Clark was woken by Louis tossing in his sleep. He looked over and saw an expression of pain on his face, of fear. He reached out one tentative hand to touch him, maybe to wake him, but he stopped just short, his hand hovering over Louis’ bare shoulder.
But the decision was suddenly made for him when Louis jerked upright, wide awake, crying out and throwing out his arms. He batted Clark’s hand away but Clark guessed he hadn’t even realised there was anyone else there.
“Are you alright?” Clark asked softly.
In the darkness he could only make out the vague, silver outline of Louis beside him. He watched that form sit up and turn away from him, dropping his feet down onto the floor and his head into his hands. For all the intimacy they had shared only hours before, looking at that thin back, the vertebrae just visible in the dim light, Clark had never felt so far away from anyone in his whole life.
“Was it a nightmare?” he asked softly.
Louis ran his hands through his hair and heaved a loud, exasperated sigh. “I’m fine.” The words were short and cold.
Clark reached out once more, his fingers just brushing Louis’ skin. “You can tell me.”
“Don’t touch me!” Louis started to his feet, brushing Clark’s hand away.
Clark retreated, shrinking back across the bed. “I’m sorry,” he murmured.
“No,” Louis sighed again, but this time it was a tired sort of sigh. “It’s not you,” he answered.
“I just want to help.”
Louis started searching around for his clothes. “I should go,” he muttered. And Clark wondered if he was deliberately trying to avoid his gaze.
“Go?” Clark asked. “What are you talking about, it’s the middle of the night.”
“I’ll see you around, OK?” Louis pulled his t-shirt over his head with such force that he nearly ripped the seam, then he grabbed up his shirt, his shoes, his belt, his phone, and made for the door. He didn’t look back.
Clark stared after him and then he spotted something out of the corner of his eye; Louis’ cigarettes on the bedside table. “Louis, wait!” he half rose out of bed, calling after him, but the only response he got was the sound of the front door slamming shut.
His phone rang early the next morning. Clark was still asleep and the harsh noise shook him out of his unsettling dreams. He fumbled for the phone, catching it just before the answering machine picked up.
“Hello?” His voice was gravelly and clogged. He coughed and tried again. “Hello?”
“Clark, it’s me, it’s Louis.” He sounded agitated, anxious, even.
“Did I leave my cigarettes at yours last night?”
“I don’t know, I’d have to check.” Clark picked up the battered packet and twirled it idly in his hand.
“Can you just take a look?”
Clark shifted into a sitting position. “Why is it so important?” he asked. “Why not just buy a new pack?”
“Please, Clark, will you just do this one simple thing for me?” Louis wasn’t yelling, but the pitch of his voice had gotten higher and Clark could almost hear his grip tightening on the phone.
Clark sighed and then relented. “I have them. Do you want them back today?”
Louis breathed a sigh of relief down the phone. “Yeah, there’s a little cafe around the corner from your place, I’ll be there in half an hour.”
Clark winced. He had thought about suggesting this cafe for breakfast before circumstances had changed somewhat. “Fine, I’ll see you there.”
Louis was already waiting when he got there, his dark hair sticking up at all angles from the passage of his hands through it. He had a cup of coffee in front of him, but as far as Clark could see, it was untouched.
Louis started when he saw Clark, half rising from his seat before deciding against it and sitting down once more. He jostled the table and some of his coffee spilled over into the saucer.
“Thanks for coming,” he murmured, a little breathless, a little flustered.
Clark stood, his hand resting on the back of the chair opposite Louis. He pulled the cigarettes out of his pocket and dropped them on the table. “Anything else you forgot?” he asked. When Louis didn’t answer he turned around as though to walk away.
“Thank you,” Louis lurched forward and snatched up the packet eagerly. It wasn’t the action of an addict so much as that of one separated from something much loved, like a child reunited with their favourite toy, or like lovers long parted.
Clark hesitated for a moment, lingering only half turned away. Then he gripped the back of the chair once more and forced himself to ask the question. “Who did they belong to?”
“Excuse me?” Louis looked up at him, his face paling.
“I deserve that much, don’t I?”
Louis twirled the pack between his fingers, staring down as though the answer was written on its crumpled packaging. “What makes you so sure?” he asked eventually.
Clark cocked a sceptical eyebrow. “You don’t taste like a smoker.”
Louis blushed at that, coughed and hunched over his coffee cup. “You do have a way of putting things,” he mumbled.
“So tell me,” Clark sat down across from him, forcing Louis to meet his gaze.
Louis sighed and dropped his shoulders. “He died about a year ago.”
“Please, Clark, don’t ask me.”
They sat in silence for a while then, Louis running his finger around the rim of his coffee cup, Clark staring off into nothing. He could hear the chatter and buzz all around them, but here, in this space, it felt like it was a world apart from everything else.
“Is that what the dreams are about?” Clark asked eventually.
“Jesus,” Louis rolled his eyes and threw up his hands. “What do you want, Clark? He was a soldier and then he died.” Louis cut himself off, gasping and on the verge of tears.
Clark reached out to touch his hand on the table, dithered, drew his arm back, and extended it again. He ended up with his hand left limply in the middle of the table. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“I saw one therapist, he called it ‘survivor’s guilt’, saw another one who called it PTSD,” Louis muttered, a trace of bitterness in his voice. “I keep seeing it, keep watching it and I keep not being able to help him.”
Clark shook his head. “I don’t really know what to say,” he murmured.
Louis managed a little huff of weary laughter. “There is nothing you can say. There’s no fix-all phrase that will make it any better.”
“Then what will help?” Clark asked, and this time he did reach out to Louis, but he moved his hand unexpectedly and Clark’s touch fell short. Whether it was a deliberate movement or not, Clark couldn’t be sure.
“Nothing will help,” Louis answered. “Nothing can save me.”
“Not if you don’t want to be saved,” Clark agreed.
The silence between them was even longer this time, stretching out into minutes. Clark was just starting to get bored of it, to think about getting up and walking away, when Louis raised his head.
“I’ve been living with it for so long,” he said softly. “Carrying him around with me like-,” Louis faltered for a moment, and Clark could almost guess what he had meant to say before he stopped himself. “Like a safety net between me and the rest of the world.”
“Have you been with anyone else?” Clark asked, a growing thought rising in his mind.
Louis at least had the decency to look ashamed. “Not for real.”
“You never meant to see me again, did you?” Clark asked quietly.
Louis looked at him, and the apology was written all over his face. “No, I guess I didn’t.”
And with that, Clark got up and walked away.