Jamie’s alarm went off at eight every day. It felt weird, after years of early rink times and then bus calls, flight calls, press calls. Now there wasn’t any of that, but structure was important.
Getting out of bed was always a process, one he measured by how many times he said fuck in the course of getting up. Fuckfuckfuck was a normal, not-too-bad day. Fuck… fuck, that was worse. Oh… fuck; he was going to need a few minutes before he could manage a standing position. Days when he couldn’t manage a single fuck, he was probably going to have to call the emergency nurse to come help him. Thank god that didn’t happen very often. It was embarrassing.
Today was a normal day, fuckfuckfuck and out of bed, shuffling across his bedroom to the bathroom. He pissed, washed his face, blinked at himself in the mirror, and then took his pills, washed down with a handful of water and followed by gagging at the aftertaste until he killed it with Listerine.
He shuffled to the kitchen, forcing himself to lean into a little more pain with each step until cranky muscles and ligaments loosened up off their beds of scar tissue. He usually alternated between oatmeal and eggs for breakfast, but today he felt like going a little wild. Waffles from the freezer, with syrup and jam. Fuck everything. Jamie Benn was having a party.
He leaned on the counter while the waffles toasted, scrolling slowly through the news feed on his phone. Nothing worth digging into more deeply. No texts from Jordie or his mom; a Facebook tag from his sister that he felt okay ignoring; 631 messages built up in his tracked Google alerts since the last time he gave up and deleted them unread. He usually did that when they hit a big, even number. This time he was going to try to hold out for 2,000.
He ate his waffles standing up, the painkillers kicking in enough that it felt okay. He made sure to center his weight, square on both feet, not giving in to the temptation to lean on his good leg and off his bad. Doing that would leave him sore on both sides from compensating, and then travel up into his hips and lower back, and make tomorrow worse. He’d learned his lesson plenty of times.
He sat down at the table when he was done and opened the book of crossword puzzles his dad had given him at Christmas. He did one per day, between breakfast and his physical therapy. Sometimes they took twenty minutes, sometimes they took an hour, but it was fine. He didn’t leave the table until ten-thirty, because if Jordie hadn’t called by then, he knew he wasn’t going to call that day, and they’d text later, instead. More structure.
Today there wasn’t a call. He finished the crossword by nine-fifteen and read on his phone until ten-thirty, his fingers tapping at the table in a restless pattern. Three years since the accident, and he still wasn’t used to sitting still this much. He had to. He didn’t question it. But he wasn’t used to it, and he was pretty sure he never would be.
He went back to the bedroom and got dressed. Today was a barn day, so he put on jeans, a t-shirt and a zip-front hoodie, and carefully pulled his boots on. He slipped his phone in his pocket, took his keys from the rack, locked up the house, and walked out to the truck.
After the accident, he thought he’d never want to even sit in a truck again. He hadn’t bought this one until therapy at the barn had turned into volunteering at the barn, and Elaine’s truck broke down and there was nobody who could haul the trailer to Spring Fest for the kids. He had enough cash in the bank and credit on the line to just go buy a truck on the spot, and he couldn’t not, not when the kids needed it. He traded in his hatchback and bought the biggest one on the lot, built like a fucking tank, thinking maybe that would let him feel safe in it. Sometimes he did.
On Wednesdays the barn was pretty empty. He walked out to the pasture, stepping carefully around potholes and rough ground, whistling high and shrill to call the horses in from the far corners.
Danny led them in, running full-tilt toward the gate and sliding to a stop, throwing mud and grass everywhere. Jamie smiled despite himself, leaning on the gate until the herd settled down. “Hey, guys,” he said, slipping the chain and stepping inside. “Just here for Danny, the rest of you can go play.”
They tossed their heads and swished their tails, pressing in close until he got Danny’s halter on and swung the end of the leadrope in a wide arc. They shied back enough for him to open the gate and get Danny through, then slowly dispersed back to grazing while he locked up and walked his horse back to the barn.
Danny was a tall, raw-boned gray, his coat white speckled with brown. Jamie cross-tied him in the aisle, brushed the mud and grass off him, and tacked up. He knew he took too long doing it; he had to stop and rest every so often, or just catch his breath. Danny was patient about it, but Jamie couldn’t help thinking about how much faster Elaine could do it, or even some of the kids. It sucked, still being this weak after all this time.
At least their ride was good. Jamie could shut off his brain while he was riding and just lose himself in the movement of the horse and the feeling of his body. He concentrated for the first fifteen minutes on the stretches he was supposed to do--long legs, heels down, centering his weight, letting his back and his neck relax into the movement--and then just played with Danny for a while. The horse was naturally lazy where Jamie wasn’t, but maybe that was good. It got Jamie to slow down.
After the ride he untacked and turned Danny out again. He felt good, better than on the way here. That was the goal, of course; that was the whole point. It still was a little victory every time it worked.
He had chores then, a set of things that needed to be done around the barn that he’d taken on piece by piece over the years he’d been coming here. He went through them on comfortable autopilot, his mind quieting down into a steady hum as he did the work.
He lingered after all that was done, not really wanting to leave and go back to the real world, but he was getting tired and starting to ache, so he made his way back to the truck.
Jamie dug his phone out of his pocket, staring out the windshield at the outdoor arena, still ripped-up mud at this point in April. Elaine would want to get the tractor out there soon, probably over the weekend, he should offer to help when he was there on Saturday--
He had a missed call from Jordie. That couldn’t be right. Jordie never called after ten-thirty. Jamie tapped the screen to call back, his breath catching painfully in his chest.
“Hey, little brother.”
Jamie closed his eyes tightly and slumped in his seat. “Jordie? You’re okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine, dude. Shit, did I scare you?”
Jamie pressed his hand over his eyes and tried to breathe slowly. Jordie was fine. Jordie was fine.
(The doctors said he couldn’t possibly remember, that he hadn’t gained consciousness until the hospital, that it was a constructed memory from what people told him after, but he did remember, he remembered lying in the shattered shell of the truck, turning his head, seeing Jordie in a spreading pool of blood, he did remember it.)
“Jamie,” Jordie said, his voice low and patient, and Jamie started back to himself. “I’m okay. I’m sorry I scared you.”
“You never call after ten-thirty,” Jamie muttered, shaking his head. Other people didn’t have to stick to stupid made-up schedules to stay calm, they could call at different times and it was okay. “Sorry. It’s fine. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong. I just, you know, wanted to tell you something.”
“Okay.” He gripped his keys tightly in his hand, letting the metal bite against his fingers. “What’s up?”
“Well, our season’s wrapped up, I’m off duty after next week. Alice and I are going down to Mexico for a week, just a little vacation. Then she’s got a couple weeks at work, but I think we can come up and visit you at the end of May. Is that cool?”
Jamie relaxed his grip on the keys. “Yeah. Yeah, that sounds great. How long do you think you can stay?”
“I can stay two weeks, she can probably only do one.”
“That sounds great,” Jamie said again. Alice was awesome, he liked her a lot and she had been great for Jordie recovering from the accident, but the idea of a week of just time with his brother… he really needed that. “Keep me posted when you get the dates set?”
Jamie rubbed his thumb over the steering wheel. “Sorry your season ended early.” Jordie had done his recovery and rehab in Texas, and even had done some skating with the Stars trainers the next training camp before everyone agreed he had to retire. They’d set him up with a nice job working for the Texas Stars, scouting and mentoring and shit. It was perfect for him. He was happy. And Jamie wasn’t jealous, he would never be jealous of Jordie, but sometimes…
“Eh, we definitely weren’t robbed,” Jordie said, and Jamie dragged his mind back to the conversation. “Young team, they have some growing to do. I feel worse for the guys in Dallas.”
“Oh?” Jamie stared out at the farm. “What happened there?”
“They didn’t make the playoffs,” Jordie said calmly. “I guess you’re still not following the NHL?”
“Okay.” Jordie never pushed him or gave him shit for it, but Jamie felt bad every time it came up, anyway. “Well, uh. There is one other thing I have to tell you. Sort of related to that.”
Jamie was tired now. “What?”
“Segs is coming to see you.”
Jamie stopped. He just… stopped, for a minute, his brain whiting out.
“Jamie,” he heard Jordie say, distant and unimportant. “Jamie, dude, don’t do the weird thing on me now.”
“His season’s over and he wants to see you.”
Jamie took a shaky breath. “How does he know where I am?”
“Well, he asked me and I told him, bud.”
“How could you do that?”
“He made it clear that if I didn’t, he’d find out some other way, and at least this way I could give you a heads-up.”
“Jordie, if you told him to fuck off, he would. I can’t believe you just…”
“Jamie, you have to stop hiding.”
“I don’t have to do anything. I can’t believe you.” Jamie closed his eyes. “When is he getting here?”
There was a long silence. “Well…”
“He texted me from Vancouver about two hours ago and said he was getting on the flight to Kelowna, so my guess is he’ll be waiting at your place when you get home.”
The rest of the conversation didn’t really stick in Jamie’s mind. He was pretty sure he said “I can’t believe you” a couple more times, and that Jordie never actually apologized, but said he’d call tomorrow at the usual time. Jamie hung up without telling him not to call, so they would have a chance to hash it all out again in the morning.
He started the truck and drove on autopilot from the barn to the grocery store. Wednesday was grocery shopping day. Even if Tyler was sitting in his driveway waiting for him, that didn’t change the fact that he needed to stock up for the week. Tyler could just… he could wait. He was the surprise visitor, here, he could wait.
Jamie bought his usual groceries, loaded them in the back seat of the truck, and sat for a few minutes, staring out the windshield at the handful of people moving through the parking lot, going about their business. Normally he didn’t mind being anonymous and invisible, normally he relied on it, but it would have been nice, in that moment, to be able to walk up to someone and say “Things that I thought were long gone are coming back and getting into my space without permission and I don’t know what to do.”
Well. He could do that, actually. What would be nice was if there was anyone who would care.
He started the truck again and drove home. No point putting this off any longer.
About halfway home he started thinking that maybe there had been a mistake, or maybe Jordie had decided to pull a prank; he would get home and the driveway would be empty and he would go inside, put his groceries away, make lunch, and have a quiet afternoon in front of him.
But when he rounded the last turn and pulled into his driveway, there was a rental car parked there, snugged up close to the garage. Feelings flashed through Jamie’s chest too quickly to identify; one of them felt like relief, but there wasn’t any time for analyzing shit right now.
He pulled up next to the car, halfway on the lawn, and took a deep breath as he killed the engine. So this was it.
Except when he looked up, the rental car was empty, and Jesus, how many false starts was this little meeting going to have?
Movement flickered in the corner of his eye, and he turned his head to see Tyler walking across the lawn toward him, from the scrubby stretch of trees at the far edge of the property. Tyler raised a hand and waved tentatively, and Jamie returned the gesture, sitting frozen for another moment before he remembered to undo his seat belt, open the door, and get out of the truck.
“I saw some deer,” Tyler said. “They were just hanging out here on your lawn, two of them. They ran off when I got out of the car, so I followed them to see if there were more down there in the trees.” He stopped a few feet away and shoved his hands in his pockets.
Jamie nodded slowly, like he kept track of the deer around his house. There were a lot of them. They came and went. He thought about leaving food out for them in the winter, but they were overpopulated already, and all the websites said not to encourage—
“Were there?” he asked, realizing the silence had stretched out for too long.
“Not that I saw.” Tyler shrugged. “Hey, Jamie.”
“Hey.” Jamie cleared his throat. “You’re, um. You’re here.”
“Not in Texas.”
“Nope.” Tyler raised his eyebrows. “Not anywhere else, either.”
“In case you were going to start listing other places I’m not.”
Tyler looked around again. “So… Kelowna.”
“What brought you back to Kelowna?”
Jamie shrugged. “I didn’t want to be in Victoria or Vancouver.”
“Too close to home.” Jamie hoped Tyler could fill in the blanks there on his own and wouldn’t make Jamie explain.
Tyler just nodded. “So are you doing stuff with the Rockets, then, or…”
“No. No.” Jamie shook his head and looked down at the keys in his hand. “Not doing anything… related to hockey. I just needed somewhere to go, and there’s the direct flights from Van so my parents can come out when they want to, and Jordie can get here, and…” He trailed off and bit down on his tongue. “Well. You know.”
“Yeah. Great. That’s great,” Tyler said, nodding not quite in rhythm, like a bobblehead. They both fell silent, staring at each other, and after a moment Jamie took a step back and bumped into the side of the truck.
“I’ve got groceries,” he said, half an explanation and half an awkward defense, as he turned to open the door. “I should take them inside.”
“Oh, let me give you a hand.”
“I got them,” Jamie said, but Tyler pushed in next to him like it was nothing, just reached in and started gathering up the grocery bags.
“Life without a diet plan, eh?” Tyler said, looking into the bag that held bread and butter and cheese, all of them the real deal, the kind of thing that gave team nutritionists absolute fits. It had taken Jamie two years to be able to put them in his cart without closing his eyes.
“Yeah,” he said, taking the last few bags for himself. “Well, you know.”
Tyler didn’t say anything, just looked at him, and Jamie bit his lip and locked up the truck. Great. This was going great.
Jamie put the groceries away while Tyler lingered at the table, looking at the book of crossword puzzles and the stacks of mail and paperwork. Jamie couldn’t remember if any of the paperwork was embarrassing. Hopefully nothing too out of the ordinary.
“Have you eaten?” he asked, glancing over at Tyler. “I need to eat. It’s like… 2:00.”
“Yeah, I ate at the airport.” Tyler waved his hand. “Go ahead, take your time. I’m cool.”
“You need the wifi password?”
“Oh, yeah, hit me.” Tyler dug his phone out of his pocket and gave Jamie a hopeful look that almost made him want to smile. Some things didn’t change.
He recited the password and turned his attention to making sandwiches, methodically lining up what he wanted and putting it together. He was almost calm again; Tyler apparently wasn’t going to push or pry, maybe this would go okay, maybe it wouldn’t be as stressful as he’d feared. They could catch up like normal people, and then Tyler would go home, and it would be fine.
“It’s so clean in here, man,” Tyler said suddenly. “Does your cleaning service come, like, every day?”
“Twice a month.” Jamie glanced up at him. “It’s just me, there’s not much to clean up.”
“Still. No pizza boxes, no beer cans, nothing?”
“Oh.” Jamie shrugged. “Not really supposed to drink, with the medication and all. And none of the pizza places deliver out here.”
“That’s harsh.” Tyler looked pointedly at him, then at the refrigerator, and for a moment Jamie didn’t understand, until he followed the look and saw the bottles of Jack and Stoli on top of it.
“Oh.” He felt his face redden. “Um, well, when I’m gonna break the rules, I break ‘em all the way.”
“When did you get all rebellious, Jameson?”
He shrugged, looking down at his sandwich again. “Not really rebellious. More like, um, when I need to knock myself out? You know.”
And right, this was why he didn’t try to see people. These awkward silences after he said something everyone preferred not to hear.
He started eating so he wouldn’t have to say anything else, keeping his eyes down and his mouth full. Tyler’s attention drifted away from him and back to his phone, creating enough of a zone of safety that he could swallow without feeling sick.
“Can I get a tour?” Tyler asked when Jamie turned to put his plate in the sink. Apparently he had been paying attention after all. “See the place?”
“Um. Sure. There’s not much.” Jamie looked around. “That’s the entryway, where we came in. This is the kitchen.”
Tyler rolled his eyes. “Wow, thank you.”
“Fuck you, I’m getting started,” Jamie muttered. “Come on.”
He took Tyler through the living room--couch, ottoman, armchair, big TV, a bookshelf--and then through the back hallway--his bedroom, the guest room, a half-bath, the nominal office that he used as storage for all the boxes of crap he’d had shipped up from Texas and moved out of his parents’ house.
“And this is the sun porch,” he said, getting to the end of the hall and opening the door into the bright, glass-walled room with exercise machines along the far side. A bike, an elliptical, a treadmill, and a convertible weight machine, everything he needed to keep himself busy, and a hot tub/whirlpool for when he inevitably overdid it.
“Holy shit.” Tyler grinned, going straight to look over the equipment. “You made an investment here, dude.”
“I figured I needed it.” Jamie leaned against the doorframe, watching Tyler poke at the bike and then turn his attention to the weights. It was hard not to assume he was judging how low Jamie’s lifting capacity was now, compared to what it had been. Three years, after all. Everything had changed.
“So your vanity room’s still at your parents’?” Tyler asked, still bent over to look at the leg press.
“Your awards and shit. Game pucks. I didn’t see them.”
“They’re in the boxes in the office.”
Tyler looked up and frowned. “Seriously?”
“Yeah.” Jamie frowned back at him. “I don’t want to see that shit.”
“That was all a long time ago. It doesn’t… it doesn’t have anything to do with my life now.”
“You don’t want to remember everything you accomplished? You have a fucking Olympic gold medal, and it’s just sitting in a fucking box?”
“Oh. No. That one’s in a safe-deposit vault. At the bank in Victoria. I don’t know.”
Tyler closed his eyes. “Jesus Christ, Jamie.”
“Dude, I didn’t even invite you here. Don’t yell at me.”
Tyler took a deep breath and looked away. Jamie knew that movement, knew the tension in his shoulders and neck; that was Tyler fighting not to lose his temper. Something else that apparently hadn’t changed.
“You’re right,” Tyler said after a moment. “I’ve got no right to say anything about how you live your life.”
Jamie dragged his hand through his hair and shifted his weight carefully, his breath hitching at a throb of pain. His morning pills were well worn-off by now, but the idea of Tyler sitting and watching him take more made him want to punch something.
“What’s next on the agenda?” Tyler asked, his voice tight with forced cheerfulness. “What do you do after lunch?”
“Uh.” Jamie shifted again, trying to find a balance point that didn’t hurt. “I read or watch TV or something. Take a nap. Sometimes I’ll run errands? I didn’t have anything really planned for today. No appointments.”
Tyler blinked slowly. “Okay. Cool.”
“I know it sounds pathetic out loud.” His sister had told him that, and his mom, and Jordie. Not Alice, though, which was why Alice was his favorite and always got better Christmas presents than the rest of them. “But it’s, like, it’s my schedule. It’s how I structure things. Having structure is good.”
“I didn’t say anything, man. I’m not criticizing you.” Tyler’s forehead furrowed. “Dude, you look like you’re going to fall over or something. Are you okay?”
He was going to have to swallow his pride. Again. He ate more of his pride than shitty fake-maple-flavor oatmeal. “I need to take my afternoon pills. My… you know.” He gestured at his torso, encompassing all the damage at once. “I’m all. Fucked up.”
Tyler smirked, but his face was still twisted up and his eyes were kind of awful. “I do know. Yeah.”
“So I’m gonna… do that.” Jamie pointed down the hall toward the kitchen. “Okay?”
“Yeah. I’ll meet you in the living room. We can watch something.”
Why are you here? Jamie thought, biting his tongue so he wouldn’t actually ask. Tyler would tell him eventually, when he was good and ready. Making things awkward wouldn’t help. He had about a hundred hours of various sports on his DVR; they could sit in silence watching a neutral topic for days. Why make it weird when he didn’t have to?
He hobbled to the kitchen and took his pills, leaning against the counter until the sharpest edge of the throbbing backed off. “Okay,” he muttered to himself, bracing his hands on the surface and getting ready to push himself upright. “Okay, on three, buddy. We can do this.”
“Are your hips fucked up too?”
Jamie started, his weight falling forward onto his hands. “Jesus, Tyler.”
“Sorry.” Tyler leaned in the doorway, watching him. “Just wondering if it made the stuff from your hip surgeries worse. Back in the day.”
Jamie turned to face him, careful to balance his weight evenly again. “I mean, that didn’t help? They’d already been operated on, so there’s inflammation and scar tissue and shit. But the wreck was brand new injuries. Basically just everything is layers of fucked-up. Surgeries and the spine stuff and just... layers. It’s like a cake, but a cake of shittiness.”
“The spine stuff scared the fuck out of all of us. You don’t even know.”
Jamie had to laugh. “I kinda do know. I was pretty scared, too.”
“Yeah, well.” Tyler flushed red. “I guess. Come on and sit down, man. Let your pills work so you don’t look like you’re going to die.”
Jamie followed him to the living room and sank gratefully into his spot on the couch. “What about you? Any good bust-ups the last couple years? Surgery? Blowing something out?”
Tyler made a face and stretched his legs out from his seat at the other end of the couch. “Separated my shoulder at the end of last season. Otherwise I’ve done pretty good at staying in one piece. Got my bell rung once or twice.”
“Enough to diagnose?”
Tyler grinned. “I’m too good to get caught, dude.”
“Ha.” Jamie pulled the remote out from between the couch cushions. “Okay, so I just kind of record everything and then watch it at random. Uh. I’ve got… basketball, baseball, NFL, and, um, some cricket, I think.”
“You watch cricket?”
“I taught myself the rules, it’s actually pretty cool.”
“Wow. Cricket.” Tyler looked at the list on the screen. “I don’t think I’m quite ready for that yet. Let’s do some basketball, I guess.”
The first basketball game in Jamie’s queue was three months old, but Tyler didn’t seem to care, so he just hit play. They watched in silence for a while, and Jamie got fuzzy as the pills kicked in. He rested his head back against the couch and closed his eyes, just listening to the play-by-play, and finally faded out into sleep.
When he woke up, the TV was off and the room was quiet, with the sun coming through the window at a late-afternoon angle. Jamie lifted his head and looked around, squinting and blinking, fumbling for his phone and trying to figure out the sense that something was missing.
Jamie startled, nearly dropping his phone again, then looked up and saw Tyler standing in the doorway, his arms crossed over his chest. “Uh. Yeah. God, sorry, I didn’t mean to pass out on you.”
“It’s fine. You must have needed it.” Tyler cleared his throat and glanced over his shoulder toward the kitchen. “So I was going to make dinner. But I figured you probably have a system for that that I don’t know, and I didn’t want to fuck it up, so I ordered dinner. But nobody delivers out here, like you said, so… I’m gonna go into town and pick up dinner.”
Jamie had to smile, rubbing at his eyes. “Oh. Well, thanks.”
“You want to come with me?”
“I…” The idea of going out didn’t make sense to Jamie’s sleep-fogged mind for a moment. He almost never went back out once he was home for the day; he consolidated everything into one trip out and back. But Tyler didn’t know that, and didn’t have any reason to; he was standing there with his eyebrows raised, waiting for Jamie to answer.
“Sure.” Jamie nodded and gathered himself, standing up carefully. “Let me just grab my jacket.”
“I don’t think you’ll need it. You don’t have to get out of the car, I’ll run in once we get there.”
“Right. Of course.” God, he couldn’t even act normal about going to pick up dinner. Jamie wondered how much Tyler wanted to laugh at him, or pity him, or… well, those were really the only two options. His life was a goddamn farce.
He followed Tyler outside and then stopped, frowning. “Wait. Where are you staying?”
Tyler tossed the keys up in the air and caught them. “I got a hotel in town.”
“Oh.” Emotions flashed through Jamie faster than he could identify them; embarrassment on behalf of how his mother raised him, because he should’ve asked about this as soon as Tyler arrived, and offered to let Tyler stay in his guest room, because even uninvited guests should be made welcome. A little bit of disappointment that he wasn’t going to look at too closely right now. And then annoyance on behalf of logic and good planning. “It doesn’t make any sense for you to drive to town, come back here, and then go back to the hotel, dude. That’s a whole extra trip.”
“I don’t mind.”
“It’s silly.” Jamie shook his head and stepped toward the truck. “I’ll drive. We’ll eat at the hotel. Then I’ll come home.”
“And I won’t have a car.”
“I’ll pick you up on my way to the pool tomorrow.”
Tyler’s forehead furrowed. “The pool?”
“I swim twice a week.” Jamie shrugged. “It’s PT. It’s good for my back, I guess. And I’ve got a massage, tomorrow, the massage place is in the same building, it’s a whole big rec center complex. It’s nice. They built it a few years ago. You know, a hockey town, it brings in people who want to stay in shape and shit.” He bit down on his lip to make himself stop babbling. “If you want to come with me.”
Tyler smiled a little. “Okay. A pool day. Um, I don’t have trunks with me, but we can figure something out.”
“There’s a sporting goods store in the complex too. They have everything.”
“You’re still so fucking practical, man.” Tyler’s smile grew, and Jamie had to let himself return it. “I love that that hasn’t changed.”
Sometimes Jamie felt like he hadn’t changed at all, and other times like he’d changed so much he should be unrecognizable. This didn’t feel like the right time to tell Tyler that, though.
He ducked his head and climbed up into the truck, grabbing his keys off the dashboard and starting the engine.
“You live dangerously out here,” Tyler said, getting into the passenger seat and blinking at him. “You just leave your keys in the car?”
Jamie put the truck in gear and started off down the driveway. “I’m in the middle of nowhere, man. The deer don’t want my car.”
“What if something happens? A fire or an accident or something?”
Jamie shrugged, careful not to look at him. Tyler’s voice had taken a turn for the serious and he wasn’t ready to deal with that right now. “Nothing has yet. Knock on wood or whatever.”
Tyler didn’t answer, and after a moment Jamie reached out and turned the radio on.
“Not country,” Tyler said.
“Driver’s choice, dude.”
“Aw, fuck,” Tyler sighed, slumping in his seat. “I can’t even, with you.”
Jamie exhaled slowly. Maybe they would be okay for the rest of the night.
It was okay, maybe better than okay; Tyler had a lot of stories about guys Jamie used to know, and that stretched the visit out longer than expected. Jamie didn’t get to bed until much later than his usual time and woke up feeling awful in the morning. Still, it was just fatigue, not pain so far. He got to the bathroom and took his pills as usual, studying himself in the mirror with detached interest. Usually if he noticed his own face, it was to focus on what had changed. The pain lines around his eyes and mouth, the hairline retreating a little, the hint of scars that had mostly faded but not quite gone away.
Today he caught himself thinking about how maybe he actually hadn’t changed that much after all. He could still see himself. Maybe it was from seeing how little Tyler had changed over three years; he was definitely older, but there wasn’t the sharp, world-bending change Jamie had always assumed had happened to himself.
It was stupid to dwell on it, he reminded himself, turning away from the mirror. Whatever his face might or might not have done, everything else had changed. Proof: yeah, they’d had a good dinner and some laughs in Tyler’s hotel room, but Tyler hadn’t even tried to touch him, not once. Jamie hadn’t tried anything, either. They stayed more than an arm’s length apart, a distance Jamie could only think of as careful, and maybe even more formal than that. Maybe courteous.
And neither one of them said anything about it. They talked about nothing, instead. The elephant in the room just sat there.
He moved slowly to the kitchen and started making eggs. It didn’t matter. Tyler would stay for a few days and then leave. He would either get around to telling Jamie why he was here at all, or he wouldn’t. Nothing would change. Nothing had to change.
He repeated that to himself over and over, trying to find the reassurance that was usually there in the concept for him. Stability, safety, nothing changing. Being able to build his life exactly how he wanted it and not have it move under his feet.
It wasn’t working today, though. No matter how many times he repeated it, he just felt uneasy and kind of sick.
He stared blankly at the eggs in the pan and slid them onto his plate, then turned away to make his toast. Sick or not, he had to eat before a workout. It was important.
Jordie called at nine-thirty, and Jamie’s stomach ached with relief. “Hey,” he said, dropping his pen and pushing the crossword puzzle book away. “How’s it going?”
“Good! Everything’s good down here. How are you? Is the Tyler visit okay? I meant to text you last night but time just got away from me.”
“I’m okay.” Jamie hadn’t even noticed that Jordie hadn’t texted like he said he would. Weird. “It’s going okay, I think. We hung out. I’m picking him up in a little while, actually. He’s coming to the pool with me today.”
“What is he going to do at the pool?”
“Swim, I guess. I don’t know.”
“Well.” Jordie was quiet for a moment, and Jamie closed his eyes, wishing he was better at this, wishing he could fix this. “It’s good that you’re hanging out. I’m glad.”
“Did he say anything to you about, like… why he’s here?”
“He wanted to see you, Chubbs.”
Jordie sighed, the sound rattling over the phone. “Please don’t be an idiot.”
“I’m not. I really don’t understand.” He looked down at the crossword again, the squares blurring together. “It’s been years.”
“You’re not over it. Why should he be?”
“I’m not over what?”
Jordie laughed, a sharp, barking sound that didn’t have much humor in it. “Take your pick, man.”
“Fuck you, seriously.”
“Jamie.” Jamie knew that tone of voice. It meant something was coming that he didn’t want to hear, and Jordie knew he didn’t want to hear it, but he was going to say it anyway, because he was a big brother and also an asshole. “I love you, dude, but you’re stuck.”
“I’m not stuck.”
“You are stuck. You’ve been stuck for three years.”
“I know you don’t like how I live, but—”
“I respect that you make your own choices, Jamie. I get that you want to feel safe.”
“But you don’t like it anyway.”
“I worry about you.”
Jamie closed his eyes, wondering why this exact conversation had to happen over and over again. Maybe they were stuck in some kind of fucking awful Groundhog Day scenario that he would never figure out.
“I could’ve died,” he said instead. “I probably should have died.”
“Don’t say that.”
“It’s true, though, it was just dumb luck that—”
“Knock it off.” Jordie’s voice was hard now, and Jamie rubbed at his eyes, wishing he had kept his mouth shut. Jordie didn’t like it when Jamie talked about the accident at all, but especially when he got caught up in thinking about the luck of how the response team pulled him out of the truck.
They turned his body to the right. If they’d turned it to the left, his spine would’ve been severed. There wasn’t any way to know that until after the fact.
“Sorry,” Jamie muttered.
“I could’ve died, too, Jamie.”
“I know.” All of that fucking blood. Jamie’s throat tightened and he choked, gaping his mouth for air.
“Shit,” he heard Jordie say, before his voice got steady and careful again. “Breathe, Jamie. It’s okay. I’m okay, you’re okay, we both made it. Nothing to panic about.”
After a moment, Jamie got a grip on himself again. He dug his thumbnail against the edge of the table and cleared his throat. “Yeah. I’m fine. Sorry.”
“You’re going to pick up Tyler?”
“I’ll leave here in like… half an hour, I guess.”
“Go ahead and go now. Pick up some coffee and Timbits. Get a little fresh air, eh?”
Jamie rubbed his eyes again, letting his thumb drift up to touch the faded scar on his temple. “I… yeah. Okay. I’ll try.”
“I love you, Jamie. You know that, right?”
Jamie dropped his hand from his face to his tattoo, tracing over the letters that had somehow come out of the accident unscarred. Jordie’s had, too. Their sister said that was proof that it wasn’t just luck that they both survived; something had been looking out for them. Jamie didn’t know about that. He kind of wanted to believe it, but… he didn’t know. He would probably never know.
“I love you too,” he said, pressing down on the tattoo. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
Tyler had a cup of hotel coffee in his hand when he climbed in the truck, but he immediately dumped it out in the parking lot and grabbed for the Timmy’s cup Jamie held out to him. “You’re awesome. Thank you.”
“There’s food, too.” Jamie nodded at the bag. “Coming up here’s going to set you back a couple weeks in summer training.”
“I don’t care. I need it.” Tyler took a sip and groaned. “I burned down bad at the end this year, it sucked. Couldn’t keep weight on. I was getting knocked around like a kitten. Sucked. Oh my god, you got Timbits and sandwiches.”
Jamie laughed a little and pulled out of the lot. “Dig in. I already ate.”
“You’re my favorite.” Tyler subsided into silence and eating, and Jamie made his way slowly toward the rec center. This wasn’t his usual route, and it was--it was stressful, coming from this direction. More traffic, more turns, he felt like he was swimming upstream instead of moving with the flow.
Still, they got there eventually. He parked and took a breath, willing the tension in his shoulders to ease. “You ready or you need a few minutes?”
Tyler made a face and gulped down the rest of his coffee. “’m good. Let’s do this. Let’s buy shorts and get in there.”
Jamie reached into the back of the cab and grabbed his bag, then led the way up to the big doors at the front. “It’s a really nice place,” he said, looking around the lobby as they went in. “I can get you in as a guest, you don’t have to pay. The shop’s down that way, and the locker room’s around the corner, there. You sure you want to swim? You could use the treadmills or the weight room or anything you want. You could play basketball.”
“Have you ever seen me play basketball?”
“It’s not good.” Tyler shook his head and smiled. “It’s cool, dude, I’m kind of looking forward to swimming now. Sign me in and let’s hope they have trunks and not just, like, Speedos. This town isn’t ready for me in a banana hammock.”
“Nobody’s ready for that. There’s no way to be ready for that.”
“Hey, back in the day you wouldn’t have said that, man.” And that--that was the first time either of them had acknowledged anything. The words hung in the air all wrong, and Jamie quickly turned away to go to the front desk and sign them both in. Tyler showed the women at the desk his ID and vanished into the shop without another word; Jamie waited in the lobby feeling strange and alien and too large until Tyler came back again with a pair of black swim trunks in his hand.
“All set,” Tyler said calmly, and Jamie accepted his lead in pretending nothing had happened. “Let’s get our swim on.”
Jamie didn’t realize how strange it would feel to undress in front of Tyler until they were in the locker room and he didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t the nakedness; being self-conscious about that had been taken out of him by all the years of baseball and hockey. It was the scars. There was a difference between hearing about the injuries and surgeries on the news and seeing the evidence on his body. He was used to strangers in the locker room sneaking glances at him. Tuning that out was easy. But Tyler…
At least Tyler didn’t say anything. He looked at Jamie with a blank expression and a tight jaw, but he didn’t say anything, just turned back to his own locker and changed into his trunks. And that was fine. That would have to do.
Jamie led the way out to the deck, turning to pass the lifeguard’s chair. “Hey, Caitlyn,” he called up to the woman on duty. “Is Jeff not working today?”
“Hey, Jamie.” She smiled down at him. “No Mommy and Me this week, so he’s not coming in til three. So I don’t get lunch til three, and I’m pissed about it. Who’s your friend?”
“This is Tyler. Tyler, this is Caitlyn.” He stepped back so they could shake hands, then craned his neck up at Caitlyn again. “Who’s going to cover your breaks, then?”
“I can call everybody out of the pool to take my fifteen minutes,” she said, tightening her ponytail and scanning the water again. There were only two people out there, retirees swimming careful laps, but Caitlyn was always really conscientious about her job. “If there’s anybody here anyway.”
“You hear anything about your housing in Vancouver yet?”
“Not yet. Hopefully this week.” She smiled at him again. “Quit stalling and get in the pool, dude, I’m gonna keep count of your laps today. How many are you going for?”
“I don’t know. I feel good today, though. Maybe a hundred.”
“You can do it.” She turned her smile to Tyler. “Nice to meet you.”
“You too. I don’t know how many laps I’m going to do, either.”
“I can only count for one at a time,” she said, “and Jamie’s got me booked up.”
“I can see that.” He grinned as he followed Jamie to the start of the lanes at the far end. “Dude. I thought you were living like a monk, but she’s cute as hell. Are you guys dating?”
“What?” Jamie blinked at him. “No, she just… she just works here. We talk when I come in to swim. Her and Jeff and me. Usually Jeff’s on duty, too, right, because they have classes, so two lifeguards--”
“She was totally flirting with you. Have you even asked her out to coffee or anything?”
“No, no. She’s… she’s going to grad school this fall, in Vancouver. Mechanical engineering. She’s, like, she’s incredibly smart.”
Tyler raised his eyebrows. “And that somehow means you can't take her out for coffee?”
“She works here. That would be harassing her, you know?”
“And what about Jeff? You ever met him for a drink, or to watch a game, anything like that?”
“No.” Jamie’s face was burning and he had no idea why. “He’s a law student. He’s really smart, too. They’re both nice and we talk when I come in here, but I don’t--I don’t bother them.”
Tyler stared at him for another moment, then exhaled slowly and looked away. “Well. I’m glad you have friends, anyway.”
“Close enough.” Tyler pinched his nose and jumped into the pool, vanishing under the surface with a splash.
Jamie stared at the ripples for a moment, then sighed and eased himself in slowly, holding on to the edge of the deck as the cold shocked his system. That was--that was fucking weird. He used to know what Tyler was talking about at least half the time. He was pretty sure that, once upon a time, he did.
He lost himself in swimming, relying on the mechanical movement of his body to keep from thinking. He didn’t push himself for speed, but focused on steadiness, lap after lap. The water felt good once he was used to the cold; it buoyed him up, taking the stress off the places that hurt. He felt like he could keep going forever.
At least, he felt like that for a while. When he hit the wall he hit it hard, grinding out the last return with his limbs feeling like dead wood.
“One-twenty,” Caitlyn called as he pulled himself up the ladder to the deck. “You’re a beast, Jamie.”
He waved to her in acknowledgment and walked carefully to the shallow, warm-water pool, where Tyler was already lounging, head back and eyes closed.
“Good swim?” Jamie asked, settling carefully next to him. He wiped his hand over his eyes and squinted at the clock over the doors to the locker room; forty minutes until his massage appointment. Not bad.
“Shit, dude,” Tyler said lazily. “I gotta tell the guys we need to do more hydrotherapy. Maybe for maintenance days.”
“It’s pretty good, eh? Different kind of workout.”
“You looked good out there.” Tyler’s eyes were still closed, his mouth curved in a smile. “Steady.”
“Thanks.” Jamie rested his head back on the edge of the deck. “I’ve got a massage next, what’re you going to do while I do that?”
Tyler shrugged. “I’ll figure something out. I’ve got my phone. There’s a smoothie bar. I’m good.”
“Cool.” Jamie sat still for a moment, counting the thudding beats of his heart. “You, uh, you want to get lunch when we’re done here? All I’ve got at home is sandwich stuff and, like, pasta.”
“I’m good with whatever you want to do, man. I’m your guest. Host me.”
Jamie frowned at him. “I didn’t invite you.”
“I think it is relevant, actually—”
“Yes, I want to go out to lunch. Happy?”
Jamie thought for a moment. “More or less.”
“Awesome.” Tyler sank lower in the water. “Me too.”
Jamie found Tyler at the smoothie bar as promised when he got out of his massage. “I’m trolling hockey subReddits,” Tyler said cheerfully. “These people will believe anything.”
“It’s good to have hobbies, I guess.” Jamie shifted his bag higher on his shoulder. “Ready to go?”
“I am.” Tyler stood and followed him outside, squinting against the afternoon sunlight. “What are you thinking food-wise?”
Jamie shrugged. “There’s a Korean place that’s really good, not too far from here. Jordie loves it, we go every time he--”
It wasn’t quite enough warning for Jamie to brace himself before a six-year-old hit his legs. “Oof! Careful, buddy, I’ve got a bad leg, remember?”
“Oh, sorry!” Braden looked up at him with a guilty face. “I saw you from the car and wanted to say hi.”
Jamie looked over his shoulder and saw Braden’s mom, Diana, standing by their SUV. She waved and he returned the gesture, offering Braden his other hand. “You looked out for cars before you ran over here, right?”
“Yeah.” Braden smiled at him, then looked at Tyler. “Who’s he?”
“This is my friend Tyler.” Jamie hesitated a beat, then gave in. “Tyler Seguin.”
Braden’s eyes widened. “Tyler Seguin is the captain of the Dallas Stars.”
Jamie blinked. “You got the C?”
“Last year,” Tyler said, his smile twisted at the edges. “You really don’t keep up, huh?”
“I--” Jamie stopped and cleared his throat, looking down at Braden. “Yeah, he is, dude. He’s a real NHL star.”
“No pun intended.” Tyler crouched down to Braden’s height. “You like the Stars?”
“I’m a Canucks fan,” Braden said seriously. “But you guys are okay.”
“Thank you.” Tyler nodded. “Do you play?”
“Yes! I’m a forward.”
“That’s cool. Tell me about your team.”
That got Braden off and running. Jamie stepped back and opened the truck, digging around the front seat for paper or a napkin, something, and then in the glovebox for a pen. A lot more would have to change than getting the C for Tyler not to want to give a kid an autograph.
Tyler flashed a quick smile when Jamie handed him the pen and a Timmy’s napkin. “That’s awesome, dude. How do you know Jamie here?”
Braden made a face. “Mr. Jamie works at the barn my sister Tanya rides at. I see him on Saturdays. It’s so boring there but he’s nice.”
“He’s very nice.” Tyler signed the napkin with a flourish. “Will you be there this Saturday?” He grinned at Braden’s nod. “Me too. I’ll see if I can bring you a puck or something, okay?”
“Thank you!” Braden grinned back, then looked up at Jamie. “How do you know Tyler Seguin?”
Tyler answered before Jamie had to. “Oh, we’re old friends. We go way back.”
“That’s so cool.” Braden turned to his mom, who had given up on him returning on his own and come to claim him. “Mom, I got Tyler Seguin’s autograph!”
Jamie managed not to sigh as things spiraled into another round of introductions and explanations. It was inevitable. He needed to be patient.
Tyler kept looking at him, though, sidelong glances that made Jamie’s neck prickle. This had dug up questions, too many of them to be graceful. Lunch was going to be a mess.
But when Braden and Diana walked off, Tyler didn’t say anything. He just got in the truck and squinted at his phone.
“You think if I called some guys in Van they could get a hat and a puck up here by Saturday?”
“Probably.” Jamie glanced warily at him. “You think he needs it?”
“Why not? Nice kid. A fan. Why shouldn’t I be nice?”
“You should. I mean, if you want to.”
“He doesn’t know you played, does he?”
“He doesn’t even know my last name. I’m Mr. Jamie from the barn.”
There was so much in that question, and so many answers. Jamie couldn’t even see them all, much less put them in words.
“It’s easier,” he said finally. “It was easier at first and now it’s just how it is.”
“You break my goddamn heart, Jamie,” Tyler said. His voice was low and strained to where it didn’t even sound like his.
Jamie couldn’t think of anything to say.
“You really didn’t know I made captain.”
“You do know we won the Cup, right? We won it for you. You and Jordie, but mostly for you.”
Jamie forced himself to nod, even though he couldn’t swallow. Couldn’t breathe. “I know that.”
“Six months after the accident? Five? Something like that? Fucking… we won it for you guys. Killing ourselves to win those games.”
Jamie’s knuckles ached from gripping the steering wheel. “Nobody asked you to.”
“Did you watch us raise the Cup? Did you see me--did you see the fucking speech we gave? For you?”
“I was in a rehab facility, Tyler.” Jamie’s chest hurt, his eyes burned, he couldn’t do this. “I was doing PT and taking a million painkillers. I know game seven was on the TV in the room I was in. I don’t remember it very well. I know I watched it, but I don’t--”
“Did you hear me say it was for you?”
“I must have.”
Tyler’s voice was raw, and Jamie couldn’t look at him; if he saw the facial expression that went with that voice, he wouldn’t be able to keep himself together anymore. “Your Stanley Cup. We made sure everybody knew that was your Cup.”
“But it wasn’t. I didn’t win it. I didn’t play for it. I was in a fucking outpatient facility in Vancouver, Tyler!”
The silence, it turned out, was worse than that voice.
“I think I’ll take a rain check on lunch,” Tyler said finally. “Maybe you can just drop me off at the hotel.”
“Yeah.” Jamie fumbled with the keys until the engine started. “Yeah. I can do that.”
When he got home, he realized the rental car was still sitting there. The fucking goddamn horror show still wasn’t over yet.
He didn’t bother with lunch, just chased his afternoon pills with the vodka from the top of the fridge and put himself to sleep for the afternoon. When he woke up, there were no messages on his phone and the sun had already set behind the stand of trees.
He had another vodka and slept through to morning.
His alarm went off at eight and he lay there for a few moments, working his tongue in his terribly dry, chalk-talking mouth. Substance abuse left you feeling like shit. Not news.
He sat up, surprised by how sore he wasn’t. Head ached, mouth tasted like death and old socks, but his level of hurt was steadily average. He made his way to the bathroom and through his routine, then shuffled to the kitchen for orange juice and godawful oatmeal.
Coffee next, he promised himself. Once he pretended that a little vitamin C was all he needed to fix his life.
He settled at the table with the crossword book, moving on autopilot, not letting himself think about Tyler or the day before. That was a one-time weird day, obviously, and now everything would go back to normal, and it didn’t—
The front door opened and footsteps came into the entryway. “Jamie?”
Jamie dropped his spoon. “Tyler?”
“Hey.” Tyler stood in the kitchen doorway, his hands shoved deep in the pouch of his hoodie. “You got coffee? I was going to stop on the way here, but the cab driver was a fucking maniac.”
“You took a cab all the way out here?”
Tyler shrugged. “How else was I going to get here? Seriously, is there coffee?”
Jamie pointed at the coffee maker and watched blankly as Tyler hurried over and crooned to it, like it was a puppy or something.
“What’s your schedule today?” Tyler asked, opening cupboards until he found the coffee mugs. “Pool yesterday, barn tomorrow, is today salsa dancing?”
“Home gym,” Jamie said after a moment where his head spun too fast for him to manage words. “Cardio and weights. Uh. You came here.”
“Yes, I did.” Tyler went to the refrigerator. “You have creamer or real milk or what?”
“Both. In the door.”
“Fucking plain creamer? Not hazelnut or vanilla or anything?”
“I… actually I bought plain by mistake. Usually I get hazelnut.”
“At least I don’t have to disown you,” Tyler muttered. He moved back to the coffee machine and looked at Jamie for a moment. “I’m willing to forget about yesterday if you are. I got worked up. You got worked up. It’s fine. We can forget it.”
Jamie knew they weren’t really going to forget it. But ignore it, yeah. That they could do. “Okay. Sounds good.”
Tyler nodded and brought his cup to the table. “Cardio and weights sounds awesome. Let’s do this.”
“Not yet.” Jamie gestured vaguely at his oatmeal. “You want some?”
“That looks completely disgusting. I do not want any.”
“Yeah.” Jamie blinked at the bowl, shrugged, and took another bite. “Jordie should call soon.”
“We talk every day. I mean, almost. If he’s busy we might not. But then we text.” Jamie trailed off and shrugged again. “It’s kind of pathetic. I know.”
“It’s you guys. It’s how you are.” Tyler settled deeper in his seat. “He’s really good with the kids. He’s not, like, a coach coach, he just kinda… talks to them. A big brother for the whole team.”
“I miss him,” Jamie said, as startled by the words as Tyler looked. “Seeing him, I mean. Having him around. He visits, when he can, but…”
“It’s a little lonely out here,” Tyler said gently. “Yeah?”
Jamie cleared his throat and pushed the bowl away again. “Sometimes. My folks, my sister, they come out sometimes, too, but I…” He had to laugh. It came out strained and weird, but Tyler didn’t flinch. “I am not much fun to be around. Believe it or not. I sleep, like, twelve hours a day. I do PT. I watch sports and I read and I do crossword puzzles. My parents have more active lives than I do. I can’t—”
“It’s okay, Jamie.” Tyler’s voice was too fucking gentle. Jamie kind of couldn’t stand it.
“This is fucking better, is the thing,” he said, reaching for his phone and opening his calendar. “See--three kinds of workouts, each twice a week. Sundays off. Massage every other week. Pain doc every other month. Check-in with physical therapist once a month. Psychologist once a month. I’m, like, fully booked, you know? I have a routine. That’s better. But I still, like, compare myself to a normal person and just--”
Tyler took the phone, studying the calendar. “I wondered if you had a brain-therapist to go with the body one.”
“Yeah.” Jamie rubbed his forehead. “She’s nice.”
“You only see her once a month?” Tyler’s voice was so carefully neutral, it made the judgment even more clear.
“Used to be more.” Jamie stood and carried his dishes to the sink. “But, uh, she says she can’t make me do anything. I decide. If I want to… she calls it maintaining. If I want to maintain for a while and not push myself, that’s my choice. It’s all up to me. So.”
“I guess I get that.” Tyler turned his chair to face Jamie in the kitchen. “Does she give you homework?”
“God. Yes. Read at a coffee shop instead of at home. Talk to three strangers.” Jamie ran the water, then turned it off. “Stupid stuff.”
“Do you do it?”
“Yeah. It doesn’t really… but I do it.” Jamie leaned on the counter and sighed. He wanted Jordie to call. He wanted to go back to bed.
“Says here you see her Monday.”
“Aw, fuck. Already?”
“Yeah. Dr. Sung, Monday.” Tyler tapped at the phone. “There, I booked you for coffee with me afterward. She can’t keep you late. You’ve got plans.”
Jamie managed a smile. “She can’t keep me late because she’s got other appointments.”
“That, too. So you definitely won’t miss coffee.” Tyler grinned at him and tossed the phone onto the counter.
“It’s a date.”
Tyler’s smile twisted. “I guess so.”
Shit. “Should we talk about--”
“Not right now.”
Jamie took a breath. “Okay.”
The silence threatened to stretch into discomfort again, but then the phone rang. Bless Jordie and all his works, forever. Jamie grabbed the phone and retreated to the living room, leaving Tyler behind at the table. “Hey, man, what’s up?”
Jordie talked for a while about planning for Mexico, how Alice wanted to go windsurfing and swim with whale sharks and he wanted to lie by pools with a drink in his hand at all times. Jamie made the appropriate sympathetic noises and stared out the window at the yard.
“Anyway.” Jordie laughed and Jamie snapped back to the moment. “How are you and Segs getting along?”
“Good. I mean, okay. You know.” Jamie winced. That sounded… ridiculous.
Jordie agreed, if his silence was anything to go by.
“It’s fine,” Jamie said finally. “He’s gonna work out with me again today.”
“Have you guys boned yet?”
Jamie closed his eyes tightly. “Dude.”
“I guess not or you would sound much more chill.”
“That’s not—that’s not happening.” He wasn’t sure how to talk about this with Tyler in the kitchen. He wasn’t sure how to talk about this at all, or if he even wanted to.
“Why the fuck not?”
“It’s not—” Jamie stopped, pressing his fingers against the scars on his thigh, trying to find some kind of a grip on his feelings. “It’s not the same.”
“I can’t talk about this right now.”
Jordie paused for a moment, then giggled, because he was a terrible brother. “Oh. He’s there? I see. Slept over in the guest room?”
“No. It’s… it’s a long story. But everything’s fine.”
“Okay. Enjoy your workout.”
“Get over yourself and bone him. Double workout. It’s good for you.”
“Bye.” Jamie hung up and dropped his phone into the couch cushions. His family was a plague on his life.
Tyler poked his head in from the kitchen. “All good?”
“Yeah. Yeah. He and Alice are going on vacation. Mexico.”
Tyler nodded. “He’s going to sunburn into a giant bearded tomato.”
“Yeah, probably.” Jamie smiled a little. “So, uh. Cardio and weights.”
“And core.” Tyler stretched his arms over his head. “Can’t forget core.”
“I hate core.”
“Your PT is on you about it, huh?”
Jamie made a face. “All the fucking time.”
“Yeah. I think it’s in their contracts. C’mon, dude, the gym awaits us.”
Working out with Tyler was better than working out alone. He kept up a running commentary, sang along with Jamie’s playlist, and just by being there made it so Jamie had to finish every set without cheating. No slacking in front of Tyler. The humiliation would kill him.
“We get to fire up the hot tub now, right?” Tyler said when they were done. He pressed a towel to his face, then grinned at Jamie. “It seems like a waste not to.”
“Yeah, we can.” Jamie took a careful step, testing his leg, then walked over and folded back to the hot tub cover. “It takes it a little bit to warm up and cycle the water through. I usually take a shower first, just… you know. Don’t end up sitting in my own sweat and whatever.”
“Smart.” Tyler picked up his phone and frowned at it. “You go first?”
Jamie pressed buttons until the tub started to cycle on. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. Just some shit I should reply to. Go get all clean and shiny, dude.”
Jamie rolled his eyes but did as he was told, heading back to his bedroom to strip down and shower. His hip was throbbing with low, steady pain, a little more than usual. Predictable, since he’d pushed a little harder to impress Tyler. It would probably make his PT happy, honestly. Shadi got after him a lot about being complacent and not pushing himself.
He rinsed off and worked his fingers through his hair, letting the water get all the way to the roots. He should get it cut again, he thought vaguely. Go short again. Not the way he’d worn it while he was playing, with the long top and shaved sides, but… maybe a crew cut. Something different than it was now, at least.
He never thought about stuff like haircuts and clothes unless his family was visiting. This was probably Tyler’s fault.
No, it was definitely Tyler’s fault, and he wasn’t ready to look at that too closely. He turned the water off and wrapped a towel around his waist, firmly shutting a mental door on that line of thoughts. Nothing good could come from it.
Tyler was waiting in the living room, holding his phone and looking even more nervous than before. “Guest room shower, right?” he asked as soon as Jamie appeared. “Towels in there already?”
“Uh… yeah. Yeah, go ahead. What’s up?”
“Nothing.” Tyler looked at his phone again, then shoved it toward Jamie. “Okay, look, I just want you to… I put together this folder of pictures. I just want you to look at them while I’m in the shower, okay?”
“That’s the point. If you can figure out why, then… then cool, and we’ll talk about it, or not, whatever. If you can’t figure out why, then we can just forget it.” Tyler swallowed and waved his phone in Jamie’s face. “No big deal.”
“It’s obviously a big deal. You look like you’re going to freak out.”
“Just take the phone, Jamie. Please.” Tyler jabbed it at him until he took it, then hurried off toward the guest room. Jamie looked down at the screen and saw that the photo gallery and subfolder were already open. All he had to do was scroll through.
He hitched the towel more securely around his waist and sat down on the couch to get started. He took his time, looking at each picture closely, but since he didn’t know what he was looking for it seemed pretty pointless. They were all pictures of Tyler, in uniform, but in some of them he was on the ice, others on the bench, others in the locker room. A little over halfway through the gallery the C appeared on Tyler’s jersey, and he recognized fewer and fewer of the teammates in the background of each shot, but other than that there weren’t any obvious changes.
He started over again, going even slower this time, desperate to figure out what Tyler wanted him to see. It had to mean something, to make Tyler that nervous. It had to be important. Even if he couldn’t do anything with it once he found it, it felt like it was really important for him to know.
It caught his eye in the second to last picture. He stared at it, then started over at the beginning, going halfway through again before he was sure that he was seeing what he was supposed to.
On Tyler’s stick tape, in every shot, was a carefully drawn star with the number 14 at the center. In the early pictures, Tyler wore an armband with a similar star, and a second one that said 24. The league only allowed tributes like that for so long, Jamie remembered, but players could do whatever they wanted with their tape.
He looked up and found Tyler standing in the doorway, gripping his own towel together and watching Jamie with so much hope in his eyes it almost hurt to see.
Jamie’s throat felt too dry to speak. “Every game?”
Tyler nodded. “Yeah. I’ve had you with me. Every one. Always. I was playing for you.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Yeah.” Tyler shrugged and looked away. “Now you do.”
“I don’t, um. I don’t know what to do with this.”
“You don’t have to do anything with it. I just wanted you to know.”
“It’s not a big deal.”
“It’s definitely a big deal. You look like you’re fucking dying.”
Tyler shook his head. “No. I’d be dying if you didn’t see it.”
Jamie set the phone down on the couch, then turned it so the screen was down. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m just sorry.” He rubbed at his face, pressing his thumb hard against the bridge of his nose. “Sorry I’m an asshole, I guess.”
“We’re all assholes. It’s what we do.”
“I owe you a lot of apologies.”
Tyler shook his head. “I don’t want them.” He pulled his towel tighter around his waist and jerked his head toward the hall. “Let’s go get in the damn hot tub, eh? Put this on pause til later.”
The ache in Jamie’s hip came back to his attention, hot and growly. Heat would be a relief. “Yeah, okay. We’ll talk about it after.”
Naked in a hot tub with Tyler brought back a lot of memories. Between that and knowing that Tyler was playing for him, holding on to him, for all that time, there wasn’t much chance of Jamie being able to hold up his side of an actual conversation.
After the third or fourth try at talking about something normal failed because Jamie lost the plot two sentences in, they both fell silent. Jamie closed his eyes and tilted his head back, concentrating on the heat settling into his body and easing the ache in all the injury sites. When Jordie visited and they both were in the tub, it was like listening to the soundtrack of a really bad porn, with all the groaning and whimpering in relief.
He didn’t get why Tyler wasn’t saying anything. This was a prime Tyler situation. It was time for Tyler to be oversharing to fill the silence, or at least talking about how weird it was that they were silent in the first place. Or--
Or, well. Being naked in a hot tub with Tyler brought back a lot of memories, which led up to thinking that Tyler ought to be making a move, here. At least making flirty eye contact across the tub.
He wasn’t, and that was… that was fine. He wasn’t interested anymore, fine. Jamie had blown him off for three years, Tyler shouldn’t be interested. Jamie was being a dick by even thinking about it. Tyler didn’t owe him anything.
On the other hand, Tyler had flown to BC to see him. Tyler was sticking close to him. Tyler kept coming back after the awkward times, and looking at Jamie with his big expectant Tyler eyes, and smiling at him in quiet moments like he was waiting for something.
Jamie didn’t remember Tyler as being very good at waiting. But there had been quite a bit of time for things to change. He had definitely changed. There was no reason Tyler couldn’t have grown up.
And fuck, that made him feel old. Old and a little frantic, because if Tyler had grown up he had probably grown out of Jamie, and Jamie had missed whatever chances he might once have had. It had been too long, and he’d been too stupid, and Jordie was right, fuck, he had never gotten over Tyler at all.
And now it was too late to do anything about it.
“Dude, you okay?” Tyler’s voice cut through his sudden uncomfortable haze of anxiety. “You’re all red. Like… more than hot tub red. Really red.”
Jamie shook his head a little. “I don’t know.”
“Fuck.” Tyler sat up and leaned toward him a little. “Your meds, maybe? Not supposed to get this hot while you’re taking them?”
“It’s my hot tub, I wouldn’t have it if I couldn’t use it.”
“Okay, well, then you’ve gotta talk to me, Jame, because I’m out of guesses about what your problem is here.”
“It’s not… I don’t…” Jamie forced himself to stop, to take a breath. To look at Tyler. “Fuck.”
Tyler’s forehead scrunched in confusion, and Jamie couldn’t wait any more, couldn’t let himself think for another instant. He pushed himself off the bench and across the tub, moving in with an awkward splash to kiss Tyler. The angle was wrong, their noses hitting together, and the water sloshed up over the edge of the tub and onto the floor, but Tyler’s hands grabbed at Jamie’s ribs to hold him closer, not push him away, and Tyler was kissing him back.
Tyler was kissing him back.
Jamie had not bought the hot tub with this in mind, and it really wasn’t suited for it. There wasn’t really a good way to position their bodies without plastic digging in uncomfortably somewhere, or one of them getting crushed into a jet. But Jamie didn’t want to stop, and Tyler wasn’t stopping, either, so maybe they could overcome the drawbacks with sheer force of will.
“Ow,” Tyler gasped just after Jamie had that thought. “Ow. Can we take this somewhere else?”
Jamie’s breath caught in his throat and for a minute he thought he might die. Dying naked and touching Tyler was better than alone on his bedroom floor, for sure, but would probably raise a lot of questions that Tyler would have to deal with alone. “Yeah. Yeah, okay.”
He almost fell getting out of the tub; Tyler caught his arm and steadied him, and Jamie felt his face go hotter than the water could account for, again. He hit the button to turn the tub off and grabbed his towel, wrapping it around himself quickly and turning to watch Tyler do the same.
“Couch?” he asked, feeling more stupid and awkward than he had in a really long time. Since juniors, maybe, trying to pick up girls who were not impressed and never going to be. “Or, like…”
“I think a bed might be better for you, right?” Tyler ran a wet hand through his hair, pushing the curls back. “I want you to be comfortable.”
“You’re such a romantic.” It was supposed to be a little bit of a chirp, supposed to have kind of an edge to it, but it didn’t come out that way at all. From the way Tyler looked at him in return, he could hear the gap between what Jamie intended and what was said.
“Damn right I am,” was all he said, though. “Take me to bed, Benn.”
Jamie’s room was all the way down the hall. The blinds were drawn, so it was dark, but it was impossible to miss the bed. They both dropped their towels on the carpet and climbed in naked, reaching for each other. Tyler felt hot under Jamie’s hands, hotter than he expected, in a good way. Like a warm house at the end of the day. Like coming home.
They both ended up on their sides, arms around each other, legs tangled, and they kissed and kissed and kissed. Jamie couldn’t remember ever kissing anyone like this, except Tyler, when they first got started and couldn’t keep their hands off each other. They had had epic makeout sessions that could have been immortalized to history. This one fit right in.
Tyler didn’t make a move for more, so Jamie didn’t either. They kept kissing and touching, shifting back and forth on the bed like they were negotiating boundary lines that vanished as soon as they formed. The sheets got cold and clammy under them as the bedding soaked by their bodies as they cooled. That was the thing that finally broke them apart--maybe the only thing that could have.
“Shit,” Tyler said, and giggled. “We wrecked your bed.”
“It’ll dry.” Jamie shrugged and reached out, running his hand down Tyler’s arm, studying the ink under his fingers. “But yeah, we don’t want to fall asleep in it now.”
“Guest room?” Tyler asked. “You sound like you want to nap.”
Jamie nodded, shoving away the burst of self-loathing that came up every time he had to admit the weaknesses of his stupid fucked-up body. “I need to take a pill and nap, yeah. It’s that time.”
“We didn’t eat yet. Do you need to do that first?”
It was harder to control it this time, and he knew Tyler caught it in his face as he shook his head. “Pill and nap is more important. I’ll have a big dinner. You should eat if you want to, though, I mean--”
Tyler shook his head. “Shush, dude. Take your pill and meet me in the guest room. I’ll get it all warmed up for us.”
“How are you going to do that?”
“Roll around under the covers, duh.” Tyler kissed his forehead, fast and light, and climbed out of the bed. “See you there.”
Jamie woke up with the vague sense that something wasn’t right. Just general disorientation, which made sense when he opened his eyes and there was late-afternoon light falling across his face. The guest room didn’t have good heavy curtains like his bedroom did.
He blinked and rubbed his face, checking in on his pain levels; not bad, just about average for the workout he’d done and cutting the hot tub time short. He sat up carefully and looked around the room, confirming what he already knew: Tyler was gone.
He reached for his phone and found nothing, not even the bedside table, because he was still in the guest room. And his phone was probably in the gym. None of the fine details of his routine had survived Tyler. He wasn’t complaining, exactly, just--he knew his routine really well. And now things were different.
And Tyler was gone.
He got out of the bed, finding his balance and shuffling slowly to the door. First things first: he needed clothes. Walking around the house naked was just never his thing. Too easy to bump into stuff.
Tyler wasn’t in Jamie’s bedroom, which--obviously. Of course he wasn’t, why would he be? Jamie silently told himself to at least try to be cool. If Tyler had really left, then… then there was a reason. Maybe the reason was that Tyler woke up, realized what a goddamn waste it would be to stay with Jamie, and fled the province, but maybe it wasn’t.
The only way to find out was to do some investigating.
He pulled on sweats and a t-shirt and made his way down the hall to the gym, where his phone was sitting on the weight bench. He’d missed a text from Jordie saying that they’d booked their tickets to Mexico and BC, and he would forward them along shortly. Jamie thumbed over to his email and there they were, concrete proof that Jordie was coming to visit. He smiled a little and sent back a quick can’t wait to see you text, then slipped his phone in his pocket and went to drain the hot tub.
Once that was done there really wasn’t an excuse to put off looking around for Tyler. The fact that Tyler hadn’t heard him in the gym and come to investigate was probably a bad sign. Jamie hadn’t bothered being quiet.
No Tyler in the kitchen, but from there he could see that the truck and the rental car were both still in the driveway, and some of the tension in his chest eased. He took a breath and walked down the hall to the front door, then let himself out on the porch and looked around. There was a breeze kicking up, chasing the clouds across the sky in a fast scudding pattern, and he breathed it in, half-sure he could smell the sea.
He looked down the hill to the little stand of trees, and there was Tyler, standing with his hands in his pockets. Jamie took his time walking across the grass to him, letting his footsteps fall as loudly as they wanted. The breeze got colder the further he went from the house, and he wished he’d grabbed a sweatshirt on his way out. Tyler was wearing a dark gray hoodie that looked familiar, because it was Jamie’s, of course.
“Hope you don’t mind me borrowing,” Tyler said when Jamie drew close. “My stuff’s still at the hotel.”
“‘s fine.” Jamie followed his gaze into the trees. “What are you watching?”
“I saw another deer a little while ago? Two of them, actually. A mom and a baby. I was hoping they would come back.”
“Probably not while you’re standing here.” Jamie rubbed his arms and nodded off at an angle from where Tyler was looking. “There’s a bunny, though.”
“Shit, for real?” Tyler looked over just as the rabbit sprang into the air and leaped away. “Missing the forest for the trees, I guess.”
“That’s fuckin’ deep.” Jamie took a breath and then a step back. “C’mon, let’s go back in. I don’t have a jacket.”
“Yeah.” Tyler matched his pace back up to the house, squinting at the reflection of the sun low on the windows. “So I was thinking I’d run into town and get steaks for dinner. I’ll grill ‘em up with some veggies, maybe make garlic toast. Grab a bottle of wine. What do you think?”
“That… that sounds good.” Jamie swallowed and pushed the door open, waiting for Tyler to go inside first. “You know you don’t have to, right?”
“Yes, Jamie. I know.”
“Can I ask you something?”
Tyler poked at the keys on the side table, separating the rental keys from Jamie’s set of truck, barn, and house on a mess of rings and keychains. “Shoot.”
“Why did you come up here?”
Tyler frowned, not looking up from the keys. “To see you.”
“Yeah, but…” Jamie shook his head and leaned his shoulder against the wall, shifting his weight off his bad leg. “You must have had, like, a specific reason. Like, you came now, not two years ago, not next year, what made it be now?”
Tyler frowned more, staring at the side table like it could get him out of this. “It’s complicated. It doesn’t matter. I’m here now, and things are fine.”
“I’ve been fucking you up for what, three years?”
“I don’t want to talk about this right now,” Tyler said, picking up the rental car keys and twisting his fingers around them.
“When is there gonna be a better time, exactly?”
“After dinner.” Tyler hesitated, then shook his head. “No. Tomorrow. Probably tomorrow, will be better. Just not right now.”
“You don’t get to do that.” Tyler dropped the keys again and turned to face him. “You don’t get to just… be stubborn and push your way ahead and push through me this time. No. I get to set the pace, here. And I’m not ready yet.”
“You’re the one doing the pushing. You just came up here, without even--”
“Stop!” Tyler threw his hands up and turned away. “Just stop.”
Jamie did, because even though he knew he was right, and Tyler was the one being pushy, maybe Tyler was right, too, and he didn’t get to shove his way through this one. Maybe. They stood in silence for a moment, both breathing hard, and Jamie broke first.
“While you’re in town, you should stop by the hotel and get your stuff.”
Tyler blinked. “What?”
“Get your stuff. Check out of your room.” Jamie stared past him, his gaze fixed on a scuff on the floor. “You should stay here. The rest of your trip.”
Tyler turned to face him again, folding his arms across his chest. Jamie caught that out of the corner of his eye, but he still couldn’t look at Tyler directly, couldn’t risk seeing his face, his eyes, what they gave away. They always gave away everything, once you knew how to look. Jamie hadn’t forgotten.
“You mean like, here at the house?” Tyler asked carefully. “Or here like with you?”
“Same thing, isn’t it?”
“It’s really not.” Tyler cleared his throat and took a step toward Jamie. “Am I a guest like you bring me fresh towels in the morning and I get little fancy soaps, or am I staying here with you?”
“I would never in my entire life get you a little fancy soap.”
“Fuck you,” Tyler said, so softly that Jamie’s eyes jerked to his face without permission. “I love little fancy soaps.”
“Yeah.” Tyler took a breath, let it out, and then he was smiling, the wide, dizzying, too-many-teeth smile that Jamie hadn’t stopped dreaming about for all these dumb years. “I guess if I’m treating you to steak and wine, and doing the cooking, I’m way past the fancy soap stage.”
“So you’ll stay? You’ll check out of the hotel, and get your stuff, and--and you’ll stay?”
“You’ve got yourself a house guest, Benn.” Tyler stepped closer again and Jamie’s heart stuttered in his chest, but Tyler just smiled again and picked his keys up from the table. “I’ll be back as quick as I can.”
“Okay,” Jamie said softly.
Even after the door closed behind Tyler, Jamie didn’t move for a while. He hadn’t expected himself to ask Tyler to stay, not yet, not like that. But once it happened he hadn’t wanted to stop it, either.
This was different, and scary, and he didn’t know how he was even going to begin to tell his therapist about it on Monday. She was going to give him so much shit.
“I’m not ready,” he said out loud to the empty entryway. Even if anyone had been there to hear him, he wouldn’t have been able to say exactly what he meant.
After dinner they watched a movie and finished Tyler’s bottle of pretty nice wine. The second bottle, because they drank the first bottle while Tyler cooked and then while they ate. By the end of the movie Jamie was much more drunk than he really was supposed to get, and Tyler was giggling at him, and he didn’t much mind.
“Jamie,” Tyler said, poking at him with his foot from the other end of the couch. “Jaaaaamie. You are red-wine wasted, my friend.”
“You tricked me.”
“I really didn’t. You’re just an easy drunk.” Tyler switched the TV off and got to his feet, offering Jamie both hands. “You need to take anything before bed?”
Jamie laughed and took his hands, but didn’t try to stand. “Can’t take ‘em like this. I’ll be okay.”
“Tylenol for the hangover, eh?”
“Sure. That works.” Jamie rubbed his thumbs over the backs of Tyler’s hands, looking up at him. “You want to sleep in my room tonight?”
“I would. Yes. Except we didn’t change your sheets.” Tyler made a face. “So maybe the guest room is better, because if either one of us tries to make a bed right now we’re gonna die in a tragic fitted sheet accident.”
“That would suck.” Jamie blinked at him, trying to put how much he was feeling into his eyes and voice. “I don’t want you to die.”
“I don’t want to die either, dude.”
“And I can’t die because I’ve got the barn tomorrow. Work to do.”
“Well, there you go, then.” Tyler tugged a little and Jamie finally allowed him to pull him up. “Guest room it is.”
Jamie fell into the bed and Tyler left him there to get Tylenol and water, then climbed in next to him, laughing a little as he looked at Jamie’s face. “You’re so red, dude. And smiley.”
“I like being in bed with you,” Jamie said, because he could be honest right now, it was safe, he just knew it.
Tyler stared at him, wide-eyed and almost sad for a moment, then smiled as well. “You do, huh?”
“Of course I do. I always did.”
Tyler reached out and traced Jamie’s jaw. “I missed you so much.”
“I missed you too. I know I--there was a lot of--” It was too much to try to put into words through the pleasant spinning in his head, which could go unpleasant in a minute if he wasn’t careful. He let it go. “But I’m here now. We’re here now. We can just--we can like this.”
“Good,” Tyler muttered, leaning down to kiss him.
Jamie meant to keep kissing this time. He meant to escalate, he meant to show Tyler what he still wanted, what they could still do, how good it could be even though things were different. But after a few minutes, between kisses, he paused to take a breath and close his eyes for just a minute, his head settling on Tyler’s shoulder. And he fell asleep.
He woke up in the morning alone again, his head throbbing despite his good intentions and precautions, and with the very stark awareness that he had fumbled and dropped another opportunity to get things back with Tyler. Fuck.
He sat up slowly, fished his phone out of the pocket of his sweats where it had miraculously remained all night, and killed the alarm. His morning self-check came up with another average pain day, which was good, because he needed to make it a lot farther to get to his bathroom and meds and morning routine.
One all that was done, he walked the length of the house again, checking rooms until he heard Tyler’s music from the gym. Morning workouts, of course, and for a minute a stab of jealousy almost knocked him back. He leaned against the wall for a minute, pushing his feelings down to the levels where they belonged, and turned away, going back to the kitchen. Breakfast. Coffee. Crossword and his phone. It was fine. Tyler could do his thing. Jamie had his routine.
Jordie texted that he couldn’t talk; Jamie replied with a vague okay and poked sullenly at his oatmeal. This was a bad way to start a barn day, where he needed to be focused and alert. He had to shake it off.
Tyler bounced into the kitchen, sweaty and smiling, before he had too much of a chance to fight with himself. “Hey! Morning. Dude, I fucking love your treadmill. I’m gonna get one just like it.”
“It’s nothing special.”
“I know. It just has a vibe. I clicked with it.” Tyler moved around the kitchen, pouring himself coffee and cereal and orange juice like he’d already memorized all the cabinets. Like he lived there. “You said today’s the barn? What are we gonna do at the barn?”
“Well, I’ve gotta do my ride,” Jamie said slowly, watching Tyler demolish his box of shredded wheat. “It’s part of my PT.”
“Yeah, can you explain that to me? I would think riding a horse would really fucking suck for, like, where you’re fucked up. The bouncing and stuff. And having to…” Tyler gestured at his crotch. “Straddle.”
Jamie laughed a little, looking down at his bowl. “Uh. Straddling’s actually good. It stretches stuff that needs stretching. And a lot of bouncing wouldn’t be great, but, like. The horse I ride is what they call gaited? It’s like… okay, you know how most of the time, when you ride, they have you trot and it goes up and down?” He moved his hand to demonstrate. “And that sucks?”
“Yeah. Fucking… crushed my nuts doing that. That can’t be good for you.”
“It’s not great. Some horses are less bouncy. But a gaited horse, they don’t do that at all. They do a lateral gait instead of a trot.” He rocked his hand side to side. “They move like this. So it’s smooth. I guess back in the day people showed off how smooth they could be by carrying glasses of water and not spilling them.”
“Yeah.” Jamie stood up and gathered his dishes. “It’s pretty sweet. When my PT referred me to the barn, I was really skeptical, but Elaine was like, let’s try you on Danny, and it’s been really good.”
“Elaine?” Tyler raised an eyebrow. “I haven’t heard about Elaine.”
Jamie shook his head. “She owns the barn. Runs the therapeutic riding program.”
“And is she hot?”
“She’s… yeah. She’s hot.” Jamie dropped his dishes in the sink. “We went on a couple dates. It didn’t click.”
“It didn’t click?”
Jamie blinked down at the sink and turned the faucet on, wondering helplessly what he was supposed to take from Tyler’s indignant tone. Shouldn’t it be a good thing that he hadn’t found someone else and moved on? Since they were trying again themselves? Were they not trying again? Fuck.
“I wasn’t ready,” he said finally, turning the water off again. “Like, I wasn’t anywhere close to ready for that.”
“Oh.” Tyler was quiet for a minute. “Did you, like. Cry on her?”
“No!” Jamie glared at him and Tyler burst out laughing, the big laugh with his head tilted back and all his teeth showing. Jamie hadn’t realized how much he missed that until right now, seeing it again.
He flipped Tyler off and leaned on the counter, waiting for him to quiet down again. “I’m sorry about last night.”
“You know.” Jamie shrugged. “I fell asleep so fast, instead of…”
Tyler’s smile faded. “Don’t worry about it. It was probably good, really, if you think about it?”
“Well, you know. It’s been a while. We should probably take it slow.”
Jamie stared at him, wondering if Tyler ever listened to himself. “Slow.”
“You flew, like… how many miles to get here? Without telling me you were coming? What exactly about that is slow?”
“Well.” Tyler frowned. “I guess that’s not slow, but we could go slow from here. Going forward. Right?”
“Going slow would probably mean you going back to the hotel, or at least us not sharing a bed.”
“Yeah, I’m not down with that.”
“I didn’t think so.” Jamie stepped carefully away from the counter, making sure he had his balance before he moved toward the hallway. “I’m gonna get dressed and we can get going.”
He stopped. “Yeah?”
“We really don’t have to rush. If you’re not… ready.” Tyler rubbed his mouth, hiding half his face, almost definitely on purpose. “We honestly can go slow.”
Jamie looked at him for a minute, but Tyler didn’t drop his hand, and there was only so long he could stretch it out before it got uncomfortable. “I’ll keep it in mind.”
“Good. Cool.” Tyler nodded. “I better hop in the shower and get dressed, too. What do you wear to the barn?”
Jamie shrugged. “Stuff you don’t mind getting dirty. And shoes that can stand up to horse shit.”
“I don’t have any of those.”
“You can borrow a pair of mine.”
“Yours aren’t going to fit,” Tyler grumbled, and Jamie smiled as he went down the hall.
He would keep it in mind, for real, but he didn’t want to go slow at all. Probably.
When they pulled up to the barn, Elaine was standing beside a blue pickup, talking to the driver. She waved at Jamie as they drove past, and Jamie waved back, glancing at the clock. He was almost forty-five minutes earlier than usual. No wonder she looked surprised to see him.
Tyler was wreaking havoc on his routine.
“Okay,” he said once they were parked. “That was Elaine back there. She’s talking to one of the guys who farms around here, he takes the manure from the barn every couple of months.”
“Fertilizer. All-natural, petroleum-free, organic.” Jamie squinted at the other cars parked by the barn. “Anyway, she’s gonna be talking to him for a little bit, but then I’ll introduce you. It looks like the volunteers are here to help the kids get ready, so we don’t have to rush. I can show you around.”
“Volunteers?” Tyler echoed, cocking his head. “And kids?”
Jamie stopped with the truck door half-open. “I didn’t explain?”
“No, dude. You told me why you ride, but not what else is going on.”
“Okay.” Jamie closed the door again. “Well, like half of what the barn does is therapeutic riding. People like me who are doing it for PT of some kind. Or, like, therapy-therapy. That too. Mostly kids, I think there’s one other adult riding here now, but she comes out on Mondays and Thursdays so I don’t see her much.”
“What’s the other half?”
“The other half is what pays the bills. People boarding their horses here, taking lessons from Elaine, leasing her horses who aren’t suited for therapy.”
“Not suited.” Tyler tilted his head the other way. “Like… not gentle enough? Or too bouncy?”
“Yeah, or just higher-energy or good at other stuff.” Jamie hadn’t expected Tyler to be interested in the details. He kind of thought Tyler would be bored the whole time, honestly. Not open about it; Tyler wasn’t rude like that. But, well. Bored.
“So what do the volunteers do?” Tyler prompted.
“Most of the kids can’t ride on their own. Their balance isn’t good enough, or it’s just safer for them to have someone walk along with them. Or they can’t lift the saddle up on the horse, or… well, all kinds of stuff. Elaine works with most of them, but there are volunteers, too. Saturdays are busy, so we have a couple of volunteers on duty.”
Tyler nodded slowly. “You said the other stuff pays the bills. The kids don’t pay? You don’t pay?”
“Oh, they do. I do. But not enough to cover this place. Horses eat a lot. All the buildings suck up a lot of power. The property taxes are fucking… brutal.” Jamie rubbed the back of his neck, looking back over to where Elaine was still talking with the farmer. “She’s always a bad month or two away from having to shut down, sell out, and move to Calgary.”
“What’s in Calgary?”
“Her parents. And a lot more horses.” Jamie suddenly couldn’t bear to sit still any longer. “Come on. I’ll show you around, then we’ll get Danny.”
“Danny’s your horse, right?”
“Not mine. The one I ride.”
“The gay horse.”
Jamie blinked. “What?”
“He doesn’t bounce. You said they call it gay.”
“Oh.” Tyler nodded. “That makes more sense.”
Jamie didn’t quite trust himself to say anything. He just got out of the truck and headed for the barn, and a moment later he heard Tyler follow.
“This is the green barn,” Jamie said, leading him into the first building. “All the therapy horses are in here.”
“You call it the green barn because it’s painted green, right?”
“Good job.” Jamie flipped him off again. “This is Sammy, Ella, and Bel Ami.”
Tyler stopped. “You have a horse named after a porn studio?”
“You would be amazed at what people name horses.” Jamie reached over the stall door and scritched Bel’s forehead. “He’s a good boy. The person Elaine bought him from had absolutely no idea. It’s kinda fun to see who figures it out.”
Tyler giggled. “I bet.”
“The other side is Danny and Brick, they’re still outside, and Queenie, who’s working right now.” Jamie waved his hand and walked toward the door. “Okay, so the other barn is just called barn two, it’s over that way.”
“How do you keep track of all this stuff?” Tyler’s eyes were wide. “I can’t remember half of what you just said and we have, like, three more buildings left.”
“You just… pick it up one piece at a time. Like anything.” He hesitated a step. “Like a hockey team.”
“It would help if the horses wore jerseys.”
“Some of them wear blankets in the winter. It doesn’t really help at all.”
Tyler started laughing, and Jamie waited it out, shoving his hands in his pockets and shifting his weight to find a comfortable stance. “What?” he asked finally. “C’mon, Tyler, what?”
“You just… you should see your face, dude.” Tyler grinned at him. “You like this. It makes you happy. Not just… it’s not just therapy. You like it.”
“Well…” Jamie shrugged, smiling despite himself. He couldn’t help it with Tyler looking at him like that. “Yeah, I like it. Of course I like it.”
“It’s awesome,” Tyler said, his voice so honest that Jamie missed a beat. “Like, you have no idea, dude. It’s awesome just to see.”
Jamie didn’t know what to say to that. He shrugged again, feeling himself blush, heat climbing all the way to his ears. “C’mon,” he said, finally, and Tyler fell in step beside him.
Jamie showed Tyler around the rest of the farm, then went out to catch Danny. Tyler followed along, listening intently, and Jamie was surprised by how nice it was to tell somebody about what he was doing. All the dumb little details that everybody else at the barn already knew, and nobody else really cared about--Tyler was listening to them. He asked questions. When Jamie showed him how Joker the pony liked to be scritched right above one eye, Tyler tried it out. When he told him the names of all the barn cats, Tyler repeated them after him like he was going to remember. Like he cared.
It was nice. Jamie knew it was dumb, but it was just. Nice.
Danny stood patiently while Jamie tacked him up, letting Tyler pet his face and neck. “He’s so tall,” Tyler said. “How do you get up there? And aren’t saddles heavy and stuff? Is that good for your back to carry it around and lift it up on him?”
“Elaine buys these super-light synthetic ones.” Jamie handed the saddle to Tyler so he could see. “Danny barely knows it’s there at all til I get on. And I use a mounting block to get on.”
“That sounds dirty.”
“No, it’s… it’s like stairs. A platform. It’s not dirty.” Jamie took the saddle back and got it settled on Danny. “Do you want to ride, too? You can if you want.”
“Dude, I like my junk un-smashed, thanks.” Tyler made a face. “I’ll just watch you crush the family jewels.”
“It’s really not that bad,” Jamie muttered, concentrating on taking Danny’s halter off and getting the bridle on without the horse slipping away and taking himself for a walk. Danny was a good boy about it; he always was. “Good guy, buddy,” Jamie said, rubbing the horse’s forehead with the heel of his palm. Danny leaned into the contact, half-closing his eyes. “Yeah, get all of your itchies, huh?”
He heard the click of Tyler’s phone camera and rolled his eyes. “This is so cute,” Tyler stage-whispered. “Seriously, I’m gonna die. And I’m gonna send this to Jordie, he needs to see it.”
“Jordie’s not so much into the horse stuff.”
“Yeah, but he’s into you being happy.” Tyler leaned against a stall and tapped away at his phone. “You’ve got no idea how much he worries about you, dude.”
“There’s nothing to worry about.”
“He worries about you being lonely. Going crazy from isolation and shit.”
Jamie sighed and clicked his tongue, urging Danny forward to walk to the arena. “Well, now you can tell him that’s bullshit.”
“Mm.” It wasn’t exactly agreement, and Jamie knew he should dig his heels in and demand an explanation on that, but… not now. Not in the middle of the barn while he was supposed to be riding.
Instead he walked the rest of the way without comment, put his helmet on, and got up on Danny. As always, it took a minute for his body to catch up to the stretch, but Danny stood rock-still for it, only moving off into a walk when Jamie cued him. They walked for a while, slow and easy around the arena, both of them warming up together.
Jamie glanced over to where Tyler was standing a few times, until he was pretty sure that Tyler was half watching him and half playing on his phone. That was about what Jamie had expected, so… no complaints. He nudged Danny up into a foxtrot and let himself settle in, concentrating on his body and the rhythm of the horse’s movements, letting the other shit slip away.
When he looked up again, Elaine was standing with Tyler, and the two of them were talking and laughing, hands flying around in animated punctuation. Jamie smiled and let Danny settle to a walk, then ran his fingers through the horse’s mane.
“There we go,” he said, and the horse’s ears flicked back toward him. “They can bug each other instead of me for a while. You want to go down around the fenceline?”
Danny didn’t care where they went as long as he got a treat at the end of it, so Jamie steered him out the gate at the far end of the arena and down the trail that led along the edge of the property. Elaine would tell Tyler not to worry, when they eventually noticed he was gone.
Tyler found him back at the barn, untacking Danny and humming along with the radio playing Top 40 country. “Sneaky, Benn,” he said. “Leaving me alone with the nice lady so she can pump me for information.”
Jamie snorted, concentrating on undoing the cinch. “Like you weren’t pumping her right back.”
“Well. Yeah. She told me all kinds of stuff, Jameson. I know your secrets now.”
Jamie glanced at him and raised his eyebrows. “Bluffing.”
“Fuck off.” Tyler grinned. “We did have a nice talk, though. She’s awesome. What now?”
“I put him back out, do my chores, help out with anybody who needs help for a couple more hours. Then I go home.” Jamie eased the saddle off Danny’s back and carried it to the tack room. “Lunch, naptime, evening TV. I told you, dude, my life is not exciting.”
“Well, I invited Elaine to meet us for dinner in town. So that’s a little different.”
Jamie sighed and dropped the saddle onto its rack. “Tyler.”
“The lady likes to go out and have a beer every once in a while, dude. So do I. So do you.” He pointed at Jamie before he could answer. “You do. You might not actually do it very often, but you do like it. So shut up.”
“Fine. Whatever. Fine.” Jamie took a horse treat from the can on the wall. “You want to wait here while I take him out?”
“I am capable of walking there and back.”
“Yeah, but you’ve already got mud all the way to your ankles, I thought maybe you didn’t want to wreck your shoes more.”
“Wrecked is wrecked.” Tyler shrugged and walked with him, keeping a respectful step back from Danny. “That kid’s supposed to be here today, right? I got a hat and a puck for him.”
“Yeah. His sister, Tanya, she rides on Saturdays. Should be here any time now.” Jamie took Danny through the gate, pressed a quick kiss to his forehead, and slipped his halter off. “Have fun, bud.”
“Did you kiss that horse?” Tyler demanded as Danny ambled off.
Jamie blushed and shrugged, coming back through the gate and snapping the lock in place. “Yeah, so? You kiss your dogs all the time.”
“They’re dogs. That’s almost people.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works.”
“It totally is.” Tyler watched Danny speed up to a canter to go join the other horses. “You should get a dog.”
“Thought about it.” Jamie hung the halter on a fencepost and started back toward the barn. “I actually went to the shelter once to look.”
“Why didn’t you get one?”
Jamie knew the expression on his face probably looked like a smile, but it didn’t feel like one. “The first one I saw was a chocolate lab. Looked just like Marshall. I turned around and left and just… it’s not a good idea, anyway. I couldn’t take good care of a dog when I have bad days.”
“How often do you have bad days?”
“It doesn’t matter, does it?” Jamie shook his head. “If the dog has to shit on the floor because I can’t get up and let it out, even if it’s just once, that’s not okay.” Tyler stopped walking, and after a few more strides Jamie stopped, too, looking back at him. “What?”
“You make me so fucking sad sometimes, Jamie.”
Jamie took a deep breath, trying to let it carry him through the sharp twist of pain like Tyler had thrown a punch. “Keep it to yourself.”
“No.” Jamie shook his head. “I don’t… this isn’t about you feeling sad. This is my life. It is what it is and I don’t need a pity party about it. I’ve gotta go do chores. You coming or you gonna go wait in the truck?”
“Don’t be an asshole.”
“I’m not.” Jamie sighed in frustration. “That’s my point. It is what it is.”
They stood silently for a moment, and Tyler was the first one to give ground, breaking off eye contact and shifting his weight. “Okay,” he said. “Okay, fine. I promise not to express any opinions about your life at all. Cool?”
“Better,” Jamie said, and started walking again. He had stuff to do.
Tyler followed along.
Chores let Jamie get his temper back under control. He couldn’t really stay angry while he measured out grain and sweet feed, added supplements, and then walked the aisles of both barns filling feed buckets.
“Then I come around again with the hay,” he said, because Tyler was still following along. “And then one more time around to fill the water buckets.”
“That doesn’t seem very efficient.”
“No. But it gets my exercise in.” Jamie poured a can of grain into another bucket. “And I dunno, I like the rhythm of it. Repetitive, like skating laps, you know? Or doing a drill. You just kinda settle into it and you don’t have to think. Elaine says cleaning stalls is like that for her.”
“Do you do that, too?”
“Nah. The scooping and lifting isn’t great for me.” He pushed the wheelbarrow to the next stall, selected the can he needed, and poured again. “So I do this twice a week, getting the stalls set up for nighttime feed. I’m supposed to get a discount taken off my riding fee for doing it, but I told her not to bother. I like it.”
“That’s cool.” Jamie knew Tyler’s voice well enough to know he meant that, he wasn’t just saying it. Tyler was happy for him.
Probably Jamie should stop losing his temper and being such a dick. Probably.
Braden came down the aisle toward them, not quite running this time. “Good job remembering the rules,” Jamie said, leaning down to hug him hello. “How are you?”
“I’m good. Hi. Hi, Tyler Seguin.”
Tyler laughed. “Hi. Stay here with Jamie a minute, I’ve got something for you, I’ve gotta go get it from the truck.”
Jamie watched him go and smiled at Braden. “You want to help me finish putting the feed out?”
“No,” Braden said. Little kids were so brutal. “What does Tyler Seguin have for me?”
“You’ll have to wait and see, I guess.” Jamie looked up again as the sound of a horse’s steps came into the aisleway, along with the soft whirr of a power wheelchair. “Hey, Tanya.”
“Hey, Jamie.” She maneuvered Brick into the right place and snapped the cross-ties onto him. “Are you my helper today?”
“No, I’m just here doing chores. I think Ron is gonna help you. He’s just finishing up with Schuyler.”
“Cool.” She grabbed a stiff brush from the bin at the side of the aisle and started grooming Brick, who stood calmly with one hind leg cocked. Jamie loved being around the horses when they were like that, calm and unfazed. He could feel the peace radiating off them, and he liked to think he could soak some up and keep it for himself.
Tyler walked back into the barn at the same time as Ron, and Jamie slipped away to finish putting the grain out while Braden was squealing with excitement and Tanya worked on tacking up her horse. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to be part of it; it was just that he had work to do. The grain, and then the hay, and then the water. His meditation cycle.
Tyler found him again out by the paddocks where he was filling the water troughs. “You guys must have like six miles of hoses running around out here.”
“Not quite. A lot, though.” Jamie twisted the valve shut and squinted at Tyler in the afternoon glare. “So you’ve got a new fan?”
“I got him a puck and a hat signed by like four Canucks. I’m awesome.”
“Only four?” Jamie shook his head. “You’re losing your touch.”
“They didn’t make the playoffs either, I had to go with the guys who stayed in town.” Tyler leaned against the fence and glanced at him. “You still mad at me for earlier?”
“No.” Jamie ducked his head. “Sorry about that.”
“Why? You were right. I shouldn’t get all judgy at you. What the fuck do I know?” Tyler shrugged. “Jordie and I worry, but we don’t have to be assholes about it.”
Jamie took a minute before answering, winding the hose slowly into loops. “It would be… cool. If you weren’t assholes.”
Tyler laughed. “No shit. I’ll work on it.”
“Thanks.” Jamie looked around again. “I guess I’m done. Just have to put this away and we can head back to the house.”
“Lunch, showers, naps, and then getting pretty to have dinner with Elaine?”
“I guess so. That’s a busy day for me.”
“What’s on the agenda tomorrow?”
“Nothing. Sunday’s a rest day.” Jamie nodded and started back toward the barn. “I get up at the same time and stuff but I just stay home and read and watch TV and like… I don’t know. Think about stuff.”
“We can get some quality hot tub time in.”
Jamie glanced at him and almost missed a step. “You’re flirting, right? I’m not misreading this?”
“I’m one hundred percent flirting, dude. I’m gonna get in your pants in the hot tub.”
“I don’t wear pants in the hot tub.”
“That’ll make it easy, then, eh?” Tyler grinned, and Jamie smiled back, and things almost felt normal. Right. He just wanted to keep this moment and make it last, standing in his favorite place with his favorite person, just like he used to every day. It was a different place. And everything had changed. But he could think for a minute that maybe… maybe…
Being hopeful was the weirdest fucking thing. He wasn’t sure what to do with it at all.
Tyler went to the truck and Jamie ducked back toward the barn to put the hose away. Tanya was sitting on Brick at the end of the arena and waved at him as he approached. “Jamie, could you bring my chair over and transfer me? Ron’s helping the kids catch Joker, he got past them and out the gate.”
Jamie bit back a sigh. All ponies were escape artists, and Joker was a great example of his kind. “Sure, just give me one sec.”
“Thanks.” She grinned at him and bumped her helmet higher on her forehead. “I won’t tell Elaine.”
“That’s right. Our little secret.” Jamie wasn’t supposed to lift above a certain weight, and transferring Tanya from horseback to her wheelchair was definitely in the red zone. Fuck, moving hay bales around was in the red zone. But he couldn’t just leave the horses unfed or kids waiting around until one of the volunteers could get to them, so… well, sometimes he pushed his limits.
He hung up the hose and sat down in Tanya’s chair, driving it across the span of muddy ground to the arena and parking it a few feet from Brick, who looked at it with distinct disinterest. It took a lot to faze these horses. He loved that about them.
“Okay,” he said, walking over and reaching up to take hold of Tanya under her arms. “Count of three. One, two, three--”
He lifted her up, free of the saddle, and she twisted to let her legs slide across the seat as he swung her down and settled her in the wheelchair again. He felt the sharp jolt of pain go through his back and bit down on his lower lip, careful not to give any sign to Tanya. It was his own fault; he could deal with it.
“Thanks, Jamie.” Tanya rolled past him and grabbed Brick’s reins with her free hand. “I’ll wait for Ron at the barn. Have a good one.”
“You, too, kid.”
She rolled her eyes and flashed him a grin. “Hey, is your friend single? He’s cute.”
Jamie was used to this game with Tanya. “He is very cute, but you’re way out of his league and way under his age bracket.”
“You’re always playing that card.” She clicked her tongue and moved off with Brick. “I’m still saving myself for you, anyway. The day I turn eighteen, baby, the very day.”
“I’ll buy you your first beer, Tanya.” He had made that promise before. It was pretty empty, pretty safe. At least on his end.
He watched them vanish into the barn and reached back to press his hand against his lower back, wincing at the still-echoing pain. “Fuck,” he muttered. Hopefully a pill and a nap would help. Otherwise, his Sunday was going to be pretty well shot.
The pill and nap did help, in the short run. The beer he had at dinner helped, too, and the content buzz of laughing and talking with Tyler and Elaine. The best part was listening to the two of them, honestly; they were both bright, bubbly, charismatic people who glowed in a good conversation, and Jamie could practically see that glow, and what had drawn him to both of them. They were a lot alike, and really amazing, and he just…
He was lucky to know them.
He told Tyler that in the truck, on the way back to the house after dinner, and Tyler smiled at him, the wide grin that showed so many teeth, with his eyes all crinkled up at the edges. The smile that made Jamie a total goner every time he saw it, because how was he supposed to do anything but want to kiss Tyler when Tyler smiled like that?
He couldn’t possibly do anything else. He kissed Tyler in the driveway, and at the front door, and on the couch in the living room for what felt like hours, until Tyler manhandled him down the hall and into bed. His own bed, this time, which was bigger than the guest room bed, and more comfortable for the two of them to tangle up and kiss more.
Jamie fell asleep with Tyler’s arms around him, Tyler’s breath warm against his neck, and a sleepy determination that the next time he got horizontal with Tyler on this visit, at least one of them was getting their dick out. Otherwise it was just going to be embarrassing.
He slept without dreaming, and woke up with his entire lower back seized solid with pain.
“Fuck,” he breathed, staring at the ceiling. Okay. Bad day.
He needed to sit up, swing his legs over the edge of the bed, get his cane, and hobble to the bathroom. Once he was in the bathroom, he would take the extra pills for bad days, then pee and wash his face. Changing the order of things because it was serious. Motherfucker.
He sat up by inches, breathing deep and trying to visualize centering himself, moving from the core, like his PT always said. It sucked and he hated it and eventually it got him to the edge of the bed. It took him a moment to spot his cane, and there was a flash of horrible sinking fear that maybe Tyler had moved it, because Jamie hadn’t told him it mattered, and if that was the case then fuck, he might have to fucking crawl to the bathroom, and he hated that more than he could put into fucking words, it was just--
There was the cane, leaning against the bedside table. It had just slipped back a little more than usual. He took another deep breath, all the way in to his core, and grabbed it. This was okay. This was fine. He could do this.
Tyler came into the bathroom, sweaty and shirtless, while Jamie was still sitting on the toilet seat, staring into the shower and waiting for the pills to kick in. “Hey, dude, I’m seriously in love with your elliptical, too, you are a workout gear god, I’ve gotta--are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Jamie said, blinking rapidly and losing his count of the shower tiles. “Just a bad pain day. Letting the pills kick in.”
“You’re all pale.” Tyler frowned and reached out to touch his face.
“I’ll be fine, I just need a minute.”
“Are you sure?”
Jamie didn’t know if he wanted to laugh or cry. It would hurt to do either, since neither counted as ‘sitting very still.’ “Yeah, Ty, I’m sure. This happens sometimes.”
“Why? What causes it?”
Jamie shrugged, then stopped, because, well. He did know. “Sometimes it just kinda happens. Maybe I slept wrong, or something like that. This time it’s because I did too much yesterday. But I’ll be fine. It’ll suck for a couple days.” Tyler’s face was getting scrunched up, his forehead wrinkled. “I’ll be fine. Don’t freak out.”
“What do you do when you’re alone?”
Jamie frowned at him. “The same thing I’m doing right now.”
“But you’re so isolated out here. Nobody to help you.” Tyler gestured, the sweep of his arms indicating the whole room, or maybe the whole house. “What if you fell? What if you hurt yourself? What would you do?”
It hurt too much to deal with this. “There’s a nursing service I’m subscribed to. I can call them and they come out and help.”
“What if you couldn’t get to your phone?”
“Jesus, Tyler. What if you fell in your big stupid house? What if you tripped over a dog and broke your neck?”
“I’ve got teammates. A schedule. People would notice I was gone.”
Jamie sat still for a moment, letting those words move through him, echoing in his head. It wasn’t anything worse than he’d said to himself a thousand times, but--coming from Tyler. Coming out loud at all, from anyone else. It was… confirmation. It hurt worse than he expected. “I have a schedule, too,” he said finally, because nothing else was safe.
“That’s not what I meant,” Tyler said, because apparently Jamie’s face still gave a lot away even when he didn’t want it to. “Jamie. C’mon. Don’t look like that.”
“I don’t want to talk about this.”
“I just meant maybe you could move a little closer to the rest of civilization. An apartment in town, or something. Not… out here by yourself.”
“I don’t want to talk about this,” Jamie repeated. “I’m in a lot of fucking pain and you said yesterday you wouldn’t do this, you wouldn’t be a dick about this, and you’re doing it anyway, you’re being a total dick.”
“Okay, but I’m right.”
“No, you’re not!” Jamie grabbed the handrail on the wall and pulled himself to his feet. Another wave of pain rolled through him, but not quite as sharp as before. Things were working. “This is my house. I have it set up the way I want it. You think this is all random shit? No. It’s the way I want it to be. You haven’t been in here, right? In this bathroom? Well, look.” He pointed at the rails by the toilet, and the ones in the shower, and the bench in the shower so he could sit on days when it ached too much to stand the whole time. “The fucking couches are where I want them. All the doors are wide enough for a walker or a wheelchair if I get hurt and I need it. This is my house. Just because I have bad days doesn’t mean you get to decide I can’t decide for myself anymore. That’s not how it works.”
Tyler stood still through all of it, staring at Jamie with wide eyes, and yeah, Jamie still knew how to read his face, too; he knew Tyler was listening to him. He was trying to understand, at least.
But he was so fucking stubborn, too.
“I just don’t think you get how scary it is,” he said in a low voice, and Jamie leaned heavily on the handrail in frustration. “We just worry about you. So much.”
“I’m sorry you guys are scared. I’m sorry you’re worried. But it’s still my life, not yours.” Jamie took another deep breath and reached for his cane. “I need to eat something. You can stay here or come with me or… whatever you want. But I’m not gonna fight any more right now. If you want to fight, then maybe you should go somewhere else for a while.”
Tyler tilted his head back and stared at the ceiling. Jamie watched his jaw twitch and his throat jerk; Tyler’s frustration was so easy to read. “You are a stubborn son of a bitch,” Tyler said to the light fixture. “And you being all fucked up means we’re still not going to have sex today.”
Jamie choked. “What?”
“I had this whole plan, today was gonna be the day. Like, after your afternoon nap? I was gonna seduce you so hard.” Tyler threw his hands in the air. “And you’re hurt! So I’m not gonna do that! I’m gonna cuddle you instead! But fuck, I was really looking forward to getting you naked.”
Jamie stared at him for a long moment, until Tyler finally looked at him and blinked.
“What?” Tyler asked. “What’s that look for?”
“I missed you so much.” Jamie’s throat felt so dry; he swallowed hard before he kept going. “I keep, like. Realizing all over again.”
Tyler’s shoulders relaxed a little bit. “I missed you too.”
“You don’t have to seduce me. I’m pre-seduced. I’m still running on seduction from three years ago.”
“But I need to make sure you’re all warmed up and in the mood. I need our first time back at it to be good.”
“I hear an ‘or else’ in there.”
Tyler made a face at him and leaned back against the counter. “I dunno, you’ll change your mind and kick me out. I don’t really think about it past the ‘make sure it’s awesome’ part.”
“I’m not gonna kick you out over sex, Tyler.”
“Only over me being an asshole?”
“Yeah. Pretty much.”
Tyler’s jaw worked again, and Jamie could almost see him turning the idea around in his head. “All right. I’ve got the ground rules now.”
Jamie smiled at him. He couldn’t help it. Tyler was… Tyler, and also the drugs were kicking in. “I really need to eat something.”
“Yeah. C’mon. I’ll make pancakes.”
“If you’ve got the stuff, I’ll make it.”
“I’ve got it.” Jamie picked up his cane in one hand and let Tyler take the other. “I make sure I never run out.”
The rest of the day was quiet. They ate, Jamie did his crossword and texted with Jordie, Tyler got on his phone and made a bunch of calls that Jamie carefully didn’t eavesdrop on. It wasn’t any of his business.
He read a book and Tyler watched his DVR’d baseball games and somehow after the first half-hour or so it wasn’t awkward or strained anymore, it was just… nice. Like off-days back in Dallas, minus the dogs and plus the fogginess of his painkillers.
His body moved close to Tyler’s automatically, leaning up against him. Tyler smiled at him and shifted around so Jamie could get a better angle and fit his head to Tyler’s shoulder. He tugged a blanket up over both of them. It was really comfortable, and warm, and safe, and Jamie fell asleep way before his afternoon dose, just because it felt good.
Tyler woke him up for the second dose, and kissed him before he took it, and if Jamie hadn’t been so foggy and floaty and good-feeling he would’ve made a play for that first-time-back sex after all.
Instead he fell asleep again. Leaning on Tyler, with Tyler’s arm around him. It felt better than anything he could remember for a really long time.
That night Tyler grilled salmon, because he sneakily stocked up on good stuff while he was at the store. He hid another bottle of wine, too--just one this time, though, so Jamie didn’t turn into nearly as much of a mess.
“Today was nice,” Tyler said, pouring each of them a glass.
“I slept all day.”
“You needed it.” Tyler shrugged and set the bottle aside. “And I got to watch a ton of games I missed, and just chill, and cuddle with you, and that was a pretty nice day for me. Making up for lost time, kind of.”
Heat rose in Jamie’s face, and he looked down at his plate, poking his fork against the salmon. “I liked that part, too.”
“We should maybe talk about this?”
“Which this?” The salmon was really crispy at the edges. It probably was going to taste really good. He should take a bite of it instead of just stabbing at it.
“Us. What our thing’s going to be this time.”
That got Jamie’s attention. He looked at Tyler, his fork almost slipping from his fingers. “What do you mean? I thought we were going to pick up where we left off.”
“We can slow down if you need to. If we both need to. But we need to talk about it. Figure it out. Maybe the boundaries have changed. Maybe what we need has changed. I don’t know, man. We need to talk about it.”
Jamie took proper hold of his fork again and cut a piece off the fish. “Okay. Well.” He didn’t want to think about this. He had been doing his best not to think about this. “I can’t do the stuff you like anymore.”
Tyler didn’t react how he expected. He just cocked his head to the side. “What do you mean?”
“You liked me to fuck you hard. You liked to ride me.” Jamie’s throat hurt. There was no way he was going to be able to swallow any of the salmon. He put his fork down. “I can’t do that anymore. Either way. My… everything that’s fucked up, I can’t use my hips like that.”
Tyler nodded. “I figured.”
“Dude.” Tyler sighed and settled back in his chair. “I’m not a total idiot, and I heard what your injuries were just like everybody else. Broken pelvis, fracture running into your hip joint on the one side. Yeah, that’s not gonna work so great for fucking after that.”
“Then why did you even come after me? That’s what you like, and I can’t do it anymore. I can’t give you what you need.” His stomach was twisted up so hard it hurt. “Why are we even talking about this if you already know I can’t--”
“Does your mouth still work?”
Jamie stopped. “What?”
“Can you still suck dick?” Tyler raised an eyebrow at him, still lounging in his chair like none of this was a big deal at all. “Do your fingers work? Could you get them in me? Maybe work your way up and give me your whole fist like you kept wussing out on back then?”
“Is that a yes or a no? Because I’m pretty sure all those parts work. And we’ve got access to the internet, which has a wide variety of dildo stores. I’m pretty sure I’ll be okay.”
Jamie’s face was flaming red. He could feel it. “You can’t say dildo stores at my kitchen table. I eat here.”
“Yeah, whatever.” Tyler looked at him steadily, unflinching. “We can be creative, Jame. It doesn’t have to be exactly like it was. Nothing is exactly like it was. I want to go down on you until you cry. I want to touch you everywhere. I want to find that spot on your side that makes you writhe around like crazy. I don’t care if you can fuck me. And you were never big on getting fucked yourself, anyway. You loved to suck me off. You can still do that. You--”
Jamie held his hand up until Tyler stopped. “You are reciting a list. You made a list.”
“Well.” Tyler shrugged. “Yeah. I thought about it tons over the last three years. At some point I had to write it down so whenever I finally saw you again I didn’t forget anything.”
“You…” Jamie couldn’t think of what to say. “You.”
Jamie looked down at his plate. “We should eat before any of this gets even more cold.”
“Yeah. It’s good shit. We shouldn’t waste it.”
“Then what? Hot tub?”
“We get distracted in the hot tub, dude.” Tyler picked up his fork and knife and cut off a healthy slice of salmon. “I vote for just going right to bed.”
Jamie wasn’t ready. Not really. But he was so fucking tired of waiting, it didn’t matter.
They got situated carefully, Jamie on his back with a pillow under his hips, knees apart, and Tyler braced over him, careful not to let his weight fall on Jamie unexpectedly. If Jamie was going to hold him up, it had to be gradually, a little at a time, with room to call it off. They had never had to be careful like that, before, and Jamie fucking hated it, but the fact that Tyler was just doing it, without Jamie having to ask--
It made Jamie feel warm, a little. In a stupid way. But he forgot to feel stupid the more Tyler kissed him.
That was careful, too, and slow, starting with their mouths pressed together and Jamie’s hands sliding up and down Tyler’s sides, until Tyler groaned deep in his throat and started working his way downward. He kissed and nipped and teased at Jamie’s throat, his chest, the flat space of his breastbone. He found that sensitive place on Jamie’s side and teased it until Jamie gasped and shook under him. He crossed the plane of Jamie’s stomach, so much softer than last time they did this, and Jamie wanted to flinch, but he couldn’t manage it when Tyler was touching him with so much care.
And then Tyler took his cock in his mouth and Jamie forgot to worry, because this hadn’t changed, not at all, and the time in between didn’t matter.
Tyler wasn’t gentle, exactly, that wasn’t the right word, but he took his time, drew things out. His nose bumped against the tangle of hair at the base of Jamie’s dick, again and again, and the word nuzzle darted through Jamie’s mind uninvited. It made him want to laugh, but he couldn’t, couldn’t do anything but groan and grab at the sheets, holding on tightly to them to keep from grabbing at Tyler’s hair.
Tyler worked him slowly for a while, from tip to base and back, teasing with his tongue and his fingers, holding Jamie’s thighs and pressing his thumbs against the delicate pale skin in ways that Jamie knew would bruise. He remembered that, looking down in the shower or when he was changing clothes and seeing the marks Tyler left on him. He would blush now, thinking about it, except he was already flushed and hot all over, burning up from inside, rocking into Tyler’s mouth as much as Tyler would let him.
He didn’t last long, of course, arching up and coming without managing to warn Tyler first, spilling out of Tyler’s mouth and down over his chin. Tyler blinked and laughed, not even wiping himself clean, just looking at Jamie like it was awesome instead of embarrassing.
“Still got it, huh?” he asked, ducking his head and kissing Jamie under his navel, chin rubbing against the dark hair that started there. “I like this. That you don’t shave everything anymore. Gets a little texture going.”
“Don’t have to worry about pictures in the locker room.” Jamie let himself reach for Tyler now, petting his hair with careful fingers. His hands only shook a little.
“I could take pictures of you.” Tyler leaned into his touch for a moment, then sat up, smiling at him again. “You want to watch me jerk off? I could come all over you. That would be hot.”
“I want to suck your dick.” It wasn’t any easier to say now than it had been their first first time. Jamie swallowed hard and met Tyler’s eyes, shrugging at the question there. “Come up here and, like, straddle my face. I can do it that way.”
Tyler still tasted the same, heavy and salty on Jamie’s tongue, the familiar blend of scent and taste that meant Tyler and sex and hit Jamie right in his lizard brain, deep-down and precious. He wanted to breathe deep and hold on to Tyler in his mouth, taste him forever, but he also wanted to make Tyler come so hard he would have to cry out and grab the headboard to steady himself. He couldn’t have both.
Tyler ended up making the decision for him, of course, rolling his hips slowly at first and then finding a rhythm that let him fuck into Jamie’s mouth. Jamie choked at first, two or three times, before he remembered to relax his jaw and his throat and let Tyler in. He closed his eyes, focusing on the taste, the heaviness on his tongue, letting his breath steady itself and his hands find a balancing place on Tyler’s thighs. Tyler was so fucking strong, the tensed muscles under Jamie’s hands hard as iron. He still didn’t keep any fucking body fat by the end of the season. Just whipcord over muscle and bone.
“Jamie,” Tyler said, his voice breaking, reminding Jamie that he wasn’t all hard and unyielding, he had his softness. He carried it around inside himself, but he let Jamie see it. He had put it in Jamie’s keeping, that soft part of him, and Jamie had betrayed him. Failed him. Jamie had run away.
But here they were now, with a second chance. Jamie didn’t deserve it. He hadn’t done anything to change. If Tyler asked him to promise that he would never run away again, he couldn’t do it; he would run again, if something hurt and scared him enough. He knew he would. It was part of who he was.
But loving Tyler was part of who he was, too. He wanted to let that part live again.
Tyler was still riding his face, steadily fucking into his mouth, and Jamie held on and took him in, letting the tears run down from the corners of his eyes into his ears and his hair, carving wet streaks across his face that would dry into streaks of salt and crack when he blinked.
“Jamie,” Tyler said again, “oh, fuck, Jamie--” He came in Jamie’s mouth, a hot rush, and Jamie immediately choked, twisting a little under Tyler’s weight. He swallowed and coughed, dragging air in through his nose, gradually becoming aware of Tyler’s hands moving over him, petting and soothing.
“Didn’t mean to break you already,” Tyler said, his thumb sliding along one of the tear tracks, wiping it clean. “I was going to save that for a special occasion. Maybe my birthday.”
Jamie shook his head and tugged at Tyler’s shirt, pulling until Tyler lay down on the bed and they could wrap their arms around each other.
“It’s good,” Jamie said when he finally felt like he could speak without it sounding jagged. “Everything with you is good.”
Tyler shook his head, but he was smiling. “I wouldn’t go that far.” He traced his fingers along Jamie’s jaw, his eyebrows going up in question. “Big heart to heart talk now? Or sleep now and save that?”
“It should be now, but I’m gonna pass out.” Jamie touched Tyler’s lower lip, resting his fingertip against the soft skin that was just about healed from the season’s endless chapping. “Can I say I love you?”
“You can say whatever you feel, man.”
“But do you, like… do you want to hear it? Or is it not real, coming from me? Not now?”
Tyler took a deep breath, closing his eyes, then opened them again and looked directly at Jamie, so bright and intent that Jamie couldn’t possibly look away. “I always want to hear it. I’ve missed hearing it so much, you don't even know.”
Jamie rested his forehead against Tyler’s, keeping his eyes open, holding his gaze steady as best he could even though it made his eyes cross and his vision wobble. “I love you.”
Tyler’s fingers tightened against Jamie’s shoulder, just a little, enough to hold on. “I love you too.”
“Don’t get up before me in the morning, okay? I don’t want to wake up without you. Just the once, I promise.”
Tyler smiled, his whole face lighting up, and Jamie felt like the inside of his chest was lighting up, too. But not just with a lightbulb but, like, a sun. Filling him with light and heat so he glowed. “Okay. I’ll be here.”
Jamie woke up with a line of warmth along one side of his body, almost enough to balance out the two-fuck pain in his bones. Tyler was there, lying on his side facing away from Jamie, his butt pressed up to Jamie’s side.
Jamie cleared his throat and nudged him. “Hey.”
Tyler looked back over his shoulder and smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling up. “Hey. Your alarm didn’t go off yet.”
“Yeah.” Jamie shifted closer. “How long have you been up?”
“Forty-five minutes? Ish? I’ve just been playing on my phone.”
“Literally playing, dude.” Tyler laughed softly. “Dumb addictive games. How do you feel?”
“Hm.” Jamie rubbed his face against Tyler’s back and then sat up slowly. “Medium.”
“Is that a feeling? Medium?”
“It is now.” Jamie eased out of the bed and made his way to the bathroom, carefully not looking back at Tyler. Maybe Tyler was capable of taking hints after all, because he didn’t follow. Jamie took care of his business and came back to stand at the end of the bed, looking down at Tyler stretched out, lazy-eyed, still naked.
“What’s the plan for today, Jameson?” Tyler stretched slowly, his toes curling. They always did that; it always made Jamie want to tickle his feet. The things that hadn’t changed were amazing to discover, one by one.
“Pool day. No massage.” Jamie wrinkled his nose a little. “Therapy. Then you and I were gonna get coffee.”
“We’re still on for coffee. That’s a date.” Tyler sat up and dragged his hands through his hair. “You want to make breakfast today?”
“What if it’s oatmeal?”
“God, you’re a masochist.” Tyler slid off the bed and looked around for his boxers. “I will eat oatmeal for you. Just to demonstrate my commitment to this.”
“That’s not really necessary.”
“Just go make the oatmeal, Jamie. I need to pee.” Tyler shuffled into the bathroom and Jamie stood there for another moment, taking slow deep breaths and waiting for panic to set in.
It didn’t. But the ache in his hips and leg was there to remind him it was time to walk and stretch and let the pills kick in. Messing up the edges of his routine with Tyler was fine, but the core of it existed for a reason, and he couldn’t let it stop.
He got the coffee maker started, the orange juice poured, the oatmeal going, then hesitated, looking at his phone where he’d dropped it on the counter. This wasn’t in the routine, either, but maybe it wasn’t core. Maybe it was an okay thing to change.
He could try, anyway. He picked it up and texted Jordie. Can we talk on phone today? Like is there a time where you could call for sure?
The reply came before he’d fully turned back to the stove. Are you okay????
Oh. Right. Changing routines scared other people, too, if they didn’t get a heads-up on it. Yeah I’m fine. Just want to talk to you about stuff. Tyler.
Jesus Christ, Chubbs. You scared me.
:P I’ve got stuff this morning but I’m free in the afternoon. Call me after your workout?
Jamie sighed a little and stirred the oatmeal before he answered. Therapy today. Brain not body.
After that then. & don’t lie to her. Tell her about Tyler.
I’ve got coffee w Tyler after. He wasn’t dignifying the rest with a response. Like Jordie was in charge of Jamie’s therapy. No.
Jesus then after THAT come on Jamie.
Okay okay sorry. Jamie put the phone aside again and turned his attention back to the oatmeal, ignoring the next message chirp until he had it dished out into bowls.
When he did look, it said I love you and I’m glad.
Jamie frowned. Glad about what?
All of it.
That hit Jamie dead in the chest, like the butt end of a stick mid-ice, cutting off a breakaway. Me too. I think. It’s scary but maybe good?
Tell me everything tonight.
Tyler’s footsteps were coming down the hall, making Jamie’s heart jump to match their pace. I will. Love you too.
“Coffee, man,” Tyler groaned. “Coffee, please?”
Jamie went to pour it, letting the idea echo in his head on its own time. I’m glad, I’m glad, I’m glad.
Dr. Sung was really glad. He was kind of afraid she was going to hurt herself, actually, she was so excited on his behalf.
“This is what we’ve been talking about, Jamie,” she said, beaming at him and tapping her pen on her knee. “Establishing relationships. Or re-establishing, in this case.”
“Yeah. Well. It’s… it wasn’t, like, expected? I didn’t plan it. He didn’t tell me he was coming, he just showed up.”
“But you embraced the opportunity. You didn’t shut down. That’s great.”
“It’s really hard,” Jamie said, because it seemed like maybe he should remind her. “I mean. I’m glad we’re… re-establishing. But it’s also really hard.”
“Of course it is.” She settled back in her seat, her face settling into its usual carefully neutral expression. “I just also want you to acknowledge that you took a big step, and give yourself credit for that.”
“Credit for not telling him to fuck off and leave?”
“Yes. You made that decision. You get credit.”
Jamie wasn’t so sure about that, but he didn’t like arguing with her. It always felt like he was doing therapy wrong if he argued with her. “Okay, well, yeah. We’re trying.”
“What brought him up here? Why now, I mean? You said you hadn’t reached out to each other.”
“Yeah, no. We hadn’t… I mean, I thought it was over for good. I didn’t expect to see him again, ever.” Jamie worried his thumbnail against the arm of the chair. “But I don’t know what brought him here now other than, like, his season being over. He won’t tell me.”
She frowned, tilting her head to the side. “He won’t. So you’ve asked him.”
“Yeah, of course. He said he wasn’t ready to tell me yet and I didn’t have a right to push, since I’m the one who left.”
She was quiet for a moment, tapping her pen again. “Do you agree with that?”
“It makes sense.”
“But do you agree with it? Do you think you don’t have a right to know what brought him here?”
“I want to know.”
“Do you think you have a right to know?”
Jamie exhaled slowly, gritting his teeth, hating the feeling of being backed into a corner. “Maybe.”
She nodded. “I think you do.”
“I don’t want to fight with him, though. I hate fighting with him. I hate fighting about… about feelings. I was good at fighting about hockey. I was good at just, like, getting in fights with people because I lost my temper. But fighting about real stuff, with a reason, I hate that.”
“There’s a lot to unpack there, don’t you think?”
“I hate when you say unpack.”
She laughed and set her pen aside, folding her hands over her knee. “Sorry, Jamie. I can find another word for it, but the concept is the same. Sorting through all the pieces until we can figure out which ones it benefits you to keep and which should be put away.”
“Can we unpack another day and just talk about Tyler right now?”
“Unpacking will keep us busy for quite a few days.” She was quiet for a minute, and he could see that she was thinking, putting her own thoughts in order. It was always easier to wait when he could tell the silence was because she was working and not just because she was waiting for him to talk. “How long is he staying?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know.”
He never knew what to do when she echoed him, either. He shrugged and shuffled his feet against the carpet.
“Well, then, I think you can ask him again, and this time point out that you have a right to know. He’s come back into your life, and you need information so you can take care of your life and yourself properly. Lay out your needs and see how he responds.”
“What if he says no again?”
She spread her hands. “Then that tells you something, too, doesn’t it?”
Jamie closed his eyes and made himself sit still for the count of ten. He wanted to punch something. He wanted to walk out of the room. This was why he only wanted to maintain and not go forward. This bullshit. “I don’t know. What does it tell me?”
“If you tell someone you need something from them, and they can’t or won’t provide it--for whatever reason, and the reason might be perfectly good and rooted in their needing to care for themself... it means that you’ll have to seek to fill that need elsewhere, doesn’t it?”
“There isn’t anywhere else.”
“There is, Jamie.” Her voice was all soft and warm but firm, and he knew it wouldn’t do any good to argue with her. All he could do was sit there and feel his hands clench into fists and wonder if this was what drowning felt like. Drowning in his own stupid emotions that didn’t make any sense.
“I thought you were supposed to help, not make things worse,” he said.
“There’s short-term helping and there’s big-picture helping.”
“I was happy when I came in here. Now I’m pissed off and confused.”
“You’re not sorry. If you were sorry, you wouldn’t have done it.”
She smiled a little, which was even worse. “That’s not how it works, and you know that.”
“Being angry at me is a lot easier than being angry at Tyler.”
“I’m not angry at Tyler.”
“You’re allowed to be angry at him, even though you’re the one who left.”
He opened his mouth to tell her again that he wasn’t angry, he wasn’t, he was just--
But he couldn’t quite say anything, and after a moment he closed his mouth and looked away.
“Everything you’re feeling is valid,” she said gently.
“I probably shouldn’t have sex with him if I’m mad at him.”
“Having complicated emotions at a time like this is normal. Your feelings are valid. Your choices are valid.”
“That doesn’t mean they’re good.”
“No. It doesn’t. But it doesn’t have to. You’re not required to be good, Jamie.”
He never knew what to do when she said that to him. “Are you sure?”
“I’m very sure. You are not required to be good.” She glanced aside at the clock on her desk. “And that’s actually our time for today. Are you okay to leave? Do you need a few minutes?”
“I need a few minutes.”
She nodded and stood up, smoothing her jacket. “I’ll be out in the hall. Take your time.”
“You’ve got other patients.”
“There’s time.” She smiled at him again and stepped out of the room, and he let himself fall apart in his chair for just a minute. His head in his hands, shudders running through him, his vision going black and white and gray in starbursts.
It sucked. This sucked. He hated it.
He hand closed around his phone in his pocket, but he didn’t know who he wanted to call. Tyler, Jordie, his mother, they all flashed through his head, a raw rush of need for just… comfort. Someone he could trust himself to lean on.
Tyler was actually there, though. At the coffee shop across the parking lot, waiting for him.
He took a deep breath, then another, slowly steadying himself. He didn’t have to be good. He could need things. Even if he couldn’t get the things he needed, he was allowed to ask.
He probably wouldn’t believe any of that anymore in a few hours. But right now he did, enough to get him up and out of the chair. Enough to get him walking.
Tyler was waiting with drinks and scones. “This is my second latte,” he said, pushing one cup across the table to Jamie, “so I can tell you that they’re amazing.”
“The team nutritionist is crying and doesn’t even know why.” Jamie took a slow drink, holding the coffee on his tongue for a moment. He still felt unsettled and jangled-up and weird from his session. It was hard to even look at Tyler, so he focused on the scone for now, breaking it into small pieces on the little china plate.
“You okay?” Tyler asked after a few minutes, when he’d reduced half of it to crumbs and blueberries. “And should I get you a spoon for that?”
“Just kind of a tough session. A lot to think about.”
“Ohh. Right.” Tyler nodded and took a drink, glancing around the shop. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. It happens.” He took a deep breath and let it go, trying for a laugh. “That’s why I don’t go very often, you know?”
“Ha. I guess so.” They sat in silence for a moment, until Tyler cleared his throat and stood up. “Seriously, I’m getting you a replacement scone. Watching this is making me sad.”
Jamie didn’t bother to argue, just waited and destroyed the rest of it while Tyler waited in line. It helped, actually, the extra few minutes to breathe and make a plan. He knew what he needed to ask, he just had to find the words to get there.
Tyler sat back down and pushed another plate at him. “This one’s raspberry.”
“That’s fine.” Jamie picked it up and took a bite, more for Tyler’s benefit than because he wanted it. It made Tyler smile; mission accomplished. “So, um, she suggested that I ask you a couple of things.”
The smile vanished again. “Like what?”
“Well, uh, first of all… how long are you staying?”
“Oh.” Some of the tension eased in Tyler’s body. “I don’t actually have a return ticket booked? I can go whenever or stay whenever. It depends on stuff.”
“Some stuff with my agent and also, you know. Our stuff.”
“Right. Our stuff.” Jamie gulped down his coffee and then pushed the cup away. “We need to talk about it.”
“The why you came here part.”
Tyler sighed. “Ah, shit.”
“Yeah.” Jamie waited for Tyler to look up and meet his eyes. “I need to know, dude. Why now? Why do you even want to try this again? What brought you up here out of nowhere? I’m glad you’re here. I don’t want to undo it. But I need to know.”
Tyler drummed on the table for a minute, looking away from Jamie to study the floor, the ceiling, and the view of the parking lot before he met his eyes again. “My contract is up.”
Jamie did the mental math and frowned. “Yeah, it is. Why don’t you have an extension signed?”
“Well, that’s the thing, right?”
“I don’t understand.” Jamie’s mind was reeling. He had never been deeply interested in the business and contract side of things, that was what he’d had an agent for, but Tyler being a couple months away from UFA was totally wrong. “You should’ve had an extension at the beginning of the season.”
“Right. Yeah. There are so many websites dedicated to trying to figure me out right now.”
“But you’re going to tell me the real reason.”
Tyler leaned back in his chair, his face settling into the cautious media mask. Jamie used to be good at seeing through that; he was out of practice now. “I had to figure things out with you first.”
“Why?” Jamie didn’t quite shout, but it was close. “It doesn’t have anything to do with me, I’m out of hockey, why would you put getting a good contract at risk because of this?”
“I don’t need a record-breaking contract. I don’t even need a top-level contract. I have an accountant. I have investments. I’m set for whatever I want to do after hockey. What I need is to be able to play somewhere I can be happy and confident and not fucking miserable.”
There was something missing, and Jamie couldn’t see it, and from the look on Tyler’s face he knew that damn well and was going to make Jamie work to figure it out. Asshole. “You’re miserable in Dallas?”
“No. Not exactly.” Tyler shifted in his seat and looked out at the parking lot again. “But I would be, if I re-signed without coming to see you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I know you don’t.” The corner of his mouth twisted, an ugly little smile that Jamie never wanted to see. “But, like… think about it. I’ve been playing for you the last three years. Playing in your name. In your honor. Whatever. If I stay in Dallas, I’m gonna keep… doing that. It’ll be all for you. All about you. I couldn’t sign up for another stretch of that without knowing where we stood. Knowing for real, not just having to guess and assume and shit because you wouldn’t talk to me. I needed to know. So I had to come up here.”
“How did your agent and the team not fucking kill you?”
“They want to.” Tyler reached for his cup again, realized it was cold, and pushed it away. “I said I wanted to concentrate on playing and we’d get to it later. I said I wanted to concentrate on the playoffs. I told my agent to say whatever to keep other teams on the hook in case you really did tell me to fuck off and I needed to go somewhere else in a hurry.” His smile turned into something more genuine; smirky, but real. “I’ve got some sweet offers lined up waiting for me to make a move, dude. Four of the original six want my ass.”
“Leafs?” Jamie guessed. “Detroit?”
“Chicago.” Tyler’s grin widened. “And Boston.”
“Boston.” Jamie leaned forward over the table, trying to catch the fit of giggles before it could start. No luck; he just ended up laughing over the table and almost knocking his own coffee over. “Oh my god.”
“Hey, it’s a whole new world there. New front office top to bottom. Pretty much a new team, too. I’m gonna string them along til the bitter end.”
“Or you could go back there and be a hero.”
“Or I could be a hero in Dallas.” The smile was gone like it had never been; he was looking at Jamie with pure, cutting honesty. “If I can still be playing for you without it being, like, a lie.”
“I can’t come back to Dallas, Tyler. Not… not for real. I don’t have a visa, my doctors are here, I can’t--”
“I know. I know that. But you could come down sometimes. And we could do long-distance. And I can come here sometimes, and you can come to the games in Van or Calgary, and…” Tyler shrugged. “I just need to know there’s still something here, or I don’t think I can put on that uniform anymore. I need to walk away.”
Jamie looked down at the mess on the table. “You know neither one of us can promise to make it last. It’s not… I mean, it always could’ve ended a lot of different ways, without the accident. It still could. There’s not a guarantee.”
“Yeah, of course. I mean… I’m a romantic but I’m not an idiot, Jamie.” He reached across the table, his hand stopping just short of touching Jamie’s wrist. “I just need to know I’ve got a chance to try.”
Jamie turned his wrist and took Tyler’s hand in his, lacing their fingers together and giving a careful squeeze. Tyler started to smile again.
“Yeah?” he asked.
Jamie nodded. “Yeah.”
“Fuckin’ A.” Tyler reached for his phone with his free hand, careful not to let go of Jamie. “I’m gonna message Ian. I seriously think I’ve given him high blood pressure and maybe an ulcer with this whole thing.”
“That’s not a nice way to treat him. He’s always gone to bat for you.”
“Believe me, he’s told me that. Many times. But I’ve also paid for a couple of nice cars and a boat and sending his kids to private school, so we’re good.” Tyler finished typing and tucked his phone back in his pocket. “You look like you’re ready for your nap.”
Jamie made a face at him and stood up. “Don’t say it like I’m a toddler, eh?”
“Only in personality.”
Tyler laughed and followed him out of the shop. “I’ll make it up to you later.”
Jamie woke up alone after his nap, with a note stuck to his phone saying that Tyler had gone to buy stuff to make dinner. He probably also needed to clear his head, or possibly have a conversation with Ian that it wouldn’t do any good for Jamie to overhear, or at least that’s how Jamie filled in between the lines.
He went to the kitchen for a glass of water and stared out the window at the yard for a while, searching the treeline for the little band of deer but not finding them. He was stalling; he knew it, and he didn’t know how long it would take to make himself stop it.
“Fuck,” he muttered, and put his glass in the sink. “Fine. Okay.”
He went out on the porch and sat down at the top of the stairs, wincing until he got his body arranged to minimize the pain. He rested his head against the post at the edge of the railing and pulled up a search on his phone.
Just searching Tyler Seguin wouldn’t do any good; he’d deleted enough thousands of alerts unread over the past few years to know how much there was to wade through. But he knew which sites ran in-depth profiles, and after a few tries he figured out how to narrow down his searches. He didn’t need to find every profile of Tyler written since the accident; just a couple would do it.
He read three before he put his phone down and buried his face in his hands. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
Fucking Tyler. Tyler who never gave up and never forgot, Tyler who carried a torch no matter what, Tyler who did these fucking interviews without ever letting it slip that he and Jamie hadn’t spoken in ages but also without implying anything he didn’t actually know. Fucking Tyler.
Jamie reached for his phone again without really knowing what he was going to do until it was in his hand and he was calling Jordie.
“Hey, bud.” Jordie sounded happy, and maybe a little buzzed. Jamie probably should’ve started drinking before he ran those searches, too. “How’s it going up there?”
“Uh-oh. I know that voice. What happened?”
Jamie pressed his free hand against his face, covering one eye and half his mouth, until he had to move it so he could talk. “I don’t fuckin’ deserve him.”
“Segs? What did he do?”
“Did you know? Did you follow his press?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Jamie. You gotta slow down and take a breath, okay? Go back to the beginning so I can catch up.”
Jamie stared out across the yard to the road. “We’re, like… we’re back together, I guess. Getting back together.”
“That’s good, right?”
“I think so? Or… or I thought so? But, like, I just looked up his interviews, and I can’t… I’m a fucking asshole, Jordie, I’m, like, a monster.”
“Whoa. No. Stop that.”
“Have you read these? Did you know?”
“All I know is you’re not an asshole or a monster. At all.”
Jamie took a deep, gasping breath, trying to remember not to hold his phone too tightly. “He kept saying all these nice things about me. About how great I am. My heart. My… everything. What a strong and great person. And the whole time I was fucking blowing him off. Ignoring him. Hiding up here.”
Jordie was quiet for a minute, and all Jamie could feel was the pounding of his blood in his skull. “You were doing what you needed to do,” Jordie said finally. “You’re not him, you know? You’re not me. You are who you are, and what you needed to do was go away somewhere to heal at your own pace.”
“I shut him out. I left him.”
“You needed to. I don’t… I mean, I didn’t get it, at the time, and I still don’t get it, but a big thing happened to you, Jamie, and you did what you had to do to get through it.”
“I treated him like shit. I fucked up.”
“Maybe. Kinda. But, like… he wants to forgive you, obviously. I don’t think it helps either of you to not let him do it.”
“But I don’t deserve it.”
“And he doesn’t deserve you pushing him out again so you can punish yourself. Right?”
“I don’t know.” Jamie pressed his head against the post again, letting the edge of it dig into his scalp. “I don’t know how to sort through any of this.”
“You had therapy today, right? What did she say?”
“That was before I read the articles.”
“You always have had shitty timing.” Jordie sighed, and Jamie could just imagine the look on his face, the twist to his mouth. “Look. Apologize to him, and let him forgive you. And then try to go easy on yourself. You did what you had to do.”
“You really think that? You’ve been pissed at me for how I dealt with everything the whole time.”
“I haven’t been pissed. I’ve been worried. But you’ve done fine, so… I guess I was wrong.”
Jamie laughed a little, a startled huff of breath. “You’re admitting you’re wrong? Wow. Wish I was recording this.”
Jamie closed his eyes. “I’m glad you were worried about me. Or, like. Not worried. I’m glad that you cared.”
“Of course I cared. You’re my idiot baby brother. I’ve only got the one.”
“I love you too, Darth.”
“Damn right you do.” Jordie laughed now, a more honest sound, and Jamie sat up, moving his head away from the post. “When I get up there I’m gonna hug you and then kick your ass, okay?”
“Love you, kid.”
“I love you too. Talk to you tomorrow.”
Jamie ended the call and pressed his phone against his forehead for a moment, taking slow, deep breaths. The part of him that was still a little kid, deep inside, found it really easy to just fall into believing Jordie. He did what he had to do, he could apologize and make it better, things would be okay. The rest of him, the adult, wasn’t nearly as sure.
He looked up again and saw the rental car slowing down for the turn into the driveway, Tyler lifting one hand to wave as he saw Jamie on the porch.
Maybe it wouldn’t hurt anything just to try to believe. Just for now.
“Hey,” Tyler called when he got out of the car. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah. Just…” Jamie waved his phone. “Talking to Jordie. Waiting for you to get back.”
“Here I am.” Tyler grabbed the bag of groceries and started across the driveway. “How’s Jordie?”
Jamie hadn’t realized until then that he actually hadn’t asked Jordie how he was doing at all. Awesome. “He’s fine. Good. Hey, can we talk for a minute?”
Tyler stopped, swinging the bag from his wrist. “Uh-oh.”
“No, it’s not… not a thing. Well. Not a big thing. Just. I need to tell you something.”
“Can it wait until after dinner?”
“Not… not really. I don’t think so.” Jamie bit his lip, trying to keep himself from blushing while he stared at Tyler, but there wasn’t any stopping it. He was just going to be permanently red and awkward, as long as his life kept being a weird fucked-up mess.
Tyler took a deep breath and put the bag down on the porch. “Okay. I’ve got something to tell you, too. You go first.”
Jamie took a step toward him, and when Tyler didn’t move away, he reached out and cupped Tyler’s chin in his hand. “I’m sorry.”
Tyler closed his eyes. “Goddamn it, Jamie.”
“No, I’m serious. I’m sorry about… all of it. Everything. I’m really, really… I’m sorry.”
“Stop apologizing to me.”
“I know. I know. This is… this is the last one. The big one.”
“I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“Well, you can say you forgive me, or accept my apology, or… if you, um, if you don’t forgive me yet, you can just say thanks, and that’ll be it.”
Tyler shook his head. “I don’t really know what that means. Forgiving you.”
“It means…” Jamie stopped, letting his hand fall back to his side. “It means what it means.”
“Jamie…” Tyler tilted his head back and sighed. “Look, I’ve been doing this part for three years. I wouldn’t have come up here if I hadn’t decided that I could put it all behind me and want to go forward with you. Maybe you would say no, but I could do it, if you wanted to. I already did this part, Jamie. I get that you have to catch up to me and it’s weird, but… I can’t, like, pretend I’m doing it all over again for you.”
“So what do I need to do?”
“I don’t know. What does it feel like you need to do? What would let you, like… get over it?”
“I don’t know.” Jamie’s hands curled at his sides, making loose fists, and he looked down at them like he couldn’t just flatten them again. Like they were out of his control. “Can we just do the part I said?”
“Where you say you’re sorry and I either accept it or not?”
“Or forgive me. Whatever.”
“I still feel like maybe we’re not talking about the same things. But okay.” Tyler nodded and squared his shoulders. “Say it.”
“Tyler, I’m sorry.”
Tyler met his eyes and looked at him steadily. “I forgive you.”
Jamie took a shaky breath and nodded. “Okay. Um. What… what did you need to tell me?”
“Ian wants me in Dallas at eight AM Thursday. I have to fly back Wednesday.”
Everything stopped for a minute, again. “Wednesday? The day after tomorrow?”
“Yeah.” Tyler rubbed the back of his neck. “It sucks. But he’s so pissed at me, I couldn’t exactly argue, you know? He wants to get this signed and taken care of so I can’t fuck up anything else.”
“I understand.” He did, he really did, it just… they were just getting this back and it was going away again. How the fuck did he have such bad luck? What had he done in a past life?
“At least you don’t have to worry about me having fun without you. Contract negotiations and Ian yelling at me. Not fun at all.”
Jamie managed a smile. “For sure.”
Tyler picked up the grocery bag and nodded at the house. “Now let’s go inside. I’m gonna make chili. I got baguettes to go with it, though, because I know fuck-all about biscuits or cornbread or that other Texas shit.”
Jamie’s throat was so dry he could barely talk. “Sounds good.”
“And then we’re gonna watch a trashy movie and nobody is going to apologize to anybody anymore. Got it?”
“Yeah, yeah. All right.”
Jamie got his hand in Tyler’s pants while they watched the movie, jerking him off slowly, making it last as long as he could while Tyler took shaky breaths and rolled his head back against the couch cushions.
After, Tyler returned the favor, his mouth pressed hot and wet to Jamie’s neck, just over his pulse. He didn’t kiss, didn’t bite, didn’t even suck, just breathed against him while his hand worked Jamie tight and fast, and after Jamie came he stayed there, laughing softly.
“What’s funny?” Jamie asked, settling his hands at the small of Tyler’s back, loosely holding him in place. He felt good, but the knowledge that Tyler was leaving was an ache in his head and his heart. He couldn’t imagine laughing right now.
“Nothing. I’m just happy.”
“Yeah?” Jamie smiled despite himself; he knew it was goofy, but at least he wasn’t giggling. “Handjobs on the couch make you happy?”
“You make me happy, doofus.” Tyler rested his head on Jamie’s shoulder for a moment, then sat up. “And I mean that, before you have a chance to get worried again. I made my mind up, like, two years ago, Jameson. So calm down.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You were thinking about it. I can tell.”
“Whatever,” Jamie said, because that was the best he could do. Tyler looked at him for a moment, then leaned in and kissed him, deep and hot and good.
Even with everything that was still a mess, and even with Tyler leaving soon, it was still so good.
Tyler made breakfast in the morning, waiting at the table with pancakes when Jamie came out of the bedroom. “Morning, you.”
“Morning.” Jamie leaned in and kissed him quickly, trying not to show how good it felt to just be able to do that. To have it be casual and not fraught or risky. Just… him and Tyler. The two of them again.
Tyler grinned and kissed him back, the pointed at the table. “Sit. Eat. I have an idea.”
“What kind of idea?”
“A good one.”
“Are you sure?”
“Very sure.” Tyler straddled his chair and watched Jamie eat. “You're going to argue with me about it but eventually you'll agree and I'm pretty sure you'll be glad you did.”
“That's kind of ominous.”
Tyler had that smile on his face that meant Jamie absolutely should not trust him. But he was going to anyway. He was a sucker.
“Just tell me now?”
“Nope. Not till you're done eating. And doing your puzzle and talking to Jordie. I can wait. I'm a patient guy.”
Jamie rolled his eyes and didn't bother arguing. Tyler was Tyler. Better to go along with it and see where they ended up.
He ate, got a text from Jordie saying they'd have to talk later, and did half a puzzle before pushing the book away and looking at Tyler again. “Okay. Tell me, seriously. I'm nervous and you're twitching.”
“I am not.”
Tyler rolled his eyes. “Okay. Whatever. So my idea is, instead of working out today, you take the day off.”
Jamie blinked at him. “Why would I do that?”
“We're going to do something else instead.”
“I take Sundays off.”
“I know. Just, look, Jamie. I have a really good idea. You're going to like it.”
“So tell me.”
“Once you finish arguing, you'll like it.”
“Tyler, just tell me.”
“We're gonna go to the animal shelter.” He held his hand up before Jamie could say anything. “Not dogs. I heard you. We're going to look at cats.”
Jamie's mouth fell open a little. “Cats.”
“Yeah.” Tyler looked so fucking pleased with himself.
“I'm not really a cat person?”
“Have you ever had one?”
“No. Neither have you.”
“My sisters both do. They're cool. And they don't need to go out. You can get an auto feeder so if you have a bad day they're okay. You can play with them without having to move a lot.” Tyler waved his hands, not quite a celly but coming from the same place. “You need a cat, Jamie.”
Jamie sat still for a moment, looking down at the table. “We can go look.”
“Yes!” Tyler fist-pumped. “Awesome.”
“No promises. If I don't like them, I'm not getting one.”
“And if I do get one you don't get to name it.”
“Cash and Marshall are good names.”
Jamie stood up and started back to the bedroom to get dressed. “The things you've tried to call my dick are not.”
The shelter had a whole room full of cats. They walked around it slowly, staring, and the cats stared back. Some of them screamed.
“They're meowing,” Tyler said. “Don't try to make it weird.”
Jamie was not going to admit he found the screaming intimidating. But he did focus on the cats who sat quietly in their cages and just looked back at him.
“The little fuzzy gray one's cute,” Tyler said. “Ooh, or that black one with the big ears. Let's look at that one.”
Of course Tyler liked the screamers. “The gray one, okay,” Jamie said. “And then that one over there.”
Tyler squinted at the cage he pointed to, which held a small cat with a sad face. She was sort of a rusty gray color. Jamie waited for him to veto her, but after a moment Tyler laughed softly and said, “Yeah. That one has a vibe.”
“Should we just look at her first?”
“Yeah. I'll find the lady in charge.”
The volunteer showed them into a little room with two chairs and a basket of cat toys. They sat awkwardly for a moment until she came back with the cat in her arms.
“This is Bitsy. She's about two years old. She is not a lap cat, but she likes to be near you on her own terms.”
“She sounds like Jordie,” Tyler said. “Match made in heaven.”
“Shut up,” Jamie muttered.
“I'm going to put her down here,” the volunteer said. “Let her take a few minutes. She'll come to you when she's ready.”
Jamie and the cat stared at each other for what felt like a really long time.
“This is weird,” Tyler said finally. “Are you mind-melding with her?”
“I dunno. But I like her. I think I'm gonna get her.”
“Sweet.” Tyler slapped him in the back and the cat cringed back slightly. “What do you want to call her? Pucky? Star? Ooh, what about Dally?”
Jamie frowned at him. “What's wrong with Bitsy?”
“Are you joking?”
“It's her name. I'm not gonna change her name.”
“Yeah.” Jamie nodded decisively. “It sounds good.”
Tyler shook his head. “I can't believe I have sex with you.”
“Fine. Okay. Bitsy Benn it is.” Tyler took his phone out. “Pick her up so I can send your brother a picture and tell him he's an uncle. Then let's go buy Bitsy some swag.”
When they got back to the house with a ridiculous amount of cat supplies and let Bitsy out of her carrier, she immediately disappeared under the couch and refused to come out.
“The cat hates me already,” Jamie said. “Didn’t take long.”
“She doesn’t hate you. She’s just nervous. New house, new people. Let’s eat lunch and give her time to settle down.”
“I thought you didn’t know anything about cats.”
“I don’t, but this is just logic. It’s like a person in a new place. Like the rookies, you know? They come in all nervous. You’ve gotta give them time.”
“God, don’t treat my cat like we treated the rookies.”
“Absolutely no hazing the cat. I promise.” Tyler grinned at him and headed for the kitchen. “Do you feel wild and crazy taking the day off?”
“A little bit.” He felt a little off-balance, actually; not bad, exactly, but not quite right. He wondered if Caitlin and Jeff would notice he hadn’t been at the pool. He’d never thought about that before. “I’ll still need a nap later though.”
“That’s cool. Ian sent me some stuff to go over. I’ll lie down with you and read that while you sleep.” He glanced at Jamie. “If that’s okay.”
“It’s great.” Jamie leaned against the counter and watched him dig around in the fridge. “So you’re going back to Dallas tomorrow.”
“And then Brampton?”
“Eh. I’m not sure yet. I mean, I’ll go back for a week or two to see the family, but I won’t stay too long, probably. I’ve gotta be in Vegas for the awards whenever those are, and I’m doing Biosteel camp one more time, so… there’s that, but otherwise I guess I’ll hang out in Dallas. Maybe hit LA and Cabo for quick visits. But I’m getting old, dude, it takes more offseason work to keep things going.”
“You’re getting old. Shut up.” Jamie worried at the cuff of his sleeve for a moment. “The awards, huh?”
“Oh, yeah.” Tyler made a face. “I’m up for the King Clancy.”
“Yeah. I did some extra stuff with the team foundation this year, and expanded the Seguin Stars stuff, and it got somebody’s attention.” He shrugged and closed the fridge again. “Not one of the performance awards, but I’m still gonna go.”
“That’s awesome, though. You deserve recognition for all that stuff you do.” Jamie rubbed the back of his neck. “I feel like a shitbag that I never did anything, you know? I should’ve.”
“You still could.”
“Nah. Nobody cares what I do now.”
Tyler shook his head. “I’m not gonna argue with you. But you’re still wrong.”
“Thanks, Seggy, you’re sweet.”
“I tell it like I see it.” Tyler pointed at the cabinets. “Get plates and stuff, dude, don’t make me do all the work here. We’re in this together.”
Sleeping with Tyler in the bed was still great. Waking up to him mumbling at his phone and giggling to himself was amazing.
“The cat came in here a while ago,” Tyler said, putting his phone down on Jamie’s chest. “She sat in the doorway and stared at us until she realized I was watching, and then she jumped up and ran away, but it’s progress.”
“‘s good.” Jamie stretched and groaned. “How was the stuff Ian sent you?”
“Fine. I’m just gonna agree to all of it. He likes it better when I do that anyway.”
“You’re the perfect client.”
“Anything but.” Tyler shifted onto his side, facing Jamie, and ran his hand down Jamie’s arm. “So, you got anything else you wanted to do today? Or we could just hang out. Cuddle.”
“That sounds nice. Hanging out.”
“I know you want the cuddling, Jamie, don’t lie.”
Jamie laughed and pulled Tyler closer, tucking his face against Tyler’s neck to breathe him in. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure. Go for it. Wait, as long as it’s not something, like, sad and serious. Fuck that.”
“It’s not, actually.” Jamie nuzzled him slowly, cautiously, reveling in being allowed to at all. “Tell me something fun that I missed. Like, a good thing that you would’ve told me about if I’d been around. Something nice.”
“Oh, wow.” Tyler was quiet for a moment, breathing slow and warm against Jamie’s shoulder. “Okay, well. Last summer I got invited to one of those, like, made-up award shows, the Spike TV awards or something, right? And I went, because why not. Some nice PR and a dinner and hanging out with cool people.”
“A chance to wear your nice suits.”
“Exactly. So I went, and Taylor Swift was there.”
Jamie frowned. “Why would Taylor Swift be at the Spike TV awards?”
“I have no idea, but she was. Cross-marketing or something. Anyway, they sat us at the same table, and we were chatting and stuff.”
“Dude.” Jamie pulled back and looked at him. “Were you a Taylor Swift song-inspiring boyfriend?”
Tyler laughed and ducked his head. “No! That’s the part of the story I’m getting to! I was like… trying to be cool and flirty and see what could happen? She’s really funny, and smart, and I thought it was going really well, I was making a good impression and shit.”
“And then what happened?”
“She asked me what I thought of her new song. I mean, it was new then, it just came out.”
“And you said…?”
Tyler made a face, stretching the pause out long enough that Jamie swatted him. “I told her I wasn’t into her pop stuff, I liked her country albums better.”
Jamie stared at him. “You said that?”
“Why did you say that? You never even listened to her country albums.”
“Because I knew it was what you would say, and I wanted to be, like, not a typical guy, I wanted to be all charming and interesting and different like you! So I stole your line.”
“You stole my line.” Jamie shook his head. “And was she charmed?”
Tyler’s eyes widened. “She was not. She gave me a look like she just scraped me off her shoe, said ‘Huh,’ and didn’t talk to me for the rest of the night.”
“Yeah, that’s where Benn-style charm usually ends up.”
“I didn’t even realize until I was in the limo back to my hotel that I had totally kind of insulted her.”
“Yeah, you did.”
“I was just trying to be cool.” Tyler sighed. “Anyway. That’s why I was still available to come after you, Jameson. My chance at being life partners with TSwift was indirectly killed by your bad game.”
“Hey, I didn’t tell you to do that.” Jamie pulled him close again, running his hands up and down Tyler’s back. “And you kinda like my game.”
“I do, I’ve gotta admit it.” Tyler kissed him and then looked over toward the doorway. “Oh, she’s back. Hold real still so we don’t scare her off.”
Jamie craned his neck, trying to see her without letting go of Tyler. “C’mere, Bitsy-baby. Come over here with us.”
“Yeah, she just said fuck you and left again, dude. You know how to pick ‘em.”
“I picked you.”
Tyler grinned. “That’s the kind of sappy shit I love.”
Jamie tried for a sexy face, and wiggled his eyebrows. “Wanna make out?”
Tyler reached for him. “Absolutely.”
Jamie sat at the foot of the bed and watched Tyler pack the next morning. “Can I give you a hand with anything?”
“Nope, I’m good.” Tyler folded a t-shirt and shoved it into his bag. “I didn’t bring that much.”
“How much of my stuff are you stealing?”
“Just one sweatshirt.” Tyler stuck his tongue out at Jamie’s look. “It’s warm and I like it and whatever, I’ll send you pictures of me jerking off in it and stuff.”
“Are we at that point already?”
“Why not? I mean, we’re picking up where we left off, right?” Tyler let the moment stretch out and laughed. “Plus I just like taking jerk-off pics. You know that.”
“You’re impossible.” Jamie watched him for a few more minutes, then carefully stood up and went to look out the bedroom door into the hall. “Bitsy still won’t come in here.”
“Give her time.” Tyler zipped up his bag. “Okay. Are we still going to the barn?”
“Yeah. I’ve gotta do my chores, at least.”
“You can ride, too. I’ll follow you there in the rental and if it gets too late I can just leave for the airport from there.”
Jamie sighed. “I guess.”
“You can’t take me to the airport, dude, I’ve got the rental.”
“I know, I know.” Jamie hesitated, wanting to say more, even though he knew Tyler already knew, but… Well. Tyler already knew, and Jamie wasn’t good with words anyway. “I know.”
Tyler didn’t say anything, and after a moment Jamie looked up and met his eyes. “Are you afraid this is going to be an out of sight, out of mind thing?” Tyler asked. “That I’ll get on the plane and laugh to myself and never talk to you again?”
“I… that’s not exactly what I was thinking, no.”
“But kinda in that vicinity?”
“Maybe.” He was afraid that it was stupid to still be worried about this after everything Tyler had said, all the dramatic speeches and the promises. But he couldn’t help it. “Sort of.”
“Good job not saying you’d deserve it, because I’d have to punch you.” Tyler put his hand on Jamie’s shoulder. “I want to do the long-distance thing. I want to. Enthusiastically. Stop worrying.”
“Can we schedule it? Like I have with Jordie. Not necessarily every day, but… can I make it part of my routine? It helps me.”
“Sure. Definitely.” Tyler’s thumb traced a slow arc over Jamie’s bicep. “Pencil me for texting every day and talking at night if we can both manage it.”
“I know what your schedule’s like. Tell me when you can’t talk and I won’t be weird about it.”
“I didn’t think you would.” Tyler moved his hand to ruffle Jamie’s hair instead. “We’re gonna be okay.”
“How can you just… be so confident about that?”
“I’m a confident guy.” Tyler kissed him lightly and stepped back. “Let’s get going. I want to take some more pictures of you riding that horse. I’m gonna get them printed and put them in my locker.”
Jamie posed for his pictures and did his ride, never quite getting into the peaceful headspace he was used to. He was too distracted by the knowledge that Tyler was sitting at the end of the arena, watching him, and wouldn’t be there for long.
Danny didn’t care, of course; he just carried Jamie along. If he got away with being a little more lazy than usual, well, everybody deserved a cheat day sometimes. It wasn’t going to hurt either of them.
Jamie twisted in the saddle to look for Tyler, like he’d been doing every five minutes or so. Tyler was still sitting at the end of the arena, but Elaine was sitting next to him now, their heads bowed in conversation. Jamie breathed out a little easier than he expected. Tyler couldn’t leave without him noticing if he was talking to Elaine, or so the logic in his head went. It probably wasn’t true, but it made him feel better.
He nudged Danny into a gentle lope and tried to let the steady rhythm clear his head. He still had chores to do, and then saying goodbye to Tyler, and then confronting the brand-new void in his life where Tyler had made himself fit. He didn’t want to look at that yet, though. Looking at it might kill him.
One step at a time, he thought, and guided Danny into an easy, wobbling circle, then letting him drop down to a walk. “Okay, bud,” he muttered, patting the horse’s neck. “Done for today. Thanks for putting up with me.”
Danny sneezed and stretched his neck down toward the dirt. Jamie let him have his head and rubbed at his neck some more. “I’m probably going to be kinda sad for a while. I’ll try not to let it be a whole thing, but… I don’t know.”
Danny ignored him entirely, which was one of the things Jamie liked about him. Danny never forced him to have a conversation.
“I’m gonna go away more than I have before, too,” he said, easing Danny to a halt and pulling himself together to dismount. “It’s not you. Nothing personal. Just, I’ve gotta fly to Texas sometimes and visit Tyler.” Danny looked back at him. “Yeah. He’s a good guy, and I’m getting a second chance, so… it’s kind of a big deal. You think I can make it work?”
Danny turned his head and wiped his nose across Jamie’s chest. “Thanks.” Snot and dirt. Awesome. “Tyler’s not gonna hug me goodbye now, you know.” Danny resumed ignoring him, and Jamie led him back to the barn to untack. Fair enough.
Tyler came walking down the aisle just as Jamie finished putting the tack away. “Hey, there you are.”
“Yep.” Jamie held out the can of horse treats. “Give him two if you want.”
“I do want.” Tyler took the treats to Danny and then stood there petting his neck. “So I was talking to Elaine.”
“I set up a donation to this place that should take some of the pressure off. Annual, whatever time of the year things usually get tightest, she can call my accountant whenever she wants to get the first check sent over.”
“Seriously?” Jamie stared at him and Tyler shrugged. “You don’t have to do that.”
“I want to. And I can afford it. More giving back to the community and stuff, right?”
“This isn’t your community.”
“It’s my step-community. Whatever. I wanted to, I did, it’s done.” He pressed a kiss to Danny’s face, his eyes never leaving Jamie’s. “You wanna fight about it?”
“No. I don’t.” Jamie swallowed hard. “I’m gonna miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too.”
“I just got you back and you’re leaving.”
“Jamie. Don’t, okay?”
Jamie nodded and took a breath, blinking up at the rafters until he had control of himself again. “Voting’s already over, you know, this isn’t going to help you with the King Clancy.”
“Shut up, oh my god.”
“I gotta take him outside, get out of the way.”
They walked Danny out to the pasture together, and when Jamie let him go, Tyler shoved his hand in his pocket and pulled out the rental car key. “I need to hit the road.”
“Call me when you get there?” It sounded stupid, needy, but not quite desperate. At least there was that.
“I’ll text you from Vancouver and call you from Dallas. I promise.”
“Thanks.” Jamie took a breath; it hurt but if he didn’t breathe he would pass out and Tyler would miss his flight. “I’ve got horse snot on me but I want to hug you anyway, okay?”
“Of course, dummy.” Tyler wrapped him up in his arms and held on tight, turning his face so Jamie could kiss him. “We’re gonna give this a shot, Jamie. And I’ve got confidence in us. We can do this.”
“We didn’t quite do the other thing.”
“Of course we did. You were with me the whole time.” Tyler tapped the side of Jamie’s head. “Even if you didn’t know it, I did. You were there.”
Jamie closed his eyes and kissed him again. “Okay.”
“I love you,” Tyler whispered, and Jamie said “Okay” again, because he couldn’t--he just--
They walked back to the rental car hand in hand, and then Tyler was gone.
Jamie leaned against the side of his truck, forcing himself to take deep breaths. It would be okay. It would. They could do this. They could do anything, together.
He fumbled for his phone and texted Tyler. I love you too.
Then he took another breath and called Jordie.
“Hey,” he said as soon as his brother answered, skipping the pleasantries. “Okay, so, when you come up to visit, and you fly back?”
“Yes,” Jordie said when Jamie trailed off. “Yes, I’m going to fly back at the end of that visit, it’s true.”
“What if I… what if I come with you? And stay in Texas for a couple weeks? Would that be okay?”
“That would be awesome, Jamie. You’re always welcome here, how many times have I told you that?”
“So I’ve got three years of saved-up visits I can cash in?”
“As many as you want.” Jordie’s voice sounded rough all of a sudden, and Jamie realized he might be trying not to cry. He recognized it because he was doing it, too, his breathing ragged in his throat.
“I’ve got a cat now. I’ll bring her with me, probably? Is that okay?”
“She’ll have to stay in the guest room away from the dogs, but yeah, totally. You got a cat?”
“It’s a long story. Tyler. I.” Jamie gulped for breath and cleared his throat. “Look, okay, so I’ll stay with you a few weeks and then maybe--maybe you can come up to Vegas with me? For the awards. To see Tyler at the awards.”
Jordie was quiet for a beat. “You know there will be other hockey people at the awards. They’ll see you and talk to you.”
“I know. But I want to be there for Tyler. I need… I need to be. It’s not that I owe him, he would be pissed if I said that, but I…”
“I get it,” Jordie said softly. “And yeah. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thanks, man.” Jamie wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “I’ll send you the details once I’ve got them.”
“I can’t wait, bud. I love you.”
“I love you too.” Jamie hung up and clicked over to his text app, seeing where the same words still waited in a bubble for Tyler to see them. It was good that Tyler wasn’t looking at his phone while driving, but it was going to make him a little bit crazy until he got a response.
He took a picture of himself standing there and added I promise I’ll get a haircut before the awards. Gotta look good when I stand on the carpet with you.
He hit send and started back to the truck. He had a lot to do while he was waiting.