, haven’t you noticed? Bastian always shares ‘em around. If he didn’t, he’d weigh as much as an elephant,” Lionel said. Still walking, he turned around and waved Michael on. “Seriously. They’re the best. When we say we want his mom, we’re not insulting him.”

After a moment, Michael decided what the hell, he was a little bit hungry anyway. He trotted after the other man and caught up by the end of the hall. “Are you done with the Chels already?”

“Huh? Oh, no, they’ll probably not be out till tomorrow morning. Maybe. John Terry’s in love with my woofers.” Lionel grinned and bounced in place, possibly in tune with his chomping on the gum. “The airline shipped all their stuff to Brazil, so they have to make do with studio instruments for now. They’re just messing around, getting used to those, so I’m taking a break.”

“Guess you aren’t coming home tonight,” Michael replied, smiling. Because he was happy for the guy.

Honestly, rooming with Lionel wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t anything like torture either. It just was a lot easier to handle with Leo was happily exhausted, and not grumpily collapsing all over the place. Messi might be small, but he was startlingly fast even when half-asleep, and he tended to kick out without thinking when surprised.

With a shrug, Lionel pushed open the door to the shared office. He let Michael come in, then quickly slipped in front to get over to Bastian’s disaster of a desk and dive into the contents of a big pink cardboard box. A moment later, he had a half-eaten roll in his hand and what looked like brown sugar smeared all over his mouth. He looked up, blinking, and then belatedly offered Michael something dripping with jelly. “Sorry. ‘s good. And I’m really hungry all of a sudden…”

Because he’d skipped lunch to hang with Terry and the band. Not that Michael brought that up; he just took the pastry with a thank-you and tried a bite. It was…amazing. Okay, now he kind of wished he had Bastian’s mother, too.

“By the way, Frank says he is really sorry.” Lionel nodded at Michael’s confused look. “You sneaked out of there, so he thinks you’re still mad at him.”

“Mad—no, no. More like hoping to pretend this whole morning didn’t happen,” Michael mumbled. The jelly filling was so good he was having trouble not slurping at the stuff dripping out of his mouth. He made himself wipe that off with his hand, but then he really wanted to lick his fingers. “I was cranky—all they were talking about in the shop was Ronaldo, Ronaldo, Ronaldo.”

Something funny went over Lionel’s face. He put his finger in sideways and used his teeth to scrape off some of the sugar, then grabbed a tissue to finish cleaning up. “Phil told me earlier he might be on his way back,” Lionel murmured.

Michael raised his eyebrows. “Already?”

“Well, not now. But pretty soon. Thing is, Lehmann’s ordered us not to tell Ruud.” Lionel shot a meaningful look at Michael. “Phil knows, and I know because I was helping on some of the beats, and if Cristiano comes back, his album ends up priority again. Torsten probably does, because he’s got to write the checks. But that’s it.”

This kind of thing always made Michael want to exit the conversation as soon as possible. It wasn’t really in his nature to keep secrets or to hide things, and anyway, as far as he’d seen, not very many people were good at keeping things under wraps. So things always ended in a mess.

“Yeah, nobody likes it when Lehmann does something like this. Whatever it is that he’s doing. It’s okay when he’s doing it to other division managers and labels, but in here I think it should be about the music, not the politics,” Lionel said. He gazed solemnly at his pastry as he spoke, which should’ve given the moment a touch of the ridiculous, but didn’t. The topic was just too serious.

They fell into an awkward silence after that. Michael munched on his bun and jiggled one foot, trying to think of something to say. Except he really didn’t want to talk about Cristiano anymore, and he didn’t know enough to say anything about the Chels. “Um, that guy from the other night left his earring in the bathroom.”

Blink from Lionel. Well, it was a bit of a random switch in subject. “Which guy?”

“The—the Wednesday date? The Mexican one?” Michael said. He’d been mostly hiding in his bedroom, fiddling around with an mp3 player’s software, so he hadn’t gotten a good look at Lionel’s latest one-night-stand.

Oh.” Lionel made a face. “Crap. Well, maybe I can mail it to him…he made me take his phone number.”

“That should be all you ne—yes?” Michael said, turning. He’d heard a sound by the door and when he looked, Ruud and Thierry were standing just outside in the hall, having apparently just finished a conversation.

Ruud made a demurral gesture with his hand and walked away, but Thierry hung around to look at Lionel. “Hey, Messi, how are the boys? Terry giving you any demands yet?” he asked in a good-natured tone.

That obviously was going to be a long discussion, so Michael excused himself to go finish his snack in his office. And he ran right into Jens, who’d been standing in the hall a few meters away.

“I was hoping I’d run into you,” Jens said. “I’d like to have a word.”

Michael was pretty thankful for the mouthful of pastry that let him get away with not answering right away, even if that made him look slightly stupid. He chewed, swallowed, and then replied pleasantly enough, “Sure. Is it about the progress I’ve made with the system?”

“Yes.” Jens started to turn back towards his office.

It was a long enough walk so that Michael had finished updating Jens on what he’d been doing and what he still needed to do by the time they got to the lobby in front of Jens’ office. The other man was still ahead of Michael. He glanced away while answering a question of Michael’s about possible vendors, then paused. Then he stopped where he was, apparently meaning for them to finish talking out in the open. Granted, the secretary for once wasn’t at her desk, but anyone could still walk in on them.

It wasn’t a good position for Michael to see who was in the office, but he assumed it had to be somebody important. He quickly wrapped up what he had to say.

Jens didn’t ask any more questions, so it seemed like he was finished talking about that, but he didn’t seem satisfied. He wasn’t avoiding Michael’s eyes or anything, but his foot was shifting slightly on the carpet.

“I wanted to ask something,” Michael finally said. “About what I did for Thierry with the—”

“We can’t compensate you for that, other than giving you free drinks at Premier for a year instead of at the employee rate. Frankly, that never happened.” After a moment, Jens grimaced and moved a few centimeters closer. He dropped his voice. “I’m extremely thankful for it, though—it’s not what we hired you for and you have the right to refuse.”

Actually, ever since Michael had seen his first paycheck, he’d been too stunned to really check out how things broke down. He probably should, just so he didn’t give himself a headache come tax season. “Actually, I wanted to know if it’d be…a regular extracurricular, I guess you could call it.”

“No. Why?” The second word came shooting out after the first as Jens’ gaze sharpened. “Did someone ask you to do more of that? They shouldn’t.”

Michael fidgeted, uncomfortably reminded of all those investigatory interviews following his advisor’s fall from grace. “No. But they asked for advice on how to take it outside the label. Extracurricular help.”

Jens stood and thought for a few moments, apparently not noticing how tense it’d gotten around them. He hummed a few times, then flicked his eyes back to Michael. “Did you give any?”

“It…seemed theoretical at the time, so I did. I just realized later that it might be a problem.” Which was not exactly true, but not that far off. It wasn’t like Michael had been listening to the office gossip enough to figure out exactly how Ruud and Cristiano related to each other.

“You come off as levelheaded—that’s part of why we hired you. So I assume you’d give good theoretical advice,” Jens finally said. He didn’t sound particularly happy, but at least he wasn’t screaming his head off like in the worst-case scenario that’d been playing in Michael’s head for the past fifteen minutes. “And you’re telling me before Ruud’s had time to leave the building, so you’re smart enough to set up a check just in case things need to be stopped. I appreciate that, but in the future, I wish you’d stop things a little earlier.”

That pricked at Michael a little. He was normally a calm person—he really was. But he wasn’t a doormat. “Well, I didn’t know before that I’d have to deal with unbalanced people.”

He bit his tongue right afterward, but pride, maybe, made him keep up his head and continue to meet Jens’ eyes. The other man’s pupils flared, then slowly narrowed.

“Music industry?” Jens drawled.

Michael blinked, not really sure if the other man’s reaction was as laidback as it seemed to be. After a moment, he shrugged and took a risk. “You hired me out of a university, not out of the commercial side. You know I’m not a professional.”

“No, you’re not. Which is a relief sometimes because…” Lehmann cut himself off by glancing over his shoulder. Whoever was in his office must have made a signal or something, because when he turned back, his manner was much brisker. “Point taken. I hope my point’s taken as well, though I know Ruud’s a difficult situation…probably the best that you didn’t just blow him off, since then God knows who he would’ve gone to see. But still—”

“I wasn’t planning to make a habit out of it. I don’t really like consultant work,” Michael said.

“Good.” Jens started to turn, then stopped. “And thank you for telling me.”

Michael said ‘you’re welcome’ to the other man’s back, though Jens was walking away so fast that he wasn’t sure Jens heard him. Well, whatever. That’d been about all Michael could’ve done, and now he needed to get back to the work they actually paid him to do.

* * *

The thin cardboard cup holder wasn’t doing a damn thing to keep the coffee’s heat from painfully burning Michael’s palm. He knocked once, then pushed in the door, figuring he’d apologize after he got the damn things down on a desk or something.

Torsten was still turning around when Michael came in. He blearily looked up, then brightened obscenely at the sight of the coffee. “Thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome,” Michael said, and then jumped back when Torsten underwent some strange kind of spasm-yelp. The coffee burned.

After a moment, Torsten slumped back in his chair and rubbed his hand over his face. “Sorry. I’ve been seeing nothing but spreadsheets for days now. I didn’t see you there.”

“Just the coffee, huh? That really hurts.” Michael got the cups down on Torsten’s desk, then stood back to wring his hands in the cool air, which felt amazingly good. “I—”

He stopped because Torsten had grabbed the nearest cup and was currently draining it in such a way that he obviously wasn’t paying attention to the rest of the world. Instead Michael pulled up a chair and sat down.

“Sorry, what?” Torsten said once he was done.

Maybe forty seconds passed.

Torsten put the cup down and leaned back, narrowing his eyes. He drummed his fingers on the desk. “Well, excuse me, but Lahmi tells me you’ve been going home early enough to get at least five hours’ sleep.”

“I’m trying not to laugh. Really.” Only a little bit of a snicker leaked out on Michael. All in all, he thought he was doing a pretty good job of sparing Torsten.

“And yet you still manage to get in fights first thing in the morning?” The other man made a show of lifting his cup and peering closely at it. “Wait, don’t tell me—you didn’t knock out Frank Lampard to get me this, did—”

“Oh, God.” Okay, well, Michael probably deserved to get cut back, but honestly, could the whole thing just go away?

No, probably not. If he was around for that long, at the anniversary of his thirtieth year at the label, somebody would bring it up. They would probably put it in his obituary. He’d turn into a trivia question and never be able to watch late-night reruns of Jeopardy on the American stations again.

After a moment, Michael realized he’d been smushing his face into his hands for a pretty long time. He looked up, then quickly ducked just in time to avoid cracking the top of his head into Torsten’s chin.

“I was just kidding. Sorry if that was too mean—I’m sleep-deprived,” Torsten said, standing back. He’d come around the desk, apparently to see if Michael was okay. “Oh, and thank you for the coffee…all right, I’m very out of it right now…”

“No, no, I know you were. It’s not—I’m just—I hit Frank Lampard. In a café. I don’t know what I was thinking—I’m a nonviolent person, really. I don’t like doing that. It’s not me.” Michael pushed at his face a few more times, then leaned back. “It’s just been very weird today.”

“It happens. I think somewhere around lunch-time I told somebody to go fuck a copier if they needed triplicate,” Torsten said, grimacing. He went back around his desk to get his chair, then pulled it after him till he could flop down beside Michael. “With some luck, I actually get to go home today, so I can sleep in a bed and then wake up tomorrow and spend the whole day trying to track down whoever it was to say sorry.”

Well, Michael pretty much had to agree. He snagged his coffee off the desk and sipped at it. Then he remembered what he’d been about to say before. “Oh…Bastian says his mom sent him a sachertorte for you, but he left it at home.”

“Oh. Well, that’s something to look forward to. Lucky for all of us, he’s not that kind of person, or else he could take over the company with his mom’s baking.” Torsten laughed beneath his breath as he put up his arms and stretched. Then he fell back into his chair, audibly rattling it. “God, I’m tired. The coffee’s a godsend.”

“No problem. I…tried to find a coffeeshop that we could go to, but I guess you heard about how that turned out,” Michael said. He’d started out meaning to make it a joke, but nerves caught up with him halfway through and flattened out his voice. He winced when he was done; the day wasn’t done embarrassing him yet, apparently.

Torsten blinked, looking at Michael, then grinned. He pulled himself up from his sprawl and bent over the arm, paused, then leaned over the rest of the way.

It wasn’t much of a kiss since he caught Michael off-guard, but it was a lot more than they’d gotten in the nightclub. Michael managed to pull himself together enough to kiss back, reaching up towards Torsten’s face, and the other man shifted to move himself closer—

--and Torsten overbalanced and nearly fell out of his chair. At the last moment, Michael diverted his hand to beneath Torsten’s arm and pulled him back, but then had to let go to keep his coffee from spilling on himself.

“Eventually I’m going to be done with all this extra work, and then you’ll get to see me when I actually know what’s going on,” Torsten muttered, yanking himself the rest of the way back into his chair. He looked about as disappointed as Michael felt. “That’ll be nice for you—I’m really not the comatose drunk you probably think I am.”

“I don’t think that, so it’ll be even nicer.” Michael sat and looked at Torsten and groaned to himself. Then he pushed all that away. “But right now isn’t all that great a time, I guess. You really need to finish up and get some sleep.”

With a sigh, Torsten nodded. He started to get up a little before Michael did, but then stopped to grab Michael’s arm. “Well, I still feel bad—do you need to go back to work now? Want to stay and drink your coffee and talk me through not falling into my keyboard for an hour?”

Michael sat back down so fast that the chair started to slide backward. He cursed and dug one heel into the ground to stop that, then pulled himself back. “Okay.”

“Great. Just talk about any—anything but—”

“I know. I’m so tired of it…well, I guess I could tell you about what really happened this morning. Which was an accident. I was just trying to block him, not trying to hit him…”


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