The first person he ever kisses is a girl named Natalia Wood. She's not the prettiest girl in the room, one crooked front tooth and a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose like smudges, but she's smiling when she passes him, pulled along by her friends towards the back of the building where the crowds are dancing, pushing up against each other into one big thick wall. So when Chip disappears later to try and get his hand under Melanie Fischer's top (he has no chance), Natalia's suddenly standing there. Right before him.
He's not really sure what to do in all honesty, he's never even touched a girls skin before, but then from the look of things neither does she, laughing as she presses her chin against the smooth line of his shoulder, her jaw digging uncomfortably into the muscle as one hand fumbles to find his in the dark. It seems the normal thing to do, tipping his head down towards hers, lips catching against the top of her own as he moves forward, closer. His free hand moving up to the dip of her collarbone, skin slick with sweat as his fingers find the beat of her pulse thumping, fast and alive and in time with his own. Along to the rush and the beat of the music that pulses up from the floorboards to rise straight through their feet.
The song begins to slow its beat as they pull apart and Natalia looks at him with a twist to her face, nose scrunched, lips pinched, like she's trying to work out the taste on them. Hunter takes a step back, people pushing between them until there's nothing but free space and a gap that he isn't sure he wants to cross. He can tell the taste she's looking for because it's the same one swimming around his own mouth, through the gaps in his teeth and lining his throat. Disappointment. The feeling making his face hot and his fingers tremble as Natalia avoids eye contact, shrinking away and turning her back to him as he loses her in the crowd.
It's not supposed to feel like that.
“Here.” Hunter turns as a cup is thrust into his fingers, sticky liquid spilling over the lip.
He expects to find Chip, laughter in his eyes and a swift elbow to the stomach, as if that will make humiliation feel better, but instead what he finds is a complete stranger. “Drink it.”
Hunter blinks, the plastic in his hand warm from the stranger's grip.
He's older than Hunter, a couple years maybe, rolling his eyes, curling his fingers and gesturing for Hunter to throw it back.
He does, wincing as the sharp taste of vinegar hits the back of his throat making him cough. “There,” he says, patting him once on the back, eyes crinkling as Hunter makes an attempt at wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Doesn't that make you feel better?”
Hunter wants to nod, wants to say, yeah, a bit maybe, but his tongue feels stuck to the roof of his mouth, the rush of alcohol making his head feel like fuzz, too hot in the swarm of teenagers that he's found himself in the thick of. The guy's skin is practically glowing in the dim light, shimmering sweat making the dark strands of his hair stick to his face.
It makes him look beautiful, he thinks.
Hunter feels that same sense of unease curl through his gut.
“First time?” The boy asks and Hunter isn't sure if he's talking about the drink or the kiss. Either way he finds himself nodding, eyes watching a bead of sweat trace its way down the boy's neck. He's really kind of mesmerising, and Hunter finds he can't quite look at him,not directly anyway, look too long and you might get burnt, eyes skittering away as soon as he comes face to face.
“I don't really know what I'm doing.” He admits, liking the way the boy's lips lift up in sympathy, the way they curl slightly higher up on the one side.
Chip's the only reason he even came to this place, the way he'd talked about the music and the heat and the girls. Boys too of course, but it was the girls he knew he should be watching, the girls that Chip thought he was trying to get a glimpse of out of the corner of his eye. A place for anyone to find themselves, he'd said, right when Hunter found he was looking.
“So it appears you've not been infected yet.” The boy whispers, a half joke to test the waters, voice almost too low for Hunter to make it out above the steady thrum of guitar.
He's only sixteen and the mention of the disease sends a small thrill up his spine, this close to so many uncureds and out past his curfew. The thought of his parents realising he's not in his own bed fast asleep. It should make him panic, half an hour ago maybe it would have.
“Lucky, I guess.”
There's murmurings like a wave washing over the crowd and Hunter feels his heart thump rabbit quick as the word raid is screamed once, then over and over, through the tide of people spreading out like a ripple. Through the echoing call of dog barks resounding off the walls. He can see Chip now in the distance, eyes widening as the alarm rings out, a throng of people between them, between the door.
Hunter's never been in a raid before, never even been to an underground party. He finds his feet frozen as people start to panic and push past. Nobody wants to be caught out, risk having the cure or worse forced upon them.
The boy he's been having a conversation with takes hold of his wrist fast.
“What do we do?” He finds himself stuttering.
The boy keeps hold of him as he clearly says one word: “Run.”
Afternoon's hit with a hazy heat that brings the smell of eucalyptus in through any open window. Hunter's never tried it before, but Chip's described it to him, told him what to do with his hand, with his fingers.
It's the moment that his breath starts to catch, the heavy air and rhythm of his fingers making his eyes heavy, drifting almost shut in the light - that she walks in on him. His back's toward his own door, so he's not ready for someone walking in, hands underneath his trousers, face flushed, almost there as his mother walks into the room, not even hesitating to think about knocking, as if she even would.
Her voice rings loud and clear in the silence “What are you-” A hitch, an intake of breath as she swallows her words, an ugly snort coming out of her mouth. He can almost hear her mind ticking over, the horror of what's become of her son. He struggles to make himself presentable, wiping his hands on the knees of his trousers as he looks up.
You don't have locked rooms at home, privacy leads to secrecy and secrecy leads to... well, trouble.
“It's not what it-”
“Hunter, what?” Her eyes are small and hard as she looks at him and for just a second it's as if there's something boiling just beneath the blank void of permanently empty. Blink and you'll miss it.
“Harold?” Her voice is sharp and cold, a hissed sense of urgency. “Harold, get up here!” For an absurd moment he thinks of her rushing around the house closing the windows, shutting all of the doors.
His dad's there then, flustered face looking into the room like a prowling house cat, completely oblivious as to what's going on. Until, “Ah,” he says and Hunter feels his skin melting off of him, peeling away in layers onto the floor.
“Boys do this sort of thing,” his dad offers, hesitant and bumbling. “Uncureds, well-” He's stumbling over his words and his eyebrows are shrinking, the stare of the vague papering over his face as if he can't quite remember any more what life was like after he turned eighteen. As if having the cure has wiped away any of the before memory.
“Really?” His mother's voice chips in, brisk and shrill.
“I, well, I didn't, but you know.”
“Well it's not natural.” His mother says, looking at Hunter like he's a dirty spot she just can't seem to scrub, spit flying out of her mouth to land between them.
He wants to say he's never done it before. That the boy's at school all do it, that Chip told him how to go about it if he wanted, needed a release. That the wild thoughts he has no control over in his sleep, that all go away when you're cured and deadened on the inside, can be a good thing. Can make you feel everything through to the tips of your toes. Chip says he thinks of Melanie Fischer when he does it, Stacey Atkins in her tight red school sweater. Hunter thinks of some of the boys undressing before they do gym, the bare strip of stomach as their shirts ride up, that sometimes he even imagines the bob of Chip's adam's apple, up and down as he laughs.
“It's unnatural,” his mother mutters.
Hunter wonders if maybe his mother's not far from the truth.
He's twelve the first time he realises.
They're sitting on the edge of the street like a group of birds perched on the telephone wires, Tuck Macgryer rolling a ball back and forth with the knuckles of his hand. It's too hot to play, the air shimmery and waving on the street before them. They're at that age when the cure starts to get picked up on and questioned, not publicly of course, but quietly with soft words and small stolen glimpses. When boys their age start to notice the shine to a girls hair and the length of their curved, slim legs.
Sarah Greenwold runs out of her house in a knee length skirt, small faded daises stitched into the hem line, the breeze picking up in a whirlwind of motion that allows them to see the soft pink of her thigh for just the tiniest amount of a second. Hunter senses the moment that it happens, feels the boys beside him lean ever so slightly forward, rocking and swaying on their hips.
The thing is he isn't looking at Sarah, doesn't feel the same connection, the same want. Instead he's watching the way Tuck rolls that ball, flexing the string of muscles in his arms long and taut. Stretching his neck until the shirt that he's wearing shows the smooth curve of his collarbone peeking out from underneath.
He feels the same shift of something uncurling in his gut.
He's just looking in the opposite direction to everybody else.
He sneaks out exactly two weeks after the raid in the abandoned part of town.
The thing about living in the city is that there's always some part of a stretch that's abandoned, left in the cold and the dark to rot. The party's out on the west side, at least a twenty minute walk and up near the coast, and in the shifting darkness animals are beginning to creep out and scavenge for leftover scraps.
Hunter has his Mother's hair, pale skin and even paler eyebrows, almost invisible in a certain light, but it makes him stick out like a sore thumb in the darkness, makes his heart beat that much faster when something skitters about and crashes down a side street.
It's worth it when he finally gets there though, the way that the music drifts up to greet him, rushes right through him the closer that he gets. The party's a tangle of bodies, the sticky sweet tang of alcohol and smoke drifting through any open gap.
He's never snuck out on his own, but this time he isn't looking for Chip, Michael or any one of his other friends. He is looking for somebody though, the boy from the other night, the one with the dark hair and the tight grip that had pushed him down a side street with a hurried good luck as he'd run the opposite way, feet slapping lightly on the asphalt behind him.
It takes him ten minutes to finally find him, the genuine smile to his face when he spots Hunter making this whole trek 100% worth it. He's got a light dusting of gold across his cheekbones, the glitter shining and catching the light as it hits the right angles of his face. Hunter's never seen anyone wear colour like that, not on their face anyway, the gold striking with his darker skin tone.
“You made it,” the boy says and Hunter isn't sure if he means to the party or from the raid the other night. Either way he nods his head and the boy laughs, bright and echoing. “Come on!” He takes a hold of Hunter's hand, pulling him through the throng of teenagers, effortless, like he's been holding onto Hunter his whole life.
His name is Tomas and he attends the high school on the other side of town. It's six weeks until his cure date and he didn't do wonderfully well at his evaluation and by that Tomas says he stuttered and um'd a whole lot, gave a few answers that raised eyebrows in new and unusual ways. He didn't, he says, tell them about his particular want to put his mouth on another guy's mouth, he'd restrained himself, but either way his results had come back to reveal his final matches as fair to middling.
His parents want him to finish school, pick a nice girl and settle down in the city. Tomas wants to do anything but, he's heard about the world outside the city, the one beyond the walls, the one that Hunter's always been told has nothing but burnt out city landscapes and disease ridden invalids roaming round its streets. He says there's a better world out there, one where amor deliria nervosa doesn't even exist, that its a good thing beyond the wall, not a disease.
Because how can something that makes you feel so alive inside be considered a bad thing?
The first time he kisses Hunter its slow and soft and searching. Tomas' hands in Hunter's hair as he pulls him carefully towards him, fingers tracing his jaw, his mouth, circling back around to curl against the back of his neck. He hums in the back of his throat when Hunter kisses him, licking his way into his mouth, fingers curling tight into the soft cotton of each others clothing, anchoring them together into the same space.
You can be anybody you want beyond the wall, Tomas says. Somebody completely different. Hunter likes the person he is with Tomas, right here in this moment.
The wall's a dark stretch before them, patrol men walking the perimeter in five minute intervals.
Tomas has calculated everything down to the second, if they make a sprint for it as soon as the last man walks past them they can make it. Run right on through.
Hunter finds his teeth are chattering, no feeling in his feet as they crouch low, avoiding the swinging light that beams around the perimeter. A harsh beam that highlights everything in its wake. He can't seem to stop his fingers shaking, Tomas' hand wrapped around his own, his cold fingers digging into the soft flesh of his skin.
“We can do it,” Tomas mutters, his lips white and thin. Eyes wide as he watches the guards, looks back at Hunter and squeezes his hand even tighter. He's asking him a question, what do you want to do?
Hunter finds his breath lost in the cool breeze, words caught like a lump in his throat. They can do it. Leave everything behind them. His friends, his family, his life.
Or they can walk away, let the city take everything away from them. Let them take Tomas and give him the cure.
Tomas is on edge, silent, legs ready to sprint just as soon as Hunter gives him the word go.
Hunter turns to look at him, moving his legs to shift closer, pressing a quick kiss to the underside of Tomas' jaw.
“What do you think?” Tomas asks him.
Hunter says just two words clearly.