Lyana loved her watch. It was her mother's final gift to her, and a perfectly ugly, chunky thing- but she hadn’t put it on until she’d moved to Las Vegas, just over a year ago. And she hadn’t taken it off since.
She thought about all of this as she wrenched the strap off her wrist, scowling while the watch continued to beep angrily at her. The alarm always went off on her ride home; she had it set to beep at 4:40 PM every weekday so that she would know to pack up her things at the library and head out. (Her aunts were lax on just about everything, just not on being tardy for dinner.) Lyana very rarely stayed long enough to actually need the reminder, and had become accustomed to just silencing the alarm as she pedaled down the street.
But today, the stupid thing would not give up. She’d tried just letting it beep as she rode, promising herself over and over again that she’d be home in ten minutes and that Evie could fix it- but after about fifteen seconds she’d given up. She’d hopped off her bike, leaned it up against the high school’s fence, and had proceeded to start pressing every cursed button on the damn thing.
“What do you want from me?” she hissed. “Why are you being like this today?”
Beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep.
Lyana pressed the silence button really, really hard. Harder than the last dozen times she’d pressed it, she was certain. “Please, dude. Please?”
Beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep. Beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep.
“Fuck. Fuck you. I’m not going to be late to dinner because of you.”
She swiped the ever-present sheen of sweat off her forehead (God, she hated Las Vegas) and opened up her backpack, digging out her spare pair of PE clothes and jamming the watch deep inside the bundle. The sound muffled. She sighed.
Lyana slipped her backpack on again and took a deep breath. Closed her eyes and counted down from five, like she’d been told.
And when she opened her eyes again, she saw him.
Well, at first, she couldn’t exactly tell what it was. She’d propped her bike against the fence outside the football field, and she could just barely make out that there was something tied to the goalpost on the opposite end of the field from where she was. She squinted. It was too pale to be a scarecrow, and too skinny to be a practice dummy.
Lyana swore and skittered over to the gate. It swung open, blessedly unlocked- even though the team was playing an away game today. She took off sprinting across the field.
As she zipped past the 50-yard line, her horror flew full-speed into anger. They’d stripped him naked and tied his wrists to the goalpost with a belt. He looked her age, for Christ’s sake. What the fuck were high school kids doing bullying a kid so young? Like this? It had been at an unrelenting 99 degrees since lunch, and his arms and face were spackled with sunburns. He must’ve been out there for hours. Why hadn’t anyone else come for him?
He jolted back when she got near him and her heart splintered.
It took her a minute to catch her breath. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d run so fast, and the heat definitely wasn’t helping.
Finally, she managed to force out: “Hey, hey. I just came to untie you. Is that okay?”
He didn’t say anything, so she scanned his face. His eyes were swollen; he’d been crying. Of course he’d been crying.
“I don’t see your clothes anywhere. Are they gone? If they’re gone, I have some PE clothes you can wear. I think they’ll fit.”
“They took them.” He was trembling, staring at the ground. “My clothes. I think they might’ve thrown them in the bushes back there. With my glasses.”
Lyana took another deep breath. Her lungs were on fire, smoldering with rage. “Okay, okay. How about I untie you and hand you my clothes, and while you put them on, I’ll go look in the bushes for your stuff? Is that alright?”
He was silent, again, just for a beat. Then he nodded.
She dropped her backpack at her feet and kept as respectful of a distance as she could while she reached over to undo the belt. When it came loose, she saw that it had left angry red blisters on his wrists; he’d tried to wriggle free.
Lyana was grateful that he still wasn’t making eye contact with her. She was blinking back tears while she knelt down to fumble through her backpack. The search was successful, but her attempts at not crying weren’t; a few tears slipped down her cheeks as she handed the clothes to him.
“There’s, uh, an angry watch in there. You can just toss it by my backpack. I’m not super happy with it today.”
He didn’t say anything, just stood there holding her clothes and staring at the ground. So she swallowed, swiped the tears off her face, and jogged over to the bushes.
She found his glasses right away; they were hanging on the fence behind the bushes, perfectly intact. Not even a smudge. His clothes were in a pile beneath them. But when she bent to pick them up, she saw that they were damp- no, soaked. And that they reeked.
From the sheer amount of piss that had been expelled onto his clothes, she guessed that at least half a dozen boys had relieved themselves there. Lyana counted down from five. And counted down from five again. She gingerly checked the pockets of his pants to see if anything important had been in there and exhaled, relieved, when there was nothing. And after counting down from five again--once more, with feeling--she picked up the glasses and walked, calmly, back to the goalpost.
It took her a moment to realize that the watch wasn’t beeping anymore. He hadn’t tossed it on the ground, either; he still had it in his hands. He held it out to her when she came to a stop in front of him.
She swallowed and held out his glasses in return. “I found your clothes, too, but they’re- they’re pretty messed up. I don’t think you’d want them, the way they are now. I’m sorry.” Lyana bit the inside of her cheek. “Thank you for fixing my watch.”
He nodded and took the glasses from her, slid them up his sharp nose. His hands were still shaking. God, he looked so small. The clothes made him look even smaller; they hung on him, and it made her feel like an ugly giant.
“Did you have a backpack or anything? I didn’t see one back there.”
“I left my bookbag in the library. Mrs. Bauknecht probably took it for safekeeping; she’d recognize it. I’ll check for it tomorrow.”
“Okay.” Lyana picked up her backpack, slung it over one shoulder, and shoved her hands into the pockets of her shorts. She started to ask, “What’s your-”
“What happened to your hands?”
She inhaled sharply. “They, um. They’re missing fingers. The pinkies.” She took them out of her pockets and showed him, wiggled the remaining fingers for good measure. “They got cut off by a bad guy. I don’t really wanna talk about the rest.”
He looked up at her, finally, his muddy brown eyes shining. “You didn’t upset anyone in the Yakuza, did you? They do that a lot. It’s called yubitsume.”
Lyana laughed in spite of herself. “No, I didn’t. I don’t think there are very many Asian people in Wyoming, at least not where I used to live.” She shoved her hands back in her pockets, her heart thudding steadily. Was it ever going to get easier, talking about it? Would she ever be able to talk about it without replaying the whole damn thing in her head? “I’m Lyana. I go to Dell H., down the road. What’s your name?”
“Spencer. I go here.”
“You go to this school? Man, no offense, but you look really young to be in high school; I thought you were my age. I’m twelve, by the way.”
“I’ll be twelve next month. I’ve got an eidetic memory and can read 20,000 words a minute; I skipped grades really quickly when I was younger.” His cheeks flushed. “I’m supposed to graduate in May and go off to college. But I- I don’t know if I’m going to make it, if things like this keep happening.”
Lyana wanted to reach for his hand (it seemed like the only thing she could do, really- she didn’t want to overwhelm him with questions, of which she had a whole lot. What the hell is an eidetic memory? Are you kidding with the whole 20,000 words a minute thing? How can you even track that? And you’re seriously going to go to college when you’re twelve? How on earth have you survived so long as a little kid in a shitty Vegas high school? Will college be any better for you, d’you think?) but somehow, she stopped herself.
She settled for one question. “Do you live nearby? I’m on Singapore, just a couple blocks from here. I’d love to walk you home.”
“I’m on Bombay.”
“Seriously? You’re just one street over from me! How have I never met you before?” He shrugged and didn’t say anything. She pressed on. “So...can I walk you home, Spencer? Would that be okay?”
He was studying her in a way that felt analytical, almost. Like she was a specimen. She wasn’t sure if she preferred it to the constant staring at the ground. “Why do you want to walk me home?”
“Because I want to make sure you get home safely.”
“Why do you care if I get home safely?”
“I dunno. Does it matter?”
“No, I do know. Sorry for interrupting you. I care about you , I care about you. I know that’s probably weird, since we met, like, ten minutes ago, and I saw you naked before I knew your name, but- but I care about you. And I know that if I just let you walk home by yourself, and I never see you again after today, I’m just going to go insane wondering if you got home okay or if these assholes ever hurt you again. I’m sorry if any of that’s, like, uncomfortable. I’m not trying to pity you or anything. I just care. You can tell me to go to hell or whatever, but to be completely honest, I’m a little crazy and I’m probably going to follow you home either way to make sure you get there safely.” Lyana rocked back and forth on her heels. “I guess that should’ve been the question. Do you want to walk home together, or do you want me to follow you like a weird escort-bodyguard kinda thing?”
Impossibly, impossibly, he smiled. A little nervous one that lit her from the inside out.
“Okay. Let’s walk home together,” he said.
They walked in silence across the field, back to her bike. She took the time to look him over. He had long brown hair, messy to the point of almost being shaggy; it just barely fell to his shoulders. His glasses were horn-rimmed and sat on his face well. And his face- it was soft, but it looked like he was growing out of his little layer of baby fat. She could see some very sharp cheekbones just starting to poke out.
Lyana grinned at her feet. He was a really, really pretty boy.
She held the gate open for him and that, at last, gave him pause. He tucked some hair behind his ear, standing awkwardly in front of the gap she’d created in the fence.
“Sorry. I should’ve opened that for you.”
She forgot to be delicate and snorted. “I’d say I was upholding the code just fine on my own, mister.”
“Oh.” He fiddled with his glasses, nodding. “You are. Sorry for being sexist. Women can be knights.”
“I mean, I knew that, but it’s still nice to hear.” She bowed a little, gesturing towards the gate that she was still holding open. And he paused, and then he curtsied for her before walking out and onto the sidewalk.
She followed him, pointing her grin right in front of her this time. He didn’t catch her, but she wouldn’t have minded if he had.
Lyana retrieved her bike and started pushing it down the sidewalk, Spencer keeping pace with her. She wordlessly offered him her water bottle and he shook his head, which made her start worrying again.
“You sure you’re not thirsty? It looks like you were out in the sun for a really long time. I’ve seen plenty of kids pass out from heat stroke since I got here, and it’s not pretty.”
“I’m thirsty, I just don’t want to catch any germs.” Even beneath his sunburn, she could tell he was flushing beet-red. “I’m sorry. I don’t think you’re gross, I just- The human mouth-”
“Hey, hey, I get it. I dunno if I’d take a stranger’s water bottle either.” She chewed the inside of her cheek, thinking. “Will your parents be home when we get there?”
“No. My dad left last year, and my mom is teaching late tonight. She probably won’t be home ‘till ten or eleven.”
Lyana inhaled, exhaled. She was torrentially upset. This was this boy’s life? Getting bullied all day at school, then coming home to an empty house? No parents to comfort him, shitty day after shitty day?
She steeled herself. Even though she was so angry at the whole situation, Lyana wasn’t about to shit-talk a single mom for working a lot; her mom had done exactly the same, and she knew how hard it had been for her. Spencer’s mom wouldn’t be working so late away from her son unless she absolutely had to.
So instead, she said, “Okay. You’re coming home with me, then. My aunts always make about twice as much food as we need between the three of us, and Kate’s a doctor, so she can take a look at you and make sure you’re okay. We’ve got, like, a forest of aloe plants in the sunroom, too. For your burns.”
Spencer was quiet for a minute, and Lyana decided that his unreadable features were equal parts infuriating and exhilarating. He didn’t speak again until they’d crossed onto Christchurch.
“They really won’t mind?”
“They’ll only mind if we’re late. Which we will be in,” she checked her watch, “six minutes.”
“I guess we better walk faster.”
She smiled. “Yessir.”
They made it on time- and dinner was a bit of a chaotic blur. Evie and Kate fussed over Spencer nonstop, and Lyana could tell that he wasn’t used to that level of attention. It wasn’t until after the dishes had been cleared, after Spencer was positively glimmering with aloe vera and making his fourth trip to the bathroom (Kate had been ordering him to hydrate, and hydrate he had), that Lyana finally felt her chest unclench. He’d been fed; he’d had seconds of her aunts’ sweet potato chili without even being asked. His wounds had been tended to, and he had been shown love. Smothering, frantic love.
Lyana knew it was just a band-aid. She knew that today was a day Spencer would remember for the rest of his life, and that he would have trouble talking about it years from now, and that there would be days where he’d have to talk about it, and that on those days, he’d probably have to relive the whole thing in his head. And it would hurt.
She just hoped that this part, this part at the end, would be something he’d remember, too.
When he got out of the bathroom, she took him on a tour of the house. He got stuck poring through the books in her bookshelf, and the unbridled giddiness that broke through when he found her very well-worn copy of Fahrenheit 451 just about melted her from the inside out. Spencer flopped in her beanbag chair as if he’d sat in it hundreds of times before, and Lyana sat across from him on her bed. He chattered distractedly (some at her, some with her) about the book and about dozens of other books he loved and thought she would love until Evie knocked and let them know that it was about time to take him home.
“I’ll walk him, he’s just on the next street over. Yes, I’ll bring a flashlight,” Lyana insisted, waving her aunt away and grabbing one off her desk. “I’ll call from his house when I leave, okay?”
Evie sighed and smoothed her niece’s hair down. “Fiery lass,” she said, her eyes shining with affection.
“Just like you,” Lyana retorted, as she always did. She bumped her forehead against her aunt’s. “Am I okay to take him?”
“Just be safe, and don’t forget to call.”
“I will, and I won’t. Be back soon.”
Evie nodded and reached out to touch Spencer’s shoulder; he’d gotten up from the beanbag and come to stand next to Lyana, comfortably close. “It was so nice to meet you, Spencer. You’re welcome over any time, you hear me?”
Spencer blushed. “Yes, ma’am. Thank you for having me. And can you thank Kate for me, too?” Kate had gone to bed an hour or so ago; she had an early shift at the hospital in the morning.
“Of course, kiddo. Get home safe, and tell your mom that she can drop by anytime she likes, too. I’d love to pick the brain of a bonafide college professor, especially about the freakin’ Canterbury Tales! That tome of a thing has been haunting me since I was in college, and I’ve got questions.”
“She’d love to answer them.” Spencer looked down at his feet, then back up- at Lyana. “Are you ready?”
She nodded, then looked expectantly at her aunt, who graciously cleared the doorway. Spencer followed Lyana down the hall and out the front door, out of the air conditioning and back into the suffocating, dry heat of the evening. Even with the sun mostly all the way out of the sky, the waning warmth was still enough to make them both sweat.
They’d barely made it to the end of her driveway before Spencer said, all in a rush, “I’m not in a hurry to leave because I didn’t like being at your house, I just didn’t want to walk home in the dark.”
“Okay.” Lyana smiled.
“I liked being at your house a lot. And your aunts. They’re really nice. I’ve never met a lesbian couple before. They seem to love each other a lot. And they’re both so smart- a doctor and an engineer. I should’ve asked them more questions.”
He was beaming. His eyes were there, on her, but also away- flitting about, like his brain was trying to accomplish a thousand other processes and still hold a conversation with her. And oddly enough, she didn’t feel scorned by the fractured attention; she felt honored. (She also felt monumentally relieved that he hadn’t been weird about her aunts. People were so hit-and-miss about same-sex couples, even here in Vegas; Lyana had become accustomed to pretending that Evie and Kate were sisters when the occasion presented itself, which was their go-to move whenever someone gave off even the slightest whiff of bigot.)
“I like you a lot, too.”
Spencer nodded. “You remind me of an epic hero. Tough and angry and full of purpose, with a mysterious, tragic past. You seem like you’ve got strong morals, and like you’ve got a real destiny.” He said that last part with such reverence, Lyana almost believed it.
“You sure you aren’t getting a little starry-eyed, Spence? I’m just a girl. I don’t think there’s anything epic or heroic about me.”
“You wouldn’t be a very good epic hero if you thought you were epic or heroic,” he said knowingly. “You being humble just proves me right!”
Lyana giggled. “I bet you’re pretty used to being right.”
“I guess.” They’d just rounded the corner of his street. “Did you call me Spence?”
“I did. Let me know if you hate it and I’ll never use it again.”
He didn’t say anything in return; he just gave her another one of his unreadable smiles. So she took that as an I like it when you call me Spence and decided to leave it at that.
When they turned onto Bombay, she said, “I like you a lot, too, Spence. And I dunno if I really do have a destiny or anything like that, but it definitely feels like the universe wanted you and me to meet today.”
He stayed quiet, just kept his eyes on her. In spite of everything that had happened to him that day, in spite of the massive sunburn on his face that hurt just to look at- he seemed okay. Solid. She knew that very well might not be the case, but she desperately wanted him to be as okay as he seemed right then.
“Do you- Do you want to keep seeing each other? I know we don’t go to the same school, but we live so close. We could walk together, in the mornings and after school. If you wanted.”
“Don’t you ride your bike? Dell H. is too far for you to walk.”
“I could walk it to Eldorado and ride it from there. I wouldn’t mind.”
He was quiet for a moment. “You promise you aren’t offering because you pity me, or anything like that? I- I don’t want you to do any of this if you’re just trying to settle your conscience.”
They’d come to a stop in front of what she assumed was his empty driveway. No lights were on inside, and it looked like the house and yard were in need of some concentrated love and care- but she still felt drawn to it. Just like she was drawn to him. She couldn’t remember ever feeling so invested in another person, and definitely not so whirlwind-quick.
Lyana almost reached out for his hand again but stopped herself. He’d looked so uncomfortable when Kate was touching him, even though it was for a medical exam; she got the feeling that touching was a difficult thing for him. And the very last thing she wanted to do was make things more difficult for him.
So she swallowed and said, “I promise you, Spencer, I’ll never pull punches with you. I’ll always be up front with you, and if you ever feel like I’m being dishonest, I want you to call me out on it, okay?” Lyana sighed. “With all that, I’m gonna warn you that I’m not- I’m not going to be an easy friend. I’m trying to- to get past some stuff, and I have a lot of bad days. And I wasn’t the easiest person to be friends with before all of that happened; I’ve always been pretty sandpapery. But the bad stuff happened because someone thought I was being dishonest with them, and I wasn’t, but I’ve been plenty dishonest in the past. Over stupid shit. So I’m not doing that anymore. I don’t have any more pinkies to give, y’know?” She waved her hands at him. “Sorry. You make me rambly. I’m not going to jerk you around. If you wanna suffer through being my friend, the last thing I’ll wanna do is lie to you. Even if you don’t wanna be my friend, the last thing I’ll wanna do is lie to you. So: I’m not offering because I pity you. I’m offering because I think we’re fated to be friends, and because I like listening to you talk about books.”
He fiddled with his glasses. Was he trying not to smile? “I usually leave for school at 7:30. First bell is at 8, and I like to get there a little early.”
“My first bell isn’t ‘till 8:30. If we walk together, I’ll make it with plenty of time.” She couldn’t stop smiling. “I’ll meet you here at 7:30, then. Do you want me to bring you breakfast? My aunts usually send me with an extra bagel, donut, waffle, whatever. They think I need to eat more. I end up either giving it to friends at school or feeding it to birds I see on my way.”
“That’d be really nice.”
“Okay. I’ll see you at 7:30 with breakfast.”
God, it was taking every single fiber of her being not to leap forward and hug him. If their friendship was fated, it was pretty damn cruel to pair her up with someone so averse to touching; she definitely fell on the overly physically affectionate side of the scale. But she could tell that he would be worth it. The suffering from the lack of touch. And she hoped she could keep herself from messing up and invading his space without his OK.
“Oh, shoot, I almost forgot. Can I call my aunts with your guys’s house phone?”
Spencer nodded, and this time she caught him smiling. She kept her (happy) mouth shut as she followed him up the driveway.
He led her inside the house, flicking lights on as they passed. His shoulders had tensed, just slightly, and she wondered if he was embarrassed about the state of the place. It was a little cluttered, for sure- stacks of books on every table and chair that she could see in the hallway, kitchen, and living room. And it smelled a little musty. But other than that, the house was cozy. Lyana wanted to flop down in one of the armchairs, pick up a book, and start reading. Stupid curfew.
“The phone’s over here,” he finally said. Spencer looked so nervous. “Sorry about the mess.”
She quirked her eyebrows and met him on the opposite end of the living room, over by the sliding glass door that she assumed led to the backyard. He was fidgeting in front of a little coffee table that had a phone on it (stacked on top of an impressive tower of old books).
“Are you kidding? I’m not a fan of chaos, but this is beautiful. Books galore and comfy chairs? And colorful blankets? I guess I’ll have to give you another warning, but I’m definitely going to be curling up in here after school.”
His cheeks flooded with color and her heart swelled. She started to say something else, but he looked away, embarrassed. So she let him have a moment and dialed her aunts’ number.
Evie picked up right away, and Lyana could tell she was trying to hide how relieved she was. Neither of her aunts wanted her walking around at night after what had happened (which was a little funny, because the bad stuff had taken place inside the Wyoming house, in broad daylight), and she was grateful that Evie had let her go anyway.
After promising to head home after she said goodbye to Spencer, Lyana hung up the phone and turned back to him. He was still fidgeting. It looked like his brain was stuck on something unpleasant.
“You okay, Spence?”
His head snapped up. “Yeah, yeah. I’m fine.”
“You sure? You look like you’re thinking about something not super great.” She paused. “Is me being here making you uncomfortable? I’m sorry for coming into your space without really giving you a choice with the whole aunts phone call thing, I should’ve been more considerate.”
“No, no. It’s not that. I- I just started thinking about going back to school tomorrow, after- after what happened today.”
Lyana exhaled. Her mind started whirring rapidly, trying to figure out the best way to fix this for him. “What can I do?”
His eyebrows furrowed, then relaxed. His face softened. “I know you said you’re hard to be friends with. And I know we’ve been friends for less than a day. But you’re making things pretty easy for me.”
“Good to know,” she grinned.
“Can I- Can I call you when you get home? I think that talking about other stuff will help. Keeping my brain off what happened.” He tucked some hair behind his ear. “If you meant it, I’ve got a lot more to say about Fahrenheit 451. And Ray Bradbury in general.”
She picked up a scrap of paper and a pen from the coffee table with the phone, and she wrote her number down as legibly as she could. God, her handwriting was absolute crap; Lyana had Spencer read it back to her so she could make sure he knew what the hell numbers he was going to be dialing. Then Spencer ripped a blank portion off of that same paper and wrote down his number, too. His handwriting was--of course--pretty damn immaculate.
“Alright, I really have to get moving, else Evie’s going to send the National Guard to scour the neighborhood for me.” They’d shuffled their way down the hall and back towards the front door. Lyana crossed her arms in front of her and squeezed, hoping it didn’t look too obviously like she was trying to substitute for the hug she wanted to give him. “I’ll jog home, and I’ll head straight to my room. Wanna give me ten minutes, just in case Evie talks my ear off?”
“Okay.” He was smiling again. She decided that if she really was an epic hero, this would be her sacred quest: to make Spencer Reid smile as often as she could. “Get home safe.”
Lyana nodded, beaming right back. “I will. Talk to you in a minute, Spence.”
“Talk to you in ten.”
And then she was jogging down the street, the sound of his chuckle ringing happily in her ears.