Authors: Kade Boehme,Allison Cassatta
“But it was cute.”
A groan tumbled off Riley’s lips, eliciting more laughter from Hunter. Despite his hatred for the word, it was cute to see Hunter smiling again, even more magical to hear that musical laugh of his. Even better still, though, was the fact Hunter had gotten out of that bed and up on his feet, and they were about to share the only precious thing Riley had to his name.
He wrapped his fingers around Hunter’s hand without asking, and he tugged Hunter toward the bedroom door. Glancing over his shoulder, he whispered, “Don’t forget, we gotta keep quiet so we don’t get busted.”
Hunter gave him a military-style salute, outstretched finger to the brow.
Riley rolled his eyes.
For all the joking and sarcasm, though, Hunter didn’t pull away from his hold. Nothing could’ve made Riley happier right then.
They headed out into the darkened corridor, keeping to the wall and hunkering down low enough they wouldn’t pass across the tiny windows in each patient’s door. No need to get the attention of those nosy nuts.
Together they cleared the first hall, made a quick right, and headed deeper into the bowels of the hospital. The closer they got to the forbidden wing, the more Riley’s tension eased. There were no cameras down there. Not the new system, anyway, and that’s what Wally would be monitoring. The hospital had run out of money before all the upgrades were done, and the building had been deteriorating for a long time, so they just gave up. They hung plastic sheeting in the hallway, made No Entry signs, and called it a day. Riley carefully pulled back one edge. He took so much care the heavy plastic didn’t make a sound.
Hunter entered first, then waited for Riley to settle the sheeting back in place so no one would be the wiser. As soon as they were both well into the forbidden wing, Riley took Hunter’s hand again, and Hunter settled in behind him. Following him. Trusting him.
“It’s dirty here,” Riley whispered. “There’s dust everywhere, but this is a hell of a lot better than wasting away in that shitty room.”
From the darkness behind him, a sneeze jerked Riley’s head. He couldn’t see Hunter’s expression in the dark, which added to the worry. “You okay?” he asked, tightening his hand.
“Yeah. Never been good with dust.”
“We can go back.”
A second hand found his upper arm, fingers circling around the tightened muscle. Even though he knew it was Hunter, his brain didn’t do a good job of putting the pieces together. He didn’t feel Hunter’s grip. He felt Mimi’s. The darkness wasn’t from the forgotten corridors of Hartfield, but the house Riley had been a prisoner in for the longest four years of his life.
Closing his eyes, Riley stilled, and he put his free hand on the cold, painted cinder-block wall. His breath echoed down the empty hall, coming back at him stereo. The basement walls of John and Mimi’s house did the same thing, felt the exact same way: empty, cold, impenetrable. No one was coming to save him. No one cared he was gone.
“Riley, you okay?” Hunter’s thumb moved up and down the inside of Riley’s arm.
Thank God he couldn’t see the slow lick of Riley’s tongue over his own lips or the hard set of his jaw. Thank God Hunter couldn’t see the fear.
“Why’d you stop?”
Because I’m still a scared little boy, trapped in a house with strangers.
“Yeah, I’m—” Riley cleared his throat. “—I’m okay.”
Riley jerked his chin, a half nod, even though he knew Hunter couldn’t see him. He started to move, pulling away from the hand on his upper arm only because he didn’t want this time with Hunter to consume the same space of memories as his time with Mimi and John. It all had to stay separate. If ever Riley made it to a point in old age to look back on his life, he didn’t want his past to collide with his now.
“You’re not okay, are you?”
Wow, what a hell of a question.
“No. I’m… I’m not.”
how much Hunter was dying for Riley to elaborate on the “No, I’m not,” Riley didn’t. Not immediately anyway. He promised to go into details when they reached the empty room at the far end of the hall. Riley went in first, reaching across the wall for the light switch. Hunter couldn’t have been happier to finally see all of Riley’s expression. It didn’t matter how much his eyes protested.
“Damn, it’s bright in here,” Hunter said.
“Sorry about that. It’s either off or on. No in between.”
“It’s cool.” Hunter rubbed his eye sockets with his thumb and forefinger. The second time around wasn’t so painful, and he opened his eyes in time to catch Riley sitting down on one of the musty old beds. Riley was a much braver man than him.
“So, the dark isn’t a good place for me,” Riley quietly admitted.
Okay, maybe he wasn’t braver. “You’re afraid of the dark?” he said flatly and probably a little more condescending than he meant it to be, especially after Riley tucked his chin and averted his eyes. “I didn’t mean—”
“No. Don’t. It’s cool. You meant it, and yeah, I’m a grown man afraid of the fucking dark.”
“Riley, I didn’t….”
Damn. Nice job.
Hunter stepped up to Riley, wedged his hips between Riley’s legs, and reached for his new friend’s shoulders. Riley raised his head in that
lost puppy finally getting attention
sort of way, and he hit Hunter with the kind of gaze that made strong wills crumble. “I’m sorry,” Hunter said. “I wasn’t trying to make fun.”
Riley still looked warily disbelieving, but Hunter wasn’t bullshitting. He wasn’t making fun, just… intrigued. Everything about his roommate intrigued him. He was a complete enigma. Somehow Riley managed to seem world-weary yet innocent all at the same time. He was prone to scrappy outbursts while being reserved and quiet for the most part. He seemed to have it together more than anyone Hunter had met, but here he was, a lifer who suffered night terrors and who was covered in scars and feared the dark.
He was also hot. Though hot was just a physical thing. A more appropriate word was
. There was something dark and haunted about Riley that pulled Hunter in. The way Riley’s pink lips looked after having been wetted by his tongue, the way his all-knowing eyes ate Hunter up, how his smooth face begged to be touched, made Hunter want to touch and protect. He’d not felt the urge so strong since he’d met Cory. But Cory was all swagger and ego. None of the innocence that clung to Riley had ever been a part of who Cory was.
“Hunter….” Riley was staring at him, voice soothing before giving a timid smile. “You’re making that dumb face again.”
Hunter laughed, then without thinking, placed a hand to Riley’s face. Riley’s smile dimmed. Hunter couldn’t control it, couldn’t stop himself. He knew it was probably crazy—yes,
—but he had to kiss the guy. He quickly pressed his lips to Riley’s. He always wondered what someone meant when they said they tried to convey an emotion with a kiss, but now he got it. He was trying to beg and apologize and offer comfort with his lips. He really hoped he wasn’t fucking up.
Riley immediately returned the kiss, but shyly. Hunter forced himself not to go trying to tongue smother the guy, but he was overcome with the need to show Riley how much he liked him. But this wasn’t a bar, and Riley wasn’t a hookup. This was Riley, and those soft lips moving against Hunter’s were enough to make his heart try to sprout wings. He slipped his hand from Riley’s cheek, rested it on his shoulder, and moved in closer.
The kiss was an odd brand of passionate, probably because they both needed to feel that thing… that magical something that happened between two people when their lips locked and they gave in to what they felt. Hunter would’ve sworn he’d taken flight, but what did Riley feel right now? Was this even right?
As if Riley was tuned in to Hunter’s brain waves, he moved his arms to encircle Hunter completely. It was a hug, a full embrace given because the kiss apparently drove him to want it. Then he felt Riley’s fingers knot in his shirt, a silent “keep going, go deeper.” But then Hunter heard that heartbreaking sniffle of someone trying not to cry. And….
Hunter pulled back, but Riley didn’t let go. He seemed to be holding on for dear life, and yes, yes, the rims of his eyes were turning red. Tears glistened over those dark brown irises. He was about to cry his ass off, and Hunter had royally screwed the pooch on this one.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, reaching up to thumb away the first fallen tear. “Did I go too far?”
Riley shook his head, sniffling the rest of his tears before they had a chance to fall to his cheeks.
“Then why are you crying?”
“Because I….” Riley licked his lips. “I haven’t had a friend since Andy, and he….” He inhaled, then sharply exhaled, dragging his hand over his face. “He’s the only person who’s ever cared about me, and I….”
Cared about him? Did he? Yeah, he liked Riley, but he hadn’t cared about himself, much less another human being, in so long he didn’t know if that’s what he’d call this. Sure he found Riley attractive, and he was funny when he wasn’t being too quiet or a little fucker. Okay, so he’d admit he had felt the need to protect Riley in a way he’d not wanted to protect someone in a long, long time. And he couldn’t deny he hated seeing Riley cry. This wasn’t….
Oh, stop. You care.
But caring hurt. People hurt.
your friend.” He was. Did he care? Yes. Fuck, yes, he did. But saying the words felt like a trap. “Silly question, I’m sure, but…. Do you want to talk about it?”
“Promise you won’t look at me like I’m some kinda weirdo?”
Hunter wanted to mention how he was probably in no position to judge, but he went with, “Never.”
“When I was six, these people kidnapped me, and….” Riley rolled his bottom lip between his teeth.
It was sexy as fuck, and Hunter swore he’d go to hell for thinking that in the middle of a confession like this, but he couldn’t help himself. Not until Riley continued.
“The scars are from the abuse they put me through. Four years’ worth. They promised my mom and dad were coming, but….”
Hunter was horrified. Well, that explained a lot about his roommate. Small pieces that had never fit until he confessed his nightmare. “So the night terrors…?”
Hunter wanted to hug Riley again, but was that appropriate? Riley looked so vulnerable. So young. So hurt.
So Hunter hugged him. Fuck it. He pulled Riley close and wrapped him up in the strongest hug he’d probably ever given. He bowed his head and kissed Riley’s temple. “I’m so sorry. You deserved better.” God, did he. Hunter wanted to break out of the hospital and hurt people. He was not one to often resort to caveman actions, but fuck those people.
He held Riley, who sniffled into Hunter’s shoulder. He hoped he was comforting Riley, even if just a little, because holding Riley was comforting him immensely. Knowing Riley was alive and vital and breathing, safe, was such a relief he was afraid to examine it too deeply.
When Riley’s sniffles had silenced and small tremors that had been running through his body had ceased, Hunter pulled his head back to look down at him. “Thanks for telling me.”
“I, um, I needed to. I don’t talk about it, but I needed to with you. I don’t know why. I just did. I’ve only really talked about it to one other person before, and he….”
“Yeah, I think I got that part.”
“Is that why you’re here? Suicide attempt?”
Hunter shook his head. “No way. I mean, that’s what they said, but I just had too good a night, if you know what I’m sayin’.”
Riley backed away a step. “No, I don’t.”
Hunter sighed. “Riley, I’m a fuckin’ drunk. You know that already. I just mixed the wrong shit, okay?” He felt bad. There was obviously more to it, Riley’s expression said he knew it too, and Riley had shared his story. But Hunter couldn’t talk about it. He kept that shit all locked up. It needed to stay where it was. Otherwise, like Riley, he’d be a lifer.
Riley was a lifer. And didn’t that dampen the mood further.
“So, show me this magic… or whatever….” Hunter motioned toward the rooms around them. “What exactly
we do here?”
“It seems kinda stupid now,” Riley muttered.
“No. Don’t. Okay? Don’t check out on me yet.”
Nodding, Riley pushed up from the bed and held firm to where he stood for a moment. He eyed Hunter. Sizing him up? No, not at all. Riley truly didn’t want to be judged or looked down on. “It’s silly and immature.”
“The more immature, the better.”
“All right, then.” Riley eased from between him and the bed and headed over to a closet, explaining, “We stocked the closet with clean sheets because there’s not a lot of clean anything around here.” He wrenched open the doors, and sure as shit, a pile waist high of fresh linens were packed into that thing. “Tell me where you want to go.”
“Um. Go? Like…. Home?”
Riley laughed. “No. Like anywhere in the world you want to be.”
Hunter quirked an eyebrow at him. “Did you go off your meds?”
Riley shoved Hunter gently. “Anyone tell you you’re a jerk?”
“My sister’s called me worse.”
Riley laughed again. Damn, was that amazing to hear. It was a rusty sound, almost croaking, like Riley’s vocal cords were confused as to what exactly they were doing. The thought made Hunter laugh while also making him heartsore. When a man had a smile like Riley, a spirit that had survived what he had, he deserved laughter and hope and fun. Meanwhile, guys like Hunter squandered it, had so much fun they ended up in the same damn place as Riley—the hospital.
Hence this world he’s inviting you to. Stop making fun of him.
And now Hunter felt like a douche. “Okay, dude. Show me what you got.”
“You still haven’t told me where you want to go.”
“I’d settle for a bar.”
Riley’s flat expression told Hunter his roommate… his friend was not amused. “Try again.”
“Okay, okay. How about New Orleans?”