Tangible Schizophrenia



Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: R.
Pairing: Ballack/Frings, Van Persie/Lehmann, Van Nistelrooy/C. Ronaldo
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.
Notes: Title references the NIN song.
Summary: Michael’s not getting any and is having problems dealing. Neither is Robin, but he’s being proactive about it, and Ruud is getting laid so much he’s guilt-tripping.


The clock said it was four-thirty when Michael finally gave up and rolled out of bed. He pressed one hand to his right ear, as if that would do anything to block out the rhythmic thumping from Lionel’s room, and stumbled into the bathroom. Around five, he stumbled back out and all the way into the street. The coffeeshops were just opening, so he had to stand blearily at the door of one for a few minutes before the girl inside finally let him in.

Actually, he wasn’t sure if she was supposed to do that yet, but he wasn’t in any state to even figure that out, let alone object, before he got about three cups of coffee into him. And he’d been hoping that sharing with Messi would be quieter than staying in Timo and Phil’s guest-room…well, usually it was. Lionel brought home a lot of dates, but he generally finished them off before Michael even went to bed, or else had them around when Michael was at work. This one was just…fucking noisy and should’ve passed out hours ago, he grumpily thought.

Once he woke up enough to realize the barista who’d let him in was flirting with him, Michael hastily disengaged himself from the conversation and went to work, where the clocks mocked him: still only five-forty-five. Between four-thirty and about seven in the morning was when the place was at its emptiest—the people staying late either had fallen asleep at their workspace by then or gone home, and the early birds weren’t that insane. Which made Michael…he decided not to think about that, and figured he might as well get in some work on Bastian’s computer before the other man came in.

He headed towards the sound producers’ shared office, but on the way he happened to pass Van Nistelrooy’s office and the door was open. Michael had been working at FC Records for over a month now and he still had no idea if Ruud actually used that room or if the man just stored spare medical equipment in there. Plus a dim, flickering light was coming from inside, as if somebody had the computer on but nothing else.

Ruud was generally a day person, at least as far as office-work was concerned. And Michael really shouldn’t be letting his curiosity get the better of him, but…he walked over and peeked inside.

The man sitting in the desk chair definitely wasn’t Ruud, and though he had his back to the door, Michael was fairly sure it wasn’t anyone he knew either. He weighed the advisability of calling for security, then figured he’d try talking to them first and was just opening his mouth when they abruptly wheeled around. He couldn’t quite close it when he saw who it was.

Robin seemed pretty surprised himself and just sat back and blinked for a moment. Then he snorted and shook his head, half-turning back to tap at the keyboard with one hand. “Oh. I was wondering how my name got pulled. I didn’t think you’d remember me that fondly, Ballack.”

“You’re…working here?” Michael finally managed to say. He’d assumed Jens would just take care of that whole mess before Ruud ever got to Amsterdam.

“Just started.” There was something weird about the way Van Persie said that. He slouched down farther in the seat and used his free hand to scratch at his neck, which had some oddly-shaped dark marks on it. At first Michael had taken them for shadows, but when Robin moved, the marks didn’t, so they had to be—Robin looked at him again and Michael hastily shifted his gaze.

For a moment, Robin stared blankly at him. Then the other man half-grinned, not particularly nicely, and rubbed at his throat so his collar got pulled down and Michael could see the outlines of the bruises. It was hard to tell with the light, but they seemed a little faded from fresh.

“Don’t worry, you’re not getting booted out again.” It was pretty obvious from Robin’s tone that he’d heard about what had happened to Michael. “I’m on as a…what was it, talent scout? Not a computer tech.”

“Then why are you on that computer?” Michael asked. “I’m pretty sure the owner of it hasn’t been fired.”

Robin snickered and kept typing. “I knew you had some balls in you somewhere. You’ve been doing really good work, by the way. Hey, whose malware are you undoing? It’s not bad, either.”

“Thanks, but I really think you should get out of whatever you’re doing,” Michael said as calmly as he could. He put his hand on the door and pushed it open a little more, and he was about to walk in when somebody called his name.

A moment before he turned towards it, he saw Robin freeze, then start to twist around: Robin’s face had lost its jeering expression and gone serious. Then Michael was looking at Jens coming down the hall, looking scarily impeccable considering the hour.

“Good morning, Michael,” Jens said. “Is Van Persie in there?”

Michael was sufficiently awake at that point to notice how carefully Jens was watching him, despite the casual greeting. He probably wasn’t able to keep himself from twitching, but he at least managed a coherent answer. “Yes.”

“Thank you.” Jens brushed past Michael into the office, walked straight towards Robin, who was in the final stages of hurriedly shutting down whatever he’d been doing, and pulled the other man out of the chair. He didn’t seem to expend much effort in doing so, but something about the way Robin inhaled sharply told Michael it was a lot more forceful than it looked. “I’ll let Ruud know you need to work on his computer today.”

Well, that was…basically an order, wasn’t it? Michael muttered a thanks that Jens probably didn’t hear and started to move into the office. He could hear Robin starting to say something in a mocking tone to Jens, but before he could fully understand it, he got inside and shut the door. He didn’t need to think at all about…about…he was going to work now.

* * *

Two Minutes Later

“I was checking for problems on that, not making them,” Robin said. He was leaning back just enough to make his weight felt, but not enough to seriously impede their forward motion.

Jens had a hard time not just smacking the man. He’d been up the whole night in a marathon session with distributors, trying to nail down the details of Cristiano’s—finally—upcoming single release, and he wanted to go home and sleep, not face an entire day of work. “Which is why Michael was about two seconds away from strangling you. I don’t think you’re the type he’d stop to let breathe.”

“No, he doesn’t have much of a sense of humor. Good choice for a guard-dog.” Robin abruptly caught up so he almost put Jens off-balance. He twisted his arm a little to pull it free, then settled into a lazy swinging pace a little abreast of Jens. “I do need to get on there. If Ruud’s the biggest target, then he’s where I should start looking.”

“That’s what Michael does, since he does prevention. I thought you did pre-emptive strikes,” Jens snapped. “I am not putting you up so you can mess around with my agents.”

They were at his office by then. He stopped to unlock the door and Robin stepped sideways to lean hard on Jens’ arm. “I might as well be putting you up, for all that you’re around. I’ve got tons of stuff sitting around waiting for you to decide how you want it wrecked.”

“I do have an inbox. And email, which I know you’ve hacked.” Jens pushed open the door. He back-kicked it shut after walking through and went straight to his desk to check if his PDA had been synced yet. Even that wouldn’t have the most up-to-date calendar, but at least it wouldn’t change till David got in and could start taking last-minute calls for meetings.

“Oh, right. We have a long discussion about how to keep what I really do from leading back to you, and then you want me to just drop it off for you?” Robin stepped around Jens to drop right into Jens’ chair, which sank with a hard, short cracking noise. He paused, then shifted so the seat rose back up a few centimeters and sprawled out with his arms over the sides and dangling straight down. “I figured I might as well talk to Ruud for all the luck I have getting hold of you. He’d at least have a couple ideas of where to stick it to Ferguson.”

He was obviously baiting Jens. And it was working because Jens really wasn’t in peak form right now, hence the boneheaded comment a moment ago; he just was too tired to trade quips. “Stay away from Van Nistelrooy.”

“Or what? Cristiano’ll have another crying fit for the cameras?” Robin snorted. He started to push the chair around, swinging himself back and forth like a bored schoolboy, his feet coming within centimeters of Jens’ right leg. He looked a bit like one with the sneakers, suit trousers and wrinkled, untucked dress shirt. Thierry could buy clothes for the prick, but he couldn’t give him taste.

The next time Robin swung around, Jens brought down his heel on the other man’s foot. Then he grabbed the hand he knew Robin was going to push out at him. Robin cursed and twisted at his wrist; Jens bent his arm around with the motion and let Robin end up pulling himself out of the seat. He shoved Robin back against the edge of the desk, then took his foot off Robin’s toes.

“Well, that took a while,” Robin muttered, making himself comfortable. He used his free hand to support himself on the desk and scooted his feet apart so they were on either side of Jens’ right leg. His eyes were lit up and interested, and fixed squarely on Jens’ face.

“Do you have any idea how much it costs to keep having Raúl tape you up?” Just behind Robin, Jens could see his PDA’s screen brightening as it finished syncing. He had just enough time to see that he needed to start preparing for the first appointment of the day before the screen went dark again.

Head cocked, Robin flexed the fingers of the hand Jens was holding so the wrist tendons rippled against Jens’ palm. “If you think he’s about to decide you’re too abusive to work for, you could always start taping me up yourself.”

Jens bit down on the first reply that came to the tip of his tongue. He glanced over Robin’s annoyingly coy smirk, then looked down to check the bruises on the other man’s throat. Maybe another week and they’d be completely gone, he decided; he put up his hand and pressed over a few of them, absently listening to Robin slowly inhale, then flicked up Robin’s chin so he could see the scratch marks that ended just at the bottom of Robin’s collarbone. They were still fresh enough to look red around the edges. “I suppose you don’t mean that in a medical sense.”

He pressed his thumb down one as far as he could go, watching the skin turn first white, then red in its wake. Part of the scab cracked and Jens swiped off the droplet of blood before putting his whole palm against Robin’s chest and then dragging it down, figuring out where the sore spots were according to how Robin hissed and twisted towards him. When he found a particularly sensitive place, painful enough so that Robin actually tried to move away from the pressure, he clamped on. Then he dragged the other man forward by the wrist till their lips were barely grazing; Robin’s mouth was slightly parted and Jens could feel how the rapid movement of the tongue inside made Robin’s lower lip vibrate against his own.

“Robin, if I taped you up, it’d be to a chair in a basement closet because right now I’m severely overbooked,” Jens said, tone low but easy. “You want anything else, then figure out how to free up time in my schedule. And as for what I want—I want Ferguson flattened, not gored into counterattacking. When you think you’ve got enough for an actual campaign instead of just college pranks, then make an appointment.”

He held his position a moment longer, just waiting for the hitch to go through the other man’s body, then backed off. Completely let go and filled his hands up with papers, just in case Robin didn’t get the point.

Robin leaned against the desk for a couple seconds, his arm still up where Jens had been holding it. Then he slowly put his hand down, blinking hard and fast.

“All right,” he abruptly said, pushing himself off the desk. He went around Jens and walked out with considerably less jaunt in his step and his head slightly down. Maybe he was actually doing some constructive thinking.

Jens briefly thought about calling him back and telling him to do it here where Jens could keep an eye on him, but then voices drifted in from the hall: Robin and a cranky-sounding Freddie, who’d taken an instant dislike to Van Persie. Freddie would take care of that, and so Jens could get on to figuring out how to renegotiate CD-case production costs.

* * *

It looked like Robin hadn’t been doing much of anything aside from looking around—though he’d gotten into passworded and secure sections—but Michael hadn’t believed that at first and had spent an extra half-hour double-checking before he’d finally accepted it as the truth. By then, he could hear enough noise outside to tell him that people were starting to trickle in—probably enough for somebody to be having a morning cuppa in the break area. There wasn’t really a set time for the start-of-the-day gossip session, but Michael was getting good at feeling when it was about to start. It was the only time he really got to see Torsten.

That was still a while away, so Michael figured he’d get some basic fixes done on Ruud’s hard-drive while he could get to it. He hadn’t planned on starting those yet till next week, but then, he hadn’t really been looking forward to going around asking all the agents one-by-one to give up their computers for an afternoon. They weren’t in their offices much, but they all guarded access to them like they were storing gold or something like that.

He was just about done when he heard footsteps coming down the hall, and then Ruud saying something about blood tests. Michael hurriedly tried to wrap up and accidentally hit ‘enter’ at the wrong time, then cursed and frantically worked to reverse the order before he deleted some of Ruud’s files. He typed, mistyped and pounded on the back-button, and the moment he finally saved himself from his mistake, the door flew open.

Cristiano stumbled hard through it, but at the same time he was throwing himself sideways so he actually ended moving diagonally; he’d apparently just shaken off Ruud because the other man was still reaching for him. He didn’t make a lot of progress because he kept turning to snarl furiously over his shoulder. Not that Michael could understand what he was saying, but he did keep moving his hands into choking gestures.

Ruud looked annoyed but was definitely calmer. He kept trying to grab Cristiano’s hand, and when he wasn’t doing that, he was pushing his palms down in shushing motions. And neither of them, apparently, had even noticed Michael. He thanked God and took advantage of the other two’s distraction to slide off the chair and down onto his knees, crooking his wrists so he could finish logging off.

“I can’t control who Jens hires, damn it!” Ruud snapped, suddenly breaking into English.

“It’s your fault he’s even here in the first place!” Cristiano kicked something that rang out, then did it again. He slipped back into Portuguese for a little bit, then tossed out a few English curse-words as scuffling noises started up. “Get off me!”

Michael paused, then winced when the computer beeped. He froze in place and listened, but all he heard was Ruud swearing in Dutch and Cristiano screaming in English that the goddamned rehab center had been better at keeping out whores. Which…actually wasn’t that reassuring, but at least they still hadn’t picked up on his presence. He pulled down his arms and started to crawl around the desk.

Between him and the door was clear space, but Ruud was standing so he’d still be able to see Michael crossing the room. He did seem pretty focused on Cristiano; he had gotten hold of the other man’s arms and kept jerking Cristiano forward, trying to get his attention, but Cristiano wasn’t letting him finish any sentences.

“Do you want him?” Cristiano demanded, suddenly going still. That was just a ploy, because a second later he yanked his hands from a startled Ruud and stepped forward so they were basically touching noses. He said something fast and quiet and hurting in Portuguese.

For a moment, Ruud just looked disbelieving. Then he shook his head and let out an annoyed kind of laugh. “My God—who am I standing with? If I had any pull with Jens right now, I’d ask him to send him back to Amsterdam on the first plane—”

Cristiano was already leaning forward when he sucked in his breath. Then he had his arms up and was pulling at Ruud like he wanted to crawl into the other man. After a moment, Ruud wrapped one arm around Cristiano’s back, then slid his hand down to grip Cristiano’s hip. He pushed his other hand up beneath the light jacket Cristiano was wearing, rubbing it in slow back-and-forth motions that contrasted with the frantic way they were going at each other’s mouths.

Now was probably a good time for Michael to get going, but for some reason he was having a hard time motivating his feet. His cheeks were getting hot—he didn’t really want to see this, even if when they weren’t yelling at each other, Ruud and Cristiano were quite attractive…damn it, he really shouldn’t be here. He made his right foot slide forward and got into a half-crouch—Cristiano groaned and rocked up on his toes, then hooked his leg around the back of Ruud’s calf—and started across the room. Way, way too slow—this so wasn’t good.

Though somehow Michael still managed to get himself to the door without Ruud noticing…and then of course somebody walking down the hall called his name. “Micha!”

Michael twitched, still only half-straightened up. Behind him, the rustling clothes and wet kissing sounds stopped.

“Ballack?” Ruud said.

“Sorry, sorry, I…was working on your computer…um, Jens was supposed to tell you.” Well, now Michael was flaming red in the face so damned if he was going to turn all the way around to look at Ruud. Too bad he was too polite to just run off without an explanation. “But I’m, uh, done now. Sorry.”

He finally got out of there, only to have Bastian grab him by the arm. At least they were still walking away. “Hey, Micha, what’s up? You’re…you look…hey, did you get mad again? You didn’t punch Ruud too, did you?”

“No! No, I don’t punch people!” Michael yelped, yanking his arm away. Okay, that was rude, and not really what Bastian deserved, but could people forget about the whole Lampard incident? Also, Michael needed to get to the restroom and splash his face before it set his clothes on fire. “See you later.”

At the next turn, Michael ducked down a different hall and walked very quickly away. He’d have to apologize to Bastian later as well, but…well, he’d just apologize. It wouldn’t kill him.

* * *

Seven Minutes Earlier

“What do you mean, you sold your house?” Ruud said, not quite sure if he’d heard right. He slowed, then came to a complete stop to look at Cristiano.

“Now you find me more interesting than that paper.” Cristiano let himself fall back against the wall and shoved his hands in his pockets, looking sullen.

Ruud swallowed down the idea of mentioning that the paper happened to be Cristiano’s publicity schedule, and that he was trying to make sure he could attend all the major events on it. “Where are you going to live?”

“What? I thought you hated my house. You only were in it twice, and that was because I threw fits,” Cristiano muttered. He lifted his chin to stare angrily at Ruud, then dropped his gaze. “I can’t sleep in that damn place. It’s too cold.”

That was because it could’ve comfortably housed a small nation, only since Ruud had sent somebody down to kick out all the freeloaders and tighten up security to make sure none of Cristiano’s old dealers could get to him, it only had the one occupant. Even the cleaning staff went home at night. “It’s got a heating system.”

“I can’t sleep. I woke up last night and I almost called up for—but I didn’t, all right?” Cristiano hastily said. “Don’t look at me like that. I’m trying, I’m—”

“I told you, if you ever started shooting up again, I’d—”

“I didn’t! Aren’t you listening? I didn’t even want it for the fucking high, Ruud, but because I can’t stand being alone in that house. So I sold it. What’s the big deal now?” Cristiano dug the heel of his foot into the carpet, dragging it slowly back and forth in wide arcs. He grimaced and briefly pushed himself back from the wall to push at his hair, then slumped again. His eyes flicked up towards Ruud, less angry than pleading now.

It was…too early in the morning for this to be already starting. No matter how sincere Cristiano was about trying to change, Ruud didn’t have any illusions about the problem Cristiano had with understanding commonsense. “Did you already finalize the sale, or did you just contact a realtor, or—I just want to know where you’re planning on staying now. And all your things—you’ll have to put them in storage. And…and damn it, could you tell me when you’re going to do something like this? I can’t work if I don’t know what—”

“—oh, he just had a realtor over. They haven’t even officially put it on the market yet, but the paperwork should finish going through today. If you want, I can get you a copy.” Robin van Persie, of all people, was sauntering down the hall towards them. He angled himself so that when he came abreast of them, he’d be significantly nearer to Ruud than to Cristiano.

Ruud winced and cursed to himself; he hadn’t had a chance to either ask Jens why Van Persie was still around or to figure out whether or not he should mention it to Cristiano. Of course, he also hadn’t seen Robin since a week ago and he’d secretly been hoping the man had just disappeared.

“He doesn’t need you for that,” Cristiano said. He still was slouching, but somehow he was now making the air around him bristle with hostility.

“Well, didn’t sound like you were volunteering, so I was just…offering.” The last word was practically a purr, a little bit like one cat with a bit of food waving it in front of another that didn’t have anything. By now Robin was next to them and he’d positioned himself so when he leaned forward to speak to Cristiano, he swung closer to Ruud. “Helping out a coworker, that kind of thing.”

Cristiano stiffened. “Coworker?”

His eyes flicked to Ruud, but Ruud didn’t have the slightest idea what Robin meant. He shrugged, but Cristiano clearly didn’t buy that and just glared at Ruud.

“Yeah. I started a couple of days ago.” Robin glanced at Ruud, then stretched a bit and walked on. “Let me know if I can do anything for you,” he called over his shoulder.

It took about five seconds for Cristiano to get over his initial shock and start hissing furiously in Portuguese. More people were coming through the halls and Ruud had the feeling that a lot of the people around the place had been picking up that language over the past couple months, so he tried to get Cristiano moving towards his office. The other man did come with him, but Cristiano didn’t listen to a single word of Ruud’s explanations and just kept screaming his head off.

So much for that being part of his junkie self, Ruud bitterly thought. “Maybe if you were a little less paranoid, this kind of thing wouldn’t come up!” he finally snapped.

For some reason, that shut Cristiano up. He actually rocked backwards, his eyes widening so raw pain could fill in behind the rage. “Do you want him?” he asked in English. Then in Portuguese: “Is that the kind of person you want? Do you want me to be like that?”

Ruud stared back. He just…he needed a moment, because sometimes Cristiano could be so incredibly blind and self-centered and at the same time show how frighteningly easy it’d be to break him.

Then he said—something, something about no, he didn’t, that was ridiculous, and after that Cristiano somehow was wrapped around him and Ruud was kissing him hard. Too hard, because he could feel Cristiano wincing a little, but he was desperately trying to get it through Cris’ head once and for all that—

--and then Ballack interrupted, and though he basically ran out of there, it still was enough to throw Ruud off. God, Ballack must have been there for at least the last few minutes of it.

Ruud shut and locked the door, then turned around. Cristiano had thrown himself down on the couch and had his head lying back so he could stare moodily at the ceiling. He didn’t react when Ruud moved to stand in front of him.

“You think he would be easier, don’t you?” Cristiano abruptly said.

“I’d be going to jails and courtrooms instead of hospitals, so no.” After a moment, Ruud sat down next to Cristiano. His entire schedule was going to be off because of this, but frankly, he didn’t care. All of that really was no problem compared to this. “Look, I don’t know why Lehmann’s keeping him around, but he’s Jens’ problem now. He’d be easy, but easy sex isn’t worth that much trouble.”

Cristiano’s lips twitched into a half-smile, but it didn’t last more than a second. But he did sit up, and after a moment’s hesitation, he scooted over so he could rest his chin on Ruud’s shoulder. His arm slipped quietly through Ruud’s and he put his hand down on the seat next to Ruud’s thigh. “I’m still more trouble.”

“And I wish you didn’t think you had to be the best at that, too, but that’s you.” Ruud absently checked his watch, like that was going to override the feeling of Cristiano’s warmth against his side, and his sudden need to make sure that warmth knew it wasn’t going anywhere. He lifted his arm and slid it around Cristiano, then tugged sharply to pull the other man onto his lap. “Where are you staying now? You haven’t moved out yet, have you?”

“I—don’t—I know, I didn’t think that through well. But if I want to stay clean, I can’t live there any more,” Cristiano said with a grimace. He shifted around for a few seconds, then settled down with his knees on either side of Ruud. His hands drifted from Ruud’s shoulders down to the center of Ruud’s chest, then came back up to start undoing Ruud’s tie. The tip of his tongue flicked out, then withdrew, but he had his lips parted just enough so that Ruud could see how his tongue was pressed up against his teeth in concentration. “I just don’t want to disappoint you now.”

Ruud curled his hand around the back of Cristiano’s neck and pulled him down. He let Cristiano fervently kiss him for a moment, then backed off. The other man followed, but Ruud held him off till Cristiano stopped, then leaned forward. The moment Cristiano started to reciprocate, he leaned back again, and finally Cristiano got it. He held still while Ruud eased his mouth over the warm lips, taking his time memorizing the curves again. Tasted every corner inside Cristiano’s mouth, then sucked on Cristiano’s lower lip till the other man was trembling from the effort of trying not to react. And this was what Ruud could do to him.

“Bring a suitcase over to my apartment,” Ruud finally murmured. He dug his nails into Cristiano’s nape and kissed him hard and deep.

Cristiano moaned and turned soft against him, hands skimming down Ruud’s sides to hold onto his waist. When Ruud pushed his hand between them, Cristiano lifted his hips to give him room without hesitating.

This was another bad idea in the making, to be honest, but Ruud couldn’t stop himself anymore. He had assistant interviews to conduct and important meetings with the marketing division, but instead he had Cristiano on the couch, mesmerized by the way the other man yielded to him, the fit of their bodies, the hazy look in Cristiano’s eyes that no one else ever got. More trouble, yes, but of the kind Ruud couldn’t make himself leave.

* * *

Michael pushed open the door to the restroom with a feeling of profound relief: he’d made it this far without losing it any more than he already had. He took one step, then stopped and just stared at the far wall, wondering if he ever was going to get a break today. In the bathroom at work, for God’s sake.

Someone politely coughed behind him and Michael jumped in place, then whirled around.

The other man, whom he didn’t recognize, took a startled step back and put up his hands to show he meant no harm. “Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you. I just was…can I get in?”

“I…you probably don’t want to,” Michael said, moving aside. Just then, one of the people in the stalls let out a loud, wild cry that revived Michael’s fading blush.

Blinking, the other man cautiously leaned in so he could look. They both watched one of the stall door nearly leap off its hinges as the people having sex behind it banged into it. Then he stepped back, looking bemused. “Oh. Well…I guess you’re right. I…ah…I’m Francesc Fàbregas—call me Cesc—and I’m here to interview with Ruud van Nistelrooy? I can’t find his office.”

“You were looking for it in the toilet?” Michael started towards Cesc, then had to shift back when the other man didn’t move. He started to fidget, caught himself at it, and shoved his hand in his pocket, desperately trying to ignore the moaning and grunting in the background.

“Well, actually, I was going to step in and call my uncle about it, since he already works…not here here, but for Lehmann,” Cesc said. He moved once to pull at his collar—his suit was fitted fine, but he gave off the impression that he wasn’t used to that kind of clothing—but otherwise seemed perfectly fine with standing around. At least, he wasn’t getting out of the way so Michael could get out of the damned bathroom. “Who are you?”

“Bastian! Oh, God--harder--” Oh….kay. It was Lukas. Great. And how the hell had Schweini gotten from talking to Michael to here, while picking up Lukas on the way, before Michael had?

Wincing, Michael glanced over his shoulder, then tried to subtly signal to Cesc by leaning forward again, but the other man still didn’t move. “Michael. Look, I need to…”

“Are they getting to you? Then shouldn’t you be going the other way to take care of that?” Cesc asked, one eyebrow arching.

For a moment, Michael just stared at him and tried to figure out where that had come from. Then he got it and made a face, briefly forgetting his manners. What was it with people and giving him lousy come-on lines? Did he look like he needed it that badly? “Thanks, but no thanks. I’m—Thierry, don’t go in there.”

Henry had just turned the corner and at first he looked confused, but then Lukas shouted again and comprehension dawn. Rolling his eyes, Thierry started to spin on his heel. “Again? Don’t they ever get tired…oh, wait a moment. Are you the one here to see Ruud?”

“Yeah.” Cesc turned around, flicking his right shoulder dismissively at Michael, and gave Thierry a charming smile. “I’m sorry, but I’m lost. Can you show me around?”

Thierry just looked at him with a faintly amused expression. “I can show you to Ruud’s office, but if you’d like to work here, you’ll have to learn your own way around. And that isn’t always through the bathroom.”

Michael ducked out behind Cesc and walked away while he could. God, didn’t anyone do anything besides fuck or try to get a fuck around here? Oh, wait, there was one person: him.

He grimaced and walked faster.

* * *

Eight Minutes Earlier

“Oh, and Ruud was supposed to start interviewing another one for his assistant, and Fàbregas has checked in with the receptionist, but I’m pretty sure he hasn’t made it to Ruud’s office yet,” David mumbled. A pen was jammed between his teeth, another one was stuck behind his ear, and he hadn’t looked up from the papers he was sifting through once since Thierry had come in. “If you see him, can you grab him and shove him that way? And pry Cristiano off Ruud’s dick if that’s why he’s locked in his damn office?”

Thierry reached over and started pulling papers from David’s hands, getting them sorted into piles. David muttered a thank-you and just shifted over to swinging between his pager, PDA and computer, with the occasional break to scribble down a note to himself. “Bad day for Jens and you again, I see.”

“Man, what tipped you off?” Two cell-phones went off somewhere. Cursing, David ducked under the desk, then came back up while plugging a headset into one phone. He answered the call, listened for about ten seconds and then put whoever it was on hold while he took the other one.

“Well, I needed Freddie about fifteen minutes ago, but he texted back saying he was busy trying to find Van Persie to kill him. I thought Jens was having Robin work out of the office?” Thierry asked. Personally, he still wasn’t quite sure whether Jens had needed to go as far as officially hiring the man. He hadn’t gotten to know Robin too well yet, but he thought that a job probably wasn’t needed to keep Robin in town. Or that great for the workplace atmosphere, though he didn’t have too much of a problem getting along with the man.

David shrugged and flicked up a dubious look at Thierry, then went back to dealing with the phone calls. He got them finished and was just reaching for his headset when one of the cells rang again. “I don’t know. Well, I don’t think Jens ever made it home last night, so maybe that’s it. Hey, you want a new assistant too? I have plenty of résumés cluttering up my desk here.”

He was kidding, but it was probably a warning sign that Thierry momentarily thought he was serious. “Thank you, but no. Though Freddie…ah, never mind.”

Frowning, David started to say something, but then whoever was on the line said something that made his eyebrows shoot up. He asked them to repeat it, then slowly reached for Jens’ daily calendar and…crossed out something. “Hmm? C’mon, Thierry—if it’s anything, you know the guys are gonna pick up on it soon. Might as well tell me so I know not to embarrass myself at lunch.”

“Oh, nothing new. Just that Freddie’s…ah, very fond of Jens.” Thierry watched David draw a line through two more entries, then shift one appointment to tomorrow. “Do I need to bring aspirin to lunch, or should I call Raúl and put him on stand-by in case Jens bursts a vein this time?”

“Huh? Oh…no, these aren’t trouble. These are…” David stared at the calendar book as if it were an alien telling him it knew the secret to world peace “…I dunno what’s up, but suddenly people are like, canceling and rescheduling. Or sending in stuff when they said they wanted to have a meeting first. Funny that you bring up Raúl, by the way…he’s like Fàbregas’ uncle or something.”

“And he’s letting his nephew apply for a job here?” After another moment of watching the surrealism of Jens’ schedule actually clearing up, Thierry decided he’d better go find this Fàbregas. After all, it didn’t look like he’d get a timely answer from David.

* * *

Michael stopped, took a deep breath, and then turned around with as pleasant a face as he could manage. “Sorry, Timo, I didn’t hear you. What?”

“I said one of the studio systems froze up, and it’s got the tracks I’m working on right now on it, so can you spare a moment and get those out for me?” Timo patiently repeated. Then he cocked his head and stared curiously at Michael. “Hey, are you okay? You look like you’re running a fever—catch a cold?”

“No. No, I just…I’ve been running around a lot today. And I didn’t get much sleep last night because of Leo’s date.” The coffee Michael had had earlier must now be working itself out of his system, because he felt all full of jitters and nerves. He glanced down, wondering why the world was jiggling slightly, and saw his foot shaking but couldn’t bring himself to make it stop. “Which studio? What’s the problem?”

Timo blinked, then slowly gestured down the hall. He looked wary, and frankly, Michael couldn’t blame him; he must think Michael was on the verge of a fit or something. “Uh, number four. Here, I’ll just show you…so Lionel’s got another one? That’s what, the fifth new guy this week?”

“Something like that,” Michael muttered, following the other man. He squeezed the fingers of one hand in the other, then shifted down so he could feel the pulse in his wrist, which was bounding in uneven jerks. Maybe he was getting sick.

Or maybe he just needed a little constructive work to settle him. He sat down at the workstation and breathed deeply again, then lifted his hands over the keyboard.

“Leo really needs to slow down. And get better taste—it’s a wonder he hasn’t caught anything from anyone yet,” Timo snorted. He wandered around behind Michael, idly fiddling with the soundboards. “He’s gotten all crazy like Bastian, too. Those two think Jens picked up a boyfriend…Bastian swears up and down he heard Jens talking about giving this guy a ride home.”

“Does Jens have a home?” It certainly didn’t seem like the man stopped working long enough. “Who would put up with that?”

Timo swung around to lean on the wall by the computer and shrugged, folding his arms over his chest. “I don’t know. Schweini says the guy sounded Dutch, but you’d think Jens would have enough of that with Ruud stalking around…Micha? Michael? Do you need some water?”

Michael coughed a last time, then made himself put his hand down even though his throat still itched badly. He finished unlocking the computer. “No. No, I’m fine. Actually, I think I’ll go get some coffee. Do you know if there’s any left?”

“Probably. It’s…not even nine yet. Hey…are you sure you’re okay?” Timo asked.

“I’m great,” Michael muttered, getting the hell out of there. His nerves were so on-edge that he could practically feel them popping out of his skin, and he really needed to get somewhere semi-private and just calm down. Meditate. Something.

He made it halfway to the break room, and then he turned a corner and almost walked into somebody. Of course he immediately backed up, his mouth open to apologize, though when he saw who it was, he kind of wished he’d just run over Robin. Also, now he was thinking about Jens and Robin, and that went too many wrong places for him—most of all, the fact that he was finding it even a little bit hot.

“Hi, Michael. Hard at work?” Robin clearly meant it to be a rhetorical question since he barely even looked Michael’s way.

On the other hand, Ruud actually looked a little happy about the interruption. “Ballack. What did—”

“Someone was looking for you—a Cesc Fàbregas? He said he had an interview with you,” Michael said, easing himself around the two of them. He wasn’t interested in getting into whatever their conversation was about, but he did think he should pass that on.

Ruud blinked, face going blank, then ahh’ed when he remembered. “Thanks. Damn, I’d forgotten. Robin, I have to—”

“You’re interviewing? What for? Did you need more help?” Robin asked, swinging in towards Ruud. His voice dropped at the same time, and somehow he angled his body so he gave off an air of aggressive…invitation.

Michael turned away and wondered if he’d look that stupid just jogging the rest of the way to the break lounge. He didn’t even like Robin, on any level, so when Van Persie was getting to him, he knew he needed to get out of there.

* * *

Three Minutes Earlier

After they’d ruined another couch, Cristiano was reassured enough to go off with Philipp to lay down some vocals, and Ruud could finally start his workday. Which apparently consisted of running into the last person he really wanted to see—well, after Alex Ferguson.

“Done with Ronaldo? Finally. I need to talk to you,” Robin said. He just showed up out of nowhere, almost as if he’d been lurking around waiting.

Actually, that might not be a completely paranoid thought. “I don’t think I have anything to say to you.”

“Yes, you do,” Robin snorted, switching to Dutch. He slid around in front of Ruud, then moved back when Ruud tried to go the other way. “Ferguson had Cristiano’s whole house bugged, and I can’t prove it yet but I’m betting he had the security codes before you changed them after Ronaldo came back. I haven’t checked your apartment yet, but…” he shrugged “…you know, it might be useful to have me over.”

Ruud opened his mouth, then closed it and exhaled hard through his nose. He knew Cristiano was safely away with Philipp, but he still felt uneasy just standing here with Van Persie. “That offer we discussed? It’s not on the table now.”

“Well, luckily for you, Lehmann ponied up and took care of all of that.” Robin looked straight at Ruud for a few seconds, then glanced off to the side. He absently rubbed his fingers over his wrist, shoving up the shirt-cuff enough to show a fresh bruise there. “I work here now, and I’m working on that, and really, I’d think you’d want to cooperate now even more. Because MU Records certainly isn’t going to stop gunning for you and Cristiano, and God knows he doesn’t seem to be that good at watching out for himself.”

It was a lucky thing that Michael Ballack blundered into the hall just then, or else Ruud might’ve lost his temper and added to Robin’s bruises. Ballack did seem to have remarkable timing, for all his relative naïveté…and Robin really was pushing it with his flirting. The moment Ballack was around the corner, Ruud pushed the other man back.

“Fine. See me at the end of the day and we’ll work out a time when you can sweep my apartment. But this is a working relationship, and that’s it. Don’t assume you can get anymore out of it,” he said. Then he thought a moment and had to laugh beneath his breath. “Especially if you think Jens is going to stand for that.”

A ripple of emotion went through Robin’s eyes, almost like a flinch in the backs of them. The side of his mouth briefly twisted up; his fingers closed tight over his bruised wrist, then dropped away. “You don’t say.”

That gave Ruud a moment’s pause. He didn’t entirely buy the impression the other man was giving off—Robin seemed intelligent enough to know what he got into—but on the other hand, he did know Lehmann well enough to not to discount Jens’ ruthless streak. And he was responsible for convincing Robin to come here under less than advantageous circumstances to the other man.

“Ruud!” somebody said.

Ruud hesitated, then swallowed down what he’d been about to say and turned around to see Thierry standing there with another man. Thierry went to push the newcomer forward, but the other man was already reaching out a hand.

“Cesc Fábregas,” he said with a bright smile. He would’ve seemed wholesome enough if it hadn’t been for that lightning-quick assessing look he shot at Robin. “Hi. I’m here to convince you I should be your assistant.”

Short coughing fit from Thierry, who was getting one hell of a laugh out of this. He managed to stop before Ruud got annoyed enough to comment on it. “We couldn’t find you, so I just showed him around a little, gave him a feel for what the job really requires. Sorry if that’s treading on any of your plans.”

“No…no, thank you very much, Thierry,” Ruud said. He returned Cesc’s smile, absently noting that at least this one apparently could think on his feet, even if he had that jailbait look about him, and then had a thought himself. Lehmann cared enough to give Robin an official paycheck, and anything Jens did, Thierry had some kind of say in, so…he nodded to Thierry. “Do you have any idea where Jens is now? Robin here was looking for him, I think.”

Robin opened his mouth to object, but Ruud was staring hard at Thierry and praying to God that the other man would get it. He’d have to pay Thierry back later, and it was going to lose him ground in terms of which agent was better, but right now he needed Van Persie away from him. He was supposed to duck down to check on Cristiano soon, and if he was late Cristiano would be up and probably screaming over this Fàbregas as well.

“Oh, no problem. I was going that way anyway,” Thierry said with suspicious nonchalance. The look he shot Robin was considerably less cheerful, and the fact that Robin went along with him without another word was even more telling.

They didn’t get far before Robin started a conversation with Thierry, tipping his head towards the other man while keeping his body loosely away. He didn’t seem to have any interest in getting the wind up Thierry’s back, oddly enough.

A cough brought Ruud’s attention back to Fàbregas, who was standing around with a patient expression doing a bad job of covering up his curiosity. “I think I have a pretty good idea of the legwork part of the job now,” Cesc said.

Ruud raised one eyebrow. “Did Thierry take you out of this floor? Then I doubt that. My office is this way—come sit down and we’ll discuss things.”

* * *

Nobody was in the break area. Nobody. Michael almost got down on his knees and kissed the floor, and the reason he didn’t mostly was because he was over the sink with the cold water turned on. He splashed at his cheeks, then rubbed handfuls of water over the back of his neck, and finally his face started to cool. It felt like it’d been on fire for days now, and it was almost a shock for the heat to go away.

He put his hands down on the edge of the sink and took a breath that ended up a gasp; he’d kind of forgotten to breathe during all the splashing. After he’d caught up on that, Michael dabbed at his forehead a little more slowly, just enjoying the coolness of the water. Some of it trickled down the back of his shirt, which was a bit annoying, so he bent his arm and leaned on it while he pulled at his collar with his other hand.

His top shirt-button popped off. Michael heard it clink against the bottom of the sink and started to reach for it, then stopped. Damn thing had already fallen down the drain. He sighed and just slapped some more water at the base of his throat, then ran his damp fingers through his hair. After a moment, he reached around and tugged at the light sweater he was wearing over his shirt till he got it off. He tossed that aside and flicked some more water into his hair.

“Are you sick?”

“No,” Michael snapped. Then he realized it was Torsten and grimaced at the sink-drain. “No, I’m not. I’m sorry. It’s just that everyone keeps asking me that, and I’m perfectly fine. I’m a healthy adult male, and that is the damn problem!”

Well, and now he’d lost his temper again. He stared at his hands, then past them at the sink, which had magically retreated a couple of feet. Then he got it: he’d jerked himself up and done some sort of angry gesturing, which was why the counter was now sprinkled with water. And probably why, when he checked, Torsten was frozen on the edge of the lounge area with coffee cup in hand and eyes wide and staring.

Michael winced, absently putting his hands up to rake through his hand. Part of his collar had gotten soaked through and flopped irritatingly against his neck, so he dropped his right hand to start pulling at it. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to take that out on you.”

“Take…what?” Torsten slowly said. He was blinking like he didn’t quite understand the situation, but didn’t want to tread on any mines either.

“Oh, well, just…today it seems like everyone I see is having sex, or just had sex, or is trying to talk someone else into it, including me, and—and you know, it’s not like I would mind but I don’t do it just for the hell of it. And not that other people can’t, but could they do it somewhere else? I mean, I’ve gone a couple months without any and I can still function.” Some tiny part of Michael—the bit that still knew what he was doing—was absolutely horrified at the words coming out of his mouth. The rest of him was getting hot and nervy again, and God, he was flapping his hands around like an idiot. “I just don’t need to see it when I’m not getting it!”

Torsten still was staring at Michael.

“Okay, you think I’m nuts now. I probably am nuts after this morning, and I’m really sorry—fuck, you know, a moment ago? I didn’t mean that like I was—because I’m fine, really, I’m okay with going for a while without…oh, fuck, fuck, fuck.” Michael turned and stalked out before he completely killed himself with embarrassment. No, he was saving that for when he got back to his office, where he could lock the door and stuff his ears with earphones and then moan all he wanted.

* * *

Five Minutes Later

Torsten blinked, then gave himself a shake and came back to earth. He pushed Timo’s hand away from his face, but then he saw the sink. Where Michael had been…Torsten took an abrupt turn and opened the fridge instead. He didn’t need anything from there, but the icy breeze was useful for making sure he kept his dignity.

“You okay, man?” Timo was pouring himself some coffee. “Because I think Micha’s losing it. I just saw him…Torsten? Torsten, breathe…oh, hey, did he come from here? Is this his sweater on the counter? Wow, what were you two doing? He looked like somebody had hit him with a couple water balloons.”

“We weren’t doing anything. He was freaking out when I walked in, and then he ran off.” Which Torsten really should have done something about, but coming in for morning coffee and being greeted with a Michael who had water drops hanging from his bangs and eyelashes and his shirt sticking to him so Torsten could see a partial outline of his chest had kind of messed up his groove. And then Michael had started talking and flushing up. “What’s happening up here?”

Clinking noise. Then the sound of running water—because Timo was refilling the coffee-maker. And Torsten could stop thinking about what a wet Michael without the shirt would’ve looked like now.

“Hiring time, apparently. Ruud’s interviewing another one for his assistant, but get this—the guy’s related to Raúl. Cousin or nephew or something. Oh, and there’s a new talent scout wandering around, only there’s something weird about him. ‘nother Dutch guy,” Timo said. The noises briefly stopped. “Torsten? Did you forget what you needed in there?”

After a moment, Torsten closed the fridge door. He took a seat and drank his coffee, even though he didn’t really need the caffeine now. “Possibly.”

“Jens still hasn’t found somebody he can stand for a second assistant, but the new Dutch guy seems to be working more for him…I don’t know, really. David doesn’t like him much, but Thierry seems to be okay with him.” Timo put all the coffee-maker parts back together, then hit the start button.

Dutch guy…that had to be Van Persie. Funny that Thierry thought he was all right, but then, Torsten had a feeling that had to do with whatever else Van Persie was doing for Jens. He didn’t like to think about that much, and since all the paperwork for that man was done, he didn’t have to worry till the expense reports started coming in. So he could…Torsten lifted his foot and started to stab his heel against the floor. He needed to stop thinking about Michael being frustrated. That wasn’t all that conducive to a productive day either, and anyway, Michael had seemed more than a little upset, so it’d be taking advantage of him.

Not in a good way, Torsten told himself. “I think I’m going to come out with you guys for lunch today. Make sure Michael comes, okay? He worried me.”

“Sure. Though hey, you don’t need to do anything now, do you? Wanna take his sweater back to him? I’ve got to go—have a bitch waiting for me to fix her crap voice,” Timo said. He tipped an overly-casual look over his shoulder, then turned around and scooped up the sweater in the same motion.

Torsten opened his mouth, but the sweater was already flying at him. He caught it and started to get up, but Timo was already too far away to call back.

He really needed to have a word with the boys about this whole match-making thing they kept trying to pull. He also needed to sit back down and finish composing himself.

On the other hand, Michael had looked and sounded on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Somebody probably should go check on him. And he did have the man’s clothes…Torsten made a face and quickly drained his coffee, then went back over to stick his head in the fridge for a couple more seconds. It wasn’t going to help if both of them were losing it.

He was just going to go over, drop off the sweater, ask if Michael was okay, and then at lunch they’d do something about getting the other man to relax. Really. Torsten had a full workday ahead of him, and besides, he didn’t buy into the rampant semi-public sex side of working here anymore than Michael did. It was one of the things he liked about the other man. Also Michael’s sense of humor, and his actual grasp of morality as it existed outside of the industry, and his eyes, and his hair and okay, stopping now before Torsten’s mind went any lower.

Maybe another minute in the fridge.


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