Page 20 of Coercion

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Mia backs up to the furniture against the far wall.There’s a big window behind her with a view of the hospital’s atrium.In the hall, Bristol’s arguing with the nurse, her voice high and thin with fear.

It doesn’t matter.

That phrase,shaking like a leaf,is Mia right now.Her face is a deep red, and I know she wants to scream again, then scream some more after that.Her hands ball up into fists in front of her.One step to the right, then back to the left.She doesn’t glare at me, though.Her eyes are huge.Same color as Bristol’s.

Sinclair would be better at this, but Sinclair’s not here.

It feels like a standoff, which is…not what we want.It’s not just the shaking.It’s the way she’s looking at me like I’m a giant, and probably dangerous.In Mia’s mind, I’m sure it’s a fifty-fifty split—I could be nice to her, but I could also be pissed, judging by Ben’s reaction.

I can’t get shorter, so I get down on one knee and put both hands up, palms forward.

“Listen.”That’s a great start.It does, at least, connect with something else in my brain.“I’m just here to wait with you.I’ll wait with you.Until you feel better.”

Her eyes get wider, and then she narrows them, her face turning a deeper shade of red.

“I mean it.I’m just over here so that nobody else comes in.I can move if you want to leave.Do you?”

Mia shakes her head.She’s trembling so hard that she has to exaggerate.Her teeth snap together with smaller shivers.Her fists open and close.It hurts my entire chest to watch.She looks so small, in front of those windows.I want her father to live so I can beat the hell out of him myself for putting her in this situation.

“I get it.This place is the worst.Today didn’t go how you thought it would.And now we’ve been here, and it sucks.It’s bright and smells like bleach and you don’t have any of your stuff, which is also the worst.I know it feels bad right now.Terrible.It’s way too much.”

She turns her head to look at me on an angle, and a tear slips out onto her cheek.Mia’s hands ball up into fists again.

“I’m going to be in trouble.For screaming.”

“No, you’re not.Nobody’s mad.I’m not mad.Scream some more, if it helps.”My knee hurts from what has to be a concrete floor underneath thin carpeting, but I’m not going to move.“I’m not going to leave, even if you scream.Even if it’s really loud.”

Her eyes flicker between relief and suspicion.“Why?”

There’s a pain like something breaking.A rib, maybe.Near my heart.It feels brittle as fuck, like someone’s been chipping away at it and now it’s finally given up.

“Because when Emerson feels this way, he likes for someone to wait with him.”

Mia takes a single step toward me.“But.”She swallows.“He’s not a kid.”

“No, he’s not.”

“Then I bet he never screams at anyone.”Mia’s voice drops to an embarrassed whisper.She grits her teeth, but it doesn’t stop the shaking.

The only thing I can think to say is a risk, but we’re here now.It doesn’t matter if it feels risky to me.All that matters is that Mia feels safe enough to get out of the red zone.

“Not usually.But you don’t usually scream at people, either.Emerson is a lot like you.Most times, he gets really, really quiet, and goes to a room by himself.”

Mia bites at the inside of her cheek.

“This isn’t your fault, Mia.”I get a lump in my throat at the shape of the words.“Emerson says it feels awful when things get to be too much.That his lungs don’t work, and it seems like he could explode out of his body, and it hurts.”

Mia’s eyes say this is an accurate description.There go the rest of my ribs.“I bet he—I bet he’s not a crybaby.”

A quick, murderous rage burns across my back.I’ll kill whoever told her she’s a crybaby later.There’s no child-appropriate way to tell Mia that I’m both appalled and impressed that she can hold a conversation when this is happening.It’s not a panic attack.It wasn’t always a panic attack for Emerson, either, especially when he was younger.It just looks the same.

“He totallydoescry.That doesn’t make him a baby.Crying doesn’t make you a baby, either.”

Her chin dimples.Hard to see, with the trembling.Mia gives me a shallow nod.

“A long time ago, he told me and Sin that it hurts less if somebody squeezes him.Like a hug, but tighter.”I hold my arms out roughly in the shape of Emerson’s shoulders.“He’s tall now, you’re right about that, but it doesn’t bother me.I’ve had a lot of practice.So, if you wanted—”

Mia sprints across the waiting room.She throws herself into my chest at full speed.I put my arms around her and lock them.Like a hug, but tighter.Her forehead drops onto my shoulder.