Ethan loved crossword puzzles, too. He learned his letters on them. Learned to love letters on them. Delighted in the mysteries of phonics.
“That’s not how you spell that Mommy!” he would giggle, though gleefully and diligently taking her slow and precise dictation.
Storge. S. T. O. R. G. E.
“Are you sure there isn’t a ‘j’?”
“As sure as Ethan has an ‘e’!”
“If you say so,” always with a skeptical brow.
Later, when he lies quiet against a wash of white sheets, she tries to recreate the exercise.
“Eight down, my love,” she murmurs. “French origin this time. A. B. A. T. T…”
But without his help, without his painstaking handwriting penned so carefully to stay within the tiny squares, she can find no pleasure in it. The chair is too hard against her back. Her penmanship is too brusque, slashing at the delicate paper. Her ears are filled with the now too-regular gray of her son’s silence instead of his humor. Her hands are trembling now, and the pen slips from numb fingers.
A mantra, pounding in her head: Ethan. Hebrew. Enduring. Ethan. Hebrew. Enduring. Ethan. Hebrew. Enduring.
Ethan’s heart, pounding dutifully on without his laughter. His puzzles moving on without him. Enduring despite his absence.
James is tired, she can see and feel it, but her own exhaustion is too bone deep to leave room for any sympathy. Not that he asks for it. He offers his own in spades, though, and she swallows so much of it she can’t understand how he has anything left to give her. But James has always been nothing if not generous.
It’s so strange to be here now. For so many years, the excitement, the preparation, first for Ethan’s arrival then for his existence, had dominated all their time and energy. James took to fatherhood with the ease of expectation and the confidence borne of a well-loved childhood. She loved her son too, of course, loved him with such an ache, but she never fully overcame the clanging fear in her chest. A human being, grown from her womb, fed on her tentative knowledge of a flawed world. A new brain molded around her own blindness. It overwhelmed her daily, the strength of this terrible love for her boy. It’s hand reached deep into her core and squeezed until tears singed her eyes.
It’s different now. Strange. “Strange,” from the Latin “extraneus” and Old French “estrange.”
That Ethan is a dream to her now. That awful love for him sand between her fingers instead of a pulsing, greedy, beautiful thing.
She can’t decipher her feelings anymore, has disconnected from it all. The fear that plagued her in the early days (the happiest days of her life, the most perfect, the most joyous, how could she ever have been so afraid when there had been such joy ), has been washed away. Now, there is just this vision of her boy: small and white and drowning in a bed too large for him. Ethan is gone, and has been gone for so long already.
Even as his body changes and grows, proof that he is enduring, it is a cruel facsimile. As if, if she asks enough times, if she dictates enough letters, he will open his eyes, with that skeptical brow. Maybe his voice will even sound the same.
Are you sure that’s how you spell that Mommy?
In the end, it’s James who makes the decision. She can barely even fathom that there is a decision to make, let alone accept —
He’s so tall now, is the only thought that drifts helplessly through her mind as doctors and nurses file out of the room, the deed done. James is next to her, solid but, if she dared to look into his face, silently cracking. Ethan’s chest is still rising and falling, somehow, and his face has a slight flush, though it’s too slack to call sleep. The air in the room feels like concrete against her skin. In her hands, inexplicably, is this week’s crossword puzzle, creased and pinched and ink smeared in her clammy, shaking fingers.
Ethan — this unreal, too-tall Ethan — breathes silently in the deafening room, and James’s shoulders begin to shake. He’s gripping her arm too tightly, to anchor himself, but she feels too fluid right now to be solid for him. She thinks she is probably crying, but she can’t take in any of this cold, frozen air, and Ethan is sucking it all up with his false breaths.
The paper in her hands feels like it’s melting away from her. He’s so tall now.
Four across. Latin for "farewell." V. A. L. E.
Doctors Without Borders is a fresh start for them. This new house is a fresh start for them. Fresh. Old English “fersc” meaning “not salt, fit for drinking.” Maybe if they drink enough of this new life she can forget the old dream that had seeded her brain, crosswords and all.
The house is large, for only two people. The realtor had made suggestive comments about the additional rooms, until James silenced her with something curt and out of character. Alex had gone through the tour in a bit of a daze, but not a bad one. Not the same daze as right after —
She decides she likes it because it is absolutely nothing like their old home. And she will make it all her own, since James will be gone and Eth—
This will be good for them. She has always coveted her independence, and this is such an opportunity for James. She can see the change in his face as the date of his departure looms nearer. The idea dawning in his eyes, that perhaps there is a future to be had, of sorts. Not the one they had hoped and planned for, but one of sorts.
James leaves with a pack that seems too small for how long he’ll be gone for and a promise to call as soon as he lands. She and James have always made it a point to be honest with each other, so she believes him, and she even looks forward to the call. They have been dancing around each other for the past few months, since —
It’s a fresh start.
She falls into a rhythm. Lectures. Writing. Consult. Lectures. Writing. Consult. Call James. Lectures. Writing. Consult.
Suddenly it’s been a year. Fall to winter to spring to summer barely glancing off her. She can’t tell if this is working yet, only knows the steady stream of endure endure endure. There are days when the act of remembering his name turns her lungs to ash, when the sight of a newspaper burns her. She can’t always remember her dreams, but she can sometimes recall the sound of him stealing her air in that dying room. Worse are the dreams of his laughter. Those linger into her waking hours.
She doesn’t tell James about the dreams, and he only tells her the barest details about what he’s doing, as if he senses that any more will break her pattern. And breaking this rhythm, this drum of endure endure will break her. She can’t afford to let that happen. She has to be his anchor, even if she is still dry, sifting sand. She has to be the anchor for James, because he loved being a father so much, and he gave everything he was to being that. And now he’s trying to rebuild his sense of self — alone, away from her and the dread in her gut and the tremble in her hands.
So she can’t tell if it’s working, but it has to work because her breath is inevitable, and James needs a home to return to, and the days plod on, with or without her.
She doesn’t realize how tall the student is until he is nearly on top of her. Somehow he seemed smaller from afar. There is something tucked in about him. He hovers awkwardly around the edges of the usual crowd clambering for her attention — extra credit opportunities, a genuine question, a few suck ups — before she is finally free to turn to him.
He offers his name, almost too quickly, at her patient eyebrow before launching headfirst into a lengthy anecdote that pushes that eyebrow higher and higher. Each syllable rapid-fire, ejected in a strangely musical rhythm. The accent she places in the west, or close to, and by the slowly straightening spine as he delves deeper into his speech, she guesses an academic future. By the deluge of words spilling from his mouth, involuntary flutter of hands, and wavering eye contact, she can guess some other things too. He is enthusiastic, if anything, and she finds herself wanting to smile.
She holds up a hand to pause the flood, lips tugging a little, and invites Spencer Reid to continue his discussion in her office.
It doesn’t surprise her at all to find Spencer waiting again at her next lecture, at the back of the pack, patient but self-conscious and hunched over himself. Nor at the next one, or the next. She finds herself looking for him in her periphery, for the little brush of hair from his face, the nervous grip on his anachronistic bag, his bowed head. It’s when they’re alone that the head bobs up, and suddenly his words are tripping off his tongue in their haste, and he’s melting her brain with a dizzying array of often-tangential statistics. There is comfort in his chatter, which isn’t usually inane. And when she can parse through his verbosity, there is always a gem to take away, to stretch out with him, explore possibilities over.
She usually has a few hours before her next engagement, so she’s taken to leading Spencer out of the hall and back to her office merely by walking away, making sure to keep her body and face toward him in tacit invitation. He’ll follow without question, she finds, with a kind of absentmindedness that speaks to the force of his focus. When she has it, she’ll press a cup of coffee into his hand, which barely breaks his rhythm, though there is danger now that his gesticulating will send the coffee careening onto her carpet. Sometimes it feels like he’s trying to craft a thesis out of thin air and is editing in real time, but there really is something to be said for the connections he makes. She usually won’t interrupt but to clarify a statement or insert her own thoughts. If his answering enthusiasm is anything to go by, he doesn’t mind a bit. She thinks he’s happy to just talk, and she’s more than glad to listen.
Another non-surprise to find that he, too, exists in the same professional Venn-diagram that she does. She can’t even find it in her to feel any outrage. She had been recruited young, too. But she doesn’t remember being so innocent.
It’s later, when she mistakenly turns the conversation personal, and he maneuvers around it so deftly she barely notices the shift in his vernacular (the sudden careful stillness in his shoulders, the way his eyes sharpen just a bit, his hands stilling for a second too long) that she understands. She’ll remember the quiet change. She’ll need it to remind herself that he isn’t fully hers to read, that maybe she shouldn’t give her own lexicon away so easily either. We are all too young, she thinks.
The BAU is something she had considered but only pursued with half an eye. She almost declines, suspecting some misplaced (deliberately placed) guilt on Erin’s part, when the offer is made. She barely consults James on the position, since there will be no permanent relocation, and he is hardly home enough to miss when she travels to wade through the filth of the country.
There is no bitterness to that fact. They are getting better. He still doesn’t burden her with his constant whereabouts and activities, but their phone calls feel closer to what they had before. She can find it in her to joke again, and he seems more solid now that his purpose has grown beyond their singular orbit. He always did need external reinforcement.
James whispers the name once, voice cracking over the distance between them. She still can’t say it and only exhales long and silently as she can, into the phone, her eyes closed, imagining again the stolen breaths and solid air and the feel of James's ruin beside her. They hardly ever see each other, but she has never once considered letting him go. She knows he feels the same by the way he says her own name, low and devastating, after.
Erin is a problem she never expected to encounter again. She feels nothing seeing the woman after so many years. Really. Not a thing. No twinge of betrayal. No hope of rekindling friendship. No sardonic pleasure at the tentative “Agent Blake,” instead of “Alex” (and oh how much could she read into that ). Nothing. And she prefers it this way. She plays at civility, hoping Erin can make that same effort.
The team is wary of her at first, of course. She is replacing someone well-loved and formidable. There is a complicated history simmering underneath the polite welcome, and she is definitely not going to poke at it. It’s a small relief that Reid (Scottish, red. Old English, woodland clearing. Reid, here, not Spencer, profiler, not student) is still able to smile at her with something genuine and guileless, either oblivious or purposefully blind to the caution, edging on hostility, in his teammates’ regard.
Another strange thing, to see him in this space after so long in lecture halls and small university offices. It suits him, in the way an aquarium suits a dentist office, though the sight of his gun — bulky and incongruous against his willow tree frame — sinks something heavy and unsettled in her stomach. She tries not to think too hard about what that means. She has, despite herself, grown fond of him.
She eyes the team as they pretend not to eye her back. She is sure, given the chance, she will likely become attached to them and their thinly veiled protectiveness, too.
It’s harder to get into a rhythm when the rhythm is a roiling sea of violence and so many dead women and frantic leaps of logic and too much coffee and too many hours awake.
But this, like other things, is just a puzzle. Connect the syntax to a personality trait. Connect the personality trait to a person. Connect the person to a crime. Except, she’s out of touch with puzzles lately.
On longer flights, in the rare quiet when his books are stowed and he’s not asleep in a position that hurts her spine to watch, Reid will pull one out of his bag. A part of her still burns at the sight but another is calmed by the methodical push and pause of his pen. Four across. Ten across. Three down. Connecting to five across. It’s a sudden thought that jolts her: She’d forgotten. Afternoons stretched out the floor of her childhood home, her mother’s warm leg pressed against hers. Snatching at the pen to scrawl her own words in. Questioning her mother’s spelling. Is everything really so inevitable? She heaves a wet sigh, taking in the flop of hair over Reid’s speculative gaze as he contemplates four down. Maybe. Something alights in his eye and his pen dips confidently. He eyes six across now.
Maybe it was all reaching for this moment. Or maybe she can make it hers.
“Fulcra,” she calls softly. He jumps the teeniest bit at her voice and looks over at her with a crinkled brow. She only glances down at the paper in his hands with a private smile, and his look clears instantly. His pen scratches against the worn paper without hesitation. He doesn’t ask her to spell it.
She can’t be surprised when Reid shows up at the bullpen with this week’s paper, the patchwork chessboard of the crossword empty. His eyes light up, childlike, and her stomach churns, but she dredges up a returning smile. They only get a few words in before Garcia lures them away, to her relief. He leaves it on her desk, though, and she can’t bring herself to touch it.
The next time, he’s swinging a timer from his hand, a brazen challenge that raises her brows. No one else is in yet, though Garcia is putzing around in the conference room.
“What’s your fastest?” His smile is the mischievous one that he doesn’t try to tamp down.
“Eight minutes and fourteen seconds.”
“You can beat that. Eight,” comes the dare. Her eyes narrow.
“Okay, game on.”
He grips the paper with one hand and brandishes the timer with the other. Is it strange that her heart is thudding too loudly? She wants to close her eyes and live in this moment of anticipation forever. That way the paper won’t burn her when it touches her skin. But Reid is here with her, is proof she exists outside of herself, and she trusts him to keep her hands clean.
When Reid snaps the timer with a grin and congratulates her loftily, she feels slightly dazed, like she’s just woken from a dull dream, like the last eight minutes had been another person’s lost time. She deflects his praise, but her chest is warm as he insists that next time she’ll definitely get it under seven minutes and accepts her quiet, acknowledging hum in response. Then he's off, stats on the number of times clues have been reused clattering off his tongue.
Reid leaves the paper again on her desk. This time, she brings a steady hand to it, to trace the imprint of his tiny lettering. His writing is angular but precise. They carefully take up the entirety of each square but never cross the lines. The ink is still wet.
She had forgotten her mother's puzzles. Staring at the black on her fingers, this feels like the beginning of an amends.
Cases involving children are universally understood as touchy subjects. They each have their own triggers. Hotchner’s and JJ’s are easy to pin down. Rossi’s less so, though she has suspicions. Her attempts to conceal hers are mostly made of silences and distance.
They are in Michigan, when her silence damns her because it’s bubbling up in her now, at the sight of this stranger’s son. Eight years old. Brown hair curling at the nape of his neck. Eyes closed. Suddenly the air is concrete again, and she can’t leave the morgue fast enough, Rossi’s voice trailing after her like a siren.
She tells Hotchner every tired detail, in a low worn voice, because she can’t be this unprofessional. There are other brown-haired boys in the world. Stops just short of naming, because even now they still feel like characters in a play, stuck between the pages of a script. All she has to do is keep the book closed.
“Rossi can handle it on his own,” and there is little reproach in Hotchner’s voice, though she sees the question bright in his eyes. Why didn’t you say something sooner? “Reid could use some help with the mother’s letters.”
She can only smile gratefully, because no Reid doesn’t, but she’ll offer her expertise nonetheless.
“And,” he adds before she turns to leave. His voice is equally low and worn. Too young, she thinks desperately, for all that they are the same age. He has his Jack waiting for him at home. “I won’t mention any of this to the team.”
She presses her lips together, presses against the urge to say something reckless, like thank you. Because the book is still closed, but it’s starting to feel closer to floodgates, and she can’t do that yet because it’s working. The cases keep coming, and the days move forward, and the team flies onward, and she’s part of that team now, so it’s working. She can’t stop now.
She gives Hotchner a wobbly smile and walks briskly out before she can see the unbearable kindness in his face.
The thing about losing Erin is that she’s already well-versed in it. She’d had a decade to get used to the idea. It doesn’t destroy her the way it does quietly to Rossi, who tends to plunge where Alex wades. It stings, though, the nagging of potentials and maybes. She had truly put everything behind her, and she and Erin had just gotten back to something approaching friendly. A little longer, and she would even have broached the subject of a tentative friendship. She doesn’t let herself brood any further on that and can’t look Rossi in the eye for a while.
The thing about John Curtis is that she forgot about him. He had been a footnote in the saga of her own self-destruction a decade ago. Everything else was swallowed by Erin and the sharp pain of losing everything (losing Erin the first time, losing her job, losing her public face, losing — ). Alex forgot about John (Hebrew, God is gracious) Curtis (derived from Old French, courteous), and now Erin is gone for good.
He at least did Alex the grace of solidifying her place in the team for her, at the expense of her old friend, before he blew up. It leaves a burning in her gut, that this was the price of belonging. She felt nothing seeing Erin after all those years, but she feels everything with such agonizing clarity at this goodbye.
The team is shaken, loss of their matriarch robs them of their stability. But for the first time, Alex feels central to their clan. Loss, she knows, unifies. She and James are testament to that.
The team slowly finds its rhythm again, and she finds hers. It feels like nothing can phase her now, topple this equilibrium she has found with this this group, this family (though sometimes it feels more like a balancing act than walking on solid ground).
Not even seeing her father and Scott again, strange bitter reunion that it is, tips her over. Not when it dredges up things she’d thought she’d buried. Not when she says their names again and it surprises her how much it doesn’t cut her open. Dad and Scott know better than to ask about James, know better than to ask questions she won’t answer. She promises to call now and thinks that she probably actually will this time.
She calls James, visits him on the weekends she’s home. She fills in crossword puzzles with Reid. Explores teas with Garcia. She is immeasurably fond of these young, marvels that though they are full grown and hardened to the slippery underbelly they dip into willingly, they can still find joy in little things like old TV shows, and scarves, and colorful hair. She can’t help bask in it, let her imagination wrap around her. Dream up a world where they could meet —
She dreams, still. But they are of a different shade now. Disembodied limbs chasing her through darkened alleys. Water filling her lungs as rough hands grip at her legs. Brown-haired boys with different faces lying still on white sheets. There are a few therapy sessions mandated by the Bureau, and she opens herself to the latest doctors dutifully. She tries to channel James. Solid, calm, inner workings completely unfurled. The dreams will fade, she is assured. Everyone gets them. She is encouraged to keep a journal. And she does, but only on the nights when she wakes shaking, the sound of slow breathing in her ears and the pounding rhythm of endure endure spitting her skull. She lies awake under the weight of those oppressive nights and counts conjugations so that by morning she can smile again.
Cases. The team. James. Crossword puzzles.
She is, she finds, beginning to rediscover the meaning of “okay.”
Reid is at her side one moment, just a dark flash against bright bursts of gunfire (and in her head, later when she can’t tell if she dreamed it all up or not, she can see his face illuminated for a spare second, so bright, and so afraid, eyes so wide, she has never seen him so frantic, even at his most agitated), and the next she is flat on the asphalt and he is gone from view. Her imagination will rear up after it’s over and supply what her senses didn’t catch: her name, desperate, the shock of firm hands yanking her to the ground, the hard retort of an unseen gun, a quiet grunt of impact, the sound of a body crumbling. Over and over and over, her name, the gun, the impact, crumpling, her name, the gun, the impact, crumpling.
She finds him where Morgan propped him against the car like a doll. His breathing is loud and broken and frightening.
“There’s too much blood,” stumbles out of her mouth. Loud, maybe. She doesn’t know. She can hardly hear anything above the knell in her head, suddenly, of Spencer Spencer Spencer. French despensier to English. Steward. Spencer. English. Steward. It’s too much. It’s too much like the familiar pounding in her head. Too much like —
His eyes slide close, and there is a terrible, powerful lurch in her chest and a tangle of horrible panic, and the name slips out. Tumbles right out of her numb surprised lips and into the unforgiving air. And now she is slipping, and everything is slipping out and away from her. Sand through her fingers. She can feel the sluggish warmth of it pulsing into her palm. She can’t catch it all because it’s flowing too quickly, like it’s inevitable that they found themselves here, and she can’t stop thinking about how she has to be solid for him, but that’s impossible because she is the sand slipping away and taking Spencer away and taking Ethan away.
And Ethan Ethan Ethan how many years has she been hiding from it under the guise of enduring.
“Open your eyes,” like she’s been waiting all this time. For him to open his eyes and ask her to spell it again mommy for real.
She can’t even see who she’s holding anymore, just that his eyes are closed, and she is the one collapsing now but James isn’t here to anchor her, because he went far away, and there is an awful, hot feeling in her chest, a dread in her gut that is too familiar and still too fresh. So many years into her fresh start, and she is still here, with her boy, waiting for him to open his eyes.
After is a blur.
After, JJ finds her and anchors her, pulls a slightly manic laugh out of her. She knows the words that come out of her mouth paint her distress as guilt, but she doesn’t have any more words to explain the Ethan Ethan Ethan pulsing through her. And after, Garcia fusses and fills the quiet with her color and immutable energy. So young, she thinks, though it’s not a warm thought tonight.
When the surgeon emerges, the sight of him is another jolt. The words lucky and stopped the bleeding phase through her like a fog, the utter relief turning her marrow liquid. But the pulse of Ethan Ethan pushes her limbs forward. She needs to see —
There’s this phrase that trips out on peoples’ tongues with a carelessness. That their loved ones lie diminished in hospital beds. They look small and vulnerable and helpless.
She looks at Spencer, looked at Ethan, and they aren’t any of those things. They are just — not. The unnamed figure in the bed is merely an absence. Even if Spencer is alive (alive) she can’t convince herself that he is really in that delicate glass body, that slack not-sleeping face, until she sees his eyes open. The difference today is the certainty she cradles in her chest. His is the sleep of rest. He will recover.
So Garcia fusses and brings things to brighten the room, and Alex sits vigil beside the bed, the pounding Ethan Ethan Ethan in her head lessening a little with each rise of Spencer’s chest, and now maybe it’s starting to sound like endure or maybe Spencer. Because Spencer’s inhale isn’t her inhale. He is not breathing falsely his last exhales into frigid air. Spencer will open his eyes.
He opens his eyes. The fear choking her abates, but she is still slowly grinding ash. And she is so exhausted.
No more time left to wonder at the miracle that Spencer will live because there is another brown-haired boy, and they are going to save him, and he will grow up and grow too tall and grow so old. Spencer will have that chance, too. And isn’t that what she’d wanted so badly?
“I thought it was going to be the worst day,” she confides in Rossi in the car. But her relief is barely there, wavering. Her limbs buzz and her mind still pulses. She muses out loud on the extremes of their jobs, trying to drown it out, and can only silently absorb Rossi’s ghosts when he calls them up for her. His frankness is quietly astounding. She opens her mouth to reciprocate, but they are suddenly fighting their way out of an ambush. She can be stupidly thankful for the distraction because she’s not sure what she would have revealed, if there was even anything to reveal. She is a hollow hourglass, and her hours have been seeping away through a crevice that’s been widening since James gripped too tightly and she tried not to drown with him.
Even bringing Joshua back to his mother is tinged with the nervous desperation of earlier. He is alive, and Spencer is alive, but Ethan Ethan — she can’t run from the dread sinking into her lungs anymore.
She might call this night the turning point, but if she’s honest with herself, this was a test of endurance. How far she could stretch herself before a new Alex (English, defender of the people, what a horrible irony) broke through to live her life for her. How far she could stretch her and James before the band between them snapped. Even when she could never think of letting go, something small and plaintive and perverse in her needed to try. (The job has to come first doesn’t it? Isn’t that what she told James? Isn’t that what put that look on his face, like he knew, like he couldn’t stop her even with the temptation of having him back again for real, no the job had to come first because it was working it’s working Ethan Ethan Ethan he is enduring — )
She can’t let go. But maybe she’s tired of pulling in the wrong direction.
The hardest part, of course, is Spencer. If she had let her imagination run away from her with him, she thinks maybe he may have too, just a little bit. She sits as far from him as she can on the flight back to D.C., as if her thoughts are contagious, and he is still too weak to keep his head up, let alone stave off her duplicity. She needn’t have stressed. He folds into a deep sleep almost immediately upon entering the cabin, tucked in tenderly by Garcia.
She has several hours more to agonize over her decision, but she knows she’s just acting a bit with herself. Her decision was made in the parking lot of a diner full of dead women, dark blood pumping grit through her ineffectual fingers like grotesque wet sand. Ethan’s eyes closing again.
Hotchner meets her eyes briefly over the length of the plane, serious and understanding, and so, so kind. She faces her gaze firmly out the window until they land.
As the team disperses, she volunteers to take Spencer home. Her final amends.
She is subdued on the ride but he seems barely conscious enough to notice. In the flashes of passing street lights, his hollowed face, pale and wan, is unbearably young. Her mind drifts carelessly to the ride with Joshua, another pale face pushed against the car window lit by the moving lights. Rides with her Ethan, his eyes wide in the dark, explaining to her that surely the moon is following them home after all. They just have to catch it.
Spencer takes the steps to his door delicately, Alex trailing behind. He holds himself like glass; if he moves too quickly he’ll spill out of himself and onto the floor. And doesn’t she know the feeling intimately?
In his apartment, he thanks her, and it unbalances her. The words to admit that she stayed for her sake clog in her throat. Like with JJ, she doesn’t know how to explain the beat of Ethan Ethan against her ribs. This is the one language she can’t share with him because she has no vocabulary to explain that he is the language. And Ethan was the language. And she made herself forget how to navigate its sifting sands because it tore her heart open.
She steps away instead, out of the warm apartment, away from Spencer. She can’t say the words, but she hears his as she steps away and away and away. She can barely bring her face up to look him in the eye at the sound of his voice so small. He is surprisingly tall for one so contained. His eyes are big, brown, open wide, and on her until they can’t.
Four across. Latin.
She’s in Boston now, at James’s apartment. She hasn’t broken the news yet, barely believes it herself.
“This week,” she starts haltingly. “Was and wasn’t great.” She stops. James is looking at her with the smooth brow that means he’s waiting for the rest and has no judgement, only unending patience. “He’s fine now, but we almost lost —”
Horrified, she feels tears breaking out of her.
“He’s so young, James. And I — it was just — and there was another boy, who will get to live — but Ethan — and I just can’t — ”
The words stutter to a stop because she can't breathe anymore, chest rattling like it’s her last. She thinks James murmurs her name as he settles his hands on hers, but she finds herself pulling away — why is she pulling away? The point of this entire exercise was to pull him closer. To find him again. She didn’t realize how far away he was until she could not longer span the canyon yawning between them, space that she had wrapped around herself because Ethan had taken all of her and left none for anyone else. James — generous, forgiving James — still had enough of himself tucked away to ask for more. James had left to find James again. She left to lose him.
But James’s hands are on her face now, halting her movement, two warm solid points of pressure keeping her here with him. Holding her together. James. Hebrew. Supplanter. One who follows. They were apart for so long, but he has followed her here, with so much patience. Waiting for her to open her eyes to see him.
“Alex,” he breathes for her. “You’re allowed to love him, still.” That cracks her wide. “You’re allowed to love him. I couldn’t stop, and you don’t have to.”
And now she can’t breathe because Ethan Ethan Ethan. Her Ethan was here with her, so long ago, but she couldn’t hold him together, keep him with her. And even after he was gone, he was always slipping away, but maybe she was the one holding that book closed, keeping the flood back. It wasn’t working, was it? She lets herself spill into James’s hands, fluid and shifting and flowing, and trusts him to catch hold of her. Her eyes are still closed, but she knows his are open and on her, always.
She takes a deep breath.
“I’m staying. Here. Boston. I’ll teach,” the syllables clatter through her teeth like pebbles. She almost wants to pull them back in, her heart thudding, but the look on James’s face stops her. Settles her. Warms her. She has never told him about Spencer, about what she almost allowed herself to imagine. She and James have always been honest with each other, but she has never been so careful with herself. This can be the fresh start for her. New waters.
James puts his hand on hers, solid and sure and so very patient. She twists her palm to fit his. They sit together. They breathe.
Blake of Old English, meaning “black” or “swarthy.”
Or, in another life:
Old English, meaning “bright.”