2 : Work-Life Balance

A year earlier

Ecstasy.  Nothing but pure ecstasy.  

That's how he always felt whenever he had her all to himself.  Whenever they were intimate in bed, especially.  

It always felt this great.

Something about making love to her just overwhelmed him with pure bliss and a rush of emotions he never felt with anyone else.  It numbed every bit of his common sense, and he loved how it consumed him and every part of him, albeit just for a fleeting moment.  

Far from the annoying loneliness and instant guilt trip post-nut clarity often gave him.  Holding her in his arms, listening to her laugh, kissing her wherever he wanted, feeling the gentleness of her caresses—just a thousand times better.

Being with her just felt right.  Natural.  Freeing.  He would never trade the feeling for anything.  Not in this lifetime.  "You okay, love?" Théo stroked her chin as their gasps and her moans settled down, his chest and back muscles relaxing now.

Her naked body underneath him shuddered again, and her damp face looked even more flushed.  The blanket covering their nudity just made the bedroom feel stuffier.  Her hands clasped his sides, while her bare chest glistened under the dull lamplight, the only thing keeping the room from being too dark.  

He grinned at the sensual but almost involuntary way she licked her lower lip.  She always licked her lip after an orgasm, and it was an unmistakable sign he gave her another pleasure-filled night.  At the mere thought, his dick got hard again.  

"I think, I passed out," Veronica murmured in between noisy breaths, her lashes hiding most of her hazel eyes.  She hugged him with her legs wrapped around his thighs.

"Sorry not sorry." Théo snickered.  He pulled out of her throbbing heat as she tried to steady her breathing.  He didn't want to stop yet, but he could tell she'd had enough. 

Her skin already felt sticky with sweat like his, and he knew she was sleep-deprived after a long work week and months of touring with the band.  Also, he didn't want to make her feel like he only paid her a visit to get some.  Anyway, it wasn't the great sex that he liked most about their relationship.

"I missed you." She put her arms around his back to hug him tighter, then kissed his cheek when he kept quiet.

"Five months of not seeing you, touching you..." He traced her brow and the curve of her  cheekbone.  "Let's not do that again," he whispered to her lips, frowning.  They hadn't seen each other in a while due to their hectic schedules.  

"Yeah." Veronica gently kissed his lips, her hushed raspy voice sounding apologetic.  "Sorry. I got too busy."

He pinched her nose. "I know, angelface."  Listening to her giggle, he left soft kisses on her neck, and then on her chest.  He loved how warm and soft and vulnerable she felt, as much as he loved staring at the pinkish tint on her cheeks. 

He knelt on the bed and waited for her breathing to calm down.  Then he rested on his back.  Now his arm pressed against hers, the nightstand clock and the dampness on the covers reminding him that they should call it a night.  His hips and thighs also felt overworked.   

Then his phone rang, the shrill noise piercing the silence.  It snapped him out of his momentary trance and made him swear in his head. 

"Could be something urgent, babe."

"Right," Théo sighed and sat up after her pinkish lips curved into a smile.  Reluctantly, he got out of bed to put his sweatpants on.  He grabbed his noisy phone on the nightstand and walked away. 

Another work call, probably.  It must be one of his handlers, or a casting agent.  He should step out to keep the bedroom quiet so she could rest.  He walked out of the room and closed the door carefully, then glanced at the numbers on the screen. 

French zip code.  Not registered in his contacts list. 

He held his breath.  It must be from the agency—someone from his other job.  Were they giving him a new covert assignment?   

Shit.  Not now.  He already made plans with Via this morning.

"Reynaud speaking," he muttered after taking the call.

"How's everything, sport?" Familiar female voice.  Pleasant but quite hoarse.  Slight French accent he'd already come to memorize.  

"Good. You?"

"Not bad at all."  The woman kept up a chipper tone.  "Quick question: are you still using?"

"What?" He stood still in the empty hallway, barefoot and half-naked, just shocked by the question.  Well, after years of working for the agency, he should've braced himself and expected to hear the worst. 

Hopefully she didn't call to confirm he was steering clear of illicit drugs because she was giving him a new surveillance task to complete ASAP.  He didn't want to leave this city yet.  He'd promised Veronica he'd spend the entire weekend with her.

"Just a quick welfare check," his nameless boss mumbled on the other line.  She had a code name—like the last one—but he wasn't allowed to say it.  Especially on the phone.  "I'm signing triplicates again.  Paycheck's coming in soon."

"What paycheck?"  Didn't they pay him already for completing his last assignment?  

"Just a little performance bonus."

"Huh?"  Was she serious?

"How's the girlfriend?"

"Fine." Théo made a face while his phone pressed onto his ear.  He never talked about his personal life with the people he worked with at the agency—except when he had to.  As much as he could, he kept his private life under wraps, especially his ongoing relationship with Veronica. 

No need to involve her in any way.  Aside from his secret part-time job, he hadn't told her about his drug problem before...or his complicated, confidential line of work besides his modeling career. 

If she didn't know anything, it would protect her from the risks he had to deal with on a regular basis.  More importantly, that botched mission in Britain remained top secret to this day.  And like his first assignments, he wasn't allowed to divulge any information about what happened—not even to his immediate family.

"Do I need to worry about her now?" his boss mumbled on the other end.

"No," he muttered after a moment of hesitation.  "What d'you mean?"

"Just making sure she won't be a liability."

"No. All good."  Théo palmed his mouth to smother a sigh. 

Maybe the big bosses just wanted to be 100% sure Veronica knew zilch about his secret other job.  They just wanted to make sure she wouldn't jeopardize any of his future assignments in any way.

"Do I need to confirm it myself?"

"No."  He held back a scowl, unsure of what else to say.  "We don't see each other often. Like I said before."

"Alright," muttered his late-night caller after a long silence.  "Enjoy your weekend. Say hi for me."

He checked his phone screen after the dull beeps.  The woman just hung up.  Sighing to himself, he stared at the brownish wallpaper in front of him, his thoughts scrambling for some clarity. 

Did they doubt his word now?  Were the big bosses thinking of dropping him from the program? 

If so, they should just tell him now.  No need to drag things out.  Just unnecessary anxiety for him.

Well, to his relief, the top brass didn't make him choose between his undercover job and keeping his girlfriend.  Not yet at least.

He didn't want to forfeit his relationship with Veronica.  He couldn't.  Although he wasn't sure she wanted him in her life as much, he was willing to risk a lot for her. 

Marriage wasn't something she liked to talk about, but he would change her mind when the time's right.  He shouldn't rush her.  Two years of being in a long-distance relationship with her wasn't easy at all—but they were making it work.  Somehow.  

They were doing okay.  Going strong and happy. 

For now. 

••••••••••••••

• Present Day •

QuickMemo 49

Last Modified: 14 Mar 03:52AM

-Mix Track 5, 9, 11 before 4th week

-Mix 4, 8, 10 (Tr. 8 - Kyle & Janssen)

-KEZ interview - Sat 12th - play 3 songs

-Call realtor ASAP - down payment

-Fund transfer Charlotte : 209 Bakersville, NY

-Start packing stuff for moving

Reading through the rest of her to-do list took her another few seconds.  Veronica glanced up from the glowing screen while her phone turned cold in her hand.

Did someone just call her name out loud?

A lamppost lit the spot near the tall iron gates, helping her see clearly.  She stood still and hugged her coat to herself.  Darn.  It was below 60 degrees tonight. The nippy weather in this part of the city just made her grumble. 

Veronica zipped her coat up to her neck when a slow, frosty breeze fanned her slouching figure.  A weak buzzing sound from inside the studio building caught her attention.  She turned around.  Finally, her coat-covered bandmates exited the recording studio.

"Chop-chop, guys. Freezin' as fuck out here." Kyle, hands in his pockets,  coughed into his clenched fist and walked past the gothic-looking gate in a lazy pace. 

"You good?" Veronica chuckled at her bandmate while a good ten meters of pavement kept them apart.  He was definitely feeling under the weather now.

"Ugh. It's gettin' worse."

"Same time tomorrow?" she asked.  Her tired, strained eyes scanned the array of commercial buildings towering next to the studio.  

In response, Kyle only nodded at her, staring in the direction of the parking lot.

"Five? Sure. Still workin' on the third song. Haven't touched the vocals yet. Yep. Eleven," said someone at the door. Probably Dan—the band's official drummer—busy haggling on the phone again.

Padlocks clinked loudly while Kyle absently stared the gate.  He was waiting like he had time to kill, and he looked like he was massaging his forearm.

If she recalled correctly, their record producer had forced him into doing at least twenty takes for the third song of their new record.  The repetitive motions of picking, strumming, and fretting for hours must have left his wrists and fingers feeling constricted and chafed.

Well, they had a deadline to beat, so, every song they wrote and recorded would have to be mixed as soon as possible if they wanted to please their new label executives.  Veronica pulled a face at the thought.  After saving her ever handy to-do list (she wouldn't survive everyday life without it), she waited for everyone left inside the studio to exit the threshold.

Beside the studio's steward stood Dan, locking up the main entrance.

Kyle kept waiting near the gate, randomly kicking stones with his sneakers.  For a moment, he chatted with Dan. The two met in 2007 through a musical associate.

"Two rounds." Dan crossed his lean arms covered by his coat's blue sleeves. "No? One and a half," she heard him say.  Dan was convincing Kyle to waste an hour or so at some bar downtown.

"Maybe next week. This one's full-on viral; I can feel it..." Kyle declined, referring to his cold and coughing and using it as his excuse.

Veronica raked her fingers through her brown curls. The chill air just made them frizzier than usual.  She flung another glance to where she had parked her old sedan.  The guys' cars, parked a few spots away, were the only ones nearby.  She turned back to Kyle. "You hitching?"

Kyle grunted and picked up his pace. "Wait up, man."

As he came strolling over, she checked her phone. Maybe her boyfriend had called or left her another message.

Two new messages.  Veronica smirked at how they were lengthier than his last. She opened Théo's message, only to end up pouting at his unfortunate news.

Shucks.  He couldn't fly to New York this month.  Busy schedule again.  Just sad, fairly disappointing news.

She'd been meaning to spend time with him, but his tight schedule lately just kept getting in the way.  Théo had been modeling since he was in his teens and he was based in Paris, so what they had was more of a long-distance thing.

It was something serious—even when compared to her previous relationship that had a pretty impressive five-year run.

Another breeze forced her to rush towards her car, and Kyle quietly followed suit.

In seconds, she tapped out a short reply to Théo: 

"So u can't come over here this month? K see u in a few years, Reynaud. Michel out."  Veronica shoved her phone back inside her purse. The heels of her boots clicked against the damp pavement as they proceeded to the poorly lit parking lot.

When she looked behind, Kyle was already just a few steps away. "I'm ready to jump into bed and just melt from exhaustion." He sniveled and sighed loudly. "Need new sinuses, by the way."

"Want me to drop you off the drugstore?" she asked while trying not to laugh at his exaggerated sigh.

"Not dizzy anymore," Kyle mumbled. "Let's grab a drink."

"Not tonight, sir." She turned on her heels to face him, only to notice he wasn't in the same lively mood.

Grayish-white mists streamed out of his nose and mouth when Kyle sighed. "I thought you said yes." His dark brows furrowed.

"You okay?"

"Fine," he muttered, itching his few-days-old stubble. Kyle tucked a clump of his wavy hair behind his ear. They were already near her car, the hood a russet shade under the dull moonlight.

"You sound sicker." Veronica placed the back of her palm on his forehead. 

"It's just cough, or Strep," Kyle muttered, arguing he was feeling fine. Then Kyle opened the driver's door for her.

Théo texted back seconds later: 

"Want me to quit my job now so we can live together?" he wrote with a smiley.  

Veronica settled in the driver's seat, chuckled at his text, and composed a short reply telling him to call this weekend.  Or whenever he was done with his newly scheduled photo shoot commitment.  He even joked that it would help pay for their future children's college tuitions, so she didn't argue.

"Just need some sleep." Kyle trudged around the hood and got in the passenger side.  "When's he comin' over here?" He slid down in his seat. The faint, bluish light coming from her dashboard didn't reach his face.

"Théo?" she mumbled, to which Kyle only nodded. "Had to cancel."

"Why?"

"Agency told him not to leave yet," she answered, a bit mindful of the weariness in his hoarse voice.

"Why? He's leaving his modeling agency in Paris?"

"No. I meant, leave for a short break," she clarified as she skimmed through the messages in her inbox. "Some designer couldn't get that Canadian kid to open for the show. Asked for him instead. Wants him to do an ad campaign, too."

"Sounds like a lotta moolah."

"Yeah."  Veronica looked around. The whole street was too quiet; it was only eleven. "Hotel or drugstore?"

"I'm fine." With his elbow on the door's armrest, Kyle faced front and perched the side of his head on his palm. "When's he flying to New York?"

"Not sure. Why?" She shifted in her seat to get a better look at her bandmate. Maybe he wasn't quite thrilled about their new songs. He didn't seem so enthused in the booth earlier as they recorded the guitar parts for their second track. "You don't like the last bit. Wanna edit the intro, too?"

"It's fine," was all he muttered in reply. Kyle yawned before his lips formed a thin line.

Who pissed in his coffee this morning?  "What, Harriet?" Veronica waited for his reaction, guessing his girlfriend was now too busy with her next book. When Kyle only sighed a quiet 'No', she asked, "She's still leaving for Montreal?"

"Next month."

"And you're arguing over it," she promptly mumbled in response. Every time he and Harriet would have it out, Kyle would always end up brooding about it for weeks on end. She'd long been familiar with the pattern.

Kyle only shook his head. He rejected a call when his phone rang, and then looked askance at her. "Why won't you go out? What—he's Mr. Monogamy now?"

At the question, Veronica couldn't help but grin.  She fixed her hair into a ponytail, and then started driving out of the quiet lot. "I'm just beat..." she murmured while she changed gear. "Have to be in and functioning before lunch and the second verse's still a mess."

Kyle kept quiet in his seat. When she asked him once more what was of the matter, he just rumpled his forehead. "My head hurts. Just head back to the hotel." He scratched the tip of his nose. "Left my stuff there."

"You're not gonna check out?"

"Nope." While he scrolled through his phone, Kyle pouted again.

Maybe he and Harriet broke up.  Again.  Veronica made a face. "What's up?"

"Boss man keeps reminding about the deadline."

"Tell 'em pure artistry takes time." She exaggerated an eye roll, which made him chuckle at least.

"I wanna finish everything in a month, then tour for a straight year and just...hibernate."

"So not happening." She snickered. Was he doubting they could finish the album on time?  Did he really want to impress their new big bosses that bad?

It was normal, though.  Their band wouldn't have lasted this long if they didn't entertain a heap of doubts on a regular basis.  In his analytical brain with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, it might be a burden. To her, though, doubts made things rather exciting.

"We'll pull it off. Quit bein' such a downer," she joked. She actually had a lot counting on this new album's success;  a planned housing loan soon and her other recent finances played a major part, but she just never liked stressing over deadlines.

Kyle said nothing. He just went on rubbing his knuckle over his stubbly jaw, his thin ring glinting around his thumb. He always wore it on his thumb. If memory served her, the ring was a graduation gift, and it reminded her of that night she first met him.

It was at a late-night gig. She was 22 then. After finding out they shared the same love for the same bands and other music genres, she started hanging out with Kyle.

They wrote their first song days after that first meeting; it became part of their first collaborative album. They'd been writing and making music since then.  If things would go as smoothly as planned, they'd get to release the band's fifth record in just a few months.

Hopefully, the paychecks would follow, and then she'd be able to cross off the last lines on her to-do list.  She smiled.

•••

"One more?" Veronica slouched behind the microphone stand and waited for her bandmates to nod, while her hand secured the big headphones' cushion against her ear. Then she signaled to their producer. "Start from the top?" she asked him. 

To her right and a good five feet away from her was Dan, positioned behind his drum kit.  Dan glanced in her direction. "Maybe from the hook," he mumbled to her while clenching his drumsticks.  "A little faster?" Dan looked to Chris (their record producer), who now looked like he had sucked on a lemon.

His shirt looked even more scrunched, and Chris seemed quite unsatisfied with their vocal layering on the song's chorus.  They'd been stuck in the studio racking their brains out since early morning. Even their ever so patient assistant sound engineer already appeared to be only a few retakes away from getting bored to tears.

Despite everyone's noticeable mental and physical exhaustion, all the same they still seemed dead set on covering every hole. They were now close to wrapping up the third song for the new album.

If they finished the song today, they'd be able to get on to recording the next single. Which meant they would get to enjoy a work-free weekend.  Hallelujah. 

At the moment, Kyle was making his way back into the cold booth. The strap of his electric guitar wrinkled his plaid shirt. Its sleeve was rolled up to his pale forearm as he cradled the instrument. He always carried his guitars in such way, as though they were his babies.

Like Dan, Kyle restrained his wavy hair with a baseball cap and matched it with a pair of old sneakers. A grin inched onto her face when she recalled the pair was Harriet's gift last Christmas.  "Starving," Kyle mouthed to her with a drab look on his pale face.

"Hang in there," Veronica replied, doubting he could hear her through the huge glass divider. The editing of the audio files kept the tech guys preoccupied before their producer gave her a thumbs-up. They redid the chorus.

Soon enough, someone tapped on the glass window separating the live room from the control room. "Be back in fifteen, guys," their producer called out.

"Just gonna go chill outside," Veronica informed the guys as she strolled out of the booth.  Her phone vibrated in her pocket.  She walked out of the building through the back door.

The old chairs by the rear exit caught her attention. She sat down to check her phone. The five unread messages on the screen didn't surprise her, almost all were from her beau.

"Call u in an hr. Pick up" was what his first text said, sent fifteen minutes ago.  Théo's next message read: "Still in the studio?"  The third was practically identical, telling her to pick up as soon as he rang her.

Her chest felt light, but her curiosity just doubled. Veronica held back a smile and reclined. She couldn't recall him being this pressing, bossy, and quite preoccupied.

Mental health check again?

"One of those days, Top Model?" She sent the message and waited for his reply.

"Just pick up. Still driving."

"Okay. Bossy" was what she almost sent as a reply, but she deleted her short text and waited for his call instead. 

Maybe he just had a bad day at work?  But maybe he suddenly changed his mind again about the trip.  She smiled to herself.  She wished he would file a leave of absence and take a good, long break just to spend time with her again...but she knew he was much more workaholic than her.  

He loved his job and his bachelor life—that much she was certain of.  For him to choose the opposite, something drastic or divine intervention would need to happen.

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