The Look in Your Eyes
Jared eyed the tense line of Alex's body. His back to Jared, Alex stared out the window watching the snow fall. Jared didn't doubt that Alex stood there wrapped not only in the dark gray sweater that had become his armor, but also in memories of the day exactly a year ago, two weeks after Alex's thirty-first birthday, when fire changed their lives. Jared recalled with painful clarity the easy companionship they'd shared before he left for work that day. The last time Alex flirted back with him like an equal. The last time Alex hadn't flinched away from his touch.
"Go to work, Jared. I'm fine." Alex didn't turn around.
The most likely scenario for getting to hold Alex had become hugging him from behind, but Jared kept his distance. Alex would allow it, but he wouldn't relax and Jared didn't know if he could withstand another rejection. Alex wiped the fog of his breath off the window pane and continued to gaze out at the snow.
"If I leave, you'll spend the entire day brooding. Your surgeon released you last week; it's time to start thinking about the future." Jared's spirits flagged when Alex's arms tightened around his waist, the set of his shoulders unchanging.
Jared's eyes slid away from Alex to take in their surroundings, the apartment contained little but the bare essentials. A sofa. Alex's recliner, where he'd spent hours recovering from what seemed like endless medical procedures. In Jared’s mind, that chair, large enough for only one, underscored his unwillingness to let Jared close.
Jared sympathized with Alex. Even for Jared events the day of the fire had been traumatic. His memory of coming home and finding their house ablaze, flames reaching for the sky despite the fire department's efforts to put it out, could still fill him with horror. Alex's car and Clark's truck had been parked in the driveway with no sign of either man. The certainty Alex had been inside when the stove exploded came close to immobilizing Jared, and even the discovery neither man had died in the blaze erased the terror he'd suffered during the excruciating minutes before he knew their fate. Alex's fate. A year later they continued to feed his nightmares, and things did not always turn out alright.
Clark suffered, singed eyebrows, a flash burn that made him look like the first cousin of a lobster for a while, and second degree burns on his palm all acquired saving Alex's life. Jared had learned later that Clark pulled into the driveway moments after the explosion to find the back of the house in flames. He'd searched frantically for Alex, locating him when Clark stumbled over the pile of stuff outside the bedroom window. A glance inside revealed Alex wasn't trying to get out. He didn't respond to Clark shouting his name and so Clark had gone in through the window just in time to race across the room and reach around Alex to slam the bedroom door shut before Alex pulled it all the way open. Flames, eager for fresh oxygen, had roared through the narrow opening, and except for Clark's instinctive reaction, they both would have died.
Alex had been burned more severely in the rush of fire. He used his right hand to shield his face, and suffered third degree burns on the back from his fingertips to wrist. His right cheek, jaw, and neck had the same degree of damage. Second and first degree burns covered almost half his body, less serious injuries, but they contributed to the danger of infection and dehydration.
Their home burned. Jared and Alex had lost everything except the few things Alex had managed to shove out the window before he'd tried his ill-advised attempt to access the rest of the house. Jared glanced at the boxes Alex pushed out into the snow a year before. They stood stacked against the wall, untouched since they'd moved in. Their wooden memory boxes, and a cardboard container filled with Alex's early building designs and a few pieces of art he'd tried his hand at over the years.
Once, their future happiness appeared written in stone; Jared never imagined anything could bring them to their current impasse. Suffering from depression, brought on by the fire and his injuries, Alex seemed frozen in time and unable to leave the tragedy behind him.
Jared had tried to take the first step towards the future by renting a furnished apartment for them. He imagined after Alex's release from the hospital, they'd snuggle in and make a temporary nest while they waited out the last of Alex’s physical therapy and plastic surgery. Jared hadn't anticipated Alex's severe withdrawal. They'd survived the last year through sheer determination, but the act of doing so had created a gulf between them Jared hadn't found a way to bridge.
The apartment looked like they'd moved in the week before. There were no other boxes sitting around simply because there hadn't been anything to unpack, but the bleak décor looked more like a hotel room than a home. Jared knew austere surroundings weren't good for Alex. He needed… Jared's shoulders slumped with defeat. For the first time in their relationship, he didn't know what Alex needed, but he doubted their impersonal living space helped either of them.
Giving in to his need to be close, regardless of Alex's reaction, Jared closed the space between them, wrapping Alex in strong arms. He didn't respond but he didn't move away and over the last months Jared had learned to take what he could get.
He pressed a kiss into Alex's dark hair. "Have you started drawings for the new house?"
"Poked at it some. Not really inspired." Alex's voice sounded rough. It hadn't recovered fully from the smoke and heat damage.
After a year Jared thought Alex might never sound the same as he had before the fire, but Jared didn't mind the husky rasp. He thought it sounded sexy; Alex didn't agree. How he sounded became one more thing adding to his withdrawal.
"We can use the old plans. Or stay here." Alex's shrug said he didn't think it made a difference.
Unexpectedly, Jared found himself in a silent wrestling match with his temper. Crossing Alex's boundaries for the first time, Jared gripped his shoulders and turned him around. "Look at me."
Alex focused on Jared's chin. Jared cupped Alex's face, tilting it to meet his eyes. "Talk to me." Jared's fingers moved in an instinctive caress of Alex's cheek.
The incisions from his plastic surgery had healed completely, but the thin scars had yet to fade though the surgeon promised they would with time. The prickle of the beard growing in to disguise the sensitive red marks along Alex’s jaw and down his neck felt foreign to Jared, but he'd get used to both. He felt less hopeful about the empty look in Alex's eyes and his failure to respond to Jared's caress.
"Talk about what? I'm fine. You're fine. Everything's great." Alex made no effort to hide the apathy in his voice.
Jared's fingers tightened against Alex's face, and his heart clenched painfully at the indifference in Alex's words. "No, everything is not fine. Tell me what to do. Help me fix this. I don't know how to help you."
Alex stepped back, pulling away from Jared's touch. "I don't know if you can help, if anything can."
Jared traced Alex's remaining scars with his eyes. They'd used a skin expansion technique to repair the third degree burns on Alex's face, neck, and the back of his right hand. Alex had gone into the procedure laughing about being turned into a human balloon to preserve his beauty. The lengthy process of stretching his skin to get the flaps necessary to cover the damage had leached away his good humor. When the procedure temporarily disfigured him, Alex refused to leave their apartment except for visits to the doctor. He stopped seeing anyone but Jared and had withdrawn completely by the end.
Alex's therapist and his surgeon assured Jared the reclusiveness and depression were not uncommon and Alex would bounce back once the treatment ended. So far that hadn't happened. Jared wondered if the antidepressants they treated Alex with were helping, because if they were, Jared didn't want to know what would happen to Alex without them. Sometimes he seemed so morose Jared worried every second they were apart, terrified he'd return home to find Alex in bed with a razor. Jared struggled to understand, Alex hadn't ever been vain, and the surgery had returned him closer to his pre-fire appearance than either of them expected. They'd had a rough year, Alex's had been harder than tough, but they had made it and Alex's inability to cope frustrated Jared.
"We can't go on like this." The look on Alex's face made Jared wish he could snatch the words back, keep Alex from hearing them.
Alex pulled the sweater closed around him, the bulk helped hide how thin he'd gotten. The last time Jared saw Alex without a shirt his ribs and the bones of his spine were clearly visible. No longer secret Braille to be read by the whisper of Jared's fingers against his skin, they could be counted from across the room. That day Jared began to fear, despite Alex surviving the fire, he might be lost after all.
"I need space, time…" Alex stared at the wall over Jared's shoulder.
The vague dread Jared had been living with took form and chilled him. "You're leaving?" The thought stole his breath, leaving Jared barely able to form the words.
Looking surprised and then remorseful Alex shook his head, though he didn't move any closer to Jared. "No, of course not. I didn't mean that. I'm not ready."
Puzzled, Jared resisted the urge to reach for him. "Not ready for what?"
"For anything." Alex turned and walked into their bedroom, leaving Jared alone with only the whisper of the snow against the window for company.
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