(In which Maren and Bryce are both baby and Sebastian has emotional intelligence which is relevant).
On top of his skin, Bryce is a marvel of human composure.
Beneath it, Maren finds, he is a fuse box taken to with wire cutters and a ticking bomb, click click clicking to the moment things overflow.
The worst part is that Bryce never recognizes the bomb being planted inside him, and he never does anything but rip at the wires, unsure of how to defuse them and only doing more damage in his attempts to protect himself.
Maren might have left him alone forever if she hadn’t forcibly seen the consequences of such reckless behavior. She might’ve left him alone if she didn’t have the spilling, aching volcano building inside her stomach every minute, pressure along the fault lines of her soul shoving and shoving until everything becomes too much and she either pops and implodes, a vicarious black hole, or panics and explodes, a Pompeii repeated. But when she finds him choking on his panic, it doesn’t feel like a decision to Heimlich the panic out of his throat. It feels like live saving, and an obligation, and a necessity, not a want, not something she can resent or even feel pleasure in. It’s drinking during a cold. Painful, hard to get down, but necessary. You can’t feel it making things better but it is making things better and the mental gymnastics you have to get through to get to the point where you do realize that is going to be worth it.
So Maren bends down and gathers Bryce in her arms. So she makes him tea and when he looks at her with wide, terrified eyes like she’ll tell someone what happened an hour or however long ago, she doesn’t say a word even both of them are wearing wet hair and new clothes and she knows Sebastian can tell something’s going on even if Siri is the more deceived.
So when Sebastian pulls her over to his side and whispers, “Are you ok,” she murmurs sharply back, “Why am I the only one you’re worried about?” and then realizes she could have ruined everything between them with those nine words.
But Sebastian looks down at her and murmurs, “Ok,” with an inscrutable look and puts a kiss on her shoulder so she knows he’s not mad before he leaves her, and the tense, strung thread between them doesn’t snap but thickens, the way it’s been doing and doing and doing.
But she doesn’t have time to wonder what would happen if she let that thread pull them closer, because she’s worrying about a different strain, and making Bryce cocoa, and telling jokes until he’s tired enough she’s sure he can sleep, and then sitting in the hall outside his room all night in case he has a nightmare.
Sebastian brings her a blanket and pillow at 11 o’clock, like this is something he’s always done, and shakes her awake at 6 before Bryce can wake up and find her there.
“Thank you,” she says,
“I’m looking now,” he says, and rubs her shoulder. “You’re my best friend,” he whispers before he gets up from there.
“You’re my best friend,” she says, and it’s a promise, but an unthreatened promise even now.
It gets more from there, gets deeper, gets mornings when Bryce’s skin is too tight and she can tell because his fingers clench in fists against his legs in school, gets evenings when Bryce doesn’t even try to go to sleep, gets nights when she doesn’t even need to be outside his room to know that there have been nightmares. Maren grabs his fingers and massages them, spars with him during those long drawn out days when Bryce wants nothing more than to rip at his skin again and again, does anything she can to make his skin feel less like a monstrosity, his soul less like a fire too cold to be worth the fuel it burns. Maren lies beside him and teaches him constellations she imagined herself as a child, until they’re a whole language only the two of them can read. Maren talks on the phone with him until they’re both hoarse when dreams cut him open so he’s bleeding out on the sheets.
She patches the dam to hold back the tidal wave and she knows she’ll never be enough alone. She’s not enough, and it’s a known fact, and it would be arrogant to assume that alone, she can patch together someone who has been ripping himself to pieces for a year longer than she’s been alive.
But she tries.
Sometimes, she even thinks she succeeds.
She notices a month or two months later that things have changed between Sebastian and Bry. Sebastian’s eyes don’t narrow at him as much in rage, but they narrow and disappear as Sebastian teases and teases and teases until Bry is shaking with the effort to keep the laughter in. It’s hard when it’s Sebastian joking, which Maren knows very well.
Sebastian still doesn’t care for Bryce or anything he’s done very much but he’s looking, those careful dark eyes unpicking and unpinning Bryce’s composure to see what’s underneath, and when Seb’s sorry, pained eyes meet hers once after he’s been looking, Maren knows he’s glimpsed the fuse box though the bomb is still hidden by wires.
It’s Siri who’s the real problem. Siri who’s own fuse box has exploded so many times it isn’t really a fuse box any more. Siri who has no idea how to manage all the weight on her, let alone Bry’s.
It’s Siri who keeps trying to take all Bryce’s weight as well as her own, not knowing Bryce is clinging to his weight like a drowning man to a life raft, not knowing that every kind word flays Bryce alive, not knowing every smile is a scream that Bryce will pile into Maren’s waiting shoulder later.
And it’s Siri who has no idea what to do about Maren and Bry’s sudden closeness, which Maren doesn’t have the vocabulary to define. Sebastian understands it, understands it in the way he understands her need to run until her lungs burn so badly she can no longer breathe, understands the way he understands the nights where she gets up at midnight and bakes or sews or does something because otherwise she’ll scrub her hands under the tap until they’re as bloody as they are behind her eyelids.
Siri loves Bryce, which is a terrible idea.
Siri is getting jealous of Maren, which is worse.
Siri does not do jealousy: does not understand envy: cannot comprehend resenting what someone else has earned: and she is jealous of Maren.
Her fingers twitch when Maren grabs Bryce arm in the hall. Perhaps to Siri it looks like flirting. To Bryce, Maren has found it looks like water when he’s dying of thirst. Bryce is touch starved and needy and he panics when the weight of gazes descend on him, and Maren’s fingers around a bare wrist help. And Siri sees it and looks up in Maren’s eyes and her expression whispers, How could you take the only thing I’ve ever wanted.
And Maren’s impassive expression must read, It was never yours, when it really reads, I can’t do anything but this, and it isn’t what you think.
It boils over eventually.
It was always going to.
Bryce wraps his arms around her before breakfast one morning, and tucks a trembling mouth against a sweat slicked neck as Maren freezes by the blender where her fruit and protein powder scream about being rearranged into something drinkable.
Siri’s eyes turn dark, and Siri says, polite and tight and furious, “Could you keep it to yourselves, please?” and Maren thinks, oh, God.
Bryce doesn’t even get what she’s saying. He doesn’t even know it’s directed at him, at his hands on Maren’s waist, and Maren is faced by a choice.
Siri or Bryce.
Shove off Bryce’s hands, explain what’s happening to Siri, let Bryce feel like she’s betraying him. Let him feel like the only person he’s reached out to has stabbed him in the back while taking his hand.
Let Bryce hold her. Let Siri’s fury grow. Let her feel like Maren is a traitor and a thief.
It is a choice she’s thought about before, and once she knew her answer would every time be Siri. She used to think when it was Bryce against Siri, Bryce would obviously be wrong. Siri would obviously be right. Siri would be the right side to choose.
But Maren’s mouth firms and the choice doesn’t feel like a choice at all as she wraps an arm over Bryce’s, face turned away from seeing Siri’s expression twist, away from Sebastian’s confusion and horror.
No, to Bry, her friend, her delicate destroyed friend with his torn and ruined heart and his broken face that hides under the perfect golden child exterior that Siri hasn’t seen through and Aaron hasn’t seen through, that mother and father and Bryce’s school “friends” and Bryce’s enemies and everyone in the world hasn’t seen through. And Maren lifts the mask and whispers, you can trust me with anything, and Siri gets up from the table and looks Maren in the eyes and says, “You never leave well enough alone, do you.”
Maren knows this is a fair accusation, so she settles for, “You’re leaving alone what shouldn’t be left.” Which is also fair.
But which is the worst possible thing to say.
And the silent line of Siri’s furious, injured, torn up and ruined mouth, reminds Maren that Siri is a ticking time bomb too, and she just cut down the time on the timer.
The explosion is not what Maren expects. The explosion is her almost dying.
She comes to incoherent and flailing in someone’s arms, ribs hurting like she’s dying, lungs and throat burned and charred to nonexistence, and she hears two voices yelling and she fights, ferocious, and she bites the person holding her till she tastes sharp blood in her mouth and then someone is whispering,
“Breathe for me, Maren, please,” an echo of a shout she made long ago, and fingers press one hand against a warm chest for her to follow even as she holds her captive pinioned between her teeth on his arm.
Her teeth release by instinct.
“GOD, MAREN,” someone cries, sounding more broken than she’s ever heard them, and she comes to awareness as Sebastian pushes her hair back on her brow, his face scarlet and terrified, tears in a flood on his cheeks. “God, I thought you were dead, God.”
He grabs her face in undignified, gentle fingers, pressing his forehead into hers, like he can meld the two of them together by sheer force of will.
She realizes it is Bryce who is holding her and she pulls back and grabs Bryce’s arm with tremulous fingers and sees the bloody bite and feels ill.
“Sorry, Bry, sorrysorrysorry—”
Bryce kisses her forehead and softly whispers, “What’s mine is yours,” which shouldn’t be something Maren understands but she does understand. It means that right now is repayment for days when Bryce was the one whose fingers were bruisingly tight with terror. It means, we were never anything less than even.
Sebastian is thanking Bryce, now, shaking hands grabbing Bryce’s. “Thank you for saving her, thank you for being her friend,” his voice terribly trembling.
The weight of those words snaps taught as Maren hears Siri say, “oh,” gently, and stare between Maren and Bryce and Sebastian, those clever old young eyes filling in the puzzle pieces in a picture not even Maren understands. Siri’s eyes flood with tears, and she whispers, “I’m so sorry,” and Maren thinks maybe they’re friends again.
The moment comes when Maren finally understands the word that’s been lingering on the tip of her tongue, there to describe Bry and their relationship to herself.
She has a word for Sebastian she dares not even whisper, but she gets closer to whispering it every day.
She has a dozen for Siri—leader, friend, companion, loyal, true, I’d walk through fire for you, I love you.
They’re at a beach, between the endless battles and dramatic fights. They’re eating watermelon and Bryce spits a watermelon seed in Maren’s ear and runs like the very intelligent coward he is.
Sebastian screams a laugh, Siri looks horrified, and Maren catches Bryce and shoves his face in the blanket as he writhes, unable to breathe. She yells at him about how disgusting he is for good measure.
“You absolute brat, it would serve you right if I told on you to mom!” and just like that she knows.
In horror she falls off Bryce and he looks up at her, slightly scandalized that she’s stopped her well deserved vengeance.
“Oh dear Lord,” Maren whispers. “You’re my baby brother, aren’t you?
(And if Bryce yells about how he isn’t a baby, but later in the silence of the house knocks on her door and buries his face in her shoulder and shakes because finally, finally he isn’t alone anymore, finally, finally he understands that she’s staying, neither of them are going to say anything about it to anyone but each other.)