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Touch Starved

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Zack wasn't a touchy person.

For as long as he could remember, every instance of someone getting near enough to touch him meant danger. As a child, all he remembered were adults beating him and screaming colorful threats, telling him to move his ass and get to work or to be quiet and don't dare leave his room.

As he grew up, despite differing in content, the threats were still there. Every interaction with a human being started with screaming from either part and ended with someone covered in blood and someone in the ground. For the last few years, he'd always managed to be the last one standing. 

But what all this meant was that all the contact Zack had had with other human beings had been limited to his fists and any sensitive area in the opponent's body.

The fact that Zack was, for the first time in his life, coexisting with another person without any casualties (despite the insistence of one of them about keeping a certain promise) was in and of itself a rare sight to be seen.

And a strange one at that.

Even with his bandages, the feeling of resting his hand on Ray's head to mess with her hair was overstimulating, for lack of a better word. Not like Zack knew what that word meant until Ray bothered to explain it to him (she did that a lot). He could push her head and she usually wouldn't oppose resistance, and when she did he would push harder and laugh at her attempt to overpower him.

He could rest his back against hers and she would do her best not to give in his weight. He would hear her breathing and, if he got quiet and closed his eyes, feel her small fragile shape trembling with effort.

He could just take his bandaged hand and touch her shoulder, tickle her hips, pinch her nose and grab her right cheek and squish until she was making fun interesting faces accompanied by small noises that Zack had only ever heard coming from her and no one else.

He was weirdly fascinated with this. All the ways he could interact with her; all the expressions and sounds he could squeeze out of her otherwise plain and quiet existence. Especially since Ray didn't seem to mind and always ended up watching him with that weird glint in her -now not so dull- eyes.

In fact, if Zack wasn't so caught up in this new range of new experiences, he would have noticed that he was constantly engaging in some kind of contact with his blonde partner; if he wasn't teasing her, his hand would be on her shoulder or her waist or brushing her hand so slightly that Zack could convince himself that he wasn't searching for her touch. 

But Zack wasn't a touchy person.

That's why whenever Ray held his hand to guide him somewhere he would subtly flinch before relaxing in her grip (because Ray was the brain to his brawn and he would follow her wherever she went).

That's why when she tapped him on the back, he had to keep himself from jumping away and clutching the smudgy pocket knife he had swiped from a dumpster (because it was just her, asking him to move aside so that she could pay for their soda cans and three bags of potato chips).

That's why whenever they had to sleep in the same bed in some crappy ass old motel, he would snap his eyes open and pin her down against the mattress when she tried to gently wake him up so they could go get some breakfast. She would calmly watch him, not batting an eye and completely still, as if he weren't crushing her under his weight, with no chance of moving away.

The moments after those involuntary reactions were always awkward, even if she acted as if nothing had happened, as if he hadn't just been ready to break her face against the pavement in reflex to her touch. And yet, she would just look at him with a weird softness in her eyes that Zack had only seen in her and was completely unfamiliar with, not sure of what it meant.

"I'm not a touchy person," he had told her, the same way he told himself, with his eyes fixated on a crack in the motel ceiling, not daring to gaze at the purple spot forming on her wrist. She was small and fragile and Zack had forgotten that while he acted on instinct. 

"It's okay," she answered with that soft voice that meant 'I understand' and 'you don't have to worry'. And yet her eyes never left him, burning with a question she wanted to ask but didn't voice.

Instead, she just got closer to him and slowly put her hand near his. She didn't touch him, but the offer was clear as daylight. Silently, he grabbed her hand and squeezed as softly as he could, afraid of his own force. She tightened her grip and he knew that his apology had been accepted.

Rachel wasn't a touchy person.

She had learned to hide in the shadows of her house; to be as quiet as the night so she wouldn’t attract her dad’s attention when he returned from the bar.

She said nothing as her mother screamed at her about her miseries in life, knowing better than to ask her for hugs or goodnight kisses.

She didn't talk with anyone, nor raise her voice in class, afraid that people would be reminded that she existed and would ask questions that would later make her parents angry.

For all her life, Ray's number one priority was to keep other people from noticing her existence. This is why she was surprised how willing she was to be touched by Zack.

He pulled her hair but not in the mean ways her classmates did; whenever he wanted her to move her head in a certain direction he would gently (as gently as Zack could, anyways) direct her head towards it. "It's faster this way," he had said when she questioned him with a quick glance.

He pinched her cheek, but not in the burning way her mother would while screaming at her; he did it while laughing and teasing, making her feel warm and fuzzy inside. And every time he released her, his hand would linger for just a second as if making sure he hadn't used too much force on her.

He would grab her and carry her playfully -on his shoulder, under his arm- whenever she was tired despite her never telling him, and unlike his father, he was always careful and asked her if she was okay before carrying her as if she weighed nothing, his thumb sometimes stroking her unconsciously.

But Rachel wasn't a touchy person

Or so she thought before she found herself looking for that contact that, for the first time in her life, wasn't hostile. It was just a simple wish to confirm that she was real, that she existed and she was wanted and welcomed and all the things that Rachel had always yearned for.

But her ability to blend into the shadows now played against her, she thought, as she stared at her purple bruise in her wrist. She would sometimes catch him distracted and he would jump out of her reach and search with his eyes something that wasn't there -a threat, danger, something - until he found her small frame and came back to reality.

"I'm not a touchy person" he had told her, and she understood better than anyone what that meant. She had learned to freeze and close her eyes and be quiet while Zack jumped and fought and yelled. She understood why that happened and why they both did it; because she was young but not oblivious to the harsh reality of it.

In another time -with anyone else- she would have accepted that and moved on, returning to her existence as a wandering ghost, not dead yet not fully alive. But this was Zack she was talking about , the person who made her contemplate the small chance that maybe death was not the only thing waiting for her, that maybe life was worth living after all. The only person in this world who desired to be on her side.

So she started being loud. She would announce herself every time she entered a room (as loud as her usual calm demeanor let her, anyways) until his eyes were on her. She would stomp her feet with more force so he could tell where she was whenever he wasn't looking, and she would always search for his gaze before taking his hand and guide him out of an alley.

She would ask, "can I rest my head on you?" as they traveled on an empty wagon of a rusty train, covering their faces with hats and hoodies, traveling bags at their feet.

"That's a stupid question" he would answer as he averted her eyes and lowered himself on his seat so that she would be more comfortable. She would then slowly rest her head, close her eyes, and inhale deeply.

Before he knew when or how it happened, Zack would start recognizing the shape of her hand -small, hesitant, cold, and yet it held him in a way that screamed warmth and more- and instead of jumping, he would relax at her touch. He learned that he liked feeling her fingers through his hair and he was amazed at how their hands seemed to fit in each other so perfectly.

He learned to expect her touch at first thing in the morning and late-night; when it was too cold outside she would search for his embrace until they were both sharing their warmth with each other.

It was now more uncommon for him to feel her absence than her presence, and he would often catch himself looking for it whenever she got distracted and fell behind. Then he would roll his eyes and wait for her, sighing with relief when she fell in her pace next to him again.

He could close his eyes and let her take his hand and guide him wherever she wanted, and he would follow, no doubt in his mind. He would recognize her shape no matter the place; he knew how her touch felt and smiled every time they traveled in a bus because that meant that she would rest her head in the gap of his neck. Then he would play with her hair and take a deep breath and not question it because that was what he always did and she didn't seem to mind.

Before he knew when or how it happened, Zack started waiting for her touch.

Ray was staring.

Her gaze was completely fixated on him, and Zack would swear she hadn't blinked at all during the last minute, which only made him more self-conscious. There was a strange feeling in his stomach, (similar to fear but not quite), that made him want to run and hit something. He was aware of every part of him, how the bandages in his torso tightened against his chest when he took a deep breath, and even more at how the bandages in his hand were coming loose under her intense stare. 

"You're fucked up" he whispered, for her and for himself, not remembering how exactly they had ended up in this situation: Zack loosening the bandages of his right hand while Ray watched carefully. It had been her idea -her request- voiced as casually as if she’d asked him what flavor of soda he was in the mood for. And yet, despite his stomach turning upside down and his brain screaming at him about how bad of an idea it was, he had complied with it.

"I want to see," she told him, and of course she wanted to, otherwise she wouldn't be staring at him in that weird way and he wouldn't be about to throw up and call it a day. Why the fuck she wanted to, was something that completely fled from his understanding,  and yet he wasn't sure if he could voice his question nor understand the answer to it.

"It's not pretty," he warned. His skin was fucked , there was no other word for it. It didn't hurt and he felt fine, but the sight of it was enough to turn one's stomach upside down. His own stomach , he thought, remembering his reflection on a cracked mirror, cringing at the memory of the wave of hate that followed it. 

"I don't care." 

Zack swallowed, reminding himself to breathe again. Because this was Ray he was talking to, the only one who would be willing to give her life to him for no other apparent reason than that he swore to her. That promise was all she asked from him, nothing more. She stuck with him, despite having a chance for a different future. The moment she jumped out of that window, she'd chosen him and only him. 

Finding the courage that he lacked moments ago, he finished untying his bandages and felt the night breeze against his hand.

He wasn't sure what he was expecting to see in her face -disgust, deception, horror- but he was taken aback by her blank expression -which, when it came to Ray, was the default setting-. He only caught a glimpse of her widening eyes before they returned to normal. She stared and stared and stared and Zack had to control the urge to hide his hand in his pocket.

Then their eyes locked and stood there for a couple of seconds -inquiring for permission, he realized- before returning to his hand. She raised her own and he fought the twitching in his arm, forcing himself to stay still.

The moment her hand found his, he forgot how to breathe.

Her hand was smooth and soft and much colder than what he had imagined. She held him as if he were the fragile one, not daring to press harder than she was. He stroked his fingers against hers while a chill passed through his body, making him inhale loudly.

Reassured by this, Ray linked their fingers together, and suddenly, every thought inside Zack's head deemed that moment the best to fly. All  he could think about was that new, strange feeling and the way it made his stomach melt into a puddle of mushy stuff while his throat dried and his heart throbbed against his chest.

Willingly drowning in that feeling, Zack felt the courage to move his hand up her wrist, searching for more of that soft contact. He looked up at her, waiting for any sign of disgust or reluctance, but all he could find was the same curiosity and weird fascination he was feeling at that moment. 

Her arm was so much softer than he’d imagined; he was mesmerized with the way his touch left goosebumps  on her skin. He reached her neck and could feel her pulse beating hard against his hand, so much clearer now without his bandages. He lingered there, trying to memorize the way it felt against his skin; realizing that he wanted to keep feeling it every morning, every day, every month of every year. 

They locked eyes again when he rested his hand against her cheek. His damaged skin contrasted intensely against hers, making it seem even more perfect and smooth than it already was. Her face was warm, much warmer than her hand or her arm.

He was so distracted by that same warmth that he felt before he saw Ray's hand covering his, this time with more confidence. He let himself feel all of it while his breathing stopped again. She held him in a way he had never been held before; as if he was something that deserved to be caressed with softness, as if those hands hadn't been through hell and more. 

Ray held him as if he were everything.

As if she didn't know yet that she had become his own everything.

Zack smiled slowly at the thought, and the knot in his chest untangled with it, all the tension he had been holding leaving with a deep exhale. He looked at her and beamed, his laugh filling the space between them. He was relieved of all the things that could've gone wrong but didn't, relieved that he got all the answers to questions he had never even dared to ask. 

Ray tightened her grip and her eyes sparkled, and she released her breath and smiled. Her eyes closed and she lowered her head while she laughed with him. Zack took all of it, relishing the sound and the way her hand never left his, not daring to let him go. They held each other in a way that was intimate and warm and full of care, in a way that they had never even dared to embrace anyone else.

They held each other as if they held the world itself.