Tangible Schizophrenia



Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: R. Some violence.
Pairing: C. Ronaldo/Van Nistelrooy, Hildebrand/Lahm, Van Persie/Lehmann, Frings/Ballack, Henry/Pirès
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 from the Alicia Keys song. Thanks to stickmarionette for the Deco info.
Summary: Guns, blackmail, gangsters and lovers’ spats. Jens never picked a worse week to go out of town.


Timo glanced at the man sitting hunched over their kitchen table, then leaned over to hiss at Philipp. “Let me get this straight. Moggi’s gang has a price on this guy’s head and they’re willing to go through FC to get to it, and you brought him back here?”

Philipp wanted to hit Timo, hit Owen, get Owen some food, and curl up in Timo’s lap and hide from the world for a while. Not necessarily in that order.

He put his hands over his face and rubbed them up and down, taking a deep breath. “Owen’s part of the label, and I got to talk to him a little before everything happened and I think he’s basically a good person who made some bad choices when he was younger. And besides, what was I supposed to do? Say no, we wouldn’t help?”

“We don’t have to help by offering up our guest bedroom. FC owns huge chunks of downtown, and with all of that, they couldn’t find a better place to stick him than here?” Timo snapped back, dramatically spreading his hands. He waved them enough for Owen to notice and look up, whereupon Timo glared at him. “Goddamn it, Phil. Sometimes you’re too nice, you know. You open the door for every goddamn person with a sob-story.”

“Well, better that than standing around while people get killed,” Philipp said. He looked down at his hands and they were pressed into fists against the sofa-arm. He watched a tremor go through them; the shaking wasn’t so much from fear anymore.

Timo stared at him for a second like the other man thought he was crazy. Then Timo sighed and shook his head. “Phil, you almost got killed.”

“And I was fucking terrified and now I’m fucking angry that that happened and I want to make sure those people are stopped, and if that means bringing guests home then I’m fucking fine with that!” It hadn’t been meant to be a near-shout, but it just kind of came out that way. And once it’d started, it felt…pretty good, actually. Everything just came boiling up to the surface and it had to go somewhere, and that might as well be into words. “Why is what you’re scared of the most important? You weren’t the one getting a goddamn gun in the face!”

Then Philipp had to breathe and he did in a huge gulp as his voice echoed around them. He exhaled more slowly into a deadly silence, and then regret started to fill in the big gap all that anger and terror had left. He uncurled his fists enough to dig his nails into the sofa and clutch at it as he looked for Timo’s reaction.

Now Timo looked like he didn’t recognize Philipp. He opened his mouth, paused, and then abruptly turned and went into the bedroom without a single word.

Philipp…just cursed again, but the words sounded dull and didn’t do anything to relieve the ache in his chest. The whole night suddenly seemed to catch up on him and he dropped down on the floor to lean against the side of the sofa, exhausted and starving and depressed.

“I’m really sorry.” Owen spoke softly and mostly to his hands. “I never meant to cause all this trouble. I just—I was trying to keep people out of trouble. My friends…the videocamera was a joke. I promised I’d destroy the tape right after but I forgot, and…all this.”

“That just now wasn’t your fault,” Philipp muttered. He reached up and hooked his arm over the sofa-arm, then hauled himself to his feet. They’d gone grocery-shopping the other day so the fridge was stocked and he could at least do something about his hunger. “That was just Timo being a…never mind. Look, you want some juice or something?”

The other man shook his head, then smiled like it hurt him. “I don’t know why you’re being so nice, like he said. I—damn it, I should be out there doing something. I should be fixing it, but no, I’m having to get saved by other people who might get hurt because of it—”

He stopped when Philipp banged down a glass in front of him. The juice in it almost slopped over the edge and Philipp, frankly, was a little surprised when the glass didn’t crack. He forced it into Owen’s hand. “No, drink. It doesn’t help if after everyone comes back from fixing this, you’ve managed to end up in a hospital anyway.”

Owen looked up at Philipp, then at the glass. His index finger slowly curled around it, but he didn’t completely take it.

“And…and I know. I get the same feeling when I’m working on an album and then somebody comes in and tells me there’s copyright issues or contract problems and then I’m not sure if my work’s even going to make it out of the studio,” Philipp said, sitting down. He nudged the glass closer to Owen. “But you really don’t want to go messing about in the business end of music production if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing. You help more by staying out of it and not making it harder for people who’re on your side.”

“Yeah,” Owen muttered after a moment. He picked up the glass, took a desultory sip, and then put it back down. “I guess that’s the first lesson I need to learn. God, I don’t know if I ever knew what I was doing. I don’t know why JT let me be manager for so long—I’ve probably fucked things up for them so much.”

Philipp kicked at the floor, not quite sure what to say to that. “It’ll be okay. Thierry’s a legend in the label—right?”

He directed that at Senderos, who’d just come back from the toilet. The other man blinked, then nodded. “Your whole team is. Yours and Kahn’s…sorry, did I hit a nerve?”

Honestly, not really for Philipp, but working for Lehmann apparently indoctrinated a person to flinch at Kahn’s name no matter their personal feelings on the subject. He started to explain that, but then the phone rang; Senderos waved him back and went to answer it.

Owen was drinking the juice now, so Philipp got back up and started trying to put together a pasta dish. He half-listened to Senderos, but the other man seemed to be naturally soft-spoken and he didn’t hear too much.

He didn’t hear Timo when the other man came up either, and only noticed when he reached for onions and suddenly had his hand seized. Philipp jerked around, going to fear again, then sighed in relief when he saw Timo. Though the other man stayed tense and was giving him another one of those stares. “Don’t scare me like that. And pass the onions.”

“Phil, two minutes ago you were actually screaming at me. And cursing,” Timo slowly said. He didn’t let go of Philipp’s hand. “I just—why don’t you stay angry at me? I was a serious jerk just now.”

“Well, yeah, you were, but…it’s been a really long day and I thought I was going to die and Timo, okay, I’ll get angry at you but I’ll get over it and I won’t get over being in love with you. I—fuck.” Apparently Philipp was going to be a pendulum right now, swinging crazily all over the place. Though he didn’t mind when he swung into Timo and finally got to grab him, and the other man promptly squeezed him so hard he couldn’t breathe for a second. “Jerk. Tell me it’s going to be okay.”

Timo rubbed Philipp’s back and buried his nose in Philipp’s hair, not caring that Philipp was shaking or sounding like a little girl or that there were other people in the room. He inhaled deeply, then nuzzled down lower and kissed Philipp slow and soft, like he was trying to memorize Philipp’s mouth. Like he hadn’t already. “Sorry,” Timo mumbled. And “love you” and “glad you’re okay” and “if it doesn’t end up okay, I’m going out there and killing people.”

Somebody coughed. It turned out to be Senderos, who was putting down the phone. “I’m sorry, but can I borrow a computer? I need to make some airplane bookings. Oh, and Owen, do you mind helping me?”

“No,” Owen said, looking a bit puzzled but grateful for something to do.

Timo waved a hand towards their bedroom, then rewrapped his arm around Philipp. “It’s in there. Right now the username is ‘fipsy’ and the password’s ‘snuglies69.’”

Philipp blushed, but since his face was in Timo’s chest, nobody really noticed. And then he yelped as Timo lifted him up onto the kitchen counter—had Senderos and Owen left yet—and was suddenly on him like a ravenous tiger. “Timo—”

“I’m apologizing. And thanking everything you’re alive and okay and God, Phil, move—”

Philipp moved. And held onto Timo like his fingers were glued there.

* * *

It was lunchtime and Robin and Michael had taken their first break since getting to Jens’ apartment. Reams of paper were scattered all over the place, mixed in with the mess of wires and microchips that had already been there. Five laptops were running and on top of that, Michael had unbent enough to hack into the building’s private network in order to link together all idle computers in it into a huge computing network. Something about his friend’s research project and whatever; Robin didn’t care as long as it sped things up.

Robin sat in the middle of all of it and looked around. “I think the clean-up here might break Jens’ shredder.”

Michael came back from the kitchen with cartons of what looked like the Thai take-out from two days ago. He might’ve been adapting to FC well, but he still had a starving student’s instincts in that regard. “Do you have anything?”

“It’s…damn, they must be really old-school,” Robin muttered. His vision momentarily went blurry, so he rubbed at his eyes. “Nothing electronic that’d solidly link Moggi and Ferguson. Has to be something, but it’ll take too long to track down. Moggi doesn’t seem to keep much in online records either.”

“If we found the record of the loan and destroyed it, would that be enough?” Michael asked. He opened up both cartons, glanced inside, and then handed one of them to Robin. The other one he tilted into his mouth and, after a couple noisy sucks, apparently emptied; his cheeks bulged as he chewed and swallowed.

It was so unlike his usual ruler-neat self that Robin had to laugh. And when Ballack glowered at him, laughed harder. Though after a minute he had to start thinking about their problem again and then it wasn’t funny. “No. We need something we can pin to Moggi—we need to be able to blackmail him, too. Like…”

Robin’s cell went off. He flipped it open, said “Thierry” and got out of the way so Michael could keep an eye on the computers while he took the call. “What’d Bobby say?”

*Nothing useful. Freddie questioned that man who was trying to break into my office, but he got nothing from him either,* Thierry sighed. *And I’ve been sending messages to Jens every time we learn something, but so far he hasn’t responded back. I can’t get to him at all—I don’t know whether that’s because he’s too tied up in meetings or…well, you?*

“Still looking. If I wanted to just hit the bastard, I’d have plenty, but since we’ve got to break up a specific deal of his, it’s a lot harder.” A distinctive beeping made Robin turn back around. He took the laptop Michael handed him and scanned the screen, then grimaced. “Moggi’s getting busy. I just got notice that he’s closed up his Old Town nightclub for the day—want to bet it’s for briefing his men?”

Thierry started to curse, then stopped. Thoughtfully. *That nightclub of Moggi’s is his center of business, like a private fortress. But you hear rumors about what he gets up to in there. It should have a security system, shouldn’t it?*

“Yeah, but if he’s smart, he erases the tapes every night. And he seems smart—isn’t he a heavyweight in local entertainment?” Robin asked.

*He owns some of the most popular and profitable nightclubs in town. If we want to introduce or build up an act around here, we have to go to him. But so far he’s been neutral instead of blocking us like some nightclub owners, so I didn’t think he was working with MU…*

“Well, what else does the gossip—is Cesc around? Ask him—he’s got—Ballack, what?” Robin snapped, pivoting on his heels.

The other man dropped his hand from Robin’s arm and shoved another laptop at him. “Credit card records. I ran them through a program that sifts out the ordinary-looking things and there’s this…he had a whole state-of-art videorecording system installed in a room in the club. It’s like the kind for making movies, and it routes first to a computer before it burns to DVD.”

“So…we have to break in, steal the hard drive and then hope to God we can recover something useful from it.” Robin started to consider it, but then Thierry asked him what was he talking about and he had to fill in the other man. “Nice program.”

Ballack went a little pink. “I, ah, wrote it for Torsten. It’s meant to help him process expenses faster.”

“Aw…” Robin cooed. He grinned at the death-look he got. “Thierry?”

*That—no, let me keep checking. Robin, we don’t pay you to do that. Jens doesn’t expect you to do that. I’ll—I’ll call you back,* Thierry said in a firm but rushed tone.

After he hung up, Robin flipped the phone shut and stuck it in his pocket. “Thierry doesn’t have any other ideas,” he told Michael.

Michael went very pale. “I…I don’t…”

“Well, you can always sit in the car and wait for me. I can’t drive with a computer on my lap.” To be honest, Robin was expecting Michael to back down and take that, and he was more than a little surprised to see the other man’s expression harden.

“What are you planning? To shortcircuit the whole place like when you pranked the head of the department? I think they’d notice that too soon,” Michael snorted. He twisted around and started picking things out of the floor. “If it’s not too different from our system, I could just reroute the security feeds to show everything’s normal.”

Ballack could be such a snob, considering he was a ‘nice guy.’ It wasn’t like Robin couldn’t do that himself; it just was that if he went in by himself, he wouldn’t have the time for it. “Well, okay. You’ve picked up a couple things since university.”

The other man flushed hard and muttered something about everyone having sex at work and it being easier than swiping tapes from security. He could say whatever he wanted as long as he came through, Robin thought. Of all the things Robin was worried about, Ballack was really low on the list due to his relative predictability.

Jens not replying yet was more worrying—he should’ve. He should’ve rang up and roared down the phone, and so Robin wasn’t quite sure what this silence meant aside from Jens not being a part of the planning. Though he guessed that was enough—if Jens couldn’t get to it in time, then somebody had to.

* * *

“What’s going on? I walked in and it felt like I was walking into an electric storm. I’m hearing the most fantastic rumors,” Ruud said, taking his coffee from Cesc.

Cesc shrugged, but he looked so uneasy that it was more of a shake. “I don’t…if you’d come in earlier, you could’ve asked Thierry. He wouldn’t stop long enough to really talk to me, and now he’s locked in his office.”


“I…I think he’s…” Frowning, Cesc turned and started to lead them down the hall. He turned right and then stopped just before they would’ve gotten to the studios.

Ruud paused, then drained his coffee and tossed the cup into the nearest trash-can. Then he looked Cesc straight in the eyes. “What’s going on?”

“I really don’t know,” Cesc softly said. He was twisting his fingers in the hem of his suit-jacket. “Ruud…I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’ve been dumping your pills for a week and a half now. I don’t know what else to do. I’m trying the best I can, but I can’t do your job.”

“I—oh. You…” Actually, Ruud hadn’t resorted to those since Cristiano had moved out of his flat, but the little bit of calm that Cristiano leaving had produced had been rapidly fading and he had been thinking about it. Especially after last night’s fight. He’d been—goddamn it, since when had he turned into a pill-popping coward?

“My uncle doesn’t like a whole lot of people in FC, but when I asked him who was currently the best agent, he said you were and that’s why I applied to be your assistant. I—” Cesc ducked his head and grabbed at the back of his neck, then quickly sidled around Ruud. “When I find out what’s going on, I’ll let you know. But right now, Deco’s waiting in there and Cristiano’s an hour late for meeting with him, and I can’t reach Cristiano.”

He left before Ruud could say anything. Which was just as well, because Ruud needed all his energy for thinking. And finally facing up to his conclusions.

After a moment, he went to the door Cesc had indicated and knocked on it, then went in. Deco had been sitting by the boards, impatiently tapping his fingers, but he’d slewed around at Ruud’s entrance. He betrayed a little surprise when he saw who it was. “Where’s Cristiano?”

“My assistant informs me he’s late, and Cesc is very good so I assume Cristiano must have deviated from his schedule if Cesc can’t also tell me where exactly he is. But to be honest, that’s not my problem anymore,” Ruud said after a moment. He took a slow, deep breath as he sat down in the other chair. “Can I be honest with you some more?”

The other man narrowed his eyes, then shrugged and spread his hands. “Sure. If I can ask questions, too. Were you really expecting me to go for Pirès?”

Well, he hadn’t wasted any time going for gut-shots. But…damn it, Ruud had taken plenty of gut-shots in his time. Besides, he had to get to it. “No. I was hoping not because then I could trust you to be—objective. Because I can’t. Not about Cristiano. I can’t—I can’t even remember who I am anymore, and that’s his fault as much as it is mine. I tried to be what he wanted but honestly, I don’t think he really knows what he wants yet.”

Deco had opened and closed his mouth several times, but now it looked like he was just settling down to listen.

“I can’t control him. I can’t control myself, and I just…I’ve been putting it off over and over but I think if there’s going to be any chance, we’ve got to stop,” Ruud muttered. A spike of self-disgust stabbed up in his gut, but if this was the only way he could bring himself to do this, then this was how it was getting done. “I thought half-measures could do it, but they can’t. And—brutal honesty? I can’t do it. So—if you care about Cristiano’s future…”

“I do. I swear to that—I know you’ve been trying to dig into my past and I want to say now that that taught me lessons, but it didn’t shape me. Cristiano’s family and that’s it,” Deco abruptly said. He leaned forward, the hard certainty in his eyes going thoughtful. “I just have one more question—do you love him?”

Ruud winced, but faced up to it. “Yes.”

“All right.” Deco stood up, then put his hand in front of Ruud. After a bemused moment, Ruud took it and Deco gave him what seemed like a genuine handshake. “Thank you, Ruud. I think I know where to go from here. But you have to cooperate—you will cooperate, because once I start something, I see it through. You understand?”

“Yes. I…I have work to do. I have a lot of acts I’ve been neglecting,” Ruud quietly said. “I know it’ll be hard. But I’m not any good for Cris, and he isn’t for me.”

“Well, that’s settled,” Deco replied. He walked out with his back straight but his limbs moving easily, the walk of a man who did know where he was going. So Ruud believed him.

And for several minutes afterward, Ruud indulged a last time and just stayed in his chair. Then he dragged himself up and to the nearest toilet, where he cleaned himself up before he went to go find Cesc. It was time he took his job back.

* * *

“What do you think?”

It was two-thirty. Senderos had called to say everything still looked fine where he was. Jens had finally sent a curt note asking for more updates, particularly on what Robin was doing. Robin was out of touch, and so was Ballack. Fàbregas had done a wonderful job of keeping Thierry from even running into Ruud or Deco. And Bobby was asking Thierry a question, face composed and tone concerned, but on a professional level.

“I think we’d better start thinking about putting those contingency measures into action,” Thierry said, pinching his nose. He dropped his hand and looked at it, then smiled humorlessly. “This is why I am perfectly happy to leave this sort of thing to Jens.”

Bobby’s calm face cracked a little. “Are you all right?”

Don’t--” Thierry cut himself off when he heard how sharp his voice was going. He took a deep breath, then brought up his hand again to press against his temple. “Don’t ask me that like that, please. I…you know, I’d like to know something. It’s completely irrelevant but I just want to know—would it have made a difference if I’d liked men, but turned you down at the beginning because I, oh, I didn’t want to cross professional lines or something like that?”

For several seconds afterward, the room was silent. Outside in the hall was buzzing with noise—Thierry could hear Kaká at one point calling out to somebody. He glanced at Bobby then and Bobby had looked over his shoulder as well, but he turned around in time to catch Thierry’s eye. He looked…sorry. “Thierry, as long as you can’t say what your interest in me is, the answer would’ve been the same. I…I like you too much to just take advantage of a passing opening. And I mean that as a fri—”

“Thank you. I need to make some calls now,” Thierry brusquely interrupted. He picked up his phone, but didn’t do anything else till Bobby had left. And then he put the phone back down and groaned into his hand.

How had Jens dealt with this? Even the next day, he’d been able to go back to treating Thierry as a friend without seeming to feel any of—of the irrational anger and frustration and confusing want that was currently, disastrously preoccupying Thierry’s attention. This just—didn’t—make--sense.

The phone rang. Thierry jumped, then jerked it to his ear. “Hello--Jens?”

* * *

“Four-thirty. Think they’ve gone out to dinner yet?” Robin asked, pulling on gloves.

Michael just shot him an irritated, edgy look and kept tiptoeing down the sewer. It smelled horrible and it was dark as hell beyond the two-meter circle of light the flashlight threw off, but it was where the video cables ran.

“Ballack, relax. Don’t fuck this up or I’m probably dead.” Robin lifted the flashlight higher till he saw the cables bundled against the wall, then stood in place as the other man went forward to clamp his jack onto one. He watched Michael set up the laptop on a slimy ledge and efficiently crack the code. “Done?”

“Wait—done. You still don’t have long—this isn’t like Ocean’s Eleven where we had time to build a mock-up. I’m using stock footage from Premier and somebody’s going to notice it doesn’t match soon,” Michael warned.

If he was so worried about time, then he’d damn well better not be offended that Robin was already climbing up the ladder to the drain-hole. They’d figured out that this one would put him right by the back-door, so as long as he timed it right…and when he pushed up the cover, the alley was clear.

He got himself up and inside the club within a minute. A clipboard hanging on a shelf presented itself and he grabbed it just in time, since a nervous-looking young woman came around the corner a second later. She stepped back and gasped when she saw him, but calmed down fast when he smiled and waved the board. She said he could get somebody to sign for his delivery if he went on into the front VIP lounge, straight on and then two rights.

Instead of taking that last right, Robin ditched the clipboard there, did a left and slipped up a narrow staircase. He stopped on the halfway landing and listened very carefully, then went the rest of the way. Moggi’s taping room was behind the second door at the top that he tried, and he snickered when he saw the set-up: there wasn’t any guessing what Moggi got up to, not with that huge gilt-slathered thing for a bed. People didn’t make sense sometimes…Moggi did everything he could to hide his business transactions, to the point where Robin couldn’t even find anything, and then he installed some kind of porno studio in his favorite nightclub.

It took a couple minutes for Robin to find the computer box, seeing as Moggi’s interior decorator had gone nuts with the decorative boxes and loveseats, but he finally found it inside a carved wooden cabinet, beside a mini-fridge. He pulled it out and disconnected it, and was just about to pop the plastic casing to get at the hard-drive when he heard footsteps on the stairs.

Somebody was coming. He didn’t have time to take the parts he needed so he’d just have to take the whole damn computer. Which was bulky. Damn.

The room had a small window. Very small…Robin cursed and flung himself at the door, locking it. Then he paused and listened since voices were coming through. They sounded fresh off the street and they were bitching to each other about being treated like servants…they weren’t going to stop at this door. They kept going till their voices trailed into silence.

Relieved, Robin went back to the computer and got out a pocket screwdriver. He had it open and the important parts out on the hideous shag carpeting by the time he heard the men coming around again. After he was sure they were going back downstairs, he pulled some plastic bags out and wrapped each computer part separately to cushion it before stuffing them all into a larger bag. Then he screwed the casing back on and shoved that back into its cabinet.

After checking to see that he hadn’t left anything behind, he tucked the bag beneath his arm and slipped back into the hallway. All the noise was coming from the front, which he dutifully avoided, and he got all the way to the drainhole without running into a single person.

Michael wasn’t in sight when Robin pulled up the cover. “Ballack?”

The other man edged into view, eyes a wild, flashing green. That was from terror, but for a moment they reminded Robin of Jens’ eyes. “You took forever,” he hissed. “Get down here. I think somebody—”

“Hey!” Shouted behind Robin.

Shit.” Robin instantly threw himself to the side to make himself a difficult target—and that was a good guess; he saw dust skip up half a meter away from him. He went back the other way, hoping Ballack had had the sense to move, and rolled right down the hole.

He would’ve landed all right, except at the last moment he remembered the fucking computer parts and he jerked around to protect those, coming down on his palm and one foot and God. His ribs smacked down on something hard and it wasn’t quite as bad as the car crash but it wasn’t far off. His vision blurred, blackened, and his head swam with dizzy pain.

“…up, c’mon, up,” Michael was shouting, his voice sounding like it was coming through a wall of water. He yanked Robin up by the waist and Robin would’ve punched him for being that stupid if Robin hadn’t been busy trying not to pass out.

Something started to slip from Robin’s coat and he instinctively grabbed at it. His balance was already tilted and the motion sent him stumbling forward; Michael still had hold of his coat and used that to drag Robin. They went around a corner and Robin’s stomach lurched, sending him sideways into a slimy concrete with nausea. He knew they didn’t have time, but he needed—he steadied himself. Got a good hold on the bag. Then looked around and saw he was by himself and wondered where the hell Ballack had gone.

A sudden flurry of thuds and half-muffled curses made Robin go stiff against the wall. Ignoring the revolting feel of it, he pressed himself back as far as he could go against it and slowly twisted his wrist around so his knife dropped to where he could flick it out.

He almost put it in Michael’s throat when the other man abruptly reappeared around the corner, breathing hard. Michael was covering the knuckles of his right hand with his other hand, and he had three irregular spots of blood on his cheek. He also had his duffel bag, and judging by the way it dug into his shoulder, he’d managed to pack up the laptop.

“Let’s go,” he hissed. Then he frowned and peered closer at Robin. “Are you okay?”

“Ribs, not my legs.” Robin made himself push off the wall. He might end up cracking a couple molars from clenching his teeth, but he could walk. “You didn’t just—”

It was dark, but he could still make out the face Michael made at him. “No. And I don’t want to know why you also packed flash-bombs and a crowbar, but they were useful.”

“You’re welcome,” Robin said, trying to chuckle through the pain. God, he hoped he hadn’t broken a rib. “I’m surprised you know what a flash-bomb is.”

Michael’s mouth twitched, half in reluctant humor and half in some kind of shame. Too bad, since he really could’ve been formidable without that morality getting in the way. “I spent a couple months trying to freelance before I landed the job at FC. Had to get a new apartment in a…the other people in the building did interesting business.” He reached out and gingerly put his hand under Robin’s arm, hurrying them along. “Did you get it?”

“Yeah. Soon as we’re in the car, drive us back to Jens’. I’ll get on the laptop and start trying to crack it,” Robin replied. Then he hissed and clutched his arm tighter around himself as agonizing pain whipped through his side.

“Would Jens get mad if I offered to carry you?” Apparently when Michael got really stressed, he started getting a decent sense of humor.

It wasn’t too far to the car, and as long as nobody had gotten there before them, Robin figured he’d be fine. If somebody had…well, the clunking sound of Michael’s duffel said he hadn’t used up all the flash-bombs. “Ballack, Jens isn’t even here. Though I might have to hit you if you tried to do that. Do I look comatose?”

“No.” Michael temporarily let go of Robin to go ahead and check out the drain-hole they were about to use as an exit. He went up, looked, and then shimmied back down the ladder to grab his duffel, which meant upstairs was still clear. “Thank God.” He glanced at Robin. “I’m doing this because of my friends. If Jens wants this kind of thing on a regular basis, I really don’t want to do it.”

“Well, I really want to keep my job, so it all works out,” Robin muttered. He looked up the ladder, whose nine rungs that seemed like the nine levels of hell he remembered from some lit class he’d had to take. Gritting his teeth, he handed the computer bag to Michael and then forced himself up the first rung.

* * *

“You’re late,” Deco said. He’d been pacing around the studio, but he stopped to turn and watch as Cristiano came in. “Two and a half hours.”

“I know. Sorry, I got caught up in some things and then I wanted to find Ruud really quick, but I think he’s hiding from me again. And that assistant of his won’t tell me where he is either. I don’t know why Ruud keeps him around—he’s so sarcastic and he makes you think he’s nice, but the moment your back is turned…worse than a gossipy old woman.” Cristiano threw himself into the nearest chair and yawned, then raised his arms over his head. He kicked out his feet a second later and stretched till his spine popped. Then he sighed and settled into a sprawl. “All right, so where did you want to start?”

Deco was just…looking at him. One hand in his pocket, eyes sweeping up and down Cristiano like he was judging a car he was about to buy.

“You’re late,” he repeated, shaking his head. He took his hand out of his pocket and checked his watch. “Holy Mother of God, but you are not the little boy I remember.”

“Well, I grew up,” Cristiano said, faintly angry now. He tapped his fingers hard on the chair-arm. “I—”

“You grew up badly! You grew up into a self-centered, extravagant, wasteful little shit!” And holy God, but Deco wasn’t the soft-spoken man Cristiano remembered. His eyes flashed and seemed to pop as the sparks flew out of them, and when he flung out one arm, it was with such force that Cristiano almost thought Deco meant to hit him. Then Deco abruptly composed himself, and if anything, that was the most frightening part. “Well, not now. I said yes to this because I promised to set your priorities straight, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

Cristiano sat up straight. He could still feel fear jangling his nerves, but his temper was flaring and it overrode everything. “Excuse me? You wouldn’t have this job if I hadn’t asked you, so that means—”

“That does not mean I do what you tell me. That does not mean that I’m going to lie down and let you giggle when you kick at me, and lose my dignity and my manhood till I’m a pitiful shell like your so-called boyfriend,” Deco said. He walked closer as he spoke, each word cracking like a whip, till they were almost close enough to be kissing. Then he smacked the side of Cristiano’s jaw with his hand, and when Cristiano tried to hit him back, grabbed Cristiano’s wrist and twisted it till Cristiano fell from the chair to his knees, gasping.

At that point Deco let go and paced angrily to the other end of the room. He spun on his heel and came back at a slower, more deliberate rate. Like a lion sizing up its line of attack.

“You know, I expected the bad manners, the ridiculous luxuries—twenty euros for a bottle of water?—because that’s what all the idiot stars do when they hit it big. They lose their heads and forget the real worth of money.” Deco stopped about a meter away from Cristiano, putting his hands back in his pockets. He disbelievingly shook his head. “But you—I thought you’d been brought up to at least value people. You don’t, though.”

“What the hell do you know? Why should I listen to this—” Cristiano started to get up, but then Deco jerked towards him and Cristiano fell backwards. The other man hadn’t really lunged at him…Cristiano bit down on his tongue, disgusted at his fear and furious with Deco. The man was supposed to help him. “I value people! I—Ruud is not a shell.”

“You haven’t even looked at him lately, have you?” Deco snorted, tone about as condescending as it could get. He rolled his eyes. “You just think I love him and you haven’t thought at all about what really goes into that, about how it really works and…and about the fact that sometimes you’ve got to give things up for it. Well, now you’re going to. You’re not to have any contact with him till your tour is over, and then we’ll see.”

Cristiano breathed in. The air was freezing and turned his whole chest icy. “You can’t—I’ll fire you!”

“Bullshit. You should’ve paid more attention to my contract negotiations instead of trying to get Ruud’s attention all the time. If I’m fired, then your recording contract becomes inactive. You can’t leave FC, but you can’t make them do anything for you either. And if that happens, it’ll be Lehmann keeping Ruud away from you, not me.” Deco arched an eyebrow. “You want to work with me or Lehmann?”

“I—you can’t. I’m a grown adult and so he is. Look--listen,” Cristiano hissed, yanking out his phone. He hit Ruud’s number, then clamped the phone to his ear.

Oddly enough, Deco didn’t make any attempt to take it from him. He just stood back and watched, like he knew he couldn’t do anything.

*Hello, this is Ruud—*

“Ruud, we need to talk now—”

*--I’m not available at the moment—*

For a moment, Cristiano was frozen in shock. Then he shook himself, making himself think logically. “He’s just out right now,” he hissed. “But when he hears…”

Deco pulled out his phone and dialed a number, then put it to his ear. After about twenty seconds, he said, “Ruud? Hi, it’s Deco…oh, you got my message. I—”

Cristiano lunged. He surprised Deco, since the other man didn’t even step back before Cristiano’s hand closed on his wrist. The phone was up against Cristiano’s ear in a second and he could hear Ruud speaking. “Ruud? Ruud, Deco’s trying to split us—”

*It’s over, Cris. It’s—we are split.* Click.

“Let go.” Deco jerked his arm away. He watched as Cristiano slumped to the floor. After a moment, he sighed and reached down to yank Cristiano to his feet.

“…what? What now?” Cristiano dully said. Ruud…had…he’d… “I’m not doing anything.”

“Really. Well, the flight for your first tour stop leaves in three hours. We need to get to the airport or you’ll miss it and then you won’t have a tour. You won’t have a music career…you won’t have music. You’ll just be another pretty whore.”

That last part struck hard enough so Cristiano’s temper briefly flared. “I’m not just that. I’m more than that. I’m the best damn singer they’ve seen in—”

“So you can get on the plane, and convince me that you are actually an adult. You can go and you can sing, or you can stay here and bang your head against the wall,” Deco softly said. He reached out and lifted Cristiano’s chin, but gently. “I promised your mother I’d make sure you were happy. You’re not happy right now…look at you. Ruud ditches you and you fall apart like a crushed flower. You’re better than that. I know you’re better than that.”

Cristiano…couldn’t answer him. He was shocked and numb and it just felt like…like when Ruud had let them send him to London, and he hadn’t been sure if he’d see the other man again. Like the world was pulling apart around him. He should’ve seen it coming—Ruud had made him move out. The other man had been spending more time at work, claiming he was too behind to talk to Cristiano. He…goddamn it, he was doing it again. “I know that! I’ve picked myself up so many times now…I…he can’t keep doing this to me. Why does he?”

“Maybe he just assumes you’ll be there. And if you’re not, then he’ll stop taking you for granted,” Deco said. He tugged at Cristiano’s arm. “Do you want to keep singing?”

He was playing with Cristiano. He had to be. Ruud had said…but Ruud had gone back on his words so often and everything Deco said rang true. And if it did, then maybe he wasn’t playing so much and…and Cristiano wasn’t sure what to think. He just—he knew two things for certain, and he clung to them, but neither of them would tell Cristiano what to do or where to go now. He just…he felt encased in ice. He’d tried his hardest, done his damnedest but Ruud…Ruud couldn’t even face him now? He had to do it through Deco? But…why?

“This way. Come on, we’ll just go and you can sit down and think about things,” somebody was saying. And Cristiano numbly let them lead him on.

* * *

Cesc’s PDA buzzed. He checked the message, then looked at Ruud. “Deco says they’re gone.”

“All right.” Ruud was hiding his face in his hands, but the way his fingers twisted unmercifully in his hair and the dead slump of his shoulders told the story. He drew in a shaky breath, then…abruptly dropped his hands and stared at the far wall. “Cesc…look, I’m sorry, but did you dump out my vodka as well?”

They were still behind, but if Ruud tried to work in this state, it’d just be a disaster. So Cesc silently got the bottle from the shelf where he’d hidden it, covertly dosed it, then handed it to Ruud. He sat down and watched Ruud down shots, keeping one hand on his cell-phone. The moment Ruud’s head drifted deskward, Cesc called Raúl to let him know they were coming.

* * *

“All right, got something sent off to Thierry,” Robin said.

Michael pulled up to the curb in front of Jens’ apartment building, then turned around. “Is it good enough?”

“Good—man, it’s spectacular, and I just pulled the first file I could recover. Moggi is one perverted son of a bit—” Robin’s eyes widened. He jerked up, then froze.

Something tapped on Michael’s window. He slowly turned around. All the blood in his body went to ice as he stared at the gun.

* * *

Thierry almost hit a parked car’s bumper when he pulled into the parking garage of Jens’ apartment building, and it was entirely due to nerves. He put the car into park and took a deep breath, then slowly lifted his hands so they were visible to the men outside. They didn’t get close enough to have a view into the backseat, he noted—amateurs. He felt a little better.

“All right, come out.”

After he’d gotten out of the car, he had to wait while one man frisked him. The other two and Moggi were standing by Robin and Michael, who were kneeling on the ground. Michael’s eyes were huge and their green popped out at Thierry despite the distance.

“I’ll get down to it,” Moggi said once Thierry was free to face him. “You have something I want. I have something you want—several somethings, actually. And I—”

A sickening thud and a short, pained grunt came from behind Thierry. He didn’t move as Moggi and his gunmen sprang to attention; the gunman guarding Ballack was stupid enough to move his gun towards Thierry and Ballack instantly whipped around, taking him down. He had the gun to the man’s head in an instant, but in the meantime Moggi had seized Robin by the neck and jammed his gun against Robin’s temple. The third gunman immediately switched his gun to point just past Thierry.

Robin had moved, but he’d drawn up short and Thierry had seen pain flash over his face. Michael…Thierry had to admit Ballack was surprising the hell out of him. But not quite enough.

“Michael, get over here,” Jens said from behind Thierry. He walked up to stand next to Thierry; he had the first gunman’s gun in his hand. He waited to speak till Ballack had let go of Moggi’s man and slowly edged his way over. “Heard you wanted to speak to me, Moggi.”

“I heard you were out of town.” Moggi seemed to be recovering from his surprise, but his right foot was jiggling against the ground. He ground the muzzle of his gun into Robin’s temple. “I wasn’t wrong in thinking you’d leave things to Henry and to this nice piece. You do like the fine things, don’t you…” he nudged at Robin’s head “…big brown eyes…”

Jens watched expressionlessly, though Thierry could feel Michael moving uneasily beside them. Thierry jerked his hand towards the car. “Ballack, get in,” he hissed.

He also backed up a little himself, almost tripping over the man into which Jens had slammed the back car door. He steadied himself against the trunk.

Robin was staring straight at Jens. He was having trouble keeping himself in check; his jaw muscle twitched when Moggi pushed a boot-tip into his backside and observed, “Tight ass.”

“Pretty common in Amsterdam’s red light district,” Jens said in a bored tone. He raised his gunhand and frowned, adjusting his shirt-cuff. “Look, I’m on a tight schedule here. You tried to get Hargreaves for MU but he didn’t want to go. Now MU could theoretically expose him, but that wouldn’t do anything for you because you’d be dealing with your own scandal.”

“You’d be short one fucktoy.” Moggi savored the epithet too much. He licked at his lips, then chucked up his chin at Jens. When Jens didn’t react, he shook Robin so Robin hissed in pain. “What? No reaction?”

Jens rolled his eyes. “There. You happy? Now can we discuss serious matters?”

Moggi blinked, completely confused—and a shot suddenly went off, startling nearly all of them. Thierry jerked about, then turned back when he realized Jens hadn’t flinched—but Jens was already gone. A second shot rang out and Thierry saw the gunman who’d been covering him and Jens drop, clutching his shoulder. Robin had fallen forward and Thierry lunged for him—but Robin rolled over, gasping and wide-eyed and staring at something behind him.

Michael had gotten back out of the car and was shakily covering the pair of Moggi’s men who were over by Robin and Thierry. A couple moments later, Senderos trotted out of a stairwell and covered them from the other side with his gun, and then Thierry finally got around to looking at what had Robin so fascinated.

There was Moggi’s gun on the ground, and then there was Jens leaning over the low wall that rimmed the parking garage. At first Thierry thought Jens was looking at something over the side, but then he saw how Jens was holding onto the wall with one hand. This was the fifth level, Thierry belatedly remembered.

Jens was talking in an icy, calm voice. “…very good at running nightclubs, but when it comes to things like blackmail, Moggi, you’re an amateur. That’s why you got run out of Italy, and that’s why you’re currently hanging over a…I’d say a twenty-two meter drop.”

Gargling sounds. Robin laughed, low but a little edgy. “Is he strangling the asshole?”

“Now, please listen carefully because I think you’ll choke to death if I have to take the time to repeat myself. I just came from Italy. Where I spoke to an interesting man named Guido Rossi about you. We got along very well. Now, I think you’ve got too much on your plate to be bothering me. Understand?” Then Jens hauled Moggi back up and set him on his feet. The moment Jens let go of him, Moggi fell over clutching at his throat. Something caught Jens’ attention and he bent down to pull something out of Moggi’s coat, which he pocketed. “Senderos, Ballack, you can stand off now. I think they’re leaving.”

Jens turned his back on Moggi and came over to kneel beside Robin. Behind him, Moggi scrambled to his feet, then frantically gestured at his men. They got themselves together, picked up the unconscious one, and got out so fast they might’ve been training as professional sprinters.

“Where?” Jens asked, running his hands over Robin. The other man jerked and hissed when Jens got to his ribs. “How did you do that?”

“Fell down a sewer.” Robin made a face when Jens commented that that explained the smell. “Jesus Christ, can you stop it with your hygiene obsession for one second--”

They…they seemed all right, Thierry dazedly thought. He honestly had expected Robin to be at least a little angry at the way Jens had reacted to Moggi’s threats, but…Jens abruptly pushed Robin towards him and got up to talk to a rather hysterical-looking Ballack.

“Where the hell did he come from?” Robin asked. He struggled to sit up, then slumped against Thierry when Thierry offered an arm.

“He’s been in contact with Senderos, apparently. Somehow Philippe got Jens a chartered flight. During the holiday season.” Thierry nodded along with Robin’s low whistle. Then he drifted off in thought, only to be startled back to attention by Robin’s dry chuckle. He looked sharply at the other man. “You took it all remarkably well.”

Robin shrugged, then winced. “C’mon, Thierry. Moggi took the wrong tack—sex by itself doesn’t mean a thing to Jens.”

“Well, you could’ve known it was coming, but—”

“But that’s who he is, and it’s him I want. I mean, I could get sex anywhere, too,” Robin said. He actually seemed perfectly fine with that.

Thierry was still thinking about that when Jens finished with Ballack and turned towards Senderos. “Philippe? I understand you’re applying for a position as my assistant, and that you already work in another division. Why are you leaving?”

“I had a disagreement with my supervisor.” Philippe paused, then elaborated when Jens raised an eyebrow. “He asked me to do some extra tasks and I did, but my car was damaged. And then he refused to reimburse me for it, saying that since what I’d done was illegal, he couldn’t get it through Accounting.”

Jens blinked. “Is he cheap or just stupid?”

Shrug from Senderos. “If it tells you anything, he used to call me ‘Lippy’ because I didn’t speak much.”

“Ah. Well, you’re hired. If you can drive Ballack home, he can tell you about Torsten, our team’s accountant. He handles all expenses and as long as you file the paperwork in time, he can figure out an arrangement,” Jens said. “By the way, what do you prefer to be called?”

“Phil or Philippe’s fine. Thank you very much, sir.” Instead of walking over to shake Jens’ hand, Philippe turned and collected Michael, ushering him over to where Philippe’s car was. Extremely efficient.

“If it’s all right, I think I need to go back to work now,” Thierry said. “Can you—”

Jens nodded and came back over to Robin. “Go on ahead. I’ll handle clean-up here…I’m afraid you still have to handle the office because I’ve got to fly back.”

“Oh, no, that’s fine. That’s fine.” Thierry got up a little too quickly, he thought, but somehow he couldn’t turn around and make a proper farewell.

By the time he got to his car, his hands were shaking badly and he could barely drive. But the sense of urgency that had him was so strong—it made him keep on going. He broke more than a few driving laws on the way back to the office, but even that wasn’t enough. He speed-walked to the elevators, gritted his teeth at the lift’s slow rise, and then clipped one shoulder running out of it before the doors had fully opened.

Bobby jumped when Thierry burst into his office. “Thierry, what—”

Thierry went around his desk and grabbed him by the shoulder and kissed him hard. Then he stepped back, inhaling sharply. He staggered and clutched at the corner of the desk as his shortness of breath caught up with him. “Listen. Bobby. I don’t know about men, I’ve known only about women all my life. I don’t know how men and men work, but I know this: I want you. The fact that you’re a man—I think about that second. When I first saw you, I saw you first and then I saw that you were a man, and though that’s been confusing for me—”

He stopped when hands gently cupped his face. Bobby pulled him forward again and Thierry closed his eyes so it was nothing but taste and touch, and it was beautiful.

“That’s what I wanted to hear,” Bobby whispered a moment later. He pressed his forehead to Thierry’s, and then very slowly, he started to laugh. He moved his fingers so they were resting against the responding smile gradually spreading over Thierry’s face.

* * *

A man in a hospital bed. It was a familiar image. This particular man made it an almost poetic image with its reversal…though Jens wasn’t poetic and when he looked at Ruud, he mostly felt a sense of bitter failure. One crisis he hadn’t been able to successfully manage.

“He’s just sleeping it off,” Cesc said. “He…I think he’ll be better when he wakes up. If we can—”

“If he and Cristiano have to be separated, then they have to be separated.” Even if it made Jens feel like the evil stepmother in fairytales. “Later I want to talk to you about Deco.”

Cesc said sure and something else, but Jens missed it because he was walking down the hall. He paused in front of the third door, which was slightly ajar. Through the space he could see Robin’s arms, lifted up to block his face because Raúl was doing something to his chest. Jens rapped once on the door, then went inside and went up to stand by the examining table on which Robin was sitting.

Raúl turned around. “Two cracked ribs and serious bruising around them. Minor bruises and scrapes elsewhere. Do you want to hear about Ruud now? Because—”

“In a moment. I need to talk to Robin,” Jens said. He noted the increase in Raúl’s irritation at that, but Raúl did leave so Jens could let that go for the moment.

Robin was gingerly touching his newly-taped ribs. He glanced at Jens, then dropped his arms. A little too quickly—he winced and drew one arm back up across his chest. “The point was to save you the trouble of making an emergency trip back. It’s no antique knife, but…” his mouth twitched; his eyes were wary “…merry Christmas.”

“I guessed.” Jens lifted his hand and carefully put his palm against Robin’s ribs. He watched the muscles of Robin’s jaw move as he slid it around. “You did well at that, actually.”

The other man’s head shot up. The jerk of his wince swayed him towards Jens so the rough cotton of the bandages impressed its weave on Jens’ palm. “So why did you come back?”

“Originally? Because Moggi went after Lahm as well. He should’ve known better. Ferguson should’ve known better than to let that happen—there are certain things that you don’t do. Not because of honor or anything, but because you’ve got to keep a certain order if you’re going to have a business and make money,” Jens said. He put his other hand on Robin’s waist and let it rest there for a moment, then slowly skimmed it up Robin’s back, following the flex of the muscles. Robin had gotten a shower as well, and a film of moisture came off on Jens’ fingers. “Of course, Moggi is a bungler. He knows nightclubs and he can do them well, but he always gets in trouble when he tries to stretch beyond that.”

“So this Guido Rossi…” Robin carefully slung his arms around Jens’ neck. He tipped his head to the side when Jens leaned in, letting Jens lightly run the tip of his nose up the side of Robin’s throat. He was starting to relax, his body going pliant in Jens’ hands.

Jens paused at Robin’s ear and lightly ran his tongue over the curve, then pressed the flat of it hard into the small hollow behind the ear. He held it there while Robin’s breath hitched, only moving on when Robin slowly inhaled. “Moggi fucked up a job for him and left Italy. He wasn’t named Moggi then—Rossi’s been looking for him for a while. Nobody’s let him know since Moggi was relatively useful, but…Moggi’ll be dead by tomorrow.”

Robin turned his head so his grin pressed into Jens’ cheek. Then he drew back as Jens curled one hand around his jaw. Their mouths met square-on for a moment before Robin shifted, letting his lower lip press between Jens’ lips; Jens sucked at it and Robin moaned, opening his mouth so Jens’ tongue slipped into it. He moved closer, his fingers dragging through Jens’ hair. The kiss deepened—and then Robin suddenly slid sideways, pressing his face into the crook of Jens’ neck. A hard shake went through him, hard enough for him to end up stifling a pained noise, and for a moment he held onto Jens like he meant to merge into him. He loosened up after that, but stayed where he was, his breathing on the ragged side.

“I heard you and Thierry talking,” Jens said. He knew he’d guessed right when Robin’s breath briefly stopped. Robin shifted and Jens moved his hands to hold Robin in place by the back of the neck and the small of the back. Carefully, but firmly. “I thought you’d figure out a way to neutralize Moggi, but if he’s stupid enough to hurt my employees, then more drastic measures are needed. I came back to take care of those, but Thierry got the call about you and Ballack while he was picking me up from the airport.”

“Yeah. Not a good thing if you’ve got a murder scene in your apartment building.” Robin pushed again, and this time, Jens let him lean back. He looked up expectantly at Jens, then frowned. His eyebrows arched, and then he shrugged and pressed up. A flicker of pain cut through the invitation in his eyes. “You know, right after you dragged Moggi back over the wall, I just wanted you to fuck me on the nearest car hood.”

Jens let his mouth quirk into a smile. “You would.” He drew his thumb across the back of Robin’s neck and then forward to rub circles along the other man’s jaw. “I don’t want you just because you look good in my bedsheets or because you can put two thoughts together.”

“So you do admit I’m smart and sexy,” Robin snorted. The amusement in his face was paper-thin and melted away when Jens tightened his grip on him.

“Smart and sexy and loyal.” Jen paused. “I called Rossi after I heard about you. Robin—as long as you’re loyal to me, I’ll be the same to you.”

Robin looked at him for a long time, face smooth of any expression. But plenty of emotions tumbled through Robin’s eyes, and when one finally settled into place, it happened a split second before Robin suddenly arched up and caught Jens’ mouth in a feverish, hungry kiss. He was moaning because it hurt his ribs and trying to claw closer anyway, and it took a while before Jens managed to get him off.

Jens handed him a clean shirt, then the knife he’d taken from Moggi. “So would you try not to lose this again? I have to go back to Italy for another three days.”

The knife disappeared before Robin even got one sleeve on. He had that big, faintly crazy smile on his face again. “They’ll have to include it in my funeral arrangements,” he said. He flicked a look up at Jens. “So…how long do you have till you have to fly back?”

“You have cracked ribs,” Jens replied after a moment, eyebrow up.

“And you’ve been gone for half a week.” Robin pulled at the shirt till it was over his shoulders, but left it unbuttoned. “I can think of a couple ways to manage if you can’t…”

* * *

Torsten opened the door and Michael just couldn’t help it. He was on the other man, his hands pulling at Torsten’s shirt before he even realized he’d pushed them up against the wall. He knew he should—but then Torsten’s hands joined his, and with a grateful groan, Michael lost himself in the other man.

He fucked Torsten against the wall, his trousers down around his feet, still smelling like that damn sewer. His hands and his mouth seemed to belong to someone else, because they seemed to know what they were doing, but he didn’t. He just sucked up the sensation, the uneven scratch of Torsten’s stubble and the taste of Torsten’s mouth and skin, the smell of the aftershave traces in the hollows of Torsten’s neck and behind his ears. The sound of Torsten’s gasps and the stinging pain where Torsten’s nails were digging into Michael’s shoulders.

Then they were done, and Torsten was staring wide-eyed up at him. Michael tried to speak, but his throat was too tight and instead he dropped his head forward.

It fell on a shoulder, and then Torsten wrapped his arms around him. “Micha.”

“You know, I wasn’t that bad. I kept up with Robin. I…but am I going to know when to stop? Am I going to know if I start…” Michael stammered.

“Micha, if you’re asking those questions, then you have nothing to worry about.” Torsten squeezed Michael’s shoulders. “Nothing.”

“And if I stop asking—”

“Then I’ll tell you. I’ll warn you, stop you, whatever. I swear.” A bruising kiss, and then Torsten hugged Michael again. And slowly, Michael felt the tension go from him.

* * *

Philipp woke and clutched hard at Timo’s arm, not sure why he’d woken. But then the noise came again, and he realized it was just Owen going to the bathroom. Poor man…Senderos had called to say everything had been settled, but Owen still had meetings with the Chels and with Thierry. And then Lehmann, once he was back.

But…they were alive, and when Timo sleepily stirred, Philipp could tell him with all honesty that everything was okay. He tucked his head back against Timo and fell asleep himself.

* * *

Ruud had been awake for hours. Lying in place and knowing he’d not only ended it with Cristiano, but that he’d also, piece of shit that he was, hadn’t been able to do it by himself. He’d had to get somebody else to help, and if that wasn’t low…no, there was one more step…

Except no. He was miserable, he was hung-over, he was an utter failure professionally and personally, but he wasn’t going that far. Out of sheer stubbornness, maybe—he didn’t know. But…he wasn’t. This was as far as he was going. This was it.

He stared at the ceiling. Knowing that wasn’t much, considering he didn’t know where he was going now, but…it was somewhere to start.

* * *

Shortly after they’d gotten on the plane, Cristiano had snapped out of his shock and thrown a raging fit. He’d screamed and thrown things and tried to hit Deco, and then when Deco had refused to react to him, crumpled up and cried himself to sleep. In some ways he still was very young.

Deco looked at him again, then adjusted the pillow beneath his head. It was a long tour. They’d have time to work on that.