Excellent beta by Rifka!
"It's very small."
Toby sighed, shifted in the leather armchair, managing to move without letting go of Gary's hand.
"Not 'it', Chris. He. He's human."
"Yeah? You didn't see him, he doesn't look that human to me. And he's so small, I can hold him in the palms of my hands."
Toby couldn't help smiling.
"Hold him in the palms of your hands?"
"Yeah. Then he began to move; it didn't feel safe." "How's Susan?"
"Delighted. I can't begin to imagine why because to me it's just an ugly, red and wrinkled little animal, but she seems to think he's the most beautiful baby in the world." "Mothers tend to be that way."
Hard to imagine that. Chris holding a kid in his hands that happened to be Toby's flesh and blood; but Toby was so deeply absorbed with Gary and Holly he didn't even feel it, feel how weird the situation was. Silence stretched, questions wrapped in it. Now it's the right moment to tell him that he doesn't have to do this, Toby thought but courage failed him.
"He's got something from you though," Chris said, in a smiling tone.
"Something from me?"
"Yeah. When I brush my finger against the corner of his mouth, he turns his head and sucks on it." "You motherfucker!" Toby said, chuckling, relieved that Chris was able to make a harmless joke about all that.
But yes, he remembered Holly and Gary doing it too, hungry little animals instinctively looking for food; and for a second Toby wished he was back to those happy years.
"Apart from that, brown hair, muddy eyes...doesn't look like anything human."
Doesn't look like you - nicely put, Mr Keller. You can be very considerate when you want to.
"He'll change. How did she name him?"
"Harry. Don't ask why, she didn't tell."
Gary moved and moaned, still on the threshold of sleep, squeezing his father's fingers.
"I have to go, Chris; Gary's waking up." "I miss you, Toby. When will I see you again?" "I don't know. I really don't know. As soon as I can..." "You have to promise you'll go to Venice with me; I'll trust no one else on that one. It gives you two months." "Jesus, how much more stubborn can you be?" "Artists are stubborn; and selfish; and possessive; you wanted the whole package, right?"
The whole package... Chris' voice on the phone, the way he forced Toby out of the weariness and the pain forced him to keep believing that the frail little boy lying on the bed would someday be able to walk again, talk normally, go back to school and have friends. "Right now," the doctors had told him "he's out of his coma. He's young, there's a good probability that he recovers at least partly. But..."
But Toby shouldn't expect a full recovery; Gary was conscious, he could move his head and his arms, form words that came out of his throat like the growl of an old witch. They'd told him his mother was dead; he'd cried for days, shaken with mute sobs in his father's arms; Holly's presence seemed to please him though; he gave her a shy smile with the left corner of his mouth. Jesus, sometimes Toby had to walk out of the room and cry.
So Chris was like fresh water in the middle of the desert, a window opening onto a world Toby couldn't reach anymore; he didn't let him wallow in pain; he talked to him, about Susan and the baby, the music he was playing, anything to take his mind off the pain. Sometimes Toby fell asleep while Chris was playing for him hundreds of miles away and woke up with his voice whispering in his ear.
"Hey you! Still here?"
Some hours of happiness, of innocence and God how Toby needed those.
"I'm playing a lot of Francis Poulenc and Debussy and Ravel -concerto for the left hand; do you know the story? He wrote it for a friend who'd lost his right hand during the First World War. I love it, it's so... Unusual." "Do you ever listen to something other than classical music?"
A silence, amused or skeptical; Toby could imagine Chris' smile, both secret and amused.
"I don't know, you tell me."
"I listen to other kinds of music from time to time." "What kind of music?"
"I don't know! What the fuck do you want me to tell you? Old rock'n roll, I guess, stuff like that. I went to see Springsteen a long time ago, you know one of those very long show he used to give. Great memories, I loved it. Happy now?"
Discovering Chris Keller day after day, listening to whispered embarrassed confidences about his childhood, carefully chosen memories of the last family he'd lived with, what they were like, why he hated them most of the time, how he'd convinced their daughter to run away with him when they were both 15. Toby suspected that a lot of things, painful things, remained hidden; things Chris didn't want to talk about, but in some way their intimacy was growing and that was good.
Before Toby was able to plan anything coherent, it was June and Chris was to leave for Venice. Toby had given a hundred calls, sent a hundred e-mails from his laptop just to settle the last minute details, sitting in the garden of the hospital while Gary was asleep or playing with his sister.
It had been a long time, maybe 7 or 8 years since the last time Christopher Keller had agreed to play with an orchestra and his experience in that matter was rather bad. Not that he didn't like that particular musical form, who wouldn't? But it meant playing under someone else's direction, follow someone else's point of view and Chris was a difficult man to work with; some of the best directors had given up and stopped struggling to force their ideas on him; besides he wasn't very good at socializing and his relationships with other musicians were often strained. But playing in such a mythical place, where he'd always wanted to play, was such an exceptional opportunity that Keller was ready to make some concessions.
"When I learned that the theater had been burned down to ashes it was like a nightmare. Places like this one are like sacred ground, losing them is like losing a part of myself."
Toby knew that Chris had been one of the donators who had helped to rebuild the place, even if he never mentioned the amount of the gift.
"It's not that I don't want to," Chris had told him "it's just that I don't remember. Really."
Chris Keller arrived in Venice on the fourth of June, met with some Italian journalists for an informal press conference; he'd become quite good at that and speaking in Italian was something he began to appreciate. Later he went to the theatre to meet Jeffrey Tate and the musicians to begin working on the two pieces he'd be playing a week later. He already knew them by heart but playing in an unknown place on an unfamiliar piano required more work. He listened carefully to the master's views on the music and mostly agreed with it; he knew, as any good musician does, that half the work lay in the perfect synchronization and harmony with the orchestra. `You're working with them', one of his teachers used to tell him, `not against them; if it works, they'll prepare a wonderful showcase for you; your part will be easier and the result much better'. Chris believed that.
The same night he called Toby.
"When are you coming?"
"I hope to be able to join you on Friday." "Friday? Hope? Friday's a little late and you don't hope; you tell me you will." "Are you giving me an order?"
Keller took a deep breath.
"Listen, Toby," he said "you're not going back on your promise. I'm not stealing much of your time and there's no way I'm gonna let you wallow in this pitiful existence you seem to believe you're due. You're too young for that and I need you."
"I know. Sunday's the best I can do. My parents will take care of the kids."
A silence. Now that he'd made his point Chris could afford some gentleness.
"How are they?"
"Holly's been sick today, she didn't go to school and Gary, well... I suppose it's going to be a slow recovery."
Keller heard the twinge of discouragement in his voice and closed his eyes.
"Hey," he said, "you have to believe in him because if you don't, who will? He needs you for that. It was meant to be slow, remember? He wasn't supposed to recognize you so soon and he did; the doctors didn't think he'd be able to talk normally again and he does. Next, he'll be walking again."
"I hope so. The only thing I want is my little boy back."
"You can't get the past back, Toby. Forget about it. You're gonna have a new and different loveable little boy."
"Yeah, I know."
"You need to have fun, Toby, you need to spend some time with adults." "Meaning you."
"Yeah, me. Who knows you better than me? Who pleases you better than I do?" "Modesty's your second name, isn't it?" "Hey, I know what I'm good at."
Three days later it was Friday and Chris arrived at the airport much too soon. He watched planes take off, daydreaming while people rushed around him, bumped into him, talked much too loud. After what felt like years he spotted Toby's unmistakable silhouette striding across the hall, looking around for him. Their eyes met and Toby's face lit up as they rushed toward each other, not quite touching, a little awkward, breathless and the hell if Toby wasn't the hottest thing he'd ever seen; he didn't quite get how people could walk past him and not be immediately drawn to him like he'd been in that hotel bar 4 years ago.
"Hey," he said with a smile "you cut your hair."
"Yeah. Do you like it?"
"I feel like I'm gonna fuck a 20 years old guy, but yes, I love it." He gave a look around and brushed his lips against Toby's mouth, holding him tight.
"Come on, let's go."
Toby's clear blue eyes, the wrinkle of worry between his eyebrows, his dreamy smile, his body hidden under a elegant beige suit ... Chris threw an arm around his shoulders.
"I love you."
"I love you too."
"I promised Tate we'd be working the whole afternoon so I'm afraid we don't even have time to go to the hotel. But after that I'm all yours." "You'd better."
The taxi left them near the pier.
"Let's walk, it's not very far."
The town was rather calm for June; the tense international context did little for tourism. Chris knew quiet streets that led to the theatre; they didn't even have to cross a bridge, just walked along shadowed narrow alleys among children hurrying to school, housewives carrying plastic bags.
"It's like being out of time," Toby said after a while. "Yeah. Good for you."
They arrived on the little square and Toby stopped, looked at the white building and frowned.
"Nothing, but every time I'm surprised at how small the theatre looks from the outside, and what a shock it was the first time I walked inside; the luxury, the size of the stage... I wasn't prepared to something like that."
"Yeah, it really takes getting inside to understand. It's like Mozart, you read the score, you think it's easy, maybe conventional; and then you play it, listen to it, think about it and it makes you humble, you understand you were just an arrogant prick; God lies somewhere behind the notes and you don't even understand where. Same here; I hear tourists say, `hey, that, La Fenice? What the fuck, it's small and common, how can it be such a famous place?' they never get to go inside; they never know what they're missing."
In the hall Chris reached out to touch him but Toby slipped away, suddenly uncomfortable after a too long separation. Chris would have to win him all over again, he knew that and of course it was part of the attraction; he put his mind to it all afternoon, throwing Toby ambiguous glances and half-threatening hungry smiles above the piano to let him know how much he wanted him and how hot he looked sitting in front of the stage on one of the red velvety armchairs, listening with rapt attention, sometimes leaning forward with an expression of deep concentration, smiling in delight.
"I could listen to you all day and all night." "I can play for you all night if it's what you want."
Toby smiled. "I bet you had something else in mind."
"Anything that puts a smile on these lips is good, baby," Chris said in a deep voice.
"Being in your arms is good too."
"Come on; I'm not such a tease. But just leaning against you, yes... It's good."
`Just leaning against me, uh?' Chris thought, suppressing a smile while Toby's hand traced the tattoo on his arm, the muscles on his chest and lower, pulling the boxers down and pressing against him, moaning, his fingers closing around his cock, trailing along his thighs, getting to know again every detail of a body he hadn't laid a hand on for nearly three months.
They exchanged a look; Toby's gaze misty and veiled with expectation, Chris' expression sharp; making sure his partner was ready and pulling him against his skin, rubbing his cock against Toby's thighs, growling against his neck, feeling a strong hand grab the nape of his neck and drag him into a breathtaking kiss.
Chris broke the kiss first, panting.
"Jesus fucking Christ, Toby..." and he pounced; Toby's reserve entirely forgotten as he threw himself into the playful fight Chris had initiated and luxuriated in the feeling of the other man's body, heat and smell swallowing him, devouring him, praising him with hungry words whispered into his ears, with questing fingers exploring his body, inside, outside, inside again and that impatient `I can't wait' groan while he grabbed the lube and entered him... After so long the first thrust tore a cry out of Toby but Chris pushed forward, further... "Come on, come on, open to me," pulled Toby on top of him and thrust upward hard, his hands clenched in Toby's hair, stroking his face, his throat, blind with desire, thrusting harder and faster and deeper until he felt a deep shiver shaking Toby's body, until they were both coming hard, exhausting themselves with pleasure.
"Oh my god."
He kissed Toby's sweaty face; bit his neck, his ears, his lips.
"You know," Toby said later with a chuckle "fucking me doesn't require you to turn into some werewolf every time."
"You didn't like it?" Chris asked haughtily.
"I don't know how to fuck otherwise, maybe you should teach me a sweeter way?"
He was purring and Toby laughed.
"Leave me some time to recover and I'll show you. I'm sure you'll like it."
Chris' enigmatic gaze raked over Toby's face.
"Yeah. I'll love it."
The voice said it all. The doubt. The sadness.
"What's wrong, Chris?"
"Come on, don't you bullshit me! What-the-fuck-is-wrong?"
Chris rose and padded to the window, opened it, looked at the bright moonlight dancing over the still waters of the canal, the smell of Venice in summer floating around him, both putrid and sweet; like death.
"Do you love me, Toby?"
"Will you always love me? For better and worse, in health and sickness and all?" "Do you want to marry me?"
"I would if I could. You know... You might change your mind; I've not always been the guy I am today, I have a lot to lose." "I don't give a damn about the past, Chris. I love you," Toby said, standing too and walking up to rest against him, their warm naked bodies pressed against each other. "and if you come to bed, I'll show you how much."
An exasperated sigh and Chris shrugged.
"Fucking's not loving," Chris said "I can fuck anyone. I only love you." "I love only you; I don't fuck anyone else."
They made love after that; real love, sweet and slow and Beecher took his time to bring Keller where he wanted him, floating somewhere between need and pleasure, lost, before the killer blow that left them panting and exhausted for hours.
But even then... Even then Chris knew something was missing, something he couldn't pinpoint, something that would have required much more than what Toby was ready to give. More than love. Chris craved to make Toby his, erase everything in the world that wasn't him, and his furious hunger for possession scared him.
/This isn't love. This is madness; if Toby knew about it, he'd leave me. /
What had that moment of doubt been about? A silent fear finally exposed? A simple moment of nostalgia mixed with the anxiety of the upcoming show? Just that? In the morning Keller was back to normal, hugging Toby, kissing him endlessly before leaving for the theatre while Beecher went to the museum.
"I don't want you around when I'm concentrating; you'll learn soon enough what kind of thug I am; I don't want to waste our honeymoon."
All afternoon Chris locked himself in his dressing-room among flowers and messages of love sent by his fans and Toby barely saw him before the beginning of the concert, just caught his eye and a flashing smile before he walked under the lights amidst thunderous applause. The night's uncertainties seemed to linger in the anxious passion that pervaded the whole recital; Keller's fingers dancing above the keys, caressing, striking; the program was classing but alluring; Rachmaninov's third concerto, one of most pianist's favorites and Mozart's 24th concerto; both inhabited by their composers' ardor; Rachmaninov's raw passion likely to effortlessly move the audience's heart and soul, Mozart's fire hidden between a civilized and sophisticated but still haunted faade. But for that particular audience going to concert wasn't only some instinctive social habit, as it had been for Toby's parents, for example; music was part of the town, part of them as this theatre was. Music was born here, belonged to them and nowhere better could the collective spirit of a musical epiphany blossom for an evening, shared by hundreds of people in some pagan communion.
It was late when the music stopped and enthusiasm broke free, taking Chris Keller off-guard, stunning him for a short while before he rose, encouraged by a very smiling Jeffrey Tate,.
There was an endless round of applauses; 25 minutes spent worshipping the orchestra, its director and most of all the magnificent man standing there, his eyes scanning the invisible faces in the darkness, bowing to pick up the flowers, red roses that rained over the stage, offering them to the women in the orchestra. He'd taken off his jacket before Mozart, tossed his tie at the end of the concert and now he was rolling up his sleeves and Toby who was watching from the wings winced at how exhausted Chris looked, how vulnerable, saw him stumble and feared he would collapse on the stage.
"Is there any way to stop this?" He asked Giovanni Leonte, the director of the theater, who was standing beside him. That earned him a condescending look and a stern answer in the man's bad English. "No. This is how do you say? a ritual; they'll be uhm... hurt, ahhh... upset if we take him away. They love him."
Right, exactly the kind of love that kills.
A party was given later in the luxurious foyer of the theater and Keller attended it with the graceful mindlessness of someone who'd left his mind somewhere else: he looked dazed and dreamy, smiling but not talking much, subdued; shaking virile hands, kissing wrinkled, taut, tanned cheeks, letting diamond and gold beringed fingers slide against his back, his shoulders, giving in to the unwanted touches like a big cat. He didn't seem to care much about Toby, acted like he didn't even notice he was there. They hadn't talked again since the end of the concert and as he watched Chris stroll mindlessly among the guests, Toby felt the old familiar feeling awaken - rejection - reached for a drink and just when his fingers closed around the chilled crystal Chris turned his eyes and frowned, shook his head.
A shrug, a twinge of anger; who the hell do you think you are? My fucking father? Chris raised an amused eyebrow and smiled one of these "I love you" smile... Toby put the glass down and smiled back albeit a little tentatively before resuming his interrupted conversation with Jeffrey Tate's wife.
Little by little, Chris seemed to emerge from his own dream, his exhaustion turning into some sort of seductive bliss, his body reacting by instinct to the praises, the caresses, his eyes looking around until he'd spotted two easy preys among the crowd of men and women gathered around him. He moved closer to the mayor's daughter and her brother, blond, witty and slim, staring at them with covetous undisguised hunger, forgetful of anyone who wasn't them.
Toby saw that, noticed too many looks focused on Chris, heard whispered remarks around him and crossed the room to put an end to the game.
Two hands grabbed Chris by the shoulders and pulled him back, tearing an angry growl out of him; what the fuck?
He turned and saw Toby, his eyes blazing with anger.
"Do you mind? I want to talk to you."
It took all Toby's self-control not to slap him square on the face, erase the ravenous smug smile, blow out the fiery furnace that was Chris' gaze at the moment. He stepped back reluctantly and nodded, his lips white with anger, a vein sticking out, pulsating on his forehead. At least Chris seemed to lose interest in the two youngsters and melted into the crowd again after a last resentful glance.
"Who would've guessed you'd be such a fucking possessive bitch," he said, sitting on the bed in Toby's room next to his as his lover took off his shirt. "Do you know the meaning of the word `inappropriate behavior'?" "I don't smoke cigars, I'm not concerned." "Very funny. Was it your hand I saw on that young girl's hip? Did you speak in that boy's ear so close that your lips were touching his skin?"
"You wanted me here; I came for you; I don't like very much to be left apart because you've spotted some choice morsels and that you'd rather have me look away and let you savor them in peace. Not talking about the embarrassing fact that they were the Mayor's children. What did you intend to do next? A threesome with a girl of 19 and a boy of 16? Was I supposed to join?"
Keller sat there for a moment, looking at his feet.
"Is it you lecturing me about fidelity?" he only said, with purposeful disdain.
Toby turned to him, pale with rage.
"Are you going to use that every time it's convenient for you?" "Fuck you!" Chris said and rose "I'm sleepy. Good night."
The door slammed behind him.
Toby waited for hours, lying half naked on his bed, dozing off from time to time, hoping Chris would come back, wondering if he was lying alone all the same or if he'd invited someone to keep him company. At dawn he sat on his bed, rubbing his fingers against his face, glanced at his travel bag - all packed up, ready to go.
"Toby," a voice said across the door "may I come in?"
No way, he thought but the door flew open and Chris stepped inside, looked around, saw the bag and sighed.
"I spoiled everything, as usual," he said.
"Yeah, seems that every time I find someone I love I make a good job of sending him, or her, away."
Toby rose and Chris took a step forward, trapping him between the bed and his body.
"Don't push me away, Toby; I care for you a lot. I love you."
"Did you spend the night alone?"
"It has nothing to do with us; you know that. But yes, I spent the night alone. I kept hoping you'd come."
Toby snorted, feeling sad and tired.
"So did I."
"Let's not waste the little time we have together," Chris said, sliding an arm around Toby's waist.
"You played wonderfully, yesterday," Toby whispered, yielding against the hard body. "Yeah? I don't know, I don't remember much of what happened; it's always like that, when I'm playing, it's like a moment of trance. But I guess they had it all taped; I'll be able to listen to it. Later. Now, it's you I want to listen to."
They kissed, again and again, made love until it was late in the afternoon and Toby had to leave, exhausted. He slept on the plane and took a taxi to his parents' place to pick up the kids, take back his life where he'd left it, feeling a lot like an adulterous husband after his last escapade. Stupid, he thought. I didn't betray anyone! But still he didn't leave Holly and Gary for a single second during the following days, promising he'd stay by them no matter what.
But less than a week later, Francis McKenzie's voice woke him up in the middle of the night. Six hours ago, the FBI had arrested Chris Keller as he was getting out of the plane at Kennedy Airport and charged him with the murder of Daniel Vogel, whose body they'd found buried in the middle of a wood near the frontier of the State. A man who lived nearby was ready to testify he'd seen Keller dump the body there.
Toby's heart sunk in his chest and he had to close his eyes, lean back against the wall, suddenly dizzy, his mouth dry. He'd called Chris in Venice two days ago, he sounded fine and now...
"I'm coming," he said.
Then he called his parents, Gen's parents, waited for them to arrive, and took the first flight to New-York where McKenzie was waiting for him.