Chris spent the whole month thinking he'd be unable to go on, unable to fulfill his engagement; that the pain was too strong to allow him anything more than sit in front of his piano and play, losing his mind somewhere between consciousness and dream, in a state of numbness that shut up the pain.
He was alone and the house was all his now, filled with the unbearable warmth of summer, with a golden dusty light that spoke of happiness and love -gone, all gone, and he sometimes felt the urge to trash something, threw chairs, or anything that could be broken against the walls; went running along the heated paths, until he found a shadowed place where he could lie, exhausted, any emotion washed away from him.
People he met looked at him with undisguised wariness but his old neighbour kept on bringing him food, barely frowning at his crazy look, growing beard and the angry grin that never left his lips.
But he made it.
He took a flight to New York, where Philip McKenzie was waiting for him, listened to the last details, last arrangements, settled down at the same hotel -the Rigah; and next morning entered the recording studio that looked like paradise suddenly, detached from the world, uncaring of anything but the music pouring from him, letting every hint of anger, regret and need fill it, taint it until he caught the stunned looks of the people behind the glass who'd never listened to such a haunted interpretation; holding their breath when Chris' fingers stood still for just a fraction of second longer than what was expected in the score, poised on the edge of an attack; released it when he pounced; lost themselves in overwhelming breaks of passion.
"Jesus," one of them breathed, unable to take his eyes off Chris "I heard this music like a thousand times and it sounds brand new all of a sudden. How does he do that?"
"What impressed me most, at the time," Philip McKenzie said years later in an interview, "was how many times he was able to go over and over the same little detail to make it perfect, and also the capacity he had to work for 6 or 7 hours on a row without more than a 20 minutes pause and a glass of water. I have to say that at the end of the fifth week, when he left, we were absolutely exhausted. But of course, the result, as we all know, was worth it."
Yeah, he made it.
Days were easy, after all. Nights were quite something else. Missing something he couldn't identify but that wasn't only sex, not only love, hurting where there was nothing left, as if he'd been amputated of a member and still could feel the pain there.
One day during a harmless conversation he learnt that Toby had called McKenzie, talked to him, made sure everything was fine and his throat tightened.
He should've fired him, after what had happened. Next time they'd meet, he would, make a clean break, allow him a new start; erase those memories that kept popping up in mind of a half-naked, barefoot, wide-eyed Toby, blood running down his chest and along his jaw from the wounds; not even trying to protect himself, maybe too stunned to do so, or too self-conscious, pleading softly, stepping back down the alley until he'd reached the gate, then running away in the warm evening sun on the desert road, his too long blond hair dancing behind him, his tanned body disappearing behind the trees.
Chris had closed his eyes then, leaned back against a pillar and let go of the last stone he was holding, his knuckles white with the strength it had required not to throw it, finish the job - kill.
That was the picture that haunted him; not the sight of Toby's naked sweaty body entangled with Susan's frail frame; but Toby's look when he'd turned away.
He'd been worried, locked in his room, playing until exhaustion crushed him, afraid that Toby was unable to reach the village and find any shelter, or maybe that he was wounded too badly to make it at all and just collapsed there, unseen. Late at night, he'd walked out with a torch and looked around; he'd found nothing but in the morning he'd called the nearest hotel and learnt that Toby was there; probably Susan had brought him his credit card and his passport, the only things that hadn't ended in the bonfire Chris had lit in the middle of the night with Toby's stuff, flames burning high -but memories didn't burn away as easily as clothes and books.
He'd spent two days and two nights locked inside his room, playing until exhaustion crushed him, music loud enough to cover Susan's voice; he hadn't talked to her since... since then; he'd been unable to face her and when he'd finally emerged she was gone; she'd taken away her clothes, her brushes, her colours, her paintings, everything; just left a letter carefully folded inside a sealed envelop with his name on it. He shoved the letter into a drawer and stopped caring. What the hell? He knew what was inside; the love, the impossibility to make it live and last; music that was Chris one and only love; on the long haul there was no place for her or anyone else. Bonnie, Angie, Kitty, had written down the same feelings with different words; he didn't need to read it. Finally, he burnt it like he'd done with Toby's belongings.
She'd called him a week later though, from her parents' place in England where she'd decided to stay for a while, until both of them knew where they stood. What do you want, she'd asked; but he didn't know. Mostly he wanted to be left alone, but sometimes he missed her and he missed Toby. He missed Toby's breath catching in his throat when Chris reached for the zipper of his jeans and seized his dick, that way he had to bite his lips and moan in despair, watch the fingers on him and shiver, bury his face in Chris' neck; he missed it, missed just having him there, missed Susan. Jesus, what a fucking mess.
And probably Toby hadn't given a thought about what he'd been doing, drawn like a homing missile to the nearest source of heat and in such thoughtlessness there was something scary, something dangerous that could hurt badly, and that had. Reached its goal. Hurt him. Very badly. Or maybe after all it wasn't only thoughtlessness; maybe Toby had used Chris' own weapons against him; and what about her? Chris wasn't that angry with Susan, she was a woman, she belonged to another species, the one he had no idea about the way it worked, beyond the seduction and sex part. Women was the kind to protect against others, men; like him, like Toby; predators. Susan wasn't the guilty one, Toby was and he himself was.
Music was what kept him going.
In the middle of November the record was ready and a meeting was called in McKenzie's office and of course Toby had to be there.
Philip McKenzie and part of his staff were sitting around a big polished table; and Toby looked nervous. Chris showed up late, usual look, black shirt, black pants, black boots, laser gaze; he gave a look around, nodded, shook some hands and spotted a chair, grabbed it, dragged it near Toby and sat down, looking cool, his wrists resting on the table, waiting.
"Let's choose the pictures, first of all," Philip McKenzie suggested and handed a folder to Chris with his usual courteous respect.
Chris went through the pictures without a word and shrugged.
"Whatever, I don't really care."
"You should; it's you we're showing. Front and back cover."
Chris turned to Toby, so near, elegant and fuckable, grey suit, grey shirt, grey tie and he wanted to rip the clothes off him and beat the shit out of him.
"What do you think? Which ones would you choose?" he asked, pulling the folder closer; their fingers touching, Toby shivering suddenly. "You look sick," Chris said, hard grin on his lips. "I'm fine, just a bit tired."
Quivering fingers pulled out three pictures and laid them on the table -sleeveless shirt Chris, arms crossed on his chest, leaning against a wall with this unmistakable coolness, barely smiling; sitting in front of the piano Chris, focused, frowning, a bit scruffy; reflected in the mirror Chris, his powerful neck, broad shoulders, a glimpse of the golden chain he never took off, half-shadowed hawk like profile.
"I'll trust you on that," he said.
And it was like being slapped in the face, Toby thought.
The meeting went on, Toby asked for the schedules, the marketing strategy; Chris looked away, bored. In the end, he said he needed to talk to Mr Beecher in private and Philip McKenzie opened his own office for them, left them alone.
"You're fired, Beecher," Chris said.
"No. You're fired. Fuck off."
Toby had expected something like that, it didn't make the rejection easier.
/I won't leave without a fight. /
"Did you set us up? Wanted to test us, pushed us until it happened?"
"What the fuck are you talking about?"
"I spoke to Bonnie on the phone; she said you did that to her, tried to see how far you could go before she couldn't take it anymore, test her loyalty all the time. Is it about it?" "So it's my own fault, now? You fuck my wife under my roof and it's my fault? It wasn't my dick in her cunt, Toby; it was yours. And from where I stood you looked pretty happy with it. Both of you."
They were facing each other, near the window; hands in pockets, blue icy looks, stiff bodies.
"You need me."
"Get the fuck away from me."
"You need someone who gets to his knees and brings you off -and keeps it secret. I'm the only one you can trust on that."
Chris looked stunned and growled.
"I said get-the-fuck..."
"And you could use a lawyer someday, too. Who knows what can happen?" "Beecher..."
Blank frightening look, a step forward, it was like feeling the sword of a knife against his neck but he didn't move.
"You don't want to love; you wreck all the relationships you build up; you're afraid love kills your gifts, afraid happiness smothers your genius. You do that every time. Don't you?" "Don't push it, Beecher," Chris roared.
Toby wouldn't shut up.
"You need me, you know you do. More than you need Susan."
The strength of the blow made his head jerk; he slapped back, and had his wrist trapped between Chris' fingers.
"You need that, Chris, you need it; you need the struggle to make it happen, to make it better, these tapes I listened to, they're the best thing I ever heard; you know it." "I can struggle with someone else. Clear off."
Toby checked his throbbing cheek.
"I got you an engagement at the Fenice, Chris."
Chris let go of his wrist, pushed him back against the wall.
"I flew to Venice a month ago; met the director of the Fenice, you'd told me about how much you wanted that. Next June, Jeffrey Tate will be directing the orchestra for two dates. It's a last minute decision; Tate was engaged otherwise but his own schedule was disrupted. I had them listen to the tapes I brought, they want you. I have the letter in my suitcase."
Chris remained silent for a long time, and Toby's heart began racing wildly; if Chris pushed the offer away, he got no other card left. He saw the usual lazy smile and Chris rested a hand above his shoulder, leaned forward, trapping him, breathing in his face.
"Yeah? You're taking a big risk on that aren't you? What other ace do you keep up your sleeve? How far are you ready to go, Beecher; and why?"
Toby didn't answer, didn't move.
"Fuck," Chris growled "I don't care why; you're the boldest bitch I ever met."
Jesus, Chris wondered as they stared at each other, how many pounds had Toby lost? He looked so frail, his features shadowed and hardened; he'd had his hair cut, Chris could see, but the tips of the curls were still so blond it looked like the sun was trapped there; he unruffled the silky hair and light moved in it.
"Looks like I'll have to put up with you a tad longer after all. Let me tell you then; I'm gonna give you a fucking hard time; I'm gonna make you stay up late, wake up at dawn until you're so exhausted you don't think straight anymore. You'll beg me to let you go."
"Not today. And you don't come near anyone I'm with; you fuck with me again, and you are fucking dead. And I'm not talking of the job here."
Toby heard the threat, crystal clear in Chris' raspy whisper and nodded.
"Fine," Chris said "I think we should grab something to eat, now. I'm fucking hungry. Let's go."
"So," Chris asked between two mouthfuls of a very exotic dish he'd ordered at the restaurant in his hotel, "how's Daddy's practice going?" "I don't know. I quitted."
A stunned silence.
"When I came back, I... Everything looked alien to me; as if I'd never been there before, I was seeing things in a whole different way, how tired my dad looked, and puffy, and constantly nervous, how little I liked the people working there; how boring the job was, that kind of things. I felt like I couldn't take it anymore. I quitted." "Completely?"
"Not quite; sometimes when they have special cases, cases I'm good with, they call me and I work on it; even plead sometimes. I feel like it's some duty I have towards my father. If I fail, it's no big deal, it's just me being me; if I win it's because the case was so vicious it suited me."
Chris looked at him for a moment and shook his head. "I don't think I've ever met someone like you. Someone who's got such a fucked up ego, you know. So completely fucked up."
"My ego's not fucked up. Look, I kept disappointing my father since the very beginning, for reasons I can't quite understand; I'm not as tall, not as broad, not as tough, not as strong and narrow-minded as he hoped I would be; when I succeeded in Harvard he thought I'd been lucky; I suspect he thinks I was exchanged with another one when I was born. I don't even look like anyone in my family."
"You think he doesn't love you."
"Yes, he does; it's just that he doesn't consider I'm in any way reliable, trustable, adult." He gave Chris a tense smile. "Looks like he's right. Looks like I'm a loser." "We all are. Remember, we all die in the end."
They ate in silence for a moment.
"Did you see her again?"
"Christ, you don't know when to shut up, do you?" "No. Did you see her again? Did you leave her?"
Chris looked at him, surprised. He'd thought maybe they'd kept in touch, phone calls at least.
"I got her on the phone yesterday, yes, we still see each other."
"You still love her."
"I'm not going to answer that."
"Will you divorce her?"
Toby's voice sounded harsh and raspy, as if every word hurt.
"Is it what you want? Is that why you fucked her?"
"No. Of course not."
"I told her I'd do whatever she wanted. She wants to divorce me, I'm fine with it; she still wants to be my wife, OK. I guess that if she wants to file for divorce she's got the right guy at hand."
Toby put down his fork.
"You don't give a damn, do you? You don't give a damn for people around you, that's the truth. Am I wrong?" "Yes. You are wrong, but you're too stupidly stubborn to be argued with."
That's the moment when he should've risen and left, but he didn't; he couldn't; he was stuck on his chair with the vision of Chris filling his eyes and his mind.
"Is it good?"
"What you're eating, is it good?"
"Yes, of course, why?"
"Because you didn't eat much of it."
"I'm not... I'm not very hungry."
"Well I am; mind if I finish it?"
Toby watched him eat; pictures mixing up in his mind, pictures of Chris leaning over his piano, Chris' blank face standing at the door of the little hut, throwing his and Susan's clothes to the floor and turning his back on them; pictures of Chris stoning him away, eyes like sapphires in the livid face; mute with rage.
Memories of walking on the road, under a merciless sky, hot asphalt burning his bare feet; of sitting on the floor outside the hotel where he couldn't even sleep because he'd left with just his jeans on, not even a shirt, sun burnt, his face damp with sweat and tears, blood running down his chest and arms and no money. Miserable.
He'd dozed off, hidden under the shadow of an old olive tree until he felt a hand on his shoulder, shaking him lightly, startling him.
"Listen, I brought your credit card and your passport, clothes. He locked your room and I couldn't take more." "Jesus, Susan, what..."
She'd smiled, a tiny sad smile.
"It's OK. I'll be OK, don't worry for me, he won't touch me. It's just you know... It's just I feel so ashamed. Dirty." "Yeah. I know."
"You and Chris are lovers, aren't you?" "Yeah."
"I guessed that soon enough; I'm not sure I'm even shocked, he's such an alien to me sometimes."
He had no strength left; she'd helped him up, guided him inside, asked for a room, checked his wounds, ten of them, made by ten cutting stones picked up along the path and skilfully thrown that had cut deep into the skin. One of his cheekbones was bleeding a lot. They called a doctor who stitched up the wounds and gave Toby enough painkillers to knock him senseless.
Susan had left after that; she looked tired and sad but calmer than him; he felt crushed, sick, nauseated and ashamed. He'd slept for a long time after that, nightmares, each and every noise waking him up, afraid that Chris would come and finish the job, his blank empty look haunting him. But he hadn't showed up and when Toby had settled the bill, the clerk had told him his friend, the American pianist, had called earlier to make sure he was safe and Toby, well, Toby hadn't known what to think anymore.
And now, three months later, Chris was sitting in front of him, eating as if nothing had happened.
"We have to talk about a tour; I wanna play live again. But don't come tell me I start next month, I need some time to get ready."
"We have to spend at least three days on that, talk about it; I want to show you the proposals I received. I can't do that alone."
"I'm here for the whole week; we can meet tomorrow morning, eight in McKenzie's office."
He rose, stretched.
"I have to go. You're buying, aren't you?"
Bastard, Toby thought.
"I'll put it on the company's bill," he said, tilting his head and Chris stopped, dead in his track, turned to him, pointed a threatening finger at him. "Bitch; you buy, it's the least you can do."
Curious gazes turned towards them and he rose, walked up to Chris, grabbed his arm, dragged him outside, looked deep into his eyes.
"You ... don't you ever do that again." "Why? You deserve it. You're the one who wants to keep something going ith me, Toby; we'll play by my rules."
Toby just looked at him, his fingers bruising Chris' arms.
And Chris saw the scar; he hadn't noticed before but the anger, and the cold, made Toby's skin turn red and the scar on the cheekbone looked pale, just a little livid mark but Chris couldn't take his eyes off it; he'd done that and he didn't know how he felt about it.
Toby was about to turn back and leave when Chris caught him by the shoulders, pulled him close, slid a merciless hand behind his head and kissed him, hard and long enough to make the world spin around them. When they broke the kiss he didn't let go, kept Toby against him for some more seconds before turning on his heels and walking away.
"Tomorrow; don't be late!"
Toby watched him disappear at the corner, stunned. Still, he put the bill on the company's account; no way he was going to give in so easily. He went back to his hotel, spent a busy afternoon on the phone with the company's staff, sorted his folders, called his kids and went to bed, jerked off, with Chris' taste on his lips.
His cell phone rang in the middle of the night.
He straightened up, rubbed his eyes.
"Hi, did I wake you up? Are you alone?" "Yes, no, I mean... I wasn't sleeping; I'm alone... What time is it? Wait, where are you?" "London, my parents' place, in the bathroom."
Toby frowned. She sounded... strange.
"It's eight am here; I tend to be sick in the morning, throw up every twenty minutes or so, the usual stuff, you know."
It took him a whole minute to understand what she meant and when he did, all he could say was, "Oh, sweet fucking Jesus." And fell back to the pillow, his eyes closed.