“SHIT. Busted.” Dean Ryder kicked at his blankets, trying not to look too guilty, surreptitiously continuing his battle with the sheets tangled around his feet. He looked up at Matthew and adopted what he hoped was his best innocent smile.
“Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?” The door rattled as Matthew shoved it closed with his foot.
So much for his best innocent expression. Dean winced at the angry tone. Matthew slammed down the coffee cup in his hand. The side table wobbled, and hot liquid erupted over the lip of the cup, trickling down the side to form a milky puddle. Dean glared at Matthew. “Getting outta here.”
“Oh really?” Matthew glared back, arms folded across his chest.
“Yeah really.” With a last tug on the blankets, Dean finally extricated his legs and feet and stood up. He wasn’t drunk, but the room seemed to spin in a hazy blur of white and gray, and his stomach churned. Closing his eyes, he gripped the IV pole tightly, desperately trying to gain his balance and not throw up his lunch. Dean swallowed hard. The tiles were icy against his bare feet, and he shivered. Ignoring his cold feet, Dean opened his eyes and glared at Matthew again, determined not to fall flat on his face, wanting to prove he was fine even though he knew he looked like a train wreck victim.
Mirrors never lie, apparently. Dean had risked a look earlier that morning, not recognizing the man staring back at him with his bleached skin, fever-flushed cheeks, and the yellow bruising on his forehead. And to add to his misery, for some reason, his body didn’t want to straighten so he had taken to hunching slightly with an arm slung across his chest for support. His shoulder hurt like the devil, but other than that, Dean was fit and healthy. So he kept telling himself.
Dean stared at Matthew, challenging him to make the first move or sound. Matthew tilted his head to one side. Arms still folded across his chest, he tapped his right foot against the tiled floor. He may have looked relaxed, but Dean knew Matthew was seriously pissed off with him. Pursed-thin lips didn’t smile at him, and an icy glare in narrowed hazel eyes studied him closely. Matthew was close to snapping. Dean sighed. And Matthew could stand up straight, which didn’t seem fair.
Dean tightened his grip on his IV pole. Not gonna fall over, he repeated over and over in his head. They were both stubborn, but Dean knew he could out-stare Matthew any day. After a few minutes, Dean grew bored with their staring match and straightened up as much as his aching body would allow. He gave Matthew his best cocky smile and started to shuffle toward the closet, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. His whole body throbbed in pain despite the drugs they insisted on pumping into him. Even his hair hurt. He felt like an old man, but Dean was determined to get out of the hospital, and retrieving his clothes was the first step.
“They’re not in there.” Matthew’s hot breath tickled his neck. Dean started, not realizing Matthew had been so close; he was tempted to lean back against the solid body he knew and loved, but he was on a mission: get clothes and escape from the hospital. “I had the nurses take your stuff away when you were out of it,” Matthew whispered in his ear.
“What?” Dean swung around, swaying slightly. The room spun, and this time Dean was convinced he was going to see his lunch again. He wrapped an arm around his stomach, rubbing gently. He huffed out heavy breaths, determined not to throw up, and scowled, slapping at Matthew’s helping hands.
Matthew raised his hands in surrender, smirking. “Your clothes are not in the closet. Because I know you and expected an escape attempt.”
“I hate you.”
“No you don’t,” Matthew said, taking Dean’s arm and herding him back toward the bed. Dean tried to shake Matthew’s hand from his arm but stumbled, nearly falling as he let go of the IV pole in his efforts to escape. He groaned in pain.
“Dean,” Matthew snapped angrily, catching him before he hit the floor. “Let me help you.”
Dean gritted his teeth and gave a quick nod. His body hurt too much to argue. Matthew gripped Dean’s elbow firmly and didn’t let go until he was sitting back on the edge of the bed. Dean sighed, not able to believe the effort of getting across the room had sapped all his strength, but hell would freeze over before he ever admitted it to Matthew.
He waved his hand at Matthew. “Now just go be a nice little life partner and get a pen and sign me out.”
“No.” Matthew folded his arms across his chest again and set his expression. “You’re staying right here until the doctor says it’s okay for you to leave.”
Dean stared at Matthew but knew from the expression and the clipped tone of his lover’s voice he was fighting a losing battle. Not able to win but not really wanting to concede, Dean decided on sulking. His shoulder ached, he was tired, and Matthew was being reasonable all over the place, and boy did sulking feel good. “Did I mention that I hate you?”
“Yes, you did,” Matthew said. “But you’re still staying put.” Without giving Dean any warning, Matthew grabbed his legs and swung them back up onto the bed. Dean opened his mouth to protest but was pushed gently back against the pillows.
“Mattie.” Dean knew he was scowling, but he couldn’t help himself. “Quit with the shoving stuff.” He stubbornly sat up straight, wishing his injured shoulder didn’t prevent him from folding his arms. Dean was determined not to cooperate; he wanted to sulk.
“Don’t call me Mattie, and it’s for your own good.” Matthew smirked as he flicked the blankets over Dean, tucking them in neatly. “Stop sulking, and lay back and take it like a man because you’re not getting out of here anytime soon.”
Matthew chuckled. “You have a cute pout.”
Dean stuck his tongue out. It was childish, but it made him feel better. “You’re mean.”
Matthew shook his head and grinned at Dean. “Like I said, cute, and aged about five years old.” He reclaimed his coffee and slumped down in the chair next to the bed.
Dean nearly said am not but bit his tongue hard. Instead he blew out a long, drawn-out sigh and reluctantly admitted defeat, lying back against the pillows, scratching at his hand, fiddling with the tape keeping his IVs in place. “I’m going nuts in here. Please get me outta here.”
Matthew rolled his eyes, frustration clearly evident. “Dean. You’ve only been properly awake for a couple of days.” He slapped at Dean’s hand. “And leave that alone. Or I’ll get the nurse to wrap your hand like they do the little kids.”
“Dude. Stop with the slapping,” Dean said. “Injured man here.”
Matthew turned away, and Dean could plainly see him struggling to get his emotions under control. Dean cursed his big mouth and decided on silence being the best policy for a change.
“So my mom called,” Matthew finally said.
“Is she bringing cookies?” Dean grinned, relieved Matthew was choosing to ignore his bad mood and stupidity. He had the sudden urge to hug Matthew really hard. He shifted, wincing in pain as he jarred his shoulder. He bit at his bottom lip, hoping Matthew hadn’t noticed. He leaned over, grabbing Matthew’s hand, squeezing hard. “Chocolate chip?”
Matthew smiled. “Chocolate chip it is.” He took a quick sip of his coffee. “Do you want me to call your mom and dad?”
“No.” Dean shook his head. “I’ll call them next week.” They both knew it was a lie, but Matthew didn’t call him on it. Dean fiddled with the blanket.
“Dean,” Matthew started to say, but immediately clamped his lips closed at Dean’s glare and hand gesture.
Dean winced as the IV needles pinched his skin at the sudden movement. “No. I don’t wanna give them an excuse to think I’m more of a loser than they already think I am.” Dean snapped out his answer. It was an old argument, one neither of them won.
“You’re not a loser.”
“I am to them. I’m gay. I’m not Jamie. And I left being a cop to become a PI. Dad thinks I’m a dreamer. That I’m gonna fall on my ass.”
“And your point is?” Matthew asked.
Dean studied Matthew for a moment. Six feet four inches of sexy man squashed into a small, uncomfortable-looking plastic chair. He would never get used to the feeling Matthew was all his, from his unruly reddish hair, hazel eyes hidden behind wire-rimmed glasses, slightly pointed nose, and pale pink lips to his well-defined muscles and legs that seemed to go on for miles. God, he loved this man. Dean tugged on their still-joined hands. Matthew smiled as he moved closer. Dean claimed Matthew’s lips in a kiss.
Dean pulled back. “What would I do without you?”
“Crash and burn.”
Dean rolled his eyes. “I don’t know why I love you sometimes.”
Matthew chuckled. “But you do… just for the hell of it.”
“Yeah, I do.” Dean brushed his lips over Matthew’s knuckles. “Thank you for believing that I can make a go of being a PI. For believing in me.”
“I don’t care what you do. And just so you know, I’ll always believe in you.”
“I know. Just don’t call Mom and Dad.”
“Okay, but only because you’re hurt,” Matthew said. “And I think you’re a good investigator.”
“Matthew. I have a crappy office in a crappy office building where the roaches are bigger than dogs. The rust is keeping my truck together. I take cases other PIs wouldn’t touch. Hell, most of my clients can’t even afford my fee.”
“You care about people and want to help them. That’s a good thing. Your mom and dad should be proud of you.”
“My latest client shot me.”
Dean smiled at Matthew, loving him a little bit more. It was Matthew’s steadfast and unending support that kept him going and encouraged him in his ambition to own the best detective agency in the state. He sighed, frustrated at the reality of his life. “I’m from a long line of cops. My dad. My grandfather… on both sides. My brother, Jamie. They can’t understand why I don’t wanna be a cop anymore. Being a PI to them is like… is like a heinous crime or something.”
Matthew chuckled, tilting his head to one side. “Heinous crime?”
Dean felt his face heat. “Hey. I sleep with a guy who’s a professor of English. I pick up big words. So shoot me.”
“I’d rather no one got shot. You know I don’t like guns.”
“I know you don’t, but it comes with the territory. Cop or PI.”
Matthew frowned at Dean. “Just don’t make a habit of getting yourself shot. I never want to get a phone call like that ever again. And for the record, you make a lousy patient.”
Dean could almost hear what Matthew was avoiding saying. He could have died. The bullet or the infection or the resulting fever could have killed him. He could have lost his arm or any number of other scenarios. He’d been unconscious for two days, and Dean refused to think about the anguish his soft-hearted Matthew had gone through.
“You scared the crap outta me.”
“I know,” Dean admitted, staring down at the blanket and idly fiddling with the loose thread again. “But it’s over now, and I just wanna get outta here.” He knew he was grumbling again, but Dean couldn’t get comfortable in the hospital bed. The pillows were lumpy, the sheets like cardboard, the bed was hard and too narrow, and at night it was lonely without Matthew lying beside him. He fidgeted. His ass was numb, his back was stiff from lying in one position, and the smell of disinfectant was really getting on his nerves. Dean winced in pain as he jarred his shoulder again. “It kinda sucks big-time.”
Matthew leaned forward. “Look. If all your tests check out, the doctor said you may be able to leave tomorrow or the day after.”
Dean huffed in frustration. He narrowed his eyes, taking his first really good look at Matthew, cursing himself for not seeing how tired and weary the other man looked. His clothes were uncharacteristically rumpled; his face was pale, accentuating the black circles under his eyes; and he looked like he hadn’t slept for a week. “Why don’t you go home and get some sleep?” Dean suggested. “You look like crap.”
“Says the man in a hospital bed,” Matthew quipped. “I’m sure there are better-looking corpses out there somewhere.”
“I’m just not at my best,” Dean defended with a smirk. “My handsomeness has gone on vacation, but it will be back.” He waggled his eyebrows at Matthew.
“That’s not even a word,” Matthew protested.
“Don’t go all schoolmarm on me. Look, I’ll be okay. Just go and get some rest, and then come back tomorrow and break me out. Please.”
Matthew sighed. “Okay,” he agreed. “But no escape attempts while I’m gone. Deal?” He held out his hand.
Dean grinned before slapping at Matthew’s offered hand. “No trying to escape. I promise.” He lay back against the pillows and closed his eyes, not able to believe how exhausted he was. Matthew’s warm breath tickled his skin. Dean cracked one eye open to find Matthew bent over him. “Go.”
“I’m going, I’m going.” Matthew kissed him gently. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Love you.” Dean closed his eyes again.
“Love you too.”
Dean smiled. Matthew was still close, stroking a hand through his hair; Dean couldn’t help pushing against the touch. “Go, before I make you stay and do that all night.” He thought he mumbled, but his lips were tired too. Sleep and the drugs were winning. Another kiss to his forehead. Dean vaguely heard the door close before sleep finally won and he descended into the darkness.