There was a weight burdening each of the occupants of the car on their way back. Billy exchanged worried looks with Mason in the rearview mirror at every stop. The street lights moved like translucent streaks as they rode toward their destination.
“Should we take Rhys to a hospital?” Billy asked quietly. “I’m out of my depth here, chief.”
“No hospital,” Rhys replied.
The golden head rested against Mason’s shoulder, and long delicate fingers wrapped around a rough hand. They didn’t belong together and, yet, there they were. Mason’s throat was sandpaper dry. All he had thought, in that rush, had been to save Rhys, regardless of the danger, invisible or not. Now, his confidence was shaken. Levine hadn’t appeared concerned by Rhys’s condition, so he must have seen that happening before. But if Rhys was the person Levine had talked about on the phone with his mysterious acquaintance - more like partner in crime - there was a possibility that he didn’t care much about what happened to Rhys, anyway.
Unless, of course, that interfered with his plans. Mason pursed his lips. “Are you sure, Rhys?” he asked. “You scared us in there.”
“Freaked us out completely,” Billy let out, much louder than earlier.
“I’m sorry, guys,” Rhys mumbled.
He didn’t seem quite himself.
“Has this happened to you before?” Mason asked. He moved his thumb, caressing Rhys’s hand.
“I guess.” Another whispered breath.
“You guess?” Mason frowned. “You don’t know for sure?”
“They told me it would happen. It’s something about the side effects of the meds I’m weaning myself off after they pumped me with everything they could.”
Another look at Billy told him he wasn’t the only one doubting that theory. It looked more like something that could be induced by medication, not by letting go of it.
He continued to caress the hand he held. “That song you performed, was it a new piece?”
“No. I’ve never sung it in front of an audience, but it’s not new. It’s been in my head for some time.”
“For how long?” Mason insisted.
“It came to me while I was away.” Rhys didn’t name the place where he had been locked up. “They give you something for everything there. Something to put you to sleep, something to make you wake up, something to calm you down, something to help you eat. Nothing’s beyond them. You become a little puppet while they take care of you. But nothing worked against the darkness.”
Mason recalled what Levine had said about Rhys’s dad. “Did they force you to sleep with the lights off?”
Rhys didn’t offer a reply, but one wasn’t needed. “I kept telling them, but, honest to God, I think that made them happy. It just gave them the opportunity to try their fancy drug cocktails on little old me.”
That rehab facility hadn’t been a happy place. Mason realized, that moment, how strong Rhys must have been to return to the real world, with his mind almost in one piece. Except for the episode from earlier, he had been functional, despite the natural sadness that came with the territory.
“What happens when it’s dark?” he asked. He trusted Billy not to let a word of this out.
Rhys sighed and ran one hand over his face. “I know it’s just my mind playing tricks on me.” He sounded defensive.
To reassure him, Mason squeezed his hand. “Feel free to tell it like it is. Billy and I, here, we’re no doctors.”
“Nightmares,” Rhys said and stopped. “Hands trying to grab me, cold, something happening right outside my field of vision, noises --” He paused again.
Mason had more questions, but he could tell Rhys was exhausted. Some things he wanted to ask in private. Maybe Rhys wasn’t completely comfortable to talk about all that in front of Billy. “I’ll sleep in your room tonight if that’s fine by you.”
“Of course, you’ll sleep with me,” Rhys said matter-of-factly. “It’s what we agreed, right?”
Mason rested his head against Rhys’s. “Yes.”
“Good. I was afraid you would want to run away.”
That had been before understanding the danger that loomed on the horizon. Not that Mason had it all figured out; Toby would come in handy for finding out more about Levine and his intentions toward Rhys.
“Billy, this is serious,” he said in a grave tone. “It should remain between us.”
“You can trust me with your life, Mason. No need to ask,” Billy replied, no longer boisterous and playful like always. “I’m taking my job seriously. And I believe in you.”
Those last few words were accompanied by a short, intense look Billy exchanged with him in the rearview mirror. Mason pondered over them for a moment; it had to be because Boyd must have told Billy to pay attention and learn from him. Nothing more to see there.
Rhys shifted and groaned as he adjusted his position. Mason scooted toward the door and pulled Rhys with his head in his lap. He let his fingers move slowly through the golden hair. “We’re on watch. You can sleep a little if you want.”
“Okay,” Rhys mumbled in reply.
Soon, his steady breathing let Mason know that his advice had been taken to heart. He continued to caress Rhys’s hair as his mind began moving its gears. What did Levine want from Rhys? He had so many questions he needed to ask Rhys, but all in due time. First, they needed to trust each other, regardless of secret motivations and whatnot. This was already beyond Mason not wanting to be haunted forever by Rhys’s dead lover.
Mason took a quick shower downstairs, in his room, while Rhys went upstairs to get ready for bed. Before following him there, Mason wanted to have a word with Billy. As expected, his partner was watching the cameras, rewinding the recordings for the time they had been away. For a moment, he wondered at Billy’s capacity to work so tirelessly. Maybe eating candy all day had its perks, after all. Not for one second had Billy looked like he needed rest. He was more than what met the eye, that was certain.
“We are in a delicate position here,” Mason started as soon as he was inside the surveillance room.
Billy wasn’t surprised to see him there. “I guess you can say that again, chief.” He scratched his head in thought. “But I can see where your loyalties stand, and that’s the same place mine are.”
Mason didn’t need Billy to elaborate on that. It was crystal clear. “Our pay comes from Levine’s pocket.”
Billy shrugged. “And? Tonight, he showed that he doesn’t give a damn about Rhys. Which is weird, no matter which way you look at it, right? I mean, he went the extra mile to keep Rhys out of jail, when the odds were stacked against him. Then, he put Rhys in rehab to get over the alcohol addiction and who knows what else. And now, he hired us to keep an eye on him and protect him. So how come he was so dead fish cold tonight?”
Mason nodded shortly. While Billy couldn’t know about the secret conversations Levine had on the phone with that mysterious partner, his logic was infallible. “Aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves? I mean, you’re a diehard fan, and I --” He stopped, unsure of the proper words to use to complete that sentence.
“You like him,” Billy supplied it right away. “Let me ask you something, Mason. How many times has your gut instinct saved you so far?”
Mason threw Billy a surprised look. But his question made perfect sense. “Countless times.”
“So, what does it say now? Whose side should we be on? Levine’s or Rhys’s?”
“You already know the answer.”
Billy offered a curt nod. “Then there you have it, chief.” The playful tone was back. “We’re the good guys here.”
“That’s a bit boastful of you, Po,” Mason teased in turn. “The question is: if we are the good guys, who are the baddies?”
A crooked smile appeared and faded quickly on Billy’s face. “That’s our job to find out. It wouldn’t be a cool story if we didn’t fight and win against some bad guys, right?”
Mason shook his head in mirth. “So it’s a story, huh? Like a childhood fairytale?”
Billy snickered. “Not really. I’m sure some parts of it are pretty X-rated. Or, at least, that’s Rhys hopes for, waiting for you upstairs.”
Mason coughed and looked away. Billy had seen plenty already, but that was no reason for him to let it all show.
“I’m holding the fort. You go and help him dream some nice dreams. He deserves it,” Billy said in a soothing voice.
Mason bid Billy goodnight and left the surveillance room. Despite his determination from earlier, his steps became a tad hesitant as he walked up the stairs.
“Man, that was weird, right?” Toby said from his left. “I mean, poor Rhys ... Wait, are you going to his room?”
“He needs me.” Mason was aware of how defensive he sounded.
“He does,” Toby said. “I wish I could be the one to hold him right now.” He disappeared from Mason’s side to appear on top of the stairs, his head turned toward Rhys’s bedroom.
The hesitation in Mason’s steps grew heavier. “Have you remembered anything? From the times you two were together?”
Toby shook his head slowly. “No, nothing. And I’d feel sad about it if I still knew how that feels.”
“I think you still know how that feels,” Mason insisted. He spoke quietly, hoping that no one else in the house could hear him talking to himself like a lunatic. No matter how much Billy liked him and Rhys depended on him, that kind of thing would make them change their mind about him.
Toby’s eyes were sad when Mason walked past him.
“You should come and stay with him tonight,” Mason said.
Toby didn’t reply for a moment. “I need to keep an eye on Levine, see what he’s up to.”
“Toby, I think that even an evil bastard like him sleeps at night. Give it a rest. And we should focus, somehow, on finding out who killed you. I know you must care a lot about Rhys even if you don’t remember --”
“Just shut up, man,” Toby murmured. His face was away from Mason, so it wasn’t possible to read what he was really thinking. “You’re flesh and blood, okay? So go in there and hold him like I cannot.”
“Toby.” Mason moved without thinking, but his hand, as usual, met nothing but air where he wanted to offer a comforting touch. Toby disappeared without another word.
In front of the bedroom door, Mason exhaled. What was he getting himself into? No matter how often he asked himself that, he couldn’t say that a satisfactory answer was to be found. He had walked on steady ground for years, and now everything was shaking. He cared again, and there was no way out. No matter what Rhys needed, he would offer everything, put his life on the line if need be. The thought alone should have scared him out of his wits, but his hand was steady when he knocked.
There was no reply. Mason knocked again, new alertness making his pulse soar. He pushed the door open, without hesitation. The bedroom was empty, but the shower was running. Mason let out a breath. He needed to chill a little, or he was bound to dull his senses over dangers that weren’t there. As long as Levine needed something from Rhys, Mason could assume that the scumbag wouldn’t harm his so-called protégé.
He sat on the bed, attuned to the sounds made by Rhys washing behind the bathroom door. For nightwear, he had opted for a t-shirt and shorts, and now he felt strangely underdressed. Dark dangers lurked, but that wasn’t bothering him right now. There were also sweet dangers that threatened the inner core of Mason’s well-crafted self-protection. The shower stopped, and Mason tensed. A blow dryer started, giving him a small reprieve, but it lasted little.
The door opened, and Rhys walked into the room, completely naked. The ceiling lights in the bedroom were on, so Mason stared, incapable of looking any other way, at the chest carved in marble that had drawn his attention before. There was a statuesque beauty to admire in Rhys’s body that could only be the outcome of amazing genes. It didn’t appear that Rhys cared a lot about eating, so it was a wonder he hadn’t become too skinny for his height. One aspect Mason noted briefly was how well-groomed Rhys kept himself.
“You might think I’m vain,” Rhys said softly, taking him by surprise. He let his hands traveled down his chest and abdomen, in a gesture that Mason could only interpret as erotic. “But Toby liked my body like this, so I think I go through the motions still, just to ... keep him happy.” The last words were a whisper.
Mason said nothing. He couldn’t help it. As Rhys moved around, he took in the slender hips, the long legs, the shapely buttocks as he turned and dimmed the lights. On purpose, he tried to look away from Rhys’s sex, but it was all in vain. Rhys stopped in front of him, so he couldn’t miss it. That was the only part where Rhys appeared to let his body hair grow. It was only a tad darker than the one on his head. From that distance, Mason could sense the smell of clean skin and the same thing that had tormented him since he had met Rhys Harmony. There was a subtle sweet scent that drew him in, playing with his sanity. He moved his head away, cursing himself for acting so irrationally around this man.
“Am I a burden?” Rhys asked suddenly. “You can’t bear to look at me.”
“You’re mistaken about the reason,” Mason replied.
“It’s all right. You’re my bodyguard, and you’ve already outdone yourself. Maybe it’s for the better if I don’t impose --”
Mason stood up abruptly. Since Rhys was a bit taller, it was challenging to dominate him with his eyes, but Mason had other methods to make that beautiful, sad mouth stop spouting all those self-deprecating things. He buried both hands in Rhys’s hair and pulled him close. There was no resistance, only a small gasp before Mason covered Rhys’s lips with his. It didn’t matter that it was pure insanity. It didn’t matter because it was the only right thing to do.
Mason took the reins. It could be a small reprieve from the darkness. As he deepened the kiss, Rhys embraced him. Mason shaped the shoulder blades, and then the spine, with both hands, letting them go lower until they found purchase in firm buttocks that molded against his palms as if they were made to be touched like that.
He took Rhys to the bed, climbing on top of him, kissing him all the time, to stop him from saying anything, from thinking about nightmares and strangers wanting to hurt him. Rhys had told him that he was safe in his arms. Now, Mason wanted nothing but to prove it.
He didn’t bother to undress, but pressed his body against Rhys, connecting everywhere. Long legs and arms wrapped around him, creating a cocoon to keep them both away from the world. It was maybe not ideal, but just moving in unison like that while their mouths never let go was enough for an assurance.
“Take me, Mason,” Rhys begged in a strangled voice. “Make me yours tonight.”
Words like that were enough to destroy the last shred of sanity he had left. If that were the last night on earth for him as he knew it, it would be fine.
“Forgive me,” Mason whispered, and he moved just enough to free himself from his shorts.
Rhys wet two fingers, sucking them into his mouth, all the time holding eye contact with Mason. He writhed as he used his own saliva to prepare himself. Mason pushed himself up, hovering above Rhys, not wanting to break the gaze that held them together.
“Come, please,” Rhys said in a breathless whisper and put one hand on Mason’s hip to guide him.
It couldn’t be enough. Mason wanted to deny himself, the soaring desire, but Rhys grabbed his cock for a short moment, and his worries disappeared.
“Please,” Rhys whispered.
Mason pushed himself back, kneeling in front of an image that took his breath away. Rhys lay in front of him, his legs parted, ready for taking. He had thrown one arm over his forehead, a simple gesture that made his lean chest muscles stretch. His abdomen was rising and falling with each breath. He held his other hand over his sex, cupping the balls and pulling them up in a gesture of surrender.
Mason cursed under his breath. He couldn’t continue like this. Rhys looked at him, his eyes at half-mast, moist and begging, his lips parted and allowing a rosy tongue to flick over them now and then. He grabbed Rhys’s legs and pushed them up. He kissed the long fingers hiding the beautiful sex underneath and moved his lips lower. That was a thing to savor. Rhys adjusted his position to offer him easy access.
Mason used everything he knew. He bit the inside of Rhys’s thighs gently, so smooth and inviting, and then he delved into the main course. His tongue pressed and teased, helping the tiny hole open slightly.
Come hell or high water, Rhys was his tonight, and none of the Levines of the world would come between them in these moments of brief happiness. Mason knew teasing could only do this much, so he used his hands, rough and hard, to help Rhys open up.
Rhys murmured soft words, but no matter how they appeared to lack any sense, Mason knew what they meant, to the letter.
“Come here,” Rhys whispered.
Mason stopped, not understanding.
“I want you in my mouth, just a little.”
Mason moved and straddled Rhys’s chest. The sight of his cock being quickly grabbed by soft lips made him groan. If Rhys wanted it to end fast, he only had to keep it up like that.
Rhys’s beautiful blues were innocent enough when their owner looked up, but Mason wasn’t easy to fool. He ran one hand through Rhys’s hair. “I won’t mind it,” he cooed. “But what about your other little hungry hole?” Rhys let Mason’s cock slide from his mouth in an instant. Mason grinned and caressed the beautiful lips that looked so good wrapped around his cock. “Thank you.”
Mason needed to control himself a little. Back in position, he was trapped again by Rhys’s arms and legs. This time, he went for the prize. Any delay, and they would both start losing it for real. The lost look in Rhys’s eyes spoke of a desire as maddening as his.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he chanted softly as he used his entire body to push forward and invade the other’s body.
“Don’t be,” Rhys said back. “I want you. All of you.”
Mason didn’t have to be told twice. They shared the tremble that went like a short-circuit through both their bodies when Mason sheathed himself into Rhys’s body. From there on out, it would be their story. Rhys dug his fingers into Mason’s back, as they began moving in the rhythm that must have been familiar to both, from other times, and other lovers. Tonight, they were one, and the only one for the other, and nothing could destroy that.
“You’re so beautiful,” Mason whispered into Rhys’s ear while showering with kisses every little patch of skin his lips found.
“You’re everything I need,” Rhys said kindly.
Mason squeezed his eyes shut. How many times had he fucked only because there was a need demanding it? Tonight, it was about need, but it wasn’t all. Or it was a different type of need, one that went deeper, stronger, all-conquering, like an unstoppable force.
He could go ahead and say it was nothing but a physical attraction like no other, but as his mind, his soul, and his heart let themselves dragged into the torrent of sensations washing over him, he knew he was a liar of the worst kind.
“Come inside me, Mason,” Rhys demanded in the same sweet, breathless voice like before. “Make me feel whole.”
It wasn’t only about giving. That was a simple truth Mason knew well. Guilt could come later, guilt about taking what wasn’t his to take. He obeyed the whispered command, as he pushed his tongue into Rhys’s mouth, to deepen the connection that came with the fleeting penetration, in a useless effort to prove through a physical gesture what should have been conveyed in other ways.
They stood embraced. Too lost in what he felt, Mason realized, too late, that he had been an inconsiderate lover. He moved to touch Rhys’s cock, eliciting a small shiver from the other. His fingers met wetness.
“I don’t think I could do it once more so fast,” Rhys said.
Mason brought his fingers to Rhys’s mouth and moved them slowly over the arched lips.
“You’re a bit of a perv, Mason,” Rhys scolded him playfully.
“What’s perverted about this?” Mason didn’t let the comment bother him. He dipped his fingers again in the mess on Rhys’s abdomen and continued his work of art.
“I don’t know,” Rhys replied. He didn’t move his head away. “Maybe it’s the way you do it.”
“Hmm,” Mason offered instead of a reply. He leaned in to steal a quick kiss and then licked Rhys’s lips. “Double sweet. Just as I thought.”
Rhys licked his lips, too. “I don’t think it’s sweet. It must be your imagination.”
Mason rubbed his nose against Rhys’s cheek. “No, it’s not.”
He rolled over to lie on his back. Was the guilt late for a showoff? Why didn’t he feel anything like that?
Rhys moved to place his head on Mason’s chest. He used one hand to caress Mason’s pecs, brushing over the nipples in an affectionate gesture, not one calculated to incite arousal. “Do you regret it?”
“I’m still in your bed, right?” Mason said.
“I’m sorry. I’m a bother, always asking for confirmations.”
Mason wrapped one arm around Rhys and held him. “If it helps, it was fantastic.” After sex, the words no longer came easy to him. As his blood chilled, he remembered that he wasn’t there to get his rocks off.
Rhys laughed. “It was.”
“Can I ask you something, Rhys?”
“Sure.” Rhys yawned and threw one leg over Mason’s body, caging him.
“What’s with you and the dark? I mean, did anything happen to, you know, dislike it so much?” Mason didn’t miss the tension in Rhys’s shoulders, so he embraced him tightly.
“It’s all in the past,” Rhys replied.
“Did Toby chase away the nightmares?” Mason felt selfish for asking. It served no purpose but his own reassurance to ask that.
“Yes.” Rhys didn’t elaborate.
Mason hated himself for pressing forward, but he needed to do it if he was ever to find Toby’s killer. “He was your other half, right?”
Rhys sighed. “Yes, he was.”
“So why were you guys fighting so much?”
“People who love each other fight from time to time.”
Rhys was slipping from his hands, and Mason hated that he had the diplomatic abilities of a brick. “Not like that.”
“How would you know?” Rhys became defensive.
Mason was well aware that he was one second away from being thrown out the door, with a figurative boot in his ass.
“I suppose I could tell you,” Rhys added. “It doesn’t matter anyway.”
Mason waited, his ears perked up.
“He wanted me to give up on music and break all ties with everyone I knew. To move away.”
Mason could feel his eyebrows shooting up in surprise. That was completely different from what the tabloids had said. “Why?” he asked the only logical question that came to his mind.
“He refused to say, no matter how many times I asked. I suppose I got what I wanted,” Rhys said, a new kind of bitterness creeping in his voice. “I have my music, but I don’t have Toby anymore. If I had only listened to him, he would still be alive and mine. So, you see, Mason, no punishment is too little. If the darkness wants me, I should just give in already.”
“No,” Mason said with determination and pulled Rhys to him in a protective gesture. “You shouldn’t. What happened to Toby, it wasn’t your fault.”
“What do you know, Mason?” Rhys started to struggle a little against his hold.
“Just this. That I won’t let you punish yourself anymore.”
“Really?” Rhys sounded incredulous. “Because you’re my bodyguard?”
It wasn’t lost on Mason what those words meant. He wasn’t anything else, just as he should have known. He set his jaw. “Yeah, because of that,” he said in a hard voice.
The warmth from before still lingered, but their bodies were strangers now, just as they were. Mason released his hold, and Rhys moved away. He could tell by the rustling noises that Rhys was wrapping himself in a blanket. He looked only to be met by a turned back. What business did he truly have to get in this emotional mess?
There was no simple answer to that. Mason moved without overthinking and draped his body over Rhys.
A small sigh followed. “I’m sorry, Mason. You didn’t deserve that. You would be better if you didn’t get involved with me. I’m nothing but a cluster fuck.”
“And? If you think that this is enough to make me stay away, you’re wrong.”
To his surprise, Rhys laughed softly. “Because I’m a good lay?”
Mason smiled. “Well, that’s a pretty strong reason, don’t you think?”
Rhys relaxed in his arms. “Then I can live with it. Just let me get the lights.”
“I don’t mind sleeping with them on,” Mason said.
“I told you, Mason. When you’re around, I’m safe.”
Mason allowed Rhys to get out of the bed and turn off the lights. They found each other in the dark, and Rhys carefully wrapped the blanket around both of them. Mason smiled against the small kiss pressed against his lips.
He still didn’t feel guilty.
Consider this a bit of reprieve before another roller coaster high and low! What did you think of Mason's lack of guilt? Please let me know in the comments! Thank you for reading and being with me on this ride!
Until next time,
All the best,
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