Liam’s hands shook and his breath rattled from between his lips with an alarming whistling noise. He pressed his back against the wall of his trailer and sank down to the floor, knees drawn up to his body. There was a tight, restricted feeling in his chest, like something heavy was sitting on it, and his heart was pounding so hard he felt like his whole body vibrated with the force of it. He wasn’t really even sure where all this panic was coming from. All he knew was that he’d blown his line again and everyone was looking at him and suddenly he just lost all feel for his character. He couldn’t remember why Troy was supposed to be so angry in the scene, couldn’t remember all the complicated motivations he’d stayed up until three in the morning working out last night, couldn’t remember how Anne, the director, had asked Liam to play this scene. Liam had just lost it all, and the panic had set on him like a rabid dog, tearing at his fragile confidence.
The newly grown-out length of his hair tickled Liam’s face and neck distractingly, and he shoved his shaking fingers into the mass of it, both to try to stop the trembling and to pull the hair away from his now sweaty skin. Years of therapy had taught Liam all sorts of coping techniques for his panic attacks, and Liam tried a few of them simultaneously. He pictured a happy, safe place—his mother’s kitchen—he tried to regulate his breathing with the breathing exercises he’d been taught; he tried to rationalize his anxiety and break it down into harmless components. Nothing worked. His breathing only got more and more shallow, sweat started pooling at the nape of his neck, and the swirling thoughts in his brain circled more and more frantically. He couldn’t do this. Somewhere along the line he’d fooled a whole lot of people into thinking that he was a really talented actor and worthy of being this mega-star celebrity, when in reality he was nothing but a shaking mess of neuroses curled up on the floor of his trailer during a set break. He couldn’t keep up the facade for much longer; they were going to figure out what a fake he was any minute. The idea was both terrifying and exhilarating.
The door to his trailer opened without warning, and Aaron, Liam’s costar, peeked his head in. “Shit.” The tone of his voice sounded truly alarmed, and his face was set in a mask of concern.
Liam tried to stand, to not look quite so pathetic huddled on the floor and shaking uncontrollably, but he only got as far as lifting his backside off the ground a few inches before the urge to curl up and hide forced him back down again. He wanted to disappear and be invisible for a little while. He knew Aaron already knew about his anxiety, had in fact already demanded that Liam let him help out with it, but Liam was still deeply ashamed of being found this way. No one had ever seen him this bad except his family.
Aaron hurried inside and sat down on the floor directly in front of Liam, knees bent and feet on either side of Liam’s. He assessed Liam from head to toe, clearly taking in everything—the shake in his limbs, the expression on his face, the hands buried in his hair.
Liam looked up at Aaron and tried to speak, tried to say something, anything
to explain himself, but all that came out was a distressed little whine. That had always been a part of what was so frustrating for Liam; everyone always wanted to know what was wrong
, like they could magically fix it if Liam would just tell them. Liam didn’t know if they could or not; he’d never been able to pinpoint any specific cause for his anxiety, and if had been able to, he certainly wouldn’t have been able to verbalize it. That was just part of how a panic attack worked.
Face crumpling in concern, Aaron made a soft shushing noise and scooted closer to Liam on the floor.
Liam tightened his hands around the fistfuls of his hair in humiliation and anxiety, pulling painfully. More embarrassing little involuntary noises bubbled up in Liam’s throat, and he bit into his lip harshly to hold them in and keep from giving voice to them. He got that Aaron was a nice guy and that he just wanted to help, but Liam was so tired of always being the freak, of always being the one who needed
help. Even though he had been in the last season, Liam was still the newest member of the cast, and he just wanted to fit in, not have his costar look at him like he was something broken and in need of a quick patch job before the next take.
Slowly, clearly telegraphing his movements, Aaron reached out and gently untangled Liam’s hands from his hair with careful fingers and a look of intense concentration on his face. “Shh, Li. It’s okay; calm down.”
Liam always hated when people said that to him; it never failed to make his anxiety ratchet up even higher because he couldn’t
. It wasn’t as easy as flipping some internal switch, but for some reason when Aaron said it in that low, soothing voice, it eased some of Liam’s nerves. The red haze of panic clouding over his thought processes dulled a little, and for the first time in what felt like hours, Liam could actually think
. Liam looked up at Aaron helplessly, silently begging him to do something else to help.
Aaron shifted and wiggled forward until they were almost touching, legs on either side of Liam’s hips, bracketing Liam’s body with his own. He shifted his hold on Liam’s hands so that his fingers were encircling Liam’s wrists and drew both their hands down between them.
It was like a physical touch, the way Aaron’s body surrounded Liam’s. Aaron was a big guy. Liam wasn’t short, but Aaron was taller and more muscular and had the longest legs Liam had ever seen; the way he surrounded Liam felt like a buffer between Liam and the rest of the world. Aaron’s skin against his own was like a brand; it burned Liam and lit up his nerve endings in a bizarre combination of pain, physical awareness, and pleasure. The touch and the envelopment cleared more of the fog from Liam’s brain, and he was desperate to let Aaron know that it was working, wanted to urge him to continue. He swallowed a few times and tried to get words out. His lips opened and closed, but the only sound that emerged was his ragged breathing, the harsh pants echoing off the walls of the trailer. Frustrated, he let out a soft growl.
Fingers tightening, Aaron increased the pressure on Liam’s wrists. “It’s okay, Li. You’re safe here. Take your time and tell me what you need.”
The words washed over him like a wave crashing against the beach and rolling back out to sea, carrying tiny granules of gritty anxiety piled on the sandy shore of Liam’s mind when they went. Liam’s eyes slipped shut, and he focused on his breathing; it was easier to force it into a more regulated pattern—even if it was still too rapid and shallow—when he had Aaron’s touch to ground him. The harder Aaron dug in with his fingers, the more tethered to reality Liam felt. “What—” Liam’s words sputtered and died in his throat, so he shook his head and tried again. “What if I do something wrong?”
Aaron smiled and shook his head. His grip on Liam’s wrist eased enough for him to stroke his thumbs back and forth over Liam’s skin. “You won’t do anything wrong. I won’t let you.” His voice was soft and low, intimate and full of conviction.
Letting out a shaky exhale, Liam slumped and tried to pull his arms in to his chest. It was an involuntary reaction, a thoughtless response to being so vulnerable and to the acceptance Aaron seemed to be offering. He wanted to throw himself headlong into that kind of support, but the amount of trust that required placing in Aaron seemed terrifying. They were friends, they were, but this was on a whole other level of friendship, and Liam wasn’t sure if “he’s a nice guy” was enough on Aaron’s résumé to qualify him for the position of Person I Trust Most in the Entire World.
Instantly, Aaron’s grip tightened, and he didn’t let Liam move his arms more than a fraction.
When all his arms did was twitch ineffectually in Aaron’s grasp, Liam tried to move them again, not really to get away, just testing Aaron’s grip. He wanted to see exactly what it was that Aaron was doing, where he was taking this.
Again, Aaron increased the pressure he had on Liam’s wrists and didn’t let Liam go anywhere. “Nope. None of that. I’ve got you.”
Liam trembled in Aaron’s hold and sucked in a few deep breaths. His eyelids fluttered back open, and his attention flickered over to the digital clock on his microwave without really intending to; the sight jolted him. He was starting to feel better, the anxiety starting to bleed away marginally, but he still had to be back on set in another twelve minutes. It was just not enough time.
Aaron grunted in disapproval and shook Liam’s hands to get his attention.
Liam looked back at Aaron, taking in the details of his face. His eyes caught on the freckles first, the ones that were so light they could only be seen when really close up. His eyes traced the random pattern of them over the bridge of Aaron’s nose, over his high cheekbones and strong jaw, followed them through the light blond dusting of stubble on Aaron’s cheeks. Liam’s focused attention swept up over the elegant lines of Aaron’s face until he met Aaron’s eyes. He got lost in the deep green color of them, picking out the tiny flecks of blue and gold until the urge to move and to let his eyes wander faded entirely.
Waiting, Aaron made sure he had Liam’s full attention, and then he loosened the pressure of his fingers. “Don’t look at the clock. I’m watching the time. You’re not responsible for anything right now. Just let me handle it. Trust me. Please.”
Something inside Liam cracked and broke, and the panic that was balling up at the base of his skull threatening to make his brain explode scattered to the far corners of his mind. It didn’t dissipate completely, because that wasn’t how real life or panic worked, but it faded, and that was good enough for Liam. He shut his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall and concentrated on breathing. His breaths got deeper and more even with every inhale and the weight sitting on his chest felt like it eased. The sharp-edged, dangerously panicked thoughts that were crashing around in his skull dulled and blunted themselves, becoming mostly harmless.
Aaron rubbed his thumbs over Liam’s skin in slow, soothing circles. “Good. Really good, Li. Just let me take care of it all.”
Seconds ticked by and Liam could feel more of his panic fading away, could feel it just leeching from his system the longer he sat there and allowed Aaron to be the barrier between him and the world. He knew he had to be back on set soon, knew when he got back, the rest of the crew was going to expect him to nail the scene perfectly even while they looked at him like he was a freak, knew that he had responsibilities and couldn’t just sit there and ignore them—but that was exactly what he did. Liam breathed in deep, let it out in a slow exhale, and just let himself drift, trusting Aaron not to let him float away completely.