Mason examined the respective furniture piece with wary eyes. Unless it could stretch about two feet more in length, it was unlikely that it could serve as a sleeping arrangement. “No. I will.”
“You’re kidding me, right? I mean, the whole sense of the expression ‘crushing on a friend’s couch’ would be lost if I wasn’t the one to sleep here.”
“There is no way you could fit in it. You would sleep badly, or not at all,” Mason explained as if his guest was a hard-headed child.
“And that means that you should be the one to sleep badly?”
Mason pinched the bridge of his nose. That was heading fast toward something he couldn’t avoid. Also, he had an inkling that it was the kind of debate that would have Rhys as the winner, without a doubt. “My bed is a double,” he said, somewhat reluctantly.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Rhys replied, taking him by surprise.
“Yes, it is.”
“No, it’s not. We’re not doing this. I don’t want to jump you unless you want me to jump you, in which case --”
“We’re adults. How hard can it be to sleep in the same bed without touching each other?”
“You’re overestimating me if you think I won’t be tempted,” Rhys said, crossing his arms over his chest.
And he wouldn’t be the only one.
“It’s settled,” Rhys concluded. “The couch is mine.” To illustrate those words, he plumped down on the sofa and offered Mason a broad smile, as if he had just been invited to spend the night at the Ritz.
“Fine. If you’re so stubborn.” Mason pretended to be unaffected, but, truth be told, now he was starting to regret telling Rhys off on the grounds that he was still in love with his dead boyfriend. Things would have been much simpler if he had just owned to his desire. Or much more complicated. It was hard to take a pick. “Are you hungry?” He decided to change the topic of conversation.
Rhys nodded. “I’ll help you cook.”
So now, Rhys would end up bumping into him in his small kitchen. That was just great.
Apparently, it wasn’t as challenging as he had feared. Rhys was nimble and capable of graceful choreographies, as he helped Mason by peeling potatoes and carrots and assisting him with all the preparation tasks involved. The moment he had explained to his guest what recipe they would prepare, he had only had to open his mouth to ask something that Rhys had been at his station, acting as an experienced kitchen assistant.
It was quiet, but comfortable, as they sat at the small table to eat. Mason watched for a while, captivated by Rhys’s small, efficient moves as he ate.
“Is there something wrong?” Rhys asked.
Mason blinked, so suddenly awakened from his reverie. “No. Everything’s fine. Let’s eat.”
“I’m halfway through.” There was a small note of a smile there. “I can’t believe I feel so famished while my life is completely upside down.”
“I’m glad to see you eating,” Mason admitted. “And enjoying my cooking.”
Rhys took another full fork to his mouth, his eyes never leaving Mason. He liked pretty men just like the next gay guy, but Mason wanted to believe that he wasn’t that shallow. With a clarity that was sudden and overwhelming like a summer storm, he realized the precise moment he had fallen in love with Rhys Harmony. It must have been that fateful moment when he had reluctantly taken the earbuds from Billy’s hand and listened to Rhys singing for the first time in his life.
As much as he loved being prepared for anything, his guard hadn’t been held high enough then. The throaty voice of the man currently sitting across from him had sneaked under, or maybe it had just gone through, treating that so-called defense as nothing more but a low hedgerow.
“Do I have something on my face?”
Mason frowned, trying to rein control at least over what he could let show at the moment. “No.” His reply was curt but harsher than he had intended. He stole a quick look at Rhys, but it appeared that he was no good at fooling him, just as he wasn’t at fooling himself.
“I trust you, Mason,” Rhys said quietly.
“Not to poison your food?”
Rhys laughed and looked away for a moment. “You’re eating it yourself. No, it’s not about that. It’s about the serious stuff. And it’s strange because a long time ago I promised myself that I wouldn’t trust anyone save for Toby.”
“That’s debatable.” Rhys shook his head as he looked down. “You know, it was pretty easy for Levine to convince me I wasn’t all right in the head. I mean, I made it easy for him to do so. But, in a way, the experience helped, I like to believe. I outsourced my insecurities for a long time, using Toby as the one for me to lean on.”
“You were a couple. That comes with the territory.”
The slight shake of the head was almost imperceptible this time. “I’m afraid that it made Toby distrustful of me.”
“I … don’t know how to put it. He must have thought me too weak to handle whatever trouble he had before he …”
Mason nodded shortly. “There’s no time machine. We could all use one once in a while. So, stop beating yourself over what ifs. We need to focus on the task at hand.”
Rhys looked around as if he now barely discovered the place. “If only I knew where to look.”
“Rhys, about Ary.” Without divulging the theory according to which Rhys’s only remaining friend in the world might be a murderer, Mason needed to breach the topic.
“What about him?” Rhys went back to his plate. He appeared to be really hungry, unlike Mason, who had too many things on his mind to think about food properly.
“What was with him and Toby? I just got this vibe --”
“I told you. It was that strange drunken confession.”
“Besides that, did he do anything else?”
Rhys sighed. “Look. Ary is a sweet kid. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. But he did like my boyfriend a little too much for my comfort. I must have said some unpleasant things to him. Frankly, if he had hated me for it, I wouldn’t have blamed him. But it’s all water under the bridge.”
“You said that he asked you whether you would be okay sharing Toby. Didn’t that include you, as well?”
Rhys cocked his head to one side and gave Mason a long pointed look. “What are you trying to say, Mason? I wasn’t tempted for one bit. I’m one guy’s man.”
And it was clear as day who that man was, and Mason needed to pinch or slap himself just to remember that.
“What I mean is what if Ary liked you, too. You know, that way.”
Rhys blinked a couple of times in confusion. Then his eyes grew wide, and he let out a small laugh. “As far as I know, Ary is a virgin. To jump directly into a threesome seems a little, I don’t know, over the top, don’t you think?”
The little mouse, a virgin? He hadn’t behaved like one when planting himself in Mason’s lap, trying to seduce him.
“Oh, damn, sorry about that,” Rhys added. “Please keep this to yourself. Ary is a bit sensitive about the topic. He’s a scaredy-cat when it comes to sex. Promise me you’re not going to tell anyone about this.”
“Sure. Not my business,” Mason offered. He couldn’t tell if Rhys was incredibly naïve, or indeed, Ary had no experience of the kind.
“But why are you asking me about Ary?” Rhys stared at him, waiting for an answer.
He needed to come up with a lie, and one that sounded convincing enough.
“We have nothing at the moment. So, I was thinking whether Ary might have had a jealous boyfriend at the time, someone who didn’t appreciate his interest in Toby.”
“No, he didn’t. Ary confides in me, so I would have known about such a guy.”
“All right. It was worth a shot.”
“I see. But if it wasn’t a random attack, who could have gotten close enough to Toby to do that to him?” Rhys was talking to himself, but Mason understood his logic. “It could have still been random, right?” This time, he turned his attention to Mason.
“Yes, but unlikely. Only around ten percent of all murders are committed by total strangers. Also, since it was so late at night when it happened, the chances of someone just passing by, with murder on their minds, should have been slim. Do you have any clue why Toby went out of the club?”
Rhys offered a dejected sigh. “We fought. I suppose he wanted to get some air.”
A new idea struck Mason. Where would someone go for a bit of privacy when in a packed club? And why the need? “Do you happen to have Toby’s phone, Rhys?”
After a short silence, Rhys nodded. “The police sent me his personal effects. The phone was among them, but it’s broken. Must have been damaged.”
“Do you still have it?”
Rhys stood up and returned after a short while with a smartphone in his hand. “I never go anywhere without those few things that belonged to him. But this thing doesn’t boot or anything. And the screen is smashed.”
Mason took it and stared at the broken screen. Indeed, it appeared to be dead. If there was anything worthy of their investigative efforts in there, he knew just the person for the job. “Listen, do you think you would be okay here? I need to take this to an expert.”
Rhys watched him for a few moments, without blinking. “No way you’re leaving me behind, Mason. I want to know and I want to get involved.”
“You might be tired,” Mason offered a lame excuse.
“Ugh, you sound like Levine now. But,” Rhys cocked his head and offered him a sly smile, “are you sure you want to leave me all alone here? Without protection?”
Mason sighed. Well, Rhys had a point, although it was clear he wasn’t scared of being left alone. Somehow, he needed to design a way to let Rhys know only of things that couldn’t put him in danger.
“I know exactly what you’re thinking,” Rhys added, as the silence stretched. “You’re thinking that I’m sure to do something stupid and hurt myself while you’re not watching, like setting myself on fire because I have no idea how to use the cooktop.”
Rhys was pulling his leg.
“And, of course, because of domestic accidents that just wait for you to walk out the door to happen, you can’t leave me behind.”
Of course. It was completely logical. Mason felt a small smile changing his face. The look in Rhys’s eyes told him that it was visible, too. “I fly solo,” he explained.
“Not anymore,” Rhys replied and stood up. “Who’s this expert you want to talk to?”
“It’s actually Billy,” Mason said with some reluctance. If he could keep a secret, he wasn’t so sure about Po. Rhys would only have to beg for a second or so, and Billy would spill everything.
And there was no way of telling what horrible or hurtful things could be found on that phone. He would figure out something. Right now, he was saddled with another partner, and this one, he had to admit it, was the prettiest of the bunch.
“Can Billy hack into a broken phone?”
“I hope so. He’s pretty good with computers, so either he can, or he has friends that could help us. I mean, it’s a starting point.”
“Then let’s go,” Rhys said. “For the record, I know how to use a cooktop and I won’t set the kitchen on fire by accident.”
“So you lied to me?” Mason smirked as he said the words and stood up, as well.
Rhys stopped an inch from him and stared into his eyes. “Are you going to punish me for it?”
Not in a million years. “I’m not the type.”
“Thought so. Under this rough exterior, there’s a nice guy.”
Rhys leaned in for a second, and Mason wondered if a kiss would follow. But his breathing stopped for nothing.
Billy’s rented apartment was a mess. Better said, it was a mess of cables and technical equipment, and Mason wondered if he and Rhys hadn’t just landed in an illegal surveillance van driven by a criminal. But no, they were inside a concrete building, and the person welcoming them with a goofy smile could hardly be called a digital gangster.
“So, I don’t have to ask you about your hobbies,” Mason said as he threw a look around.
“Come in, guys. I’m glad to see you again so soon. Ugh, I know that this looks like a lot, but I didn’t have time to unpack when uncle Boyd found me the job that got me working for you, Rhys.”
Uncle Boyd, huh? Mason wanted to shake his head but thought against it. “Are you trying to tell me that there’s even more of this? In boxes?”
Billy snickered. “No. I just didn’t unpack my clothes and coffee machine.”
“Good. You got me scared for a moment.” Mason didn’t know a lot about equipment, but he knew one thing; whatever he was looking at right now, it couldn’t be cheap. A prickling sensation bit the back of his neck. He grimaced but didn’t reach for it; the invisible insect crawling up his spine would be left alone, for now.
“You said you have Toby’s phone?” Billy made a gesture for them to follow him into a so-called living room. Miraculously, there was a sofa free of any objects, and he and Rhys took a seat.
Mason reached into his pocket and took out the phone. Billy opened his palm, and, for one moment, Mason looked him straight in the eyes. There was nothing nefarious to read in them.
Billy took the phone and stared at it for a moment, as he tried to boot it. For silent minutes, he fiddled with it. “It looks like a goner.”
Mason felt rightfully deflated. “So there’s nothing you can do about it?”
“I didn’t say that,” Billy replied, as good-naturedly as ever. “Leave it to me. If there’s anything here, I will find it. But, of course, I’ll have to bring in the heavy guns.”
“The heavy guns? What is this, then? The darts club?”
Billy laughed. “Don’t let yourself impressed by these antiquities, chief. They are just leftovers I got from a friend. But I know some people that will let me use their much up-to-date machines.”
Mason nodded. “You know that we must be extra discreet about this. We have no idea who we’re dealing with.”
“Leave it to me,” Billy said. “I will be extra careful. And I know how to wipe my traces and leave everything behind squeaky clean.”
That was a good skill to have, particularly in this day and age, Mason admitted to himself. Yet, how come Po had gotten this good? He claimed not to have the brains for a real detective career, but he appeared to be pretty well equipped for it in Mason's eyes.
The problem was, Mason didn’t know any experts, and he doubted that trying to hire someone online for the job worked like in the movies. It could be possible that Levine already had people watching their every move, and at least, Billy appeared to be a friend.
The path of the least evil was all he could take right now. And looking at Billy, he couldn’t picture the word ‘evil’, as much as he tried. “Then I guess we should be going.”
“What? Is this all? I mean, we’re not getting to look over Billy’s shoulder while he’s running numbers on the screen like in Mr. Robot? You know, biting our nails? Drinking absurd amounts of coffee?”
Mason placed one hand on Rhys’s shoulder. “No. We let Billy work on it since he needs to move for this task anyway. Plus, I don’t think any amount of nail biting and coffee drinking would help.”
“Hell, guys, I would have loved for you to stick around some more, but I’m afraid I still need to do that unpacking I was telling you about.”
“Sure thing,” Mason replied. “Just give me a call as soon as you have something.”
“Will do,” Billy confirmed.
On their way down, Rhys offered Mason a small smile. “So, sleuthing is not as glamorous as they show it in movies, right?”
“I guess so. But I’m glad you’re --” Mason stopped before saying something foolish. What did he want to say? Rhys was what? Okay with it? Not a nervous mess? They were investigating his boyfriend’s murder, after all.
“I’m safe when I’m with you,” Rhys said.
The elevator doors opened in front of them. Mason walked in front and kept the door for Rhys. Their eyes met for the briefest of moments, and Mason read in them all that wasn’t said in words; the sadness, but also a glimmer of hope.
Maybe Toby was right, after all. Everyone could use closure, even if it couldn’t bring back the dead.
“Man, I wish I could still taste food.”
Mason didn’t turn and continued to stir into the pot on the cooktop. As he didn’t need any help from Rhys, he had let him take a nap on the sofa, with the TV on.
“It looks good.” Toby walked right through him, and for a moment, Mason stared at the back of his head.
“You know, ghosts shouldn’t be allowed to do that to people. It’s a bit unnerving, just thinking of you going through my intestines like this.”
Toby withdrew. “Rhys sleeps like an angel in the other room.”
“And I’m glad he does. We need to be much more careful from now on. This isn’t a big house, so I won’t be able to talk to you as freely as before.” He turned to get a confirmation from his friend, the ghost.
Toby nodded. “He’s safe here, with you.” Words were sometimes echoes of others.
“Levine is royally pissed. I don’t know how long it’ll take for someone to come knocking down my door. But I’m sure it won’t be Avon calling.”
“We’re kind of free floating right now, aren’t we?”
“We have one direction,” Mason reminded him. “We need to know what Ary wrote in his diary about the night you died. In case he wrote something, of course.”
There was silence from the other.
“Toby?” Mason could only hope that his reproachful voice was enough to draw attention. “We need to know.”
“Yes, and there are like a million ways to do so,” came the reply.
“Really? What ways are those? Toby, I’m serious. You might be protecting a murderer.”
“He didn’t kill me.”
“And if he didn’t, that’s great. But we can’t afford being sentimental.” Mason shifted his weight from one foot to another and worked his neck. “Look, I like the kid, too. But that doesn’t make me blind. Maybe he saw something that night. And maybe he’s scared. And maybe, just maybe, he left something for us to find in that diary of his.”
Toby threw him a look as if he was half-convinced. “What are you going to do about him?” He gestured with his chin toward the small living room.
“I’ll have to get Billy to babysit him for a bit. I would get Boyd on it, but there are alreasy enough people involved. It’s too late today, anyway. By now, Ary must be back from the studio, right?”
“He’s home,” Toby confirmed.
“Were you there today?”
Toby nodded. “I’m looking for evidence. He couldn’t have killed me.”
“You heard Renzo.”
“About a short guy offing me? Yeah, I was with you.” There was a bit of defiance in Toby’s voice as he said that. “What about it? A lot of people are short. Like Levine.”
Mason grimaced. “What reason could he have? He’s a scumbag and an annoyance, but I don’t want to jump to what looks like the most obvious conclusion only because I don’t like the guy.”
“And what reason could Ary have?” Toby countered. “He was my friend.”
“Yes, and he wanted to be more than that. He even made Rhys uncomfortable about it, too.”
Toby looked away. “I feel like I wronged him somehow.”
“And even if you did, that wasn’t a reason for him to take a swing at you with a baseball bat or something like that.”
“He didn’t,” Toby said stubbornly.
“Shouldn’t you be more concerned with your boyfriend and the pain he goes through and he’ll continue to go through until the end of fucking time?” Mason surprised both Toby and himself.
Toby’s eyes filled with more hurt and guilt. “I don’t even dare to look at him. What if I used to be a cheater?”
“Let’s not work with what ifs.” Mason willed himself to calm down. After all, he didn’t need his angry words to be carried out to a sleeping Rhys in the next room. “Let’s see the facts. You know, the truth.”
“Even if it hurts?”
“Yeah. Sorry for serving you this old cliché, Toby, but I guess the truth will set you free. Isn’t that what you’re looking for?”
Toby looked down. “It’s a bit scary when you think about it, right? After we uncover the truth, I’ll disappear, right? For good.”
“No one came back from that to tell the rest of us, schmucks, how it really is. Maybe it’s rivers of wine and mountains of gingerbread, and you spend all eternity getting tipsy and abnormally fat.”
To his relief, Toby raised his eyes and laughed. “Well, if that helps, maybe I’ll come back and tell you how it is.”
Mason waved. “I think I can live without knowing.”
“What if it’s really cool? Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“I’m the kind of guy who loves surprises. Especially if they’re pleasant.”
There was a short silence between them.
Mason was the first to speak. “I’m not sleeping with Rhys. I mean, I’m trying.”
“You don’t have to try so hard.”
“Shouldn’t you be more possessive of the man who loves you?”
“I don’t have a body. Hell, I don’t even have a tiny tooth to call my own. Do I look like someone who could claim others as his?”
“Well, you don’t look bad,” Mason offered.
“Ah, what are you trying to say?” Toby teased and batted his eyelashes while fanning his face as if it was hot in the room all of a sudden, and he could feel it. “That I’m handsome? C’mon, Mason, say it.”
“Hey, I just wanted to cheer you up. I have no intention to shower you in compliments. Take what you can.”
“C’mon, Mason, don’t be like that,” Toby advanced toward him, making his hands into claws, with a naughty expression on his face. “I’ll tickle you.”
“Ha, just try it.”
“I’ll go through your intestines again,” Toby warned.
Mason rolled his eyes. “All right. You’re handsome.”
“What’s that? I didn’t hear you.”
“You’re handsome,” Mason said in a slightly higher tone.
“Louder and with more conviction.”
“Aren’t you pushing your luck?”
“Hey, it’s all I got. What’s a poor ghost to do? Tell me I’m beautiful.”
“Seriously? All right, you’re beautiful.”
“Now that I’m cute and misunderstood.”
“Were you this annoying when you were alive? I bet the ‘misunderstood’ part was true, then. All right, here we go. I’ll tell you, but this is the last time you hear me about this.” Mason cleared his voice.
“Don’t forget to say it like you mean it.”
Mason stood straight like an actor on a stage. “You are really handsome. I think you’re among the most handsome men I know. And you’re cute, yes, you are really cute. Of course, that also means you’re misunderstood --”
Taken with Toby’s antics, Mason had missed the kitchen door opening. He froze as he looked at Rhys, who stood there with a panicked expression on his face. Hell, had he heard him talk to Toby?
“I think the food is burning!”
Mason turned at the cooktop, suddenly aware of the acrid smell. In an instant, he was next to it, turning off the knob. “Oh, damn.” He looked dejectedly inside the pot. If it were only himself, he could save some, but not when he had guests.
Well, at least, it was just a bit of burnt food. Rhys must have been alerted by the smell. He hadn’t heard anything, and that was a cause for relief.
“What were you doing talking like that?”
Of course. Burnt food was the least of his problems.
Things must get complicated now that Mason cannot speak as freely to Toby as he used to. Now he needs to find a way out! Hopefully, you enjoyed the new chapter. Since this story won't be as long as others I have published here, the characters will have a breather from the drama for a bit, only to dive into it again.
Thank you for reading!
Until next time,
All the best,
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