TITLE: It Was Always You
COVER ARTIST: Lori Witt
LENGTH: 54,000 words
PAIRING: Gay, Bisexual-identifying Characters
GENRE(S): Contemporary, Coming Out
ALSO AVAILABLE IN:
Tyler Schaeffer’s whole world has been yanked out from under him. Job? Gone. Marriage? Kaput. With nothing to keep him in Chicago, he’s headed home to Seattle to lick his wounds and start over. To his surprise, his high school best friend—the man he ghosted five years ago—swoops in to help him pick up the pieces.
Justin Tucker still stings over Tyler vanishing, but when his old friend needs help, saying no is out of the question. Justin’s got a spare room, and he’ll do anything he can to help Tyler get back on his feet.
As the guys find their way back to friendship, Justin’s old feelings find their way back to the surface. He long ago made peace with Tyler being straight, but that doesn’t make twenty years of longing any easier to bear. Now he’s wondering if he can really handle having the man of his dreams living under his roof and out of his reach.
Except maybe Tyler isn’t as far out of reach as either man thinks…
Chapter 1 - Tyler
Glad you made it. See you at baggage claim. :)
I smiled at Justin’s text, relieved it hadn’t been along the lines of sorry, couldn’t make it or something. He wasn’t flaky like that, and it would have been seriously out of character for him to bail on me, but with the way my life had been going for the last couple of months, I was taking nothing for granted—not even my best friend coming to the airport to pick me up. Or letting me live with him until I got my shit together, even after he hadn’t seen me in five years.
Guilt jabbed me in the gut. I’d all but ghosted Justin five years ago, and still he was picking me up and taking me in.
Man, I’m gonna owe you so big, I thought as I reread his text. As if I didn’t already. At the very least, he was probably going to want an explanation for me disappearing on him. And I supposed I owed him that much, even if the thought of that conversation made me want to retch.
One thing at a time. Get off the plane. Go meet up with him. Settle in. And then… then talk. Eventually. Fuck my life.
The plane lurched to a stop at the gate, and as soon as the seatbelt light went off, people jumped out of their seats and started popping open overhead bins. Clear back here in row thirty-nine, it seemed pretty pointless, but that didn’t stop anyone.
I was shoehorned in by the window, so I didn’t bother getting up. Wasn’t like I could stand anyway—coach was clearly not designed for anyone over about five feet tall, and if I stood now, I’d be hunched over to keep from clocking my head on the bin. My whole body ached from sitting for the past few hours, and that ache seemed to intensify as the forward rows started clearing out and people filed off the plane. Just a few more minutes, and I could stand and stretch.
At least the flight was over. I’d made it. All I had to do now was get up, collect my crap, get to baggage claim, collect the rest of my crap, and meet up with Justin. After that…
I sighed, deflating a bit and leaning against the rigid seatback. I was here. I was in Seattle. So… now what?
As I took off my seatbelt, I glanced at my left hand, momentarily puzzled when my ring didn’t click against the buckle. Oh. Right. I wasn’t wearing it anymore. Hadn’t worn it in weeks now, but I still wasn’t used to that thick gold band being gone. It seemed like such a small thing to even notice, given how chaotic my life had been lately, but under this much stress, every little thing registered. My lack of a ring was just one more on the heaping pile of shit to obsess over. And it was less stressful than worrying about if the new job would work out, how I’d manage to get a car and a new place, if I could still find my way around the Seattle area, if Justin was angry at me over disappearing, if—
God. Tyler. Get a grip. One thing at a time.
Shaking myself, I tamped down the fresh anxiety prickling along my spine. I had time to figure things out. Today’s priority had been to get to Seattle and settle into my temporary home. I was halfway there. Everything else could sit tight until tomorrow.
My seatmates moved out of the row, and I pried myself up as well. After another couple of minutes, it was our turn to make our way up the aisle. I tried not to glare at the first class seats. The upgrades had been relatively cheap. A hundred bucks or so, if I remembered right. Tempting, especially for all that extra legroom, but I couldn’t justify it. Not with a divorce-in-progress, rapidly depleting savings, and that minor detail about being between jobs. Okay, I had another job lined up—I started a week from tomorrow—but until my paychecks actually started rolling in, I was going to continue budgeting and spending as if I were unemployed.
So no first class upgrade. Even if that meant folding all six-two of me into a seat designed for a hobbit.
After a bit more shuffling, I was off the plane. I strode through SeaTac International, thrilled to be up and moving. The aches and knots loosened with every step, and my heart fluttered with… shit, was that excitement? Yeah, it was. My life had been utter chaos for the last few months, and things I enjoyed had only served to remind me how crappy I felt, and thus made me feel worse.
But suddenly the prospect of seeing Justin—my best friend since elementary school—had me walking a little faster. And smiling. And nervous. And, yeah, excited.
We’d been joined at the hip until we’d graduated high school. College had taken us to other states. His career had brought him back to Seattle while my marriage had kept me in Chicago. Whenever I’d come to visit, we’d always made a point of meeting up, and we rarely went more than a few months without seeing each other.
And then I’d stopped going to see him. Stopped talking to him on the phone. Our only connection had been on Facebook, and I’d nearly unfriended him so many times, I was queasy with shame just from thinking about it. When all was said and done, we’d gone five years without seeing each other in person. Without really staying in contact at all besides that passive presence in each other’s newsfeeds. If not for social media, God knew if I’d have ever been able to find him again.
One thing was for sure—he wouldn’t have reached out and offered to help me.
I don’t deserve you, Justin.
The final stretch to baggage claim was an escalator, and at the top, people were gathered around, watching for whoever they were meeting, and—
Holy shit. There he was.
Smiling down at me, arms folded on the chest-high railing overlooking the escalator, was Justin. His brown eyes sparkled like they always had, and the scruffy beard—little more than some heavy and carefully groomed five o’clock shadow—had been in some of his recent Facebook photos, but it looked even better in person. Or maybe I was just that thrilled and relieved to see him.
How did I go five years without you?
Well, no time like the present to start making up for it.
He grinned as the escalator brought me closer. “Hey sweetie!”
“Hey you.” I smiled back, heart thumping and my throat suddenly tight. As soon as I was clear of the top of the escalator and out of everyone else’s way, Justin threw his arms around me and hugged me tight. I dropped my bag, closed my eyes, and held him. He’d always given the best hugs. He was a touch shorter and narrower than me, and somehow we’d always fit together perfectly. After all this time, and after all the hell I’d been through recently, his enthusiastic embrace was exactly what I needed. He held me so tight I could barely breathe, and I just didn’t care.
“Oh my God, I missed you,” I said.
“I missed you too,” he said into my shoulder. Without letting go, he added, “How are you doing? How was your flight?”
I groaned. “Don’t ask about the flight.”
Justin pulled back and frowned up at me. “That bad?”
“That bad. But it’s over now. I’m ready to get out of here.”
The smile came back to life, and he gestured past me. “Let’s see where your bags will come out, then.”
Fortunately, it was only a couple of carousels down, and by the time we joined the thickening crowd, the bags were starting to appear. Sometimes it wasn’t so bad, being one of the last to deplane. At least I wouldn’t have to wait long for my damn suitcases.
In theory, anyway. The first showed up almost immediately. The second wasn’t far behind. The third, however, took its sweet time, and as bag after bag that wasn’t mine appeared, I prayed like hell it hadn’t been lost. With my luck lately, I wouldn’t have been surprised. I just wasn’t sure if I could deal with yet another hiccup while I tried to start my new life.
I glanced at the two suitcases standing beside Justin. “Those will fit in your car, right? I didn’t even think to ask if—”
“Relax.” He winked. “Honey, I’ve always got room for your junk in my trunk.”
A lady next to him scowled, and I chuckled, rolling my eyes before turning my attention back to the carousel. It felt good to be the target of his crude banter again.
The third suitcase finally showed up, and Justin and I lugged them out to the parking garage. I was still a little dubious about fitting all of this into a single car, but the trunk and backseat of Justin’s Prius turned out to be remarkably spacious.
“See?” He slammed the trunk lid. “Got it all in and didn’t even need lube.”
I laughed. Justin’s sense of humor obviously hadn’t changed, and that little touch of normalcy—that piece of the past that had remained constant the whole time we’d known each other—eased my anxiety. Some part of me had wondered if we’d still be able to get along. We’d spent twenty years in different worlds, and hadn’t crossed paths in five—what if we’d both changed too much? What if living together proved that we’d drifted too far apart and were too different and things went to shit like they had with my now-ex-wife?
I already lost her. What if I lose you again?
That fear had been careening around in my head ever since he’d reached out on Facebook and offered to let me stay with him. But now, as we climbed into his car and started out of the labyrinthine parking garage, Justin’s playful comments and easy smile settled my nerves more than he probably realized.
“So.” He kept his eyes on the road as he drove down the dizzying, tightly-coiled ramp from the parking garage. “Do you want to grab something to eat? Do you need anything?” He glanced at me. “I went grocery shopping this morning and made sure everything’s well-stocked but I don’t really know what you eat these days.” The near-frantic concern in his tone warmed me all over. That had always been him—the mother hen who made sure everyone around him was taken care of.
“I’m good. I’m just glad to be off the plane.”
“I believe it. Flying is such a nightmare these days.”
I just grunted in agreement. While he drove, I surreptitiously watched him, trying to be absolutely sure he was there and not a hallucination. Oh, he was there. He had a few more lines than he’d had in our younger days, and he wasn’t as tanned as he’d been the last time I’d seen him. Still had the high cheekbones. Still had the sharp jawline. I couldn’t see his eyes now because he had on sunglasses, but I’d seen them in the airport, and they were definitely etched into my mind. Still as amazing as they’d ever been.
Remind me not to go another five years without looking at you.
We finally made it to the end of the ramp, and I handed Justin a twenty so he could pay for parking at the booth on the way out. Once that was squared away, he got us on the freeway… which was basically a parking lot.
“What the hell?” I said. “Isn’t it a little early for rush hour?”
Justin barked a laugh and patted my leg. “Oh sweetheart. You really have been gone a while, haven’t you?”
“Rush hour has always started this early.”
“Seriously? It’s—” I paused as my jetlagged brain finally caught up. “Oh right. Two-thirty means Boeing just let out.”
“Exactly.” He settled back against the seat, one hand resting on top of the wheel. “So it’s going to be a while. If you want to stop for food or something, just holler. There’s plenty of off ramps between here and home.”
“It’s fine. Honestly, I’m okay.”
Justin glanced at me again, brow pinched with skepticism and concern. “Are you, though?”
You mean aside from guilt eating me alive over deserting you?
I swallowed. “I am. Just a bit jetlagged and stiff from that stupid seat. But I’m good. I promise.”
“How about in general?”
I stared at the line of bumpers and rear windows extending into the distance, not sure how to answer the question. Things were improving, or at least calming down. I was adapting as much as anyone could under the circumstances. Nothing in my life felt remotely stable, and just thinking about that brought all the anxiety to the surface so violently I had to fight back an unexpected wave of panic. Everything in my world had been in constant motion lately, and I was suddenly desperate to be still. Not on a plane. Not in a car. Just… not moving. Not needing to move. The last several weeks had been go, go, go, and I… fuck, I was exhausted. None of this was over, and there were wheels turning that wouldn’t stop any time soon, but was it too much to ask for an hour to catch my breath?
“You know,” I said quickly. “I could stand to eat something after all.” I gestured at the upcoming ramp for Southcenter Mall. “Why don’t we swing in there and I’ll buy us lunch?”
Justin didn’t push the issue.He just turned on his blinker and started crawling toward the ramp.