"Fuck this shit!" he says, and he sounds tired. So tired. The exclamation is nothing more than a slight raising of his tone and the huff of breath that comes after. "I can't do this anymore," he says, and a tear falls unbidden, slipping down, down, under my chin and soaking into my collar.
"I've felt it before," he murmurs, hands clenching into fists in the blue of his hospital gown. "I've felt it. That fracture inside of me when something awful happens." I sigh, wiping more threatening tears from my eyelids and looking away from him. He looks so tiny, wrapped in paper-thin material and sorrow.
"I thought that over time they had healed up all the cracks. The edges fusing together, making me whole." I want to fold him into my arms in that moment. Hold him tight, heal him up from the inside out. He doesn't deserve this.
"But I was wrong Edward. I don't think I've ever been so wrong." Please, God help him. God help us both. Seeing him like this. Seeing my very best friend in all the world falling to pieces breaks my heart.
I still remember so vividly how he was 6 months ago. Before. It seems so long ago and yet so close. Some days I expect the old Riley to come charging into my bedroom, odd socks, glass of orange juice and his so-familiar cheeky grin.
He's had that same grin since he could smile and it's more familiar than my own. Everything that he is, totally engrained on my eyelids. He's the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing I see at night, even now when he is locked up here in paper gowns and IV's, bars on the windows and not more than a plastic spork within a mile's radius.
"All those tiny fissures have just kept growing." His voice brings me out of the slight trance I've fallen into and my chest aches.
"I just stopped feeling it. Stopped feeling." He pauses for breath and a small smile comes unbidden. This is the most he's said in weeks. At his next words though, the smile falls fast. Plummets. "I think this time though, something has really broken. Something ugly has happened. I don't know how to come back from that, Edward. And this place isn’t helping!"
How do you start to piece back together the fragments of somebody?
"And God! Staying broken is so much easier than trying to fit all of the broken parts back together. I can't fail if I never try, right? I don't think I'm going to try anymore."
"Riley," I stop him. "Please, don't. You can't..." I'm meant to be the articulate one. Not here. I'm so far from comfortable it would be hysterically funny if I wasn't staring, lost, at my Riley and not seeing him looking back. He's blank. Just another grey spot amongst crisp white. Everything about him is dulled, from the ashen colour of his skin to the equally ashy blonde of his hair.
Everything about Riley should be bright! Shining! Sunny! Only a handful of times in the 17 years I've known him has he been less than that. It hurts seeing him without his sparkle.
"Living takes more effort than I have now." That steals the breath from my lungs and I'm on him before the last word has sidled from his mouth. I grab him, my larger hands grasping easily around his slender forearms and squeezing.
"Riley. Riley no. No! You can't just... You can't say shit like that! I don't... No! Riley!" I don't realise I'm shaking him until an orderly lays a firm hand on my shoulder and says “Mr Cullen!” as though she's caught me smothering a small child.
Before all of this, grabbing Riley was nothing. There's been a few occasions where I punched him, for malice and for fun. We've shared single beds and sleeping bags, hugs, a kiss just 2 days before it happened when we were drunk and stupid.
But I'd never hurt Riley now. Not when I can see how tiny he looks, how diminished, like nothing, nobody, in the world can fix what's happened to him. It makes me angry just to think that this woman would consider it for a second.
I loosen my grip, holding his wrists in my palms and staring imploringly into his eyes. "Don't do anything stupid okay? Just…fucking don't." I do it on impulse, planting my forehead to his for a second and my lips to it for even less than that. I miss him. I miss him so much.
My dad is standing by the door when I leave the room, white coat unfastened, glasses perched on his head. He takes one look at me and frog-marches me into his office. No arguing with Edward Senior.
Dad jokes that the first thing he does after every major event of his life, is have a cup of tea and he pushes one into my hands now. He gets 'proper British tea' sent over in crates and I was brought up on it. Edward Senior totally agrees with the idea that 'a cuppa can fix anything'; I'd never tell him, but I agree.
It never fails to make me feel better, whether that's from latent British genes, courtesy of my Mom, or just that it reminds me of one of the only 2 stable people in my life, is debatable.
"How is he?" His voice startles me and the cup starts to tremble slightly, rattling as I set it on his desk.
"Not right" is all I say and he nods. Though he isn't Riley's doctor, his doctor does report to my dad. Not that that means much. My daily visits to see Riley shed more light on his condition than anything a shrink can get from a few hours of watching Riley not speak.
"He thinks...—says—that he's broken. I don't think he wants fixing this time, Dad." Stuff like this has happened in the past. Riley had leukaemia when he was three, a relapse at seven, and finally was given the all clear in time to lose his parents and baby sister at eleven. House fire.
He lived with his grandparents until he was fifteen. Then they died too. Car accident. Riley was in the car with them when they were sideswiped by a lorry and he was trapped in the car with them for 4 hours. They were killed instantly, but Riley was alive and he couldn't move. He called me at 2 in the morning, his phone somehow surviving being crushed, unlike his legs.
I woke my dad, kept him on the phone even as the fire brigade cut him from the wreckage. He came to stay with us then, rather than being bounced between relatives around the world, until two months ago when a long lost uncle appeared. James, he was called. He bought a house two doors down from us and took Riley in.
There was the Halloween party, the kiss, then 2 days later, it happened and for the first time, Riley didn't bounce back.
“It will be okay son. We can... We can help him,” Dad says. But it sounds so empty to me. Pointless platitudes. We finish our tea in silence, and when I go to bed that night, my mind is consumed with all things Riley.
I cry myself to sleep.
Riley is discharged 3 months later; no longer a suicide risk and I manage to convince Dad who in turn convinces Charlie, our local Chief of Police, to let Riley stay with us. It’s almost like it was before, with Riley sneaking into my bed late at night, like he did up until we turned fourteen and suddenly, waking up pressed against each other was weird and awkward. The number of times I’d actually found myself pressing up against Riley’s hip or ass before he started sleeping in the spare room is something we never bring up.
Before that, it was the rare weekend that we didn’t spend in the same bed. Now though, Riley is suddenly back to creeping into my bed. Though some things have changed. Now, I’m not woken at three in the morning because Riley has somehow managed to elbow me in the head (despite having fallen asleep feet from each other); instead, I’m woken by his nightmares.
During the daylight hours, our relationship mostly goes back to what it was, it’s only at night that things change.
It’s become something of a routine already. We bid my dad goodnight around eleven and head upstairs, separate beds at first. About an hour after that, an hour of staring at the ceiling or the door, Riley appears.
He always knock first, and waits, almost as though he is waiting for me to say “Not tonight Riley” and then comes inside when he doesn’t hear anything.
He settles on the right side of the bed, furthest away from the door, and falls asleep nearly as soon as his head touches the pillow. It always takes a while longer for me to drift off, too caught up in how much better Riley looks asleep.
The tense lines that sit across his forehead during the day smooth out, long blonde lashes kiss his cheekbones, and I’m more than a little envious of the fact that I can’t kiss him like that, feather light along his face. His lips part slightly as I watch; the tiniest of smiles lifts the corner of his lips and my own curl instinctively.
Wash, rinse, repeat. Every night for the last two months it’s been exactly the same, and then there was last night when I woke up with Riley curled half underneath me, one hand clenches into a tight fist against the small of my back, bare chests stuck together, slick with sweat, whimpering like he’s in the worst kind of pain.
Within seconds, our nightly ritual is becoming a living nightmare. It takes an awful minute of staring to realise the name he's whimpering isn't mine, it’s almost silent, wordless and I have to strain to catch the “No, no, no, no, please, no..." It takes a few agonising seconds to scramble off of Riley's prone form.
He tails off into muffled sobs and I'm frozen.
This isn't something... I don't know what to do! I want to climb back into bed with him, pretend this isn't happening but he might think... Fuck. Fucking shit. What do I...?
"DAD!" Even I can hear the urgency in my voice, the desperation. "DAD!!" Louder and thank fuck, I can hear him. Feet thundering on the stairs. He stops outside the door, debating, and I look down at myself in nothing but the purple boxers Riley got me for the birthday before last, Riley himself dressed much the same, legs entwined in the bed clothes, sweat glistening on his chest. Helping him is more important than my Dad knowing about us. About our less than healthy habit.
I throw open the door and just, point. He takes everything in with practiced calm and is dashing to his office before I can blink. He's back just as quickly, almost before the door has swung shut, a syringe in hand and I panic. They can't take him away from me again!
"Edward" I ignore him, turning to stand between him and Riley.
"You're not taking him away again." I tell him and he frowns.
"I wouldn't... Look son, step aside. I’m here to help. That’s why you shouted for me, right?" I don't know what to say, frozen to the spot. It takes another few garbled words from Riley to make me move.
"Edward," he whispers, and I half-turn towards him. "Help me." I'm on the bed in a flash, ignoring the disapproving expression I find on my fathers' face. I tug him to me, pulling him into a sitting position, face to face with me and assume the most non-threatening posture I can, letting go of his arms quickly.
"Riley. It's me. It's Edward." He looks up at me, panic clear in eyes that are slightly unfocused, glazed. I know with sudden horror that he’s not here. Not here, with me, in this moment.
“Riley, I’m right here. Riley, I’m here to help you. See. I’m never gonna leave you again.” I don’t touch him, that would make him freak out more, but somehow he keeps his face tilted up to mine and as a shudder runs through him, the fog clears a little. “Baby, I need you to breathe for me, okay? Deep breath.”
And somehow, he hears me and he inhales like there isn’t enough oxygen in the world to keep him alive. “Let it out slow. There you go.” He does as I ask, stuttering through the exhale, but his eyes begin to focus more on my own, gaining back that deep blue depth that I’ve missed so much over the last five minutes. It feels like hours. Weeks.
I coach him through his breathing until my heart stops hammering in my ears and I can finally hear the way his breathing has slowed as well. I break his gaze for a moment to glance at my dad. He’s standing, warily, to one side, watching the exchange like I’m a poisonous snake. Like I am someone who will hurt Riley just by looking at him, even though I know I’m helping him.
Why doesn’t anyone else get that? A touch to my hand startles me and I look down at where Riley has curled his hand into my own, my thumb resting in the centre of his palm. I take the silent clue and rub circles into the skin at the base of his thumb.
“How are you feeling?” I whisper, looking up to meet his eyes again and catching the tail end of a nod. He opens his mouth, closes it again and licks his lips, croaking out “better” in a voice that makes my chest ache again.
“You want me to get you anything?” He shakes his head no and then stops and nods, his hand gripping tighter to mine, contradicting the actions of his head. “Water?” I ask and he nods again, fingers curling tighter, sure to leave marks.
“Riley, love? You have to let go.” He doesn’t ease up the pressure and my heart leaps a little. “Okay then. Dad? Could you get Riley some water please?” When the door swings shut again I stare at him, willing him to speak, to help me understand.
Instead, he shivers, and I tug gently with the hand he has in a death grip, pulling him further up the bed so that I can pull the quilt over us both. When my father returns, Riley’s snuggled against my side, taking comfort from the contact, eyes still wide, hairline still damp with sweat. But he’s not gasping anymore, his eyes aren’t darting around like he’s scanning for threats, and he doesn’t look like he wants to run and run and never look back. The water seems to do the trick, and he falls asleep with my hand still clenched in his, steadfastly ignoring the holes my dad is attempting to drill into my face.
He leaves, eventually, and I fall asleep like that, sitting up, with one hand in Riley's, the other resting on the mattress at my side. I don’t dare to wrap it around him. I don’t dare to do so many things that would have been second nature before.
I dream that we’re fourteen again, camping out back in the garden, toasting marshmallows over a gas burner to make smores. Riley's peals of laughter when marshmallow inexplicably ends up on his nose wake me, and as I look down at a Riley who hasn't laughed like that since October, I wish that I am still asleep.
Closing my eyes I think about what happened next, that night when we camped on grass that was expensively green and manicured in a tent flimsy enough that there was ice in the cans of Pepsi the next morning.
"You know man, for a pale-as-fuck ginger kid, you sure like your sun." Riley drawls, glancing over from his spot under the chestnut tree, resting in the shade, at me sprawled shirtless in direct sunlight.
"I'm cold blooded." I say, lips curving into a smile at Riley's giggle.
Non-laughing Riley snuffles is his sleep, pressing even closer to my side (and how is that physically possible?), fingers still clamped around mine which are going worryingly numb. I close my eyes again.
"How the hell did you get it on your nose?" I laugh later; as we sit beside the small gas lighter we swiped from the house earlier during a ‘raid’ and I reach over a finger, unthinkingly, and swipe most of the gooey mess from his nose. I smile over at him, bringing the finger up to my mouth and sucking cooling marshmallow from it with a chuckle. Riley smiles right on back, that cheeky grin once again appearing on his lips—
It's odd, looking back, seeing how actions we thought innocent would not be perceived as that by anyone else in any circumstance. The way I sucked marshmallow from my finger was downright filthy and the look Riley gave me enough to make my 14-year-old self want to lean over to get the rest of the stuff with my tongue.
It would have given 18-year-old me an instant boner. And I would probably have sucked the marshmallow clean off Riley's face. The worst thing about it all though? About this whole fucked up situation? Back then, Riley would have let me. No doubts, no worries, no second thoughts.
I have the funniest feeling, as I gaze down at the Riley nestled into my body—deeper creases marring the skin at his brow with every minute that passes—that he wouldn't let it happen now. He wouldn’t let me touch him like that. Or he would, but he wouldn’t want me to.
The sobs trapped in my chest make me ache and my eyes sting from holding back tears.
My last thought before I slip into a nightmare-free sleep is that this shouldn’t have happened.
We shouldn’t have to be dealing with this.
Riley shouldn’t be hurt, now or ever.
I wake up to an empty bed and morning wood born mostly from dreams of half-naked Riley slippery with sweat whilst I fucked him into the mattress. I can still hear him begging me “Don't stop…fuck…Edward” when I jerk off miserably in the shower twenty minutes later.
Riley is perched on the edge of his seat, facing the door, always facing the door, tearing apart a croissant with shaking hands. I settle into the seat across from him, studiously avoiding looking him in the eye. I’m sure he’ll be able to see the sin there. The knowledge of what I’ve done.
“Morning,” I mumble when my dad steps into the kitchen, already dressed in suit and tie, perfectly coiffed hair swept back. I catch sight of myself in the door of the microwave and the differences between us are never more evident than in this moment. Where he looks perfectly fine, not a crease in sight, I look dishevelled, hair a messy ball of sodden copper, eyes sunk slightly in their sockets from worry and sleeplessness, rivulets of water from my wet hair dripping onto the grey t-shirt I pulled on over the nearest pair of jeans. I’m pretty sure it’s a shirt of Riley’s, the way it hangs off of my shoulders and I’m equal parts happy and sad. Happy because that’s always my reaction when I find a random pair of boxers or jeans that I know aren’t mine but have ended up in my drawer anyway; and sad because the shirt that is loose on me and would have been tight on the Riley from before, would hang from his skinny frame now.
One thing about my father’s appearance is familiar though. You can see Edward Sr. in the hard set of my lips.
He’s angry, I’m angry and Riley sits between us, picking at his baked goods, completely oblivious.
“I’ll be back at about 9.” Dad says, nodding at me and sweeping back out of the kitchen without a word, and maybe Riley isn’t completely oblivious to the tension between us because he glares at my dad’s retreating figure, only catching himself when I snort.
He giggles, the driest of laughs, but a laugh nonetheless and it reminds me of my dream. He smiles back at me and when he leaves the kitchen to get showered and dressed he lays a hand on my shoulder, squeezing gentle and presses the tiniest of kisses to my cheek.
It’s all the thanks I need. It makes up for the past six months. The worrying and crying and sitting by the bedside of a Riley that just kept getting sicker and not seeming to care about himself. It makes waking me up in the early hours and having an argument with my dad and talking him down from a panic attack worth it.
Because it gives me hope.
Hope that he will continue to recover. Hope that eventually, in some distant future, we can get back to what we were before. Hope that maybe, just maybe, Riley feels about me, the way I feel about him.
I’m still beaming when Dad gets in from the hospital that night and glares at the way Riley is curled around me on the sofa watching Hitchhikers Guide. I just smile at him, lips curling, teeth flashing across the dark living room and wrapping my arm tighter around Riley in retaliation.
It’s going to be okay. I let myself think it for the first time and it steals my breath, this realisation that it really is going to turn out okay. Maybe even great. Because I have Riley, and that, more than anything else, is what makes me beam.