Kicking his legs furiously under the water, he made the final push towards the pool wall, his feet finding the floor once his fingers pressed against the concrete and his head lifted from the water. Pulling his goggles from his eyes with one hand, he tangled his fingers into his wet hair with the other, shaking his head and spraying water in all directions.
“I swear you get faster every time I watch you.”
He squinted into the setting sun as he lifted his chin to set his gaze on Lucy, who was holding out a large green towel in his direction. Tossing his goggles over the side of the pool, he planted his palms on the concrete to pull himself out of the water, grabbing the towel from his best friend and nodding in gratitude as he began to dry himself off. “What are you doing here?”
That came off sounding much ruder than he intended, but he wasn’t particularly in the mood for laughs. Which, now that he thought about it, was probably why Lucy was standing beside his backyard pool in the first place. No doubt Justin had called her and asked her to come over, because if anyone could lift Tyler’s spirits, it was Daniel’s perpetually happy daughter.
And maybe Tyler should have known that he was always going to have to have this conversation with Lucy eventually, but he was hoping it would be later rather than sooner.
“Uncle Justin is worried about you,” she replied, confirming his suspicions. “He says you did a hundred laps.”
Generally speaking, Tyler swimming on his day off wasn’t that surprising. The water called to him, even when training was optional, so he’d often take a dip and leisurely swim up and down the pool. But what he had been doing this afternoon was anything but relaxing. His strokes had been precise and hard and quick, as though he was under his coach’s watchful eye, because he had hoped that keeping himself focused and tiring himself out would help him forget about, well, everything else.
“I’m just wired up,” Tyler shrugged, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible as he rubbed the towel in his hair. “Needed to get out some of my pent up energy.”
“Mhmm,” Lucy hummed, crossing her arms over her chest and staring at him pointedly, apparently unconvinced. “Pent up energy or pent up anger?”
“I’m not angry,” he shot back immediately. “I’m just confused and…you know what, I don’t really feel like talking about this right now.”
Staring him down, she contemplated whether or not to push the issue before deciding against it and shrugging. “Okay.”
He was actually surprised that she backed down that quickly, but he supposed it was because she figured he would tell her everything eventually. Tyler and Lucy had never kept secrets from each other and they weren’t about to start now.
Not that his current situation was really a secret, his problem was more that he didn’t know how to express how he felt. He needed some perspective, and maybe some advice from someone who had been through a similar situation, which is why he turned to Jamie.
“Hey,” Jamie lifted his eyebrows as he pulled open the door and gestured for Tyler to enter, a little surprised to find the swimmer at his doorstep, but not at all unhappy with the unannounced visit. His first instinct was to offer Tyler a beer, figuring he’d just come by to hang out, but Jamie stopped short before the words could escape his lips, furrowing his eyebrows in concern at the sadness in the younger boy’s expression. “You alright, bro? What’s going on?”
“I’m not sure,” Tyler admitted, plopping down on the couch and waiting until Jamie sat in the chair next to him to continue. “I just needed some brotherly advice.”
“Of course,” Jamie nodded, always flattered to hear that Tyler considered him to be a brother. “What’s up?”
“So you know how Cassie went back to school early…”
Nodding, Jamie kept silent. Cassie had actually stopped by their apartment on her way back to say goodbye to them, saying she was heading back earlier than expected because she had forgotten some big project she needed to work on, but he had suspected there was something else going on. Something that Kira was completely aware of, but he had decided not to question her about because he figured that she would tell him if it was truly his place to know.
“Something kinda happened before she left,” he continued vaguely.
Jamie kept his expression neutral. “Did you guys have a fight or something?”
“Not exactly,” Tyler replied slowly. “But she did break up with me.”
“I’m sorry,” Jamie crinkled his nose sympathetically, remembering how that felt when it had happened to him five years earlier. “Did she tell you why?”
Tyler’s lips parted as he contemplated the best way to phrase his response, unsure what to say because he was still processing it himself. “She said…she said that she was falling in love with me, so it was better to end things now, before she got in too deep.”
That bit of information did surprise Jamie. Not the part about Cassie falling for Tyler, because to be entirely honest, people fell for Tyler all the time. No, it was that Tyler seemed genuinely upset that she had ended the relationship instead of being freaked out, the way news like that would have freaked him out just a few months ago.
“That’s big,” Jamie softly, getting the sense that Tyler didn’t so much want a reaction as much as he wanted the opportunity to just say everything he wanted to say.
“Yeah,” the younger boy agreed. “And don’t get me wrong, at first the whole mention of love did freak the fuck out of me, but after she left, I realized, that maybe I felt the same way.”
Jamie’s eyes widened and he parted his lips to comment, but Tyler sped right past what was a pretty gigantic revelation straight into cynicism. “But the more I thought about it, the more I started to think that maybe she was right. What if things between us don’t work out? Then we’re both fucked.”
Blinking as he processed everything that had been said in the past few seconds, Jamie took a moment to respond, keeping his voice soft and supportive as he unloaded some wisdom on his younger brother. “Okay, but you had to know it would come to this eventually. In the past, you never had to worry about this because you were always up front about your intentions and never gave anyone the impression that things between you were serious, but you were the one who decided to become exclusive with Cassie. So love was always going to come into the picture. What did you think was going to happen? That the two of you would just date forever without experiencing any deeper emotions?”
“I don’t know,” Tyler admitted, lifting one shoulder in a shrug. “I guess I just figured we’d cross that bridge when we came to it, but I didn’t expect for us to come to it so soon.”
“And you haven’t yet,” Jamie reached out to lay a hand on Tyler’s shoulder and squeezed lightly. “Look, I get it: the entire concept of giving your heart to someone and trusting them not to break it is terrifying. But you can’t avoid falling in love for fear of ending up hurt. That’s the cowardly way out and the Tyler Copeland I know isn’t a coward.”
Cassie, on the other hand, had fully accepted that she was a coward. She had run away from her problems, a fact that being practically alone on campus for the past few days had caused her to realize. When she had first left, she had hoped that putting some distance between her and Tyler would cause her to realize that any feelings she had for him were just a result of proximity.
But instead, she hadn’t been able to get him off her mind. She thought about him constantly and she was starting to realize that no matter how much she wanted to believe that just ending things and walking away would solve all of her problems, there was no way that was ever going to be good enough.
The entire idea of falling in love with Tyler had terrified the shit out of her and she had thought that given enough time and space, she’d be able to move on. But it seemed that she’d underestimated the strength of her feelings and now she found herself wondering if there would ever be a time when her thoughts didn’t wander to the swimmer with the dangerously deep eyes.
In reality, she should have known this was going to happen all along. Everyone had warned her that getting involved with Tyler was going to be complicated. And considering she didn’t want to freeze Jessamine out of her life, there was really no way Cassie could get away with never seeing Tyler again; it just wasn’t going to happen.
Sighing, she dug her apartment key out of her purse, holding her notebooks close to her chest with her other arm as she stuck it in the lock and turned and pushed to step inside her home.
After closing the door behind her, she took a step towards the hallway which led to her bedroom, her gaze fluttering momentarily to the couch, where it froze as she was hit with a sense of déjà vu, because lying stretched out on the couch as though he was a resident of this apartment was Tyler Copeland.
At first, she thought maybe she was hallucinating. After all, it wouldn’t be entirely ridiculous, seeing as she’d been envisioning Tyler around campus for the past few days.
She saw him stretched out in the grass in the quad, headphones over his ears and eyes closed as he enjoyed the sunshine. She saw him in the dining hall, laughing at someone’s joke as he put ketchup on his burger. She saw him in the library, tucked away at a table in the back, barely visible behind a pile of textbooks as he pored over his class notes in a last ditch effort to cram for an exam. She saw him everywhere, so why wouldn’t it make sense that she would come home from a day in the computer lab to see him lying on her couch, an almost exact replication of the first day she’d ever laid eyes on him.
He was asleep, from what she could tell, having arrived a half hour ago to an empty apartment and deciding to rest up as he waited for the girl he wanted to see to return. Much like she had done the first time she was in this situation, she approached him slowly.
Dropping her book bag off on the kitchen counter, she tiptoed towards him, holding her breath, even when she came to a stop at the front of the couch. It was all a bit surreal, if she was being honest. She felt as though she had traveled back in time to a few months prior.
A part of her kind of wished it were true. Because maybe then, she and Tyler could start over and maybe she wouldn’t fall for him this time, knowing how things would turn out.
It took her all of five seconds to realize the naivety of that thought process. Of course she would fall for him, no matter the circumstances; her feelings for Tyler were inevitable and she had known that from the original version of this very moment, just a few months ago. She should have known that she would end up a hypocrite; that she would tell him that she had no intention of falling in love, only to be the one who fell first.
Knowing that they would have to have a conversation eventually, she reached out to gently nudge his shoulder, keeping her breath bated until his eyes fluttered open and began to adjust to the light in the room.
“Hi,” she breathed out as he sat up, partly because she was getting a little light headed and partly because she figured that since she woke him, she had to be the first to speak.
The sound of her voice made him feel instantly awake, like his veins had been injected with sunshine and he couldn’t help but smile, despite knowing that the circumstances of his visit weren’t particularly happy. “Hey, beautiful.”
She wished he wouldn’t say things like that because showering her in compliments raised her body temperature and made her flustered, and ultimately, it would make her end goal of this conversation that much harder. But maybe that was what he hoped would happen; that she would forget why it was that she’d put distance between them in the first place.
In actuality, Tyler didn’t have a plan. Coming to see Cassie had been an entirely spur of the moment decision. After his talk with Jamie, he had decided that it was time to take action, so when his sister packed up to head back to school, he decided to tag along, following behind her in his car and assuring his parents that he would be home before sundown the next day, just in time for school. They had been a bit wary of the timing, but they also knew that once Tyler set his mind to something, it was hard to derail him from that path, so there was no use in telling him not to go. Besides, they were intrigued because they’d never seen their son go to such lengths for a girl before and they were curious to see how it would play out.
“Hey,” she repeated, trying to get her bearings, because the wider he smiled, the more she felt as though she was floating.
“It’s good to see you,” he said softly, taking a step forward and instinctively reaching out a hand towards her.
She, on the other hand, took a step backwards, knowing that once they made intimate physical contact, that would be it; the end of her world as she knew it; she would no longer be able to walk away.
“Is your sister here?” she asked, diverting the subject away from what she knew he actually wanted to talk about.
He understood her hesitation and decided it would be best for her to set the tone of their conversation. Nodding, he shoved his hands into the pockets of khaki shorts. “Yeah, we came together. I think she’s out doing some last minute shopping.”
“You didn’t go with her?” she asked, immediately thinking it was a stupid question because of course he wouldn’t have gone with his sister; his entire purpose for coming at all was to see Cassie.
“Nope,” he shook his head, keeping his gaze direct.
She knew the answer, but she asked the question anyway. “Why not?”
Sighing in frustration, he removed one hand from his pocket to tug his fingers through his hair. “Really, Cass? Are we really going to do this? You know why I’m here.”
Apparently her stalling tactics weren’t going to work any longer. It was time to address the issue at hand.
“You shouldn’t have come,” she whispered, trying not to burst into tears.
The sight of her on the verge of sobbing made his heart ache and for a moment, he wondered if he really had made a huge mistake. But then he looked into her eyes and felt like he was drowning in liquid gold and remembered why it was that she held his heart in the first place.
“So it’s over?” he replied quietly, mentally making a list of all the reasons she should reconsider and preparing to speak it out loud. “You’re giving up on me?”
“This isn’t a game, Tyler,” she pleaded, bringing her fisted hand to her chest for emphasis. “I’m not giving up. This is about protecting my heart.”
That statement felt like a punch to the gut. For all the times he had been warned not to break Cassie’s heart, he had never thought that she believed he was actually capable of doing so. And he would be damned if she started to believe it now.
Letting out a shaky sigh, he poured as much conviction into his pleading gaze as he could muster. “What are you so afraid of?”
What a complicated question. The simple answer was that she didn’t trust herself with him; that more than anything, she was terrified that she would allow herself to fall for him to the point of no return, only to have everything fall apart. But that seemed a bit dramatic, considering that technically, they had only dated for about two weeks. Admitting her true feelings to him would surely scare the shit out of him, especially considering she had no idea whether or not he reciprocated.
“That everyone is going to end up being right,” she admitted, amazed her voice was coming out steady. “That I’m going to give you my heart and you’re going to break it.”
Pressing his lips together, he nodded, wondering if years of having a reputation as someone who could never commit had led him to this very moment. It was ironic that when it finally happened, when he was finally ready to take the plunge, the person who held his heart would be the one who was afraid.
He lifted his shoulders helplessly. “I don’t know what to say.”
That was a surprise since she figured Tyler could pretty much talk his way out of anything, which was why she blinked with a blank expression on her face. “What do you mean?”
“It means I don’t know,” he replied. “I don’t know how things between us would end, or if they would end at all. I can’t promise that I won’t break your heart because I have no idea what’s going to happen.”
Gulping, she tore her gaze away from him, turning her back to him, partly because she needed to compose herself and partly because she felt a bit foolish. Of course he was terrified as well. Why wouldn’t he be? He’d only been in one other relationship, so of course he didn’t have it all figured out. Chewing on her lower lip, she squeezed her eyes shut, hoping that when they reopened, she would have found a way for this entire situation to end in the least uncomfortable way possible.
“You know what I do know? I do know that I love you.”
He said those words without really thinking them through, and once they were out there, he realized he didn’t want to take it back. He was certain of how he felt; absolutely sure that it was true. So far, he’d spent way too long keeping his feelings bottled up and second guessing himself when it came to Cassie and it was time for that to stop.
She froze at those words, thinking for a moment that she had misheard them or imagined them or that all of this was just a dream and any moment now, she was going to wake up from a long overdue nap to find that she was in her natural state: wearing pajamas, alone, and in bed.
But it wasn’t a figment of her imagination. Tyler was actually here, in her apartment, telling her that he loved her too.
Inhaling deeply to steady herself, she ground her heels into the floor as she swiveled to face him, her voice coming out in the softest, sweetest whisper he’d ever heard. “You do?”
“I do,” he assured her, taking one step forward and letting out a small sigh when she didn’t move away. “I’m so in love with you, Cassie.”
That should have made her happy beyond belief, but instead, she felt the crack in her heart deepen even more. She wished it was enough; that the two of them feeling the same way about each other meant that they could get through anything, but their mutual love actually made things worse. Because at least if he hadn’t felt that way about her, she could rest easy knowing he’d move on rather quickly, but being in love meant that they were both destined for heartache.
Hearing her curse still amazed him, so it took him a moment to realize the implication behind the word, at which point, he furrowed his brow in confusion, his high from admitting his feelings slowly fading. “What’s wrong?”
She shrugged her shoulders helplessly, crossing her arms over her chest. “How is this going to work, Tyler?”
“What do you mean?” he asked, feeling as though she knew something he didn’t.
“I mean,” she took a deep breath and continued slowly. “I mean, I have no idea where I’m going to be when I graduate and neither do you, so how’s this going to work? Are we just going to hope and pray we end up somewhere sort of near each other and then deal with the distance until we inevitably break up because we never have time to talk? I don’t want to do that. Jessamine is my best friend and the other kids, well, I’m growing quite fond of them and if this doesn’t work out, then I’m going to lose them too.”
“Why are you so sure it won’t work out?” he asked, thinking he had never before thought of her as a pessimist.
“Because it never has before,” she pointed out. She had only ever felt this way about one other person and he’d ended up breaking her completely. And although she knew he would never hurt her intentionally, nothing scared her more than giving her heart to Tyler completely, only to end up having it shattered beyond repair.
He understood her hesitation. After all, it wasn’t long ago that he considered committed relationships to be completely ridiculous. But Tyler believed in living in the moment and having no regrets and he knew that if he allowed Cassie to walk away, if they never at least tried to love each other without holding back, they would both regret it for the rest of their lives.
“But that’s not a good enough reason not to try,” he said quietly, lifting one shoulder in a shrug. “I mean, maybe you’re right. Maybe the distance will make being together too difficult and we’ll end up fighting so much that we break up. That’s a possibility. But you know what’s another possibility? That we end up happier than we’ve ever been in our entire lives.”
That was an intriguing thought, that she could actually be happy in a romantic relationship. The truth was that sometimes she thought that maybe she just wasn’t wired that way. The lack of affection she’d received from her parents as a child had left her thinking that was how all relationships were; that is, until she’d seen how Tyler and Jessamine were with their aunts and uncles and the other kids. There was so much love there, so much passion and complete loyalty and when she was with them, she felt as though she was a part of something greater. They had welcomed her with open arms and she soaked up every minute of it, finally feeling as though she had found where she belonged.
And walking away from Tyler would mean all of that ended as well. Caroline had been right; this wasn’t just about how they felt about each other. They entire family would affected by every decision they made. It was strange to think that her relationship with Tyler could have such a ripple effect.
“Before you left,” Tyler continued, knowing that she was still processing everything he was saying, “you told me you were falling in love with me. Is that still true?”
Nodding slowly, she made sure to meet his gaze when she spoke. “Yes.”
A smile cracked his expression and he felt as though a weight had been lifted from his heart. “Good. Because I don’t know how things between us are going to play out, but I love you and I want to see where this goes. What do you say?”
It was phrased so simply, like he was asking her if it was okay if they had Greek food for dinner, but the question had the potential shape the rest of their lives. All she had to do was say yes, and her future changed.
She wondered if it was really that easy; if she could really just agree and they could live happily ever after. She had dreamed of her fairy tale ending since she was a child and here it was, standing in front of her, waiting for her to get up the guts to agree.
And she didn’t want to be afraid anymore. So she took a deep breath and stretched her lips into a smile and said the words with as much conviction as possible. “Yes. I say yes.”
Laughing, a sound which made her feel as though warmth was coursing through her veins, he stepped forward and pulled her into his chest, hugging her tight and smiling as he pressed his cheek against the top of her head. They swayed from side to side for a few moments, relishing in the comfort and safeness of each other’s arms before he pulled back so that he could lean down and kiss her, allowing her to feel his smile against her lips.
As she melted into the kiss, her hands moving to clutch the front of his t-shirt in her fists, she whispered ‘I love you’ against his mouth, soaking in the feeling of freedom she felt as the words escaped as though they were always meant to be said. Perhaps they always were, she thought, kissing him slowly and sweetly and with as much love as a person could possibly pour into a kiss. Perhaps this was always how things were supposed to be.
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