Author: Guede Mazaka
“Where’s the orange juice?”
“Oh, I finished it last night when I came in. Sorry. I’ll pick up more later,” Lionel said, chewing on his bagel. He rested his elbow on the counter and channel-surfed as Michael sleepily poked around in the fridge behind him. “By the way, your laptop keeps going off. It’s—no, the one you set up in the living room. It’s making this weird beeping noise.”
Normally Lionel would be the zombie-like one, but he’d actually gotten a lot of sleep last night, due to coming home for a shower and a nap and accidentally sleeping through a couple things. Nothing really important—he could make up the work today, and the thing with Ronaldinho, but then, he’d never called back to confirm that. And he wasn’t all that sure he wanted to move into regularly dating the other man so that was fine. On the other hand, he was pretty sure Michael had gotten in late. The mouth-shaped bruise that kept peeking out of Michael’s shirt-collar was a clue.
“Oh. Oh, right. Sorry. I’m testing a search program…it’s supposed to tell you when certain keywords pop up on news sites and it’s server-based so it’ll run even when the laptop is off…” Michael rambled on a little bit more as he stumbled into the living room. The laptop started to go off again—it wasn’t really an annoying sound—and he flipped up the lid, then did something that made it turn off. “Maybe linking it to an audible’s a bad idea. Just keep the forwarding mechanism for Blackberry or PDA notifications…”
When Ballack was really tired, he tended to do his thinking out loud. He had a nice, deep voice with a slightly scratchy bass backing that Lionel really wished he could reproduce with woofers, so Lionel just let Michael talk to himself while he got the coffeemaker set up. He dumped out the previous day’s grinds and changed the filter, then filled it up.
Michael stopped talking. Then he made a funny noise. Lionel turned around and the other man was staring at the laptop like it was offering him a food he didn’t recognize and wasn’t sure he liked the look of. “What’s the matter?”
“Well…the biggest tabloid in town is claiming that Kahn’s seeing some up-and-coming starlet, but that they started dating before she was a legal adult,” Michael mumbled, rubbing hard at his eyes. He squinted at the screen again, but didn’t correct himself, so apparently he wasn’t kidding. “Is this…bad for us?”
“Way bad,” Lionel groaned. Then he thought about it again and partly went back on that. Though he still stopped the coffeemaker cycle to add an extra scoop of grinds; they’d need the caffeine. “Well, it might be all right for you and me. Lehmann’s mostly out of town for the next few days, so he won’t have time to go mental on anyone. I hope.”
For some reason, this didn’t seem to reassure Michael. He shoved his hands into his face and stalked back to his bedroom, groaning and muttering beneath his breath. In German, and Lionel’s wasn’t all that great, but he thought it was something about out-of-town not existing in an Internet world.
Well, Micha did tend to have more direct contact with Lehmann than Lionel did, so he had to feel for the other man. Especially if this ended up cutting into Michael’s free time even more; he was starting to get that twitchy look whenever Lionel mentioned dates or sex, so Lionel guessed that bathroom sex hadn’t turned out to be the solution for Micha and Torsten.
* * *
If Thierry varied the amount of pressure he put on his closed eyes, the shade of reddish black he saw changed. Fascinating. Not all that helpful for work, but fascinating.
“…excuse me? Thierry? Are you all right?”
“Oh, no, I’m fine. I’m just pushing my eyes back in—the small print was starting to make them pop out with the strain it took to read it,” Thierry sighed. He put down his hands and mustered up his best nonchalant look for Robert. Then he frowned. “That was fast.”
Robert moved his shoulders in small, awkward shrugs. “The toilet seemed to be occupied. Ah…I’m not sure who Schweini is.”
Thierry had long since lost the ability to blush at the sexual antics of his coworkers, but he nearly regained it right then. “I’m so sorry. There’s another toilet if you go down the hall and take a left, and then a right, and I don’t think anyone would be taking it over.”
The other man left again, and Thierry pulled his PDA out from beneath the piles of papers on his desk. He sighed and reread Jens’ message, and then sighed again when he noticed that Jens had sent an update. It had a lot of detailed orders, but no context to explain them, and Freddie hadn’t replied to any of Thierry’s messages asking for news on the situation, so that meant that Cristiano’s party in Portugal was probably still a mess.
It wasn’t more than one or two minutes before Robert came back, which didn’t give Thierry any time to prepare a good backstory for what he was about to ask. “I’m sorry, but I just got a message from Jens and there’s a problem that takes precedence on what we’re doing right now. He needs Cristiano Ronaldo’s contract reviewed and wants a prep for possible clause renegotiations. Focus on agent representation.”
Robert took it with impressive calm. His eyebrows shot up, but he just sat down, absently tugging at his shirt-cuffs so they didn’t bunch up in his suit-jacket. “What happened? Is he threatening to jump the label? Or did something come up with his…he’s currently represented by Van Nistelrooy, yes?”
“Ruud’s his agent, and other than that I cannot tell you because I honestly don’t know,” Thierry said. He didn’t even have the information to begin trying to come up with a fake story, so he was going with bald honesty. “Right now he, Cristiano and Jens are all in Portugal, and I’m not sure what’s happened there but something has. I’ll let you know when I do.”
Nodding, Robert poked around at the jumble on Thierry’s desk till he found what he was looking for. He inserted two fingers, then gingerly drew out a large yellow legal pad, careful not to disturb the teetering papers on top, and took out a pen. “My access for your documents came through, but I’m still not all that familiar with your filing system. Can I borrow your assistant for a half-hour or so?”
“I’d say yes, only Jens asked first so Freddie’s also in Portugal.” If Thierry had a spare moment, he really needed to remind Jens to hire a second assistant. He was glad to help out, and he knew Freddie didn’t mind, but he also needed the extra help and…shaking his head, he got back to the matter at hand. “I can just show you it—it’s not that hard. Hang on, let me check my schedule…yes? Come in.”
Whoever it was stopped knocking. The door opened a moment later and Ricardo hesitantly stepped inside. He had several rolled-up newspapers in his arms and enough of a large color photo on the outermost one was visible for Thierry to recognize Kahn’s scowl. “Bobby, I picked up the forms. Oh, and Jens’ secretary gave me these for you, Thierry.”
“Thank you,” Thierry replied as politely as he could manage. He made himself take the papers and, instead of throwing them out the window, spread them out on top of his desk. It wasn’t Kaká’s fault that the last thing Thierry wanted to do was to read another gossip mag, but Jens had asked to be kept updated on this, too.
“Are you sure no one else can give me the tour? This doesn’t seem like the best time for you,” Robert said after a moment. He had a few words with Ricardo, who then left to run some other errand, before leaning over to glance at the newspapers. He grimaced when he saw the photo in the second paper: it showed a ruddy-faced Kahn dancing with his girlfriend in a nightclub, only they’d framed the shot so it looked like Kahn was about to swoop down on her. “Is there anyone else left in the office?”
Thierry looked up just in time to see the other man shake his head and open his mouth, looking apologetic. He had been making a joke, or trying to, but Thierry had taken too long to catch on. “No, unfortunately,” Thierry quickly said, smiling. Then he ducked his head as a dry chuckle sneaked out on him. “No…and I thought it was going to be a quiet week, and I’d just have to hold down things here.”
“Well, it can’t be that complicated a system. Just point me to the room and I’ll try to figure it out myself—I won’t include it in my billing hours, even.” Robert picked up a hopeless-looking stack of papers and efficiently shuffled it into a squared-off handful in a few seconds. He needed only a little longer to sort out his briefcase.
The first response Thierry had was to offer to help, but the other man seemed to have things in hand so well that he wasn’t sure it wouldn’t be needless interference. Then it turned into a moot point when his PDA buzzed with an incoming message. This time, it was from David.
“Are we still meeting for lunch, or did you want to contact me when you had your schedule settled?”
Thierry paused with his thumbs hovering over the PDA keypad, then backspaced to check one of the earlier emails. Then he realized he was being spoken to and glanced up, but the PDA beeped at the same time and he nearly gave himself whiplash looking back at it. “Oh, it’s never going to get settled at this rate. It’d be easier to keep our lunch where it is and just plan around it.”
“I’m flattered,” Robert said. He was grinning when Thierry checked on him, but then seemed to think of something and switched to regretful. “Not that I’m in any way trying to…ah…repeat my earlier confusion. Like I said the other day—”
“Don’t worry about it.” That had been…that’d been a little bit odd, but not in any way that Thierry had found offensive. Actually he’d been almost sad to correct Robert, since he’d been enjoying the conversation right up to when Robert had made it clear it was actually a flirtation. “Honestly, I can’t blame you for making that mistake. You just walk into the toilets around here and the kind of impression you get…it’s understandable. I know we have a reputation.”
Robert shrugged as he got up. “Being known for high profits and excessively…er, happy…workers isn’t the worst reputation you could have.”
Thierry paused again, then raised his head to watch the other man move towards the door. “I think now you might be flirting. We asked you to come in, so you shouldn’t feel any pressure to be nice.”
“Except I am nice. And I know it’s hopeless, but I hope you don’t mind if I happen to enjoy making you smile. I’ll stop if you don’t feel comfortable,” Robert said. “But I’m used to working with people who don’t seem to know how to do it. It’s a nice change.”
And…Thierry had been smiling. He hadn’t noticed. He didn’t really mind now that he had; no matter how other people thought it was like for them, lately it’d felt like they were living in a pressure cooker. Anything that lightened the mood was welcome. “I would rather have lunch in, though,” he replied, laughing a little. “There’s a Thai place that does wonderful noodle soup, and they’re quick on delivery—”
“With the perfect pad Thai? Oh, I eat there all the time. I’ve got their number on my speed-dial, so don’t worry about it.”
The door closed. Thierry needed a couple seconds to stop chuckling beneath his breath and to really start paying attention the email he was trying to write, and then another minute to realize he’d just let Robert take care of lunch. A strange, uneasy squirm went through Thierry’s stomach, but after a lot of thought, he couldn’t find any good reason for it. He shrugged it off and went back to his email with a sigh.
* * *
As it turned out, lunch with Bobby turned out to be the most productive part of Thierry’s day. Before and after, Thierry spent his time running himself ragged trying to help Jens control whatever crisis was happening in Portugal plus dealing with damage control for the Kahn situation. Normally that wouldn’t be too large a task, even without Freddie, but Thierry had no idea what had happened in Portugal, and apparently he didn’t know everything that was happening right where he was. Kahn’s scandal was bad for the label, but it didn’t necessarily mean they had to or should even be interested in jumping to his defense.
But the moment the news had gone through, Jens had jumped on a plane to Portugal. Either he’d gotten second sight somewhere along the line and had known he’d need to go there, or he’d gone early because somebody there was connected to the mess here. Which meant Thierry wanted very badly to know where Robin currently was, but couldn’t get to anyone who might know. And in the meantime, it was like trying to be a goalie with a blindfold on.
Lunch, however, was delicious, and Bobby managed the discussion so Thierry could email and talk business at the same time, and…Thierry wasn’t sure when he’d started calling the other man ‘Bobby.’ Though he now knew Bobby’s taste in music ran to jazz, and that Bobby was good enough at what he did to not only explain contract law using a cooking metaphor, but to also make it sound eminently sensible. His stomach had taken the spicy food fine earlier, but now it was feeling a little queasy.
It was all very puzzling, and coming on top of a frustratingly confusing day. He really couldn’t go one like this: he needed information about something.
* * *
“Which one in Legal did you date?”
Lionel stopped with half the panini stuffed in his mouth. For a moment, he thought about biting down and chewing and then answering, but then Thierry sat down and that meant stalling wouldn’t work. He regretfully took the sandwich out of his mouth. “What?”
“Feel free to keep eating,” Thierry hastily said, waving his hand towards the panini. He flashed a smile when Lionel promptly took a huge chunk out of it. Then he sighed and looked to the side, dropping his folded hands between his knees. “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
“Asking for gossip? You’re usually the one giving it.” Much as the sound techs and producers talked among themselves, they really didn’t have anything on the agents when it came to rumors. They didn’t get into—or frankly, have enough time for—enough parties.
Thierry made a face at the wall. “Well, everyone in the legal department avoids this floor like the plague—”
“Hmmm, right. You know, they threaten the new hires with assignment to Lehmann if they fuck up. There’s this really funny cartoon that one of them drew of him: it’s got big teeth and demon-eyes and—okay, okay, I’ll stop.” Lionel bit off another corner of his sandwich and gulped it down, then grabbed his soda. His stomach was finally starting to unwind itself from where it’d shriveled against his spine, but he could already tell the sandwich wouldn’t be enough to fill it. But he didn’t have time to grab anything for another couple of hours, so he just hoped he’d last that long. “Which one did you want to know about?”
The other man stopped giving Lionel the grandfatherly-disapproval look long enough to dig a gigantic chocolate bar out of his pocket. He handed it over, then laughed at how Lionel was staring at his coat: no suit on earth came with a pocket that big, so how…Thierry was saying something. “…make very sure Jens doesn’t attack Ricardo?”
One of the cool things about being a tech was that Lionel had trained himself to memorize sounds even while his attention was elsewhere. He chewed to stall long enough to review the last minute, then answered, “Definitely not. Kaká’s parents would have issues, and then they’d make the label’s board of directors have issues. But that’d happen like, when the sun exploded. Kaká’s too nice. It’s so bad—he gets hit on all the time, but he just thinks people are being polite because he’s really young and inexperienced.”
“I don’t think Jens would hit on him,” Thierry dryly said.
Gossip said Lehmann was still with that Dutch guy who was on payroll but who never came into the off…right, Van Persie. So far Lionel hadn’t managed to meet him, and he wasn’t sure if that was a good or a bad thing since Cesc, Michael and Freddie all got weird looks on their faces when asked about him. And then they walked quickly away, saying they had something to do. Maybe Lionel looked twelve, but he could do a lot more than kick their shins if they treated him like he was that old.
“But no, he doesn’t seem like the type that’d get on Jens’ bad side. What about Bobby? He told me he’d asked for the job when the request came down.” Thierry raised his eyebrows at that.
And Lionel had a hard time not raising his own when he figured out who ‘Bobby’ was. “Robert?”
Considering how levelheaded and composed Thierry usually was, his little twitch really stood out.
“He’s one of the best attorneys we have. He doesn’t really put himself out there, so he’s not well-known, but the smart and good people all respect him. Oh, and he prefers men,” Lionel mumbled, nibbling at his food. He pulled a pickled pepper out with his teeth, then chomped it down before he looked at Thierry. Then he rolled his eyes. “No, he’s not the one I dated. Well, not even…I saw another lawyer a few times—Riquelme—who’s worked with Robert.”
“So if he’s so lowkey, why would he volunteer to work with us? We’re one of the more high-profile groups.” Something on Thierry buzzed. He sighed irritably and dug out his…cell phone and checked it, then muttered something nasty beneath his breath.
Lionel was really tempted to ask if it was the Kahn thing or the Cristiano thing. And what was the Cristiano thing, anyway; it was two days after whatever it was, as far as anyone in the floor could tell, and nobody had a clue. Well, Bastian thought somebody had cheated on somebody else, but Phil had adamantly refused to believe it. Something about Cristiano being hell to work with, but not like that. “Honestly…I don’t know. All I can tell you is that he really did volunteer, nobody forced him to do it, and as far as I’ve heard, he’s not in it to get more money or get a promotion later.”
“But what about—” This time, it was the PDA that interrupted Thierry. He got it out with a surprisingly sharp jerk of the arm, then looked really, deeply pained. Then he got up and started to move towards the door. “Never mind, I don’t have the time. But thank you very much for the spare moment, Leo.”
“Oh, no problem. Just can you remember to call Hargreaves back about the Chels, please?” Lionel called through a mouthful. He felt a little bad about it when he saw the way Thierry’s shoulders slumped, but it wasn’t like he could make the work stop coming.
Thierry just nodded and turned himself out of the door, scribbling a note in his PDA as he did. He stopped to apologize to somebody, then kept on down the hall as a rumpled, red-eyed Cesc stumbled in.
Cesc blinked a few times, as if he’d just stepped from a dark room into the light, then kicked the door shut and fell into Lukas’ chair almost in the same motion. The chair back flopped down so he went horizontal with a hard jerk, but he didn’t seem to notice. He just laid there for a few moments before putting out a foot and slowly pushing himself across to Lionel’s desk.
Lionel wiped off his hand on a napkin, then dug a soda out from beneath his desk. He dangled it over Cesc’s head for a few seconds. “Just got in?”
In reply, Cesc just groaned. He eventually noticed the soda and grabbed it, but instead of drinking it, he shoved it against his forehead. Then he glared when he realized it wasn’t cold. “Spent half the night trying to keep Cristiano from getting cornered by people we didn’t know in a fucking nightclub. And trying to keep his fucking zillions of female cousins from dragging me off to get married. Spent the other half of the night—”
Lionel suddenly realized he was about to get The Scoop on what had gone down in Portugal. He shoved the last bite of panini into his mouth so he wouldn’t have any distractions.
“—trying to keep Ruud from committing homicide because Cristiano went walkabout after they had the stupidest fight ever. Oh, and Robin got jailed because Cristiano made a pass at him, and then Lehmann flew in and it got spectacularly worse.” Cesc slowly turned over on his side, still clutching the soda. He closed his eyes as he massaged his temples. “Also, I have the worst headache from the plane flight and if I go see my uncle, he’ll just think I’m hung-over and lecture me. I didn’t have one goddamn drink the entire time.”
“Want me to ask Raúl? I think he still likes me,” Lionel said. He tried to remember when the last time was that he’d seen Raúl, then sat back in a little bit of shock when he figured that out. It was funny: when Cesc had been at med school, he hadn’t been around nearly as much, but it’d felt like he and Lionel and Raúl had spent more time together. Since Cesc had started working at FC, Lionel hadn’t had the time to see either of them for non-business reasons. “Wait. Robin’s in jail? Is that why Lehmann left early? Did Cristiano and Ruud break up? Holy shit, then Timo just won fifty—”
“—no, they’re still together. They’re probably having weepy make-up sex right now at Ruud’s place.” It sounded like Cesc was more bitter than jealous. “And Robin’s out of jail. Actually, I think he’s at Raúl’s. He went on a trip too and we all were panicking till Jens showed up with him. Unconscious. Don’t ask me whether that was before or after Jens found him again, ‘cause I couldn’t even guess.”
He paused for a moment to finally twist off the cap of his soda. Then he slowly pulled himself into a half-sitting position, staring at the bottle for a long moment before he took a sip. He and Lionel both looked over at the door at the sound of footsteps, but they kept on moving—it turned out to be Thierry and Michael, deep in conversation with each other. Just to make sure, Lionel scooted himself over to lock the door.
“So listen to this,” Cesc said, a little more like his old self. “You were right. Ruud and Jens had some thing, but apparently it was all business. Ruud wanted favors for Cristiano, and Cristiano just found out last—wait, it’s four nights ago, and he was pissed off. Because Ruud didn’t talk to him about it.”
That was sort of understandable and sort of not. Mostly because Lionel had never worked with Cristiano and didn’t have a really good idea of how the other man thought. “Well, I wouldn’t want my boyfriend—”
“Oh, are you dating guys for longer than a week now?”
“Shut up. If I had a boyfriend, I wouldn’t want him to do that for me. I’d feel guilty,” Lionel finished.
Cesc looked at his soda, then shrugged and took a long drink of it. “Well, I don’t get it, but then, I’m still trying to see Ruud and Jens. I mean, I can see it, and it’s kind of hot even if Ruud’s not my type, but they’re both still alive. Oh, and I really don’t get why Cristiano thought it was a good idea to try to get Robin alone in a bathroom stall, since the one thing Robin’s really serious about is Jens, from what I can tell.”
“Are they still together?” Lionel asked.
It took a moment for Cesc to answer. “If they’re not, I bet you next week’s paycheck that Jens did the dumping. But I guess they are…I mean, if Raúl’s treating him, then that means Jens is still paying for his medical bills. But look, what’s been going on here? Freddie got really, really uptight when Jens showed up, and I heard something about Kahn?”
* * *
The door opened and Robin stood there. For a second, he looked uncertain and nervous, but then his expression went to surprised via a quick flash of disappointment. “Thierry.”
“Oh, hi…oh, right, Jens isn’t free till later,” Thierry said, vaguely recalling a phone conversation from a few hours ago. He’d paid close attention at the time, but at this point, his brain was so tired that he kept forgetting what he’d done only minutes ago. The memories just slipped completely from his mind. “Is Raúl home? I phoned, because Freddie accidentally ate some cheese and now he’s down with a migraine…”
“He’s in the backyard doing something in the garden. He’ll be done in a couple minutes, I think,” Robin replied. He backed up to let Thierry in, then shut the door. “Jens told you he was coming here later?”
Thierry tried very hard to remember that damned conversation and finally came up with a few fragments. He still wasn’t sure what had happened, but Jens hadn’t sounded completely…settled. And Robin looked terrible; the bruises on his face and the bandages on his temple and hands weren’t so telling as the way he was carrying himself, shoulders sullenly half-slumped and head lowered. “He said he was picking you up.”
“Oh.” Robin walked a little bit straighter, keeping one arm pressed to the left side of his rib-cage. He turned into the kitchen without looking after for Thierry, making a beeline for a half-eaten sandwich and what looked like a dissected cell phone on the counter.
Thierry stopped in the doorway of the next room over, which had frosted glass doors that seemed to open into the backyard. When he squinted, he could see a darker, taller patch of green with a black spot that seemed to come and go. He stood there till the black spot stopped disappearing and started coming towards him, then went into the kitchen. “Are you all right? It doesn’t seem as if things in Portugal went well.”
Robin jerked up his hand as he coughed, then put it back against his side. He grimaced and took a few careful breaths. “They could’ve gone better.”
“How so?” Thierry asked.
The other man stood with his head bent over the half-dismantled cell phone, chewing on his lip as he thought. After a moment, he reached out and picked up a tiny screwdriver from the counter, using it to prod something inside the phone. The cell was connected by wires to a laptop; Thierry moved around to see what was on it, but he gave up almost immediately on trying to make sense of the squiggly lines.
“I’m just doing some experimenting. It’s not aimed at anybody and it won’t do anything that’ll get on the tabloids,” Robin suddenly said. He looked at Thierry as if that was supposed to make sense.
“Am I supposed to tell Jens that?” A metallic grating noise came from the next room and Thierry stepped out into the hall to see Raúl coming in. He waved at the other man as he backed into the kitchen again.
Robin’s brow furrowed in confusion, then cleared. “Didn’t anyone tell you what happened?”
“No.” That came out sharp, but Thierry thought it was excusable, given his level of frustration. “I can’t get hold of Jens, Ruud or Cristiano, Freddie is too sick to talk to me, and I found Cesc practically comatose in the techs’ break-room.”
“What?” Raúl snapped.
Thierry flinched. Then he probably made some kind of irritated face, to judge by the way Robin quickly ducked to hide a smile, but he plastered on an apologetic expression before he turned around. “Sorry, sorry, Cesc’s fine. He’s just very, very tired and he was sleeping. I think he’s still sleeping. Leo said he’d take him home if Cesc hadn’t woken up by the end of his shift.”
Raúl turned from a barely-restrained smoldering volcano to a relatively mild-mannered Spanish man. “Oh, all right. I’ll give Leo a call later…are you here for Ljungberg?”
“He was starving and accidentally ate something with cheese in it,” Thierry explained. “So it’s the migraine again.”
“Okay. I’ll be back in a moment,” Raúl said, turning around.
Robin had taken in the whole conversation with obvious interest, not missing a nuance. “Who’s Leo?”
“Lionel Messi? One of the producers…his current project’s the Chels. He’s an old friend of Raúl’s family. Haven’t you met him yet?” Thierry asked.
“In case you haven’t noticed, Jens doesn’t like me introducing myself around at the office. He—” Approaching footsteps stopped Robin, and he went back to fiddling with the phone while Raúl plopped the bottle of pills in Thierry’s hand. After a couple more pleasantries, Raúl went back to his herb garden and Thierry went back to looking expectantly at Robin. Who snorted and shook his head, but began talking again. “Somebody finally mentioned to Cristiano that Jens and Ruud had had a fling, and he didn’t take it well. So he gets drunk, makes a pass at me, and Ruud somehow gets that turned into a sexual assault charge.”
Thierry blinked hard, then slowly leaned against the wall. He stuck his hands in his pockets. “I didn’t know you knew.”
“Jens isn’t so good at keeping secrets as he’d like to be,” Robin muttered. Then he cursed and threw down the screwdriver, only to snatch up the cell phone. Wire-ends and bits of plastic clattered on the counter as he peered into the case, then sighed. “Okay, lucky slip. Damn it, all I was trying to do was help. Couldn’t he have a little appreciation?”
Things suddenly clicked in Thierry’s brain. His mouth promptly dropped open. He stared at Robin as Robin glanced over, then quickly away. “Please tell me you didn’t have anything to do with the Kahn story, Robin. Because there are certain things—”
“Coming from the man who wanted to know more about Robbie Savage’s preferred position?”
“Robin! You don’t attack your own side! If you—” Thierry caught himself and took a deep breath. He put his hands against his face and pressed down, then dropped them and looked straight at Robin. “Right now the label wants its image cleaned up. It’s watching everybody, and if it ends up Kahn has to resign because of this, before any criminal charges are even pressed, then that increases the chances that someone’ll do the same to Jens over you.”
Robin had his mouth open to retort, but he thought better of it and jerked around, bending over the phone again.
“I know, you’re well over the age of consent and straight people are the oddities in this industry, but the reason this is not a problem is because we all agree to it. In the label, you can backbite about how someone else handles their acts, what drugs they’re taking, how they really got their promotion, but you don’t do…what you did. You can do whatever you want to competitors, but to outsiders you have to pretend you like all your coworkers,” Thierry said, sighing. “Yes, it’s a double standard. But it’s still the standard. Jens would have to shut you out even more if it wasn’t.”
“It might not be something you need to worry about. For all I know, he just wants to make sure I’m fit before he cuts me loose.” The slant of Robin’s shoulders was stiff and downwards. “Thanks for the lecture, Thierry, but I already got the roaring version.”
Thierry jiggled the bottle of pills in his hand and wondered if Freddie really needed all of them, or if he could sneak a few. “Don’t be an idiot. Jens never told me to my face that he was fucking Ruud—I found out on my own. That was all gossip, and the number of people who knew it was actually true…anyway, more than one person knows that you’re living with him. He didn’t even go through the trouble of getting you your own apartment this time, so he’s counting on that standard—”
“Damn it, just stop, all right? Stop. I can’t help being a fucking idiot sometimes,” Robin snapped. His fingers twitched and he swore as that audibly chipped something in the phone. Then he blew out a long, tired breath. “Just…well, thanks, Thierry.”
After several minutes’ thought, Thierry decided he really had no idea what he was being thanked for, but the gratitude notwithstanding, Robin’s back looked as rigid as steel so asking for an explanation probably wouldn’t work. And anyway, Thierry needed to get the pills to Freddie.
He sighed and told Robin goodbye—Robin ignored him—then left.
* * *
Lionel didn’t have any studio time today because Bastian and Lukas were trying something that needed half the recording rooms on the floor, and because Lionel was really stupid. Maybe Lukas reminded him a lot of a sugar-high, if generally friendly, golden retriever, but he knew Poldi had incredible Playstation skills. And he’d still bet a day of recording time on…well, better luck next time. At least he could catch up on that expense stuff Frings had been on him to do.
Yeah, if he were a saint or something. The only good things about struggling with a calculator, paper and pencil for three hours was that the sob-story he’d get out of it would probably be good enough to get Torsten to pay for his breakfast a few times, and that he had a reason to hog the break-room all day. Cesc was too heavy for him to move by himself, and if he left for longer than a bathroom break, he knew he’d just come back to somebody poking Cesc. Or maybe somebody screaming while waving around a hand that was newly short a finger, if he was gone long enough.
“Mumhgfh,” Cesc said. When Lionel looked up, the other man was stirring a little bit, but it only looked like he was turning over.
Lionel went back to adding. He jumped as another weird groaning sound came out of Cesc, then reached over to help the other man roll over. And then he yelped as something grabbed his hand.
“You still scream like a girl,” Cesc snickered, letting go. He grabbed the edge of Lukas’ desk and took a deep breath, then hauled himself up. Then he moaned again and grabbed his back, rubbing and hitting at it. “God, I have so many cramps.”
“Maybe you’re the one turning into a woman.” Maybe Lionel should’ve let Cesc get poked a couple times. “Hey, Raúl called. He invited us over for dinner.”
Cesc rolled his eyes. “Oh, bullshit. Somebody must’ve told him and now he wants to give me an examination. If he wants to do that anymore, he’d better be reaching beneath the—what? You know we’re not that closely-related, and he’s…he’s sexy just wiping his nose.”
“Okay, he is,” Lionel said after a moment. “And you’re really horny. Don’t look at me like that—I do something about it. You just keep going after the ones you’re not going to get.”
“Well, want to do something about me?” Batting his eyes, Cesc leaned over in an exaggerated pose of bridling lust.
Neither of them lasted more than a second before they cracked up. Shaking his head, Cesc gave Lionel’s hair a hard ruffle before he collapsed back in his own seat. Lionel made a half-hearted attempt to smack at him, then wheezed as he caught up on his breath. “I already told Raúl you’d left to go home and you’d see him tomorrow. He was saying something about he probably didn’t have the beds to spare, but he could feed us, and I was very polite and said we didn’t want to impose.”
“Oh, damn, I wanted to talk to Robin about something,” Cesc said, mostly to himself. Then he shook himself and checked his watch. “Then again, bad idea to do that while my uncle’s around. I’ll get to it later. Good thinking, Leo. Um. Can I get—”
“My shift just ended. You can get the ride home, but you’d better be doing more than saying hi in the hall or collapsing on my desk now. You don’t need to spend all your time here trying to pick up somebody, do you?” Lionel stuffed his work into his bag, then got up. He took one step before he realized Cesc was still sitting there.
Cesc held up his hands with a pleading look. Rolling his eyes, Lionel grabbed them, yanked Cesc to his feet, and then whacked the other man hard on the ass. He darted out the door before Cesc could retaliate.
“Well, it’s hard to pick up people here. Raúl made it sound like everyone—okay, fine, everyone is fucking each other, but it’s like they’re all old married couples already,” Cesc said as they were walking through the car garage. “How do you do it?”
“I don’t date where I work. It makes things so complicated when you break up, so I really wouldn’t recomm—” Lionel stopped, frowning and squinting. He thought that was…it was somebody standing by his car. He stared some more, trying to figure out who it was.
It’d taken Cesc a couple seconds to notice that Lionel had stopped walking. He looped back, looking over his shoulder at the dark figure. “Leo?”
“Um…” The person had been leaning against his car, but now they pushed off and turned around so Lionel could make out a bushy low ponytail. Now he knew who they were, but he was still a little bit wary. “Oh. Oh, crap, what’s he doing here?”
“Huh?” More would’ve been coming from Cesc, but he shut his mouth and whirled back around.
Ronaldinho was jogging over. He had a big smile on his face, though he stopped a little hastily when he got close enough to notice Cesc wasn’t going anywhere. “Hey. Wow, I didn’t believe my friend when he said he recognized you, but you really do work here.”
“And this is where you talk about the demo tapes you’ve got and you’ll love him forever and all those lies to get in the door. Look, I went to med school just long enough to learn all the wrong ways to twist bones, so—” Cesc started.
“No, this is where I say I just wanted to stop by and tell Leo what a huge fan of his work I am—I DJ for a living and I always finish up a set with a song he produced,” Ronaldinho said, frowning. He shuffled around for a moment, then shrugged and started to turn. Though he looked back once at Lionel, and his grin was the definition of blindingly honest. “You’re awesome. Can’t wait to hear what you’ll do with the Chels.”
Lionel glanced at Cesc, who looked just as thrown, then hurriedly stepped forward and grabbed Ronaldinho’s arm. “Wait, wait…um, Cesc, I’ll be right…” he pulled Ronnie a few yards away, between two cars “…um, thanks, but…we slept together?”
“Yeah, but you didn’t call back, so I figured you didn’t want another date. ‘s fine with me,” Ronaldinho replied with a shrug. Then he grinned sheepishly and scratched at the back of his neck. “Well, no, actually, I was a little disappointed, but I meant if you didn’t want to, then that’s cool. But I just didn’t want to miss the chance to tell you how much I love what you do. I won’t bother you again now, so don’t worry.”
He glanced off to the side, giving his arms a little shake before sliding his hands in his pockets. Lionel poked at the ground, idly wondering if Rafa was going to show up at his apartment now. Then he looked up at Ronaldinho again; Ronnie gave him an uncertain smile.
“I’ve been, uh, busy. Sleeping in the office, not checking my messages,” Lionel finally said. “Sorry.”
“Oh.” Ronaldinho jiggled on one feet, then planted his heel on the ground and did a quick shuffle-step. “Well, it happens.”
A loud, pointed cough came from a few yards away. After giving Cesc the finger, Lionel smiled up at Ronaldinho. “You really finish off a set with one of my songs?”
“Always. You know…that offer to come hear me spin is still open. I actually…” Ronaldinho scratched at his eyebrow “…have a gig tonight. Rave. Did you and your, um…”
“Oh, that’s Cesc. We’re old friends—I used to see his uncle who’s a doctor when I was younger.” Lionel glowered over his shoulder as Cesc pretended to hack his lungs out. “He needs to get laid really badly. It’s like this medical condition he has.”
Laughing, Ronaldinho walked around to drape one arm over Lionel’s shoulders. The weight was comfortable, not too heavy and his arm wasn’t bony in the wrong places or anything, and unlike most DJs Lionel knew, he didn’t reek of pot. “Well, we can fix that.”
“Yeah, you got anyone better to do tonight?” Lionel said.
Cesc made a face, then heaved his shoulders and walked over, half-faking reluctance. He looked a little bit bitter, but that went away as he patted Lionel on the head. “You just better mean it, because if I end up watching you make out all night long…well, I might be forced to tell what’s-his-name—”
“Ronaldinho,” Ronaldinho said, sticking out a hand. “Or Ronnie.”
“—Ronnie about you and the bubble-gum sucker when you were ten,” Cesc finished, giving that hand a quick, firm shake. Then he took off his suit-jacket and slung it over his shoulder.
Lionel narrowed his eyes. “You, sixteen, and the VCR tape slot.”
They both looked at Ronaldinho, who held up his hands palms-out and shook his head. “No, no, no, I don’t judge that kind of thing. I’m not touching it. I…I don’t think I want to know.”
“Oh, you do,” Cesc said. He sounded more cheerful than he had in a while, so hopefully this was a good idea. “But that can wait for later. First, I want to know who’s driving, because I really want to drink tonight.”
* * *
At first Thierry thought he’d imagined the knock, but then it came again. He glanced at the clock as he lifted his head: it was late enough for him to not be able to guess who it might be. “Yes?”
“My God, you are still here.” Bobby sounded genuinely shocked. A moment later, he pushed open the door and stuck his head in, blinking rapidly. “I was just thinking there’s no way, but I was walking this way and it couldn’t hurt to try…but you are here.”
“Yes, well, work.” Thierry gestured at his desk, which was still cluttered with papers. He hoped it spoke enough for him, because he was too tired to be witty. He put one arm up on top and used it to hold his chin up so he could look at Bobby, who seemed a bit wobbly. Or perhaps his eyes were getting bleary. “What are you doing here?”
It must have sounded a little hostile, because after a second, Bobby apologetically ducked his head and backed out a few centimeters. “Sorry if I was interrupting. I just came from the archives and I had a few questions, and I’m not sure who could answer them. Your office happened to be closest.”
“I think I’m also the only one still in,” Thierry said, trying to muster up more friendliness. He waved for Bobby to come back in, then made an offering gesture towards the chairs on the other side of the desk. “I know Freddie went home early with a migraine—he had an allergic reaction to some cheese—and so did Jens. David went home to shower and hopefully fell asleep in bed and not in the tub. I have utterly no idea where Ruud might be.”
Bobby opened his mouth, then closed it and looked down at himself. A thick bundle of files wedged beneath his arm was vaguely visible. He repositioned them and fingered their edges. “You know, it probably can wait till tomorrow.”
“Oh, no, just ask now. I’m not even sure if I’m going home tonight anyway. I keep a spare suit and an iron in the closet.” Thierry pointed in that direction.
After a moment, Bobby cocked his head. “You aren’t joking. You’re worse than me—I just have a suit-jacket and tie in mine.”
He finally came in and took a seat, bringing the files out from under his arm and neatly stacking them on his knees. Little sticky notes with scribbled notes were littered over them; Robert pulled them off one by one as he asked his questions, occasionally pausing to squint at his writing. When he was done with them, he folded each slip of paper up before sticking it in his pocket.
Thierry answered two or three questions before realizing he wasn’t really paying attention. He gave himself a stern shake and forced himself to listen to the next few questions, but when he noticed that it made no difference to the quality of his replies how much attention he was paying, he started to slip again. Then he tried to go back to work, but when he looked at his desk, a sudden, strong surge of revulsion for the whole redundant process overtook him. He slouched back in his chair, blowing out a derisive breath at the papers.
“I…think the rest really can wait till tomorrow,” Bobby suddenly said.
“What? Wait, no, that wasn’t at you. I’m so sorry, I’m just…” Grimacing, Thierry rubbed hard at his eyes. Then he cursed as his pen dropped out of his hand. He made a grab for it, only to have to jerk back to avoid slamming his head on the desk-edge. It clearly, clearly wasn’t his week.
Eventually he lifted his head to see Bobby out of the chair and leaning over the desk with a concerned look on his face. “Thierry?”
“I’m fine, don’t worry. Well, at least till the coffee runs out,” Thierry muttered. He started to sit up, but gave up halfway through and instead put his cheek down on the desk. He just needed a moment. And possibly a quick break to get his coffeemaker running, he thought after he jiggled his mug and found it empty.
“Are you sure?” Bobby’s hand hovered over his shoulder.
Thierry twisted slightly to look at it, then moved his eyes to the other man’s face. “Why on earth would you want to work with us?”
The other man stopped where he was. Then he shrugged, pulling back his hand and raising his eyebrows. “You really think people have a bad opinion of you and your coworkers.”
“I don’t just think--I listen too. And I think you would have too, no matter how complimentary you are.”
“Well, I have heard things. And seen and done things.” Bobby absently tugged at his tie so it went from off-center towards one side to off-center towards the other. “This is a music label, so I’d be suspicious if I hadn’t. I heard you were looking for a new attorney and I wasn’t currently assigned to anyone.”
“You did it on a whim?” Thierry asked, not quite believing him.
The other man glanced off to the side, then back at Thierry. “To be honest, I spoke up after it was clear nobody else wanted to do it. Everyone deserves representation, if things are going to be fair. And I’m sorry if that offends your pride, but…that’s the truth you asked for.”
“Oh.” Thierry absently let his gaze drift downwards as he thought about that. Then he started up and put out his arm, catching Bobby’s hand. “Wait.”
Bobby had been turning to go, but he stepped back at that, looking expectantly at Thierry.
After moving his mouth a few times without anything coming out, Thierry gave up on letting reflex or instinct save him. He really should’ve known better to start with, but he was exhausted. Exhausted and in the unusual position of being out of his depth, and it was just that odd time of night when unpredictable things tended to happen. “I appreciate that. I hope we’re better than you’ve heard.”
“You’re welcome, but it’s really just my job,” Bobby said after a moment. He looked at Thierry’s hand on his wrist, an odd half-smile slipping over his face. Then he shook his head and leaned over to pat Thierry’s shoulder. “Please get some sleep. I do need to have the rest of my questions answered tomorrow, and so far I at least like working with you.”
He left then. Thierry watched him go with a frown and that uncomfortable feeling back in his stomach. There really wasn’t anything wrong with Robert Pirès, and trying to make something where there wasn’t anything was just turning Thierry paranoid; Jens already had that department covered. He didn’t really have anything to worry about. He wasn’t even sure he was worrying.
With a sigh, Thierry put his head in his hands. He pressed his fingers against his face for a moment, then slowly swept them back over the top of his head. He had so much work.
* * *
Something was lying across Lionel’s chest. He grumped about in his pillow, trying to wriggle it off, but it didn’t move so he finally started working on digging himself out of the sheets.
It fell off the moment his head broke into clear air. Lionel paused, then flopped backwards with an annoyed snort. And then something started move besides him. He froze in place, listening very carefully. Whoever it was, they were mumbling in…Portuguese. Oh. Oh, good, it was still Ronaldinho. But just to check, Lionel poked out his arm and rummaged around till he felt hair: on the coarse side and curly. Yeah, Ronnie. Now, what had they been—
Sound exploded into the air. Ronaldinho yelped and bolted upright, his hair whipping up and over and into his face. His elbows nearly stabbed into Lionel’s head as he scraped at his eyes; Lionel swore and scrambled across the other man for the end-table. He snatched up the jingling phone and thumbed to get the call. “Who calls this early?”
“Cesc?” Lionel flopped back down and threw his arm over his eyes. He felt weird.
He didn’t have a headache—he wasn’t hung-over! That was it! That was…this was weird. Kind of nice, though. He took his arm off his eyes and looked up at Ronaldinho, who was just bundling his hair into a ponytail, the sheets dropping off his bare chest and shoulders. “Morning,” Ronnie grinned. He put his hands behind his back and stretched, looking extremely satisfied. “Standing around in that garage for two hours was worth it.”
*Leo, what the hell did I do last night? Do you know where I am?*
“Um, no,” Lionel said.
*I’m in some guy’s apartment! I woke up in his bed! We were naked!*
He was loud enough for Ronaldinho to hear some of it. The other man frowned and mouthed something to Lionel, but Lionel didn’t have enough attention to divide between figuring that out and listening to Cesc. “I thought that was the idea?”
*I wanted to get laid, not get another embarrassing one-night-stand story! You said you’d make sure I got home, so what the hell happened to that?* Cesc hissed. His voice kept fading in and out and there were lots of rustling sounds, so he was probably trying to get dressed. *Holy God, I don’t even know who this guy is. I don’t remember even seeing him last night.*
“I did take you home! I saw you to the door and everything! You must’ve met up with him afterward—and I know I’m remembering right because I didn’t have that many drinks and I’m not hung-over.” Lionel was so, so glad that he’d told Raúl not to expect Cesc or him till later. The way Cesc sounded right now, he wouldn’t be able to lie worth anything. “What does the guy look like?”
Cesc cursed to the accompaniment of a lot of bangs. A door closed in the background, so he was on his way out of wherever it was. *Oh, thank God, it’s my…car. I drove over here. Oh, man…um, he looked a couple years older than me, and he had this buzz-cut and kind of girly-neat eyebrows, and I think he said he writes movie or CD reviews or something.*
“Iker,” Ronaldinho thoughtfully said. He put his hand to his chin. “I think that’s his name. I don’t know him at all, never met him before tonight—he just was having this really loud argument with the bartender that I overheard. The bartender was trying to cut him off and send him home.”
*Wait…wait, I told him to meet me away from the party ‘cause I saw somebody I knew there…he showed up in a taxi, and I wasn’t too smashed so I drove…oh, my God,* Cesc moaned.
Lionel rubbed at the side of his face. “Well, did you remember if it was any good, at least?”
*I hate you.* Cesc hung up.
Ronaldinho and Lionel looked at each other. Then Ronaldinho shrugged and scratched at his neck again. “Sorry it didn’t work out for your friend.”
“Cesc’s okay. If he was really in trouble, he wouldn’t have wasted time yelling at me,” Lionel said. He folded his phone over his thumb and put one arm back to get himself off Ronaldinho’s legs. The sheets dropped off his lower half and he started to grab for them, then stopped: it was kind of silly, given what they’d been doing last night, but on the other hand, being naked and not doing anything felt like a weird thing to do around a guy he didn’t know that well. Actually, everything felt awkward. “So…did you want something to eat, or…”
“That’d be good, but if it’s a big deal, then if I could just borrow your shower…” Ducking his head, Ronaldinho seemed to be feeling just as self-conscious, which made Lionel feel a little better. “I’d really like to see you again,” the other man suddenly said. “But I don’t know if I should try to call again, since this time was kind of a fluke.”
Waiting for two hours in a garage wasn’t really a fluke, but Lionel didn’t point that out because he wasn’t sure how he felt about that. “I…um, I’m not really looking to settle down right now. I’m sort of…well, there’s another guy and I haven’t decided whether to call him back. But I hadn’t really decided to not call you back.”
Ronaldinho listened with a serious expression on his face, which was a little unnerving to see on him. He nodded a few times, but didn’t come up with anything after Lionel had finished. So they just sort of sat there.
Lionel finally moved, trying to get his leg straight because it was going numb. He leaned towards Ronaldinho to do that and the other man put one hand on his arm to steady him, and then Lionel just kind of leaned over more and tilted his head and they kissed. After a moment, Ronaldinho moved his hand to Lionel’s hair, and Lionel grabbed onto what he thought was Ronaldinho’s thigh beneath the blankets, and they were seriously making out. And the phone rang.
Swearing, Lionel broke off and slammed the cell back to his ear. “Cesc! What!”
Fortunately, it actually was Cesc. *It wasn’t bad,* he said. Pause. *The guy last night? Iker? Whatever the hell his name was? But we were so drunk and I don’t think he’s the kind I’d like sober. Um…okay, see you later.*
He hung up. Lionel stared at the phone. Sometimes he really, really didn’t know what to say to Cesc.
“I think I’d just like to see you,” Ronaldinho said. “Whatever else is going on with you.”
And after a long moment, Lionel nodded. He really didn’t like to get himself tangled up like Cesc tended to do, but…Ronaldinho didn’t seem to have any second agenda going. Whatever he felt was what was on his face. “Oh…okay. So…well, do you want to stay for breakfast? Though um, I don’t think I have any orange juice.”
“Water’s good,” Ronnie shrugged. He smiled, blinding and wide. “I’d love to stick around.”