(Prelude to) Madness
He limped out of the lift clutching a ridiculously expensive handbag, and it's not even by choice but out of sheer necessity. He needed something to divert attention from the embarrassment currently masquerading as his footwear. It was not so much a jungle as a battlefield, and woe is he, or she, who attracts the attention of the 5th floor jackals with their smoky eyes and tailored trousers. Due to gender-specific issues his position on the food chain at the Aurora Sky Modelling and Photography agency was already about as easy to maintain as climbing Mount Everest in Manolo Blahnik's.
"It's fucking typical, it is. This is probably the fifth toe I've broken since I fucking moved here. You'd think I'd be used to it by now, it's a fairly straight-forward routine after all. Open door, take three steps forward, one step up and place other foot down next to the other. Squeeze toothpaste on to brush, be sure not to glance down until stepping off," he muttered to himself
Leslie, in a moment of insanity, had super-glued a set of scales to his bathroom floor, right under the sink. He claimed it was because he liked depressing people who spend the night. There hasn't been one clever enough not to look down and read the numbers in blurry hung-over vision.
"My poor aching toe has surely swollen and turned fucking purple," he whined.
If that wasn't bad enough, it meant he couldn't wear his work shoes for another two weeks 'god damn it' and that 'was just so not on'. It was a matter of principle, really. If he didn't wear shoes of the at-least-4-inch-heel-strappy-glittery variety, those poofs at the office would fire off another round of incessant transvestite-dyke quips they believed to be funny but might just eventually result in his firing every last one of them.
He was jolted back to reality because Steven was rushing at him carrying a gargantuan pile of paperwork. Leslie took his preferred course of action and swerved past the copy machines, ducked by the water cooler where he would count to ten or wait until he couldn't hear Steven's excessive panting before taking the detour to his office. It was usually the close race between his canter and the time it took Leslie to find his keys in whichever handbag he was carting around which determined how the rest of the day would play out. Should Steven manage to catch him, he would be on the edge of a nervous breakdown or psychotic episode by lunchtime, otherwise these may be postponed until at least three 'o clock.
"Oh Leslie darling, good thing I managed to catch you before you dive in to your inbox. Look, I have to talk to you about Hansen, it won't take a sec."
He turned around slowly, the longer he has to reconsider, the better Leslie would feel while screaming at him. "We have discussed this Steven, not once, not twice, but quite close to a hundred times. Now, how does it go again? You do not – come on, you know this one – you do not," he tried, hoping to jog his soon-to-be-ex employee's survival skills.
"You do not talk to Leslie before he had his tea, yes of course, how silly of me. But now, really, Hansen," he persisted.
That was one thing about Steven, he had an enormous amount of confidence, most of which was truly misplaced as it was based on a bad haircut and blue contacts which did nothing to hide the fact that he was at least a stone over his preferred weight but hadn't yet gotten around to informing his wardrobe. The only thing which he did have going for him was that he had some interesting photos of a few interesting people, and that had been his life-jacket. Of course, interesting people are not necessarily interesting forever, and Leslie gleefully awaited the day he could invite him to his office, watch him wriggle his posterior on the narrow chair and inform him his services are no longer required. With a smile, of course.
Leslie managed to fish out his keys, which basically signalled the end of the conversation. "Steven, darling, piss off."
He parked his ass in the monstrosity that had been nicknamed Leslie's Pimp Chair on the grounds of it being a) purple and b) velvet, and kick-started the computer, literally. That was quite fine by it; I was a kink-machine which is no surprise considering some of the content which passes for art. He hadn't even gotten to the welcome screen when the usual morning shouting commenced.
"Coming through! Fucking hell, Damian get out of my way I've got Leslie's fucking tea in my hands. I will eviscerate the person who makes me drop it, I swear."
That would be Gregory, nay, Grigori, his faithful assistant. The most noteworthy part about him had to be that his threats were often taken quite seriously as Grisha is over six feet of glistening muscular perfection from mother Russia. It is Leslie's luck to be one of the few who know that Grigori is in fact the proud owner of five enormous Norwegian forest cats he raised from infancy on his own. His relationship with those monstrous animals betrayed his complete inability to do much of any kind of damage intentionally. Every morning he waltzed in with a tray of tea and two lit cigarettes lodged firmly in his teeth which always reminded Leslie how much he loves him despite the cat hairs he managed to magically spread about the office.
"I swear to fucking god they are all hopeless," he muttered, kicking the door shut behind him. "Did you escape Steven?"
Grigori gave meaning to the words 'perpetuum mobile', he spread the china on the desk, shoved a cigarette in Leslie's mouth and piled the files while hopping from leg to leg without pause. When he finally did sit down Leslie was slightly dizzy.
"It was a close call, but luckily for everyone I did. Now, what did I miss?"
"Fucking morons, every last one of them. Bloody species is just getting more pathetic with each generation." Grigori counts things off on his fingers as he thinks before answering, another thing Leslie could kiss him for. He more than respected thinking before you speak and Grigori was one of the few who bothered.
"Let's see, Alex failed to hand in his set, Ree threw a tantrum on which I'm not entirely clear but the last I heard it had something to do with one of the models, Matt broke up with Sam again, Sally changed his name to Cameron and your lunch date cancelled but instead, you're stuck with the Bad Taste's publisher," he rattled off before taking a deep breath of air. "Curse my charred lungs. Also, have I mentioned this week how much I despise Vincent?"
Leslie took a deep drag and replayed all that in his head, tripping over that last bit quite forcefully. "Wait, when did Vincent manage to get a hold of you?"
"Just before you got in, unfortunately. He said something about today being special, I don't remember the specifics but it's all written down for you to peruse at your leisure. Damn, I wish he would just jump off a bridge."
"Wonderful. Grigori, do I still keep spirits around the office?"
"I believe we purged the entire building of those last month, as a show of support for Ree's newfound sobriety. Dare I ask why?"
"Knowing you, you dare. Knowing me, the answer is not likely to present itself. Right, send in Ree for the mandatory damage control and then get me Alex so I can skin him alive please."
He nearly bathed himself in tea when the door slammed open and both Alex and Ree stormed in, screaming obscenities. Leslie watched them bicker like the limp-wristed bastards they were for a while, but when they began shoving each other he lightly kicked Grigori in to action.
Grigori raised himself up to his full height and moved to stand between them with his shoulders back and his chin raised. When he wanted to, Grigori could really loom. It doesn't take them too long to calm down when faced with that.
"Sit your asses down, I don't fancy a crick in my neck," Leslie said, gratefully accepting a new fag from Grigori. He takes a drag to settle his nerves and sets it down in the ashtray. "Now, what the fuck?"
They of course started yelling again, pointing and waving until Leslie raised his hand and made a loud shushing noise. "Alex, you first. Where are my pictures?"
He didn't look guilty, Leslie noticed. That was never a good sign.
"This moron," Alex said pointing an accusatory finger at Ree, "walked in to my darkroom and ruined them. He ruined all of them, every single one."
"You knew I liked him, you fucking knew!" Ree shouted.
"So what? I'm not his mother, I could hardly stop him if he wanted someone else's ass instead!" Alex bellowed back.
"Yes you could!"
"You could have kept your fucking cock in your fucking pants!"
"I'm married," Alex protested.
"To the biggest slut on the catwalk," Ree countered. "Only figures you'd be the same way."
"Quiet. Both of you. Shut up," Leslie said. He flipped his hair back and started fishing around in his top drawer. He pulled out a day planner and flipped through it for a moment. "Alex, you have from 10.30 AM until 12.30 PM to sort out this mess. You will get on the phone with that model, the designer and the rest of them. You will beg, plead, cajole and blackmail, but I want that set on my desk by 12.35 or you are fired."
"Shush. No discussion. And as for you," he turned to Ree, "you have exactly one day to do something spectacular to make this up to me, or you're fired."
"Shush. I thought I'd already said I wanted no discussions? I don't care about your woes, I am not your therapist. Let me put it in simple terms, so there can be no misunderstandings: you make my life miserable, I make yours even more miserable. It's not a hard concept to grasp."
It was easy to see Grigori was having trouble keeping his face stern. The situation probably seemed hilarious, unfortunately that never occurred to the people involved. However much Leslie pitied the terrible twosome, he pitied himself more. He would be the one to tell Vincent his pictures were late, or possibly even gone forever.
Nearly everyone at ASMP adored Vincent to bits. He was suave, and probably the most beautiful man Leslie had ever seen. He had those icy blue eyes that could drill holes in one's skull and a body to die for. Not to mention great hair. However, he was a grade A asshole fuckwit, which was attractive to some but set Leslie's teeth on edge. And what was he doing harassing the ASMP staff anyway? Leslie actually liked the editor, which was probably the problem. Vincent couldn't abide Leslie having a pleasant working relationship with anyone. It was a miracle he got to keep Grigori, something he knew very well so when Vincent said jump, he pouted and threw tantrums of his own but made a half-hearted attempt at a hop. There wasn't much else he could do, the market for transvestite managers was fairly slim and Leslie wouldn't leave his bedroom without mascara.
"Grisha, can I borrow one of your monster cats?" Leslie asked.
His assistant raised a sceptical eyebrow. "What on earth for? You despise cats."
"So I can throw it in their face when they irritate me. Those things of yours weigh about fifty pounds and have claws which extend all the way to hell. I'm sure it would be a wonderful sight," Leslie explained.
"Ah, right. I'll bring Lena over tomorrow, she's pregnant. That always sours her mood. But I doubt you could lift her," Grigori said, poking Leslie's arm.
"You can throw, then."
"I'm afraid not Les, she would hate me forever if I did that. Oh dear Jesus, they're at it again. Damian! You idiot!" Grisha bellowed and ran from the office. Leslie decided to follow him and get rid of some frustration, someone always needed a good chastisement at ASMP and that always did wonders for his disposition.
They weren't difficult to find, all he had to do was follow the trail of chaos and disruption but regrettably that was status quo for all of ASMP. Eventually he spotted the group by the water cooler and crept closer. Grigori seemed to have everything under perfect control. Damian was not exactly cowering, but a lot of the arrogance he carried around had retreated. Shame.
"Who would like to start?" Leslie asked sweetly. His assistant sighed and shoved Damian forward.
"This asshole was baiting Sam, and you know how emotional Sam is. He's hiding in the toilets, probably crying his eyes out, the poor thing."
Damian huffed, crossing his arms. "I can't help he's so fragile. I only teased him a bit."
"Of course, and Hitler only exterminated a bit," Grigori added.
"God save me from prima donna photographers," Leslie groaned. "Damian, any other day I would have kicked your arse, but today I am in such a snit I am not only going to kick your arse but I'm going to tie your balls to your ears if you so much as breathe in a way that displeases me. Get to work and god save you if you fuck it up."
"You, lady, can't touch me," Damian stated. "You know that if I go, I take half your clients with me."
Leslie smiled and it was not a pleasant sight. "Damian, darling, baby, sugarcakes, I have it on good authority that your clients loathe you as much as we do. Not only that, but Jason McFarral has offered to fill your spot immediately after we dispose of you. You might have heard of him? I seem to recall he was fairly popular with a few magazines. Get out of my sight, please."
Suitably chastised, Damian turned on his heel and made a dramatic exit. Leslie was fairly confident he was heading for his studio, if not he would have to see how to get him back to it without losing face.
"Is that true?" Grigori asked. "The thing about McFarral I mean."
"Partly, yes, mostly, no. He is quite famous, but he hasn't the foggiest who Damian is so he is not jumping at the chance to replace him. He has however offered to do anything for me if I agree to drop my panties for his camera. Before you say anything, yes he knows I dangle."
Grigori smirked. "No offence Les, but you don't really make a good woman."
Raising his hands in surrender, Grigori explained. "You look fabulous, there is no doubt about that. But you don't act like a woman. That, and even the most impressionable straight man could tell you have no breasts."
"Don't think you're off the hook, however cute your arguments. Go find Sam, tell him I need an expert to do my make-up for my lunch date. That should cheer him up. I'll be in my office," Leslie said and fought his way through the rabble pretending to be employees.
If he had to be honest, he loved his job. There was no place on earth he would rather be, no matter how many catfights he had to break up, suicide attempts he had to thwart, egos he had to soothe or arses he had to kick. The place was alive and he thrived on it. In their own peculiar way, they respected him and he respected them back. True, they were all a bit eccentric, but they did good work and it showed- if the rate at which they were being hired was anything to go by.
He reached his office without mishaps, which was surprising, and noticed his inbox was overflowing, which wasn't. Some of the emails he could reroute or even delete, but most he couldn't. The ones he couldn't dispose of he read carefully and dealt with accordingly. And they all thought he sat around doing nothing. He spent a gruelling hour trying to make a dent in his work when he heard a timid knock on his door.
Sam poked his head in and smiled. He raised a make-up case and Leslie motioned him to come in. Sometimes he wondered what that boy was doing at ASMP. He was clearly too gentle for the work, although he was an absolute genius for brining out the most beautiful side of people with his magic brushes.
"Grigori said you asked, eh, so here I am," he said, smiling hesitantly.
"Thank heavens you're here," Leslie said, acting relieved for all he was worth. "I have this lunch with Vincent and he absolutely thrives on ridiculing my appearance. I need to stun him in to silence or we'll spend the entire day arguing and get no work done."
Sam positively beamed. "I've always wanted to do you, you know. You have amazing bone structure," he said. "When do you want me to do you?"
Leslie shrugged. "Whenever you have time, I don't want to impose. I know you're frightfully busy."
"Oh, no, I have all the time in the world for you, Les. It's like, oh, like a dream come true," he said happily and set his case on the desk. "How's now?"
"Now will be fine Sam. I'll just go and wash this off, shall I?" he said. "You wait here, I won't be a minute."
On his way to the bathroom he ran in to Grigori who was smirking in the way only he could. It was two parts smug and eight parts amused. He followed Leslie to the bathroom.
"I don't know how you do it Les, but that boy acted as if I sang the Hallelujah chorus and god himself was fondling his balls when I told him what you said."
"That kid has a bad case of hero worship of which I am the unlucky recipient. It wasn't rocket science. However, he is good at what he does so there's no harm done. What are Alex and Ree doing?"
Grigori's grin got even wider. "Would you believe it if I told you they were cooperating?"
Grigori laughed and shrugged. He wiggled his eyebrows a little and left Leslie to wash his face in peace. Of course he didn't believe it. Ree and Alex had been at each other's throats ever since Alex had gotten married. Leslie had secretly joined the betting pool, his bet was that it would take them another four months to finally get over their idiocy and jump in to bed together. He hadn't bet too much however, both of them might just be more stubborn than he gave them credit for.
Leslie used a quiet route when sneakily returning to his office where Sam had already set out some things and was testing colours on his wrist. He wasn't about to be caught without foundation.
"Ah, you're back! Wow, you look great, even without the make-up," Sam gushed. He looked contemplatively at Leslie's jeans and blouse. "Were you planning on wearing that?"
Leslie looked down to his feet and grimaced at the black flats he was wearing. Damn him and his damn sense of humour. Those scales had to go.
"I'm afraid the shoes have to stay. The rest is all negotiable," he said.
Sam beamed. "That's great, really, because we just got a new collection and I saw some things that would be absolutely perfect. Can I use the phone for a second? Thanks. Ok, ah, Sa…Cameron? Sorry, sorry, I'll remember, but I need a favour. Can you grab me some of those skirts and tops, oh and especially that black jacket with the gold. In Leslie's size. You are a doll, thanks." He hung up and sat Leslie down. "Sally, er, damn, Cameron will be here in a minute. You trust hi..er to know your size?"
Leslie snorted. "Cameron knows everyone's size. Wait, it's 'she' now? What the hell. I thought he was over the transgender business."
"Afraid not, it's a vagina or nothing apparently. Great shame if you ask me, but she's not asking me. She wants a family, or so she says," Sam said.
"Ok. She is aware that vagina does not equal uterus, right?" Leslie remarked.
"Possibly, one never knows with Cameron. But here she comes now," Sam said, and the two of them got down to business. Leslie endured it all with the greatest patience, partly because he was in no mood for more arguing and partly because he knew those two were more than a little good at what they did. If he had to face Vincent, at least he would do it in style. They poked and prodded, tugged and pushed, but eventually proclaimed him finished.
Leslie breathed a sigh of relief. "Can I possibly see, or do you want it to be a surprise," he said dryly. Both Cameron and Sam blushed and led the way to Cameron's department where they almost threw him in front of a large mirror.
They had stuck him in a black and gold floor length gypsy skirt and fitted peasant blouse, they assured him bohemian was all the rage. Leslie just hoped he wouldn't break his neck over fifty yards of fabric. Sam had outdone himself with the cosmetics, and Leslie approved completely. He hardly recognised himself and hoped Vincent would have similar difficulties.
Grigori chose that moment to enter with a stack of files and promptly dropped them.
"Heavens above, is that you Les? You look like a gypsy queen."
Cameron nearly squealed. "Oh god I know! Especially with that gorgeous black hair and those come-hither eyes."
Leslie raised an eyebrow. "Is that good or bad Grisha?"
"Good, very good even," Grigori said, nodding enthusiastically. "Vincent won't know what hit him."
"Hopefully, a large truck," Leslie muttered. "Well, that's that. Grisha, I'll take a look at those before I go and then I trust you to keep my miscreants in line. I fully expect you to crush Alex and or Ree's balls if they annoy you."
"Consider them crushed if necessary," Grigori agreed. He handed Leslie the files and walked along to his office, listening to the usual commentary and adding his own two cents when needed.
Leslie tied the ends as best he could before leaving and cast a rueful glance at his office. In the end, Grigori had to walk him to his car and practically force him in. There was no escaping it, he was having lunch with Vincent at a posh tearoom and that was that.
When he arrived he handed his keys to the valet and ignored the 'thank you madam' with his usual grace. The same went for the 'mademoiselle' the maître d' threw at him, this too he accepted generously. He was quite used to it, however much it chafed sometimes.
He spotted Vincent easily. The man was dressed to the nines as usual, tailored grey from top to toe with touches of white. The bastard knew how to impress, that much was obvious, but that was not how Leslie noticed him so fast. It was the patented bored expression Vincent usually wore that did the trick. Leslie nurtured a steady hate for that expression, although it was overshadowed entirely by the burning loathing he had for his smug expression. He hadn't noticed Leslie yet and he didn't know if he should be thrilled or insulted. He chose to ignore it entirely and did his best to approach the table without tripping over his skirt. Vincent didn't look up until he was nearly on top of him.
"Leslie? Oh my."
"Vincent, how lovely to see you in such good health," Leslie said.
Vincent raised one of his near-invisible eyebrows. "Excuse me?"
"I had heard you had been hit? I must have misunderstood," Leslie explained.
"Yes, quite," Vincent said bemusedly and Leslie added a point to himself on his imaginary scoreboard.
"Have you ordered yet? I confess I am dying for a cup of coffee."
Vincent inclined his head. "I will take care of it." He waved a serving girl over and ordered something that didn't sound even close to coffee and when it arrived, it didn't really look like it either. Fantastic, froufrou coffee, just what he had always wanted.
Looking intently at his cup, Leslie wondered, "Do you think there is actual caffeine in here, or just sugar?"
"You're still dieting? I thought I'd told you to stop that nonsense while you were still ahead," Vincent said reproachfully.
"I do apologise, oh lord and master, but I appreciate coffee more than sugar for reasons of flavour, not calories."
"I knew it was too good to be true. And you were being so well-behaved," Vincent remarked.
Leslie glared. "I am glad we got the pleasantries out of the way. Now, would you like to tell me why I'm here? My assistant was fairly vague on the matter."
"It's our anniversary," Vincent said simply. He smiled and raised his cup to his lips. "I had wondered if you'd forgotten. It seems you have."
Leslie was stunned for a moment but that was quickly replaced by anger. "What?"
"Our anniversary, darling. It has been a year exactly since we met, don't you remember? I even ordered the same drinks for us," he elaborated.
Froufrou coffee. Oh damn. "You are twisted," Leslie said with a touch of disbelief.
Vincent pouted, but the effect was wasted by the grin he couldn't entirely suppress. "You are cruel and unforgiving, Leslie darling. I even got tickets to that theatre show that is so popular right now. I had hoped you would be pleased with me, darling."
"I honestly can't believe what I'm hearing. Vincent, are you sure you're alright?"
"Darling, please. I know it's been a rocky year, but I was hoping we could make a fresh start. I will be by to pick you up at seven, we can grab a bite to eat before the show. Please my angel, do be ready," he said. "Are you hungry? They have an excellent lunch special. My treat."
"I…I have to get back to work. I'm sorry, but it's really quite hectic," Leslie stammered out. He stood up and left the tearoom as quickly as his broken toe allowed. He was pretty much stupefied for the entire trip back to the agency and didn't notice anything around him. One point to Leslie, a hundred to Vincent.
He snapped his phone open and dialled Grigori. "Grisha, be in my office," was all he said and hung up. When he got to the office he was met by an anxious looking Grigori armed with a pot of coffee and a bottle of white wine. It was easy to see why he loved the man.
"Tell me everything," Grigori instructed, so he did. From start to finish, he repeated his conversation with Vincent. It didn't sound any more sane the second time around.
"Well, wasn't that the mad hatter's tea party," Grigori observed.
"And me without my frock. What do you think he was doing?"
Grigori poured them the remainder of the wine while he pondered. "Obviously terrifying you, but other than that, I've no idea. Was it actually a year ago today you two met?"
"Yes, but why he remembered? No clue."
"I know it's a bit unconventional, but do you suppose he was being serious?" Grigori suggested.
He considered it, briefly. Very briefly.
"It's just not possible. He was mocking me the entire time."
Grigori shrugged. "Maybe that's just his way of showing affection. We may never know."
There was a knock followed by two flustered men bursting in to the office.
"We have them!" Ree shouted and Alex proudly presented the fruit of their labour to a bewildered Leslie. It was quite nearly the oddest day he'd ever experienced, and it was only half over.
He didn't even want to contemplate what that meant.