Hi to Diane Adams – she visits us to talk about the making of her series.
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Hi guys! Thanks for stopping by to help celebrate the release of If the Stars Fall, fifth in the Making of a Man series. I thought I’d share a few little known facts about how the series came into existence.
Alex and Jared made their first appearance in a story I wrote after a heartfelt discussion with a good friend of mine about being gay and his experience going to church. He and his partner attended together but he noted something that occurred regularly both before and after the service. If he and his partner were not standing together people said hello and stopped to speak as if everything were fine, but when they stood together, as a couple, it was as if they were invisible. Gazes slid right past them as if they were not even there.
It was during that conversation I was introduced to the idea of the “Gay Wall.” My friend told me a story about a child coloring a wall with a brick red crayon. Unfortunately I can’t remember the details, which is a shame because it tied into our conversation remarkably. He allowed me to see the world through his eyes and what I saw hurt. Afterwards I was unable to get experience out of my head and so I wrote about it. The story is titled The Color of Pain and you can read it here.
After I wrote The Color of Pain, I featured Alex and Jared in several original stories. The stories were the foundation of the first book, Our December. Written first as ‘snapshots’ of Jared and Alex, the short stories looked at the guys not only from their personal point of view but also from the perspective of those around them. The effort of pulling the individual stories into a single book is how the idea was born to share a look into the couple’s future at the beginning and end of each book. Those of us who enjoy romance with a happy ending know going in that the main characters will get together. We don’t read for ‘if’ we read for ‘how’. For fans of romance every story is about the journey, and knowing that I decided to tell Alex and Jared’s story in a unique way. I think having that image of them together and happy from the beginning and knowing for sure things are going to work out is comforting.
Of course the real foundation of the Making of a Man is the relationship of Alex and Jared, present and future. Many stories begin in the mind of the author with a simple question.
The love story of Alex and Jared began exactly that way. What if a young boy fell in love, real forever and always love? What if the man he loved was older, yet loved him in return? How would such an event shape the life of such an impressionable young person?”
It seems odd to me to think of Alex and Jared in such abstract terms at this point. Alex is that boy, full of youthful energy, hope, and courage; and Jared the ‘older’ man with his feet firmly planted in reality and brimming with unmatched integrity.
Soon after I began writing the Series I discovered it is impossible to tell the story of one life intimately influenced by another. Influence is never a one way street. The result is that, as the books progress and the story of Alex and Jared unfolds, we learn how their love shapes the men they become to such an extent it is impossible to know what one would have become without the other.
As it says in the blurb on the back cover of Life Should be Beautiful, the print edition of the first three books in the series: Through the years they begin to understand something many never learn. Life teaches the lessons, but love is the making of a man.
Well, that’s pretty much it… I hope everyone enjoyed reading about the origins of the series.
Don’t forget to pick up your copy of If the Stars Fall, The Making of a Man Book 5.
Jared Douglas and Alex Ross share a life many people envy. When disaster strikes, it hits hard and their long standing relationship is put to the test, making Jared realize how fragile love can be.
How Long Since this Story Began
Standing next to their bed Alex Douglas-Ross braced his forearm against the wall and watched his husband sleep. He noted that over the last few weeks several white strands had dared to salt themselves through Jared's dark auburn hair, matching the silver at his temples. It didn't make him look old, no one ever put him at fifty, much less his very real fifty-five. With an unconscious need for physical contact Alex reached out to touch the silk of his hair, but jerked his hand away just before his fingers brushed against the fine strands. He needed his rest.
Jared's naturally fair skin never tanned well, but the sight of his current unnatural pallor against the dark blue of the pillowcase constricted Alex's heart, making it painful to breathe. The stark visual, an uncompromising reminder of how long Jared had been out of the sun, inevitably brought his mind back to the afternoon he'd come home to find him lying in a pool of his own blood.
Fighting back tears, Alex buried his face against his arm. He felt ridiculous. He hadn't cried once in the weeks following the accident, but after receiving the doctor's assurance of Jared's full recovery earlier that day, he began to unravel. Now, silent tears wet his face.
Despite Alex's efforts not to disturb Jared, he moved, restless, as if sensing Alex's distress. Dark blue eyes blinked open and Jared's voice broke the silence.
“Hey, come here.” He considered reaching for Jared's outstretched hand, but unwilling to burden him with after-the-fact hysterics turned to leave instead.. “Alex, please.”
He stopped, torn between the sanctuary offered by the bathroom door and his inability to deny Jared. Slowly, he returned to the bedside. Jared didn't say a word as he lifted the blanket in silent invitation. Alex hesitated only a moment before toeing off his shoes and crawling, fully dressed, into the haven of Jared's arms. He pressed his face against Jared's chest. The security of his embrace, the familiarity of his scent, overwhelmed him and toppled his last barrier.
“You scared me,” he accused, struggling to stem the sudden rush of emotion that threatened to break free in another torrent of tears. He pulled away, sitting to snag a tissue from the nightstand to wipe his face and blow his nose.
“I know I did.” Jared reached up and cradled the back of his head, fingers tangling in his hair, tugging a little, attempting to coax him into lying down again. “I'm sorry.”
With a sniff and a resigned sigh, he settled back into the warm niche against Jared.
“Maybe the next time you get sick you could say something and skip the whole passing out, bashing your head on the cabinet thing?” Alex buried his face into the strength of Jared's shoulder, an unsuccessful attempt to ward off the haunting memory of him lying in a pool of blood. His skin had been too pale, his breathing shallow, and his body had burned like a furnace under Alex's hand.
“I promise. I thought I just had the flu or something. You know the fever didn't crop up until days after my stomachache. I didn’t realize there might be a connection.”
“I know.” Alex shuddered, only slightly comforted when Jared's arm tightened around him.
He'd heard the story more than once in the last weeks. Feeling achy and feverish Jared had been determined not to miss work and on his way out, he stopped by the kitchen to grab a couple of aspirin. He'd passed out and didn’t remember falling or hitting his head on the marble edge of the countertop. The resulting gash on his forehead accounted for the pool of blood that Alex claimed had knocked years off his life.
“Anybody else would sue them for the misdiagnosis that almost killed you,” Alex grumbled. He didn't really believe the doctors had been negligent, but he couldn’t help wanting to hold someone responsible for his terror as he’d waited for them to figure out what was wrong with his husband.
Jared hugged him a little closer. “You know it wasn't a misdiagnosis, just incomplete. I did have septicemia. It's not the hospital's fault that instead of getting the blood infection from some outside source, I walked around being poisoned by my own body. They saved me. By all rights, I should be dead.”
Alex had appendicitis as a child. They'd cut out the useless scrap of organ and, much to his mother's dismay, he'd tried to go back to school three days later. As a result, he'd never thought of having appendicitis as being serious, much less life-threatening. His simple laser surgery was a far cry from what Jared had gone through after walking around for two or three days, poison leaching into his entire system. Jared hadn't regained consciousness after arriving at the hospital. Even after they began treating the infection he'd lain still and silent, white as the sheets covering the sterile hospital bed. The continuous drip of antibiotics into his arm from an IV the only thing that stood between him and death.
“You should not be dead, so don't say that. Not ever.” Alex choked out the words, tears threatened again and he held on to Jared, refusing to acknowledge the few that squeezed out to trace his cheeks.
Alex's lack of control made him feel half his age. He'd been a pillar of strength throughout the whole horrifying experience. His fear for Jared's life had only increased once the doctor explained the source of his infection. A burst appendix often proved fatal under the best circumstances. Survival usually dependent upon swift and accurate diagnosis, Jared had received neither.
He'd remained steadfast and made decisions about Jared's life with unwavering confidence. He stayed at Jared's side, holding his hand, talking to him, and showed no sign he believed in any outcome short of full recovery. His assurance worried the hospital staff. Jared’s doctor and his nurses had gently tried to prepare him for the unfortunate reality that things may not turn out as he hoped. Alex waved them off, refusing to listen. He didn't have the will to contemplate the idea of losing Jared. As long as Jared breathed, hope beat in his chest.
“Alex.” Jared inhaled deeply, he had more to say. It weighed between them, but instead of speaking, he buried his face in his hair.
Alex clutched him. After the surgery, he had been so pale he seemed bloodless, and Alex still didn't remember exactly what the doctors had said they'd done beyond removing the appendix. He had a vague impression of something about washing Jared's insides, but that couldn't be right, and whatever they had done wouldn't have been in the sudsy kitchen sink that tormented Alex's dreams. He had better recall of his elation when, after the surgery, the antibiotics had begun to work. The doctor grew cautiously hopeful, and though rarely conscious, Jared regained a little color.
The day they'd taken out his staples, leaving a glaring red wound across his abdomen that made Alex wince every time he saw it, the doctor finally told him in plain English that Jared would be fine. Not long afterward he graduated to oral medication and Alex got to take him home.
“You know the chances that you and I are going to exit this world at the same time are very slim.” Jared finally voiced his thoughts, though spoken with gentle compassion the words tore at Alex's heart.
“No. You are not allowed to leave me.” His jaw clenched and his hold on Jared tightened.
Bringing Jared home had been the beginning of a new trial for Alex. Keeping Jared in bed when he felt so much better had often been a practice in futility, but he had suffered every moment with grace and patience. Only two things mattered. Jared was home and healing. The horrible alternative had been avoided. Knowing what could have been, turned the endless arguments over whether he was ready to climb the stairs, cook dinner, or water the plants into a strange celebration of life.
If he's arguing, he's improving.
Alex had taken the doctor's words to heart. He'd weathered it all just to fall apart when he had nothing left to worry about, since, beyond all medical expectation to the contrary, Jared had recovered.
Jared cupped his face in his hand, and used his thumb to swipe away the few straggling tears. “We have to face reality. I'm fifty-five, you're fifty-one. We aren't getting younger and this could as easily have been a stroke or a heart attack.”
“Shut up.” Alex propped on an elbow to glare down at him. “Shut up or I'm never letting you eat bacon again.”
“Not a single bite.” Alex smirked at Jared's dismayed expression. “We've ignored the reality that something might happen to one of us for the last thirty-five years and I don't see any reason to change that habit just because you think you're old. We'll go vegan if that's what it takes to make you stop talking about heart attacks and strokes.”
“Vegan?” Jared looked horrified.
“Vegan.” He kept his voice firm despite the urge to laugh at Jared's reaction.
“Well, now that I consider all the circumstances, I think it's much more likely we'll die peacefully together in our sleep on our one hundredth anniversary.” Jared hurried to change his tune and even managed to look as if he had convinced himself.
With Jared's insistence they talk about surviving one another safely averted, Alex could relax and enjoy being in bed with him for the first time in too long.
* * * *
Silence fell between them, allowing Jared time to study Alex's face. He understood what Alex was going through. His recent illness hadn't been the first time one of them had a brush with death. Tilting his face with a gentle touch, he brought Alex's mouth to his and tasted tears in the kiss. His misery wrenched Jared's heart, driving him to make impossible promises.
“I'll never leave you.”
“I know,” Alex breathed. His fingers slid into Jared's hair and his body pressed close. Jared's breath caught at the feel of Alex against him. He slid his hand under Alex's shirt to the small of his back and brought their hips together, allowing him to feel his rising interest. “You know, the doctor cleared me for all activity and I've missed you.” Jared stroked the tender skin under his fingers.
Alex made a sound low in his throat, fingers tightening against Jared's scalp as he rubbed against the thigh Jared pressed between his legs.
“Oh, God, Jared.”
Heat curled through Jared in reaction to Alex’s soft sight of submission. He growled his arousal and deepened their kiss. He pulled his husband’s slighter form under his as he worked the T-shirt off his arms. They parted long enough to get it over Alex's head before their mouths locked together again. Jared settled into the welcoming cradle of Alex's hips and plundered his mouth, licking deep before tangling their tongues. Alex suckled hard in return, sending tiny shocks of pleasure through Jared. He groaned, rutting against the hard bulge of Alex's cock, only to hiss sharply and jerk away when the action rubbed his tender scar against the rough denim.
Alex's expression transformed from passionate to concern in the blink of an eye. “We shouldn't be doing this.” He propped up on his elbows and tried to move, but Jared restrained him with a reassuring hand on his chest.
“It's fine. The doc said the scar will be sensitive for a while. There’s an easy fix.” His hands went to the button fly of Alex's jeans. “We'll remove the source of my discomfort.”
Shaking his head, Alex opened his mouth to protest, but whatever he'd been about to say died on his lips when Jared slid the buttons of his fly free, one after the other. His knuckles brushed the soft skin of Alex's belly, and they both trembled.
They hadn't been together for weeks, not even a stolen hand job to help pass the time. Alex's fear of losing Jared kept them on the straight and narrow all the way through his lengthy convalescence. Jared had never been so relieved to hear the words ‘you may resume full activities'. He blushed a little remembering the amused curl of the doctor's lips at his questions meant to ensure Alex understood ‘full activities' included sex.
When the last button opened, he raised his gaze to meet Alex's, sliding his fingers inside to rub the hard length of his cock through the soft cotton of his boxers.
Alex's eyes closed and he groaned, lifting his hips into Jared's touch. “How do you do that?” he gasped. Still propped on his elbows, he let his head fall back.
Heat licked through Jared's veins at the sight of his exposed throat.
“Do what?” He leaned forward, unable to resist the temptation to lick a long line from the hollow of Alex's neck to behind his ear.
“Make me feel like if you don't touch me I'm going to die.” With a low moan he dropped from his elbows to sprawl across the bed.
Continuing to torment the soft skin behind Alex's ears, Jared found the opening in the front of Alex's boxers and slid his hand inside, brushing against the hard flesh trapped there. Crying out softly, Alex arched into the brief touch.
“Oh God, just like that.”
With a low murmur of appreciation, Jared eased Alex's jeans off his hips. “Mmm.” He licked along Alex's jaw, lapping at the sandpaper texture of his chin. Jared's beard grew in slowly making it possible, even in his fifties, to skip a day shaving if he wanted. Alex's coarser hair gave him the beginnings of his five o'clock shadow by late afternoon and it annoyed him. Jared didn’t mind. He’s developed a weakness for the rough masculine feel of rough stubble against his skin.
Alex turned his face away without warning. With a gentle touch, Jared cupped his chin and turned him back to meet his gaze. The doubt Jared read on his face came as no surprise. His exuberant confidence had been taken a beating many years before and though he’d healed, it often gave way before his worry about aging.
His eyes shadowed, Alex fingered his stubbled chin. “Don't you ever miss the boy?”
The dark places Alex sometimes slipped into didn't concern Jared as they once had, because over the years he'd learned how to dispel them. He rubbed their cheeks together before pressing his lips to Alex's ear.
“Why would I miss the boy when I am so enamored by the man he grew into?”
Alex quivered beneath him, gasping when Jared’s breath brushed his skin. His eager response quickened Jared's pulse, reminding him of everything he'd missed while being sick.
He stripped Alex the rest of the way out of his jeans and boxers with practiced hands, and returned to his place between his thighs with a hum of pleasure. The slide of their cocks was a familiar caress of satin encased steel. Jared felt the pulse of his lust with every beat of his heart. He braced over Alex, struggling for control, determined to pleasure him first.
Jared wanted to drive him to heights of passion that would leave him sated and boneless, relaxed in a way Jared knew had eluded Alex for weeks. With that goal in mind, he mapped Alex's body with his eyes, smiling with smug satisfaction when he quaked with anticipation. Jared leaned and nibbled along his collarbone, causing him to shiver under the contact with a quiet gasp. With a growl of satisfaction Jared moved on licking and biting his way down Alex’s chest. The lube Alex tried to press into his hand caught him by surprise. It wasn’t like Alex to skip straight to intercourse. He loved foreplay so much sometimes Jared thought he liked it best.
Worried his illness may have triggered more than Alex’s brief struggle with his self-confidence, Jared looked up to meet his gaze. “Alex?”
The shadow haunting Alex’s eyes was more troubling than his nonsense about aging. Uncertain of his state of mind, Jared reluctantly closed his fingers around the tube.
“I need you now, Jared, please.” Breathless, Alex tugged at him. “We can play next time.”
Jared couldn’t resist such a plea. Heat coiled in his belly at the idea of being inside him, and his hard-won control slipped another notch. Bracing a forearm on the pillow beside Alex's head, Jared leaned down for a kiss, at the same time slipping a well-lubed hand between them. Alex gasped and spread his legs, his heels digging into the mattress.
“That's good,” Jared whispered, pulling back to watch his face when he pressed a slick finger inside.
Alex gazed at Jared through half-closed eyes, his body a tense line of anticipation as he waited for him to continue. Jared ignored the need burning through him, to gauge Alex's reaction, watching closely for any indication of pain or discomfort. Seeing no sign of anything but Alex's hunger, evidenced by his impatient shifting against the sheets, Jared added the stretch of a second finger.
“Jared.” Alex moaned and clutched his shoulders. His hips moved in rhythm with the slow glide of Jared's fingers. A third finger joined the others. He gasped, arching off the bed.
“Oh, God. Jared.” His head fell back, baring his throat, fingers digging deep into the muscles of Jared's arms.
Heart racing, Jared ran his teeth along the taut tendon in Alex's exposed neck, and Alex quaked under him. After so many years together, he didn't have to be told when Alex was ready. He ignored the grumbled half-hearted protest when his fingers eased free of his body, and shifted position to kneel between his thighs. Slicking his cock with long slow strokes, Jared trembled under the touch of his own hand. That, combined with the sight of Alex spread out under him, almost snapped his remaining restraint. He clenched his teeth, the muscles in his jaw bunched and jumped.
“Not going to last.” His gaze raked over Alex from head to groin. “God, you're so hot.”
With a wicked grin, Alex edged his legs up Jared's thighs until they wrapped around his waist.
Jared whimpered when Alex wrapped his fingers around Jared's, tightening his hold on his cock and urged him to stroke faster. Their eyes locked, Jared grasped the back of Alex's straining thighs and pushed them against his chest. Panting, sweat beading his skin, he pressed forward, breaching Alex’s body in a slow steady movement that didn't end until he bottomed out. Buried to the hilt, Jared let go of his legs to brace his hands on the pillow on either side of his head. With a soft grunt, he clenched his eyes shut, his hands fisting in the pillow as he struggled for an ounce of restraint.
Alex went perfectly still under him. “Does it hurt?”
“Yes, but not the way you mean.” His voice rough, Jared didn’t give him time to protest. “You're still thinking too much.” He cupped the back of his head, fingers threading through the persistent curls and brought Alex's mouth to his in a bruising kiss.
Alex grabbed his arms and a moan of pure ecstasy escaped his parted lips as Jared withdrew in a single smooth motion before burying himself in the welcoming heat once more. He slid his cock over Alex's prostate with a practiced motion that made him shudder and gasp for air. Jared gentled their kiss. His languid licks into Alex’s mouth belied the fire of need burning low in his belly. Determination alone kept him from pounding the body under his into the mattress as he loved Alex with every touch against his skin, and each stroke into his body. Before long he’d reduced his husband to a quivering wreck, each exhale a ragged plea for more.
The heat of Alex's body gripping him, coupled with his intense reaction, undid Jared. His gentleness burned away in the raw need that consumed them. Kisses bruised, teeth bit, and hands grabbed.
Jared pounded into his body, and Alex’s legs edged higher, locking around his ribcage. Heat curled his toes, bringing alive every nerve in his body as he thrust into Alex.
“Touch yourself,” Jared panted. “Now.”
Obediently Alex wrapped his fingers around his cock and settled into the familiar motion between them, his hand brushing Jared’s belly with each frenzied movement. The feel of Alex tensing under him as he approached completion drove Jared over the edge. He thrust hard into him a once more and back arched, muscles quaking, he shouted his release.
Coming down from his own high, Jared rested his forehead on Alex's, breathing his air. He knocked Alex's hand away from his cock, closed his own around it with a tight grip and a flick of his thumb he knew drove Alex crazy. A second stroke paired with a well-timed twist and Alex cried out, shuddering as his dick jerked and cum painted Jared's chest. Alex clutched him, as he shuddered against him in the aftermath of his release.
Jared made a soft pleased sound and caught Alex's mouth in a gentle kiss, stroking his softening dick, easing him down. He murmured nonsense words into their kiss in an effort to soothe and comfort him. Alex's trembling faded and his tongue licked into Jared's mouth, sliding against his with familiar ease. They remained joined as their heartbeats slowed and their breathing quieted, but when the adrenaline rush from their love making faded, Jared's arm trembled from the strain of bearing his weight. He broke the kiss and of course Alex identified the problem immediately.
“Damn it, Jared.” Alex pushed at him. “Lie down.”
Jared reached to uncouple them, unable to suppress the moan of regret at being separated from Alex. He didn’t move away at once, remaining in the warm cradle of his thighs. He braced his traitor muscles to enjoy a few more seconds covering his husband.
“Jared.” Alex’s tone threatened dire repercussions if he didn’t follow instructions.
“Shhh.” Jared attempted to placate him with a pat on his hip, but Alex didn't relax until he eased onto the bed. Unwilling to let Alex go, he urged him onto his side and pulled him close. Jared spooned behind Alex, and the simple embrace felt like coming home in a way nothing else had.
“We need to clean up,” Alex commented but he didn't move.
“Later.” Jared didn’t want to get up and wasn't entirely sure he could if he tried. His hand slid up through the cooling cum on Alex's chest and he nuzzled the dark curls at the back of his neck. Shot with gray in the light of day, they were as dark as those of a boy in the shadowed room, reminding Jared of Alex's question.
“Do I miss the boy? How silly are you?”
An embarrassed shrug indicated Alex's need for such reassurance had fled. Relieved, Jared pressed a kiss to the back of his neck, hand moving to cup Alex's hip, fingers pressing into the tattoo of their names imprinted on the tender skin.
“We'll be together forever, I promise.”
At his words Alex sighed happily, and covered Jared's hand with his own. Satisfied all his worries had been sidelined, Jared entwined their fingers and tangled their legs. Sleep tugged at him. Cleaning up would have to wait until he had some energy. He let go of Alex's hand long enough to pull the blanket over them. Alex snuggled closer without protest.
Jared smiled, pressed warm lips against his ear. “I want to grow old with you.”
He gave a sleepy laugh. “I think we've already done that.”
“You haven't seen anything yet. I'm just getting started.”
Alex sighed, content. His breathing deepened as he slid towards sleep.
Jared squeezed his hand. “I love you.”
The only evidence Alex heard came in the slight hitch in his breathing and the way he melted back against him, warm and trusting.
His face buried in Alex's soft hair and surrounded by his scent, Jared swallowed against the emotion choking his throat. “God, how I love you.”
Alex breathed deep, already sleeping, he missed the unprecedented repeat declaration of Jared's affection, but he didn't care. The warmth of their love spread through him, a therapeutic solace that gave him everything he needed to finish healing. Their love always had been enough, no matter what.
The Look in Your Eyes
Jared eyed the tense line of Alex's body. His back to Jared, he stared out the window watching the snow fall. Jared didn't doubt that he 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 he flirted back with him like an equal. The last time his lover 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 him 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 gaze slid away from him 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.
He sympathized with Alex. The events the day of the fire had been traumatic. Jared’s 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 he had been inside when the stove exploded came close to immobilizing Jared. The discovery that neither man had died in the blaze hadn’t erased the terror he'd suffered during the excruciating minutes before he knew their fate. Alex's fate. A year later the memory of that debilitating panic fed his nightmares where things did not always turn out alright.
Clark had 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 had 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 a 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 could pull 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 but 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 seemed 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 his physical therapy and plastic surgery. Jared hadn't anticipated his 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 crossed the space between them, wrapped him in his 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 he might never sound the same as he had before the fire, but he 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's gaze fixed on his chin. Desperate to reconnect Jared cupped his face and tilted it back until their eyes met. “Talk to me.” His 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 his 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 his caress.
“Talk about what? I'm fine. You're fine. Everything's great.” He made no effort to hide the apathy in his voice.
Jared tightened his fingers against his face, and his heart clenched painfully at the indifference in the 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 his touch. “I don't know if you can help, if anything can.”
Jared traced his remaining scars with his gaze. They'd used a skin expansion technique to repair the third degree burns on his 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, he 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 he 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, he 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 him in bed with a razor. Jared struggled to understand. He 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 tough 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 him from hearing them. Alex pulled the sweater closer around him. The bulk helped hide how thin he'd gotten. The last time Jared saw him 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 him 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.” He turned and walked into their bedroom, leaving Jared alone with only the whisper of the snow against the window for company.