Tangible Schizophrenia


When I’m Gone

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: PG-13
Pairing: Ballack/Frings. Implied Van Persie/Lehmann and Hildebrand/Lahm, unrequited Fàbregas/Kaká.
Feedback: Good lines, bad ones, etc.
Disclaimer: This is absolutely fiction and not real and I don’t know these people at all. Any resemblance to any real-life record company is completely accidental.
Notes: Title references the Three Doors Down song.
Summary: Jens is out of town for a week on business. He has bad timing, for once.


Owen stared at the two floating mugs in front of him. Sometimes they blurred together and sometimes they were as much as five, six centimeters apart. “I don’t know.”

“Look, it’s okay. It happens. People make bad deals in the beginning to get where they need to go, and then sometimes those do come back to haunt them. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be fixed,” Michael was saying.

He’d been talking that way for the past couple of hours, and as the rounds of drinks had mounted, what he’d been saying had made a lot of sense. God knew Owen couldn’t hold off on a decision much longer; this morning he’d found a strangled dog on his car and he’d had a hell of a time hiding it before John had come round for “another talk.” The band was starting to get suspicious, and there was no way Owen was ever telling them what he’d done.

But he was so drunk now…every mouthful was going sour on him. He couldn’t—if he took Carrick’s offer, then that would mean selling out to MU and John, at least, wasn’t going to like that either. For the longest time he hadn’t wanted to sign onto a label, and even though now he was going around saying the FC people were completely changing his mind on that, he meant that as an exception. He definitely hadn’t been converted to the idea of backroom politicking, and where Terry went, so went the band.

“So how much time do you have left?” Michael tapped Owen on the arm to get his attention.

The two mugs snapped into one. Owen jerked up his head, then relaxed when he saw they were still alone in the bar. “Oh. I…a few days. I still…I need to think about this. I can’t screw up anything, not even the littlest detail.”

“Yeah, okay. Yeah, that’s understandable.” Something about the way the other man said that struck Owen as odd, but when he looked up, Michael seemed nothing but sympathetic. He even leaned over and gave Owen a squeeze on the shoulder.

“Thanks. I—thanks. I really appreciate how patient you’ve been,” Owen said. He checked his watch, then started to get up. “I need to go.”

Except the fingers on his shoulders tightened. Not to the point of pain, but hard enough to force him back down into his seat. Michael still looked friendly enough, but the line of his jaw had hardened. “Listen, Owen—I have been patient, but you’ve got to understand that I can’t keep fobbing off my boss forever if I don’t produce. He doesn’t like throwing money and effort after a ghost.”

“Yeah, I know…I just need a couple days. Settle things for sure.” Owen reached up and grabbed onto Michael’s wrist. He felt a little chilly, but some sweat was beading up around his temples.

He gave Michael’s hand a yank, and after a moment, the other man pulled it away. Then Michael tossed down a couple bills as he got up, crossing in front of the booth so that Owen still couldn’t leave. “Hey, I’ve got you covered for that. I’ll see you in a few days, and maybe you can buy me a drink, yeah?”

He flashed a smile, and Owen managed to weakly smile back and nod his agreement, but as Owen watched the other man walk away, he had to say that the last thing he felt was relieved. More like he was being backed into another trap and he couldn’t do a damn thing about it.

Well, he thought as he slumped back, he’d made this one, too. It was his own damn fault. He was supposed to be so damn smart but for some reason he just couldn’t put things together. No, instead he got drunk in fucking bars while he should be—he should be trying—he felt sick.

A couple tosses into the men’s toilet later, Owen wasn’t feeling too much better, but at least his mind was clearing a bit. He sank against the wall, then slowly rolled over to land in front of the sink. His mouth tasted sour even after he rinsed it out, and when he looked up, the mirror showed him a haggard, frightened man who didn’t know what to do. That—that was the first damn thing that needed to stop. He needed to think for once instead of trying to find an easy way out. He needed—he’d have to talk about this to somebody, and just take his lumps. Otherwise he wasn’t going to come out of this with anything.

Of course, knowing he’d done the right thing wasn’t much, but it was better than spending the rest of his life throwing up in bar toilets. Owen reached for his cell phone.

* * *


Robin grunted, then reluctantly lifted his head. The whole side of his face was numb and when he rubbed one hand across it, he could feel grooves in his cheek from the edge of the keyboard and the mouse’s cord. “Better be fucking good,” he muttered.

He stared at the computer screen for a couple of seconds before all the coding translated itself in his head. Then he frowned, reaching out to drag one of his rebuilt Blackberries over so he could check who was in FC’s offices. Ruud was, no surprise—he’d been working his ass off to try and cover up just how much he’d been leaving to Cesc—and so was Ballack and Lahm. But no Chels…actually, Lahm was working on expense reports, so that ruled out Hargreaves calling him about some music thing. Which didn’t really leave much else, unless…

Three in the morning, the clock said. And Robin had spent the last eighteen hours trawling phone call logs and credit card records, trying to put together the daily package for Jens. His back hurt, his fingers hurt, and since the only time he’d taken off was to eat and hit the gym, the rest of him wasn’t all that up to running around, either. He wished Jens had said yes to the phone-tap, because if he could’ve just listened in on Hargreaves’ and Lahm’s conversation, that would’ve made everything easier.

But no, legal distinctions and whatever. Fine. Robin spent a couple minutes putting everything on standby, then got up and changed into street clothes. He debated messaging Jens while he was tying his shoelaces, but decided he’d save it for when he actually knew something. The last time Jens had called, he’d sounded frustrated as hell and he wouldn’t be all that happy getting woken up in the middle of the night that way.

At least he got to take out his frustrations by ass-kicking competitors all over town. Robin was stuck doing the same computer routines over and over again till even he was sick of them, and when he wanted a break, there he was with a creepily empty apartment and a bed so damn big that when Jens wasn’t there, its size made Robin paranoid. Maybe he could’ve gone out and done something non-work-related, but it was a little boring when he didn’t have company, and both Thierry and Cesc were too busy.

Robin did text Thierry on his way out, but he had a feeling that Thierry was probably sleeping. He stopped to slip his new knife into his sleeve, then swung out the door, hoping that Hargreaves would turn up something interesting.

* * *

“Late night, huh.” Philipp wasn’t looking so fresh himself, dropping into the chair across from Michael when normally he would’ve bounced. “I’m not interrupting or anything, am I?”

“No, you’re fine. I’m wrapping up anyway. Finally.” Michael hid a yawn behind his hand, then propped his chin back up on his hand. He squinted at the screen, willing it to give him the pop-up window he wanted, and then started to cheer when it actually did. Of course, then he remembered he wasn’t alone and hastily stifled himself. “Sorry.”

The other man was grinning. “No, it’s okay. That was cute, Micha.”

“Thanks,” Michael muttered. “So what’s up? You done yet?”

“Yeah, but…can I ask a favor? I just got a call from…well…” a little bit of lip-chewing before Philipp made up his mind “…Owen Hargreaves. You know, the Chels’ manager? He wants to talk, and he sounded pretty bad…anyway, he’s going to meet me at a coffeeshop and I was wondering if you could give me a ride. I let Timo take the car because he’d pulled an all-nighter, so I don’t really want to call and wake him.”

To be honest, Michael had been looking forward to going straight home, stuffing in ear-plugs against Lionel and his boyfriend, and then crashing on the bed. Or maybe showing up at Torsten’s place, which was closer, and collapsing on him with the intent to make it up to him in the morning.

Philipp leaned forward and widened his eyes. “It’s on your way—actually, I think it’s the place where you socked Frank Lampard—”

“Sure, I can do that,” Michael said. He breathed a sigh of relief when Philipp’s Puppy Look of Doom, as Lukas called it, never actually materialized. Better to agree now while he was still in enough control of himself to know what he was agreeing to. “But can we not mention that incident again?”

“Well, okay. But Micha, really, I thought Leo’s told you a zillion times that Lamps doesn’t hold that against you.”

“I know, I know. I’m not afraid of him. I’m just embarrassed that I did that…”

They chatted amiably while they walked down to Michael’s car. He’d just gotten it and he still felt a little weird at being able to outright buy something like that—not that it was anywhere near the grade Jens or Ruud drove, but it was a good car and brand-new, and none of his other cars could’ve been remotely described as ‘new.’

“Nice. No more getting caught in the rain without an umbrella on your way over, huh,” Philipp said, sliding into the front seat. He bounced a few times on it, then blushed and looked apologetically at Michael.

Well, Michael wasn’t that much of a car person. He waved it off and started the engine. “I actually wasn’t thinking of using it to drive to work. I live so close anyway…it’s just that I got tired of hauling computer parts home on the subway. I always felt like I was asking to get mugged.”

“I can’t believe that you have to worry too much about that. I mean…” Philipp raised his hand and moved it sideways above his head “…sometimes Timo kids that I need to carry around a crowbar to keep from getting trampled in clubs.”

Michael laughed uncertainly, not sure whether that was supposed to be a joke or not. Or if it was a joke Philipp minded. “He does not.”

“Oh, he can be a jerk. Though usually a smack on the head fixes that,” Philipp snorted. He glanced at Michael for permission before turning on the radio. “So do you know much about Hargreaves? Leo say anything?”

“Not really. Why?” Lately Lionel had been way more absorbed in whatever was happening to Cesc’s love life, though he’d stopped talking to Michael about that and Michael didn’t feel comfortable asking after it.

Philipp shrugged and kept fiddling with the radio. “Oh, it’s just…I’m not sure why Owen’s calling me. I’ve talked to him a few times and shared a lunch with him, but I don’t know him all that well.”

“I was wondering about that, too. But no, Lionel…actually, I don’t think Hargreaves is in that much, otherwise Lionel would’ve mentioned him more. The only times I’ve heard him talk about him is to complain about Hargreaves being unhappy, but he doesn’t get any more specific,” Michael said, making a turn. He peered for the road sign, then kept driving. They were almost to the coffeeshop now, but if he remembered right, there wasn’t any parking right by it. He’d turn again before he got to it and park on the street behind it. “I think he doesn’t know. But…Torsten said he’d had to pull stuff on the Chels and send it up to Legal, so maybe it’s a contract thing.”

“Oh, ick. I hope not. Those get nasty, and I saw plenty with the whole Cristiano mess. Hey, you missed—”

“Parking’s better over here. It’s late and I don’t know how easy it is to get a cab over here, so I’ll just wait for you. If that makes him uncomfortable, I can just get a coffee and stand outside. It’s a nice enough night.” Michael pulled up against the curb, then dug around in the backseat for a pen and a pad of paper while Philipp ran through all his protests. “Phil, it’s okay. I don’t mind. I can get some work done, and yes, I’m tired, but I’ve drunk too much coffee to fall asleep any time soon.”

Philipp still didn’t look too sure about it, but he gave in and went on ahead while Michael locked up the car. He must have been a little more concerned than he’d let on, since by the time Michael had walked to the curb, he was already around the corner. Michael picked up his pace a little and got around to the front street in time to see Philipp walk into the shop; a tall figure in the back jerkily moved up to greet him. And something else moved, rattling a pebble on the sidewalk behind Michael.

He shifted the paper to under his arm and the pen to between his fingers, sticking out like a dagger. Then he turned around…and groaned. “Robin?”

“Ballack?” The other man slowly came around the tall pile of trash-bags that dominated the curb. He had dark circles under his eyes and was dressed as if he’d just rolled out of bed, but he seemed awake enough. His hands were in his pockets but he kept twitching his head, trying to see around Michael without giving away what he was looking for. “Why are you out here?”

Michael shoved the pen in his pocket, wishing he could pull back out a bottle of aspirin. If Robin was around, then that meant trouble. “I was giving Phil a lift. He’s in there talking to Hargreaves…now why are you here, and what’s about to happen?”

Robin grinned and continued on past Michael to stop just before the coffeeshop’s front window started. He rubbed at the side of his nose, then pulled at it. “Aw, Michael, you give me way too much credit sometimes. I’m supposed to stop things from happening.”

“Like what?” Michael acidly asked, turning around.

The glance Robin gave him was considerably more thoughtful. Then Robin twisted back to lean his shoulder against the wall, peering into the shop. He shrugged. “I’m not sure. Hargreaves has been dancing awfully close to MU lately, and then he calls up Lahm? What’s that about?”

“Have you…have you been following him?” Michael warily went over and then, as Robin stiffened up, purposefully moved in front of the window. He picked out Philipp’s head and then Hargreaves—tired, ill-looking young man—who saw him and started. Philipp turned around, then said something to Hargreaves while waving at Michael.

When he realized Hargreaves wasn’t going to run, Robin relaxed back against the wall. But he had lost his mocking tone and appeared to be taking Michael seriously—in other words, he got annoyed. “Go take your morals to church where they’ll be appreciated, Ballack. I’m not doing anything they aren’t doing. Which you should know.”

That…was true, Michael reluctantly admitted. Just last week he’d found an illegal email intercept-and-reroute in the servers that dated from Savage’s time, and he was beginning to think all the spyware and attempted DOS attacks on FC that’d been happening lately weren’t random.

“How long have Hargreaves and Lahm been friends?” Robin asked after a moment. “By the way, could you not look over here and give me away?”

Michael bit his tongue to keep his temper in check, but he did take his pad out from under his arm and start flipping through his scribbled notes. Sometimes he worked better if he did a problem on paper instead of trying to work it out on the computer. “They aren’t friends. Phil doesn’t have any more idea about why he got a call than…wait, how did you know who Hargreaves was calling?”

Robin rolled his eyes. “You’re the one who scolded me for talking about top-secret stuff on a cell phone, remember?”

“It’s three-thirty in the goddamn morning. I’m tired,” Michael snapped. He had a brief, guilty moment of gratification at the surprised look on Robin’s face. Then he went back to worrying about Philipp: the other man didn’t know what he was walking into, and even though he’d been at FC longer than Michael, Michael still wasn’t sure what Philipp’s experience with the business side of music was like. Philipp—Michael blinked. Reran that thought. “Philipp worked with Cristiano. If it’s a contract matter that Hargreaves is worried about, then maybe he’s asking for advice because everyone knows that Cristiano’s contract negotiations were messy.”

“Or…maybe he wants to get a feel for how FC might respond to something he’s going to do, and Lahm’s universally known as a nice guy,” Robin suggested. He quirked an eyebrow at Michael. “Well, you seem to get over tiredness fast. And other things, too.”

Usually when Michael needed to calm down, running through a basic Fourier Transform problem helped. He went through two in his head and still had to jerk the paper pad up and down to get out some of his anger before he exploded. “You know—I really want to hit you sometimes.”

“Never would’ve guessed,” Robin dryly said. Of course he didn’t sound insulted at all. “But never mind me. What about—”

A sharp rattling noise came from inside the coffeeshop. Michael turned around and stared through the glass, but didn’t see anything out of place. He looked at Philipp and Owen and they seemed…well, no, Owen was trying to get up. He’d twisted around to look at something at the back and he seemed agitated, throwing off Philipp when the other man hauled on his arm. But the glass was too thick for their conversation to be heard; Michael moved towards the door.

That turned into a lunge when two men suddenly burst out of the shop’s prep area and went straight for Philipp and Owen. One of them was screaming and waving something in the air, and the other one had grabbed Owen and flung him towards the back. Then he went towards Phil—something plowed into Michael, sending him so far sideways that he skidded out of view of the window. “Robin! Goddamn it, you—”

“Shut up and get me on the roof! I’ll get over to the other side and you can go through the front!” Robin had already let go of Michael and put his foot up on a decorative concrete ledge that ran about half a meter high around the building. He grabbed for the edge of the roof, then started to pull himself up.

Michael snarled and slammed his hands up under Robin’s free foot, sending the other man toppling over onto the roof. He heard Robin cursing at him in Dutch, but he was already scrambling through the coffeeshop’s door.

The two men were gone, but they’d left a trail of hysterical people and overturned furniture in their wake. A chair tripped Michael up a quarter of the way inside and he caromed off it into a weeping, shaking woman who held onto him nearly all the way to the prep-room door. He finally shook her off with a muttered apology, then ran into the prep area. No Philipp or Hargreaves, but—Michael spotted a puddle spreading on the floor by a big shelf of cans and went towards it, keeping himself as close to the ground as he could.

He heard somebody grunt in pain, and then an ear-splitting crash just around the corner. Then a man came racing around the corner; Michael happened to be at waist-level anyway so he just let the man ram into his shoulder, then lifted him up and slammed him onto the nearest counter. Then he dragged the man off and bent one arm behind his back, hauling him around the corner.

Philipp screeched and leaped backward. Something blurred up from his foot.

Michael ducked, but the man he was holding onto was still fighting him and didn’t go down when Michael yanked at his arm. He took the kettle right in the face and went limp so suddenly Michael almost dropped him.

“OhmyGodMicha! Are you okay?” Philipp gasped.

“I’m fine, I’m—are you fine? Where’s the other one?” The one Michael had seemed to be out for a while, so he laid him down on the floor and took stock of the surroundings.

Open cans spilling coffee beans everywhere. A slick of condensed milk trailing to a door that probably led to the dumpster and backalley. One Philipp Lahm, wild-eyed but appearing otherwise intact, with a white-faced, mute Owen Hargreaves sitting on the floor behind him.

Philipp vaguely gestured. “He, um, ran.” Then he shivered and rushed over to press something into Michael’s hand: a gun. “I knocked this from him and I think he got scared and he ran out the door, and I would’ve knocked him out with a can but he slipped in the stupid milk and I missed.”

At the end of it he took a huge, gulping breath with one hand pressed to his chest. Michael gingerly put one hand on Philipp’s shoulder and patted it. “It’s…it’s okay. You did…I didn’t know you could kick like that.”

“Oh, I kickbox with Timo. Didn’t I ever mention that?” Philipp said. He sounded a little shrill and he was still shivering. “Um, Owen’s kind of freaked out. And he’s a bit drunk anyway. And Micha, they had a gun.”

“Yeah—shit.” Michael looked at the gun in his hand, then yanked a dishtowel from a shelf and wrapped it around the gun. He didn’t know how to put the safety on so he just kept it pointed at the floor. “Listen, I—”

Somebody knocked at the backdoor. Then it swung open and Robin stepped inside, sucking on two of his knuckles. The spikes in his hair at the front had been bent at crazy angles, but otherwise he seemed unruffled. He flicked his gaze around, then went towards Michael and took the gun from him, snickering at the dishtowel. “Give me that. I bet you don’t…see, now the safety’s on. Okay, now you can have it.”

“You keep it,” Michael snapped, shoving the gun back at the other man. “Did you get the other one?”

“Yeah, he’s in the dumpster.” Robin pulled out a cell-phone, then looked up in the middle of dialing. He snorted at the expression on Michael’s face. “He’s alive, okay? I just put him there because it was convenient. Look, go…do something about Hargreaves there. I’m calling Thierry and when he gets here, Hargreaves had better be capable of answering questions.”

Owen jerked up his head at the mention of his name, then abruptly got to his feet. He swayed and for a moment, it didn’t look like he was going to stay up, but he managed to steady himself before Philipp could finish offering a hand. “Wait. You’d—you should call Lehmann instead.”

“Jens isn’t in town,” Robin said, shooting Owen an irritated look.

“Yeah, well, I don’t think Henry can handle this one. It’s not MU—I mean, not only them,” Owen retorted. His gaze drifted down to the unconscious man on the floor; he swallowed hard, then jerked his head back up to stare at Robin. He looked like he might throw up any second. “MU’s only involved because I thought they might be able to pressure or pay him off.”

Robin glanced at Owen, his cell, and then at Owen in rapid succession. He chewed on his lip, then pressed the ‘end’ button on the call he’d been making with a sharp twist of his wrist. “Who?”

“Moggi.” Owen coughed before he’d finished saying the name, then bent over with one hand on the wall and dry-retched. He coughed again.

Philipp twisted his hand around his wrist, then hissed out a breath and went over to Owen. He wrapped one arm around Owen’s waist to help support him and started talking quietly to the other man, trying to calm him down before he did throw up.

“The…nightclub racketeer,” Michael muttered to Robin, who hadn’t moved. “I think you’d better call Jens straight.”

Robin mumbled something and tossed the phone once between his hands. He looked nervously about, as if there was anything to debate about this. “Maybe.”

Maybe?” Michael started to add more to that, then shook his head and just got out his own phone. “Look, I’ll call if you don’t—”

“If Moggi’s sending people to collect Hargreaves for whatever—”

“Old debt,” Owen choked out.

“—then we don’t have a lot of time,” Robin hissed. “It’s the holiday season—there’s no way even Jens can book a flight now. I’m trying to figure out whether it’d be better to start now and have Jens yell at me for not calling, or to wait and have him yell at me for letting this happen.”

That…Michael shook his head again. “I don’t—”

“Who’s sleeping with Jens? Who knows him better?” Robin paused, then nodded sharply when Michael didn’t respond. He rubbed hard at his nose, grumbling, before abruptly spinning on his heel in a hard circle. Then he stopped himself with a hand on the wall, and with his other hand, started dialing again. “I am calling Thierry. But we need to get out of here. I took the subway—did you drive here?”

Michael still didn’t like any of it, but…Robin would know more about this than him, and Lehmann meant Robin would have an interest in making it all turn out well. “Yes. What are you planning?”

“I don’t think you want to know.” The phone was ringing now, so Robin put it up to his ear. His fingers were tapping rapidly against the wall.

“Yes, I do. Or I’m calling Lehmann,” Michael told him. He met Robin’s hard stare square on. “I got caught in someone else’s mess because I didn’t know what was going on once already. I’m not doing that again.”

For a moment, Robin was going to argue. But then he seemed to think better of it; a half-smile even curved his mouth, though it wasn’t anything more than acknowledging. “Well, all right, Ballack. I’ll tell you in the car. Hell, I’ll probably need the help anyway.”

* * *

Thierry actually happened to be lying awake, staring at his ceiling when his phone went off. He reached over without looking and picked it off the end-table.

When he saw who it was, he sat up. “Robin?”

*Hey, Thierry. Sorry I’m calling now, but I just thought you’d like to know that I finally found a store carrying the coffee brand Freddie likes so much.* Robin named a local coffeeshop that wasn’t too far from FC’s main building. He sounded tense and there were other people with him, possibly in a car. And even if Freddie hadn’t had a solid supplier of his favorite roast for the past three years, Robin never would’ve gone out of his way to help him out with that.

“I’ll pass that along to him,” Thierry said, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. He got up and fumbled through the clutter on the end-table till he’d found his PDA and his cell’s earphones. After plugging those in, he left the cell on the table and sent an urgent email to Freddie while yanking on his clothes. “Where are you going? Did you want to come over for something to eat?”

He’d barely put the PDA down when it buzzed; Freddie was pulling a late night as well, if he’d already replied. Thierry started to reach for it, then pulled his hand back and hurriedly finished putting on his shirt. Freddie had been at this long enough and Thierry could trust him to assess the situation and do whatever was needed to keep it out of the papers.

*I’d really love to, but I thought you were having that lawyer friend of yours over.* A little genuine amusement bubbled into Robin’s voice. And burst right away when somebody leaned close enough for Thierry to hear them say they needed a doctor, to which Robin barked a no. *Besides, I’ve got some extra work at the office to turn in. See you in the morning.*

The soft click as Robin hung up cut the objection right out of Thierry’s mouth. A flash of irritation went through Thierry and he tightened his grip on the phone…but then he had to laugh at himself. Robin didn’t know about that aborted pass at Bobby. As far as he knew, Thierry was still at that embarrassing hypothetical stage where friendly teasing was perfectly legal. Legal. Damnation.

Thierry went into his closet and grabbed the first suit and tie he saw. He threw them on and then got on socks and shoes while loading the usual accessories: cell-phone, PDA, portable recorder/music player. Within five minutes he was in the lift, on the way down to the garage level, and staring at Bobby’s number on his cell-phone.

The day after, Bobby had acted professionally friendly. He’d obviously been waiting for a clue from Thierry about what tack he could take, and he probably would have been willing to forgive Thierry the faux pas and simply move on. But for some reason, Thierry just hadn’t been able to bring himself to give Bobby that little clue, and now he was afraid he’d just killed a growing friendship. Possibly more.

But never mind that, he fiercely scolded himself. Right now this was business, and—he hit ‘dial’ before he could lose more time dithering.

Bobby didn’t pick up. Thierry wanted to curse and send up a prayer of thanks, but in the end he just left a curt message asking the other man to see him as soon as possible. Then he turned his mind to what could possibly be going on with Robin.

Once he’d arrived at FC, he headed straight for Jens’ office. It was so early that not even the secretary had come in yet, and so the door to the reception area was still locked…odd. So Robin wasn’t there, but Thierry still needed to leave a message for David to be ready to reroute and reschedule everything. He stepped back and started to flip through his keys. Then he turned sharply around.

A tall young man with a shaved head and slightly stooped shoulders moved quietly into view. He was wearing a good suit, but was only carrying a manila file. Well-trained; he didn’t put a hand forward right away. “Hi. Sorry if I surprised you. I’m Philippe Senderos and I’m here about the assistant’s job…”

“Oh…you’re incredibly early, even if you are the first interview of the day,” Thierry commented. He found the right key and unlocked the door, then pushed it open.

“I work on the third floor, so I was already in and I just wanted to make sure I had the place right.” After another moment, Philippe turned to go.

Thierry paused, then stepped back out and called him back. “Wait. You might as well get the tour out of the way, and then later we can just handle the questions. C’mon.”

He pointed out Jens’ office and David’s office, then let Philippe have a look at David’s office while he left the note. The other man didn’t ask any questions, but he did take everything in with a solemn, thoughtful air that reminded Thierry a little of a birdwatcher. Then again, if he already worked here, he probably was familiar with most things.

After a moment’s thought, Thierry headed for Ballack’s office. If Robin wasn’t in Jens’ office, then that was the second most likely place for him due to the equipment. Though in that case, Thierry hoped Ballack wasn’t in, as he and Robin seemed to rub each other in all the wrong ways.

Of course, the day hadn’t started promisingly and it didn’t look to improve. Not only were Michael and Robin both there, but Lahm and Owen Hargreaves were also crowded into the room. And when Thierry saw the last man, he knew it was going to be a rough day. “Owen?’

“Thierry.” The other man startled up, then sank into a chair so suddenly that at first Thierry thought he had fainted. “Thierry, I’m so sorry. I know you negotiated a good deal for the Chels, and I just—don’t take this out on them, all right?”

“What’s going on?” Thierry asked.

From what he could tell, Philipp had been trying to ply Owen with water and bagels. Michael was typing so hard that Thierry could see that occasionally the strike would result in double-letters or –symbols appearing on the screen, and next to him Robin was working with wires and pliers. Both Philipp and Michael stopped when Thierry spoke, but while Philipp looked at Thierry, Michael looked at Robin.

And Robin didn’t look up at all as he moved over to peer over Michael’s shoulder at the computer screen. “Well, so far what we know is that once upon a time, the Chels had a wild party and there was a tape of it that had some damaging stuff on it, which Owen managed to lose to a blackmailer. He got it back, but he had to take out a huge loan to do it, and he picked Moggi of all people for his lender.”

Thierry blinked. Blinked again. He was taking it in, putting the pieces together and reading between the lines of what Robin was saying, but its actual meaning wasn’t penetrating. And then it did, and Thierry put his hands up before he realized he didn’t have any hair to yank. “Moggi?”

“I didn’t mention it to you because I didn’t want to jeopardize the Chels’ contract, and then…Michael Carrick over at MU somehow heard about it and started talking to me about helping me out, and…I didn’t agree to anything. I swear I didn’t. I almost…but it’s my fault, not the Chels’ fault, and they’re happy here,” Owen said. The words came out of him in a desperate rush, confessional-style. He clutched at the chair-arm as if it were a life-saver. “I changed my mind and wanted to talk to Phil here because I’d gotten to know him a little, and I thought he’d know about how Cristiano Ronaldo got away from MU.”

“There. It’s through. But I’m not doing any more on a company computer,” Michael said to Robin, who looked exasperated but who didn’t dissent.

Philipp timidly raised one hand. “Two men ran in while we were talking and tried to take us with them with guns.”

“The coffeeshop I wanted you to send Freddie to. I left one in the dumpster and Ballack banged the other one around the kitchen, so they should still be there when he gets there,” Robin muttered. He flapped up his shirt-tail to get into his jeans-pocket, then eased out an odd-looking PDA, with which he proceeded to take notes from the screen. “Moggi owns two racetracks, so he’s got to have met Ferguson somewhere along the line. I think Carrick got that Owen was getting cold feet and passed that along, and so they went to scare tactics.”

Apparently that thought hadn’t occurred to Owen, since he jerked up to stare incredulously at Robin. His face was a study in dawning realization. He soundlessly moved his lips a few times, shook his head, and then abruptly sat up and grabbed the edge of the desk, eyes blazing. “They are not getting the Chels. I promised the boys they wouldn’t get screwed by the industry that way and it’s not going to happen.”

Robin muttered something about it being nice to finally see a backbone, which Thierry ignored. “Good. Because you’ve got a lot of work to do if we’re to fix this. Phil, do you think they recognized you?”

Philipp opened his mouth to answer, but what came out was a loud thump.

They all stared at each other for a few seconds. Then Thierry remembered and, clutching his head again, whirled back into the hall. “Senderos?”

“Who?” he heard Ballack snap.

Thierry didn’t see anyone in the hall. He whipped out his cell and was about to dial security when a man’s legs suddenly walked around the corner. A moment later, Thierry understood that someone beneath them was actually carrying them along. “Senderos?”

“He was using toilet cleaner to mop the floors by your office,” Philippe said. He turned around so Thierry could see him, then made a half-gesture with his left hand. “Where do you want him?”

“Who’s he?” Robin had come up to stand right beside Thierry and was looking at Philippe with a vaguely impressed expression.

Philippe shifted the man on his shoulder so he could reach into the man’s pockets. He found a wallet on the second one and flipped it to Robin. Thierry tried to remember who the hell worked on the third floor. “Does this have anything to do with our group’s reputation?”

“A little. Also, I started as a bouncer in Premier,” Philippe replied. He shrugged as if to say take that how you will.

“Well…there’s a small meeting room down the hall, on the right. Put him in there and…is he going to wake up any time soon?” Thierry asked. “Would you mind if I asked you to sit with him till I can send somebody to talk to him?”

After shifting the man again so he could check his watch, Philippe shook his head. “No, that’s fine. I’m not due downstairs till late afternoon anyway.”

“Thanks.” Thierry bemusedly watched the other man walk off, then turned around. “He’s interviewing to be Jens’—”

“Did I say there weren’t any standout candidates? Because I take that back.” Robin had gone back around to the computer and was using the ID he’d found in the wallet to do something, which Michael clearly didn’t like but seemed reluctant to say anything. “Anyway, right now I think we have to get Owen out of the way and we have to deal with Moggi.”

Philipp cleared his throat, then looked a bit taken aback when people looked at him. “I…well, the security in our building isn’t bad, and we do have the spare bedroom…”

“But if they got into this building—no, look, this is my problem. I shouldn’t have talked to you anyway—I should’ve just gone to Thierry or Jens,” Owen interrupted. His hands were shaking and after some study, Thierry didn’t think it was only due to fear.

“This isn’t that bad. It’s not perfect, but it’s…” Frowning, Michael held up some kind of badge to the light: the fake janitor’s ID card. He tilted it and Robin craned his head to look, too. “It doesn’t have the microchip in it. Our floor went to that a couple months ago, but not all the floors have yet. He could’ve started on another floor and sneaked up.”

Robin snorted. “Savage, right?”

The look on Michael’s face said yes…and there was also an interesting trace of anger, but Thierry didn’t have the time to probe that. He put his hand to his forehead and went over the available options, then sighed as he came to a conclusion. “Owen, it’s very noble of you to take all the blame, but the fact is that right now you are not the only one affected anyway. Robin?”

“Lahm’s place? Probably fine. I have the cell phones of the men who attacked them and they didn’t make any calls within an hour of the jump. Though they did receive a call,” Robin muttered. He had a rare moment of indecision as his hands went to his pocket, then came back to finger the wallet. “Uh…I don’t think they ID’ed him, and Lahm’s not somebody Owen’s had regular contact with. It’s fine if you send somebody else along…Ljungberg going to be free then?”

“No.” Thierry thought a moment, then walked down the hall. He knocked on the door, then opened it and went into the room.

Philippe was just straightening up; the fake janitor had been neatly arranged on top of the conference table. He’d be comfortable but he wouldn’t be able to move off it very quietly.

Senderos didn’t speak, but instead smoothed out his shirt and suit-jacket while he waited for Thierry. He seemed to be genuinely calm, but without that arrogant all-knowing edge a lot of experienced people tended to give off.

“I don’t have final say on hiring decisions, and I still haven’t seen how you do in, ah, normal work situations. But I will say right now that I’m willing to give you a strong recommendation. And if you’re willing, I’d like to ask you to stick around for the rest of the day. I’ll clear it with your current supervisor,” Thierry said.

The other man listened. A flicker went through his eyes when Thierry got to the recommendation. “I’ve already signed the nondisclosure forms, and my supervisor isn’t in direct competition with you. I’m not in a position to blackmail you.”

Thierry paused and adjusted his impression of Philippe. “That’s appreciated. But my recommendation still stands,” he said with a smile.

Philippe finally showed some emotion: lowkey satisfaction laced with a little surprise. “Thanks. Thank you very much…so what do you want me to do?”

* * *

Hargreaves was safely packed off to Lahm’s place with Senderos as impromptu bodyguard, but could Robin finally get home and pick up his gear? No, because Ballack was still tagging along and Ljungberg arrived fresh from the coffeeshop with tons of questions. At least Ljungberg had taken care of clean-up—when Michael wasn’t insisting that they get to work, he was telling Robin why Robin couldn’t use the office computers to do said work. Sometimes Robin wanted to hit him.

“That man probably will wake soon,” Thierry finally said. “Freddie, can you go…watch him?”

“I…all right, but when I’m done with him I’ll be back around.” Ljungberg shot Robin a warning look on the way out.

He’d toned down his attitude a little since Cristiano’s album launch party, but he still got on Robin’s nerves. Pure goddamn jealousy—he had to know now that Robin wasn’t a threat to Jens.

Thierry said something that Robin missed and Robin jerked out of his stare, then turned around. “Sorry, missed that.”

“I said, I have to update Jens on the situation. But given the circumstances and the time-zone delay, I agree that we can’t sit and wait for him to come up with the solution.” The other man flicked Robin a sharp look as he typed into his PDA. “Which would be…”

Robin thought a moment, then put up his hands and pressed them to the sides of his face, trying to get his head straight. He was jangling on adrenaline, but still exhausted beneath that and even though he could remember everything he needed to, he was having a little trouble getting it in order. “Moggi and Ferguson are probably connected. Hargreaves owes Moggi twenty thousand.”

“We can pay, but not without a guarantee that it’d end after that. Which I doubt,” Thierry commented.

“I haven’t focused on Moggi because whatever his arrangement with Ferguson is, it’s not direct and not very obvious. He didn’t come up on the radar.” That irked Robin. Irked him a hell of a lot, getting caught out without having at least a little foreknowledge. He spent all his damn time making sure he was the one with the information, after all. “He’s relatively big-time, too. I guess the straightforward solutions are out.”

Thierry looked contemplatively at Robin. “Jens would definitely rule those out anyway. Too hard to clean up after.”

“What Jens would want…anything the lawyers can do?” Robin rubbed at his eyes and nose, not really expecting a positive answer. But that would be Jens’ preferred first option, and the aim here was to minimize the disaster to which Jens came back.

“I…don’t know,” Thierry said, helplessly shrugging. He slipped his PDA back into its holster before checking the time. “I haven’t talked to Bobby yet. Actually, I need to go find him…I’ll keep you up on that. In the meantime—”

“I think I’m taking Ballack with me and we’ll do some digging from non-FC computers,” Robin replied. He wasn’t really looking forward to that, but Michael had skills and this was a rush job.

“—don’t hit the streets till I get back to you.” Thierry arched his eyebrows and coolly gazed back at the surprised face Robin made. “Robin, Jens will hit the roof if this doesn’t end well. But if it ends with you in the mess…”

Broken glass, a lolling head next to him and then the grass blades pulling away beneath his hands as he hauled himself away from a flaming car flashed through Robin’s head. He grimaced and nodded. He still wasn’t even sure why Jens changed his mind and let him stay, but he was damned if he was making that mistake again. That was one thing he could control. “Yeah, I know. So I hope you call soon.”

* * *

Michael went another couple of steps, then turned around. He sighed and raked at his hair, then went back. “Torsten, I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you.”

“The way you look, I’m not surprised. Did you sleep at work again?” Torsten asked.

He said some other things, but he was carrying a cup of coffee and the smell of it hit Michael like a freight-train. It honestly almost made Michael fall against the wall, and when he finally dragged his attention back, it was to a grinning Torsten holding a second coffee, which he held out to Michael.

“You’re welcome.” Torsten’s amusement faded into disbelief as he watched Michael toss it back. “God, what were you doing last night?”

“I…” Michael looked around, then took Torsten by the arm and pulled him into an empty office.

It still was pretty early, but it wouldn’t be long till the place filled up so Michael spoke fast. And low, though no one was around. He—he gritted his teeth—would have to check the whole place for any taps and the servers for intercepts again before he got any sleep.

“How’s Lahmi?” Torsten asked when Michael was finished.

“He—shaken up, but all right. He…he’s a lot tougher than he looks. I think right now I’m actually more worried about how Timo might take the explanation and the sudden guest.” The coffee was a godsend, shooting its caffeine into every nerve so they leaped back to life. And then they started functioning to relay some commonsense, and suddenly Michael regretted the coffee. “My God, you might as well list me as part-time bodyguard.”

Torsten opened his mouth, but instead of saying anything, simply stepped forward and put his hand on his arm. “How are you?”

“Me?” Michael started to reply, but ended up letting out a hysterical chuckle. He shook himself and tried to sip some more coffee, only to find that it was gone. He—no, he was not losing it. Not right now. “Well…honestly, I’m scared about a lot of things, from getting attacked to getting arrested to turning into my old advisor, but I’m—I’m really fucking angry, Torsten. They didn’t hesitate to go after Lahm, and then they tried to sneak into the offices and God, if I ever meet this Robbie Savage I am going to break his—”

He stopped there, just listening to himself. To be really honest, one of the things he was afraid of right now was himself.

“You sound a little territorial,” Torsten said in a light tone. He obviously was trying to cheer Michael up, but it didn’t work and when he noticed that, he sobered again. For a couple minutes he just stood there, his hand like an anchor on Michael’s arm. Then he stirred, looking straight up into Michael’s eyes. “Listen, Micha. You can step out of it if you want. You helped Phil as much as anybody can expect you to, and anything from this point on…you understand it’s extra, right?”

“Yes,” Michael replied after a moment. He licked his lip to moisten it, then went on. “But…the thing is, stopping now is like putting my head in the sand. I could do more. And if I don’t, I might still end up getting into trouble I didn’t know was coming, and if there’s going to be trouble…then I’d rather be in the know.”

Torsten gazed at Michael for a couple more seconds before abruptly grabbing Michael’s head and pulling it down. They kissed hard and fast, and then Torsten was dragging Michael back to fix him with serious, earnest eyes. “Micha, I know. But don’t be stupid. Know what you are and what you aren’t—and come over when you’re done. All right?”

“All right,” Michael said. He hesitated, then tugged Torsten forward again. He had a second.

* * *

“Lahm tends to work nights, but if you email him beforehand he’ll always be around when you want to see—Robin!” Cesc yelped.

Robin paused, an annoyed look briefly crossing his face. Then he noticed who was with Cesc and came up with a disarmingly charming smile. “Oh, hello, Cesc. I’m glad I ran into you—I’m all tied up for the rest of the day and so is Thierry, just so you know. Hi, I’m sorry—I’m Robin and I don’t think we’ve met.”

Deco didn’t bat an eye. He did take in Robin’s disheveled, rumpled appearance with a faint twitch of the corner of his mouth, but he took Robin’s hand and shook it before Robin could get really annoyed. “Anderson, but everyone calls me Deco. Is it safe to assume you’re one of the scouts?”

“Suits aren’t really the dress code of my usual working environment,” Robin drawled. He reached around and patted Cesc on the shoulder, then took off down the hall like his heels were on fire. “See you around.”

Something was up. Cesc made a note of it, but wasn’t nearly as excited as he usually would’ve been; he hadn’t been back for that long and he’d really been hoping for a quiet week so he could finish catching up on work. And figure out how Ruud was, since Ruud was having one of those weeks where he wasn’t much more than a column of emails in Cesc’s PDA.

“He’s the first scout I’ve seen up here. Besides, I had the impression that Jens preferred his agents to do their own scouting,” Deco said, looking thoughtfully at Cesc.

Another sign that Cesc was still getting used to work was that it actually took him a full second to do the calculations about how much he could tell Deco. “He does. Office grapevine’s probably left you with the impression that Jens keeps Robin around as a live-in gigolo or something like that.”

“You think I listen to the office grapevine?” Deco raised his eyebrows, but didn’t look too offended.

“Well, you’d get caught flat-footed a lot of the time if you didn’t, and you don’t seem like that kind of person,” Cesc said. He led them around the corner and into the recording studio hallway. “Robin’s not that. He does live with Jens and they are…um, dating…but you want to stay on his good side. His and Jens’ good side.”

“So what is his position?” Usually outsiders were a little confused by what a working studio really looked like, but so far Deco seemed at home with everything. So when he’d told Robert about having worked in Brazil’s music industry, he hadn’t been lying. No records of that, though.

Cesc chose his answer carefully. “He’s listed as a talent scout. This is the studio Cristiano usually uses.”

Deco didn’t comment and just walked inside, carefully looking around. At first glance, he was a handsome enough guy, but with an oddly mournful cast to his face that probably had gotten him a lot of free candy as a kid. But the little bit of time Cesc had spent with him so far had shown him to be observant, smart, and on occasion quick-tongued.

After going around the whole room, Deco came back and bent down to look at something beneath the soundboards. He grinned briefly in disbelief. “Is this that bottled water that costs more than a DVD?”

“Yeah. It’s the only thing Cristiano will drink when he’s in the studio,” Cesc said, keeping his tone neutral.

An interesting expression flicked over Deco’s face. It’d gone by pretty fast, but Cesc was almost positive it’d been disgust. Then Deco stood up and nodded. “Thanks, Cesc. Cristiano said he’d meet me here in five minutes, so I won’t hold you any longer. I really appreciate the tour, though.”

“No problem. Just let me know if you need any other help. Ruud wants this to be as smooth a transition as possible, so he told me to do whatever I can for you,” Cesc lied. Bobby had come back from that non-date date with Deco without much: Deco was a very good professional, hadn’t let himself be baited at all, and Cesc had already known about the law degree. Since then, Ruud had taken a cautious, hands-off approach to Deco, but Cesc didn’t think that was going to work out.

He also thought that that had more to do with Ruud trying to avoid another fight with Cristiano, but he could only go so far with Ruud and he wasn’t interested in crossing that line.

“Oh. Well, thank him for me.” Deco settled down in one of the chairs. He did smile again at Cesc, but somehow that just made Cesc more sure that the other man knew he’d just lied.

“Sure.” No, Cesc wasn’t feeling up to plunging all the way back into office politics yet. He took the exit with relief and hurried back to the agents’ offices to see if Ruud had come in.

Ruud hadn’t, but Ricky was loitering about in front of Cesc’s door. He briefly brightened when he saw Cesc, but then tried to hide it, which was…new. He and Cesc had met up several times since he’d turned down Raúl’s paella, but even though he was tracking down Cesc just as eagerly as before, he seemed increasingly uncomfortable once they’d actually met up.

“Morning, Cesc. I hate to disturb you already, but I have to drop off the last of Deco’s paperwork now. Bobby just told me we’ve got an emergency and I think I’ll be busy all day,” Ricky said, nervously shifting on one heel. He extracted a folder from his briefcase, then held it out.

Just then, a rushing secretary came by and nearly ran into Ricky, then apologized and bulldozed on without looking up. Ricky sidestepped to avoid her and in the process his and Cesc’s fingers overlapped on the folder; Cesc also automatically put up a hand towards Ricky because the other man looked on the verge of losing his balance.

He did lose it and stumble, but because he’d jerked away from Cesc. His cheeks flamed up and he hastily gave Cesc the folder. “I’m—sorry.”

“Oh, it’s okay. Hey…are you all right? You’re not coming down sick, are you? I’d really hate to think I infected you,” Cesc said, laughing to cover up his confusion.

Ricky’s blush just got worse. He shook his head and made a hurried goodbye, then walked off. Cesc stared after him, wondering if Ricky had finally started to clue in to himself. Then he heard his name and turned around to see a harassed-looking Thierry come towards him.

“Robin said you were going to be busy,” Cesc said. He paused. “Why is Robin in the office?”

For once, Thierry didn’t respond with an amused, subtly changing-the-subject comment. He looked hard at Cesc, then seemed to make up his mind. “Do you like your job?”

“Y—yes,” Cesc stammered, not expecting that at all.

Thierry’s gaze sharpened. “You’re telling the truth. I just surprised you—well, then, do whatever you have to—and I believe you’re very good at knowing how far you can go—and make sure Ruud, Cristiano and Deco don’t give us any trouble today. We can’t handle it right now. All right? Can you do this for me?”

Cesc didn’t answer too quickly, and he thought about his reply to make sure it wasn’t too glib. It didn’t seem like Thierry was in the mood for it, and he had a feeling that this reply was going to stay with Thierry for a while. “Yes. How long?”

“I’ll let you know,” Thierry said, already walking off. He shook his head, then muttered something about hoping he would eventually know beneath his breath.

After a moment, Cesc went into his office. And started to plan out the day very carefully.


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