Unlike at the radio station, where they had been left to wait in the hallway, this time, Mason and Billy were pointed toward a relaxation room and told to feel at home. Billy sighed in satisfaction as they both sank into the comfortable sofa. A coffee table was in front of the couch, and Mason had a feeling people working there indulged in the bitter fix with religiosity.
“This is pretty cozy,” Billy commented. “Hey, there’s even a TV. Ah, sorry, you don’t watch TV.” There was both regret and apology in Billy’s voice.
“I don’t own one, and I don’t watch TV at home, but that doesn’t mean that I think it’s the devil or something,” Mason said with the hint of a smile.
“Oh, good.” Billy’s shoulders slumped in relief.
Could it be that Billy was that naïve? Mason had a hard time believing that. The guy seemed so genuinely happy all the time that if he hadn’t known any better, Mason would have thought that he was high on something. But other than his bubbling personality, Billy appeared to be sharp as a tack. The moment Mason had suspected something when seeing Toby’s ghost for the first time, Billy’s demeanor had changed at the drop of a dime. Mason still recalled how fast Billy’s hand had gone for the gun, in one swift motion, showing that its owner was used to reaching for it, without hesitation. He was a professional, by the looks of it, and Mason was happy to have him as his wingman.
“So, what are you waiting for? Go for that remote.”
Mason watched Billy walking over the room to pick the remote from the stand on which the TV stood. He didn’t move with difficulty for a person his size, and the look of childish pleasure on his face when he returned with the remote seemed, for one brief second, a little less genuine.
Maybe he was a cynical ass, after all, and never trusted people, even less, strangers. There could be people like Billy. It wasn’t like he had met everyone in the world and could call himself an expert in human nature.
There was a short knock on the door, and then Ary walked in with a tray on which cups – real cups, not the Styrofoam type – lay with steam coming out of them. The aroma wafting from them was refreshing, and Mason, who didn’t usually indulge in any stimulants, felt the need to treat himself to something good.
“Oh, boy, that smells fantastic, Ary!” Billy welcomed the little runner, as Dirk, the producer, had called him.
Ary blushed a little, pleased with the praise. He carefully placed the tray in front of them, on the coffee table. “Sugar, cream?”
“Sure.” Billy watched Ary fixing his cup. “A little more sugar.”
“No, that’s enough,” Mason intervened.
Ary’s hand stopped in mid-air. “What about you, Mason?”
“I’ll take it black.”
“Just like your heart,” Billy said under his breath.
Ary’s eyes moved from Mason to Billy and then back to Mason. “Is that so? Your heart is black, Mason?”
“He promised that he would sniff out my candy stash and throw it all away,” Billy explained.
Ary smiled, and from up close, Mason noticed the dimples. Such an adorable kid.
“Ah, that’s unforgivable, indeed. Can I hang out with you, guys?” Ary’s eyes were pleading.
“Sure,” Billy replied. “If that’s okay with Mason Black Heart over here.”
“I think I like this nickname the most of all you’ve given me,” Mason replied. “Sure thing, you can stick around, Ary.”
Billy moved to make room on the sofa for Ary, but the runner surprised Mason by walking over and sitting on his thigh.
“Am I heavy?” Ary threw Mason a coquettish look over his shoulder.
That was the least problem Mason could think of. Ary wiggled his ass a little, to make himself comfortable. Then, he leaned back and pressed against Mason’s shoulder. From that position, Mason could smell his hair, recently washed by the still present shampoo scent, something fruity and pleasant. So, that must be what Dirk had warned him about.
“There are chairs in the room,” Mason pointed out. His shoulder could sustain the pressure without a problem, but his hand remained flat on the sofa. What could Ary’s game be? Maybe Toby had used to be jealous, but he could have been the cheater in his relationship with Rhys. It was a known fact that cheaters, in general, tended to be the most suspicious people.
“But this is much more comfortable,” Ary replied.
“Do you do this with all of Rhys’s boyfriends?”
Ary jumped as if stung by a bee. Mason was quick to catch him by the waist and put him down back on his thigh. For a short while, Ary struggled against his hold but had to give up when he realized there was no escape for now. From the corner of his eye, Mason could tell Billy took in the scene with keen eyes. Not a naive, that one. He could read everything pretty well.
“Are you Rhys’s boyfriend?” Ary said through his teeth.
Even pissed off, he still sounded like a kid.
“No, but it looks like you think that.”
Ary wiggled some more. “You’re holding me too tight.”
“You’re the one who said it was comfortable to sit in my lap. You’re not allowed to complain now.” Mason’s voice was steady, but he couldn’t deny that Ary’s little fight lit up a new fire in his veins. Pretty men were his weakness. But Ary was too young for his taste, and there was already a certain someone who could make his blood temperature soar with just one look.
“What do you want to know?”
Mason turned Ary’s face to him. He had to bite back a smile. Ary was puffing his cheeks like an angry hedgehog. “Just a simple answer to what I asked you.”
“No. How is that for an answer?”
“What could I elaborate on ‘no’? And you said you wanted a simple answer.”
“Something longer than one word would be better. What was with you and Toby?”
Ary’s eyes grew wide and then thinned with suspicion. “How do you know about that?”
Mason had no idea what Ary meant by it, but the little hedgehog had to be led on a little to spill the beans. “Answer yourself that. I won’t bother.”
Ary deflated. “I can’t believe Rhys is still mad about that! And nothing happened, I swear!”
“Seeing how he didn’t forget about it, it couldn’t have been nothing,” Mason commented.
“I didn’t mean anything by it! I was just giving Toby a massage.”
“Was it the kind with a happy end?” Mason didn’t want to mince words. Ary was trapped.
“I get it why your partner calls you Black Heart.” Ary crossed his arms and moved his face away from Mason’s grasp. “I don’t like you anymore.”
“All right. It hurts, but I promise that I’ll be strong and won’t cry. So, you were giving Toby a massage. What happened next?”
“Nothing. Rhys came, and he shot me the famous death glare.”
Mason wanted to know what was that, but he needed to strike the iron while hot. “And?” he urged Ary to continue.
“They started fighting, and I made myself scarce.”
“What were they fighting about?”
“What weren’t they fighting about?” Ary snorted for effect.
Mason didn’t quite buy it, but they had an audience, and he couldn’t tell how much trust to place in Billy. He eased the hold on Ary’s waist. “You’re free to go.”
Ary made a sound like he was suffocating in anger. “Do I get to be roughed up, but no loving?”
“Shoo.” Mason let his voice drop to a whisper. “You don’t want the kind of loving I give.”
Ary snickered, but got up, with no hard feelings, by the looks of it. He threw Mason a challenging glance, but, this time, from a fair distance. “Maybe I do.” He cocked his head and smiled.
Mason offered him a crooked grin in reply. He had a feeling he would get to talk to Ary again, maybe alone. There were things left unspoken.
Ary’s phone went off with an incoming message. He huffed as he read it. “Gotta go. Duty calls. Enjoy your coffee.”
He waved friendly at Billy, who waved back, but he winked at Mason, with a promise in his cute deep brown eyes.
The door was barely closed when Billy exploded in a hurried whisper. “What was that, Mason? I think I’ve never kept my breath for so long. Why did you grab Ary like that? And how did you know about that incident? Did Rhys tell you anything? And did you expect Ary not to get mad?”
Mason put one hand up. “Easy there, number one fan. The world won’t end if you don’t know every little thing about Rhys Harmony.”
Billy laughed. “You completely took me by surprise. I thought little Ary would piss his pants or something like that.”
“As you could see, there was no incident of the kind. I just picked a vibe between him and Rhys, and I wanted to know what all was about.”
“I’d say that was beyond the job description.”
“What can I say? I like going the extra mile.” Mason took the cup and brought it to his lips. “Sonic here had something to hide, and I wanted to know what.”
“Sonic?” Billy made a face like he was trying to solve a complicated puzzle. Then, he burst into laughter. “OMG, so spot on. Because he runs all over the place and has that funny face, right?”
“I wouldn’t say funny, but he makes me think of a cute fluffy animal. Sonic was the closest famous hedgehog that came to my mind.”
Billy sighed. “Mason, you go around, breaking hearts, and you don’t care one bit. Rhys better not hear that Ary stood in your lap. He could get jealous, and beautiful people can be tyrannical when that happens.”
“And how would you know that?” Mason teased. “Do you often make your girlfriend jealous?”
Billy looked at him and blinked a few times. “What? You think I can’t?”
“I’m sure you can. This personality of yours, not many girls could resist it. You know that most say that they like a guy with a sense of humor the most.”
Billy grinned. “You shouldn’t believe everything you hear from hack psychologists.”
Mason shrugged. “I’m just telling you like it is. I don’t like people—strangers, even less. But you? I can’t help liking.”
Billy’s eyes grew wide, and then he smiled, a big broad smile splitting his face. “Sorry, man, but I’m taken.”
Mason shook his head. “It looks like I have a knack to like men who can’t like me back. Boyd, you, Rhys.” He intended to make a joke, but he had let out a truth, by accident.
“Rhys likes you,” Billy pointed out.
“No, he doesn’t. There’s no room in his life to like anyone.”
Billy nodded, and his eyes turned serious. “He’s not over Toby.”
Mason grimaced. This ‘getting over’ thing always got on his nerves. “He can’t be.”
“Because no one cared about finding Toby’s killer, right?”
Billy went the same path as Toby with his logic. Mason didn’t want to launch into a conversation that couldn’t lead to anything good. Picking at old wounds wasn’t the type of hobby he liked to indulge in. “Yeah. How come Levine didn’t put more work into it?”
Billy shrugged. “I don’t think Toby and Levine saw eye to eye too often.”
“Was Levine trying to get into Rhys’s pants, when Toby was still around?”
Billy appeared uncomfortable to talk about the subject. But Mason was interested in finding things that would most likely take him days, if not more while reading useless garbage published by tabloids. Billy looked like a reliable source.
“I wouldn’t know. Let’s say that Levine’s interest was either sudden or just intensified after Toby died. It could be that he spent a lot of time with Rhys.”
“Hmm. So, Levine didn’t care much about Rhys before Toby got killed?”
“Levine discovered Rhys. He and Toby were a sideshow for a few hundred at best and just scraping by. It could be that Levine saw Rhys’s talent for what it was. I don’t know anything else, and not even the tabloids mentioned any kind of improper conduct during that time. Those jackals would have pounced at the opportunity. So, no rumors before that, no.”
“Isn’t it a bit strange? I mean, Levine strikes me as a guy who always takes what he wants. If Rhys was what he wanted, that could have gone one of two ways. But it looks to me like Rhys doesn’t give a damn about Levine Goldman drooling over him, and Levine doesn’t give him the boot for not putting out.”
Billy scratched his head. “Now, that you put it like this, it does sound strange. But it could be that Levine just got to know Rhys better after Toby died. And, then, you know, he fell in love.”
Mason let out a derisive snort. “In love? Levine Goldman? He doesn’t strike me as the type.”
“Yeah, I guess not. Weird,” Billy said with a shrug and had a sip from his cup. “Hmm, this is pure bliss. Ary does know how to make coffee.”
And that wasn’t the only thing he knew. Mason wanted to know if the little hedgehog had managed to get on Rhys’s nerves enough to make him jealous. If Toby could only remember a few bits of what had happened to him, or at least about his life. The thread was all tangled up.
“Ary, I am so going to box your ears.” That was Rhys, coming out of the live room, with a new light in his eyes.
Mason knew as much, even if he wasn’t some big shot psychologist. Music made Rhys Harmony come alive. It would be a long process, seeing how sad he still was one year after losing his boyfriend, but Mason could see him getting there. The scars would make something already beautiful, exquisite, and unique, as he knew well.
The little runner was present, too, seemingly anxious to see Rhys on his way out. “Mason held me like this, I couldn’t move,” he protested right away.
Rhys’s magnetic eyes thinned as they traveled to Mason. “Did he, now?”
“What? You didn’t know?” Ary made a surprised face. “Didn’t he tell on me?”
Mason ran one hand over his face to keep hidden a smile. Rhys was teasing Ary, and the fluffy hedgehog couldn’t see a trap if his life depended on it. “I didn’t say anything. I think Rhys just caught you, Ary.”
“Caught him? I think the one who got caught is you, Mason.” Rhys had a small smile on his lips. “What were you doing, holding Ary like that?”
“He’s obviously just making things up to get on your nerves.”
Rhys took Ary by the shoulders and kissed the crown of his head. “He would never do that. Ary can’t lie.”
Mason snorted. “Right.”
Rhys didn’t appear bothered by his distrust. “We go way back. I’d say I know him better than you.” The words were said matter-of-factly, without a hint of anger.
“How way back?”
Ary wrapped his arms around Rhys. “I used to carry Rhys’s and Toby’s stuff when they couldn’t handle everything they needed for their gigs.”
“And you got Ary this job?” Mason asked Rhys directly.
“I promised him that I would find something for him. It’s not ideal, but Ary is bent on working his way up in this industry.”
“That’s right,” Ary agreed. “I didn’t want to be a well-paid assistant who would do nothing all day, except maybe brush Rhys’s hair.”
Mason chuckled. “He clearly needs an assistant for that, yes.”
Rhys shot him a glare. Maybe it wasn’t the famous ‘death glare’, but Mason could tell he was a bit pissed. “I could just cut it and have it done with.”
“No!” Ary protested right away. “Mason, tell him he can’t cut it!”
“I don’t mind. He could try the bald look for all I care.”
“You can’t be serious!” Ary made such a face that Mason had to bit his lips to stifle a grin.
“Bald would be quite a radical change; à la Britney, I’d say,” Rhys commented, seemingly unfazed by Mason’s indifference.
“No, you can’t do that,” Ary said with determination. “I will never let you do that. Your hair is beautiful. How can you even think of doing such a horrible thing?” He touched Rhys’s hair reverently with one hand.
Mason intervened. “Don’t worry, Ary. I will make sure Rhys brushes his hair every morning.”
“And how will you do that?” Rhys offered him one of his sweet smiles that could melt the ice cap. “Will you brush it for me?”
“No. But I can think of some cruel and unusual punishments if you don’t behave.”
“Hmm, you make me in the mood to disobey only so that I can see what those are.”
“Trust me; you don’t want that.”
Ary giggled. “He’s so tough and rough, your bodyguard, Rhys. I love him.”
“Well, sorry, Shorty, but I saw him first.”
Ary puffed his cheeks. “Not fair. And Shorty? You’ve never called me that.”
Rhys shrugged. “I live with two guys who are into crazy nicknames. I thought of trying my hand at it, too.”
“Shorty is nothing special,” Ary said from the tip of his lips. “Everyone knows I’m short.”
“Sonic is much better,” Billy said.
“Sonic?” Ary’s eyes lit up. “Did you come up with that, Billy?”
“No, Mason here did.” Billy, the traitor, pointed at Mason.
Ary’s eyes grew wide. “I love it!”
Rhys huffed, but it was clear he was joking. “It’s like you’re giving everyone nicknames, Mason, except me.”
“You’re easy,” Mason replied. “Nothing short of Angel could fit you.”
Ary broke into laughter and coughed, Billy made an endearing ‘aww’, and Rhys looked at Mason, his lips parted. For a magical moment, the sounds around died down, and Mason stared at Rhys, despite knowing, all too well, that it was dangerous to do so.
“Mason’s so in love.” Billy tore the veil, and all the sounds returned.
Mason smacked Billy playfully upside the head. “Stop talking bullshit, Po.”
“Billy is Po?” Ary sounded so excited that it was a wonder he wasn’t bouncing up and down. “And Mason? Ah, Black Heart, of course.”
“Black Heart?” Rhys asked. “This one is new. I only know him for Arnie and the more common, chief.”
“You guys are so much fun! Do you think I can come live with you, Rhys?” Ary asked, his eyes big and shiny.
“Sorry, poppet,” Rhys caressed his hair, “but you know that I cannot stand competition.”
“Poppet? What are you now? Some old biddy?”
They both spoke in an exaggerated British accent as if they were part of a play. Mason could see an inside joke for what it was worth. Rhys and Ary didn’t just go way back; they were thick as thieves. He felt relief at the thought that Rhys wasn’t, after all, all alone in the world, and he still had a friend in little Ary.
“Ready to go home?” Mason asked.
Rhys caressed Ary’s head and gave him one last kiss on the forehead. “Yes. It looks like I earned my keep for yet another day. According to Dirk, barely, but at least he has a new song to take apart and put together. Please give me your arm, Mason, and let’s go.”
Ary saw them out in the street and embraced them all before finally allowing them to go. Billy was red in the face with delight when Ary finally bid them goodbye.
“So, straight home, or can we stop somewhere for a drink?” Rhys asked with an innocent smile, the moment they were inside the car.
Mason sobered up instantly. “No drinks for you, and I mean it.”
“We could just have juice or something,” Rhys insisted as he wrapped tightly around Mason’s arm as if he didn’t want to lose him. “By the way, I don’t have an alcohol problem.”
“That’s what people with alcohol problems say.” Mason hoped his voice was stern enough to be taken seriously.
Rhys sighed and leaned back into his seat. He closed his eyes, and Mason observed him in silence. It couldn’t be fair to have his restraint put to the test so heavily. Rhys was beautiful, no matter which way you looked at him. Mason took in the closed eyelids, the bluish tint of what had to be sleepless nights, the elegant straight nose, and the lips that had given him that haunting kiss. They were so close; Mason only needed to lean in a little, and he could taste that enticing mouth again.
He stood there, doing nothing. It was everything he wanted, but he wasn’t a man to act on an impulse, no matter how right it felt.
“I can feel your eyes on me,” Rhys whispered. “Admit it, Mason. You like me.”
“I don’t deny it. But I’m not in the habit of letting myself used.”
Rhys didn’t open his eyes. “What do you mean?” Their voices were hushed whispers.
“Me or any other man, it would be the same for you. I’m not risking my reputation for a whim.”
Rhys laughed softly. “You have high standards and morals for a bodyguard. So, if you were special to me, you would give in?”
“I don’t function on ‘what ifs’. This conversation --”
“I will make you my special someone if that’s what it takes.”
“Don’t be flippant. It’s not you.”
Rhys opened his eyes and examined Mason. “And you know me how? We’ve barely met.”
“See?” Mason patted Rhys’s knee. “Don’t go around sleeping with strangers.”
“Good advice. All the more reasons for me to get to know you. How were you as a child, Mason?”
“Just like any other kid. Nothing special.”
“I doubt it.” Rhys rested his head against Mason’s shoulders. His voice turned quieter. “Sometimes, I want to forget. Is it a crime?”
“No. But you don’t really want that. You still love him.”
Rhys didn’t deny it, like before. In the driver’s seat, Billy was silent, but that didn’t mean he was deaf. “I do.”
Mason understood few truths as deep as that.
“We will go out.” Rhys’s voice was final.
“I said no drinks,” Mason warned.
“And we won’t drink alcohol, and that’s a promise,” Rhys replied. “I ate today, I went to work, so it’s only natural that I unwind a little, too. You won’t send me to sleep so early, right?”
“Okay,” Mason agreed.
“What do you say, Billy?” Rhys turned toward the other bodyguard. “Are you tired?”
“No way. I’m game.”
“Good. Are you coming, Mason?” Rhys stopped for a second on the first step of the stairs leading to the upper floor.
“I need you to brush my hair.” Rhys had a straight face as he said that, but not for long.
Mason looked around. He hadn’t seen Toby for hours. Where could he be? Was he moping around? Had he decided to haunt someone else? Mason felt almost disappointed at that thought.
“Billy can inspect the perimeter or whatever you, guys, need to do. You, Mason, must come with me. I’ll freshen up, and then we’ll go out and have some fun.”
Mason shrugged. Toby would appear, at some point, but hopefully not when he needed to sleep. Ghosts didn’t seem that considerate of living humans’ basic needs. He followed Rhys up the stairs without another word.
Rhys walked into his bedroom and invited Mason in. “I just need to throw some water on my face.”
Mason had an idea why. What he didn’t know was why Rhys wanted him there. He nodded and watched Rhys as he disappeared into the bathroom.
“I’ve been here before.”
It took Mason all his training not to jump at Toby’s voice. The ghost stood in front of the wall covered in quotes. Mason walked over to him. “You must have been. You were Rhys’s boyfriend, after all.”
Toby studied the writings on the wall, as if a vital answer lay there, dormant. “I don’t think it’s because of that.”
Mason stood right behind Toby, trying to guess what words could have drawn his attention. “What do you remember?”
Toby remained silent for a few moments more. “I feel like I’ve been here after I died.”
And ... the plot thickens! But I suppose you already expected that since that's my MO, he-he-he ... I just hope that it doesn't get too thick that no one can cut through! All right, enough bad attempts at making puns. Please let me know what you think about this new chapter in the comments below! As always, I'm waiting with bated breath for your speculations. Your reward of being right will be to tell me at the end that you knew it all along so that I can give you a virtual cookie! Or will I drop hints ... hmm ... temptation is strong ...
Until next time,
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