Hard Line Outtakes, Tidbits, and Assorted Stuff (May be NSFW).

CAUTION! THIS SECTION IS SPOILER HEAVY AND UNEDITED/UNCOPYEDITED. (Last updated 8/24/18--New Stuff at the Top)


[deleted/alternate scene from old version of hard line; sullivan's secret is out--first posted in august 24, 2018 newsletter]

*** Author's Note:

Some of you might remember my blog post about how much trouble the early drafts of Hard Line gave me. Well, this deleted/alternate scene is from that version. This is, in fact, the only scene of that version that I'm remotely comfortable with readers seeing, because that's how bad that manuscript was. This is the best of the worst, you might say, and it's a good example of the myriad problems in that version. It's not awful, exactly, although the set up is more than a little cliched and forced. But it's way too long and it takes a very circuitous route to accomplish a handful of fairly simple goals (namely: revealing that both of them are into kink, that Tobias has little previous knowledge of the subject, that Sullivan doesn't trust himself because of old relationship baggage, and that their desire for each other is strong enough to push them to make changes about themselves). In this version, it takes more than four pages, a POV shift, and two brand-new characters who exist solely for Plot Reasons, whereas in the published version this is all accomplished in about a paragraph--they're arguing in the hallway, Tobias has an instinct to kneel that he doesn't entirely understand, and Sullivan worries extensively about not trusting his instincts before he decides to take the risk anyway. Problem solved. Done and done. Plus, their chemistry appears more powerful in the published version, because the second they realize they're compatible, the desire takes over, as opposed to in this version, where Sullivan walks away and I got stuck trying to figure out yet another hamhanded situation that would force them to get down. 

If nothing else, you can take this as proof that all writers produce garbage at least 75% of the time. Revision is where the magic happens, people.

 

***

 

Tobias was forty-five minutes early as he pulled up on the curb in front of the ugliest house he’d ever seen. After he recovered from the shock—orange siding, seriously?—he reached into the backseat for his backpack, planning to study while he waited for Sullivan to arrive. But as he moved, a lamp turned on deep in the house, the sudden flash of light just visible through the cracked picture window.

Oh. Sullivan was home after all.

For a minute, Tobias wrestled with himself. It was rude to show up this early, wasn’t it? Sullivan might be annoyed if Tobias came before their agreed upon time. It couldn’t hurt to ask, he reasoned. The worst that would happen was that Sullivan would say no, and Tobias would come back out here and study until seven.

He threw his bag into the trunk and headed across the street, picking his way up the cracked sidewalk to the portico, where he found a fluttering piece of paper thumb-tacked to one of the peeling columns.

Front door doesn’t work, come around the back. Watch your step. Don’t touch the gate, it’ll give you lockjaw.

Tobias started around the edge of the property, obediently avoiding the open gate when he got to it, and stepping into a mass of weeds on the other side. As he rounded the corner, he could hear a very soft, low, repetitive sound, almost like clapping, except that there was more resting time in between. Frowning, Tobias looked around the cramped back yard, trying to figure out the source of the noise, and finally decided it was coming from inside the house. There were white-painted cement stairs to his left leading up to a drooping sun porch, where a screen door clung half-heartedly to its hinges. As he approached, the slow clapping sound got slightly louder, accompanied by a grunt of effort, and a strained moan.

Tobias’s nerves stretched taut. The house, which had been merely ugly before, suddenly seemed vaguely threatening.

The screen door moved easily when he pulled on the handle because there was no spring to resist—like everything else about Sullivan’s house, it was in disrepair, so it was nearly silent, too. The inside of the sun porch was nicer than anyone would expect from outside—it’d been stripped clean, the beams exposed, as if someone had been putting work into the structure of the thing. A pair of relatively nice French doors were propped half-open in a nod to the warm August evening.

From beyond them came a soft cry, thick and feminine.

Nervous, Tobias hesitated, wishing he could go back to the car. But now that he’d heard her, now that he knew there was a chance someone was in pain or trouble, he couldn’t leave. Instead, he stepped forward, cautiously, to peer inside.

In the foot-wide space between the doors, Tobias could see partway into a big room lit by a single stand-up lamp in a far corner. There was a dim, huddled shape off to one side that might’ve been a sofa, but he wasn’t sure. With the windows shaded, there was only enough light to illuminate a small circle of space in which a—Tobias’s eyes widened—nearly-naked woman stood facing Tobias’s right, one arm extended straight to brace herself against the blank wall, the other clutching the skirt of her green dress up around her waist. Her underwear lay discarded by her feet, leaving her lower body completely exposed. Tobias jerked his gaze up and focused instead on her profile; her eyes were closed, her expression somnolent.

The clapping sound came again, louder and sharper now, and the woman’s whole body rocked, her voice trembling out in another low moan. It took a second for Tobias to realize that she’d been struck across her buttocks, that there was another person in the room, a man half-concealed in the shadows, holding a long, thin crop in one hand.

Under other circumstances, Tobias might’ve pushed his way inside, intervened on her behalf, but he wasn’t a complete idiot. Even though he’d never seen anything like this outside of TV or movies, he knew what he was looking at.

And there was no mistaking her reaction as anything other than consenting. She never struggled or cringed or tried to move out of range. She wasn’t restrained in any way, and nothing about her suggested she was too frightened to assert her right to leave. She wanted to be here.

She was even…eager, somehow.

There was something truly captivating about her, actually, the way her whole body tensed upon impact, hips rolling once in reaction, before returning to loose-limbed passivity. The way her mouth fell open and another of those low moans ripped out of her. The way the skin of her ass and thighs was flushed dark red from the snaps of the whip. The loveliness of her neck when her head fell back, leaving her long mass of curls swinging.

But it was her expression that most caught him. She looked so absorbed, so engrossed. As if nothing existed outside of herself and the man and the whip. Everything else had fallen away, the world and its demands, the other voices in her life. There was just this.

Tobias’s stomach clenched hot and heavy with…something. Some unknown, powerful awareness. He couldn’t have stepped away if he tried, and he didn’t want to try anyway. He was suddenly fighting the urge to reach out, to take some small part of this moment for himself. Yes, that was what it was—want. He felt it in his body first, but it was bigger than that. Much bigger.

“You understand now?”

Tobias jerked, straightening, realizing he’d lost track of what else was going on in the room as he watched her. The speaker wasn’t the man with the whip; it was someone else, invisible in the shadows out of Tobias’s view, voice vaguely familiar.

“Yeah,” the man with the whip said. “I always pulled back, before. I didn’t think…I thought crying had to be bad.”

Tobias’s gaze flew to the woman’s cheeks, and yes, they were slightly shiny, her breath coming in little catches. She was crying, but it didn’t look like fear exactly. He dropped his eyes rather than study her expression further. It was private—her feelings, her body—and he had no right to intrude, not even by looking, but he hesitated to go, because he still felt that wordless yearning. There was something here for him, but he had no idea how to reach for it.

“Sometimes it’s about releasing tension,” the other man said, and now Tobias recognized him. Sullivan. The knowledge blew through him, left him shifting his weight uncertainly. Stupid, he told himself. Of course Sullivan was here. It was his house. This wouldn’t be happening without his involvement.

Sullivan’s voice was low in volume, perhaps too low for the woman to hear, but brisk in tone. Didactic. “Sometimes it’s about the intensity of the experience. Sometimes they’re tears of humiliation, which isn’t a problem if humiliation’s one of the kinks you’re playing with. Eventually you want to get to know your partner well enough that you can tell when those tears are good, and when they’re a sign that something’s going wrong. You can ask her, too. During the scene if you’re really unsure, or afterwards, if you want clarification for the future. You can’t read her mind, Donovan, and no one’s expecting you to.”

“I didn’t imagine it could be sexual, not really. I mean, she said it was, but I didn’t know how it possibly could be.”

“Huh. Let’s build on that, actually.” Sullivan didn’t say anything for a moment, and when he next spoke, his tone had taken on a new note of command. It wasn’t brutish or demanding or loud, only certain, as if it had never entered his mind that anyone would dare to argue with him. “Karen, do you still feel comfortable being alone with Donovan?”

“Yes, I do, yes,” the woman—Karen—said. Her voice was muted, husky. Pleading. “I want…”

“I know. It’s all right. He’s going to take care of you.” In softer tones clearly meant for Donovan alone, Sullivan added, “Okay, we helped her disengage from the world with the pain, right? We got her into the here and now, focused on you, reminded her of your strength. Remember, it’s not about being a bully or being mean. It’s about confidence and letting her know that she can let go and be as free and dirty as she wants because you’ve got everything under control and you enjoy that about her. You just have to keep that emotional state rolling while you fuck. Okay?”

“Okay.”

 “I’ll be in my room if you need me,” Sullivan continued, “but try to finish up by six forty-five so we have time to practice some aftercare. And have fun, yeah? It’s sex, not brain surgery.”

Donovan chuckled a little uncertainly. “Right.”

Tobias barely heard the end of the conversation—his brain was stuck on Sullivan’s words: while you fuck. It seemed jarring; he’d forgotten—or put aside, maybe—that this was sex. No one was touching, and Karen was the only one showing skin, but it was sex nonetheless, and that made Tobias an interloper. He shouldn’t be here. What the hell was he doing?

Tobias stumbled back a couple steps, heart in his throat, about to turn away, but he’d taken too long to recover himself, and when Sullivan passed by the French doors on the way to his bedroom, the movement caught his eye.

Tobias’s chest tightened as Sullivan’s startled expression quickly began to harden into anger. He backed further away, hitting the screen door with his butt, edging sideways into the yard, and Sullivan followed, shutting the French doors behind him.

“I’m sorry,” Tobias blurted, “I—”

“Would you lower your voice?” Sullivan hissed, casting a glance over his shoulder. “Jesus. What the hell are you doing here?”

“Sorry.” Tobias managed a whisper this time, but that didn’t keep the words from falling out of him in an avalanche. “Sorry, I know I shouldn’t have, I didn’t mean—

He stumbled over his feet as Sullivan herded him across the yard back toward the gate, all without laying a hand on him, using only the width of his shoulders and his strong air of disapproval. They were the same height—heck, Tobias might even outweigh him—but Sullivan was suddenly downright intimidating, and Tobias couldn’t help but go where he was directed.

Sullivan interrupted his babbling. “I said seven. You’re almost an hour early.”

“I know, I know, but I saw the light on, and I thought I’d check if you were done, and the sign…”

Which hadn’t been meant for him at all, he realized, and felt even stupider.

“Do you know how this would make them feel?” Sullivan shook his head in frustration. “Damn it. I told them they’d be safe here.”

“Sorry,” Tobias said again. “I thought she might need help.” Honesty compelled him to add, “At first. Then I—”

I was fascinated.

Well, he definitely couldn’t say that.

By this time they’d reached the sidewalk in front of the house, and Sullivan stopped, hands propped on his hips as he stared at the ground, jaw set. Tobias waited, miserably silent, his stomachache growing in leaps and bounds. He wished desperately for the words that might make Sullivan feel better.

“You might not believe me,” Sullivan muttered finally, “but it wasn’t what it looked like. I promise he wasn’t really hurting her. She’ll tell you if you want, so you don’t have to call the cops or anything.”

“I wasn’t going to. I know what you were—I’m not that clueless.” Tobias clenched his fingers together. “Um, I can apologize to your friends, too. If you think I should.”

“No.” Sullivan sounded tired. “Peeping toms tend to ruin the fun.”

Tobias winced. “Sorry.”

“I know. You can stop apologizing now.”

“Sor—I mean, right.”

“I should get back inside.” Sullivan aimed a hard look at Tobias. “Wait in your car this time.”

Tobias nodded. “I will.”

Sullivan went back the way they’d come. He was shaking, his face hot with embarrassment and a little shame. He’d really screwed that up.

He felt very much like a kid who’d been sent to his room to think about what he’d done. Deservedly. Sullivan probably thought he was creepy now.

He put his head back against his seat and closed his eyes, breathing deeply, trying to calm himself. He repeated the affirmations his therapist had given him for moments like this:  It’s not the end of the world. People can be forgiven. You’re not expected to be perfect.

It didn’t help. For every argument he made that excused his behavior, there were five that did the opposite.

God, he hated this. He hated the way everything grew, the way small things got so big in his head. Sometimes he could talk himself out of the spiral, but sometimes it was just so loud.

He thoughts returned to that minute when he’d been outside the French doors. It had been wrong to linger once he’d realized she wasn’t being hurt, he knew that. He hadn’t been peeping, not the way Sullivan had made it sound. He hadn’t been getting off on it or anything, and not only because he was gay. It wasn’t the physicality of what he’d seen that drew him, nor the illicitness of it.

It’d been her expression. She’d been crying and in pain, and it made no sense that she’d also seemed somehow at peace, and yet that was the correct word for it. That was what he wanted. That beautiful, perfect self-possession that he’d seen on Karen’s face. The focus that the whip had given her. What had Sullivan said? “We helped her disengage from the world with the pain.” As if everything outside of that moment—job stress, family stress, responsibilities—had been left behind, until her every thought was oriented around the sensations in her body. She didn’t have to do anything or be anything. Just exist. Just breathe. Because Donovan had everything else under control.

Well, Tobias thought with a tiny shiver, Sullivan had, anyway. Donovan might’ve been the one holding the whip, but it had been Sullivan who guided him. Sullivan who’d made sure she got what she needed. Sullivan who’d known exactly what to do. Tobias heard again that tone of casual authority in Sullivan’s voice as he’d spoken to Karen. That lack of doubt.

He thought of Sullivan’s breath against his ear and throat in Ghost's closet earlier, of the way he’d said you did good.

His breathing hadn’t slowed, but it was quick for an entirely different reason now. His dick was hard.

For a long time, Tobias sat there in the car. He didn’t grab his books from the trunk. Sullivan had told him to wait here, and he intended to. Something in him felt quieter at the thought. All he had to do was stay here like Sullivan had asked, and things would be okay.

 

* * *

 

Sullivan was on auto-pilot as he wrapped up the scene. He let Donovan make a cup of tea for Karen and had them get cozy on the couch to cuddle while they talked through the key components of aftercare. He answered a few last questions, gave them his number in case they came up with a problem that the internet or Caty couldn’t solve, and made small talk as he escorted them outside. Donovan shook his hand, leaning in and murmuring, “Thanks, man. You’ve been a life saver, seriously. You know, you might have a second career in the making here.” Sullivan smiled and nodded and let Karen kiss him on the cheek, and waved as they drove away.

He felt like a liar.

He ignored Tobias in his Audi as he went back inside. There were still a few minutes left, and he’d need it to settle himself. Actually, he might need a few days, because if he felt like this now, while he was still in shock, he couldn’t imagine what it would be like when the shock passed.

He’d fucked up. Huge.

Again.

The one saving grace was that it hadn’t done any actual harm. Neither Donovan nor Karen had been negatively affected, and thank Christ for that. If anything, the opposite was true; the tutorial seemed to have helped them immensely.

But it was hard to concentrate on that.

He cleaned up the living room while he tried to clear his head: washed the mugs and put them in the drainer, moved the sofa back into its place, folded up the blanket that Donovan had tucked around Karen. None of it got rid of the chatter at the back of his brain: you didn’t learn a single thing, you only think you’re in control, you’re right back where you were.

Not to be trusted.

His phone buzzed with a text message from Caty: *Karen says it went really well. Good job! Are you freaking out?*

“Not for the reason you think,” he muttered, and sent back: *No, I’m good. This doesn’t mean I’m going to start dating again.*

A second later his phone buzzed again. *Just come to a munch.*

He sent back: *No.*

*Come on.*

*No.*

*Sullivan, come on. You can’t hide forever.*

*No. Are you sure you’re a sub?*

*Nick wasn’t your fault.*

Sullivan stared at the screen for a good ten seconds, then put his phone aside without answering. He scrubbed a hand over his forehead, trying to get the muscles there to unlock, and abruptly got sick of his own melodrama. Fuck it. Nothing to be done about any of it now, so there was no point in going over the same ground. Better to think about work. He looked at his watch: 7:15.

Where the hell was Tobias?

He got up and went to the big picture window and tried to peer out past the filth. The Audi was still there. So why hadn’t he come back in at the hour?

A little perplexed—and frustrated, if he was honest—Sullivan headed outside, picking his way carefully past the gate of death and across the street.

The sky was beginning to cede its territory to a pink and navy evening, and the street was heavily shaded by the old cottonwood and pine trees. Cicadas sang. It was finally cooling off, not that you could tell by the sheen of sweat at Tobias’s temples as he started the car so he could roll the window down.

“Hi,” he said. He sounded—sort of thick. Heavy. Like he’d been on the verge of falling asleep. But his gaze wasn’t sleepy at all. He looked at Sullivan with an almost profound expectation that made Sullivan’s breath tight.

“What are you doing?” Sullivan asked, a little unsettled. He started to add, do you not have a clock on your phone or something? First you’re too early, and then you’re—

“You told me to wait in the car.” A crease formed between Tobias’s blue eyes. “I thought—wasn’t that what you wanted?” His hands clenched together where they rested on his thighs, tension appearing where before there’d only been—Jesus. Jesus.  

For a long second, Sullivan couldn’t speak. He couldn’t even think. It was instinct, pure, dangerous instinct, that had Sullivan saying, “No, that’s good. You did exactly what I asked. Thank you.”

The strain vanished from every inch of Tobias’s body all at once and Sullivan’s gut clenched. It had never occurred to him that Tobias wouldn’t come up to the house at the agreed-upon time, that he would sit here for over an hour, simply on Sullivan’s say-so. He’d never guessed that Tobias would give his words such weight. That Tobias would react this way to Sullivan’s order or praise.

Sullivan thought back to their earlier altercation. He’d been wrapped up in his own frustration, but now he went over Tobias’s behavior with more focus—the way Tobias had tripped over his own feet, the rushing apologies, the shame in his expression.

Sullivan hadn’t overreacted, he decided. Tobias had crossed a line, and Sullivan’s anger had been warranted. But it hadn’t been necessary or productive, he saw that now. Nothing he could say or do could compare with the judgment Tobias would heap on himself. Jesus, that sounded stressful. Exhausting even.

He didn’t look exhausted just now, though. In fact, now that Sullivan had given his approval, Tobias looked downright relaxed again. Languid, even. His eyes rested on Sullivan’s face, intent but patient. Waiting.

Sullivan wondered what else Tobias might do—or give—on Sullivan’s say-so.

Sullivan took a step back, only thinking to look both ways once he’d already moved. Thank God no cars were coming. He licked his lips, more than a little thrown, and had to force himself to concentrate on work.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s go inside. So your friend recognized the Russian guys at your buddy’s apartment?”


[deleted scene. Tobias, church, and ghost at woodbury--first posted in july 10th newsletter]

*** Author's Note:

Okay, some quick background. First, this scene was originally intended to be the first chapter to Hard Line. It's a flashback to Tobias's early days with Church and Ghost in Woodbury. You might remember Church making a reference in Loose Cannon to a time when Ghost had a psychotic break and ended up really hurting someone. Well, this scene is the aftermath of that incident. I really love this scene because it demonstrates the bond between the three of them as teenagers and does a good job of showing Tobias's complicated feelings in regards to Ghost. However, those same traits are why it had to go. A first scene should help a reader know where to direct her attention for the upcoming story, and this one emphasizes the boys as a group and Tobias's feelings for Ghost instead of setting up Tobias's journey. Plus, it was too long, especially considering that it didn't give us any information that I couldn't share later in more efficient ways. So it had to go, eventually getting replaced with the actual first chapter of Hard Line. But I love the scene, and I'm thrilled you guys will finally get to see it.

Usual post-book extra content disclaimer: my rough drafts usually have too many commas and I make no promises about quality. None of this has seen an editor or copyeditor.

***

The long dormitory corridor of the Woodbury Residential Treatment Center was quiet this late at night, and dark but for the small emergency lights that lined the floorboards every five feet or so. At one end was the alarmed fire door and at the other, nearly thirty feet away, was the main cottage desk, where two staff members were logging their shifts’ activities under the glaring white fluorescents still lighting the communal areas. The tall, thin windows inset in the dozen doors up and down the corridor were all dark, their residents sleeping.

Tobias and Church alone had permission to be up and out of their beds. They sat on the linoleum floor outside their room, backs against the wall. They were waiting.

“Man, I gotta walk,” Church said, shaking out his hands, tapping his toes frenetically. “I’m going crazy.”

“Don’t,” Tobias replied, resting his head against the wall. “They’ll make us go to bed.”

Church peered down the hallway, dark eyes narrowed. “They aren’t paying attention.” He aimed an apologetic grimace at Tobias and climbed to his feet. 

“Just be quiet, okay?”

“How do you do that?” Church demanded in a low voice, pacing back and forth, giving Tobias a look that was half angry, half impressed. “Just sit there. You’re not buzzing out of your skin? How, dude?”

“Raw talent,” Tobias said dryly, closing his eyes. Under the best of circumstances, Church tended to make Tobias a little edgy with nerves, and these weren’t close to the best of circumstances. These were very nearly the worst. “Try push-ups, Church.”

“Right.” Church dropped to the ground, sneakers squeaking on the floor, and began, not bothering to count.

Edgar-Allen Church was almost a year younger than Tobias, and he’d come to Woodbury roughly six months ago on his eighteenth birthday, fresh from a year’s stint in juvenile detention for committing assault. He was tall and lanky, black-haired and brown-skinned—all traits he’d inherited from his Puerto Rican mother, who he spoke about rarely and always with quiet longing. He had a dorky sense of humor, a loyal streak a mile wide, and a temper like a match flame—quick and hot, but short-lived and soon forgotten. That temper was the lone trait he admitted to inheriting from his white father.

“This is stupid,” Church muttered, still doing pushups.

“I know.”

“How am I supposed to know what to say?”

 “Just do your best.”

Church scoffed and slumped onto his belly, finally out of breath. “Yeah, like that’s worth much.”

“You’re too hard on yourself.”

Church scoffed again, but more softly, the lines around his mouth relaxing slightly. “He ever do something like this before?”

“There are rumors. A guy crawled in bed with him once. You can imagine how that went.” Tobias stared at the little silver lines in the window across from him. Safety glass. Everything here was made of rounded corners or padded edges. Tobias was a level 4 these days, which meant he could check out pencil sharpeners and razors and the like, but most the guys in here were still on some sort of restriction.

There were a lot of scraggly, mid-puberty beards in Woodbury.

He’d been lucky to be admitted here through the behavioral health program rather than the diversion program, he had zero doubt about that, and not only because he had more autonomy and privileges than the delinquents did. The simple truth was that it had taken all of an hour for him to realize that his problems—upsetting though they were—barely qualified as problems. So he’d had a little trouble at home; he’d been fed and sheltered and held when he cried, and that was a heck of a lot more than a lot of people got. In fact, Tobias had yet to meet a single guy in Woodbury he would’ve traded places with. A little perspective went a long way.

Take Church for instance—most of his issues were the result of being born the son of an angry drunk who thought his family existed to be his punching bag, something he’d probably learned from his father in turn. Nothing Tobias had faced could even compare. Church shouldn’t have to unlearn half of his childhood lessons, but he was determined to do the work because he wanted to be better than his father. Tobias was fiercely proud of him.

“Yeah, I can imagine.” Church rested his head on his arms, face tilted towards Tobias. “You feeling better at all? You look better.”

Tobias hadn’t handled the events of two nights ago very well. His anxiety had spun into a panic attack, and he’d ended up falling asleep in Church’s arms, exhausted and fighting a headache.

“Yeah.” Tobias shifted uncomfortably. “Thanks. Sorry for, um, all of that. It’s…I probably should’ve said that before, but…it’s kind of embarrassing.”

“I don’t care that you cried, dude.”

Tobias wasn’t going to ask. He really wasn’t. Then he asked anyway. “You don’t think I’m a wimp?”

Church frowned, giving the question serious thought. “No. You’re not weak, you’re just…you care, you know? You bleed easy for people. There’s a difference. It’s not a bad thing.”

Tobias nudged Church’s elbow with the toe of his shoe, the warmth of Church’s approval easing some of his nervousness. “Thanks.”

“Yeah.” Church cleared his throat. “How much longer do you think it’s gonna be? Is he not ready or something?”

“I don’t know. They wouldn’t have agreed to bring him back to the cottage if they didn’t think he was stable.”

“That means meds.”

“Probably.”

“Damn.” Church blew out an annoyed breath. “That fucking…that fucking Unit. He’s gonna be like a damn zombie.”

“Maybe not.”

“Maybe so.”

Secretly, Tobias thought meds might be a good thing. After what’d happened Friday night, Tobias couldn’t help thinking a little stability might be worth a few days spent in a zombie haze. 

It made him feel traitorous, but he couldn’t help it. It’d been a long time since he’d been scared of Ghost. It hurt more this time around.

“He didn’t recognize me.” Church licked his lips. “He looked up at me and it was like I was a stranger. Or…or part of the wall or something.”

“He’ll get better.” When Church made a low, unhappy snort of doubt, Tobias lied quietly, “I know he will, Church.”

Church opened his mouth to say something else, only to freeze when the soft chime of the main doors opening sounded from the other end of the hallway. Both Church and Tobias sat up straight, gazes riveted to the desk where the two staff members stood up, putting their logbooks aside.

A third staff member came into view, but he was turned to face someone behind him, saying something that Tobias didn’t catch, and then Ghost appeared. He wore a dingy tank undershirt and black jeans and he moved slow and heavy. Even from this distance Tobias could see the slack expression on his face, the disinterest in his body language.

“Shit,” Church muttered, and Tobias’s stomach turned over.

Ghost nodded at something one of the staff members said before turning to walk down the hall. He stared at his feet as if he didn’t trust himself not to trip if he didn’t pay close attention, and bumped into the wall twice.

 He looked up when he got to Tobias and Church, his gaze dull and flat. It seemed to take a year for his reaction to their presence—confusion—to fully form on his face. “What are you doing in the hallway?”

His voice sounded rusty, like he hadn’t talked much over the last two days.

“Waiting for you, dummy,” Church said, with terrifying gentleness. Tobias tried to smile, but the muscles in his cheeks were too stiff.

“Oh.” Ghost stared blankly at them for another second before shuffling around them into their room. He began stripping out of his clothes as soon as they were inside, unconcerned with his nudity, and Tobias busied himself pulling back the covers in Ghost’s bed. He didn’t watch, not even when he caught a glimpse of bare skin and long, slim limbs in his peripheral vision. He might feel at a loss as to what to do, but he knew what not to do, and that meant not looking, so he was taken by surprise when frigid fingers wrapped around his wrist. He looked up, startled, and Ghost looked right back, blank-faced.

“Are you okay?” Tobias’s nervousness fled in the face of worry. He wanted to pull Ghost closer, wanted to make it all better, promise him anything if he would just be okay, but in the end he did none of that.

“Fine,” Ghost murmured.

Tobias exchanged a glance with Church, who shrugged, his mouth twisted in a perplexed frown.

Gently, Tobias told Ghost, “Your hands are shaking.”

He peered down at their hands, as if he didn’t know how he’d come to be touching Tobias. “It’s the meds.”

“Of course.” Tobias never pointed out Ghost’s lies. He’d be pointing things out all day and half the night. Usually they were a little more convincing though.

Ghost looked gray and small in his pajama pants and long-sleeved T-shirt, his hair tangled and greasy. His eyes were heavy-lidded, the skin around them lavender with exhaustion. His lips were chapped. Tobias was close enough to pick up the strong reek of his skin, a combination of sweat, the cheap detergent that Woodbury provided for their laundry, and an undertone of that astringent chemical odor that clung to the bare rubber mattresses they used in the Unit. Tobias had only been there once, months ago, on the day of the therapy session from hell when he’d ended up yelling at his therapist, and it’d been less than two hours before he’d been deemed stable enough to return to cottage, but he remembered that smell. He’d remember it until the day he died—it was the institutional scent of being nothing more than a stick figure, a body that the system worked upon, the smell of your choices and desires having zero weight to the world around you.

Ghost didn’t do well with walls, so it must’ve stung deep. It must have, because Tobias didn’t remember Ghost ever touching him before.

For a moment, Tobias couldn’t breathe. It was a sign of trust, wasn’t it? A sign that he thought Tobias was worthy in some way. His chest felt tight, because the idea of being special, of being wanted, pleased him tremendously. He wasn’t happy that Ghost was upset, obviously, but to be allowed to take care, to be needed, that…yes, that was good.

“You should get under the blankets,” Tobias managed to say. “You’re freezing.”

A nudge to his shoulder made Tobias glance up, and Church was there, gaze lingering on where Ghost’s fingers still clenched around Tobias’s wrist. His arms were full of the extra blankets from his and Tobias’s beds. As he got them spread out on top of Ghost’s comforter, Church asked in a low voice, “Did you get any sleep at all, man?”

It was a good question. The Unit, a small white building atop the hill at the edge of campus, was usually full of guys yelling and arguing and crying, and staff ran room-checks every fifteen minutes to make sure no one was hurting themselves. You couldn’t find an environment less conducive to sleep if you tried, and Ghost was weird about sleep already anyway. He frequently had nightmares and insomnia and a few times Tobias had woken up in the morning to find that Ghost had pushed things in front of the door, things like cups full of pencils or the little radio Tobias’s mother had sent him, things that would fall over and make noise should the door open.

“I slept,” Ghost said emptily. Tobias didn’t point out this lie either. Ghost would talk about hustling or people he knew or the daily bullshit of living, but there was always a line, heavy and solid, that he drew between what you wanted and what he would give you. Ghost maintained sole ownership of his bonds with others. 

Tobias wondered if he’d finally seen the single substantial part of Ghost on Friday night. Once again he remembered watching a half-dozen staff members pull Ghost’s piano-wire tense body off of Stallman, who lay choking and twitching and kicking. He remembered Ghost’s vacant gaze, his blood-spattered cheeks, his fingers rigid and tendinous like claws. The memory made his stomach turn over.

“There.” Church stepped back, and after a moment, Ghost’s fingers finally uncurled from Tobias’s wrist. The skin there felt hypersensitive. Tobias was tempted to scrub at the spot with his other hand, just to get rid of that sensation, but he thought Ghost might be offended.

Not that he would’ve noticed. He wearily pushed his way under the covers, his gaze landing on the ceiling and when he was situated, he mumbled, “Are the two of you going to hover all night?”

Maybe, Tobias thought, but said, “No.”

“That would be creepy,” Church added, but he didn’t leave any more than Tobias did.

Without looking at either of them, Ghost said, “I’m fine.”

“Yeah?” Church asked.

“Yes. I…” Ghost’s brow creased and for a heartbeat he looked young and defenseless as a kitten.

“Ghost, what happened that night? What did you…why did you…” Church glared at the floor, seemingly frustrated with his words, and Tobias held his breath, both wanting to know and not.

Ghost licked his lips, his green eyes staring someplace past the ceiling now. “Stallman was here and he…I lost the thread somewhere. I don’t…I don’t remember…” He cleared his throat. “Doesn’t matter. ‘I avoid looking back.’” He closed his eyes and his voice dropped to a bare whisper. “‘I avoid looking back.’”

After a quick glance at Church, who shook his head in bewilderment, Tobias asked, “Ghost? You okay?”

Abruptly he rolled over onto his side, putting his back to them. “Am-scray, kids. I need my beauty sleep.”

The dismissal would’ve been vintage Ghost, playful and wry, but for the way the words fell heavy and exhausted between them. Tobias and Church glanced at each other again, frustrated and helpless, and finally wandered toward their own beds, Church hitting the light on the way.

As darkness settled, Tobias got comfortable on his thin mattress and stared across the room. The emergency halogens in the hallway shone faintly through the window in their door, but all he could see was the huddled shape of Ghost under the blankets and the back of his blond head.

Ghost had been surprised by their worry. Somehow, despite months of friendship, he’d been surprised. It said a lot about Ghost’s view of relationships, Tobias supposed. ‘Fleeting’ was probably an understatement.

I’m not going anywhere, Tobias wanted to say. He imagined getting up and going to Ghost’s bed, imagined laying down beside him and wrapping Ghost in his arms. There was nothing sexual about it, he assured himself. He only wanted to hold, to comfort. In his imagination, Tobias ran his fingers through Ghost’s dirty hair and concentrated on the places where their bodies touched. He imagined all of his fierce need to protect leaching through his skin into Ghost, deeply enough that Ghost would never doubt it.  I will never leave you behind, Tobias promised silently. Never. And one day, you’ll believe me.