When Riley Poole was just eleven, he'd found the papers from his adoption. Stashed between copies of their old tax returns and his mother's family photo albums, the A4 pages sat in a yellowing folder with a handwritten ledger of the expenses and fees they'd paid for him.
It wasn't like it was a secret that he was adopted. Quite the opposite, in fact – Riley'd always known and accepted it without preamble or question.
Then the packet showed him what he hadn't, the facts of his biological parents, his brothers, the money. Adoption to him had meant signing some papers and handing him over, not the exchange of currency and a minor court battle when his drug-addicted parents fought the Poole family for custody.
Everything on brittle paper.
And that was where he got something that bothered Ben: his value. That's what he called it the middle of their first full-fledged lovers' spat, freezing them both in place from the sadness of it.
No one would ever really be able to understand the how or why it had come flying out, slapping Ben like a hand across the face while Riley stood flinching with his fingers poised mid-air. It hadn't related to the subject of their argument (who hadn't cleaned up after using the shower that morning) and was definitely not something Riley had ever expected to reveal to Ben in the first place.
"Wait, did you say your value?" Ben finally asked, careful to keep himself in Riley's sight.
"Fuck," was the response, murmured under his breath. His hands remained, resolutely, at his sides.
"Riley Joseph Poole." Ben pulled his partner's face up, and, holding Riley's chin in his free hand, asked, "What do you mean by your value?"
He shrugged. "It's nothing. Really." And it was – to him, at least – nothing, because Riley had rationalized the price they'd paid for him (about thirty-five hundred a pound) long ago. He'd made it into nothing, moving on with his life and only letting that piece of his past come to the surface of his mind when he was too tired to keep it down.
Ben sighed and sagged back against the wall, wanting something to throttle and knowing it wouldn't matter. It was rare for one of Riley's demons to come out in the open in words; he fought hard not to let them show, sometimes to the point that Ben would wonder if Riley even acknowledged he had them.
Yes, Riley had risen above a childhood that had already put him at a disadvantage, by making the most of what he'd had, putting himself through school, and had, arguably, had two pretty decent parents until they'd died. Still, he was plagued by the realities that came along with growing up poor, living paycheck to paycheck with the family's only luxury the annual trip to the symphony.
"Riley," Ben pushed, "Please."
"I was the most expensive thing in our house, did you know that?" Poole finally said, falling back onto the edge of their bed with a sad little smile on his lips. "I found the folder one day with all the papers and the payment receipts."
Ben knelt down in front of his partner, waiting. He rarely got anything out of Riley about his life before they'd met; most of what the elder man knew, he'd learned in bits and pieces, arguments, and drunken conversations over cards. And, Lord, what Ben wouldn't give right then for a spot of dutch courage.
"Dad... He, uh, I mean," he stuttered through, then ran a hand over his face and with a sigh, admitted, "Dad liked to drink. It really wasn't his fault – he could never relax enough without a beer and he worked long hours so mom said he deserved his vices. And he never laid a hand on us, but he... he could be mean."
"Mean or cruel?" Gates asked, curious how this led to the statement that had started the conversation.
There was only a shrug as his answer, making it clear to Ben which it was though he wisely said nothing more. Instead he listened as Riley told him, "I asked dad about it one day. I know I should have asked mom but I went to dad. He told me I shouldn't have gone snooping and anyway, they'd spent a lot of money to buy me so I should do whatever he said. He said I owed it to him and mom for blowing their lifesavings on me to go to school and support them for the rest of their lives."
For just a moment, Ben was quiet, digesting, turning the words over slowly in his mind until a question formed on his fingers. The words, "How old were you?", hung between them until Riley answered and blood boiled.
"How the hell could he put that weight on a eleven-year-old's shoulders?" It was rhetorical, but Riley replied anyway.
"He'd been drinking, Ben. He probably didn't realize what he was saying."
"Don't defend him," he shot back. "Don't. You were a child – their child. Whether or not they wanted to be parents, they were supposed to treat you like a kid, not give you ridiculous expectations!" The steam was building behind Ben's words, his fingers flawless in spite of the anger-induced trembling. "And you sure as hell," he went on, standing up, "are more valuable than however much they paid for the honor of calling you theirs!"
"Twenty one thousand," Riley answered automatically. "They paid twenty one thousand for the honor of having a kid who talked back, got in trouble constantly with teachers, and crashed a car on his sixteenth birthday."
Ben groaned. Normally he loved Riley's stubbornness, the way he never let up against someone who tried to upset him or held his ground when questioned by fanatics about the morality of having broken up the treasure. He'd survived on that stubbornness after his parents had died.
At this moment, however, he wished Riley would listen to him instead of defend a father that should never have been allowed to parent. 'Then you wouldn't have had Riley,' a voice told him and while he agreed, he still told that voice to stuff it.
"You and I both know that you talked back to be heard whenever you were ignored and you got into trouble with teachers because you were ahead of your peers even though they always tried to avoid letting you skip grades."
Riley flopped back on the bed, eyes on the ceiling, before lifting his hands. "I only wanted them to be proud of me, but they never could get past how much money I cost them."
"It was their loss," Ben responded, but he knew Riley wasn't looking at him.