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.
hiya! i've been fiddling with the idea of working through spencer's childhood for a long, long time, and i finally decided to buckle down and just, y'know. write??
it's going to be fluffy. and angsty. and rambly (sorry @ every english teacher i've ever had). and i cannot promise that it will be good. but i intend to have some fun, good buddies!!
i think i'm going to work forward from here, in the 90's, up 'till where the show's going to end at next year. but we'll see!
until then, pls come yell at me @ thrillbandit.tumblr.com
and thank you so much for reading :' )
Chapter 2: November 2nd, 1993
Lyana doesn't show up one morning to walk Spencer to school.
Spencer couldn’t remember ever being happier.
The first week had been stressful; he’d stand on his porch in the mornings, fidgeting, waiting for the ball to drop, for Lyana to stand him up. But every day, without fail, she would be waving at him from the end of his driveway by 7:30 sharp. Always with breakfast.
She walked him home at the end of the day, too. Her school day ended fifteen minutes before his, and it gave her just enough time to pedal down the street (at a pretty incredible clip- he’d gotten let out a minute or two early one day and had seen her flying) and meet him on the front steps.
And for some reason, that still wasn’t enough for her. Just like she’d warned him, she’d curl up with a book in his living room after school until she was summoned for dinner- and, if Diana was working late, Spencer would just go straight to Lyana’s house and they’d do their homework in her room and have dinner with her aunts. And they’d call each other before bed. And they’d see each other on weekends. The one day Spencer had been too sick to go to school, Lyana had gone and played hooky to take care of him.
His mother adored Lyana, too. Diana had invited her and her aunts over for Spencer’s birthday dinner the week before; Spencer couldn’t remember the last time they’d had company. It certainly hadn’t happened ever since his father had left them, and he had a feeling there hadn’t been very much merrymaking when his family was still whole.
Spencer would remember his twelfth birthday for the rest of his life because it was the first one in his waking memory that had been really and truly happy. All thanks to Lyana.
Diana told him that he was lucky to have such a bright and fearsome friend by his side, and Spencer couldn’t agree more. He carried himself differently, now. Ever since Lyana had asked him to be her friend, he felt like he had an invisible shield around him wherever he went- no one had even said so much as a cruel word to him since the goalpost day. Something had to have changed; it had to be her. Being friends with her made him feel invincible, so he’d started acting like he was, and the people at school believed it.
He didn’t fully understand what it meant to love someone, especially a girl his age. And he didn’t know if what he felt was romantic or platonic or just plain confused. He did know how awful he was with emotional things; they just didn’t make very much sense to him, all the nuances and fluidity. All unnecessarily complex. But now, here he was: drowning in the complexities.
One thing he knew for certain was that the only word that kept playing back in his head whenever he thought about her was love. He loved her. He loved her, he loved her. She made him feel brave enough to hope again- and he hoped she was here, in his life, to stay.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
But on this particular Tuesday morning, he found himself staring at his empty driveway, his watch obnoxiously reminding him that the time was 7:37 AM. No Lyana in sight. Shield shattered. Heart aching.
Spencer was able to hear the phone ring from the front porch, so he knew that she hadn’t called him. He continued frantically replaying everything they’d done together the day before: walking to and from school, watching MTV before her aunts came home, Lyana babbling about Green Day while they did their homework, Spencer teaching her a card trick, having ropa vieja with her and her aunts, him and Lyana helping Evie with the dishes and the garbage, Lyana walking him home in the dark while she talked nonstop about the stars, him feeling not so afraid of the dark with her there with him- and her standard goodbye, see you in the morning, Spence, now go and have some amazing dreams for me .
She’d kept her promise to him for over a month, now, and she hadn’t lied to him or done anything even remotely deceitful, not once. Why would she decide all of a sudden to go back on it all?
He squeezed his eyes shut, worried that if he kept them open that he would start crying. But with them closed, all he could see was her smiling at him from across the table, glowing in the light of his birthday candles, singing off-key. Had she been planning on leaving him then?
In spite of the cacophony of doubt in his brain, screaming at him that she’d abandoned him just like everyone abandoned him and that she was better off without him, he forced a coherent theory through: something’s wrong.
Spencer opened his eyes and breathed in deep. Pinching his left thumb in between his right thumb and the side of his pointer finger. If Lyana were there, she’d ask him what he was thinking about, and she’d tell him to be gentle with his perfect artist hands - she was so good at pulling him out of his thought spirals in that warm and gentle way she had, of helping him organize the messes he made in his head. She never made him feel like he was taking too long or being too weird. And she always listened like she cared.
He reminded himself that she did care, that no part of their friendship would make any sense if she didn’t care about him. So he swallowed and straightened up, and then he answered her question. I’m thinking that I’m going to skip school today and go make sure you’re okay.
He released his left thumb, readjusted his book bag on his shoulder, and started off towards her house.
It looked empty when he approached. He knew that Kate had left for her shift at the hospital around 4 AM, and that Evie left for work at 7. But if Lyana was planning on abandoning their friendship but not her education, she wouldn’t leave for school until 8. (Evie had sold Lyana out a week or two after the goalpost incident, had teasingly mentioned to Spencer that she was surprised her bedbug of a niece was now hopping out of bed a whole forty minutes earlier than usual to walk him to school. Spencer, mortified and overflowing with love, had tried to convince Lyana that they could just walk home together so that she could sleep, and she had given him a loud pffft in return. And that had been that.)
His heart was pounding when he made it to her front door. What if she opened it and looked at him with disgust? Why didn’t you get the message? I don’t want to see you anymore. Or what if she opened the door and looked- looked embarrassed? Because she’d forgotten. Spencer exhaled shakily. Her forgetting would be worse than her feeling disgusted. Of that he was certain.
He steeled himself anyways and knocked on the door.
No answer. Not even the sound of movement inside. Spencer chewed nervously on the inside of his cheek. Was she hiding? Had she gone to her school early to avoid him?
But that thought kept needling him. Something’s wrong.
Spencer took a chance, turned the doorknob, and pushed- and the door opened, but only a little. Like there was something in the way.
His heart was stuttering, and he felt like he was seconds from passing out. Something was very wrong, and his friend his love Lyana she was in there and something was wrong, something was wrong. Lyana-
“Lyana!” he shouted through the crack in the door. His hands were trembling. The house was dark. Oh shit, oh shit. “Are you okay?! Do you want me to go get help?”
And then he heard something. A muted, shaky mumble, right there. Right on the other side of the door.
Spencer tried to slow his heartbeat. It was Lyana, sitting up against the door. It had to be. He still couldn’t understand her, but she was there , she was alive, she wasn’t telling him to leave. “Lyana, I need you to move so that I can open the door. Just enough for me to get inside, and then we can close it.” He waited, counted to ten, then pushed on the door again. It gave, and he slipped inside as quickly as he could and shut it behind him.
She was on the floor, her back flush against the wall next to the door. Hugging her knees to her chest. Her eyes were swollen, like she’d been crying for hours, and she was magnificently disheveled: her already-unruly hair standing up in a hundred different places, her pajamas wrinkled and tearstained, her face bright red.
And she was shaking so hard- no, she was hyperventilating. It sounded like she was having trouble breathing.
He tossed his bookbag at his feet and fell to his knees, shuffled over to her. He’d never seen her look so small. And she always looked at him straight-on, just like she looked at everyone, because nothing scared her, especially not eye contact. But right then, Lyana couldn’t take her leaking eyes off her kneecaps. She hadn’t even said a word to him since he’d come inside.
She was his champion, his great defender; what the hell could’ve happened to make her so- so diminished?
What could he do to fix it?
He asked her. “What can I do?” Just like she’d asked him that first day in his house, the first time anyone had asked him a question like that. Most everyone else liked to tell him what he should do to feel better instead of asking him what he needed. Lyana only seemed to care about what he needed.
Spencer saw her hand twitch- first towards him, and then back to her knees. Like she was keeping herself from reaching for him.
He swallowed hard. She was such an affectionate person; that much had been abundantly clear from the moment he met her. But she’d never even tried to hug him. And he’d been so grateful for it at first, for not having to worry about freaking out from the touch or about not doing any of it right. But lately he’d been worried that she just didn’t want to touch him at all.
The doctors had told him that he was on the autistic spectrum and that being physical with people might be difficult, that he might experience touches a lot differently than a neurotypical person. When a teacher had brushed Spencer’s arm a few years back without warning and he had cried from the prickliness, from the pain, it had appeared that the doctors were pretty spot-on.
His mom knew how to touch him, knew to keep things firm and not to surprise him. And Kate had picked up on things right away; she’d asked for his permission each time she’d reached for him during her exam at Lyana’s house, that first night. He assumed she’d told Evie, who had touched his shoulder just the once, and firmly. And hadn’t since.
But he hadn’t wanted to explain any of that to Lyana, not yet. Things were so perfect between them, and he didn’t want to make them complicated. Didn’t want to have a conversation about something that she hadn’t even shown to him that she wanted, before right then- how awkward would it have been for him to say hey, this is how I need to be touched and then for her to nod, uncomfortable, not wanting to touch him in the first place?
Watching her hand twitch like that made him realize that his aversion to touch had already made things complicated, to the point where his best and only friend needed to be comforted but knew better than to ask him for his hand or for a hug. And he, for the first time he could remember, felt like he wanted to touch her. This was Lyana, his protector. She kept him safe. Touching her wouldn’t hurt; it would make him feel better. Because everything about her made him feel better.
Spencer very carefully sat down next to her, close enough for their shoulders to touch. It didn’t hurt, but he watched--heart swelling--as she shifted just enough to put an inch of distance between them again.
He inhaled, exhaled. And stretched his arms out toward her.
“Is it okay if I hug you?”
Lyana looked up at him. Her eyes were so red from crying that her hazel irises looked exceptionally green, and all the blood in her cheeks had made her already-splotchy freckles blur together.
He was struck by another word that didn’t make any sense to him. Beautiful. Beautiful was the Golden Ratio, not Lyana’s off-kilter face. One eye bigger than the other, just barely, and her nose crooked to one side. Alexa Lisbon has the ratio, he thought, ruefully. But he still couldn’t shake it. Just like he couldn’t shake this whole love business.
Lyana had to even her breathing to force her words out. “You don’t have to-”
“But is it okay?”
She sniffled. And nodded.
He scooched closer to her and folded her into his arms. Lyana was feverish from all the crying; she immediately warmed him up. What was incredible, though, was the calm he felt wash over the both of them the moment she settled into his side. Was it because he’d been the one to initiate it, so it hadn’t been a surprise? And because she had leaned all her weight against him, so it hadn’t been too soft?
Spencer didn’t want to question it too much. He was hugging his best friend. She’d stopped breathing so hard. And it felt so good to hold her like this, to feel her wet cheek pressing against his shoulder and to have his face buried in the messy rats’ nest that was her hair. To know that she was probably getting snot on his shirt- and to know that he didn’t care about the germs. Because they were hers.
After a few moments of silence, of being held, she explained everything to him.
Before Vegas, Lyana had lived in Bar Nunn, Wyoming with her mom. Lyana’s dad had died when she was 6.
“He liked men and women, and my mom knew that. And they loved each other so much. But he fell for a guy around the time I was in kindergarten, and my dad cheated on my mom with him, and...the guy gave him AIDS. I never learned the guy’s name, never got to see what he looked like. I just remember visiting my dad in the hospital, not understanding what had happened to make him so thin. He died quickly- at least, that’s what my mom told me. No pain. I- I still don’t know if that’s the truth, but I really hope it was.”
After, it was just the two of them, doing their best to scrape by. Her mom had four part-time jobs and worked more than eighteen hours, most days.
Because of that, Lyana didn’t have many friends. She went straight home after school to help keep the house tidy and have dinner ready for whenever her mom got off work. She studied hard, because she knew that she 1) had to go to college and 2) had to have straight A’s and get a scholarship to do so.
The one friend she had was the bus driver that worked the morning and afternoon routes. His name was Silas. He was in his fifties, with a bit of a pot-belly and a kind smile. Lyana started sitting in the row right behind him so they could chat while he drove, and he started bringing her little gifts. Candy, stuffed animals.
“In my head, my stupid, stupid head, I thought of him as my own personal Santa. Just jolly and bringing me gifts during the worst time of my life.”
Things between them started feeling uncomfortable as Lyana got older. Silas would see other girls Lyana’s age starting to experiment with makeup and “inappropriate” clothes and kissing boys, and he started telling her all the time how grateful he was that she wasn’t like them. Like “those sluts”. He’d have her pinkie promise to always stay the way she was: pure and innocent. They pinkie promised all the time.
On Lyana’s 11th birthday, over the summer between 5th and 6th grade, her mom threw her a party at their house. She invited Lyana’s classmates, and during the party, one of the boys ran up and kissed her on the cheek. His name was Ian; it had been a dare. Lyana had shrugged it off and gone about the rest of her day, not giving it a second thought.
When everyone left, Lyana helped her mom tidy up the house. The sun was just about to set. It had been, she felt, a pretty beautiful day.
They heard someone come in through the back door. Silas.
He’d been watching the party; Lyana had had no idea. He’d seen Ian kiss her. He was furious. He had a knife.
Lyana’s mother tried to calm Silas down, tried to coax him back out the door. Silas slit her throat.
Lyana had screamed and tried to run away, but Silas caught her. Whore, slut, he had shouted in her face, so loud that spit flew onto her cheeks. Pinning her to the floor with all of his weight. Her mother’s blood dripping onto her face from his. You pinkie promised me that you would stay pure.
She tried to explain that Ian had just run up and done it on a dare, that she hadn’t asked him to. You wanted him to, you slut. He was sobbing. She told him that she’d never kissed anyone on the mouth before, not for real. That she wouldn’t have let Ian kiss her if he’d tried to. She was so desperate to make Silas happy, to make him let her go; she just didn’t know what he wanted to hear.
And then he kissed her. Had smashed his lips against hers, shoved his tongue into her mouth. He’d kissed her until she was out of breath and squirming to come up for air. He’d tasted sour. Rotten.
How’d you like your first kiss, whore? His eyes had been wild. I bet that wasn’t really your first kiss. I bet you’d give it up to anyone. I bet you’re not even a virgin. Just like all your whore friends.
She’d begged and pleaded. Said that it had been her first kiss, and that she was a virgin. She pinkie promised.
He held her wrists down and cut off her pinkies.
Then, while she was screaming, blacking out from the pain, she felt him tearing at her clothes. She heard his pants unzip, felt him shove her legs apart.
Everything went dark. She woke to Silas’s hands around her throat, to the sounds of shouting, to a gunshot. To Silas’s heavy body falling onto her, limp and lifeless. Stealing all her air away and crushing her beneath it.
And then darkness again.
The neighbors had heard her screaming and called the police. The police had shot Silas moments before he would’ve killed her.
Lyana spent weeks in the hospital. Everything was explained to her over and over again: because you befriended an unstable pedophile, your mother’s dead, you now have eight fingers, you were raped and almost strangled to death, and now you’re going to live with your aunts in Nevada.
The panic attacks had been really frequent the first few months. The first time she’d had one, she’d thought she was dying. Kate had found her hyperventilating in the kitchen, clutching at her chest, saying that she couldn’t breathe. (Lyana had started to make herself a turkey sandwich, on autopilot. She didn’t take much notice of the knife in her hand until it glinted in the light. It reminded her of how Silas’s had flashed through the air before taking her mother away from her.)
Now the panic attacks only came up every few weeks or so. Sometimes the causes made sense, and sometimes Lyana couldn’t tell for the life of her why they started. The therapist at the hospital had told her to count down from five whenever she felt her emotions running high, her heart beating quickly. Because they believed stress of any kind could set her off.
It had only happened in public once, at school, and she’d been extremely lucky; her teacher had recognized what was happening right away. Mr. Ford had shuffled her out into the hallway without making a scene in the classroom and had talked her through it. Walked her outside to breathe in the fresh air.
And ever since, getting outside had helped. When she could swing it.
She’d almost made it out the front door that morning before her hyperventilating had made her feel lightheaded; she’d been forced to sit down. Lyana wasn’t sure of exactly how long she’d been there before Spencer had found her- just that it had started shortly after Evie had left for work, and it had been an awful one. Another weird, no-discernible-cause panic attack.
“I think this one- I think this one held off for so long because of you. Because of us being friends,” she mumbled. “I’ve been feeling a lot safer, having someone to really be myself around. And I know I said that I’m trying not to be deceitful at all, but it’s really only easy with you. I keep catching myself telling stupid lies to my aunts, to people at school- just idiotic white lies to make myself seem more okay or more cool. You’re the only one I can just...just breathe around. I don’t feel like I have to edit myself. Not because I think that you, like, don’t deserve a cooler or okayer me, because you absolutely do. You just- the way you treat me, you don’t ever make me feel like I’m not enough.”
As much as he wanted to, Spencer didn’t have words. Not a single one.
His feelings were flying in every direction. Rage and heartbreak and horror all swirling in his stomach. He felt dangerous. Nauseous and raw. Like he could rip out the throat of that dead monster, and like he wanted to- more than anything in the world. For her.
How the hell was she so strong and fearless? Riding her bike like hellhounds were biting at her ankles, sprinting into the street with abandon, squaring up against boys a foot taller than her whenever she thought one had given Spencer a weird look. And how could she make it through a day without being reminded of everything that had happened? She was the- the embodiment of sunshine, to him, always smiling at him and laughing. How did she make herself feel those things in spite of what had been done to her?
Before Lyana, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d smiled and meant it. Those bullies at school, his father leaving, all his mother’s bad days- they had each done their awful part in making him feel irreparably broken before Lyana came and picked up all his pieces. But she had never felt broken, to him. He hadn’t known there were pieces to be picked up.
I would’ve tried to, he thought, desperately. Not knowing how to muster up the courage to say it aloud.
“I’m so sorry for dumping all of that on you. I wasn’t thinking. I should’ve just said that I get panic attacks.” She nuzzled her head into his shoulder, and he could feel her eyes on him, worried. He must’ve been buried in one of his pauses for a long time. “What’s on your mind, Spence?”
“Is this how you feel whenever you think the boys at my school are looking at me funny?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like you want to kill someone, even though you don’t know how you’d actually do it, or what any of it means. This, like- this confusing anger that makes you feel sick, and- and frantic.”
He felt her hand cover his where it rested on her side. She squeezed. “Yeah.”
“What can I do?” The question felt so weak, after all of that. What could he do? Was there even anything to be fixed? It sounded like the pieces had been pulverized, not just cracked.
She was quiet for a moment. “Are hugs okay?”
“I think they are, yeah.” He shifted. Held her tighter. “Yeah, they’re okay. They’re really okay.”
“I- Evie tried to hug me, once, when I was having one. It made things worse. But you hugging me- it calmed me right down. I think it’s a size thing, that she’s a lot closer to- to his size. And you’re a lot closer to mine.” She sniffed, brushed some of her hair out of her face. “Would you be cool with coming to pick me up at my house in the mornings? That way I don’t double back--which I don’t mind doing!--but mostly so if I have a bad morning like this again, you’d know right away when I didn’t meet you outside. You wouldn’t have to sit at your house thinking about what an asshole I am for standing you up.”
Spencer nearly kissed the top of her head. What the hell had gotten into him? “I wasn’t thinking you were- I was just worried that you’d gotten sick of me, that you didn’t want to be friends anymore.”
“You’re very...grandiose in your declarations. Always, never, absolutely, definitely. You don’t leave any wiggle room.”
“Only on the things I’m sure of.” She squeezed his hand again, then sat up to look at him. Eye contact. He’d never been so grateful for eye contact. “Thank you for coming to rescue me today, Spence.”
His heart was burning embers, all aglow. “Always.”
Her brow furrowed, then softened. She swallowed. Reached out, carefully, with her hand an inch or so away from his face. When he didn’t say anything, she slid her hand against his cheek.
Spencer wished he could’ve taken a picture of the way she was looking at him. Like she’d be okay with sitting there like that, with him, ‘till the end of time. (He felt that way, at the very least. And irrational and moonstruck to boot.)
“I think you’re the best thing that ever happened to me, Spencer Reid.”
“You, too. For me, I mean. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Lyana let her hand fall back down to her side. He was struck with a completely foreign, affectionate urge to pick it back up and hold it, thread his fingers between hers. But he didn’t want her to feel uncomfortable, didn’t want to risk holding her hand wrong or making her think that he was trying to be romantic with her. Not when both of those things might hurt her.
But...in spite of all that, the longer he looked at her, the more he realized he wanted. Things he hadn’t thought he would ever be able to want, let alone do- like hugging someone. Especially someone who was crying. And it all felt so dangerous, so reckless, like he was striding barefoot through a minefield. Spencer wanted to hold her hand, to touch her face like she’d just done for him. To kiss the top of her head. To kiss her.
To kiss her. God, he wanted to kiss her so badly. How fucking sick was that, after everything she’d just told him?
Spencer exhaled, short and quick. His stupid feelings were all jumbled up, still. He was thinking like a boy in love, and he didn’t know what any of that meant. He just knew that there was love for her. And romantic or not, he wasn’t going to let that love lead him astray, lead him into a space where his own wants might bleed selfish and hurt the best thing that had ever happened to him.
So he promised her that he would pick her up every morning before school. And that she could count on him for a hug whenever she needed one.
“Just, um- if you could try not to surprise me. Or be too soft. I’m still pretty new to this, and I’ll need some time to adjust.”
Lyana nodded. She looked so exhausted. “I’m so sorry for making you late for school, Spence.”
“I’m not late, I’m playing hooky today. It’s my turn.” He got to his feet and she followed suit, albeit a little shakily. Spencer had been caretaker for his mom enough times to know what to do next. “How about you go sit on the couch and find us something to watch, and I’ll call our schools, and then I’ll bring you some water. Did Evie make you eat before she left? Are you hungry? Do you have any blankets in here, or do you want me to go grab one from your room?”
“Hug incoming.” She promptly delivered. Throwing her arms around his neck, squeezing tight. “I ate, but I’m hungry. There’s some bagels in the kitchen; I’d love another one. And the orange blanket off my bed. The one you always steal.”
The orange one was his favorite. It was cloud-soft and warm, and almost the same color as her hair (the third attribute not having any weight on how much he liked the blanket- at least, as far as he knew). Lyana had seen him shivering after school one day and had unceremoniously thrown it on him, ranting about how she couldn’t believe that he’d managed to find a way to run cold in their fiery hellspot of a state.
“How about we go through my aunts’ recent Blockbuster stash? I saw Batman Returns in there, and I’ve been dying to watch it.”
Spencer smiled. She still hadn’t let go, was just chattering in his ear. The sensation of her breath falling against the side of his neck was pleasantly ticklish. He told her that all of that sounded great, and that he’d grab the movie, so long as she went ahead and sat down.
“Thank you for rescuing me.”
“You already said that.”
“I wanted to say it again. You’re my epic hero. I hope you know that.” Lyana pressed her chin against his shoulder.
He didn’t know what to say. So he just hugged her tighter.
Chapter 3: January 25th, 1994
Spencer and Lyana go to a basketball game.
Lyana had never cared all that much for basketball. It felt like the points didn’t matter, that there wasn’t really anything to get excited about. You could just check out, read, and then look to see if the score at the end of the quarter was in your team’s favor. If yes: celebrate. If no: wallow.
She was definitely more of a hockey gal.
But she found herself attending her sixteenth straight, book-less basketball game since November, not even for her own school! Because, apparently, Spencer was a genius in basketball strategy (in addition to all of the other things he was a genius in- would the list never end?), and he was going to all of the games, now. And staying after school every day for practice.
Not to watch, though. Spencer Walter Reid, age 12, was the coach of Eldorado High School’s varsity basketball team.
And they were winning.
It had all started when Spencer’s math teacher was talking to him before school, a few days after Lyana’s last big panic attack. Before this latest development, Spencer had spent almost every free moment of his school day with a teacher, doing extra credit work and chores around various classrooms. He’d told Lyana that it had been a habit ever since his dad left, because he’d wanted to make sure he didn’t have time to get distracted and feel sad- and that before her, he had stayed for hours after school, too. You’re my distraction, now, he’d said. And for some reason, it had still felt like a compliment.
That morning, Spencer had been chattering on about statistics while he cleaned the blackboard, and had started explaining how the basketball team could’ve won that last game. Shooting strategies.
His math teacher had brought him in to talk to the coach, and the coach--a very funny man, or so he liked to think--had decided that it would be a funny, harmless thing to let the school’s resident child prodigy coach a game. Which ended up being the first game the Sundevils had won in three seasons.
So: Spencer coached basketball, now. And the Sundevils had yet to lose a game.
The one Lyana found herself at was well into its fourth quarter, and it wasn’t even a question that Eldorado would win; they were sitting a very comfortable forty points ahead of the other team. From her spot on the bleachers, a couple rows up from the team’s bench, she could hear Spencer being stern. Stern. Telling them to stop scoring.
Jake Landry, one of the boys who’d tied him to the goalpost, was giving Spencer a particularly hard time that night. “C’mon, Coach! They’re making it so easy, we’d be stupid not to take advantage.”
All of them were on the team, of course. Those boys. Playing basketball in the winter after playing football in the fall. And the girl they’d used as bait, she was Jake’s girlfriend- sitting one over from Lyana, who couldn’t help but burn jealous over this person she’d written off, long ago, as evil.
Alexa Lisbon was beautiful, an Audrey Hepburn brunette with striking green eyes. All fingers accounted for. And she didn’t possess a conspicuous ounce of cruelty; she hadn’t even been on the football field that day. (Jake had had the good sense not to tell her what they’d planned.) She’d come up to Spencer after she’d heard what had happened and had apologized to him, for Christ’s sake. Alexa had a good heart, and she was smart- it appeared that the only strike against her was the fact that she believed Jake was a good partner. Of course Spencer would’ve ignored logic for the promise of her.
And the girl who had lured him out of the library and taken him to the football field, Harper- she was right next to Lyana. This one, at least, was one of those girls who looked like she had all the pieces of pretty but just couldn’t get them lined up right. Great skin, gorgeous hair, trendy clothes, impeccable makeup, a megawatt smile...and still, looking at her made Lyana’s stomach churn, nervous. Not like looking at a celebrity, but at a moving shape in the dark. Her theory was that Harper’s meanness kept her from reaching her true, beautiful potential. Spencer agreed.
In spite of all that, Lyana had forged a tentative friendship with the two of them over the past couple months. They were at every game, after all, and sitting there with no one to talk to was pretty miserable.
Lyana still didn’t trust Harper, and it seemed like that sentiment was reciprocated; Harper unfailingly made a huge show of sticking herself in between Lyana and Alexa. And making little snippy comments about Spencer, always followed by an overdone apology.
But coaching had put some edges on Spencer. He wasn’t afraid of any of those boys anymore, and he didn’t even seem to give much thought to Harper or Alexa. It felt like he knew his value, now, and he wasn’t going to give anyone the space to question his calls. (Except for Lyana.)
She watched as Spencer squared his shoulders and looked up at Jake, who towered over him by a good foot. “Landry, if you score one more time tonight, I’m going to pull you from the rest of this game and the next one. Maybe the rest of the season. You’re the captain, set a better example for your team.” He swallowed, turned towards the rest of the boys huddled around him. “That goes for all of you. We look like monsters.”
Jake folded his arms across his chest and stared Spencer down.
And Spencer stared right back. Lyana wanted to cheer.
“Alright, fine.” Jake took a half-step back. “I guess Coach is right. We don’t wanna have a rep for being the evil douchebag team.”
Spencer nodded, then returned to his clipboard. Lyana listened to him rattle off commands like it was what he’d been born for. And when the team broke and ran back to the court, he turned back to her for just a moment. His brow was furrowed and she could almost read his thoughts. Was that the right call?
She nodded, almost imperceptibly, and flashed him a big ole smile. Which grew even wider when she saw his shoulders relax. He gave her a little, warm one back. And returned his focus to the game.
“Wow, I’m, like, so surprised that Spencer had the balls to talk back to Jake like that. Where was that attitude when they were beating him up before?” Harper drawled, checking her manicure. And then, right on cue, “Oh, I’m so sorry, that was so insensitive of me. He didn’t deserve that, even if he was, like, a super easy target for them.”
That one was a lot less veiled than usual. Lyana bit down on her bottom lip. She’d never liked the word cunt, but fuck, she wanted to call Harper one all the damn time.
She almost kept herself from saying anything at all, but her stomach was roiling with fury. And then it all came up.
“Y’know, Harper, the thing I still don’t get after all this time is why you take so much pride in tormenting a kid half a decade younger than you. That would be the equivalent of Spencer going and shoving a second grader into a locker. Would you think he had balls, then?” Lyana could see Harper flushing red beneath her foundation, but she couldn’t help it; she kept going. “You guys picked a--what were your words exactly?-- super easy target, I’d argue the easiest fucking target, and paraded your ‘conquest’ around like a trophy. It’s so pathetic. But the fact that all those boys have a shot at a basketball scholarship this year because of Spencer, because he’s going to take them to state finals and he’s going to be the reason that they win in spite of everything you all did to him- that’s trophy shit. That’s being the biggest man in this whole stupid gym.”
“Jesus, Lyana, you could’ve just said your Aunt Flo was in town.” Harper was checking her nails again, but Lyana could feel her fuming. Could see her brain desperately scraping for something other than a toothless period quip to hurt her with. “You can go sit somewhere else if you’re going to be a PMS-y bitch for the rest of the night.”
“And what’s the seating arrangement for those of us who are just straight-up cunts? Because I think that’s where you should park your bony excuse for an ass, you fucking sociopath.”
Harper nearly smacked her. Lyana would’ve deserved it. But Alexa reached over and grabbed her friend’s elbow, hissing under her breath, “Lyana, language. Spencer told me you two have a bet going on, and I don’t want to have to tell him that you super, super lost it just now. And Harper, she’s got a point. You’re nothing but rude to her, especially about her boyfriend, and she’s exhibited a whole hell of a lot of patience up until today. You tell me all the time how sorry you are for what you did to him on the goalpost day, but then you come in here and bully him behind his back, in front of her, just the same. Are you lying to me, or are you trying to give her an excuse to kill you?”
Lyana was in such awe over Alexa actually entering into a conflict that she forgot to feel jealous over Spencer telling Alexa about their cursing bet. (He’d bet her that she couldn’t go a whole week without swearing, and she’d bet him that he couldn’t go a whole week without reading a book for fun. Two days had passed since they’d shook hands on it. They were both suffering.) And she didn’t have the bandwidth to be confused as to why Alexa had referred to Spencer as her boyfriend. All she could do was watch, flabbergasted, as Harper lowered her arm.
“I’m not sorry for what we did to him. He deserved it. Fucking freak, staring at Alexa all the time. Being a genius doesn’t excuse him from being a nasty little creep. And being a coach shouldn’t, either.” She was breathing heavily, staring at her feet. “Some people just deserve to be hurt.”
“Cool. Get outta here,” Alexa sighed, shooing Harper with her hand.
“Get outta here. Lyana was right; you’re a sociopath. Fucking- A twelve-year-old kid deserves to be hurt because he stares at me? If I had a problem with it, I would’ve said something to him. And I’ve been feeling pretty sick of your antics for a long time, but I kept on making excuses for you because we’ve been friends since preschool. But I’m tired. I’m done. Please leave.”
Screw being jealous. Lyana wanted to kiss Alexa.
She watched, feeling her chest scream in triumph, as Harper stood. As Harper huffed, grabbed her purse, stepped over Lyana’s feet, and stormed down the steps of the bleachers and out of the gym.
Lyana felt a new pair of hips touching hers; Alexa had scooted over to sit next to her.
“I’m really sorry for all that. You didn’t- You didn’t have to end your friendship because I couldn’t control my temper.”
“I ended that ‘friendship’ because she sucks, and you gave me a pretty good excuse.” Alexa nudged her with her shoulder, then smiled. God, she couldn’t blame Spencer for any of it. Getting a smile from Alexa Lisbon was like getting an injection of pure sunlight. “I can’t speak for the other guys, but Jake feels really, really sorry for what he did. And if I ever find out he’s lying like Harper was, I’ll oust him, too. Pinkie- Shit. I’m so sorry.”
“Hey, no worries. Thumb swear?”
Alexa giggled, then curled her thumb around Lyana’s. “Thumb swear.”
They were quiet, for a while, both of them watching the game (and Lyana trying her damnedest to ignore Spencer’s wide-eyed stare) (he’d turned around in time to see them giggling and holding thumbs, and had been rightfully stunned). When he finally relented and returned his gaze to the court, Lyana said, “Um, by the way, Spencer’s not my boyfriend.”
“Oh, I know. But why’s that?” Alexa had an impish smile on her face.
“I guess because neither of us have ever expressed any interest? We’re best friends. And either way, I’m not girlfriend material.”
“I repeat: why’s that?” Lyana waved her hands and Alexa groaned. “That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard. You’re a stone-cold hottie. I bet people fall over themselves to talk to you at your school.”
Lyana laughed. “I’m aware of how blessed I am in the looks department. And there have been some people who’ve fallen over themselves. But being attractive to someone isn’t the only box you have to check, y’know? I’m not going to try to date when I’m still trying to get over- all this,” she waved her hands again. “It wouldn’t be fair.”
Alexa nodded, solemnly. “I get it. That’s very...wise of you. You wouldn’t believe the number of people in our grade who jump into relationships when they’re not ready. Leads to real messy breakups- and like, I enjoy the cafeteria drama as much as anyone. But I still wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Even Harper.”
“How’d you know you were ready for one?”
“I guess I didn’t really have to think about it.” She smiled to herself. “I’m lucky, I’ve had it pretty easy. Brought up in a loving family with parents who still love each other, no horrible traumas, and I’m also pretty blessed in the looks department.” She elbowed Lyana. “But I don’t think it’s a thing, to be ‘ready for all relationships’. I think it’s more, like- being ready for one specific person. Because if you’re with the right one, I don’t think you need to be at your fighting weight. And they’ll understand you, and help you get to that point, and they’ll never let you feel like your baggage is too much, or that you’re not worth their patience. And they’ll know when they have to step back for their own sake, too. Not to leave, I mean, but to just take a minute and breathe, make sure they aren’t giving more than they’ve got.”
Lyana remembered watching her aunts fight, pretty shortly after she’d moved in with them. Remembered feeling so confused when Evie had reached for Kate’s hand in the middle of what Lyana had thought--devastated--would be a really awful, potentially relationship-ending argument.
And Evie had said I love you, and I want us to finish this conversation, but can we put it on pause for a couple hours? I’m exhausted, and I don’t want me being tired to make you think that I don’t care about what you’re saying, or for me to mess up and say something wrong because I’m cranky. If it’s okay with you, I’m going to take a nap, and I’ll set an alarm. And then we can finish this, I promise. And Kate had nodded, and kissed her, and that was it. Paused.
“So, in theory, if I found someone who was somehow equipped to handle me with all my stuff, I could be ready for a relationship?”
Alexa shrugged. “I don’t see why not. Being with someone isn’t, like, something to just do for the sake of it. It’s a conscious choice to love and care for another person, to have the right person at your side in this short mess of a life. And you seem like you’ve got a really good handle on your value, like you wouldn’t suffer in silence and put up with anything less than what you deserve. So if you find someone worthy of you, worthy of holding your hand on your bad days- just make sure that you’re in a position to do the same for them, and that you don’t sit there expecting them to fix you, because that’s not their responsibility. And I think you’ll make someone really extravagantly happy one day.”
Lyana grinned. Extravagantly happy. She liked that.
Before she could say anything else, the sound of the buzzer nearly jolted her out of her seat. The game was over; the Sundevils, of course, had won. Alexa pulled Lyana in for a hug, a big triumphant squeeze. Shouted over the roar of the crowd, “He loves you,” in her ear, and when Lyana stared at her, confused, clarified, “Spencer! Spencer loves you!”
Before she could splutter a response, Alexa shouted, once more, “‘Till the next game, my lovely Lyana!” and then hopped down the bleachers towards Jake, arms outstretched.
Lyana scratched the back of her head, feeling her heart burn with baffled affection. Was she friends with a seventeen-year-old? The most popular seventeen-year-old at this school, to boot? She smiled to herself. It sure felt like it. My lovely Lyana. What the hell had she done to deserve that?
Spencer caught her eye and pulled her out of her thoughts. She made sure to give him plenty of warning (yelling, “I’m gonna hug you!”) before thumping down the bleachers and throwing her arms around him.
He hugged her back, tight. Pressed the side of his head against hers. Some of the boys on the team who had lingered back with Spencer made a big show, started hooting and whistling.
She felt him blushing and let go of him, let him finish his duties (telling the boys that they’d played a good game, to show up on time to practice tomorrow, and to go shower because they stunk). Tried to ignore Alexa’s words, playing over and over in her head.
Spencer! Spencer loves you!
It couldn’t be true. It couldn’t. Spencer hadn’t mentioned anything even remotely related to what he was attracted to in a person over the course of their friendship; talking about crushes or pretty people just made him blush and change the subject. No matter how much Lyana teasingly prodded him.
What had happened on the goalpost day was the only shred of proof she’d seen that Spencer was capable of having feelings like that for someone, and the only piece of information that she had on what he found beautiful. How he’d said to her, When Harper told me that Alexa wanted to meet me behind the field house, a part of me knew that it couldn’t be real- but Alexa Lisbon’s the prettiest girl in school. I didn’t have a choice. I wanted it to be real.
And given that Alexa looked like something conjured from poetry and that Lyana felt more like a chaotic piece of prose- it just couldn’t be true. It broke against type far too much for comfort.
How would Alexa know that, anyway? Spencer wasn’t the kind of person to say he loved someone in the first place, let alone to just go around blabbing to someone who was practically a stranger about the inner workings of his heart. And Lyana would’ve noticed if he felt anything for her. She would’ve been able to tell. She had a nose for these kinds of things.
And he would’ve talked to me about it, right? I’m his best friend. He would’ve talked to me about it.
Lyana was pretty confident that Spencer didn’t believe very much in love, at least the romantic kind. He was pretty adept at finding holes in fictional relationships, and he would roll his eyes at the big sweeping words that all the classical writers and poets would use when talking about their lovers.
She hadn’t realized how much it had bothered her until then.
When Spencer finally turned back to face her, he was beaming, and the sight of his flushed and happy face pulled her out of her uncomfortable little thought spiral. He’d become pretty confident in his abilities as a coach after the third game, but each win was still such a win for him. And she thought that he secretly really enjoyed ordering the boys around. Especially since they listened.
They grabbed their things and left the gym together, started making their way home in a comfortable silence. Until-
“What happened with Harper?”
Lyana chuckled. “She, uh, admitted to being a pure sociopath, so Alexa told her to get lost. They’re not friends anymore.” Then, she sighed. As much as she appreciated her new friend’s promised discretion, she couldn’t lie to Spencer. “Harper admitted to being a sociopath because I lost my temper, and I swore a whole lot. I even used my least favorite one. So: you win the bet, my love. Feel free to read for fun at your heart’s content.”
“You said, ‘You win the bet, my love.’”
Fuck. Fuck you, Alexa, for getting that word knocking around in my head. “Yeah. What about it?”
“You love me?” That stupid, beautiful, unreadable face. Staring at the sidewalk straight ahead of him. Why the hell couldn’t she ever tell what he was thinking about, even after all this time?
“Maybe.” She stuck her tongue out at him. It was a feat, considering that her heart was skipping beats in her chest and she wanted to just yell from the anxiety of it all. “Perchance I love, but forsooth, I certainly adore.”
He rolled his eyes, laughing. “Keats is my best friend. Lucky me.”
“First of all, that was definitely more Shakespeare. And second of all, you gorgeous fool: Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art-”
“Lyana, not again-”
“Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night, and watching, with eternal lids apart, like Nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,” she recited, getting louder as she went on, feeling manic. So very grateful for the opportunity to veer the subject away from her stupid slip. And also feeling pretty confident that Keats had not meant for his tender love sonnet to be recited with such brutality.
She’d been embarrassed about her weird little pastime of memorizing poems and monologues until she’d met Spencer. (With his eidetic memory, he didn’t really have a choice in memorizing anything once he’d heard it or read it.) And when he found out that she knew the opening to the Aeneid by heart, he had crowed with excitement and recited it with her.
But for some reason, he held such a bitterness towards Keats- who was Lyana’s favorite poet. And on Keats’s behalf, she felt it was her duty to continue to pester Spencer with his works whenever her dear best friend made the grave mistake of bringing him up in conversation.
“And so live ever- or else swoon to death,” she finished with a flourish and a bow. Grinning at his pained expression. “You’re lucky I’m feeling generous, because I think I finally have a handle on Ode to a Nightingale. You could’ve had to endure eighty lines instead of fourteen.”
“I appreciate your act of mercy.” Spencer adjusted his bookbag as they walked. “So you and Alexa, huh?”
“I think we’re friends, now. Is that weird? I can stop hanging out with her, if it’s weird.”
“No way. She’s really nice. I’m glad you guys are friends.”
Lyana felt that jealousy worming through her gut again. She bit the inside of her cheek, keeping quiet as they rounded the corner onto her street. (Diana was working late, again, so they were having dinner with Lyana’s aunts.)
God, this sucked. Did she have to be such a cliche? Having feelings for her best friend? And how had she not realized- how had she not known until Alexa had brought it up?
Lyana knew that she was smart. Not as smart as Spencer--was anybody?--but she was pretty damn smart. Especially about emotional things. It had all come with the territory, after going through everything she had, and being as young as she was. And she felt like she knew herself well, and she had been down the internal oh my goodness I have feelings for you road with dozens of different people in the past year alone. (Nothing pursued, of course, because she still wasn’t sure she was ready. But she was a hugely romantic sap of a person, and she continued to have her secret crushes just for the sake of it.)
So why the hell hadn’t she realized that she was falling in love with Spencer? Every other person before him, she had consciously experienced every built-up emotion. She had had a part, a say, in her feelings. This- This felt like being knocked over by a wave at the beach, ass over feet, with no warning. And now that she was underwater and couldn’t breathe- the water was clear and calm. And everything made sense.
How ever since the panic attack day, she couldn’t keep her hands off him. Hugging him and touching his face. How much she loved looking at his face. And how she’d never thought boys could be pretty before him. He made her want to write sonnets about his auburn eyes and razored cheekbones even though she knew she wouldn’t be any good at it.
She’d told him on that day that she felt like she could just be herself around him, and it was true. She hadn’t known what it was like, before him- to be in front of another person and not edit or change anything she wanted to do or say. It was an intoxicating amount of freedom. And it had always felt, to her, like love. That even though he had never said anything to that effect, his unconditional acceptance of all her weird and broken parts was borne out of love for her.
(Platonic, but love all the same.)
She had realized that she liked the person she was when she was with Spencer so much more than any other version of herself. He made her feel safe and confident. There was no one else she wanted to spend her time with. No one else she wanted to talk to at the end of a bad day, or a good one. And God, she loved the way he smelled. Whenever they hugged, she wanted to bury her head in the side of his neck and stay there.
Lyana looked over at him as they walked up her driveway. She found herself hoping that what Alexa said had been true after all. And even though she knew it couldn’t be real, she didn’t have a choice. She wanted it to be.
Spencer stopped on her front porch. “What’re you thinking about?”
“Do you believe in all that romantic stuff? You, like, obviously think it’s corny. But do you believe in it?” Even this felt bad. Lying by...aversion. But there had to be an exception, there, right? The circumstances were so special. She wasn’t going to risk ruining their friendship and tell Spencer that she thought she might be in love with him just because he’d asked her at the exact right time to catch her with her (mental) pants down.
“Why d’you ask?”
He rocked back and forth on his heels for a moment, then said, “I don’t understand any of it, so it feels hard to believe. That doesn’t mean it’s not real, though. I’d really like for it to be.”
“What don’t you understand about it?”
“I guess- the finality of so much of it. Whenever people fall in love, it always seems like they’re set. Like this person is the person. And then it falls apart, and their heart breaks, and they start the cycle over. I don’t understand how it can work like that, if it’s love. Those cycles, those make me feel like it’s not real, that we’re just sacks of hormones feeling strong sexual attraction to other people and using our brains to overcomplicate the matter and turn it into love.” He fiddled with the strap of his bag. “But I mean it, I want it to be real. If for no other reason than to prove to myself that I’m not just a sack of hormones.”
Lyana smiled, all soft. Maybe there was still hope for him, yet.
Spencer mumbled, “Do you believe in it?”
“Oh, yeah. What’s the point of all this, if it’s not for love? To find someone that you can connect with like that. And it doesn’t have to be romantic; I think finding a platonic connection would be just as magical. And I get what you said, about the cycles. And that sometimes we overcomplicate things. But it wouldn’t be special if you could just find it with anyone, and I know it’s real. Look at Evie and Kate! They’re cold hard proof. In spite of how difficult it is for them to be together, socially, how they both know that they might not ever be able to legally marry- they choose to come home to each other every day. Because all that matters is that they spend their lives together. And they’re almost at, what, fifteen years, now? That would have to be the most overcomplicated sexual attraction in the history of the world.”
Spencer grinned, sheepishly. “I guess I never really thought of it that way. I- I still don’t understand any of it. But you’re right, your aunts are absolutely proof that it’s real. I hope we get as lucky as them.”
And then, right on cue, Kate swung the door open. Her dark hair was done up in--impossibly--three messy buns, all piled on top of her head. Like an alternative princess Leia. “Are you weirdos going to come inside and eat, or are you going to stand outside on the porch all night? Being weird?”
They laughed and followed her inside.
While they ate, Lyana found herself paying more attention than usual to her aunts. Watching how they interacted with each other. How Evie was definitely more physical, always reaching for Kate’s hand while they ate, Kate’s waist while they were washing the dishes. How Kate was always trying to help Evie out, picking up her plate from the table and bringing her more of her wine without Evie having to say a word. But she did, always. Thank you, my love.
She listened to how they spoke to each other, too. How they gave each other their full attention, how comfortable they were with whatever they were talking about and with asking whatever questions they had, and how even their ribs at one another were full of love. She heard Evie whisper that she loved the way Kate had done her hair, and Kate immediately shot back And I love how you’ve done your you. And they’d giggled, like kids, bumping their foreheads together.
The way that they looked at each other- like they didn’t want to look at anything or anyone else.
At the end of the night, after Lyana had walked Spencer home and was making her way back to her house, she took the time alone to try and process everything that had happened that night.
But she kept getting stuck on how badly she wanted Spencer to look at her the way Evie and Kate looked at each other.
Fuck, I’m in trouble.
Chapter 4: March 6th, 1994
Lyana and Spencer spend a lazy Sunday together.
here's the song they're listening to, if y'all are so inclined ( :
Spencer was in trouble.
He’d gotten into CalTech, the school of his dreams. And in theory, that was wonderful- but in reality, it was the worst thing that had ever happened to him. Because it meant that, in about six months, he’d be nearly three hundred miles away from Lyana. (Well, two hundred and seventy-seven, to be exact.)
The exact number didn’t matter. What did matter was that he wouldn’t be able to see her every day, and the thought of her being so glaringly absent from his life made him ache.
He’d brought it up to Alexa a few months ago. Right before the Christmas break. She’d found him in the library, fidgeting, staring off into space, and she’d asked him what was wrong. And he’d felt so vulnerable and lost, and she was trying to help- so he’d explained everything he could manage. The confusion, the inability to put a name for what his feelings were, the fact that he didn’t know if she could ever feel the same way about him, and that he just couldn’t stop thinking about her.
And then he’d blurted it out. I think I’m in love with her.
It had felt so stupid, coming out of his mouth. A twelve-year-old freak in love. Was there anything more pathetic?
But Alexa had just smiled at him, hugging her books to her chest. “Why don’t you tell her? We’ve been talking at the games, and she cares about you so much. I don’t think she’s there for the love of the sport.”
“No, she hates basketball.” He’d chuckled. “But she knows I need her there, so she sits through every one.”
Her brow had furrowed; she’d looked touched. “Spencer, you’ve got to tell her. I know that it’s scary, but loving someone isn’t some curse you inflict upon them. And you’re going to regret it if you never say it. Even if she doesn’t feel the same way, you’ll still be best friends- and then at least you’ll know, right? You won’t have to sit here, wondering about what could be.” She’d looked down at her feet, and then back up at him. “I only bet on sure things. And I’m going to bet on you two. But you’ve gotta tell her.”
He hadn’t. He’d been petrified by the very thought of admitting how he felt to anyone else, because there was one whole person who knew, and it was one too many. When he’d seen Lyana and Alexa becoming close at that game back in January, he’d nearly had a heart attack. Please don’t tell her please don’t please don’t, he’d screamed in his head.
As far as he could tell, Alexa hadn’t said anything (even though she and Lyana were even closer, now, going to the mall and the movies together, Lyana calling her the big sister she’d always wanted) and he was so goddamn grateful. But it didn’t fix his other predicament. The one where he was in love with his best friend. And moving away in six months.
He knew that the logical thing to do would be to follow Alexa’s advice, to tell Lyana how he felt. Because if she felt the same way, he could defer and stay. And if she didn’t, he could go be heartbroken in California.
Or, option 3: I suffer in silence until I die. Lyana would appreciate the poetry of the gesture, at least.
At that very moment, he was sitting at his desk, watching her out of the corner of his eye. It was a Sunday, creeping into the middle of the afternoon. They’d been together since the early morning. Her aunts were taking a day trip, and his mother was working.
Lyana had brought not just breakfast, but lunch and dinner with her, too (Evie had been very busy in the kitchen the night before). And they’d watched a little TV together, earlier, but there was work to be done: Spencer had an essay to finish and she had some assigned reading.
So, she’d also brought over a hefty portion of her CD collection and a boombox; they both liked to listen to music while they did homework. One had just finished, and she was sitting cross-legged on the floor by his bed, wordlessly trying to decide between Astral Weeks by Van Morrison and Rumours by Fleetwood Mac for their next one.
“Astral Weeks,” he said, not turning around. “The opening track is my favorite song.”
Lyana spluttered, “Hey, what the fuck? You never told me you had a favorite song. I’ve only asked you, what, a hundred and twelve times?”
“Mm, you’re overestimating. The last time you asked me was last weekend when we were doing homework, and that brought the count up to seventy-seven. Still an impressive number, though. Your persistence is really admirable.”
She scoffed, chucking a pillow at his head. “Asshole.” Then, after he’d chucked the pillow right back, she asked, “Why is it your favorite?”
“It just- It feels magical, I guess. The way the guitar sounds, the way he’s singing. The lyrics are really beautiful. And it’s long, too; you don’t feel like you were robbed. So many songs are way too short.”
Spencer swiveled in his chair, finally, just in time to see her looking down at the CD, smiling to herself. “It’s my favorite, too.”
“You never told me.”
“You never asked. I would’ve shared if you’d asked. Asshole,” she grinned. “I love that we have the same favorite song.”
She put the CD in and pressed Play. He watched her lean back against his bed, stretching her stocky, muscular legs out in front of her on the floor. Watched her tip her head back so that it rested on his mattress, then shut her eyes the moment the song began.
If I ventured in the slipstream
Between the viaducts of your dream
Where immobile steel rims crack
And the ditch in the back roads stop
Spencer hadn’t been a big music listener before her. His family’s collection was all old vinyl, old jazz- and he loved it, but it didn’t exactly give him a broad range to experience. He had yet to find a genre that Lyana hadn’t listened to. She could give you recommendations from heavy metal to R&B, from synth-pop to disco. She blamed it on her mom, said that they’d had a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf at their Wyoming house that had been filled with CDs (she’d taken all of them with her when she’d moved, and they now filled several cardboard boxes that littered the floor of her room). All that time Lyana had spent alone- she had filled the void with music.
She’d played this album for him maybe a week or two after they’d first met. And she’d sat, almost like she was right then, all sprawled out on the floor with her eyes closed. He’d asked her what she was doing and she’d opened one eye, almost reproachfully, at him. This is one of those albums that needs to be listened to like this. C’mere. And even though he was not a floor-sitter, never in his life had he been a floor-sitter, he had been compelled. So he’d joined her on the floor, and shut his eyes, and listened.
He wasn’t sure if Astral Weeks had become his favorite song because it was the first one on the album, the first one he’d ever listened to with her, if it was actually his favorite- or some twisted combination of it all. He’d gone back and listened to the album on his own over and over again (she’d given him a copy of the CD for his birthday), but still, nothing felt as special as the title track.
Spencer hadn’t wanted to explain all of that to her whenever she’d asked him what his favorite song was before today. But this whole being in love business, of keeping so much of himself from her, was making all these other secrets pop up. All these other secrets that were secrets only because they revealed, in pieces, how bad his feelings were for her.
How many more slip-ups would it take before she found him out?
He got up from his chair and settled down on the floor, next to her. Her hand was resting on the floor between them. He was so close; he could touch her hand, if he was brave enough. That’d at least start a conversation, right? If he reached out and held her hand during their favorite song. Alone, in his room.
He swallowed, got distracted. Studied the freckles on her face while he knew he had the time. They were such a mess, all uneven and paint-splattered, but they had never made him feel anxious or wrong, not like other messes did. He just wanted to kiss every single one. Stop it. His gaze drifted to her long eyelashes, down the sharp square slope of her nose, to her lips, spackled with more freckles that he really desperately wanted to needed to-
Spencer turned away abruptly. Lay his head back on the mattress and stared up at the ceiling. Shit.
“You okay, Spence?” Her eyes were still closed.
“Okay.” He could feel her smiling.
It was just sitting there, bubbling at the back of his throat. I got into CalTech. And I love you. Tell me what to do.
Damn it, why the hell couldn’t he be brave? She was so unfiltered around him; she always had an answer right away whenever he asked her what she was thinking. No time to edit herself. But Spencer was made up of long silences. Pauses. Most people didn’t have the patience for them, but Lyana did.
Lyana also had the patience to sit back and take his answers in stride whenever he lost his filter. It made his insides roil, thinking of all the things he’d said to her without thinking. What happened to your hands? I’ve never met a lesbian couple before. It’s a good thing they didn’t have to operate on you after the incident; I learned today that, statistically, redheads require up to 20% more anesthesia, and anesthesia is tricky enough.
He was just so goddamn frustrated at himself all the time. One minute he couldn’t make himself shut up, even when it was rude, and the next he was sitting and hyper-analyzing every single possible answer and action he could take, so much so that he’d be sitting there without saying a fucking word for ten, twenty minutes.
Lyana let him, a lot of the time. She’d only break through if she was worried. And she was always so gentle about it.
Spencer dared to let himself look over at her again. She was still smiling, just barely. Eyes still shut.
After she’d first met Lyana, his mom had said that he really had to stop reading so much classical literature. He’d asked why. Because that girl looks like something out of a Renaissance painting. God, had she known even then? Before he’d known? Why hadn’t his own mother warned him?
To top everything off, for the past couple of months, Alexa had been trying to convince him that Lyana had feelings for him, too. That no, Lyana hadn’t outright said she had feelings, but that Alexa just knew she did. It wasn’t enough. All Alexa’s theory did was give him even more to fantasize about. And feel guilty about.
But right then, thinking about everything Lyana did for him, about the way she looked at him- maybe Alexa was right. Maybe everything about their fated meeting was about more than just becoming friends. Epic heroes deserved an epic love story, right? And Lyana-
Deserves better. Deserves more.
“Spence, you’re breathing real heavy. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I got into CalTech.”
“Of course you did.” Lyana opened her eyes and sat up, beaming at him. Turned the volume down. “Sorry, that wasn’t what I meant to say first. I’m so, so, so proud of you, Spence. But: I totally knew that you would get in. I didn’t even have an evil revenge plan for if they didn’t accept you. That’s how sure I was. Are you, like, out of your mind excited?”
Spencer exhaled slowly, through a tiny o he made with his mouth. Something the doctors had told him to do when he could feel his anxiety creeping up. What the hell had he expected her to say? Just out of the blue, Please don’t go, I love you, stay with me? It either had to be him, or he had to keep quiet.
He swallowed. “Yeah, I’m excited.”
“Did you finally choose what you’re going to study?”
“Mathematics. I looked up the curriculum for their Classics degree, and I’ve already read everything.”
“Of course you have.”
“I’m going to miss you.” He paused and looked at her right in the eyes, even though it was hard. “I’m going to miss you so much.”
Her brow furrowed. “I’m going to miss you too, Spence. But you’ll still come back here for holidays, right? And I already talked to my aunts about it, they said they’ll help me come visit you, too. I’m- Like, MIT is an incredible school, too, but I’m so fucking glad that you chose CalTech instead. I’m going crazy thinking about you being a single state over, but at least we’ll be in the same time zone, and we can drive to see you. My aunts were definitely not as amenable to having to budget for cross-country airfare multiple times a year, and even without all that- having you three hours ahead and on the opposite coast?” She blushed, looked down at the floor. “To be completely honest, when you mentioned you were looking at MIT, I went home and cried an embarrassing amount. And then when you changed your mind, I cried some more. Happy tears, though.”
“You didn’t tell me that.” She’d cried because of him? Because she didn’t want him to leave? His heart was so full. He thought it might crack. “I, um. I stopped looking at MIT- well, in part because their programs just didn’t match up to CalTech’s. But mostly because I didn’t want to be two thousand, seven hundred and thirty-two miles away from- from you.”
Her eyes went wide and she nodded, solemnly. “That’s way too many miles.”
Spencer had gotten exceptionally good at reading her expressions. (He hadn’t been good at reading anyone’s expressions before her, but it turns out that all he’d needed was a face--that wasn’t his mom’s--that he could study all day. And it helped, a whole lot, that Lyana was a pretty open book.) But for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out what she was feeling right then.
Before he could ask her, she said, “Hug incoming,” and threw her arms around him. Spencer sighed, relieved. So much had changed since the panic attack day; hugging Lyana had become something of a cure-all. She squeezed him so tight every time, it forced all of his anxiety up and out of his throat.
He found himself itching for her when she wasn’t there. Like a crazy person. Just sitting in the middle of history class and wanting nothing else but the feeling of her hands bunched up in his shirt.
Spencer realized, then, that these were going to be a whole hell of a lot further between. That he wouldn’t be able to come home from class at the end of the day and hug her. Or find her sprawled out on his floor, holding CDs, excitedly chattering about some new band she’d found.
That he would be back to the way he was before he met her: lost, alone, and broken.
She started to pull away and he shook his head, desperately, brought her closer into him. Curled his fingers into where her shirt had scrunched up at the small of her back. It’s okay, it’s okay. It’s okay. He could feel her hand cradling the back of his head, like he was precious. Like he needed to be protected. Her fingers threading through his hair right at the base of his neck-
She kissed the side of his head. Close to his ear.
“In through your nose, out through your mouth, Spence,” she whispered, right where she’d kissed him. She’d never done anything like that before. Kissing him. And he was so keyed up, so jittery, he couldn’t even really process it.
Lyana was so solid, and warm. He was always so cold. He wanted to soak up all her heat.
“You’re okay. I’m here. You’re okay.”
He hadn’t realized how hard he was trembling.
Spencer breathed in, long and slow. Breathed out, forced all the tension out of his body. Very slowly released his grip on her shirt and pulled away from her, even though he could’ve stayed there forever. (He hated hyperbole outside of literature. This wasn’t hyperbole. He could’ve stayed there forever.)
“I’m sorry. I’m just nervous about college. Can we- Can we not talk about it?”
“Okay.” She wasn’t unreadable anymore. He could tell she was disappointed and concerned. Equal parts.
He’d give anything, anything, to know if what Alexa said had been true. Lyana had kissed his head. There had to be something. But she was brave. If she wanted to be with him, she’d tell him. If she wanted to kiss him, she’d kiss him. Unless- unless she was trying to hold back, like she’d done with the touching. Or what if she did have feelings but just wasn’t ready?
Fuck, why did all of this have to be so complicated? Having feelings for someone was hard enough. Why did he have to feel things for someone who might not ever be ready to be that kind of close with someone? Why couldn’t he just fruitlessly pine after the Alexa Lisbons of the world?
Because now you know that you don’t want Alexa, or anyone like her. Lyana changed everything. And now you’re going to spend the rest of your life chasing after everything she makes you feel, constantly comparing every single other person to her. And you’re never going to find anyone who has what she has, because she’s special, and you two were fated to meet, and you’re never going to be enough for her, and you’re going to watch as she falls in love with people who are-
Spencer could feel himself starting to shake again. He couldn’t be in this room with her anymore. Not alone. He didn’t feel like he had any control, like he was half a step away from doing or saying something he would regret.
“Are you hungry?”
Lyana smiled. It was a little forced, but she meant it. “Yeah, I am. And you’re jonesing for a donut.” He nodded. “Alright, alright. Only for you would I walk out in this blistering, shitty heat to walk a mile and get donuts.”
Spencer watched her stand and stretch. Her shirt slid up her stomach, just a little, just enough so that he could see a strip of her pale skin. And even though he knew he was treading so far out in these dangerous goddamn waters, he let himself get distracted anyway.
He felt so privileged to see her like this. How she was when she was at her most comfortable. To know these little details- like how her arms and legs were all wiry muscles from riding her bike, but that her stomach was soft.
And as confident as she was, as much as she liked to flip her hair and declare that she knew very well how beautiful she was, she hated the soft parts of her. He had seen her compulsively cover her stomach every chance she got; she’d cross her arms over it, hold a pillow in front of it. And Spencer hadn’t yet figured out what she needed to love it as much as she loved the rest of her.
And her hands- Christ, he wished she didn’t hide them so much. He understood why, and he had to be increasingly vigilant with himself and his runaway mouth, had to keep himself from saying anything whenever she shoved her hands back into her pockets.
That’s why he loved their study days. Because she’d always put music on, and she’d inevitably put on an album that had to be listened to on the floor, and she’d forget about how she felt about her hands. She’d leave them, relaxed, on the ground. Like the music washed away everything bad she felt about herself.
He wished he could do the same.
She was better than a Renaissance painting. Renaissance paintings made him feel things, but nothing like what she made him feel: alive and in technicolor. And as much as he resented the emotions, sometimes, it was so much better than the numb fog he’d been in before he’d seen a girl on fire sprinting a hundred and twenty yards to get to him. Faster than he’d ever seen anyone run.
He came back into himself. She was watching him, patiently. Her head tilted just a little to the side.
“Yeah. Sorry.” Spencer stood up and smoothed himself out. Nervously tucked some hair behind his ear, and saw that Lyana was still giving him that curious, patient look. “What’re you thinking about?”
She shook her head, trying to hide her smile. “I was just wondering if you knew how beautiful you are. Especially with all the sunlight that leaks in here. Your eyes look like gold.” Lyana was chewing on her bottom lip. For the first time since they’d met, it looked like she was holding something back. “I mean, I know I tell you how pretty you are all the time. I was just wondering if you believed it.”
“I- I thought that was just something you said. To be nice.”
“How many times do I have to tell ya, Spence? I don’t say things I don’t mean. Not to you.”
No, not eye contact. He couldn’t do that right now. He felt so vulnerable. Like if she squinted just a little, she could see past his stupid facade and read every single damning line that comprised the pathetic little novel of his soul.
He stared down, hard, at his feet. And said: “I think you’re beautiful too.”
There it was: that silly little confidence shield. He could feel it before he even looked back up. Spencer watched as Lyana broke into a smug grin and pretended to strike a pose. “I know I am.” In spite of everything, she was blushing. Fuck. “But thank you.”
“You- You know that all of you is, right?”
“All of you is beautiful.”
“I dunno what you mean.” She looked genuinely confused.
He scratched the back of his head. Tried to slow his heartbeat. “I don’t want to make you unhappy. I just noticed-”
“That you don’t like your stomach, or your hands. And I know that it- that it sounds nice, to hear someone say that something you don’t like about yourself is beautiful. I wish my eyes weren’t so muddy, and you tell me that they’re beautiful all the time. And it makes me feel that way, for half a second- but then I see them in the mirror again, and I remember how much I don’t like them. Even if I try to remember what you said about them. And I know it’s a bit hypocritical, but I’ve been trying to figure out a way to change the way you see those parts of you that you don’t like, to just- to figure out what you need to feel like those parts of you are beautiful, too. But I keep coming up blank. I’m sorry.” He was rambling, talking a mile a minute. “I- I think that we all have things about ourselves that we’re always going to be touchy about. Yet another curse of being human. But I’m so grateful that I have you to tell me that those things of mine aren’t worth being touchy about. That they’re something to appreciate, instead. And I’m going to work harder to do the same for you, too.”
Lyana was quiet. For a long time. He couldn’t remember her ever being quiet for so long, not when there was more to be said.
Finally, she mumbled, “I didn’t know you could see that.”
“We spend so much time together.”
“I know, but-” She smiled ruefully, averted her gaze. “But I thought I was a lot better at hiding it.”
“What happened to not hiding things from me?”
She swallowed. “It’s- It’s not an intentional hide. It’s instinctual, y’know? I’ve never thought about it. Well, I’ve thought about my hands, but I feel like I’m in a decent space about those, right? It’s been less than two years since what happened. The fact that I’m not in gloves right now is pretty impressive.”
Spencer nodded. It was.
“And my- my stomach, I guess the couple times I caught myself, I brushed it off as a normal girl thing to be insecure about. I think I don’t like it because it feels- it feels weaker than the rest of me. Soft.” She swallowed. “I know it’s stupid, but I like thinking of myself as strong. All over.” She didn’t say it, but he knew what she meant. Strong enough so that nothing bad will ever happen to me again. Not like what happened in Wyoming.
“That’s what I like about it, though.”
“That it’s soft. That it’s not like the rest of you.” He was back to staring at his feet. “And it doesn’t mean you aren’t strong all over. And you being strong doesn’t come just from that bad thing that happened to you. I know you were strong before, and you’re strong now- in spite of it, not because of it. And you’re always going to be this way, even when you’re old. You don’t get to be the kind of strong that you are just because of a bad thing; you make that kind of strength. It flows out of you like a- like a haze. It’s so hard to feel anything but invincible around you, and it lingers even when you’re gone.”
He raised his head and felt his heart wrench. She was crying.
Lyana must’ve seen how horrified he looked, because she smiled and swiped her tears away with the inside of her elbow. “You didn’t say the wrong thing, Spence. You said the right one. Happy tears. Touched tears.” He smiled right back. Relieved. “Still think I’m strong? Even though I’m such a crybaby?”
“Fucking hell, Spencer Reid, you want me to sniffle all the way down to the donut shop? Which, by the way, are we still doing that? Or are we just going to stand here all day, crying and telling each other how beautiful we are?”
He chuckled. “No, I’m still hungry. Let’s go.”
“I bet you’re going to get a chocolate one with sprinkles.”
“And you’re sniffly, so you’re going to get one that is just coated in granulated sugar.” And a Coke. And you’re going to pay, and you’re going to grab me a 7-Up because it’s my favorite, even though I didn’t grab one myself. And you’re going to insist, because it’s a hot day, and cold fizzy drinks are manna from heaven on hot days. Manna from heaven, you’ll exclaim!
She grinned- a little sheepishly, even. “As much as it pains me to admit it, I think you’ve got me all figured out, Spence. So much for trying to be a mysterious, mysterious woman.”
He guffawed, “Are you kidding?”
“Shut up. Let me pretend.”
“Fine. But let’s get going, mysterious, mysterious woman.”
“After you, m’dear.”
At the shop, while he watched her drop granules of sugar all over the table and onto the condensation dripping down her can of Coke, he chastised himself for not saying anything when he’d had the chance. And he knew that he’d get plenty more chances, and that he’d keep on chickening out every time- unless someone held him accountable. But he didn’t want to ask Alexa, and he didn’t want to risk telling anyone else, so that just left him. So Spencer promised himself that he would try his damnedest to tell her before the summer began.
And then: an idea.
I’ll take her to prom. I’ll tell her then.
Chapter 5: May 15th, 1994
Spencer and Lyana go to prom.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Lyana hadn’t thought she would have to force Spencer to do anything in his life- because she was not in the habit of making him do things he didn’t want to do, and also because he was a whole hell of a lot braver, these days. So there wasn’t very much that he didn’t want to do.
But Spencer had been very adamant: he was not going to his school’s prom. The phrase over my dead body had been used, so it was serious.
And Lyana and her aunts and his mother had been very adamant, as well: he was never going to get another one, so he should go.
And Spencer hadn’t budged. Lyana had gotten so stressed out with the thought of her best friend missing out on his only prom, she’d ended up spending a lot more time than she was particularly proud of pestering him about it. Trying to wheedle out exactly what it was about prom that he didn’t want.
He’d finally had the Spencer Reid equivalent of an outburst after a week or so of her questions, and he’d said, “I don’t want to spend a lot of money on a goofy suit that I’ll be wearing to my high school gym, where I’ll then stand awkwardly for three hours while everyone around me is drunk and making out and five years older than me, and it’s going to be dark and the decorations are going to be tacky and the music is going to be bad and way too loud, and I’m really sorry, but no part of that spells out a very good time for me.”
So: Lyana had stopped asking questions and taken notes instead. And when the Saturday of his prom rolled around, she had Diana take Spencer out to his favorite Indian restaurant for lunch and then to a movie they’d both been dying to see (something about a tiger prince? or king?), and Diana had made sure to leave the backyard gate unlocked for Lyana before they left. She’d left a note, too; it said that Spencer had been wearing jeans and the Green Day T-shirt that Lyana had given him a few months ago.
And Lyana had gotten straight to work.
She’d just put the finishing touches on her surprise when she heard Diana’s car pull up. She took a deep breath and surveyed the backyard, really hoping that she hadn’t overstepped. And Lyana hoped, more than she’d ever hoped for anything else, that he’d like it.
She walked out of the backyard gate and met them on the driveway. Diana gave her an expectant quirk of the eyebrows, and Lyana gave her a triumphant thumbs-up in return.
Diana, grinning, exclaimed, “Alright, kids. I’m going to campus to grade papers, and I’ll be back in a few hours. You two have fun!”
Spencer looked thoroughly confused. “Why was Lyana in our backyard? And why are you rushing out of here? And why do you both look like you’ve pulled off a heist? What’s going on?”
Diana just waved and hopped back in her car. Lyana loved her so much.
After watching in disbelief as his mother sped off down the road, Spencer turned back to Lyana. “Seriously, what’s going on? Is this some kind of intervention? Am I being forced to go to prom in a sack, or something?”
“Nope, just your jeans and T-shirt. Just like me.” She gestured to her own outfit, which she’d chosen based on Diana’s note: jeans and her Mom’s Fleetwood Mac T-shirt. As matchy as she could get. She’d fussed with her hair, too, trying her darnedest to make it cooperate, and had somehow managed to get it relatively neat-looking. “If you want me to be your date, that is. Oh, fuck, sorry.” She cleared her throat and bowed, deeply. “Spencer Walter Reid, would you do me the honor of going to prom with me?”
His eyes narrowed. “I don’t think they’ll let us in in T-shirts.”
“Where we’re going, T-shirts are precisely the dress code.”
“So...you’re asking me to go to prom with you, but the prom is not at my school?”
Spencer looked like he was being pulled into a trap. But he said, “Okay. Yes. I’ll go to this weird, not-at-my-school prom with you.”
Lyana offered him her arm and he took it. Despite the warm May night, his fingers were cool against her elbow. She could feel him blushing next to her and felt her cheeks flood with color, too.
What can I do to make him stand this close to me all the time?
After a beat, she finally opened the gate and led him into the backyard, and the gasp he made when he saw what she’d done made her feel, at last, like the epic hero he was always telling her she was.
She’d hung paper lanterns in a rainbow of colors all around the yard, and in the dimming light of the setting sun, they looked absolutely magical. She’d also strung fairy lights everywhere else (on the trees, the fence, anywhere there was room), had left a blanket on the half-dead grass with a picnic basket on top (filled with his unhealthy, unhealthy favorites: cans of 7-Up, Doritos, and PB&J sandwiches), and had set up a boombox on another blanket close by (with a mixtape of all their favorite songs inside and ready to go).
He pulled her in and hugged her so tightly, her heart came up into her throat.
“This- You did all this for me?”
She nodded against his neck. “The problem wasn’t you, it was the prom. I didn’t want you to miss out just because y’all weren’t a good fit- so I figured I’d make one that was. Did I do okay?”
“It’s so beautiful.” He still hadn’t let go of her. “I can’t believe you- It must’ve taken all day.”
“It was worth it.”
“I- I wanted to take you to my prom. It was my plan. But I talked myself out of it, which was stupid, but- but I think I would’ve still been miserable, even if I’d been with you. This is- This is so perfect. Thank you.”
He finally loosened his grip and looked at her. His eyes were shining. She could see that he was trying to sort out his thoughts but there were too many, and he kept getting stuck. So she decided to distract him instead.
They ate their crappy, perfect picnic. At his behest, Lyana chugged a 7-Up- and burped with such an intense bravado that Spencer jumped and cackled. She pressed Play on their tape and jumped around with him to some fast songs, and she was so surprised (and touched) when, the moment a slower one came on, he didn’t take it as a cue to sit back down. Probably because it was their song.
He looked down at his feet, and then up at her, and he mumbled something about still wanting to dance, if it was okay.
She knew what he meant by that, that he wasn’t being all shy because he wanted them to keep dancing apart. He wanted a slow dance. And she did, too. What would a prom be without one?
Lyana made sure to be careful with it all, with stepping into him and wrapping her arms around his neck. She watched him, waiting to see if there was any sign of discomfort on his face- and there wasn’t. Just a glow.
He curled his arms around her waist and blushed. “Am I doing this right?” She nodded against his shoulder.
Could you find me?
Would you kiss-a my eyes?
To lay me down
In silence easy
To be born again
To be born again
God, she was such an idiot. None of this was subtle or friendly. And Diana had probably seen right through it and had left her perfect genius son to be aggressively romanced by his stupid crooked mess of a best friend anyway.
Lyana swallowed, feeling small. She genuinely hadn’t meant for this to be such a blatant showcase of her affection. She hadn’t meant to get so caught up in all of this, in all of...him. She’d done such a good job of convincing herself that this was an innocent, platonic thing that friends did for each other.
But as she sat there, her cheek against his collarbone, listening to his heart thud steadily (and quickly), feeling more held by him than she ever had by anyone- she couldn’t think of anything except for how much she loved him. And how that love had bled into everything she’d done that night, because how could it not? It was caught in her chest, her throat, seeping out of her every chance it got.
She hoped he was oblivious to it all. She didn’t want him to go back to being uneasy around her.
They swayed to the song until it ended. The tape’s transition back to a quick one was almost jarring, because they were still so close; neither of them had let go. And Lyana didn’t want to. But she sensed some discomfort from him, so she gingerly unwound her arms from his neck and took half a step back. He followed suit. Still blushing.
She knelt and turned the volume down a little on the boombox, bringing the music to a soft blare that they could talk over. And then they sat back down on the picnic blanket- and she discovered very quickly that he was off in his head again, sorting through his jumbled thoughts.
Lyana waited for a while before asking, “Spence, what’re you thinking about?”
“What about me?”
“I think I want to kiss you.”
“You think?” Her heart was ramming against her chest.
“I want to.”
“Are you going to?”
He turned to look at her, finally. His eyes were wide and doing that five-hundred-miles-a-minute thing, like he couldn’t believe he’d said what he had, like he was trying to figure out every possible outcome to every possible answer he could give, every possible action he could take.
Lyana was jittery and surprised, herself. That he had been so candid about wanting to kiss her in the first place. She’d always thought that it would be her move to make if they ever got to this point, and he was so goddamn hard to read, she wasn’t sure if there was even any possibility of him having feelings for her. If they’d ever get here.
But now they were.
Spencer blinked hard. He said, soft and careful, “You’re not...telling me not to. Is that because you want me to, or because you don’t want to hurt my feelings by saying no?”
“I want you to. We don’t pull punches with each other, Spence. Remember?”
“This is more complicated than normal friend stuff, though. I wasn’t sure if the rules changed.”
“I’ll never change the rules on you. I promise.”
He nodded- first to himself, and then to her. “I won’t, either.”
“Okay.” He swallowed. He didn’t look any less nervous, or any more sure of himself. “The rules aren’t changing. But this is going to change things with you and me, right?”
Lyana was trying so hard not to laugh. Leave it to the smartest person she knew to sit and strategize about a first kiss like it was a decisive military battle. And leave it to her to be so absolutely infatuated with said strategist that it didn’t make the moment any less magical.
If she didn’t know Spencer as well as she did, she’d lean forward and kiss him right then, make the jump herself. But he needed to be in control of the situation. Because it was a romantic one, and because his heart was on the line, and she knew it’d been broken before- not by Alexa, but by his mother, his father. By the people he needed leaving him when he was most vulnerable. And even without all of that, this was something new and awkward for him: expressing his affection in a physical way. Hugs were still hard for him sometimes, even with her.
She wanted him to be comfortable, and to be completely sure of everything he needed to be sure about, and she knew that meant that he needed to be the one to lean in. It was just how it had to be.
And Lyana was okay. She felt okay. She’d been thinking about kissing him for months, now; it had been terrifying at first. Silas had made it so that the act was synonymous with slick sweat and a crushing weight, with roughness, her teeth smashed against her lips.
But she had spent time watching Spencer. The way he touched her, the way he interacted with everything around him. The care he put into the way he moved through the world. He never made her feel anything less than safe. Lyana knew that, if he kissed her, she would be okay. It was Spencer. He made her feel better, never worse. She could do this and nothing bad would happen.
So Lyana said, “It’s going to change things between you and me. But things have already changed, just now, too. Because now I know that you want to kiss me, and now you know that I want you to.” She felt her heart thud a little faster. Maybe talking about it made things more magical. “We didn’t know that about each other before tonight, right? And it’s not a bad change. At least, not on my end. How do you feel about it?”
Spencer averted his gaze and fiddled with his glasses. “Happy and terrified. You always make me feel so safe; I didn’t think I could be this nervous with you. I’m scared of- of me being bad at it, of you not liking it, of you regretting it. Of you feeling like you wasted your first kiss on me, or of you not being ready. I don’t want this to be something that causes you any pain.” He dropped his hand from his face, still not looking at her. She wanted to squeeze him so tight for saying first kiss, like that milestone hadn’t been taken from her. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you how I feel about you for- for a long time. And I don’t want to pull you into something that you don’t want with me. Especially since I don’t even know where we’d go. But I can’t stop thinking about kissing you. It’s really distracting.” He tilted his head back up towards her, and she watched as his eyes dragged across her face like she was the most enchanting thing he’d ever seen. “I don’t know what any of it means, but you’re the only thing I want.”
“Spence,” she said, surprised that her voice was anywhere close to steady. But then she couldn’t force any other words out.
He leaned in. Close enough for her breath to fog up his glasses.
Close enough for their noses to touch; to brush against each other; to settle into the crests of each other’s cheeks.
Lyana almost forgot to close her eyes. Everything she’d read, every movie she’d seen- people closed their eyes when they kissed. She suddenly felt woefully unprepared; how the hell could she have almost forgotten that very important and obvious detail when the only person in the world she wanted to kiss was preparing to do just that? She almost backed away. She almost told him that she wasn’t ready after all. The sour smell of Silas’s angry sweat filled her nose-
But then Spencer brought his hand to her face, pulling her just a little bit closer, and his icy fingers jolted her out of her memory and made her smile in spite of herself. Spencer and his arctic hands, not even warm when his face was burning little sparks against hers.
His eyes were still open, too. He saw her smiling. She watched as one flickered its way across his mouth- and got distracted thinking about how she hadn’t ever seen him look so sure of himself.
He kissed her and her eyes slid shut.
She wasn’t ready, but it didn’t matter. She just hadn’t expected it to be so gentle. To feel so soft. And she hadn’t realized that it wasn’t only about the contact but the closeness- that the fact she could feel his breath coming out of his nose and onto her face was just as intimate and thrilling as the fact that their lips were touching. And still smiling. Warmth unfurled in her stomach and wound its way to her toes and her fluttering heart.
She wondered if it was corny to think that this was better than any song she’d ever heard.
And God, she’d always thought it was so silly when people described kisses as perfect- particularly since the only kiss she’d ever had before this one had been anything but. But...but sitting there, on that picnic blanket in the glow of all those paper lanterns, the air outside (for once) dry and cool, feeling his fingers tremble against the skin behind her ear- this was perfect.
He smelled so good, like soap and old books. And boy. He smelled like boy. No sour sweat.
When he finally pulled away, he stayed close. She could still feel the heat radiating off his cheeks.
“Did I- Was that-”
“Yeah.” She bumped his forehead with hers.
He inhaled suddenly, with a bit of a shudder. “You love me.”
“I love you. It sounds like you didn’t know that before.”
“I didn’t. But you bumped me with your forehead. Now I know.”
Lyana couldn’t help it; she giggled. All that time around her and her aunts, being fussed over, and it was the coveted forehead bump that told him he was loved. God, what a dork. She loved him with her whole heart.
“That’s my tell, huh?” He nodded. “Well, I’m sorry for not bumping you sooner. And I’m sorry for not knowing what your tell is, if you have one.”
“Touching, I think.” He chewed on his lip. “I’ve never been okay with it, really. Not before you. Just with my mom. I’ve- so many times I’ve been touched by other people and it’s been awful. Soft touch, especially. Sometimes those hurt. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but that’s what it feels like. So then I met you and your aunts, and you guys are- you guys touch so much.” Lyana chuckled. “And for a while I was- I was so scared about not if, but when you were going to touch me. I was on edge for weeks after we met. I had this nightmare of you putting your hand on my arm or trying to hug me, and me going berserk, and you running off and never wanting to talk to me again. But then...none of that ever came. So then I was on edge because I thought you didn’t want to touch me.” He smiled nervously. “And then that day I came over to your house when you didn’t come pick me up, I saw you start to reach for me and pull back. And I realized that you not touching me was something you were doing because you cared about me, because you thought I didn’t want you to. Which was- which was right. Until I understood.”
“You hugged me that day.” Her chest felt tight.
Spencer nodded and looked at her, straight-on. Like it was easy. “I never thought I’d be able to- to be with another person, like this. To be happy when you touch my face, or feel relieved and at home whenever you hug me. It’s magic. It’s better than magic.” He paused. “I love you.” All matter of fact, like he’d say Herodotus wrote about the Greco-Persian Wars or Creamed spinach is bad.
Knowing that he did- it felt as triumphant and loud as Alexa’s shout that night all those months ago. She wanted to shout herself. Spencer loves me! But she held it in. Bumped his forehead instead.
“Can I kiss you, Spence?”
He smiled again. “I told you, I love you. You don’t have to wait for me to say it’s okay.”
“I’m always gonna wait. But mostly I just wanted to hear you say you loved me again.”
His smile was so big and so...goofy. The biggest, goofiest smile she had ever seen on his mystery of a face. She couldn’t help but take his head in her hands (she hated her hands every other moment of her life, but right then, holding him in between them, they were the best parts of her) and kiss him- with a big, goofy smile to match on her mouth, too.
Lyana kept coming back to him, like a magnet. It wasn’t entirely her fault. Every time she’d start to pull away, he’d say I love you again. Who the hell was this and what had they done with the boy who had barely been able to look her in the eye for weeks after they'd met?
She finally had the wherewithal to resist.
“I love you,” he whispered, again, his eyes still half-shut. Still smiling.
“And I love you,” she whispered back. “But I don’t want you to go and get sick of kissing me after five minutes.”
He chuckled and opened his eyes fully, slowly. The way he was studying her felt so different from that first day, where she’d felt like a specimen; right then, she felt like a piece of art. Appreciated. Beloved.
Lyana blushed and fixed her gaze on the grass in front of them. God, he was making her shy. She brought her fingers to her lips, just for a moment, before letting her hand fall back to her side.
She was so grateful, right then, for Spencer. For making her feel safe enough to express this kind of love with someone. She hadn’t thought about Silas for even a moment, aside from that smell; she was always worried that he would pop into her head whenever she thought about anything even remotely physical. That she wouldn’t ever be able to be that kind of close with anyone because of what he’d done to her. That she wouldn’t ever be able to be a sexual person.
It had happened once, already. Some of her friends from school had stolen a porn tape and put it on at a sleepover, and the second the actor had started to unzip his pants, she had had to run out of the room. They all thought she was a prude, now. But the way the camera had framed it- it was just like her memory, the spotty parts that had come right before she’d blacked out.
Sometimes she wished that the doctors hadn’t told her she’d been raped. It was one thing to be terrorized by the memories of everything else that had happened when she’d been awake. And those were plenty of bad images on their own. But to know that he had violated her even further, that he had done so when she wasn’t even conscious...it was so much worse. Without a memory to haunt her, she had only her imagination, and it fucking ran wild. Thinking about the look on his face, or the sounds he’d made-
“Is it okay if I hold your hands? They’re shaking.”
Lyana swallowed, blinking hard. So much for not letting Silas ruin this otherwise perfect moment. She looked down at her (ugly, ugly) hands and then up at Spencer. His brow was furrowed with concern; it didn’t match his cheeks, which were still pink and flushed.
She exhaled slowly. “You don’t have to hold them, Spence. I know they’re not- They’re-”
“They’re your hands. I want to hold them. But only if it’s okay.”
“It’s okay, I just-” She bit down, hard, on the inside of her cheek. “You deserve prettier hands to hold.”
He cocked his head to one side. “That’s a really weird metric to get stuck on, huh?” Lyana looked at him, confused. “I love my best friend, who I was fated to meet- that’s what she told me. I think she’s beautiful, which is an adjective that’s impossible for me to quantify outside of the Golden Ratio, which she also doesn’t even have, but still: beautiful. Romantic words like that, like beautiful and love, those never made any sense to me until I met her. And I mean, they still don’t make sense, but being with her makes me want to think and say them all the time. I feel them all the time. She’s turned me into such a sap. I tell her I hate Keats, but really I just want to hear her recite those poems of his with that huge triumphant smirk on her face, because I really love to hear them and pretend that she’s saying all those things to me. She is formidable and funny and absolutely smarter than me. Her heart is the size of a solar system, maybe two. Definitely two. She cares about me and pays attention to the things that make me happy. And she disrupts every single thing that I had already told myself my life was going to be before I met her--alone, untouched, and misunderstood by everyone that isn’t my mother--and she makes me feel like I’m capable of all these things that I hadn’t even dared to dream were within reach. But, darn, she’s missing a couple fingers, so that’s it! It’s all cancelled.”
Before Lyana could say anything (or at least try to- she was overwhelmed with love and this intense urge to cry), he reached over and folded her hands up between his. They were, still, impossibly cold.
“Death hands,” she mumbled, making him smile.
“This living hand, now warm and capable of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold and in the icy silence of the tomb, so haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights. That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood so in my veins red life might stream again, and thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is– I hold it towards you,” Spencer murmured, then squeezed her hands.
“God. God. Asshole.” Lyana turned and shoved her cheek into her shoulder to dry the tear that had sped down her face. Laughing in spite of herself. “I can’t believe you lied to me about Keats all this time. And then you have the gall to go and use one of his poems against me when I am already very vulnerable from your previous stupid-romantic speeches and from kissing you a whole bunch. Jesus. Don’t you ever pull that shit with me again.” Spencer was grinning so wide. She couldn’t remember ever seeing him look so smug, or so happy. So she just couldn’t help it; she was compelled. She kissed him, then growled, “I mean it. Never again.”
Spencer quirked his eyebrows at her. “No promises.”
Lyana huffed and bumped her shoulder against his- unable to wipe the grin off her face, and happy to let it be.
They sat there for a while, just like that: knees touching, their hands in a weird little sandwich on top of their legs. Neither of them saying a word, but both of them leaning in infinitesimally closer as the minutes passed by. Little ghosts of smiles still playing upon their faces.
She let her head fall onto his shoulder. Mumbled, “What’s going to happen now, Spence?”
“What do you mean?”
“I know you’ve been trying to avoid talking about it ever since you committed to CalTech a couple months back, but- but after this summer, you’re going to be hundreds of miles away from here.”
He stiffened. “Two hundred and seventy-seven miles.”
“And I can’t go with you. And that was going to be hard enough, losing my best friend. But now...there’s also this.”
“You’re not losing me.” Spencer wanted to fidget and mess with his hands, she could tell. He was starting to restlessly tap the pads of his fingertips against her knuckles. “And I- I haven’t decided for sure, if I’m going. I can still defer, if I let them know soon. I’m too young to go to college. Especially so far away. If I go, I could go to a different school, around here. If a teenager has a Bachelor’s degree, who cares where it’s from?”
Lyana kissed his shoulder. “Spence, you’re going to CalTech. No other school would be able to keep up with you. And you’re ready, you’ve always been ready. You being young was never an issue before, and I’m not going to let you use me as an excuse to stay here. I know it’ll be good for you, to go to a school where you don’t have to be on edge all the goddamn time. Where you can just learn and be yourself. You deserve nothing less.”
“Please stop telling me what I do and don’t deserve.” His voice was thin, and his tapping was getting faster, scattered and shaky. “I- I don’t want to leave. I thought I did, before, but I can’t- I don’t-”
“I don’t want to be somewhere you aren’t.” He was trembling. “If I don’t leave, I can still be here for you when you need me. And I need you, always. I'm not going to make it without you. And if I go away, I won’t have anything to look forward to, ever, except for coming back here. But what if I come back, and you’ve found someone else, someone better, to be your- What if you forget about me? What if I leave and then we never get to- we never get to be with each other, like this, again? I don’t want to risk it.”
Lyana sighed softly. All of this hurt so much. Of course she wanted him to stay, especially after everything that had happened that night. But there was no way in hell that she was going to keep him from CalTech.
“It’s your destiny. Just like how you and me meeting was. You’ve gotta go.” She lifted her head up to look at him straight, but he was still staring off into space. “You’re going to have so much stuff to look forward to. You’ll make friends, there, you’ll have all these people around you who like the same things you do. You’ll have classes to look forward to, and all those incredible teachers. And Spencer Walter Reid, you are not going to come back and see that I’ve found someone else. And I am never, ever, ever going to forget you. I swear that on everything and everyone I love. You especially, sweetheart.” He finally turned to look at her. “I know it’s not going to be easy. But we can still call each other every day. And I’m already planning visits out there. You’re going to have a hard time getting rid of me.”
Spencer pulled her forward, gently, with their tangled knot of hands. And he bumped her forehead.
“You called me sweetheart.”
“Do you hate it?”
“No. I really don’t.”
He mumbled, “You promise it’s going to be okay?”
“Like I said, it won’t be easy. But we’ll be okay. We’re both going to make sure that we’re okay. I promise.”
Spencer kissed her. And Lyana hoped with all her heart that she was right.
Chapter 6: September 10th, 1994
Spencer finds a letter.
Spencer had never been so happy to admit he was wrong.
Being too scared to follow through and take Lyana to his prom, justifying it with his own doubts and fears- all of that had been wrong. And she hadn’t let him, in the end. She’d gone and swept him off his feet anyway.
Since their prom, they’d talked at length about everything they hadn’t told each other. About how Lyana had started wrestling with her feelings for him after that Harper-fiasco basketball game in January, and how Spencer had been doing the same since the panic attack day. Both very unromantic memories, otherwise.
They’d laughed about how they’d both told Alexa how they felt, and how she had gone and outright bared those very secrets to the two of them, and they still hadn’t believed it.
Mostly, they spent every single second that they had together. And God, he could feel that they were in a very sappy honeymoon phase. A nauseating one. That the nonstop kissing and I love you's would eventually have to stop, lest they made one of Lyana’s aunts actually vomit- instead of fake-vomiting, with very realistic retching sounds. Which was the current state of affairs.
But Spencer didn’t want it to stop. Not just yet. He had to leave in exactly ten days (stupid, stupid undergraduate registration, making him get there nearly a week early) and then there would be, very starkly, none of this, none of his mouth tingling, sparking, from kissing her. Or his head spinning from being drunk on the smell of her shampoo. Of roses.
And he kept catching himself smiling in the mirror. Like an idiot. He was starting to think that it looked good on him. Being happy.
Spencer was still in denial about moving, of that he was pretty confident. He was worried that he wouldn’t come to terms with it before it was too late. That he wouldn’t accept any of it until he was standing in his dorm room hugging her and her aunts and his mother goodbye-
Just until my birthday. One month. Then she’ll come visit. And then I’ll be home the next month for Thanksgiving, and the next for winter break, for nearly a month, ‘till the middle of January. Then she’ll come up for Valentine’s Day. And I’ll be home in March for spring break. And she’ll come up in May for no other reason than to see me. And I’ll be back home in June for a whole summer.
And repeat, for three more years.
They’d sat down with her aunts and Diana and planned it all out. Spencer had been worried that there would be some anxiety from the adults- regarding two teenagers (well, he was almost one) sharing a bed, away from their supervision and at a college campus to boot. But they hadn’t even batted an eye.
Lyana had expressed--sheepishly--that she was pretty sure she knew why her aunts had said okay, and Diana, too.
They probably told your mom what happened to me, and how the doctors don’t think- don’t think that I’ll ever- They don’t see any threat.
But that didn’t matter to him; the only thing that mattered was that she felt safe, and for some reason she felt safe with him, and that made him the luckiest bastard on the face of the earth. Spencer was still trying to wrap his head around the whole kissing thing, anyway. Thinking about doing more, thinking about clothes being off- it made him feel so nervous, his stomach churned.
He knew he was changing. Things that had been so easy to dismiss as gross before were now sticking in his head and making him dizzy, and it was much more confusing than trying to figure out how he’d felt about Lyana. Other girls were easy to ignore these days, but boys were so much harder to. He found himself staring. And as hard as he tried to puzzle all of it out, he just ended up getting stressed and distracting himself with other things.
Like Lyana. The way it felt to sink his hands into her waist or to brush his fingers against her collarbone when his arm was around her shoulders.
And then he’d get stuck there, and then he’d think about that boy from the highschool he’d seen jogging through the neighborhood, and then he’d get stuck again. A nauseous, fitful little cycle.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
As a result, this summer had contained yet another first for him: the first time he’d ever masturbated. There hadn't even been any real intention to it. One minute he was laying back on his bed, thinking about Lyana- and the next, his hand was in his pants. And the next, it was over. And it was the most incredible thing he had ever felt.
But once his head had cleared, he’d fallen headfirst into a deep shame spiral. So he’d called Lyana and told her what had happened.
“You what?” Was she giggling?
“I’m really sorry, I know it’s awful. I don’t know if it’s better or worse to say I was thinking about you. I won’t ever do it again, I promise-”
“Holy shit, Spence, don’t make a promise like that.” She was giggling. “You’re human. And more than that, you’re practically a teenager. I guess I’d admire your- your wherewithal if you somehow managed to go through your whole life without masturbating, but mostly I’d just be concerned for you, dude.”
He was pacing around his room, holding the phone tightly to his ear. Why the hell hadn’t he changed his pants before he called her? Had he ever felt such discomfort in his whole life? “But I- It was objectifying-”
“A teenage boy? Objectifying a girl while he masturbates? Call the Vatican!”
“Ly, I’m serious.”
His heart fluttered. For a moment, he forgot to feel ashamed. “Sorry, I call you that in my head sometimes.”
“I’ve never had a nickname before.”
“I think of it more like an affectionate shortening.”
“You’re such a dork. I love you. Please call me that in real life all the time.”
“Okay.” He smiled.
He heard her shifting in bed, the covers rustling. “Listen, sweetheart, I- I don’t have any illusions about any of this, I don’t sit here thinking about how you’re an exception to fuckin’ puberty just because you’re dating me. I’m traumatized, not a saint.” She exhaled, quietly. “I’m working on it, I promise. I’m going to do more research, and my aunts are getting me set up with a therapist. And they told me to thank you for that, by the way, since they’ve been trying to get me in with a shrink ever since I moved here and I was a shithead every time they brought it up.” Lyana paused. “Anyways, even with all that, I can’t make any promises about anything working, for me. And that makes me really- it makes me feel like shit, honestly. Having to face the fact that I might never be able to do things with you. But until I have an answer, I don’t want you to sit and suffer because you feel like you can’t jack off.”
“Are you making some in-pain face because I said jack off?”
“It doesn’t get better, hearing it the second time.”
She was back to giggling. “How about I promise to never use that phrase ever again, so long as you promise me that you will 1) not feel the need to keep me updated on any future masturbations and 2) that you will never feel like you’ve gotta hold back on that front for my sake? And like, you can tell me, if you want. But you sound pretty frazzled, and I don’t want you to associate something that should be fun with a real stressful aftermath.”
Spencer leaned up against the wall. Thunked the back of his head against it. “This conversation really didn’t go the way I thought it would.”
“You called me hoping to get yelled at?”
She sighed. “I am always gonna be the biggest cheerleader for whatever the hell makes you happy and feel good. And the fact that you’re giving me a chance knowing all of this crap about me, the fact that you aren’t trying to find somebody functional to-”
“Spence, you say that now-”
Lyana sighed again. He started wondering if he could get away with sneaking out and running over to her house. If he ran, he could be there in a few minutes. It sounded like she needed to be held. Whenever she didn’t call him an asshole, especially after he’d said something sappy- something was wrong.
Finally, she said, “Can you promise you’ll tell me if all my stuff is too much?”
“I promise.” He swallowed. He wished he could find the right way to reassure her- to tell her that even with his hormones rearing to be the death of him, he’d be happy to go the rest of his life without ever doing anything more than kiss her. And that none of her ‘stuff’ would ever be too much for him. Because the only thing that mattered was that they were together.
But Spencer had a feeling that it didn’t matter what he said. That this was another indelible insecurity, just like her stomach, and that he could say the nice things all he wanted but that the words wouldn’t help the way he wanted them to. That he would just have to prove it to her through his actions.
“I’m sorry. I know it’s annoying, that I keep asking for you to prove to me that all this isn’t a burden. I just- I wish I could turn it all off.”
“Don’t be sorry. It’s not annoying.” Spencer paused, smiling. “And I’ll promise about the other stuff, too. You can still say- say the thing, though. I love the way you talk and don’t want to be responsible for censoring any part of it.”
He slid down the wall and took a seat on the floor. Comfortable in their silence. He realized, then, that this was the first time they’d called each other all summer; they’d spent so much time together, there really hadn’t been a need to.
And he realized that this would be the only way they’d get to communicate while he was away at school.
Lyana murmured, “You thinking what I’m thinking?”
“That this’ll be the only way I’ll get to hear your voice while you’re away.”
He gripped the phone a little tighter. “Yeah.”
“I’m going to miss you so much. I- I keep trying to prepare myself for it, in my head- for going back to biking to and from school by myself, for not having anyone to spend time with after school or on weekends. I mean, Alexa will be at UNLV, but she’ll be busy with college, too. I guess I’m going to have to make more of an effort with my school friends?” She made a retching sound. “Gross.”
“I haven’t been preparing for it. Which I know isn’t a very good idea at all. But every time I start thinking about coming home at the end of the day and you not being there…” Spencer trailed off.
The covers rustled again. “I know.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
That phone call had been just over a month ago, and things between them were as lovely as ever. Just tinged with the slightest bit of melancholy- especially since Lyana had gone back to school just over a week ago. The start of her semester had felt like the beginning of the walls closing in; their dwindling time together was even more precious.
Now, it was Saturday morning: their penultimate Saturday together before everything changed. Spencer had made plans with Lyana to see The Mask that afternoon. (He’d been wary of it from the posters; Jim Carrey’s face was way too green for comfort. But Lyana loved Jim Carrey, and Spencer loved how hard Jim Carrey made her laugh.) Kate was going to pick him up in an hour and drive them to the theater.
He was standing in his bedroom, freshly-showered and trying to decide between T-shirts, when he heard his mother scream from down the hall.
“Mom?!” Spencer sprinted towards her room, awkwardly shoving a shirt over his head on the way. “Mom, what’s going on?”
Diana was pacing up and down the stretch of carpet between the door and her bed. Her short crop of hair was in an impossible amount of disarray, and the bags under her eyes were immensely pronounced. Had she slept? Spencer cursed himself. He hadn’t gone to check on her the night before; he’d been so tired from staying up late with Lyana, he’d gone straight to bed.
She was muttering to herself. Clutching a piece of paper to her chest. He couldn’t understand what she was saying, but he had a feeling that he wouldn’t be able to understand it even if he could hear it properly. She probably hadn’t even noticed that she’d screamed.
Her episodes used to be scattered. She’d take her medication for months at a time, and then she’d go off it, and then she’d have an episode, and then she’d go back on it. The off-times were horrible, but at least Spencer had always been able to reassure himself (and his father, when his father was still there) that it was all temporary. That Diana was on her way back.
But this summer, Diana had been getting worse and worse about taking her medication. Spencer was pretty confident that it’d been nearly a month since she’d taken her prescribed dose. And Diana didn’t want any of his help in the matter; whenever he tried to gently remind her to take her pills, she would react with a fury that he’d never seen in her before.
She was starting to frighten him.
Spencer had begun to wonder if it was the prospect of him moving away that had caused such a shift in her, in their relationship. She’d been very sporadic with her medication right after his father had left- which, until this recent stretch of chaos, had been the worst time in Spencer’s life. Coming home to see that his mother had forgotten to go to work, or learning that she had forgotten to pay their bills, or buy groceries. That she’d forgotten about him.
He’d never felt more alone in his life.
Was that how she was feeling? Having to grapple with the fact that her son was moving away, leaving her alone?
Diana finally turned to look at him. Her eyes were wild. “It’s a conspiracy against me, Spencer.”
“What is, Mom?” A conspiracy against me was her favorite phrase when she was having an episode. Sometimes the so-named conspirators were as high up as the FBI. More often than not, though, they were much closer to home. The neighbors, the grocer. Her coworkers. And there was never any conspiracy, of course. Just people going about their daily business.
She shoved the paper she was holding in front of his nose. It was worn, and crumpled, and had been stained with what looked like coffee in several places. And it was on her university’s letterhead.
Spencer was surprised when she allowed him to take it from her. It read:
August 18th, 1994
Mrs. Diana Reid,
We regret to inform you that, upon meeting with your department and all relevant administrators over these past months, we have decided to request that you resign from your position as tenured professor.
If you do not elect to resign, we will be forced to terminate your employment. Your tenure does not preclude you from termination in this instance; we have received a large sum of evidence from your former students and fellow professors that summarily deems you unfit to teach in your current mental state.
Please collect your belongings from your office by 8 PM on September 10th; any possessions left behind after that time will be considered forfeited. Your colleague, Professor Rothfuss, will be taking over your classes for the upcoming fall semester. Your assistant, Miss Lancaster, will be continuing your research and managing your team of students.
We want to extend our sincerest thanks for your nineteen years of service with our institution. Your career as a professor is one of the most impressive in our school’s history, and you leave behind a legacy of adoring students and groundbreaking research in your field.
We wish you all the best, and hope that you find the help and support that you need during this time. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us should your mental state improve; we would be honored to have you return to the institution, should you be deemed fit.
Elizabeth Arroyo, Provost
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Spencer’s hands were shaking. This letter had been sent weeks ago. His mother had been fired weeks ago. For having episodes at school, before the spring semester had ended. She hadn’t told him about any of it. He’d thought she’d been okay, then, that this new stretch of madness had started recently.
How the hell were they going to survive, financially? If she couldn’t hold a job? He was beyond fortunate that CalTech was giving him a full ride, and that their house had been paid off years ago. But what about power, and water, and food? Would he be able to afford her medication if she didn’t have insurance anymore? And what could he do to help? He wasn’t even thirteen. Who the hell would hire someone so young? Would he have to write term papers for money? How many would he need to do to take care of her?
And to top it all off, today was September 10th. She had to have her office cleared out by the end of the day.
Diana gripped him by the shoulders. Firmly. “You can see it. You can see what they’re doing. I stopped taking the pills they make me take so that I could see the truth, and I’ve seen it. And they know I’m onto them, so they’re pushing me out. Cowards. But we’re going to fix this, Spencer.”
“Okay.” He wanted to scream, too. He wanted to grab her by the shoulders and scream in her face. Fuck, he was so frustrated. He knew it wasn’t her fault, that it was her illness, but fuck, every single millimeter of his body was vibrating with stress and worry and rage, and it was all her fault. Her illness’s fault. “I’m going to go talk to them today, and I’ll see if we can sort this out.”
She nodded sharply and then went back to her pacing.
Spencer hurried back to his room, finished getting dressed, and called Lyana.
“Hello, my love! Couldn’t wait the extra fifteen minutes to see me, huh?”
He could hear quick footsteps; she was rushing into a different room. And shutting the door. “Sweetheart, what’s wrong?”
“I can’t-” He breathed in, breathed out. “Can Kate drive us to UNLV today instead? Something’s- something’s happened, and I need to be there. As soon as we can.”
“I’ll ask her, and if she says no, then we’ll take the bus. Is your mom okay?” He couldn’t force any words out, so she kept going. He loved how quickly she could read a situation, especially a bad one. And how good she was at keeping her emotions out of it. At asking all the right questions and formulating plans like she was a goddamn military strategist. “Okay. I’m going to put the phone down and go talk to Kate, and I’ll be right back, alright?”
Spencer heard her put the phone down, probably on her desk. A light tap. And then he heard her muffled voice talking to Kate. And then the phone was being picked up again.
“She can take us. We’ll be there in three minutes; she’s putting her shoes on right now. Can we bring anything?”
“Okay. Edit: Five minutes, with boxes. I love you. I’ll see you soon.”
“I love you.”
He finished getting dressed and made sure to shove his wallet into his pants pocket. They’ll probably need ID. He folded up the letter from the Provost and put that in his pocket, too.
Spencer thought about saying goodbye to his mother but decided against it; he didn’t want to risk agitating her even further. And he didn’t want to think about the needling worry at the back of his head that she would cause even more trouble on her own, once he left.
Kate’s car swept into the driveway after exactly five minutes had passed, and Spencer wordlessly climbed into the back seat with Lyana. No one spoke during the drive to UNLV; it seemed like they all knew not to. Lyana just reached over and took Spencer’s hand. He squeezed, just once. He had never been more grateful for another person’s touch.
When they got to campus, Kate parked the car and turned around to look at him. Gentle and questioning, no demand at all in her expression.
Spencer swallowed. “My mom got fired nearly a month ago, and I just found out about it today. She finally showed me the letter today. It- It says she has to have her office cleared out by 8 PM, otherwise whatever’s left in there is going to be forfeited. And I know she’s got some stuff in there that’s really important to her. Even if she isn’t- isn’t coherent enough to realize it right now.”
“Okay, cariño.” Kate nodded. Even though she and Lyana weren’t related by blood, the two of them both got the same little crinkle between their eyebrows when they were trying not to show how concerned they were. “We’d better get moving, then. Lyana and I will take the boxes from the trunk, and you can lead the way to your mom’s office.”
Kate hopped out of the car, but before Spencer could follow suit, he felt Lyana tug gently on his hand.
“What can I do?”
Spencer’s chest felt so tight. “I- I don’t have an answer right now. But you being here is- it’s helping so much. I don’t know what I would’ve done if you and Kate weren’t here.” He exhaled sharply. “Thank you for coming to my rescue again.”
“Always.” She picked up his hand and kissed his knuckles. “Okay. Kate’s right; we better get moving.”
Spencer tried to take some of the boxes from them but was given a loud, chorused pffft. Lyana had adopted that from Kate, too, it seemed. So many of her edges. He found himself smiling as he led the two of them through the campus towards the English building.
Because the fall semester wasn't set to start for another couple of weeks, a lot of the buildings had security that they wouldn’t normally have during the year. A guard greeted them at the door of the English building. Spencer imagined that they looked like quite a sight: two kids and a grown woman carting a worrisome stack of boxes into a hall that was supposed to be empty.
Spencer pulled the letter from his pocket and produced his ID, showing the guard that he was related to the Diana Reid in the letter and that he was just coming to pick up her things. The guard--his name badge read “Q. CLIFFORD”--was unimpressed. Said that he wasn’t letting anyone in the building without a faculty ID.
“As you can see in the letter, Diana isn’t well enough to come in and claim her items herself. She didn’t even share the letter with us until this afternoon, otherwise we wouldn’t have waited ‘till the last minute to come here,” Kate explained, bristling, shifting the stack of boxes in her arms. “And what I don’t get is why the university didn’t bother to notify her next of kin, or to make any other attempts to contact her outside of a letter. They seem to know about her condition, but didn’t think to take that into consideration with any of this?”
The guard just crossed his arms. Said, Sorry, señorita. And when Kate gave him the opportunity to explain himself for that particular choice of words, he said something to the effect of, I just call it like I see it. Not my problem if you get offended. Lyana and Spencer looked at each other, half-nervous and half-thrilled.
Spencer had only ever heard the Jacobs women recount the tragic tales of those who had dared to cross Kate. He’d never had the privilege of seeing anyone make that fatal mistake right before his very eyes.
Kate put the boxes down and crossed her arms right back at the guard. She stepped towards him and squared her shoulders, and even though he towered over her by a good half-a-foot, it was impossible to believe, looking at the two of them right then. Her fury made her larger than life.
She growled, “I think I’m going to be paying the Board of Trustees a visit to talk about the actions of the Provost, and I’ll definitely take my time peppering in some fun commentary about your actions, Mr. Clifford, preventing a twelve-year-old boy from going in to pick up his mentally ill mother’s belongings and dropping that smug sorry señorita bullshit and not even trying to pretend it’s not racist or rude. And don’t roll your eyes at me like I’m all empty threats, sir, I’m this university’s favorite fucking alumna. Dr. Katarina Zayas, ever heard of me?”
Spencer watched the guard’s eyes widen. You’d have to be the biggest, most oblivious idiot on the face of the planet to be at UNLV for longer than a minute and not know that name.
“Oh, good, you have! Have you visited Zayas Hall, across campus? That wasn’t from some big money donation, by the way, this school just- it worships me, y’know? Rightfully so, because I’m pretty fucking phenomenal. But they really go the extra mile to advertise their lady Cuban doctor, especially since their lady Cuban doctor keeps winning awards, bringing all kinds of good publicity, and donating her incredibly precious time and resources to this godforsaken place. And I’m not sure if you’ve heard, since you don’t strike me as the read-the-news, expand-your-horizons type, but I’m going to be stepping into my new position as Chief Medical Officer at Sunrise Hospital in a few weeks, making me the youngest CMO in this country’s history. How long d’you think you’ll get to keep your job after I name-drop you as the reason for why I don’t thank UNLV in my speech at my promotion party or at any of the press conferences, or why I don’t show up to teach special seminars anymore, and why I demand to have my picture taken down from the brochures, the website, and the big fucking poster in the bio lab? Wanna take a bet, Mr. Clifford? I’m going to say ten miserable seconds. What about you, kids?”
“I’ll give him five. He seems like the kinda guy who’s already on thin ice,” Lyana piped up, smirking at the guard’s flabbergasted expression.
Spencer couldn’t help it; he chimed in, too. “I’ll back Kate up on ten, but only because the Board is going to be laughing so hard once they hear the story of the security guard who was stupid enough to try and go toe-to-toe with Dr. Zayas. Like a toddler trying to fistfight God.”
Kate wordlessly held up her hand and Spencer obliged her with a hearty smack of a high-five.
“I’m so, so sorry, ma’am, but could we please try to remain calm-”
“This is calm, and it’s Doctor.”
Without saying another word, the guard opened the door to the English building and let them all inside. And in spite of everything awful that had happened that day, Spencer found himself smiling again. It felt good to watch someone win. Especially when that someone was Kate. She just knew how to do it so well.
It didn’t take long for them to find Diana’s office; because she had the highest seniority amongst the English professors, she’d gotten first pick. It was in the perfect spot: on the second floor, looking out on the lawn. Far enough away from the classrooms to not be bothered.
The office was in a state of disarray, but compared to Diana’s bedroom, it was pretty pristine. Looking around, it didn’t look like the room was used by someone with a mental illness- just someone messy.
They worked in silence. Spencer wasn’t sure if the furniture had been his mother’s or if the school had provided it, but either way, there wasn’t any room for it in their house. Leaving that, her books, papers, and knick-knacks fell into the boxes with a relieving amount of ease. And as much as he wanted to, Spencer kept himself from examining the more personal effects. Especially the ones that had William signed at the bottom.
When the room was cleared of everything important, Kate looked at Spencer again. She was still flushed from her angry monologue. Sunburnt with righteousness.
“I think I’m going to make that Clifford asshole carry these boxes to the car. You two wanna wait up here while I go scare him again?”
They nodded, and she vanished down the stairs.
Lyana stepped into him and he finally let himself collapse, let his forehead fall onto her shoulder, let a pitiful little sob escape his throat. But no tears. At least there was that.
She held him tightly while he trembled. Pressed kisses to the side of his head. Whispered that everything was going to be okay.
Spencer forced his breath back when he heard footsteps clomping up the stairs. He put some distance between him and Lyana and watched as Mr. Clifford entered the room and surveyed the half-dozen boxes on the floor. His shoulders slumped; then, he grunted and hefted the first one into his grasp before turning and walking back down the stairs.
Spencer grabbed Lyana’s hand the moment they were alone again and said what he had been thinking about since the car ride over: “I’m going to call my dad. Tell him that we’re going to need his help.”
“Are you sure?”
“I don’t think I have much of a choice, Ly.”
She looked down at her feet, then back up at him. “My aunts are in really, really good shape, financially. Especially with Kate’s new job. The only reason they don’t move into some McMansion is that they like their commute times. And, I guess, they’re just not really McMansion people. They’ve got- They’ve got a big ole college fund set up for me already, and a- they’re calling it a life fund. Just a huge savings account I’ll have access to after I graduate, or earlier if I need it. It’s a headachey amount of money.”
“I’m not following you.”
“If you don’t want to bring your dad back into your life, I don’t want you to feel like you don’t have any other options. You do: my life fund.”
Spencer’s heart wrenched. “Lyana, I’m not going to- I can’t- That’s way too much-”
“I know how much you hate making decisions, and I’m sorry for adding another difficult thing to all of this. But I mean it. I want to do whatever I can to help you, and giving you that stupid savings account is easy. So much easier than bringing your Dad back into your life, especially if you don’t want him there. But whatever you choose, I’m here.”
“I love you.” He didn’t know what else to say.
“I love you.”
He swallowed. Fiddled with his glasses. “I’m going to talk to him. I’m so- I’m so floored by what you just offered to do, and it’s not even your responsibility. But me and my mom, we’re his responsibility. He and my mom aren’t divorced, not even separated. Not legally, anyway. We’re what he signed up for, and he went and left us when we got too hard. I’ve been following up on him, and I know he’s making a lot of money at his new job. And he hasn’t been paying any child support or anything like that. So the least he can do is help us out with this.”
“Do you have a way to get in touch with him?”
“He wrote me a letter on my birthday last year. It had a phone number and a new address at the bottom.”
Lyana nodded. “Do you want me to be there with you when you call him?”
“More than anything.”
“You got me, babe.”
And even though it really felt like things were the other way around, Spencer just nodded and took her hand again.
Chapter 7: December 24th, 1994
Lyana and Spencer have a difficult Christmas Eve.
Lyana hated Christmas. She’d hated it for as long as she could remember.
On the surface, it contained a lot of things she loved: giving gifts, being with her loved ones, glugging mug after mug of peppermint hot chocolate. And best of all, an excuse to lounge around in her pajamas all day.
But the very first Christmas she could recall with any sort of clarity was the one right after her father had died. She’d spent the day curled up in her mother’s bed, holding her while she cried. While they both cried.
Hospital bills had meant no presents that year. And no heat. And Lyana wouldn’t have minded either of those absences if her father had just been there to wrap her and her mother in his arms- cracking stupid jokes and blowing raspberries on their cheeks to make them stop crying.
Financially, over the years, things had gotten better. The presents were never extravagant, but they were there. The heat never got shut off again. Lyana and her mother didn’t have to hold each other to get through the day, and neither of them shed any tears- not in view of one another, anyway.
But every year after that first, worst one, that glaring gaping hole her father had left in their life had remained. All cold and trembling and sore. And no amount of tinsel or wrapping paper could cover any of it up.
Her aunts had tried--valiantly--to make the first Christmas after her mother had been killed into something warm and good. Lyana had been roused from her bed by Kate and Evie, both clad in Santa hats, and led to the living room to find it was filled with presents and the aromatic smell of cinnamon rolls.
She had barely made it five minutes before she’d snapped. Swore, kicked a hole in one of the gift boxes, and sprinted back to her bedroom. To her aunts’ credit, they’d taken everything in stride; to this day, it really seemed like they hadn’t even considered killing their bratty niece. (Which Lyana knew she would’ve deserved.)
When she had emerged later in the day, swollen and apologetic, the decorations had been put away and the presents had been unwrapped and put into a pile for her. Just some crap we thought you might like, Evie had said, all nonchalant, gesturing haphazardly behind her. No special occasion or anything. We just love you is all. And wanted to express it through material possessions.
Lyana had collapsed into their arms and let them hold her while she wept. Sandwiched by the only family she had left.
So she had been worried, at first, about spending Christmas with Spencer the first year they’d been friends. Their friendship was still so fledgling, and it’d been just over a month since he’d held her and learned about Silas, about her panic attacks. His eyes had glimmered with an enthusiasm she was actually wistful for when he asked her to come over. At night- we usually start things around 5. Unless you guys are planning on doing dinner together?
They didn’t, of course. So Lyana said she’d love to. And she’d resolved to plaster on a smile and be jolly at whatever the cost- not just for his sake, but for her aunts, too. She was still so goddamn ashamed about the tantrum she’d thrown the year before.
Lyana made it through that Christmas morning with her aunts. There were no Santa hats or early morning wake-ups; they had discussed everything in advance. She met them for breakfast (the cinnamon rolls stayed, because it would’ve been a whole other tragedy for them to leave), attended to her gift pile while her aunts attended to theirs, and then they had cuddled up on the couch under a bunch of blankets to watch an incredibly un-festive double-feature: Alien and Aliens.
By the time she was due over at Spencer’s, she had actually felt content. Maybe even a little happy. And she had made sure to tell her aunts, and thanked them for eschewing all of their traditions--on their favorite holiday, no less--for her sake. Kate had kissed her head on her way out the door and exclaimed, I’m telling ya, Sigourney Weaver is medicine!
Lyana had prepared herself for the worst. For Spencer to open the door in an ugly Christmas sweater, loud carols blasting on their record player. For Diana to hand her a gift wrapped in paper that shouted, Ho Ho Ho!
But when Spencer opened the door, he was wearing his standard outfit: a sweater vest over a button-down, with khakis. The same old jazz music was playing. And Diana- Diana was in the kitchen?
The place smelled sharp and tangy. Apples.
Spencer had beckoned her inside and explained the Reid family tradition. Twelfth Night. Mom has always liked the Renaissance’s version of Christmas so much more. Because of course she did. It’s not- It’s different. We sing old songs and eat some traditional pastries and we drink a lot of cider. He’d dropped to a whisper. I- I would understand if it’s all too weird and if you’d rather be at home with your aunts. I just- You’re my family. And this is what we do.
It was perfect. It was home.
Lyana hated Christmas. But fuck, she loved Twelfth Night.
Twelfth Night hadn’t been tainted by any frigid temperatures or missing persons. Twelfth Night was her and Diana and Spencer giggling in the kitchen over mugs of steaming cider while some goofy old recording of a choir singing in Old English warbled from the other room. Diana and Spencer knew all the words, but they didn’t make Lyana feel like she was an outsider for not knowing what the hell was going on. They half-sang, half-translated, trying so hard not to laugh while Lyana boisterously flubbed every single line.
There were presents, of course, but they were wrapped in old newspaper. Lyana was certain that she hadn’t ever seen anything more beautiful done with something as ugly as the Sports section. Spencer and Diana had both given her books: The Halloween Tree and a collection of Petrarchan sonnets, respectively.
She gave Spencer a framed picture of the two of them, taken on his birthday a couple months prior. It was a candid photo that Evie had captured, the two of them looking at each other and grinning, Lyana’s hands waving around in the air like she was ranting about something. Probably about how I said that Batman wasn’t a very good superhero, he had said, smiling, clutching the frame in his hands.
Lyana had gotten Diana some fuzzy slippers; her other pair had been falling apart for some time. And Diana had swept Lyana up into a big vice-grip hug, proclaiming that she was the best daughter she had never had. For some reason, even with all that aching for her own mother, Lyana had let her heart swell up anyways. She had a feeling that her mom would’ve loved Diana- that wherever she was, she knew that the Reids were taking good care of her daughter.
Spencer was right; she was his family. And him and Diana, they were hers, too. She ended Christmas Day not feeling like something was missing, but like she had discovered so many more somethings. She felt spoiled.
Only one more thing would’ve made it better: her aunts being there. When she mumbled that to Spencer during their sleepy hug good-bye, he had thunked the side of his head against hers and said, Invite them next year.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
But Lyana never got to. Because this year, the Reids and the Zayas-Jacobses were spending Christmas Eve in a hospital.
Diana had smashed a plate while Spencer was in the shower that morning. She had used one of the shards to gouge deep slashes in both of her palms, digging around for a tracker or something of the sort. Spencer had found her passed out in front of the oven in a pool of her own blood.
He rode in the ambulance with his mother, Lyana and Evie following closely behind. Kate met them at the ER doors and ushered them all in, barking orders at her attendings, who all looked shellshocked. Because apparently having your Chief Medical Officer staring over your shoulder while you’re carting an ER patient is a relatively stressful affair.
Kate knew how much Spencer hated hospitals- specifically, the bright lights and the sterile smells. And the beeping. So she brought them all into her office to wait for word on Diana. The room was quiet, warmly-lit, and smelled like vanilla. And best of all, there were couches. No stiff waiting room chairs.
Lyana watched as Spencer sat down on one, cramming himself into the corner. And as much as she wanted to sit with him, she knew it wouldn’t be a good idea, right then. All of this was too much and he needed a minute to breathe.
Things had been deteriorating with Diana. Spencer’s father had taken over his family’s expenses with not just expedience but an apology, had said that he should’ve been handling everything since he left. And, fortunately for Spencer, he had known better than to visit his wife and son in person and had taken care of everything over the phone. But even with the nurse William had hired to care for his estranged wife during the day- Diana hadn’t shown even a modicum of improvement.
And Spencer was starting to resent his mother for all of this. It was tangible, in that office. An angry fog seeping out of his pores.
It wasn’t just his mother, either; he had started looking at Las Vegas a lot differently ever since he’d first come back for Thanksgiving. He had started complaining about the heat, which he had never done before, and which didn’t even make sense; he still ran so cold. Whenever he could, he would sing the praises of California, of CalTech.
Lyana was pretty confident she knew what had caused the change: the fact that Spencer was finally being allowed to live his life freely. Like most kids got to do. When he was away at school, he didn’t have to structure his day around avoiding his depressing house or around caring for his mother. At CalTech, he got to do things for himself and himself alone.
She had loved seeing how relaxed he had become when she had gone to visit. The ease with which he carried himself and made decisions. Let’s go here for dinner. Let’s watch this movie. And the confidence he had in himself was enthralling to watch. To see him walk with his head held high- it was all Lyana had ever wanted for him, ever since they’d first met.
But she hadn’t taken into account what the other edge of the sword would do. That leaving his CalTech bubble would make him realize exactly how awful Vegas had been to him as a child (and he had already had a decent grasp on that front before), and that he would start to resent his home.
Which Lyana wouldn’t have minded- except it was her home, now, too.
She felt Evie’s hand running through the back of her hair and sighed. Leaned back against her aunt, who wrapped her arms around her niece’s shoulders and squeezed tight. “Is there anything we can do?” Evie whispered, muted just enough so that Spencer couldn’t hear from his spot on the opposite side of the office. The Zayas-Jacobses were currently congregated around Kate’s desk.
Lyana shook her head. Whispered back, “I don’t know.” She hated herself for not knowing what to do. With Spencer, she always had an answer, a plan of attack. Just not when he needs it most.
One of the attendings knocked on the door before too long. Said that Diana was fine, now, but that she had lost a lot of blood. Her regular psychiatrist was unavailable until after the holiday, and they wanted to keep her in the hospital for a couple of nights, anyway. For observation as well as her own safety, the attending said, her bright, sympathetic eyes darting carefully from Kate to Spencer, still bracketed into the corner of the couch.
“Thank you so much, Dr. Gadagottu. I’ll be by later to check in on Diana,” Kate said, nodding firmly at the young doctor in front of her. Her voice was all business, but Lyana could see that Kate looked genuinely concerned. That little crinkle between her eyebrows was always betraying the both of them. “And you better not be there when I do, you hear me? I know your shift ends in half an hour, and I am not going to have your kiddos whining at me at next year’s picnic about how I’m so mean for keeping their mother on Christmas Eve.”
Dr. Gadagottu smiled sheepishly. “Yes, Dr. Zayas. I’ll be out on time today. Thank you.” And then she was gone, in a flutter of a lab coat. The office door clicked shut behind her.
Kate sighed softly to herself, then looked up at Lyana and Evie. “Meera’s easily my best attending. I know you guys think I’m smart and all, but I nearly died going through medical school just trying to take care of myself and pass all my classes. Meera soared through it while taking care of her infant twins, and as a widower, no fucking less.” Kate swiveled back and forth in her chair. “I just wish she’d take a break once in a while. I’m always worried that she’s going to burn out and we’re going to lose her. In a staff sense and a universal one. Y’know?”
Evie squeezed her shoulder, and Kate held her hand there.
“Ugh, I know, dear. Sorry for being a bummer! Literally the only part of this job that I hate: knowing exactly how hard all of my doctors are working, and watching as they all get screwed by their schedules, and suffering because I’m not allowed to interfere with the shifts. It would make me appear biased.”
Lyana felt Spencer’s fingers brush against her elbow; she shivered from the contact, and the surprise. He always moved so goddamn quietly. She turned to look at him and saw, out of the corner of her eye, her aunts turning away to give them a semblance of privacy.
He mumbled, “Can we go home?”
They went home. Evie took Spencer’s key to the Reid household after dropping them off, promising to be back as soon as she’d cleaned up their kitchen and grabbed some of Spencer’s things for the next couple days.
Lyana wordlessly followed Spencer to her room. He kicked off his shoes in a bit of a daze, which really wasn’t like him; he was usually so careful about where he put his things. She picked them up and put them in their sacred spot (in a neat, straight pair next to her dresser) while he tossed his glasses onto her nightstand and crawled into her bed.
She stood, motionless, watching his shoulder rise and fall with each shuddering breath. His back was to her; he was bundled in the comforter, facing the wall. There was space for her behind him but she wasn’t sure he wanted-
“Ly, please.” All rushed and cracked.
She slid under the covers and wrapped her arm around his stomach, tight, knocking her knees into the space behind his. Spencer reached back and pulled her other arm underneath his neck, pillowing himself against it and curling his fingers around her wrist. He whimpered when she kissed his shoulder.
Lyana said, softly, “I’ve got you.”
He wept. His whole body shook with the effort and she held him, secured him, blinking back tears of her own because she didn’t know what else to do, because she didn’t know how to make this better.
“There was so much blood-”
“I know. I know, I’m so sorry, I should’ve been there-”
“I thought she was dead-”
“She’s never going to leave you, Spence-”
“I can’t wait to get out of here.”
Spencer inhaled, long and slow. “Las Vegas. I can’t wait to leave this fucking place.”
“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard you swear.” Lyana couldn’t think of anything else to say. Until her insecurity burst forth and she mumbled, “You know that leaving Vegas means leaving me, right? I’m kinda stuck here.” Bracing herself for the blow. That he had no intentions of sticking around for her. That he was going to find someone who could actually be physical with him down the line, someone who wasn’t so mired with trauma-
“For four and a half more years. Then we can both get out of here for good. We’ll move away together and have our own home.”
Lyana pushed down her full heart and said, “But your mom-”
“She’s not here anymore. She’s not the mom I know or remember. She’s just this cruel mental illness, personified.” Spencer rolled over to face her. His eyes were raw, swollen, wide- and the auburn of his irises was so much more vibrant. It made looking at him feel like swimming in bronze. “I just- I just realized that I started talking about our future like it’s- like it’s our future. But we’ve never talked about that. I’m sorry.”
She sighed. Her stomach was whirling. “Can we talk about the pivot away from your mom, first?”
Spencer groaned and thunked his forehead against hers. She knew what it meant: Do I have to? Lyana nodded- and grinned when he groaned again.
“I didn’t mean it. Not all of it.” He was whispering. He always whispered whenever the words coming out of his mouth were full of that vulnerable kind of truth, the kind of truth that almost burns when it passes your lips. “I do feel like she’s lost and not coming back, and it’s terrifying and horrible to think that I’m never going to get to talk to her like I used to, that every single conversation we’re going to have from now on is going to be me talking to her like she’s a toddler and her yelling at me about how our mailman is a high-level operative of the fucking KGB, here to steal her research into the way that medieval literature impacted gender roles throughout history. Because that makes sense.” Spencer shut his eyes tight. “But I don’t hate it here. This is where everything I love is.”
Lyana nosed his cheek.
“Coming back here just- It makes me feel selfish for going away to school, and it makes me feel so helpless. Like I’m never going to be able to be completely independent because she is always going to need someone to take care of her, and even still, I- I want that person to be me for as long as I can do it.” Spencer exhaled slowly. “I guess you should know all of that before you even start thinking about whether or not you want us to move away together after you graduate. Us crazy Reids are a big commitment.”
He managed a little smile. “It’s true.”
Lyana lifted her hand and waited; his smile deepened, and he nudged his face against her patient fingers. She was glad he was biting back the usual Ly, I mean it, you don’t have to wait for me that he always said through big big grins, and usually betwixt a flurry of kisses. As much as she loved hearing the smile in his voice, she didn’t want to be distracted. Not right then. She wanted to just sit in the quiet for a moment, dragging her thumb across his face.
He shifted, just slightly, and wrapped his arms around her. And threaded his ankles between hers for good measure.
Ever since they’d first kissed, the physical affection from Spencer had become such a deluge. He took every fathomable excuse to touch her. And if they were already touching- well, there had to be some way to make it more intimate. If he had his arm around her on the couch, he would reach further down for her hand, and he’d fiddle with it like he normally would with his. Stuff like that.
Lyana had teased him about it once, had said something to the effect of, God, I love that I’m your stress ball. And he had flushed crimson and muttered that he hadn’t meant to, that there was just something different about holding her hand, that it made his chest deflate.
God, she loved him.
“Okay, Ly, I know I left on a really good note with the whole hey, I’m giving you space to think about this thing, and I wish I could be that calm and cool, but I’m- You know me. I’m not that.” She had felt him tensing up as the silent seconds passed, but she hadn’t wanted to say anything and make things worse. Not until he needed her to. But goodness, he was anxious. His fingers were rattling against her back and he was talking so quickly, it felt like listening to a VHS fast-forward. “Can you feel my heart? It’s going way too fast. Ugh, I hate my fucking mouth, I hate how it says things before my brain’s done any proofreading, and did you know that I had a whole plan? I had a plan, I was going to bring this up like a normal person when you started to apply to colleges, and I ruined all of that because I’m an idiot, I’m an idiot, and can you please say something? You can tell me that you don’t want to move away with me, I can take it, I’m not as strong as you but I’m strong, and-”
“Jesus shit, my love, how am I supposed to say something when you’re not even taking a break to breathe?”
He paused. He breathed. He may as well have been playing the Minute Waltz on her back.
Lyana whispered, because she wanted him to hear her burning truth, too. “First of all: I’m Team Crazy Reids until the day I die. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. I told you that first day that you’re stuck with me. And second- I honestly haven’t really, like, spent time thinking about what’s going to happen that far ahead. I still haven’t come to terms with starting high school, and that’s less than a year away. But I- I like that I have that to think about, now. To look forward to. And I like that you’ve been thinking about it, too. That you- That you see a future with me. It makes me feel very loved.” Lyana chuckled, short and soft. “Honestly, just thinking about you thinking about me makes me feel loved. And goofy, and blushy. I’m honored to take up some part of your brain, even if it’s only for a little while.”
“I think about you all the time. No hyperbole.”
“And the fact that you want to spend any amount of time with me-”
“Of course I see a future with you. There’s no other kind.”
“Asshole. I know.”
Lyana grumbled unintelligibly and collapsed into his arms, as much as she could. “I’m really not used to this whole Spencer Reid swearing thing.”
“You have all the time in the world to.” He cackled when she jerked her head up, eyes wavering between being ablaze and leaking. “I’m not sorry for that one! You set me up so perfectly!”
Certain that she could take no more of this torture, she buried her face in his bony chest and shut her eyes. When her mind quieted, she decided to give it a real try, to think about what a future with him might be like. The two of them off on their own, eighteen, adultish- where would she want to go for school? She’d loved California when she’d visited, but she’d always dreamt of going to college on the East Coast. Somewhere she could see snow again. And all that history, all those old buildings. What about Pennsylvania, or New Jersey?
Lyana imagined a classic East Coast college campus, snow shoveled off the sidewalks. Walking home from class to a crappy off-campus apartment. Spencer bustling about in the kitchen, trying to read a book and cook something at the same time. The sound of claws skittering across a hardwood floor-
“Would you want to get a dog?”
“When we move away together. Would you want a dog?”
Spencer stroked the back of her hair. “I didn’t know you liked dogs.”
“I’ve always liked them, we just can’t have one here. Evie’s allergic.”
He was silent for a moment. “What about a pitbull, with a big smushy face?”
Lyana giggled. She couldn’t believe that she was privileged enough to interact with the softest, most secret version of Spencer Reid. The one who said things like smushy. (And with such reverence, too.)
“Yes. He’ll knock us over whenever we come home, and he’ll try to sit in our laps whenever we’re on the couches, and he’ll sleep in our bed down by our feet. And we’ll love him so much. Him and his big smushy face.” She paused. “We could give him some regal, mythological name that totally won’t fit him. Behold, young Ares! And then our huge doofy dog comes bounding into the room, graceless and ready for love, not war.”
He pulled her into him, kissed her forehead. “I love him so much.”
Spencer took her face in his hands. She couldn’t remember if he’d ever done that before; she was pretty confident he hadn’t. It felt lovely, to be held. To know that she was the only thing he was looking at.
Lyana asked him what he was thinking about and he smiled.
“You’re just going to call me an asshole again. I feel like I’ve definitely hit my quota for the day.”
“Just spill it, you humongous dork.”
“I was thinking that I know you’re real, but you feel like magic. The goalpost day, the day I found that letter, today- those would’ve shattered me. But you were here. And for some reason, I got to end all of those days feeling like I gained so much more than I lost. If that makes sense.”
“Asshole!” she sang.
He bonked her forehead. And he kissed her. Just once, and very softly.
“I love you.”
“And I love you.”
She paused. Spencer must be magic, too. Even though there was absolutely no way that she would get a repeat of the traditions from last year, not the way they had been- she still felt light and cheery. Festive? Did she feel festive? Was that what it meant when you felt like you could make everything right again, even though such a task was literally impossible? And when you felt like you were fueled by the goddamn spirit of the holiday and the promise of hot spiced drinks?!
Lyana grinned. It was a ridiculous feeling, but it was a mighty good one. “After tomorrow morning, with my aunts, can we go visit your mom? We can spend the afternoon making her a king’s ring before we head over, and we can probably sneak in a boombox and some thermoses of cider!”
Spencer’s brow furrowed. “You really wanna do that?”
“I love your mom, and I love Twelfth Night. I’m not going to give up on my new favorite tradition just because the universe decided to give us a big ole middle finger. And you promised that I could invite my aunts this year.”
“You weren’t just being nice?”
“For real, how many times are you going to ask me that question and expect a different answer?”
He started to say something but shook his head a little, smiling, and pulled her in and kissed her again. Firmly, and holding her tight- one hand on the small of her back, and the other curled between her shoulderblades.
Lyana felt a wave of certainty, of surety, wind its way into her bones. When they broke apart, she kept him close. Foreheads and noses smushed against each other. It reminded her of that day all those years ago, cuddled up in bed with her mother.
And for the first time, that memory actually made her smile.
Chapter 8: February 11th, 1995
Spencer and Lyana celebrate their first Valentine's Day together.
Spencer loved sharing a bed with Lyana.
He loved waking up to feel her curled into his back, her snores rumbling against his shoulder blades. And waking up to a face full of messy red hair, her back flush against his chest. And that one time, when he had woken up to find her sprawled out sideways, on top of him? He loved that, too.
It had definitely been an adjustment, the first time she’d come up to visit him in October. Lyana had faced the situation in pretty much exactly the way he’d expected her to: she’d stood unfazed in front of the little twin, shoulders squared and looking quite menacing in spite of the pastel pink T-shirt covering them, and had said, You taking the wall or the edge?
He had taken the wall. Clambered under the covers, scooching as far as he could to give her room. Feeling very naked, even in his pajamas, as Lyana had flopped into the empty space. Spencer’s roommate, Hugh, had chuckled something to the effect of, God, you two are sickening, and then he had flipped the light off and proceeded--almost immediately--to snore.
After a few minutes of quiet torture (both of them lying flat on their backs, their sides cresting their respective edges of the mattress, their forearms pressed flush against each other), Lyana had whispered, Is this weird?
- I think so.
- It’s just a bed, right? Like a horizontal couch.
- I’m not sure that that totally tracks, but I’ll take it.
Lyana had giggled. Do you normally sleep on your back?
- My right side.
- Me too. Here, roll over.
She had turned and shoved his shoulder, gently, until he was nestled into his normal position. And then he had felt her pressing her chest against his back-
- Is this okay?
Lyana’s right arm came up on top of the pillow and under his neck; he instinctively pulled it closer and rested his head against the crook of her elbow. Her other arm draped over his stomach.
He had never been held like this before, all wrapped up completely with another person. And the feeling of her breath gently falling onto the back of his neck was- it was beautiful. It didn’t tickle, it didn’t hurt. It just felt...it felt like something he’d been searching for his whole life. Like Lyana was a puzzle piece he hadn’t known he was missing until she’d knocked herself into just this spot, her knees notched perfectly into the space behind his. This physical affirmation of love, of protection that made every single atom in his body jitter with Yes, this. Yes, you.
He pulled her arms tighter around him and caught himself beaming while she shook with quiet laughter. In that moment, Spencer came to terms with the fact that he would never enjoy sleeping by himself ever again.
She kissed the back of his head, his shoulder. Whispered, Sweet dreams, my love.
- Sweet dreams, Ly.
It wasn’t perfect. She snored, and he was a blanket thief. They both acknowledged that it would take some practice to really get used to sharing a bed--especially one that small--with each other.
But by the time Christmas break was over, he had slept over at Lyana’s house for the majority of his time back in Vegas- since his mother had needed even more intensive medical care and had stayed in the hospital until the middle of January, right when he had to pack up and head back to school. And by the time they were cuddling up for their last night together before he left, he’d realized that he couldn’t remember the last time Lyana had elbowed him in the middle of the night for stealing the comforter. And he couldn’t remember the last time he’d jolted awake from a particularly boisterous snore.
- I think we’ve finally got the hang of this.
- Shh. It’s fucking bedtime.
So, when a month had passed and it was time for Lyana’s next visit to CalTech (for an early Valentine’s Day celebration, no less), Spencer had found himself uproariously excited. He hadn’t had a good night’s sleep since he’d left and he knew, he knew it was because his brain was hungering for the dopamine high that came from sleeping next to her.
Hugh caught Spencer pacing around their room when he got back from his much-loathed Saturday class. Spencer had straightened and re-straightened everything on his side more times than he was particularly proud of; he had made the mistake of downing a 32 oz. cup of black coffee on an empty stomach, and he felt like he could take down a fighter jet, probably, if it flew down close enough.
“Woah, hey, Bones! What the hell? I thought I banned you from going to that coffee stand.”
Bones, after Leonard “Bones” McCoy, of Star Trek. Hugh had invited Spencer to watch some episodes from the original series with him at the beginning of the school year (which was a surprise on multiple levels, namely that 1) this chiseled Ken doll of a boy not only wanted to watch Star Trek but fucking worshipped the show, and 2) that he wanted to spend his precious free time with his dorky thirteen-year-old roommate), and Spencer had declined, saying that he had been called Spock more than enough times, thank you. And Hugh had laughed, all big and booming, and said, I mean, you’ve mentioned your bullies were dumb, but I didn’t realize exactly how dumb. You’re not a Spock, you’re a Bones!
(Spencer still hadn’t quite wrapped his head around Hugh’s logic on that. But he liked having another nickname to add to his arsenal. And, it turns out: he really, really liked Star Trek.)
“Oh, Jesus.” Spencer smiled sheepishly as Hugh picked up the empty coffee cup from his desk. Looking horrified. “Is this what it feels like to live with an addict? Fella, when the fuck did you graduate to the 32? And- Oh, fuck me with a rake, are you kidding me?! Don’t you dare try and escape right now, you little caffeine goblin, I can see that they gave you three extra shots for some ungodly reason, and you better give me a name right this second, because I went down there myself and gave them your picture and threatened them under penalty of my dad’s big scary money and my own big scary tears that they were to not give you even a decaf under any circumstances, and-”
“I just told them that the coffee was for you, that you were hungover and couldn’t even get out of bed.”
Hugh groaned. “That is very on brand for me, and uncharacteristically sociopathic for you.”
“I know I shouldn’t, but I kinda wanna take that as a compliment.”
“Living with you is the best birth control, you know that? I am never ever going to forget to wear a condom because for fuck’s sake, this parenting thing is stressful. I really liked being self-centered before I met you! I think I was pretty content to just sit in class and fantasize about Uma Thurman, but now I sit there scared outta my mind that you’re going to start selling your body for a caffeine fix.”
Spencer grinned, struck a bit of a pose. “You really think I could manage that? It’d probably save me some money.”
“Good fucking God, Bones, you are a sick, sick boy.”
Hugh was a bit of an entitled douchebag (could you turn out any other way if you were a cookie-cutter handsome white boy coming from old money?), and Spencer had been terrified when he’d walked into his dorm room back in September and found what, essentially, was a carbon copy of Jake Landry unpacking a duffel bag. He had quirked his eyebrows at Spencer and the trail of women behind him, and Spencer had immediately braced himself for the torment.
- Hey, man, I’m Hugh. Last name is, emphatically, not Jass. Hugh McNealy. The...fourth.
- I’m Spencer.
-Spencer Reid, the first. Lyana had chimed in.
-Lucky bastard, no funny jokes to be made about that name. Good on ya. You need help with any of your stuff?
Spencer had been certain that it was all an act, that things would take a turn as soon as his mother and Lyana and her aunts left. But- but none of that happened. Days passed in friendly peace. He accompanied Spencer to meals in the dining hall, where they ate together in unnervingly comfortable silence, and they even found each other in the same Statistics 101 course.
It was the class that had really cemented things between the two of them. Hugh was studying computer science and was quite good at it, from what Spencer could gather- but he was a bit of a disaster with math. So before he could really process what was happening, Spencer found himself tutoring him during their spare time. And Hugh wasn’t one of those guys--like Spencer had assumed he would be--that got all touchy whenever they were corrected on something. Instead, Hugh’s standard response to Spencer saying he’d done something wrong was: Thanks, man, can you walk me through it?
Hugh had started showing his appreciation in a surprisingly sweet number of ways: bringing Spencer a whole pizza and a veritable vat of hot tea on the nights before big exams, buying him books he thought he’d like, and even sprinting across campus to drop off a piece of homework Spencer had left on his desk (and a cup of hot chocolate and a bagel, because he’d seen that Spencer had left too late to grab breakfast before class).
Really, Hugh’s entitled douchebag side only came out sometimes. The sheer confusion he expressed when Spencer would say that he couldn’t go out to eat with him, that he couldn’t afford it. It’s just Chinese, dude, it’ll be like $15. The swagger he exuded everywhere he went, putting his feet up on tables and chairs in public spaces, the way he’d entreat the cafeteria workers for extra-this or special-that, because, Come on, it’s no big deal.
Spencer had been working on that with him, though. On pointing out when Hugh’s actions were inconsiderate instead of charming. And to Hugh’s credit, he took the corrections to his behavior in the same way he took the corrections to his stats work. Some might argue that he took them even better.
After a few weeks of this policing, Hugh had tossed a pillow at Spencer and said, laughing, Shit, Bones, I never thought my best friend would be a thirteen-year-old, let alone a mean one.
And Spencer had had to sit back and realize that, holy crap: he was friends with Hugh. Not just that- after Lyana, Hugh was the closest friend he’d ever had. How the hell had that happened? Spencer had entertained the possibility of having friends in college, but his imagination had always conjured people like himself. Skinny, bookish, pale. But somehow he had gone and snagged himself someone who was the exact antithesis of all that.
Somehow, he was happy anyway.
During her first visit, Lyana had asked Spencer where he’d gotten his copy of Norwegian Wood while Hugh was in the room, and Hugh had promptly and proudly responded, “He got it from his sugar daddy.”
“Please tell me I don’t have to call you that.”
“Well, y’know, call a spade a spade, and call a sugar daddy-”
“Hugh, I’m never going to call you that.”
Lyana had been wracked with giggles. “Oh, c’mon, Spence, you gotta show some respect to your sugar daddy.”
“Not you, too!”
Most interactions with Hugh went like that, especially when Lyana was involved: lots of teasing, followed by peals of laughter. But today, post-caffeine betrayal, even with all the dramatics- he was trying his damnedest to be serious.
“It feels like you’re more nervous about this visit than you were with the first one.”
Spencer chuckled. “I’m not. I just got spoiled over the winter break, I got to sleep over with her pretty much every night. Missing her this time around was a lot harder after that.”
“So...so you guys are being safe, right?”
“Hugh, that’s not- I don’t-”
“I’m not trying to be a goof, Spencer, I’m trying to show some actual concern, here.”
Spencer grumbled, “We’ve never done anything even remotely close. We’re thirteen!”
“But will you-”
“If and when that day ever comes, I promise we’ll be safe.”
“It’s complicated. And private. Not for me, but for her. There’s just a possibility that we may never be together like that.”
Hugh was uncharacteristically quiet for a moment. Then: “So you guys have been together for nearly a year, which is forever when you’re teenagers, and you haven’t even traversed second base?”
“You know I hate it when you bust out your grody baseball crap.” Spencer sighed exasperatedly when he saw that Hugh was still looking at him, all expectant. “We traversed first base for a total of about eleven seconds, once, and that’s it. So there is really nothing to be concerned about!”
Before Hugh could say anything else, there was a knock at the door. Spencer skittered to his feet and opened it with a flourish. Lyana was on the other side, flanked by Evie and Kate.
Last time, he had controlled himself; he had calmly let them into the room and hadn’t thrown himself at Lyana until her aunts had left. But he didn’t have the wherewithal for illusions, not today. He flung his arms around her and felt his chest balloon, expand, explode, when she giggled and hugged him back.
She murmured, “Long month, huh?”
“Way too long.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The afternoon passed by in a soft blur. Hugging Evie and Kate and promising to meet them for an early dinner the next day before the Zayas-Jacobses had to turn around and begin the long drive back to Vegas. Hugh awkwardly excusing himself, still looking like there were things he wanted to talk about, and leaving the two of them alone. Lyana pulling him close.
They curled up in bed together. Even though they had almost the whole day ahead of them, they were more than happy to ignore the sunlight streaming into the room. The late winter-warmth of the afternoon seeped into every pore, sleepy and bright, all at once.
Spencer sheepishly relayed his recent caffeine spiral, and Lyana gave him grief for trying to hide it from her. “I can hear the coffee when we talk on the phone, you idiot genius. It’s like when you’re anxious, but in upbeat double-time.” Lyana raved about It, which she’d been reading on the car ride up that morning. Spencer had devoured a dozen of Stephen King’s books, himself, but was pretty confident at this point that he just wasn’t a fan of horror. Lyana, on the other hand, couldn’t get enough of it. “I’m going to read every single thing this guy ever writes.”
And then they were kissing in a hazy, gentle fog, and Spencer had to remind himself that this was his life, not some crazy dream he’d cooked up. He had a girlfriend who liked tangling her fingers in his hair at the base of his neck and kissing him like there was nothing else she’d rather be doing.
“How did I ever survive?” he mumbled.
“I was mostly being dramatic. Asking how I ever survived before all of this.” He kissed her soundly, for good measure.
She grinned and thumbed his jawline. It made him shiver- the good kind. With her, it was always the good kind. “I am very much in that boat as well, mister.” Lyana paused, chewing on her lip. “So, um. I know that it’s not Valentine’s Day, not officially, but since I’m not going to get to see you-”
“I thought we said we weren’t going to spend money!” Spencer was doing his damnedest to bite back his shit-eating grin. It sounded like they had both done what they were good at: finding and exploiting the loopholes. He hadn’t spent any money, but he hadn’t been able to help himself; of course he had gotten her something. It was his first year having an actual Valentine. And--as much as he hated to admit it--she had really done a number on him. Hugh had even gone so far as to compare him to a maple tree (because he was just that goddamn sappy).
Lyana kneed him, playfully. “Asshole, I know you did something, too.”
“You’re such a turd, you know that? You were the one who gave me the whole historical spiel on the holiday, saying that it is ‘quite definitely unromantic in origin’, and then you suggested that even acknowledging the holiday could be seen as ‘encouraging violence’-”
“I thought I was the one with the eidetic memory, here, and yet you are more than capable of quoting me better than a tape recorder-”
“-and then you said that even without all of that, ‘we shouldn’t give any money to greeting card companies capitalizing on a holiday with such a gory-slash-hyper-religious history’, and that we shouldn’t even spend any money on gifts.” He loved listening to her read him his rights. She was so goddamn smart, and so intoxicatingly confident- she made him feel like a woozy damsel swooning after a knight. A very handsome knight with flames for hair and dragonfire sparks on their cheeks. “Do ya care to explain yourself and your treachery, my love?”
Spencer grinned, trying his best to emulate Hugh and exude as much charm as humanly possible. “So my execution was probably not the best…”
“You’re so, so much better at all this stuff than I am. And you’ve done so many cinematically-romantic things for me already. And I just- I figured that you deserved a break. That it was my turn to sweep you off your feet with a big gesture.” He averted his gaze. “I, uh. I know it was totally a coward’s move, but I also figured that this scenario would prevent me from feeling like my gesture was inadequate, because there would be nothing immediate to compare it to?”
She softened. Thunked her forehead against his.
Spencer steeled himself. Reached up under his pillow and pulled the gift out into the open, propping himself onto his elbow while she did the same, while they both made room for what he’d made in the space between them on the bed.
He watched her intently, watched her fingers delicately brush against the edges. Her eyes were wide and trembling. His heart was striking, hard and heavy, against his chest. Had he done something wrong? Had he made a complete and utter ass of himself?
Was he just really goddamn bad at crafts?
“It’s, um- It’s a sailor’s valentine, kind of. I had Hugh drive me down to the beach and we gathered up a bunch of shells, and I stuck them inside this,” he flipped it over, “this old book cover of mine from when I was really little, Babar Visits Another Planet. I didn’t wreck it for the project; I took it into the bath when I was four or five and it’s been ruined ever since, but I couldn’t get rid of it. My dad helped me get all the pages out because they were molding, and ever since, I’ve just been clinging to this old water-damaged thing for what felt like no reason. And then, a couple months back I was reading about these sailor’s valentines and it felt like- like fate. That I’d been saving it all this time to make it into something for someone I love.”
A tear flew down her face and she brushed it off, just as quickly. “Bright star,” she murmured, flipping the valentine back over and tracing what he had written with orange shells. The words were surrounded by a starburst, by a bright colorful galaxy he had created with the other pieces, glued to the inside of the hard cover. It was a little unwieldy, and perhaps a little too big; the book couldn’t be closed anymore, not without destroying the mosaic. But she didn’t mention any of that. She just kept staring at the words in the center.
“You’re mine.” He paused, cheeks aflame. “I mean, that’s what you are to me. My bright star. And a lot of my happiest memories involve you yelling that poem at me, so-”
Lyana moved the valentine into safer territory and then cut him off by throwing her arms around him and burying her face into his neck. “Asshole, asshole, asshole, asshole, asshole,” she continued, half-crying, half-laughing, punctuating her curses with kisses.
He held her tight all the while. His heart was sloshy, full. Relieved. He hadn’t done anything wrong. Hell, it seemed like he was actually pretty fucking amazing with crafts- because she loved it, she loved it more than any sappy thing he’d ever said. She had to be setting a world record for the number of bad names she was calling him. And he had never been happier to be so viciously maligned.
Moments like this, when she was even more vocal about her affection for him than usual- they made him feel like less of a freak for having every single moment from their friendship, their relationship, burned into his brain. They made him certain that her love for him sparked just as bright as his.
Spencer knew that the eidetic memory was a gift, not a curse--especially for something like this, and very blatantly excluding all of the bad memories and awful facts that got stuck in there--but sometimes it made him feel imbalanced, with her. How could she love him as much as he loved her when he could recount, word-for-word, every conversation they’d ever had? When he knew it had been exactly one year, four months, nineteen days, seven hours, forty-two minutes, and seventeen seconds since he’d fixed her watch on the football field? When he knew that she had said the words I love you to him five hundred and thirty-one times?
He didn't fault her for not remembering; he just wanted to know what it was like to love someone and not have a memory like his, to try and find some sort of equilibrium in the divide. He wanted to know if it made the act of loving another person any different. He was the outlier, here, after all- only two to fifteen percent of children had eidetic memories, and they usually normalized by the end of grade school. The fact that his still stuck around, as old as he was, was incredible.
Incredibly inconvenient, and incredibly annoying, and incredibly-
Lyana had pulled back to look at him. She was cradling his face in her hands, and that telltale crinkle was gracing her forehead. Shit. He must’ve let his thoughts take over too much- and now he was either going to have to lie about what he’d been thinking about or tell her the uncomfortable, uncomfortable truth.
And with Lyana, the first option was never really an option at all.
He grimaced to himself and mumbled, “Sorry, I just got lost for a minute.”
“Did I call you asshole one too many times?”
He smiled. “I don’t think there’s such a thing. Unless you start actually meaning it.”
“Are you calling my assholes toothless?!”
“The fact that you can ask that question with a straight face and without even contemplating the implications of the creatures you have just created, the spine-tingling potential that lies in that Eldritch horror universe-”
“Ugh, oh my God, fuck, I can hear it, I can see it, I’m so sorry, oh shit. Assholes with teeth? Oh fu-”
Spencer kissed her, the numbers 12,619 and 1,995 flashing through his mind as he did. The number of fuck's he’d heard her say, and the number of times they’d kissed. Respectively. He squeezed his eyes shut, tighter, even after they broke apart. Jesus, the things he would give to turn it all off for just a little while. To sit in the present with the girl he loved and not let his vault of a brain ruin things by reminding him about every single similar moment from their past. And-
Lyana was tracing her fingers down his face, his neck, down to his chest and then back up again. It was something she’d started doing over the winter break, for whenever he’d get too lost- too pinched, she’d said. I don’t mind if you’re quiet, I know that you’ve got so many things going on in this gorgeous head of yours. But I can tell when you’re stuck on bad things instead of good ones. Is it okay if I throw you an escape ladder, when you do?
She was whispering something, too. It sounded like a poem- one he hadn’t heard before.
My dear, I fear that you’ve become the sun,
the moon, the stars- that when I look upon
the vast and shining dark I think of none
but you. The way you laugh, the way you yawn-
the void you leave whenever you are gone.
Not even comets can compare- not when
your radiant heart gleams brighter than the dawn
or when your wondrous mind whirs faster than
a-blink-a-breath-a-beat. And while my pen
may bleed romantic, sappy, the words hold
more truth in them than gospel. So if, then,
you aren’t opposed, we both know space is cold-
but with your warmth, we’ll get to see it all.
Unlike the sky- for you, I’ll gladly fall.
“Please cut me some slack. It’s the first one I’ve ever done.”
“What?” His head had come loose and he could breathe again. She was so crystal-clear in front of him. Her soft cheeks were the same color as that T-shirt of hers she always wore to bed, and she had fixed her gaze on the top button of his shirt. Where she always stuck her eyes whenever she was embarrassed about something- “Wait, did you? Was that- You-”
Lyana bumped her nose against his chin, puffing a shameful little exhale while she did. “I thought it would be cute, y’know? It’s Valentine’s Day, so I should do something romantic, and we agreed not to spend money, so it had to be something homemade. And I can’t draw for shit, but I’ve never really tried writing, so I figured: aha! Poetry! I’ve read so many goddamn poems, so I know what a good one sounds like, right? And what the fuck is more romantic than a sonnet? And aren’t I so lucky to be dating a boy whose name is Spencer, which is one letter away from Spenser, as in Edmund Spenser of the Spenserian sonnet? And I thought: I can follow those rules! Fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, a pretty simple rhyme scheme, and my very impressive vocabulary to best them both. But by the end of it, I realized that I kinda asked for my own demise, talking about sonnets being easy like those kids who go to museums that say that painting like Picasso is easy. So, uh- we now have the Spencerian sonnet, with a c, because I really can’t claim to have followed the iambic pentameter to a T, and it’s very informal, and it’s really not good, but please know that I put so much goddamn effort into it, my love, and-”
“You wrote me a sonnet.”
“If you would be so generous as to call it that.”
“Forget every bad thing I ever said about Valentine’s Day.”
Lyana rolled her eyes, but she couldn’t hide her smile, pricking up at the edges of her mouth. “For fuck’s sake, Spence, I know that you love me, you don’t have to go through this whole shebang of telling me that it was something you actually appreciated or liked-”
“I am overwhelmingly biased, but that doesn’t matter. You wrote me a sonnet. I love it, I love you.” He pulled her closer. “I didn't think I was anything worth writing about. Not in a, like, romantic, poetic sense, anyway.”
She furrowed her brow. “So like: all of the times that I’ve been all cuddled up with ya, just like this, and I’ve stared at you all moony-eyed and told you over and over again how handsome you are- that didn’t put any idea into your head?”
“I’m- I’m no Adonis-”
“Adonis is fine if you’re into that kind of thing,” she said, waving the idea away with her hand. “You’ve always made me think of Ganymede. So beautiful that Zeus had to come down and steal you away.”
Spencer felt his face flood with heat and color. Ganymede. Jesus. Did she know? Had she caught him staring? Why the hell was she still with him? “Why, um- Why Ganymede in particular?”
“Aside from my very nice compliment about Zeus stealing you away for your beauty? I dunno, it’s just a feeling.”
“I’m so sorry, I wish I could make it stop-”
“I- I thought you-”
“You thought I what?”
Shit. What the hell had he done? They were having such a perfect day, just drowning in their love for each other, and now his stupid untethered mouth had gone and ruined everything, and now he was going to have to tell her about what he’d been feeling and how wrong he felt, how wrong, and how confused, and-
“Spencer.” She looked genuinely nervous. “What are you talking about? What’s going on?”
He could feel himself trembling. “You’re going to hate me.”
“Impossible. Please talk to me.”
“I, I um-” Spencer swallowed, hard. He was trapped, and exhilarated, and so fucking terrified. But the truth slid out of his mouth with an uncanny amount of ease: “I like boys.”
Lyana blinked, unfazed. “Only, or also?”
“Also.” He paused, testing it out in his head, then with his mouth. “I like boys, also.”
“Yet another thing we have in common.” Was she grinning?
Spencer exhaled, long and slow. “You knew.”
“I had an inkling.”
He thunked her forehead with his. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Because you’re a certified genius, and I knew you’d figure it out eventually- and I wanted you to have the comfort of doing that on your own terms, instead of me shoving labels at you just because I had a hunch,” she murmured, kissing dots across his cheek. “Thank you for telling me.”
“Do you, um- None of this feels weird, or bad?”
“Why would it?” When he didn’t respond, just sat there very clearly trying to grasp for words, she giggled. “Does it change the way you feel about me? Because I mean it, Spencer: the number one thing I’m always going to want is whatever makes you happy. Even if what makes you happy no longer includes me.”
“No! No way. I- I love you so much. You’re the best, most beautiful thing to ever get cemented into my brain.” He paused, grimacing. “That sounded a lot more romantic in my head.”
Lyana grinned. “It sounded pretty romantic out loud, too.”
Spencer nudged her nose with his, knowing simultaneously that his glasses were digging into her forehead, and that if he made any movements away from her, right then, with the intention of taking his glasses off, that she would grumble and order him to get right back here, mister, I don’t give a shit about dents in my head. It felt so good, to know her, to be able to rely on someone so completely, even down to the way they’d react to things.
To be fair, the way she’d reacted to his revelation hadn’t been anything like he’d expected- not because he’d thought she would be angry or upset, but because he hadn’t even begun to contemplate revealing to her or anyone that particular part of himself, not while he was still trying to determine what the hell exactly that part of himself was. But still, that felt good, too. To know that even the uncertainties were safe with her.
Spencer wasn’t completely sure that it wasn’t just him coming down from his caffeine high, but at that moment, he felt a kind of calm float over him that he hadn’t felt- well, that he hadn’t really ever felt. His head was quiet. He was there, with her, and his chest was light, and God, she was so beautiful.
They kissed, dreamy and gentle, until all the numbers blurred in his head.
Chapter 9: April 4th, 1995
Lyana is a pretty horrible nurse.
Lyana wanted to punch something.
Well, specifically, she wanted to punch Diana- but that wasn’t an option in any universe, especially this one. So she was trying to settle for punching something, but none of her choices were good. Walls: too hard. Pillows: too soft. Diana: too much her boyfriend’s mother.
Too much your boyfriend’s mentally ill mother, who doesn’t deserve to be punched for being mentally ill.
She sighed, exasperated, and hugged herself tightly. Head spinning. Lyana had locked herself in Spencer’s room to take a breather after Diana had screamed and slapped her so hard that she had fallen to the ground, smacking her head against the countertop in the kitchen on her way down- all because Lyana had dared to ask if she’d taken her medication for the day. Which, infuriatingly, had to be taken with dinner, which Diana always had after her nurse left for the day. The most important, integral aspect of her treatment, and it was usually left to the responsibility of a thirteen-year-old girl with no fucking medical training.
Diana needed around-the-clock care, and even though Spencer’s ghost of a father was paying for an exceptionally great nurse, the nurse left for the day at 5 PM- at Spencer’s urging. Lyana loved him so much, loved that he had hope, but she would’ve given anything to make him understand that there wasn’t any hope to be had, here. Diana was too unpredictable. She needed to have someone watching her every minute of every day because she just couldn’t be trusted to live on her own anymore. Lyana’s latest injury was testament to all of that.
It wasn’t an isolated incident, either. Diana had hit Lyana more times than she liked to think about; the first time it had happened, Lyana had been so shocked and heartbroken that she’d immediately burst into tears. She had been fortunate enough to never find herself on the other end of a parent’s blows, before then, and having to look at the woman she loved like a mother as she wound up and struck her- the look on Diana’s face had hurt far worse than the slap itself. And the knowledge that someone she loved and trusted completely had taken it upon themselves to hurt her...even worse. So much fucking worse.
And Diana, unfazed, had continued to yell over Lyana’s sobs.
You ugly little girl, you’re working with them, aren’t you? You tricked your way into my house through my son, and you did it all to get to me. I knew he deserved better than you, I knew something was wrong with you. You can see it in those evil mottled hands of yours.
Lyana had tried talking to the nurse, Marianne, about the medication. Had tried asking if there was any way that Diana could take her pill in the afternoons, with her lunch, with Marianne supervising. But she’d been very adamant; if the doctor had listed a specific time, then that’s when the pill had to be taken.
So then Lyana had tried asking Spencer if they could pay to have Marianne stay for an extra hour or two every day.
“Mom will think I’m babying her if I make the nurse stay that long.”
“Sweetheart, I wish I was better at this, but your mom is refusing to take her medication at the time she’s supposed to. And she gets- she gets angry whenever I try to ask her to please, please take it. It’s been nearly two weeks this time around--two weeks since she’s taken her pills--and she’s just getting worse. If we can have Marianne supervise, then she’ll actually start to get better, right? The consistency in taking her medicine?”
Spencer had exhaled, loudly, and said, “Can we talk about this later? I’ve got a paper due in the morning.”
And that had been that. He had been so elusive on his phone calls ever since he’d gone back to CalTech after spring break the previous month; they’d exchange their usual pleasantries and stories about their respective days, they’d say how much they missed each other, and the moment Lyana would start to talk to him about his mother, he’d mumble some school-related excuse and hang up.
She was starting to feel angry with him. She didn’t realize it was possible; Spencer was the one person who never made her temper flare up. A year and a half of being friends, nearly a year of being together, and he hadn’t once done anything to tempt her ire. Not until this.
But then again, he’d never been so dismissive of her before. Spencer listened. It didn’t matter that he’d remember it even if he wasn’t fully paying attention, or if what she was rambling on about was something goofy or dumb; he always made her feel like she was being heard. And the one time she needed him, needed him to just buckle down and do what he did best, and he couldn’t be fucking bothered.
Lyana crumpled to the floor of Spencer’s room. Her stomach was swimming and her eyes were churning- no, that wasn’t right.
The phone was ringing. She crawled over to his nightstand and fumbled with it until it came off the receiver, then hit ANSWER.
“My mom just called. What did you do?”
As blurry as she felt, the anger pooling inside her was buzzing with clarity. “What do you mean, what did I do?”
He sighed, exasperated. “I meant what I asked, Ly. Did you say something?”
“I can’t fucking believe that this is what you’re asking me.”
“Are you ever going to answer it?”
“I walked in, found her in the kitchen, and said, Hi, Diana, how was your day? Did you take your medication? And then she hit me, again, and I ran to go hide in your room, where I am now.”
Spencer was quiet for a long time. When he finally spoke, his whole demeanor had changed. “Again?”
“I don’t have your memory, but I can give you the exact count; this’ll be the twenty-third time. I stopped running away after the sixth or seventh one, but she was really fucking hard with this swing. I hit my head on the counter.”
“Are you okay?”
“Seriously, this is what it took to get you to have a conversation with me about her for longer than half a second? Telling you she was hitting me? Jesus Christ, Spencer, I deserve better than that. Jesus. Are you going to fucking listen to me when I talk about her, now?”
“Can you please just tell me whether or not you’re okay? Ly, please-” His voice cracked.
Lyana bit her tongue to keep from shrieking. Her head hurt so goddamn bad and God, she was still so very angry with him, but she could tell that he was trying to help her, and she was starting to think that she was going to need it. Her ears were ringing. Things were feeling foggy.
She said, as clearly as she could manage, “I don’t think I’m okay. How would I know if I’m not okay?”
“Are you nauseous? Dizzy? Feeling tired all of a sudden? Hey, are you still there?”
“Fuck,” he hissed. “You, um- You didn’t answer. For a while.”
“Yes to all of those.” Was she slurring? Was that what slurring sounded like? She hadn’t ever been around anyone who was drunk before. And Spencer was panicking; she could hear him breathing really heavily on the other end, and she could hear him tapping his fingers on the desk in his dorm room, but everything was coming in from underwater, or behind a lot of thick windows. “I’ll hang up and call my aunts,” she said, gasping as the room started to spin and go dark. Her stomach flipped; she retched, and threw up on her lap.
“Don’t hang up!” His voice was frantic. “Stay here, stay here with me, and keep your eyes open.”
Lyana leaned the side of her head against Spencer’s nightstand and jumped from the sting, the stickiness of the pressure. Feeling like she was trapped in a horrible dream, she watched herself reach out and touch the spot on her head that had struck the counter, what felt like hours ago. Her fingers came back bloody. The nightstand was, too.
Spencer was still there but he was so far away, and he kept saying Hugh. He wasn’t talking to her. She was trying to talk to him but none of her words were coming out right. They kept getting lost on the way out of her mouth. Her mouth. Her mouth was so sour. She’d made such a mess; she couldn’t remember the last time she’d thrown up outside of a proper receptacle. Lyana could see that her legs were soaked in her sick but they didn’t- they didn’t feel like they belonged to her.
She threw up again, with a bit of a hiccup. Down her front. She couldn’t feel anything there, either.
Lyana was so tired. All that anger had just zapped everything out of her; that had to be it. This was what she got for letting her temper get the better of her. Nothing good ever came from being mad, just like Evie always said. Her body was just trying to expel all the bad stuff she had let sit in there while she had wasted her time being angry with Spencer. She just needed to shut her eyes and rest, to get her energy back. Only for a little while.
But before she could choose to succumb to sleep- her stomach flipped again, the world spun around a few more times, and then everything around her flew backwards into darkness.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
When Lyana awoke, there were ghosts arguing in front of her.
It took her some time to take it all in, to let the forms become real again. She was in a hospital bed. Spencer was curled up next to her, asleep. His hands twisted tightly into hers. Evie and Kate were whispering angrily at two police officers, who kept gesturing towards her. One was exceptionally tall, and one was exceptionally average. Lyana almost found it within her to smile.
She swallowed and her ears popped.
“-don’t particularly care about any of that, Sergeant, I am the Chief Medical Officer of this hospital and that is my niece, and she is going to get the proper amount of rest that she needs before you interrogate her because, as you’ve mentioned many times now, she has a TBI. What kind of protocol are you following, anyway? Barging into the ICU in full uniform to harass a thirteen-year-old who’s been unconscious for nearly two days?!”
The average one snickered, his eyes glinting with derision. “Miss Zayas, would you like to explain to me how you’re the aunt of that little white girl in front of us? It feels very suspect-”
“Hey, eat shit, Beavis.”
Lyana grinned, triumphantly, as all of the adults in the room whipped around to face her. The unremarkable officer was positively crimson with rage and God, it was a beautiful sight.
She forced herself into a sitting position with her elbows, gingerly jostling Spencer, who was still asleep. Evie and Kate rushed to her sides, flanking her. Their hands resting protectively on her shoulders.
“Don’t you dare talk to my aunt like that.” She exhaled, happy. It felt so goddamn good for her words to work again. “And you better call her Doctor. Show some fucking respect.”
He advanced towards her bed, waving his notepad at her. “I think you better watch your language, smartass, otherwise-”
“Otherwise what? Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. I’m just an injured kid sitting in a bed; it’s fully within my rights to swear at you. Unless the fucking First Amendment was abolished during those two days I was unconscious. Was it?”
He was trembling with fury, and Lyana could finally read his nametag. Bumgarner. This poor guy. His partner was trying very hard not to smile, but Lyana could see the effort anyway. It was vindicating.
“Sergeant Bumgarner, was it abolished?”
He bristled. “No, it was not.”
“Okay. Then, I repeat: eat shit, and show my aunt some fucking respect. This is her place of work, you asshole. I’m not going to answer any questions until you apologize to her.”
“I don’t think you understand how this works. I’m an officer of the law, and when I ask you a question-”
“I have the right to remain silent. Even if you arrest me, I have the right to remain silent.” She flashed her winningest smile. “Do you seriously think that you just get to go around forcing people to do whatever the hell you want, just because you wear a badge and a gun?” He didn’t say anything, so she kept on. “You gotta follow the laws, too, shithead. So, I’ll repeat myself again: I’m not going to answer any questions until you apologize to my aunt. And if that’s not good enough for you, then you can go ahead and arrest me, but I’d really love to see the look on that judge’s face when you ask for an arrest warrant for a thirteen-year-old kid who called you a bunch of mean names and asked you to say sorry.”
Bumgarner turned to look at his partner, who gave him a what’re ya gonna do shrug in return. He came back, slowly, to face the Zayas-Jacobs women. And it truly looked like it caused him a great deal of pain to look at Kate in the eye and say, “Dr. Zayas, I am truly very sorry for the way I addressed you. It was disrespectful, and it will not happen again.”
Lyana looked up at Kate, who was very obviously trying her best to bite back a giggle. But she nodded- first at Bumgarner, and then at Lyana.
With an incredibly satisfied grin on her face, Lyana turned back to Bumgarner and said, “Great! That shouldn’t have been so difficult, huh? What questions do you have for me?”
The taller officer--nametag Gentry --approached the bed with a notepad of his own. “Miss Ja- I’m sorry, do you prefer Zayas-Jacobs?”
Lyana’s first instinct was to be wary of some hidden malice, especially after what this guy’s partner had said earlier, but Gentry’s eyes shone with a genuine spark of caring in them.
“I do. But you can call me Lyana.”
“Noted,” he said with a smile, scribbling on his pad while Bumgarner scoffed and started pacing the back half of the room. “Lyana, the EMTs removed you from the locked bedroom of a Spencer Reid,” he gestured to the sleeping boy beside her, “whom you had been conversing with over the phone, regarding your injury. Diana Reid was elsewhere in the home, and exhibited aggressive behavior towards the medical techs when they entered the domicile. Your head injury is severe, and the fact that you were locked in Mr. Reid’s room has proved cause for speculation.”
Gentry’s brow crinkled, and Lyana knew immediately what was coming. “Into whether your injury was caused by Diana Reid.” He waited for her to speak, but she couldn’t, so he continued. “The department has been informed that Diana is a frequent patient of this hospital, and that she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia just over fifteen years ago. Her husband, William Reid, was admitted here shortly after Spencer’s birth; after going off her medication during her pregnancy, her behavior was erratic and eventually skewed towards violence. She stabbed William in the shoulder with a butter knife. So it wouldn’t be the first time that she exhibited any- any worrisome behavior.”
Lyana swallowed. Her head was whirling--did Spencer know about that did Spencer know that she stabbed his father or that she went off her meds while she was pregnant with him--but her choice, thankfully, was clear.
“Thank you for your concern, Sergeant, but Diana didn’t have anything to do with it. I spent my lunchtime at school cramming for a history test I had later that day,” true, “and I didn’t take the time to eat anything,” untrue- she had scarfed two slices of pizza with one hand and flipped through her textbook with the other, “and I was really bad about drinking water that day, too,” untrue, “and the temperature that day was, what, in the hundred’s?” True. “I was already feeling woozy when I walked into the Reids’ home, and I stumbled and hit my head when I got into the kitchen. Diana was having an episode, I could tell, but she didn’t help me because she couldn’t, because she’s not capable when she’s in that state, and she shouldn’t be held liable.
“So I called Spencer, first, just to let him know about his Mom,” she was throwing a total Hail Mary, hoping to God that the police hadn’t gotten any recordings of the calls from their house that day, “and then I went into his room and locked the door for some privacy. He called me back, realizing that I didn’t sound very good. I started to black out around then, but I remember hearing him yelling for his roommate, Hugh, who I would assume he had call 911 while he stayed on the line with me?”
Gentry didn’t believe a single fucking word. He was the opposite of Spencer; she could see every emotion, plain as day, on his face. And right then, he was a mixture of surprised, and annoyed, and defeated, and- and curious. He seemed smart, so he’d probably at least half-expected her to lie. Maybe he just hadn’t expected her to remember the call out before the call in.
Lyana watched him choose his words carefully. He finally said, “So your injury came about from some poorly-timed heat stroke?”
“Yes, sir, I’m afraid that’s the case.” She smiled sheepishly. “You’d think that I’d have adjusted to Vegas life by now, right? I left Wyoming nearly three years ago; I really need to get it together. Such a newbie mistake. And one of my legal guardians is a doctor to boot! Truly, truly embarrassing.”
She stopped herself from saying anything further; she was pretty confident she was beating the whole oh-gosh-oh-golly-what-a-dolt-I-am defense into a wholly dead pulp.
Bumgarner took it upon himself to approach the bed again. Lyana would’ve put money on the fact that he hadn’t found anything shady in her response to the interrogation alone, but it would take a particularly special kind of stupid to ignore Gentry’s reaction to all of it; the man was practically vibrating with disbelief. Bumgarner was absolutely going off his partner’s body language, and Lyana almost wanted to respect him for it.
He came to a stop a few--daring--feet in front of Evie, who was positively glowering at him. (Evie was the most even-tempered person Lyana had ever met. Sometimes she thought that her aunt must’ve been a saint in a previous life- and often she found it incredibly difficult to believe that she and Evie were the ones related by blood, not her and Kate. But there was one thing that would send Evie into a rage, and it was when anyone decided that it would be a good idea to pose a harm to her family. Especially Kate.)
So Evie must’ve been exuding some pretty dangerous energy in his direction, because Bumgarner took a stumbling half-step back before gathering himself up and crossing his arms in front of his chest. He cleared his throat, darting his eyes between Kate and Evie all the while, and asked Lyana, “So you really think that we’re going to believe this very convenient story of yours? You’re telling me that my partner and I have wasted the past two days, our precious time, investigating your injury- only for it to all be an accident?”
“Yes, sir.” She valiantly resisted the urge to respond with That’s exactly what I’m saying, numbnuts. As tempting as it was, she didn’t want to try her luck too much with pushing this guy’s buttons. “I believe the saying is that accidents happen, and this is, y’know, that.”
Gentry crested the opposite side of the bed, lining up with his partner. “We would understand if you were trying to protect Diana, kiddo. You wouldn’t be in any trouble if that was the case, if you’d lied to keep her safe. But we’re worried about her, too, and about everyone else that she’s going to come into contact with- and if she did hurt you, it’s in everyone’s best interest for you to tell us. You’d be keeping who knows how many other people safe. And you’d be ensuring that she finally gets some real help. I have a feeling she needs it.”
Lyana swallowed. Imperceptibly. She knew that Gentry was waiting for her to trip up, that he’d probably been trained in the academy to use that exact kind of psychology to elicit a damning response from her.
She couldn’t afford the time she needed to think about her answer, so she just let it fall out of her mouth and tried her best to steer it as gracefully as she could. “Sergeant, if I thought that Diana presented any kind of threat, I would be the first person to give you and your partner a call. I can’t say with any sort of certainty that I value my own safety enough to make the right choice in all this, but I- I value his,” she looked at Spencer, “more than- than anything else in the world. I can promise you, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself, thinking that I had put him in any kind of danger.” Lyana blinked back the tears that had crept up, all sudden and slippery. While guilt twisted itself up into her throat. “Um, do you need anything else from me? Any more questions? I’m- I’m really tired.”
Gentry still wasn’t satisfied, but he was pacified- enough for him to nod at Bumgarner and signal for the door. And after a few mumbled Alright, thank you for your time’s and Please give us a call if you have anything else you want to say’s, they shuffled out of the room.
Evie and Kate turned to face her once they were alone, and Lyana realized (with a bit of an anxious jolt) that they had seen right through it all, too. She couldn’t tell if they were angry with her, or disappointed, or- or sad?
“You’re going to need a few more days of bedrest here in the hospital,” Evie said, picking through her words like she was stepping through mud. “And after that, you’re going to need to take it really--and I mean really --easy for a few weeks. So Kate and I are going to be taking over your after-school visits with Diana until you’re better.” Which meant, You’re too little to be doing such a big-kid job. At least, that’s what it felt like. “And we can talk more about all of this once you’re home.” You’re going to tell us what really happened once Spencer’s back at CalTech and you’re not at risk of falling back into a little coma from the stress. “Okay?”
Lyana nodded. She graciously accepted their ginger kisses on her forehead, and she settled back against the pillows of her bed at their insistence, and then she watched them walk out of the room, too.
She exhaled loudly the moment she was alone. Lyana felt awful; she’d gone years without telling any lies bigger than inconsequential fibs, years of being honest and forthright and true. And not only had she just lied, which was bad enough- she had lied to police officers and, far more importantly, her aunts.
She wasn’t sure if the swirling in her stomach was leftover from her injury or if it was a sour aftereffect of her guilt. Either way, she knew she deserved it. She was losing herself.
What I told Gentry was true. Spencer’s safety is more important to me than anything- and yet I went and put us both at risk by not being more vocal about Diana’s condition. I got hurt this time, but what if I’d missed the countertop and hadn’t said anything? What if Spencer was the one that got sent to the hospital instead? What if it’d been worse than this? What if he’d-
“I can’t believe you did that.”
Lyana opened her eyes and found Spencer looking at her. She wasn’t ready for him to be awake, not yet. Her heart felt like it was sloshing through bilge, pounding slow and sickly against her chest. “Did what?”
He blinked a few times, the way he did whenever he was trying hard not to cry. “You lied for her.”
“How long were you awake?”
“The whole time.”
She exhaled loudly. “Jesus.”
“Why did you do that?”
“I was- I was trying to respect your wishes, y’know? You made it real clear that you don’t want her committed, and it sounded like those cops were going to do at least that, if not arrest her, too. I didn’t want her to go through any of it. Or you.” She paused. “Or me. I don’t want to lose her.”
His brow furrowed, and the stress on his face finally helped her notice that his eyes were swollen, all soft and red. It made her ache to look at. “Why would you- After everything she did- Twenty-three times-”
“It wasn’t her fault, Spencer.” Lyana swallowed. “I’m sorry for being so angry with you over the phone about it. I know it’s not her fault. I just- I feel real helpless whenever it happens. And I love her, I love her so much, and all I want is to be able to make things better for her, and to keep her healthy and safe, and I can’t, and I don’t know what to do-”
Spencer interrupted her, probably without meaning to, by taking her face between his hands and pressing his forehead against hers as tenderly as he could. It sent little sparks of pain rocketing through her brain but she didn’t care, she didn’t care. After everything that had happened, this was the only thing she wanted. Just him holding her in the quiet.
When their hearts had finally found the time to slow, they spoke softly. Spencer apologized for the way he’d been avoiding everything she’d been trying to tell him about his mother. He admitted that he had been trying so hard to convince himself that she was capable of getting better that he’d started blocking out any sign that she was doing, well, the opposite.
“Even without all that, I should’ve listened to you. I shouldn’t have cut you off and hung up on you when you were only trying to help us both,” he said. A tear sped down his cheek and he swiped it away. “I’m never going to do that again. I promise. And you’ve been right the whole time; Marianne needs to stay longer. I’m going to call my dad and tell him that we need to extend her for a couple hours, at least. Maybe more. And Kate- Kate said she’s going to take more of an active role in making sure my mom gets the care she needs whenever Marianne isn’t there.”
Lyana didn't have any words, just a boundless feeling of relief that flung itself throughout her body. All that angry tightness in her chest dissipated. And God, it felt good.
She finally asked him about school, about how he was managing to miss so many classes during this unexpected trip home. Spencer relayed that Hugh had footed the bill for a taxi to take him all the way back to Vegas on Tuesday, the very minute they’d gotten off the phone with the EMTs, and had been handling things with all of Spencer’s professors ever since.
“I think I have to go back in time for classes on Monday,” he mumbled ruefully. “But until then, I’m here.”
“Kate must be pulling some strings, letting you stay here after visiting hours.”
Spencer nodded, a smile just barely pulling at the corners of his mouth. “Yeah. She met me outside the ER, tipped the taxi driver, and led me in here. And it looked like some of the doctors wanted to say something, but I’m pretty sure Kate just gave them all the death stare.”
“That’s my girl.” Lyana shifted, hissing under her breath when her head cried out in protest, and lay down against Spencer’s chest. The steady thud of his heart against her ear was a precious comfort.
He told her that there had been either a doctor or a nurse in the room, constantly, until the neurology specialist had come back and said that all of the tests had come back with encouraging results- that there wasn’t any swelling in the brain, and that Lyana would probably wake up within a day or two. And that Lyana had in fact woken up a few hours after the specialist’s announcement.
She winced at the thought of so many people watching over her while she had been unconscious. It felt weird in a way she didn’t quite know how to describe.
“And how’re you doing?” she asked him. Desperate for a distraction, and even moreso worried about the fact that he had been watching over her, too, for all that time without any sign of good news.
“I’m not the one with a traumatic brain injury.”
“But you are the one with a big ole hatred of hospitals.”
He quirked another almost-smile. “I’m okay, now. The first night was really bad. I thought you weren’t going to wake up, and that the last conversation we ever had was so- so angry, and it felt like I’d just lost everything. But having to sit and think about all of that really drowned out all the things I hate about hospitals, so...so it hasn’t really mattered.” Spencer thumbed her cheek. His eyes were full, again, almost spilling down his face. “I thought you were gone.”
“Hey, give me some more credit. I’m staying in this stupid skin-sack until we’re both a hundred years old, and we’re both going to die at literally the exact same time. Okay?”
“That’s not how it’s going to work.”
“Says logic, and science, and-”
Spencer sniffled. “You can’t just pffft death.”
“Except I just did?”
“The likelihood of either of us surviving past seventy is incredibly low, statistically-”
“Spencer, my love, that’s not what we’re ruled by.” He gave her a quizzical look, so she continued. “We’re not the stuff of history and rules and data sets, of expectations and supposed-to-be’s. We’re the stuff of fate and magic, we’re epic heroes, and we’re not going to lead average lives. We haven’t been alive for very long at all and we’re not leading average lives. Are you telling me that it’s statistically likely that I was supposed to experience both my parents dying--one of them violently--and being raped, and losing two of my fingers, and falling in love, all before I turned fourteen? And that you were supposed to go through your parents’ separation, your mom’s mental illness? That you were supposed to be born with the fucking insane genius that you have? Is any of that- Are any of those things normal?”
He was smiling; she could hear it. A small one, but it was there. “No.”
“Okay, then. So: we can discuss death again in just over eighty-six years, and not a second earlier. Got it?”
Spencer chuckled and leant down, kissed the tip of her nose. “I’d settle for tabling it for another ten years.”
He brushed some of her hair out of her face and she realized, right then, that she hadn’t showered since- since Monday, right? And it didn’t feel like any nurses had given her a sponge bath.
“Do I smell really fucking awful?”
“It’s not your usual soap-and-shampoo smell, but it’s not awful.” He was grinning. “You were practically in a coma for two days and you’re insecure about the fact that you couldn’t shower?”
“Shut up. I feel grody.”
“You’re the opposite.”
Lyana blushed in spite of herself. “I guess if you can still find the wherewithal to moon over me, even in this state- we’re definitely going to still love each other in eighty-six years.”
Spencer kissed her. “Definitely.”
“Sidetrack: what is up with us having these deep conversations lying in bed like this all the time?”
“We’re probably just really lazy.”
“It does seem like that’s the case.”
“Want this to be how we die? Curled up just like this, as we were so many times in life?”
Lyana cackled. “Under any other context, that might be seen as a threat, sweetheart.”
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
She smiled. It was.
Chapter 10: July 29th, 1995
Spencer thinks about the future.
Spencer didn’t know what the hell he was doing.
Things with his mother had improved. She was normal, most of the time, now that Marianne was staying longer and ensuring that she was taking her medication. When Spencer walked into the house during the day, he was more than likely to find that Marianne and Diana were lounging in armchairs and reading together in comfortable silence.
It feels like I’m back in college again, living with a roommate, Diana had said on one of her more lucid days. And it’s a good thing that ole Marianne likes the quiet as much as I do, otherwise I might go crazy. Ha!
(Spencer hadn’t thought it was very funny, but he’d appreciated her attempt at cracking a joke all the same.)
And Lyana was okay. Lyana was okay. She’d gotten to leave the hospital a couple of days after she’d woken up, and after a month of Evie and Kate handling her with kid gloves, she was back to her old self, too. All reckless and brave. If not a little more...flinchy.
But even with all of that blessed normalcy, he would wake up in the middle of the night sweating and shaking. His dreams were plagued with the image of Lyana unconscious in his bedroom, covered in her vomit and blood. The doctors telling him that she wasn’t ever going to wake up. And his mother being sent away to some fortress of a mental hospital where he wasn’t allowed to see her.
If for nothing else, the nightmares had provided him with--ironically--a much-needed wake-up call.
Before Lyana, Spencer hadn’t thought much about what life with his mother would be like after he graduated high school. He had been so focused on leaving Eldorado and all of his bullies and bad memories behind, he hadn’t taken any time to factor in where Diana fit into any of it. It made him want to curse himself. All this genius, all these gifts, and his supercomputer of a brain hadn’t bothered to warn him that he was forgetting something? That he should sit down and figure out how the fuck he was supposed to care for his own mother as the years passed and his priorities changed?
Now that he was thinking about it, he kept finding himself drowning in the futility of it all. In the fact that he couldn’t come up with any plan that held any sort of promise- let alone one that was logical, or doable.
Committing her was out of the question; he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he sent his mother to be cared for by a group of strangers, away from her home and everything that made her, her. But the way things were, they couldn’t last forever. Just because Spencer’s dad felt guilty, now, and was paying for everything, now, that didn’t mean that he’d still be doing all of that a year from now, or five, or ten. Let alone however long it would take for Spencer to be making his own money and be able to provide for her.
And after all of that- where did Lyana stand in all of this? How long would she put up with it all?
Even if she did manage to stick out everything with him and his mother, everything that he would have to do and sacrifice in order to keep Diana cared for in the way that she deserved...would Lyana be able to stay with him if things changed with him, too? If he became the one that needed the sacrifices made on his behalf, or to be cared for so completely?
The genetic component of paranoid schizophrenia had sat in the back of Spencer’s mind for as long as he could remember. And it had stayed right there, quiet and vaguely blurry, just enough so that he didn’t have to spend his time or energy thinking about it.
He hadn’t realized why it had remained a non-issue until recently, when he was settling in bed with Lyana after a particularly beautiful day; he’d discovered that, especially when he was around her, his thoughts had become predominantly future-tense.
He wanted to live.
Spencer hadn’t known that part of himself- that he hadn’t been thinking about anything, long term, because he hadn’t expected to make it past being twelve-years-old. And when he finally had noticed it was there, he hadn’t been entirely surprised. After all, how the hell was he supposed to have believed that he’d survive to twenty or thirty when he was having the shit kicked out of him every other day? When he was so viciously alone and unprotected?
Or perhaps...perhaps he just hadn’t wanted to. Even with all of those teachers and counselors telling him every single day that he was bursting to the seams with promise, all of it had softened into white noise after a while. He’d needed something bigger to hang onto, to look forward to.
He’d needed someone whose arms felt like home, who made him remember that he was strong.
And then the universe had decided that he did in fact deserve to meet that person. That they’d rescue him and change his life so utterly and completely that he didn’t have any choice in the matter anymore; he needed to live. He needed to see what else this new life of his had in store for him. And now, every conversation he had with Lyana about their future together was making that quiet little thought about his family’s illness a little bit louder and clearer each day.
Spencer didn’t want to think about it. Paranoid schizophrenia spelled so much doom for him; the likelihood that he would get it was a lot higher than he was comfortable with, and he wouldn’t even know if he was afflicted until he was in his early to mid-thirties. He could start setting the stage for his adult life, could be at the job of his dreams, be married to Lyana, have a child with her, children with her- and then he could lose his mind. He could tear his family apart.
He knew that medicine was improving every day, and that his mother was a particularly harsh case. They had met other people with mental illnesses at the plethora of hospitals and groups he had attended with her, and the vast majority of them were managing their illnesses well. Taking their medication on time and relying on their support network.
And Spencer knew it was selfish of him to be so repulsed by the idea of it all. That so many people had it so much worse. He’d been gifted with such a brilliant mind so young, and wouldn’t it be fair, then? To be brilliant for thirty years and then repay that gift by having to focus on giving his mind a lot more care?
He just couldn’t shake the idea of- of what it would feel like to not be able to trust his brain. His brain was his whole life. He lived, breathed, and died by his genius. What kind of person would he be if he couldn’t rely on himself to learn, to solve problems?
Every time he tried to think about it, he’d feel sick with anxiety. And he hated himself for it, for his inability to imagine a world where he was something...something lesser. As awful and conceited as that sounded. He was convinced that coming up with a back-up plan would make him feel better, at least, and yet he couldn’t even appear to manage a task so simple.
Was it his arrogance that was preventing him from admitting defeat? Or was it fear?
And even without all of that, even if he managed it well, there would be days where things wouldn’t go to plan. Where he’d slip up. Where he’d lose himself. What if he scared Lyana, or hurt her? His mother had already hurt the both of them so many times, and it didn’t matter that he knew she didn’t mean to; the hurt had happened all the same. How the hell would he be able to live with himself, knowing that he’d hurt the person he loved most in this world?
Spencer sighed, exasperated, and shoved the orange blanket over his face. Slowly crawling out of the suffocating little spiral he had found himself in- the same spiral he kept tripping into whenever he was left alone with his pernicious and prickly thoughts. He curled his fists into the well-worn fabric.
I’d give anything, anything, if someone just told me what the answer was, he thought. If someone just told me what to do, or-
Spencer quickly flung the blanket off his face, embarrassed to have been caught in such a goofy position. When he surfaced, he found Lyana looking at him, playfully concerned. (He had been half-dozing on her bed while she took a shower; he hadn’t heard her come back into her bedroom.)
He blinked and his gaze fell down from her face, then rapidly to the floor. She was still in her towel. Before he could think of the right thing to do, his mind spun, full of wet hair and bare shoulders, of water droplets sliding lazily down freckled skin, of the bright and mischievous look in those perfect hazel eyes of hers- and she was laughing at him.
Spencer returned the blanket to his face, feeling the heat from his cheeks immediately turn the temporary shelter into a magnificently uncomfortable and sweaty situation. “You’re being really rude,” he called out, half-pathetic and wholly flustered, knowing that his voice was probably muffled. “I thought you brought your clothes into the bathroom with you.”
“I did, too. Turns out I forgot them.”
“So you decided to take the opportunity to torment me?”
“You really know how to make a girl feel treasured, sweetheart.”
“I can treasure you and still be tormented by you standing there in just a towel!” He chuckled in spite of himself. “Aren’t you the one that’s always calling me a normal teenage boy? Making fun of me for having the brain of ‘a seven-hundred-year-old genius wizard’ and somehow still being subject to hormones and puberty, just like the rest of us?”
Lyana was giggling, too. “You’re right, you’re right. I’m sorry for being a big rude tormenter. I’ve got my clothes on, now.”
Spencer pulled the blanket back off his face- very, very slowly. She hadn’t lied; she was dressed. But then he realized that he was disappointed about it and found himself blushing furiously anyway.
She flopped onto the bed next to him and let out a contented little sigh as she settled onto the pillows. “So what have we got on deck for today?”
“I thought it was your turn to pick.”
“Nuh-uh, I picked yesterday. We went to see Judge Dredd, remember?”
Spencer exhaled loudly, smiling even in his defeat. “I know, I just haven’t come up with anything. I figured maybe I’d take a chance and hope that you’d forgotten, that I’d get another day to think of something.”
Lyana ran her fingers through his hair. “You alright, Spence?” He shook his head. “Still stuck on the same thing?”
“I can’t stop thinking about it.”
“About something that might happen to you in twenty years?”
“I wish it was that easy.” Spencer sighed, thunking his forehead against hers. “I just can’t shut any of it off. I think- I think I need an answer. A plan. If I don’t have something like that to cling to, I think I’m just going to keep coming back to it over and over again.”
She thumbed his cheek, sending electric little ripples coursing through his body. “Okay. Well, it’s your head, and it’s your life. What would you want to happen? What would make you feel the safest?”
“You there with me.”
“Asshole, that’s a given. What else?”
Spencer frowned and mumbled, “That’s not a given. You- You’ve already been through so much with my mom, and it’s- It’ll be different, if it’s me. Right? It’ll hurt differently, and we’re going to be adults, and we might not have the help that we have now, and, and-” He shut his eyes tight. “I need you to be realistic about this. I love how you slip into the fantastical stuff, you make me see how magical the world is, but for this, I need you to-”
“To confirm your worst fears, that this will be the thing that makes me leave you. If I don’t leave you before that because of all the stuff with your mom, or because I’ve found someone more beautiful, somehow, or more normal, if that’s an actual thing that anyone wants, or because I am just fated to leave you like everyone else in your life has left you. Right?” Spencer opened his eyes and saw that hers were fixed on him, and shining. Genuine. “Look, I wish I could give you the concrete certainty that you need. Fuck knows I have doubts, too; I see the way you hold back when we’re kissing and it just reminds me that you might want to leave me someday because of all my stuff, or because you find someone more beautiful or normal, or anything like that. But then you grab my hands, my stupid ugly hands, and you remind me that you’re here with me, now, and I know. I know that you’re not going anywhere anytime soon. And I don’t have any logic, any reason to put behind any of that. It’s just a feeling. All I have is me being sure, Spencer, and I’m so fucking sure about you, and I’m sure about me with you. Always.”
He didn’t know when it had happened, but he felt a tear slip down his cheek. And before he could reach up with his shirtsleeve, she quickly kissed it away, like she always did when he cried. The sensation of her lips catching his tear--a gesture he had, somehow, become used to over the past year--rocketed through his body, and he felt calm, again. That same calm he’d experienced after coming out to her on Valentine’s Day- like he didn’t have a single damn thing to worry about.
And even though it didn’t make any sense to him, not even a little bit, he understood what she meant. About not having any reason or logic to back up how sure he felt about her. It was- It was like walking home in the dark. Even though his eyes were closed, he knew the way. He’d always know the way.
Spencer’s heart cracked open, and all that dangerous hope poured right in. And he asked, softly, “How do you always know the right thing to say?”
“Not all of us can be geniuses.” A bright (and relieved) smile played upon her face. “Now, come on. We always get sidetracked in our sappiness. Besides me being there, what else do you need?”
“We should have savings. In case I get to the point my mom’s at, where I can’t work. And a safehouse, I guess. A friend you can stay with if you need to take a breather, or if I’m in the hospital, so you aren’t alone. Like you guys have been for me. And we should wait to have kids for as long as we can.” Spencer paused, flustered. “I mean- Fuck. I dunno if I even want that. I just- If we want them-”
Lyana kissed him. “If we want them, we’ll wait. You’re okay. I’m not weirded out, you huge dork.” She brushed some hair out of his eyes. “So: me, savings, safehouse, waiting on our TBD kids- anything else?”
There wasn’t. Maybe there would be more to add to the list as they got older and as they had more things to worry about- but for now, that was all he could think of. It was everything he needed and God, he wanted to just scream from the relief of it all. From knowing that it had really been as simple as asking for help to get the answer that he needed.
Instead, he circled his arms around Lyana and squeezed tight, and she squeezed him back, nestling into the crook of his neck. He shivered; he was so sensitive there. Especially with her mouth just barely ghosting against the tendon, and especially because she was still so warm from her shower-
Spencer exhaled softly and shifted. Tried to move back as infinitesimally as he could without alerting her as to what he was doing. But, of course, no part of that worked. Not even a little.
“Am I squishing you?”
“No, no. Um-”
Lyana pulled back a little to look at him, her eyes flitting over his face, his neck. Both flushed a righteous shade of pink. He couldn’t quite figure out what she was thinking; he’d never seen that expression on her before. Some mysterious cocktail of analytical, and curious, and guarded, mixed with that look she always got before she did something reckless and brave, and...and hunger? Was that it? Why would that make any sense?
He watched her swallow and had to grit his teeth at the sight. Jesus Christ. When had he become so fucking susceptible to the things he had used to be able to ignore?
“Can I- Can I kiss you there?”
“Here?” He tentatively brought his hand up to his neck- and felt all of the blood in his body rush into his face when she nodded. “Are you sure you want to? I- I don’t want you to feel like you have to because I’m being...being squirmy? Is that the right word?”
“I’m sure.” Her brow was furrowed, and she was smiling, and it was altogether a mind-boggling thing to behold. “It’s like what Dusky said, right? To follow the good feelings when they come, and to be safe about it?” Dusky was what Lyana had nicknamed her therapist, whose actual name was Dr. Mari Donskoi. And apparently the woman was so overwhelmingly good-natured, she had welcomed the nickname without a touch of irony or distaste. “I- I don’t know what it is about...about this, specifically, but I really want to do it. If it’s okay.”
Spencer blinked a few more times than he probably should have before he finally managed to eke out, “It’s okay.”
Lyana nodded, determined. “Here, come sit up with me.”
He followed her lead and got up, pressing his back against the wall her bed crested. She joined him, shoulder-to-shoulder, and then turned to face him. His heart thudded uneven. Stuttering.
She cupped his face in her hands and pulled him close- and then they were kissing, long and soft and slow. And then she was trailing kisses from the side of his mouth, across his cheek, and then down towards his neck, separating each one with a slightly greater pause.
Lyana stopped at his jawline. “Still okay?”
“Yeah.” His voice was hoarse; when the hell had that happened? “Are you?”
“Mhm. You can- You can touch me, you know.”
She blushed. “You always keep your hands at your sides when we’re kissing, or real light on my waist, and I super appreciate the chasteness and all that but- but you don’t have to do that. I’ll tell you if I don’t like something you’re doing, or anything like that, I promise. But we’ll never know how far I can go if we don’t start, um, trying things. So- So touch me wherever you want to.”
Fuck, fuck, fuck. His mouth was so dry, and his pants were feeling so goddamn restricting, and the pillows were so far away, so how in God’s name was he supposed to hide everything that was happening? What if she saw?
But then she was kissing his neck, and that was a whole other problem.
The sensation of it all was so overwhelming. He’d known that the touch, the contact, that those would send his nerves dancing, but the sound- the sound of her mouth as it moved from place to place on his neck was somehow even moreso an issue.
Spencer was mortified--but unsurprised--when a soft moan fell out of his throat. She tightened her grip on his hair in response, and grazed him with her teeth. Gently, at first, but then with a lot more confidence and purpose. He hadn’t realized that something that had always sounded so weird and vampiric would feel so...so lovely. And vaguely dangerous.
“Uh-huh.” He grabbed her waist, and then very gingerly slipped his fingers beneath the hem of her shirt. “Okay?”
Lyana grinned. “Yeah. Yeah? Yeah.” She giggled, her eyes dancing with joy and relief. “Sorry, I’m not trying to ruin the moment, I’m just- I’m so happy that it’s okay. C’mere.”
They fell back into each other, soft and dazed, and Spencer couldn’t completely wrap his head around the fact that any of this was happening. His hands were ghosting along her ribcage and she was so gloriously warm, and she was happy, smiling so fully against his mouth and his neck, like she wasn’t afraid of anything in the world, like nothing bad had ever happened to her.
She pulled away from him, just for a moment, and he took the opportunity to brush her hair away from her shoulders and start kissing her neck, too. Lyana sighed, contentedly.
“Y’know, I always thought this whole thing was a little bit too Dracula, but turns out it is actually- actually- Spencer Walter Reid, are you going to keep biting me every time I try to finish a freakin’ sentence?”
“You finished one right there; I must not be doing a good enough job.” He chuckled. “And I thought the same thing! The vampire thing. I can’t believe we both had that in our heads.”
Lyana rolled her eyes. “We’re so gross.”
She bonked his forehead and kissed him, and then she blurted out, “Can I take off your shirt?”
“What? Fuck. Okay. Yes.” He helped her wrestle him out of the worn old thing before he could think about it too much, and he exhaled shakily when it was off. Shivering. Spencer’s head spun, desperately wanting her to say something because God, he felt so vulnerable and insecure. He didn’t feel like a peak physical specimen, by any means, and what if seeing him like this made her think twice about ever being intimate with him again?
And then he thought of the fact that she had seen him without a shirt on once before. That- That two dozen of his classmates had seen him, and they had let him know exactly what they thought of his body.
Skinny freak, little pencil dick, pathetic, no one’s ever gonna want this kid, ugly ugly ugly ugly-
“You’re so beautiful. Jesus.”
Spencer blinked hard. “I- I thought that you already knew what I- You saw me before, right?”
“From a distance. I, like, knew you were naked, but I kept my eyes skyward as soon as I got close enough for you to be a little sharper than a blob. And even if I had seen something, that was nearly two years ago, and my memory is pretty garbage.” Lyana’s face was bright red. “I, um- I would’ve remembered this, though. Like for real, are you kidding me? I thought that maybe, maybe you got all of the pretty in your face and your hands, that that had to be how the universe let you be that gorgeous. I am pissed that you’re just that pretty everywhere. Jesus.”
There were tears burning his eyes that he hadn’t felt creep up. Spencer had spent his entire life avoiding his reflection, especially when he had his clothes off; every time he caught a glimpse of his body, he’d find himself recoiling with disappointment and- and hatred, really. He hated the way he looked. Too skinny, and concave, and so fucking pale.
As much as he had wanted to move forward with Lyana, when she had told him about how all of her trauma had made anything sexual a potential no-go, he had felt relieved. If they never went any further, then she would never have to see him like this; he would never have to worry about her thinking any less of him because of how he looked without his clothes on. He’d never have to worry about her realizing exactly how much she was missing.
But the way she was looking at him, right then, her eyes glistening with a kind of reverence he was lucky enough to recognize...for the first time in his life, he felt like he could maybe believe that he was just a little bit beautiful.
If only for a little while.
“You mean it?” he mumbled.
“Probably the truest thing I’ve ever said.” Lyana bumped his forehead and lingered there, tenderly rubbing her nose against his. “Are you okay? What’re you thinking about?”
Spencer managed a small smile. “I’m okay. I just- I’m glad you don’t think I’m- I’m glad you like the way I look. And I’m still feeling weirdly vulnerable? Probably because the last time I had my shirt off in front of another person, it was a lot of people, and I didn’t want it to happen, and-” He inhaled, exhaled. “I guess my brain hasn’t really gotten the message that nothing like that is happening right now. That I’m safe here.”
“What can I do?”
“I dunno.” He felt so ashamed. He’d wanted this, wanted progress like this, for so long, and now he was completely fucking it up by being scared to have his shirt off. “I’m sorry, I’m completely ruining this.”
“Shh, you aren’t. You aren’t ruining this at all.” Lyana cupped his face in her hands. “Would it help if I- if I took mine off, too?”
He hadn’t noticed whether his heart was pounding before, but it certainly was, now. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to just because I’m being all weird about this, Ly, especially if you aren’t ready-”
“I’m ready. But only if you’re okay with it.”
Spencer took a deep breath and nodded- first to himself, and then to her.
Lyana kissed his forehead and then wiggled away, just enough so that she could get her shirt off without elbowing him in the face. When it was gone, Spencer could see that she was very consciously combating the urge to cover up her stomach with her arms- and he could also see that she was fighting back a big and triumphant smile, too. She was still flushed, blushing, and Spencer could see it in the color of her chest: blooming below the base of her neck, like the most beautiful sunburst he’d ever seen. (If sunbursts had freckles.)
She proffered a pitiful, “Ta-da.”
He found himself grinning. “Are you okay?”
“Aside from the weirdly vulnerable part, which I would assume is a normal thing--it has to be, right?--I feel great, actually? I think it’s because I did it myself, so there was agency to it, right? Fuck, I dunno. I’m okay.”
“You’re beautiful.” She was. The freckles thinned out as they traveled down her chest, completely vanishing at the top of her breasts. Spencer swallowed. Her bra was white, somehow nearly as pale as her skin, and he was trying so hard not to stare. And to distract himself from the sudden and glaring urge to kiss every single inch of her stomach. “Really, unfairly beautiful.”
“Asshole.” Lyana smiled in spite of it. There was a bright little spark in her eyes, half-mischievous, half-loving, and in that moment he would’ve given up every single iota of his genius to know what he needed to do to keep that spark alive for the rest of time. “Did this help at all? You feel safer?”
He did. Spencer still felt a little more exposed than he wanted to be, but seeing her like this made his brain calm down. They were equals in their defenselessness; that had to be it. Knowing that he wasn’t alone.
Or maybe his stupid monkey brain was just short-circuiting over the fact that there was a beautiful, shirtless girl in front of him. He knew he’d be an idiot to not at least consider that possibility.
Spencer bit his lip, holding back a guilty smile, and said, “I am, actually, yeah.”
“Are you, uh- Do you wanna keep going?”
“Yeah, yeah. You?”
“Yeah, I’m good.” She blew out a short puff of air. “Okay. I’ll let you know if things take a bad turn for me, and you’ll let me know if the same happens for you. Promise?”
With trembling hands struggling to keep steady, she reached out and touched his collarbone, his chest. His stomach. And even though the touch was soft, just her fingers tracing gently across his skin, it didn’t hurt. Not even a prickle. Instead, he felt...precious. Beloved. Like she didn’t want to risk grabbing him too hard, here, lest he break.
It was so goddamn beautiful, to be handled delicately.
She let out a gentle sigh when he leant in to kiss her, and another when he splayed his hands across her ribcage, directionless, helpless. And then, even though he was petrified of doing something wrong or something that would hurt her, he began to slowly move to other places.
No bad turns. No bad reactions. Just her smiling against his mouth. She was alive, swirling warmth beneath his fingertips, leaning into his touch like he was doing something right. Like this was easy.
Lyana pulled him closer, winding her arms around his back and dragging her hands down the ridges of his spine, up between his shoulderblades. It felt like she was trying to map him out with her eyes closed. She left one arm wrapped around his waist and brought the other to rest on his chest, right over where his heart was gleefully hammering away.
They finally broke apart; it felt like Lyana was about to ask him something. But before she could-
“Hey, kiddos! I’m home! If you’re doing anything inappropriate, you’ve got as long as it takes me to put these groceries away to get decent!”
(That was Evie’s standard call into the house when she knew that Spencer and Lyana had been there, alone, while she was out. Lyana usually came out immediately to greet her and prove that they hadn’t been doing anything of the sort- but today, for the first time in over a year, that wasn’t going to happen.)
They scrambled to put their shirts back on, frantically giggling. “Shit, shit, shit,” Lyana mumbled under her breath. She skittered to the mirror on the opposite side of her room and started patting her hair back down in an attempt to not appear so positively frazzled.
Before Spencer could say something to try and calm her down, Evie walked into the room; the door had been left open, which the two of them now knew was a mortal error. She quietly surveyed the two teenagers in front of her, and Spencer was certain that they were conspicuously radiating with guilt.
“Were you two actually doing something inappropriate?” Evie looked like she was trying desperately not to laugh- and given that she was a big purveyor of mirth in the Zayas-Jacobs household, this was an immense feat. Even the way she dressed made people smile. That day, Evie had gone out to run errands in a bonafide and well-tailored three-piece suit, but her frizzy blonde hair was in a large and untidy pouf on top of her head, and she had finished the ensemble with a vibrantly purple shade of lipstick. It was, Spencer thought with a great deal of admiration, incredibly on-brand for her. Polished, devil-may-care goofiness that somehow exuded an incomprehensible amount of power all the same.
“We were- I- It’s none of your business, ma’am!” Lyana spluttered.
“No, not nice! Shut up! Out of my room!”
“Ooh, Kate bet that you wouldn’t become a bratty teenager until you turned 15, so thank you for the payday, yon fiery lass!” Lyana groaned loudly and covered up her face with her hands, just in time for Evie to strut out of the room and down the hall with her arms held high above her head, triumphant. She called out to no one in particular, “My niece is getting action and I’m getting paid! Thank you, universe!”
Spencer finally clambered off the bed and wrapped Lyana up in a firm hug. “Hey, that could’ve gone much worse,” he offered.
“Why can’t my aunts be weird about stuff like this, like normal parents? I think I’d prefer it to Dude, nice! Like we’re in the same frat or some shit.”
“Statistically, the ability for parental figures to have frank, open, and positive communication about sex with their kids leads to their kids being at an astronomically lower risk of contracting STDs, having unwanted pregnancies-”
“Stop being so smart and right! I am mortified and I want to wallow in it!”
Spencer buried his grin in her hair. “I love you.”
“Ugh. I love you, too."