Tangible Schizophrenia


Hit II: The Club Scene

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: NC-17.
Pairing: Frings/Ballack, Schweinsteiger/Podolski, Van Nistelrooy/Beckham, Van Nistelrooy/C. Ronaldo, others implied.
Feedback: Good lines, typos, etc.
Disclaimer: This is absolutely fiction and not real and I don’t know these people at all.
Notes: Record label AU. Any resemblance to any real-life record company or event is completely accidental.
Summary: Michael goes clubbing and winds up with a three-act drama on his hands.


At first filling out all the background information in order for Michael to get his paycheck was boring, but innocuous enough. He dredged his memory for numbers and addresses and other information he hadn’t needed in years, Torsten patiently waited, and slowly the remaining papers in Michael’s folder disappeared. And then they got to the part about why he’d left his old job.

“University? So you left when you graduated, I guess,” Torsten said, tapping away. He frowned, then paused and moused back to correct a mistake.

Michael didn’t really want to lie, but he didn’t really want to talk about that either. He probably should’ve just shut up, but instead he started to answer, decided he’d better stop and ended up making a funny choked noise.

“Hmmm?” Torsten glanced at him, then took a second look. “What’s the matter?”

“I actually stayed on for about three months after I graduated,” Michael blurted out. All that would do was stall, and he definitely was going to have to say something else now, but…damn it, it hadn’t been his fault. He didn’t have any damn reason to be embarrassed, and all he was doing by acting that way was making himself look wrongly guilty.

After a moment, Torsten took his hands off the keyboard and spun his chair around. He picked up the packet Michael had given him and flipped through it. He wasn’t actually looking for anything, Michael realized after a second; he was giving Michael another minute to compose himself.

“What does Lehmann think about drugs?” Michael suddenly said. Then he winced at himself, because he appreciated Torsten’s gesture a lot and he’d meant to repay it with honesty, but he’d gotten distracted.

Blinking, Torsten dropped the file. “I know security wouldn’t have passed you through without having you sign that—”

“I know, I know, but you can sign the contracts and they can say whatever they want, and it still depends on what your supervisor’s like.” Michael sounded pissed off. Which he was, but it was at himself and he was completely fucking this up. He tried to make an apologetic face at Torsten.

“Well, true,” Torsten said, tipping his head back in thought so he didn’t see it. He absently snagged a pen and turned it on end, tapping it in random patterns over the desk. “Some of the managers around here actually encourage it, saying it’s good for the creative thinking, but Jens doesn’t really buy into that. He likes things to be neat—” he glanced down at the snort Michael hadn’t quite managed to hide “—the paperclip stacks?”

“The paperclip stacks,” Michael nodded. That had been a little creepy. He was naturally neat himself, but that just…Lehmann clearly wasn’t of the mental norm.

Torsten shot him a brief grin, then sobered up again. “He’ll fire you on the spot if he catches you doing anything stronger than weed, and even then I hear he tends to assign you the shitty jobs till you stop. There’s no random testing going on—” thoughtful head-tilt “—so far as I know, but he’s pretty sharp. He’ll sniff it out. That’s for the people who work here, though…he can’t really do much about the singers we sign unless they really screw up. Why?”

For a moment, Michael thought about just claiming he’d remembered Cristiano, but then he gave himself a mental kick in the ass. He needed to stop making excuses, and he needed to just explain things once here. Maybe Torsten would turn a deaf ear like everyone else, or maybe not—this was supposed to be a whole different world, so Michael had better find out if that was true before he was all the way in.

Once again, Torsten was patiently waiting without actually seeming like he was waiting. He probably wore down more people that way than a lot of Michael’s professors could’ve by just yelling themselves speechless.

“My advisor—he was also my supervisor—he was going to take me onto this giant research grant he had, but he got kicked out of the university. He was running some drug-sex ring with his students and it got exposed…I had no idea, he didn’t get anyone in his own lab into it, but of course everyone thought we were involved,” Michael said. It all came out in a rush, and when he breathed in afterward, he felt weirdly light and empty. And tired; he sagged back in his chair and stared over Torsten’s shoulder. “So if you called the university, they’ll say I was discharged due to departmental reorganization, but that’s really why. That’s why I can’t get a job in any other research lab, either.”

He took another deep breath, then checked Torsten’s expression. The other man looked sympathetic. “That must have been rough. So were you worrying we hired you because we heard about that, and thought that that would fit in…”

“Um, no, actually. Not till you mentioned it.” And come to think of it, Michael had just insulted the company as well. He grimaced and pulled himself up. “I didn’t mean to make it sound like I think working here is bad, or anything. It’s just not…what I thought I’d be doing.”

“Well, that’s fine.” Torsten raised his eyebrows, then turned back to the computer and started typing again. “No, really, I hear that a lot.”

Michael looked dubiously at him. “Really.”

“Really. Lehmann likes to hire from some weird places, let me tell you…” Sighing, Torsten did a couple things that made his computer beep at him. He cursed at it and retyped some lines, then hit ‘Enter’ again, and this time it apparently ran smoothly. “At least you have your government identification and employment history and that all in order. I don’t have to commit immigration fraud.”

“You…don’t do that often, do you?” Michael hesitantly asked.

“No, thank God.” A new window popped up on Torsten’s screen, but he ignored it in favor of putting his arms over his head and stretching till his joints popped. The muscles beneath his shirt shifted, smooth and long and yes, it would be a lousy idea for Michael to lean over to see how far down they went. Then Torsten dropped back in his seat with a long sigh of relief. “Okay. We’re…half-done.”

For a moment, Michael just sat and took that in. Then he sank back and down till the back of his head touched the top of the chair, moaning. “I’m not going to be able to start working today, am I?”

“Don’t whine. After I get everything entered in, I still have to process it,” Torsten gently chided. “Most people wouldn’t complain about not being able to work.”

“Well, I like working. It keeps me from noticing how my back gets all cramped up because nobody designs chairs and desks for my height.” Speaking of which, a nasty kink was needling its way against Michael’s spine. He stuck his hand beneath himself and dug at it with his fingers, then pushed his feet out along the floor for his own quick stretch. “Ow. I think I’m still cramped from my flight, too.”

When he flopped back in the chair, he briefly lifted his head and glimpsed Torsten looking oddly at him. And at something lower than Michael’s face; Michael paused, then hurriedly straightened up, but the other man was facing the screen again by the time he could see him.

“Get a massage.” Part of Torsten’s cheek momentarily bulged out, like he’d just curled his tongue up against the inside. Then it flattened and his tongue poked out of his lips to run over them really quick. “Next up…possible tax exemptions.”

“So…couldn’t possibly put the massage first?” Michael tentatively tried. He only realized he’d bit the inside of his mouth from nerves after he tasted blood.

Snort from Torsten. He kept his eyes on the computer, but a tiny smile curled at the corner of his lips. “No. Item one…”

* * *

“Messi’s asleep again,” Lukas reported, ducking through the doorway.

Bastian shrugged and went back to fiddling with bass feedback. That wasn’t all that surprising, considering the workload Lionel had been pulling, and the poor guy deserved the rest so he wasn’t about to interrupt. He did think about other people, no matter what everyone else said.

Cough. “Uh, Schweini…he’s asleep on your desk. And he’s gotten his arm all tangled up in the cables, so I can’t move him without maybe wrecking the Playstation or the computer.” Lukas came all the way in, kicking the door shut. He grabbed a chair, swung it around and then sat down on it backwards so he could fold his arms across the top.

“I don’t think I really need my desk right now. As long as he doesn’t roll over, it’s okay, right? And Leo sleeps like a rock—he turns into lead or something, because he definitely weighs more than when he’s awake,” Bastian muttered. The reverb in his headphones suddenly smoothed out; he instantly lifted his hands from the board, then swiveled around to get that setting saved on the computer before someone jostled the knob.

He was just done with that when something hooked into the band of his headphones and rudely jerked them down. Annoyed, Bastian whipped around ready to give Lukas a quick piece of his mind, only to be confronted with a mournful face.

“But I needed your desk,” Lukas said in a pitiful voice. He made his eyes big and puppy-ish and pressed his chin into his hands so he was looking up at Bastian at a slight angle. “I just walked in on Timo and Phil making out in the men’s room, and Timo had Phil up against the wall and he was holding him off the ground, and—” suddenly matter-of-fact “—Basti, we really need to fuck. Like, now. Or I’ll die.”

Bastian blinked, then made a face. They were supposed to mess with other people, not with each other. “Did you need my desk or my dick? I don’t know, you look pretty healthy to me…”

Lukas just looked at him for a moment. Then he grabbed the top of his chair’s backrest and pushed himself up enough so that he could get up, twist around to face the same way Bastian was, and then sit down again. He didn’t say anything. His elbows moved out to the sides, then up and he rose a bit as he did something—unzipped himself. A long, throatily heartfelt sigh of relief came from him as he sank down…and down, and down, till his head was lolling along the top of the backrest. His right elbow was sticking out to the side, moving up and down in short, slow jerks.

“You are not,” Bastian said. His voice got a little stuck in the middle of that so he had to swallow, and while he was at it, he started shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “Poldi…studio? Public place? Lehmann screaming at us for traumatizing Ljungberg?”

Now he could hear the slick soft rasp of Lukas’ hand on…on his prick. The other man usually didn’t use anything like oil or gel, claiming he liked the hard friction, so his cock would already have an irritated flush as it slowly swelled. The chair squeaked as Lukas gasped, then slid down a few more centimeters, his head dropping back so his eyes briefly met Bastian’s. They were hot and smoky, and the bastard even stuck out his tongue and wriggled it before he slumped back, moaning. “Oh…God…thank…God…I so needed this…”

“You do not.” It came out of Bastian’s mouth kind of like a growl. He planted his feet on the ground and yanked over his chair, then grabbed the side of Lukas’ and gave it a hard push. The moment the other man was facing him, he dropped out of his chair and shoved his mouth over Lukas’ prick. Lukas wanted friction, well, he was going to get it.

His lips brushed Lukas’ balls and Lukas jerked his head forward with a hiss, one hand going to clamp onto the chair-arm. His eyes were bulging as he stared blindly down at Bastian, so Bastian didn’t move, just held Lukas’ cock in his mouth and throat. Okay, he wiggled his tongue a couple times against it, just to see if Lukas’ eyes would fall out. They didn’t, which was good because that was just gross, but they did plead and Lukas did bring around his other hand to dig into Bastian’s hair, pushing and twisting, trying to get Bastian to do something. “No, I didn’t, I needed you but you bastard, you were just going to let me die—”

Bastian had not. He really cared about Lukas, and if there was a more direct way to show it than suddenly swallowing, hard and tight, so the taste of Lukas’ cock was impressed on all sides of his mouth, then…he wanted detailed diagrams because they were so trying it.

The fingers in his hair spasmed and Bastian laughed. Almost triggered a choke, but he quickly swallowed again and the urge passed. Lukas, on the other hand, was very much there and was groaning and cursing and saying all sorts of random things, his hips frantically thrusting forward. But the chair-wheels kept going in the opposite direction at the same time, so it was like he wasn’t even moving, and finally Bastian just reached up and hooked his hands into Lukas’ pockets, feeling the heat and the slide of muscle beneath the denim, and eased Lukas along into the rhythm. Lukas switched to Polish and took his hand off the chair-arm and put it on Bastian’s shoulder, squeezing hard in time to Bastian’s swallows.

He really had been all worked up; he didn’t need more than a minute before he was suddenly crouching over Bastian, ass yanked up from his seat by the force of his climax as his thighs shivered in Bastian’s hands. For a while, Lukas stayed like that, breathing in harsh short pants that seemed to come every time Bastian drank down another spurt from the other man, but finally no more splattered down Bastian’s throat.

Lukas shakily sat down. Or tried to, because he’d kind of kicked the chair out from under him and it was a really good thing Bastian still had his hands on Lukas’ hips or else that would’ve been a very sore ass. And Bastian had plans for said ass.

“Studio? Lehmann threatening us with Cristiano if we ever had sex in here again?” Lukas breathlessly, mischievously gasped as Bastian dragged him forward and down. Not that he hesitated to straddle Bastian’s lap.

“So we’ll be really fast and he’ll never know. Besides, now I’m going to die,” Bastian replied, smoothing his hands up Lukas’ back.

* * *

After a moment, Ruud backed away from the door and waved David on down towards the next one. The other man didn’t raise any questions, but something about David’s constant cheerfulness always made Ruud feel like he had to explain any potential stormclouds. Probably the same reason Beckham had managed to make a successful leap from professional sports to movie-acting.

“I think that one’s…occupied,” Ruud muttered. Sometimes he honestly felt more like he worked in a porn studio than a music one.

“All right. Well, no hurry—Vicks is busy having a girls’ day out, so I’m in no hurry to get home.” David ambled his way into the room, then turned around to sprawl out in one of the chairs. He leaned back and looked expectantly up at Ruud, but with an unusual lack of pressure to his expression.

Ruud closed the door, then stood. However relaxed David might seem, he might always change his mind once he heard the news. “Lehmann will sign her, but at the terms he originally specified. If you ask for anymore, he suggests you look elsewhere.”

Some of the good humor drained away from David’s face. He hummed and pushed himself forward to rest his arms on his knees, looking thoughtful. Several minutes passed without him saying anything or moving, which was a better reaction than most people; Ruud had security on speed-dial thanks to that.

“Well, all right. She hasn’t worked in a year and a half and it’s her first solo album, so I can understand where he’s coming from,” David finally said. He folded his hands and pressed the side of them to his mouth, then sat back, throwing his arm over the back of the chair. His head tipped to the side as another thought occurred to him. David was easy to read like that, with those mannerisms, but at the same time he was incredibly unpredictable—he just didn’t have the same reactions as other people. “I’ll break it to her. She’ll probably be a bit miffed at first, but it’ll be good for Vicks. She needs a push sometimes, you know?”

“I suppose.” Now Ruud sat down. His suddenly-exhausted body gratefully accept the support of the chair and he just savored it for a moment. Then he opened his mouth to say something, but instead found himself sighing and pushing at his hair.

When he’d first run into David in the hall, he’d groaned to himself and assumed it meant more trouble coming on top of Cristiano’s histrionics. And Beckham could be, but never in person. When he actually was present, he was oddly calming—nothing ever seemed to ruffle him for long, and as annoyingly ubiquitous as his boyish smile could get, it still always was genuinely glad to see whoever it was, whether that was his slightly high-strung wife or his old flatmate who now was close to having a fucking breakdown over a little Portuguese shit who couldn’t even drink legally in America—

“You look a bit ragged. Job getting to you?” David asked.

Ruud nodded as he let himself slip down the chair, for once abandoning the perfect posture of the professional. “Sometimes I hate singers. They have all these opportunities and these—these gifts, and then they go and do stupid things. The waste bothers me.”

“Not—” David started.

“No. No, you and Victoria weren’t a problem.” A convenient excuse so Ruud could go make a fool of himself even more, but it wasn’t Becks’ fault that Ruud couldn’t read the warning signs and figure out that everything was business to Jens.

“Because you have no idea how much I appreciate this. And really, you can say no at any time. ‘course, it’d be a bit hard to square that off with Victoria…but that’s my problem.” Charmingly self-deprecating smile as the other man unconsciously paralleled Ruud’s thoughts. David ducked his head and happened to scoot himself a bit closer in the same motion.

It really should annoy Ruud more, but instead he found himself wryly smiling at the ceiling. The refreshing thing about David was that he was so transparent and so simple, unlike most of the self-absorbed psychotics Ruud had to deal with. God knew how Beckham had managed that and a meteoritic footballing career at the same time. “Stop flattering me. I did get you the contract.”

“I’m not flattering. I’m complimenting honest hard work,” David said. He really had no idea.

He was pushing his chair right up to Ruud and then leaning over. A fraction before their mouths would’ve touched, Ruud got his hand up against the other man’s chest. “How exactly would you square this with Victoria?” he asked, eyebrow raised.

David flashed a grin and put his hand over Ruud’s, then slid it down Ruud’s arm and then further south. “She suggested it, actually. She always thought you didn’t like her, else she would’ve offered herself.” A little bit of seriousness shaded into David’s face. “It’s not like…in exchange, all right? It’s just we both know it’s extra work for you, and we don’t want you to wear yourself down.”

Not much like—like anything Ruud had been dealing with lately. Which was probably why he let David kiss him, and then do more. He needed the break.

* * *

When Michael finally got out of Torsten’s office, it was nearly the end of the workday and he could’ve just gone back to Timo and Philipp’s flat. But he did really want to get a feel for what he was going to be handling, and anyway he needed to find Lionel and figure out exactly when he could move in with the other man. As friendly as Phil and Timo were, Michael still felt bad imposing on them for much longer.

And, well, he wasn’t sure he’d get enough sleep if he stayed with them. From what he could tell, Messi currently wasn’t seeing anyone.

Michael headed back up to his floor and wandered around till he found the right room—the hallways really were some kind of labyrinth. His office wasn’t much more than a computer in a closet, and most of the closet was taken up with piles of motherboards and cables and loose chips; Timo hadn’t been lying when he’d said that the man before Michael had walked out in the middle of the job. After a moment, Michael rolled up his sleeves, turned on the computer, and squatted down to try and make sense of exactly what Savage had been planning to do.

The puzzle almost immediately absorbed all his attention so he barely noticed the knock on the door. Then he did, but it was too late and Lukas had already jumped on top of him, sending them both over. “Micha! Even the late-shift people have stopped working—it’s Friday night!”

“What?” Michael grunted, trying to disentangle himself. He pulled up his arm and checked his watch, then frowned. It was analog and he thought maybe the gears had gone funny, so he gave it a shake, but it still showed the same time.

“Here.” Lionel held out his watch, which was digital, so Michael could see. Same time. “Were you planning to work all night, or were you coming out with us? I thought you said you were, but I was sort of half-asleep.”

Eventually Bastian passed by the door and Lukas promptly took a flying leap at him so Michael could finally get back up. His hip twinged at him and he winced, rubbing at it, but it seemed like just a bruise. “Well, I was…” he got a good look at Lionel and winced again “…but I got all caught up. And anyway, even if I had time, I didn’t really bring that kind of outfit…”

“No, you look good!” Bastian said, swinging in. He grabbed Michael’s wrist and dragged him out almost before Michael could grab his keys; a good thing, since the door automatically locked behind him and he hadn’t yet figured out how to make that not happen. “Leo’s just cruising tonight. He’s all done with his project and he wants to—”

“Relax without a commentary running along,” Lionel muttered, stalking off.

Neither Bastian nor Lukas looked too concerned, so apparently it wasn’t too big of a deal. It was beginning to seem as if while Lionel had a short temper, he got over things pretty fast.

“No, you look fine. Torsten dresses sort of like that and nobody’s kicked him out of a club yet for bad fashion taste,” Lukas told Michael. He also bestowed a couple reassuring pats on Michael’s arm. Then he turned to Bastian. “Leo’s getting Timo and Phil, right?”

“No, they’re meeting us there. Leo’s getting Odonkor, and we’re gonna meet Torsten in the first-floor lobby.” Bastian tucked Lukas into his arm, or maybe Lukas got Bastian into his…it was complicated and kept changing. At any rate, the two of them started moving towards the elevators.

Michael trailed behind. He passed a bank of Art Deco-shaped mirrors on the wall and got a look at himself, then pushed at his hair. He was dusty and rumpled and even besides that, dressed like he was going to the bank.

It only made him feel a little bit better when they got downstairs and he saw that all Torsten had done was change from a gray buttondown to a white one. Well, the cut was different, too; Torsten had an unusually good build for someone in financing, and Michael was just going to watch Bastian and Lukas for the rest of the way. It might give him a migraine, but at least it wouldn’t make him say anything stupid on his first day.

Lionel and David tumbled out of another elevator before Michael or Torsten could say anything, yelling and laughing so loud that conversation wasn’t possible anyway. David was still in his suit, but he’d taken off his tie and coat and rolled up his sleeves. He also had Lionel hitched on his back, which possibly also qualified as part of a clubbing outfit.

“Hey, I thought you were straight,” Bastian laughed, coming up to them. He put up his hands while Lukas gave David an arm to lean on and helped Messi down.

“I am, dork. I can make up my mind.” David put on a mock-lofty expression, then momentarily disappeared beneath a hail of affectionate punches and pokes from both Bastian and Lukas.

In the meantime, Lionel wriggled his way out, then pulled his clothes back into order. He looked a lot more rested and relaxed since the last time Michael had seen him—barely hours before, though it felt like days. “Poldi! Guess who Thierry just brought in! He told Jens over lunch and Lehmann was so happy that—”

“He gave me the weekend off! Hello, getting pissed and laid,” David joyfully said. When he finally dug himself out from beneath the other two men, his shirt had been pulled out of his trousers and it looked as if the top button had been popped right off. He didn’t seem to care, and didn’t even bother to pull down the unevenly-flipped lapels of his collar. “The Chels—”

“John Terry! And I get him. I get to work his beat!” Lionel’s German was breaking up in all his excitement. He kept bouncing and luckily missed the salacious glances Bastian and Lukas sent each other over his head.

Michael…vaguely recognized the name. He shot a glance at Torsten, but the other man was watching…David chatting up the lobby receptionist. After a moment, he noticed Michael’s look, blinked, then casually reached out to ruffle Lionel’s hair. “That’s great, Leo. Finally get your punk fix, huh?”

Oh, right. One of Michael’s lab coworkers had been into the punk scene and he’d had a poster of the Chels over his desk. But even taking into account how music-ignorant Michael was, he didn’t think he’d heard of the band in any of the big magazines or TV shows, so they must still be mostly underground. Probably not so much in the future.

“I heard he goes through five, six guitars a month,” Lukas said. “Your equipment budget’s gonna blow off the roof, Leo.”

Lionel made a face at him. “You’re just jealous.”

“Worry about the budget when it hits my desk,” Torsten put in, looking at his watch. He cut off whatever Lukas had been about to say and probably had averted at least a minor scuffle, much to the visible relief of the others. “Come on. We’re going to be late.”

Somebody pried David away from the receptionist. Premier wasn’t far enough away to bother driving there and parking was tight downtown, so they walked. It wasn’t long before Michael’s self-confidence started to slip away again as they passed more and more men and women who were dressed—or barely dressed—to the nines. A lot of people turned to stare at their group, and one group of women who were already falling-down-drunk stopped on the corner across the road to shout indecent proposals at Bastian. He just grinned, then dramatically turned and grabbed Lukas in for a kiss and thorough feeling-up of ass. The women paused, then hooted even louder.

“No, this way.” Philipp popped up, with Timo trailing behind. He tugged on Michael’s elbow and pulled him into what looked like a dark, dirty side-alley. “The VIP entrance is over here.”

“VIP?” Something scuttled away from Michael’s foot.

“Well, if we’d driven and come up on the other side, we could’ve used the back door and that one’s better. Sorry.” Carefully picking his way through the puddles, Philipp waved his hand ahead of him. A doorway in the wall to the right was dimly visible up ahead, then was blocked out as someone moved out from it. They paused, then nodded and retreated at whatever sign Philipp made to them. “But then you can get caught up in the entourages of the singers and actors who use that one, and it can get a little crazy.”

David jogged up next to them. “Yeah, like rapper bodyguards waving around guns. Much easier just to go this way, and once you’re inside, nobody’s looking at your shoes anyway.”

He slid in ahead, but Philipp held Michael back so the bouncer could see them. “This is Michael Ballack. We just hired him.”

The man looked closely enough at Michael so that Michael could hear him taking notes on stats for height, weight, etc. Then he waved them through the door and into a short, dark corridor that was dully pulsating with a deep bass beat.

“Security will send over a picture of you to them and you won’t have to do that again even if it’s a different guy, but since it’s Friday, they wouldn’t have gotten a chance to do that yet,” Philipp explained. He talked really fast and finished just before they emerged from the hall into a sound inferno.

It literally felt like Michael had stepped into a wall. The music wasn’t music so much as an insistent pressure on his body. And it would shift around, too: shoving hard into his head and gut during the guitar riffs and then trailing heavily off when the drums came out. He stopped right where he was, just shocked into place.

He did get used to it after a few moments. The music faded out a bit and he started to hear the sounds of people laughing, the rustling shiver of a thousand conversations overlapping and the clink of glass against glass. Michael turned to say something to Philipp about the sound system and discovered that the other man was gone.

He blinked, then was jostled as somebody tried to push past him and had to move back against the wall. All he saw of them was that they were wearing a dark suit and they had curly dark hair before they were swallowed up by all the people. More people were coming down the hall—it looked like one of the entourages Philipp had been talking about, so Michael slid out of the hallway before he could get trampled.

Premier was packed solid, to the point that Michael couldn’t take a step without brushing up against at least three people. Sweat was already running down his face and dripping into his collar so the skin there itched and he kept scratching at it. He looked around, didn’t see a single face he recognized but did see that the bar was on a platform and decided to head for that, thinking that he might get a better view from there.

The bar was about a hundred meters away. By the time he got there, he was more than a little claustrophobic and extremely paranoid about his ass. If one more person grabbed it, he wouldn’t care if it was his first day at work and he needed to keep a clean sheet—he was going to turn around and punch them. Honestly.

Things were a little less crowded around the bar, which was kind of surprising. But Michael wasn’t going to question it till after he’d squeezed out of the mass of people and stumbled up to collapse against the railing, incredibly grateful for the air.

“Oh, there you are…and Timo just took Phil off, damn it. Phil was wringing his hands over losing you,” somebody said.

Michael turned around, then tried to smile thankfully at Torsten. That wasn’t very easy to do when gasping for breath. “I got stuck behind a group and it was more like I lost him.”

“Well, we’ll go find him after the first set. It’ll be too much trouble now.” Torsten waved his drink towards the far end of the club, where a small stage was set into the wall.

The music suddenly clicked off, but it seemed like a low booming noise was still coming out of the speakers, sort of like the after-images that showed up on the backs of a person’s eyelids for a few seconds after they’d closed them. Michael opened his mouth to reply to Torsten, but then the bassist on the stage stepped forward and ripped a power chord that slashed through the room. The rest of the band up there quickly joined in, and apparently they were some kind of heavy metal group because Michael could practically feel the music like sledgehammers coming down on him.

He closed his mouth, then saw that the stool beside him was free and got on it. Adjusting to the noise took a couple of seconds, and then Michael had to answer the bartender, who’d tapped him on the arm. He ordered the first beer brand that came to his mind, which he realized only after the bartender had drawn him a glass was actually his least favorite.

“It’s a recruitment night, though that’s not supposed to be common knowledge,” Torsten said, sliding in beside Michael. He turned his back to the bar and leaned on his elbows. “All these bands, they got booked by scouts for three-song sets. If they’re good enough, we might be picking up some contracts tonight.”

“Oh…I was wondering about all the men in business suits. Good to know they’re not gangsters.” Michael looked at his beer, then took a small sip. No, just as bad as he’d remembered. Maybe he could sneak off to the toilet and pour it down the drain sometime. “Hey—is that Lehmann?”

He pointed, but just then the crowds shifted to show the man’s face and it was very clearly not. For one thing, if Jens ever put on ripped and chained leather pants, he’d probably have a heart attack. Right after killing whoever was responsible, and that was a shame because he probably would look good in…Michael steered his brain away from that image before anything bad happened. Like possibly insanity.

“Never mind,” Michael muttered, glancing down at his feet.

When he looked up, Torsten was grinning at him, but not maliciously. “No, but that’s Oliver Kahn down there. See, with that…God, I hope she’s legal. The one with the green streaks in her hair. He’s the best manager at the company right now.”

“Right now?” Someone had turned on strobing colored lights that made it hard to see faces very clearly, but Michael guessed late thirties-early forties for Kahn.

“Well, Lehmann’s been gunning for him for a couple of years and we’re getting very close. By the way, just…stay away from that if you can. It’s ugly. Oh—holy Christ, is that…” Torsten drew himself up, frowning, and peered hard at something on the dancefloor. Then he stiffened and looked frantically around before lunging out and hauling back David. “Davi, is that who I think it is?”

David stared open-mouthed at Torsten, one hand still raised towards the girl he’d been enthusiastically grinding against. Then he turned around, and his jaw dropped a fraction more, only now he looked like he was shocked with anger, not indignation. “What the hell is he doing here? How’d he get in here anyway?”

“Wait, wait, they’re coming for him…see, there’s Kahn and Ljungberg,” Torsten said, pointing.

Michael straightened up and saw Kahn, now accompanied by a man with a shaved head, heading towards an elderly but decidedly not decrepit-looking man standing in the corner. He obviously saw them walking his way, but just turned around and continued on his way. The crowd seemed to melt away from him till it got to…

“Oh, this is bad,” David breathed. “That’s Ruud.”

“What’s going on?” Michael asked.

Torsten glanced behind him, then flicked a gaze farther back to the bartender, who nodded to him. Then he turned back to Michael, dropping an arm over Michael’s neck and pulling him close in order to talk more softly. “Alex Ferguson.”

Owner-slash-chairman of FC Record’s biggest rival. Even Michael had heard of him, and it wasn’t because of all the charity work the man had done…though he did do quite a bit, if Michael remembered right. But that always got overshadowed by his famous—and famously successful—business wars.

“Ruud came from his label, actually. A year ago. He managed to take Cristiano with him, so you can imagine how much Ferguson likes him right now,” Torsten muttered.

That would be one hell of a coup. “Why’d he leave?”

Ferguson had just tapped Ruud on the shoulder, so Michael wasn’t expecting Torsten to answer. He jumped when he heard the first words and accidentally bumped his ear up against Torsten’s mouth; for a moment the other man’s lips moved against Michael’s earlobe. Then Michael leaned back. Torsten had hitched a bit, but just went on talking after that. “Nobody knows, really. When I asked him that, he just said to put down a disagreeable work environment. But then we heard that Ferguson was telling everyone he’d fired Ruud—Ruud said he’d quit. Maybe Cristiano would know, but he gets…touchy…about Ruud.”

Michael wanted to know about the funny inflection Torsten had put on ‘touchy,’ but just then he was distracted by the commotion going on below. Ferguson had said something and Ruud had paled, then flushed red with anger and he’d made some kind of move towards the other man.

* * *

When the tap landed on his shoulder, Ruud had just handed his empty glass to a passing waitress. That was bad timing, because he really would have liked to have had something to throw in Alex’s face.

“Ruud. You look well enough.” Implication adding the ‘for your current circumstances.’ As usual, Ferguson looked like it’d take an ax-blow to the head to kill him, and he didn’t care at all that every third person around them would be more than willing to provide said ax. “I see you’ve gotten over your aversion to attending cattle auditions like this.”

Actually, Ruud had just come down meaning to work the rest of his frustration out of his system and had found Premier conveniently close. He was seriously regretting his laziness now. “And I thought you hated nightclubs with a passion.”

“I do. But I was in the neighborhood and my curiosity got the better of me. I hear so much about our mutual prodigy nowadays—he’s really gone far, hasn’t he? But then, Cris did always have the talent for it. He just lacked the sense of direction,” Ferguson said. He made a point of looking around. “Where is he, anyway? Or has he gone far enough to learn not to go constantly panting at your heels now?”

Over Ferguson’s shoulder, Ruud could see Kahn and Freddie rushing up, but the press of curious onlookers was going to keep them from getting there for at least another thirty seconds. “Cristiano’s busy. He’s got a brilliant new album coming out—I’m sure you had to have heard about that.”

The bastard had hopefully choked on his breakfast when he had. Pity it hadn’t killed him, or that Ferguson wasn’t the kind to be shaken for long. He merely tilted his head to sneer at Ruud. “Yes. Well, that new album. Wasn’t it supposed to be out over the summer? What’s the matter, does he not like your prick enough to follow it anymore?”

Ruud—did something. He stopped himself even before hands grabbed him back and someone, Hildebrand maybe, was hissing in his ear not to lose it in front of everyone, but he just hated the fact that he’d even started. It boiled up like acid in his throat and hardened the tendons in his arms and hands to tight-wound steel strings.

“Excuse me—” Sometime while Ruud had been snapping, Kahn had finally caught up to them. He lifted his hand towards Ferguson’s shoulder, but Ferguson deliberately moved away.

“I’m leaving, I’m leaving. No need to shove, gentlemen.” Ferguson wasn’t nearly as classy as his accent might sound. And he was so sure of himself that he hadn’t even bothered looking over his shoulder at Ruud; he just trusted that there would be a reaction.

The bastard’s instincts were right. Because he was good, and God, Ruud hated him.

Somebody touched Ruud’s arm and he angrily jabbed out with his elbow, then turned around. Hildebrand raised his hands, both of which were holding shot-glasses. “Whoa. Just making sure you’re fine.”

“I’m wonderful,” Ruud said in a tight, cold voice. “Thank you for your concern.”

Kahn had gone off, probably to walk Ferguson all the way to the door, while Freddie was still around but was busy with crowd control. Hildebrand shrugged, his mouth twitching, and Ruud belatedly remembered that Timo was one of the more outspoken mixers. “Well, okay. I just had this spare shot, and that looked—”

Come to think of it, Ruud could use that. “What is it?”

Eyebrow quirk. “Vodka?”

Ruud held out his hand, then tossed it back as soon as the shot was in his hand. His simmering rage must have had his blood racing or something like that, because it seemed like the alcohol immediately hit him. The burn cut through the heat of his anger, then turned cool and soothing. “Thanks,” he absently muttered.

Hildebrand stared at him. Right, Ruud tried not to mix with anyone besides the singers he had under contract. It made sure he didn’t get surprised when hell rained down and they didn’t support him.

After a moment, the other man tentatively lifted a hand. “There’s—”

Ruud spun on his heel and went off to locate several more shots. He already knew where to go.

* * *

“Whooo…” David slowly let the breath out of him, sinking back against the side of Michael’s stool. “That was nasty. You know, I kind of feel sorry for Cristiano and all the others Ruud’s handling. He’s not going to be—well, he’s not nice anyway, but he’s going to be even worse now.”

“Well, it’s the weekend. Unless they screw up, they probably won’t be seeing him,” Torsten said. He twisted around to hand his empty glass to the bartender, then wriggled his way out. “Need to take a piss. Michael, you’ll be all right?”

“Oh, want me to wait with him till you get back?” David asked.

Okay, that was really nice of them, but…well, Michael was a grown man. He shouldn’t be this pathetic. “No, no, it’s fine. I don’t want to ruin your nights. I’m fine—I’m just going to take everything in for a while.”

“Are you sure?” David looked hard at him, then shrugged and wandered off. He got taken up pretty fast by a pair of busty redhead twins.

Torsten waited another moment, then started off as well. And Michael was sitting by himself. Which wasn’t exactly why people came to nightclubs, but the band on the stage wasn’t really playing his type of music, and anyway, he wasn’t all that interested in dancing with any of the people floating past him. He tried sipping at his beer again, but now it was warm and nearly flat and that just was…it wasn’t going to work.

“Something wrong?” the bartender asked.

“What—oh, no, just…I wasn’t thinking and this isn’t really—” Michael started, lifting his glass.

“I’ll buy you a new one.” Heavily-accented voice. The blond in the leather trousers that Michael had seen earlier practically undulated up to the bar beside him, followed by a train of similarly-dressed friends. They were laughing and joking with each other in something that sounded a little like Spanish. “What do you want?”

Michael blinked, then shook his head. “Thanks, but no thanks. I’m fine.”

“You sure?” The man stepped back a little and let his eyes blatantly ooze all over Michael. “You look like a whisky. Smooth with a rough finish.”

“And you look like a Brazilian,” interrupted Lionel. He hopped up, flushed and with damp hair, and ordered a Cuba Libre before turning to look derisively over the blond. “Lots of spunk, but no idea where to shoot it.”

The bartender paused in the middle of pouring Lionel’s drink, obviously wondering whether he needed security. But the blond just rolled his eyes and said something to his friend, who was making an exaggerated shocked face. Lionel snorted and rattled off in Portuguese before the friend could answer; the blond blinked, then shifted so he could get a better look at Lionel. His expression was a little annoyed, but also…interested.

Now was probably a good time for Michael to leave. Still carrying his beer, he squeezed off his stool and started through the crowd. After a few steps, he raised the glass over his head to try and keep from spilling on anyone. He was aiming for the staircase in the corner, thinking that maybe the upper levels might not be as crowded, but the pressure of the crowd carried him off-course.

Michael tried to fight it as long as he could, but it was too strong and he was starting to feel a little dizzy, so finally he just went with it. He thought at least if he got to the wall, he could work his way back along it.

Instead he hit a doorway, and almost literally got spit out into it when the pressure suddenly gave way. Beer sloshed over his hand and soaked into his sleeve. “Damn it.”

“Sink’s right here, man,” somebody said, giving him a slap on the butt.

“Hey—” Michael snarled, turning around. Whoever it had been was already gone, so he finally just sighed and looked about him.

He was at the toilets, so at least that was working out for him. There didn’t seem to be a real line, but there was pretty steady traffic going in and out…and okay, obvious couples were stumbling in, wrapped around each other, and coming out all dazed and happily tired-looking. Great.

Michael sighed and went in, turning as soon as he could towards the sinks to keep from seeing anything. Unfortunately, he couldn’t turn off his ears, but…he’d gone to university, he’d had to learn programming while people had sex on the floor just outside his door. He could deal.

He dumped out his beer, first of all, and then set the glass on the little ledge in front of the mirror. Then he washed his hands.

“…God! Owen!”

“JesusfuckingChristfuckmeharder! I’m not going to break, you fucking prat!”

A thought suddenly occurred to Michael: what, exactly, had Torsten meant by saying he needed to hit the toilet? Maybe he really meant that he needed to meet somebody here. Maybe he was in one of the stalls…and suddenly Michael felt a lot more disappointed than he really should have, given he’d just met the man today. But, well, he liked what he’d seen and heard so far, and…and he was being stupid and brooding again.

“Fuck! Fuck him! Fuck--fuck him!”

Michael paused, then knocked off the water with his wrist. That voice, he thought he recognized, distorted as it was with a shocking amount of anger.

…it wasn’t Cristiano, was it?

He turned on the water again and began to rinse out his sleeve, but lower so he could hear better. The cursing came again, and after a moment, Michael decided that it actually was Ronaldo. Second stall from the left, which was beginning to shake violently as the people inside crashed around. Some of the other men were shooting nervous glances at the door.

“That fucking shit! He think—he thinks he can—that I wait that long, and he can trust this?” Quick drop into English, followed by more unintelligible Portuguese.

Whoever else was with him was talking too low for the words to be heard, but they sounded worried, though they were trying to hush up Cristiano. He screamed at them and their voice lifted enough for Michael to make out a little bit—English, British accent.

“It’ll be okay! All you have to do—”

“And fuck you! Fuck you for thinking—so easy, I’m just so easy, all you do is push and I fall. Fuck you!” Cristiano shouted.

The man at the sink by Michael shot him a concerned look. “Think security’s a good—”

“You said that you—that afterwards, you’d come back. We’ve held up our end, now you hold up yours, you little cunt.” Other man in the stall, suddenly vicious.

High, hysterical laugh. Cristiano didn’t sound sober. “Fuck y—”

He was cut off by a sharp slapping sound that turned slightly wet at the very end. It overlapped with something falling hard against the stall door so Michael saw the hinges visibly shake a bit loose. Michael hesitated another second, then spun around and went over to knock on the stall door. “Hey. Hey!”

“Fuck off!” The British man, over the sound of a thump and an angry, pained cry. Things fell and shattered on the floor with little crystalline plinks.

This—this really wasn’t in Michael’s job description, but he had a pretty good idea of what was going on in there and he couldn’t just stand there with the door closed. So he grabbed the top of the door, put his knee to it and applied some leverage. The already stressed hinges gave way with a sudden crack.

Something was leaning against the door and its weight made the door come down fast at Michael, who barely caught it. He looked into the stall and saw a startled man with a badly bruised jaw and a raised fist staring back at him. Scattered around his feet were the broken pieces of syringes, a leather carrying-case that probably had held them, and a few packets of what looked like rock candy but probably weren’t.

“This isn’t none of your business,” the British man snarled. He grabbed the side of the stall doorway for support, then yanked himself out at Michael.

Michael had the damn door lying against him, so he just gave it a hard shove so it met the man’s fist instead of his face. He slipped out from under it and swung around to grab the man by the head and slam that into the side of the stall a few times; a wild punch hit him in the side, but it didn’t have much power and he shrugged it off. Another one caught his hip, and that one did hurt a hell of a lot. He twisted back, dragging the man with him, and then jerked hard and let go so the prick went sailing across the room into the far wall.

He hit and went down just in front of a pair of feet. Which were attached to a white-faced Torsten. Shit.

Torsten and Michael stared at each other for a moment before Torsten finally moved one shoulder. “Should I add that to your skills section?”

“I don’t…really…” Do that enough for it to be a skill, was what Michael would’ve finished saying, but someone groaned behind him.

He turned around to see a bloody-faced Cristiano sitting against the side of the stalls, clutching at his neck and chest. The other man glanced up at Michael, then…his eyes kept on rolling, and Michael had to duck down fast to keep Cristiano from toppling over. “Torsten—”

“…in the men’s room, first floor, left wall now,” Torsten barked. When Michael glanced up, he saw that Torsten had whipped out a cell phone and had it pinched between his ear and shoulder. He was using his hands to motion people out.

Michael turned back to Cristiano, whose eyelids had partially come down, but it looked like his eyes were still rolled up because all Michael could see were sickly, filmed-over white slivers. At first he thought the bastard lying to the side must have broken Cristiano’s nose or something for there to be so much blood on Cristiano’s face, but he accidentally touched the bridge of the other man’s nose when trying to wipe off some of that and it didn’t give way. Cristiano didn’t flinch either, just worked his mouth like he was trying to talk. He started to choke, and then his hacking took on a desperate guttural tone.

That was a pretty familiar danger sign; Michael grabbed the other man by the waist and hauled him back into the stall to hold him over the toilet while he threw up.

“…keep them out. Tell them whatever you want, Lukas, just—Freddie! Where’s Ruud? And…damn, you should call Lehmann, too. It’s Cris,” Torsten was saying. He kept talking as he walked backwards into Michael’s view, then turned. “How is he?”

“I don’t think that guy hurt him beyond a couple bruises, but…my God, he’s burning up. And…and Torsten, blood’s coming up with his vomit.” Michael bit the side of his mouth, telling himself not be nauseated right now. “Fuck.”

“Get a medical team too,” Torsten yelled at whoever was at the door. He stepped back to take in the scene; his eyebrows shot up. “Shit. What the hell was he on?”

Panic suggested that Michael laugh. He kept his mouth shut till the laugh went away. Cristiano abruptly went limp against him and he almost lost it, but then the other man shuddered and retched again. “I should tell Leo I’m not going to be moving in tonight, shouldn’t I…sorry, that was random. I’m not really okay right now.”

“I don’t think anybody is. Jesus…” Torsten squeezed in beside them and reached down for something, then straightened back up. “His pulse is going nuts. Hang on, I’ll get some water to pour over his head—”

No, he wasn’t, because Cristiano’s shaking suddenly turned into a full-fledged seizure and Michael couldn’t keep hold of the other man by himself, let alone keep him from hurting himself even more against the walls and the toilet bowl. It was like trying to keep a tornado in place.

And then, just as suddenly, Cristiano went still. A fine shiver went through him and he moaned. Plopping sounds could be heard as spit and blood dripped from his mouth and nose into the toilet.

“It probably works out,” Torsten finally said, not sounding all that steady himself. “Leo and this guy were halfway into each other’s pants the last time I saw him.”

“What’d he look like?” This wasn’t really an appropriate conversation topic, but then, Michael had no idea what would be. He didn’t care, anyway. He just needed to talk so he didn’t freak out.

Torsten blinked. “Blond.”

“Brazilian?” Michael asked.

“Wouldn’t know. His mouth was too busy trying to suck out Leo’s tongue for me to find out what his accent sounded like. Why Brazilian?” Torsten replied. “Leo’s Argentine—he doesn’t like Brazilians. Well, that’s what he—”

Cristiano puked again, and at the same time, Ruud walked in. “What the hell’s going—”

He was talking a little loud, but that might be because he was angry. But the slight slur in his speech probably wasn’t from that, and…Michael wasn’t all that sure he wanted to hand Cristiano over to him, as much of a pain as Ronaldo might be to people.

Ruud stopped with a little stumble and swayed in place, looking at them and at the man on the floor. It seemed like it took a while for him to really understand what was going on, and then the oddest look came over his face. He pushed his hand across his eyes, then jerked his head to the side, spitting out a curse in what might’ve been Dutch at the guy who’d been in the stall with Cristiano. Then he sighed and elbowed his way into the stall without even saying anything to Michael or Torsten—not even when he basically forced Torsten out.

He put one hand on Cristiano’s back and let it rest there for a moment, then pushed it down and around—shoving Michael away—so he was holding Cristiano. And talking in Portuguese in a very soft, almost remorseful voice.

“What do we do with this guy?” somebody said.

Michael looked up to see a few men in dark suits with earpieces standing around the man on the floor. He started to say something, but Ruud cut him off.

“Keep him around. I want a word with him, and I’m sure Lehmann will, too. And where the hell is the medic?” Back to angry.

Something touched Michael’s arm; Torsten nodded towards the door. “Come on. I need a drink.”


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