God, he hated to fly. Justice Crawford was, among other things, a bad flyer. How he’d let his best friend Rory convince him to fly cross-country to be the guy’s best man was beyond him. Had he mentioned he hated flying?
See, Justice suffered from certain…neuroses —plural. Damn near crippling anxiety was sprinkled with a nice topping of mild to moderate OCD, with the extreme claustrophobia cherry on top. It was like an ice cream sundae made of crazy. As if being a gay man living in the Bible Belt didn’t make life difficult enough.
So there he was, wedged between Snorey McGeezerpants and the flight attendant’s trolley —with a bonus crying lady in the window seat. Justice always specifically requested an aisle seat, so that he had an easy means of escape, as much as one could have in this tin can.
However, the chirpy, far-too-chipper ‘sky waitress’ had decided that the tiny puddle-jumper was just too damn big to walk her ass up and down the aisle with a trolley, so she parked the thing right by Justice’s seat and went about the business of service with a smile.
Justice’s knee bounced frantically up and down, earning him a dirty look from the crying lady, and he was really starting to sweat. He could already feel that sick roll of his stomach that presented itself just before a full-blown panic attack. Justice knew for a fact that it was only a matter of time before he flipped out on a plane one of these days and got his ass Tasered by an air marshal. It was inevitable, really. As for right now, it was time for another Xanax.
Then would begin the Great War for control of his mind —caffeine versus Alprazolam, upper against downer. That was always fun. But Justice couldn’t live without coffee, and no one needed to see him on a plane without his pills.
Hell, he didn’t even like Rory. Okay, that was a lie. Rory was one of his oldest —and only —friends. Justice had spent a whole semester of college liking Rory entirely too much.
They’d gone to a tiny, extremely liberal private college in the Midwest, and drawn each other in the freshman roommate lottery. Justice had nursed a pretty powerful crush on Rory for the first few weeks of school.
He learned quickly enough that Rory was as straight as they came. At the time, Justice was so deeply planted inside the closet that his true self hid in corners where the light never touched.
He had a very good reason for that, however. Coming out to his parents at seventeen had been nothing short of traumatic not to mention the monumental panic attack leading up to it. His Southern Baptist parents had been horrified, and refused to have anything to do with him if he chose not to ‘change his ways,’ which, of course, he could not do.
They couldn’t accept him for who he was, so he ended up in a shelter for gay teens. It wasn’t much, but he was lucky he’d had it, and he managed to scrape his way through his senior year.
Justice’s grandfather had been the only family member who supported him, and though he couldn’t provide living arrangements since he lived in a retirement home, he gave Justice the money he needed to go to college. For that, Justice was eternally grateful.
He had a graphic arts degree on his wall, and an unflappable best friend. The minute Justice saw how Rory took all of his idiosyncrasies —how he couldn’t handle strangers in their tiny shared dorm room, how he always had to have everything on the desks just so, and how he absolutely couldn’t share clothes —he latched onto the big lug and refused to let go.
Most people thought Rory was just a dumb jock, with nothing going for him but his looks and his baseball swing, but Justice knew better. Rory was sensitive, insightful, and way more intelligent than anyone gave him credit for. And best of all, he had Justice’s back no matter what.
Even knowing that, Justice had never been able to tell Rory he was gay. Not after the disaster with his parents. He just couldn’t bear seeing a look of disgust on that handsome face, even if his heart told him he could trust Rory.
Besides, after they graduated, Rory went home to Seattle, and Justice went back to South Carolina, although he settled in the more progressive Charleston, rather than the small town of Leedsville where he grew up. They hadn’t seen each other in a couple of years and didn’t talk nearly as much as they used to.
That thought saddened Justice, but the truth was he’d lost contact with almost all of his friends, so he was lucky to still have Rory at all. After college, his crazy-sauce had kind of started overflowing, and he just couldn’t deal with relationships, in any form.
But Rory being Rory, he never gave up on Justice. Which was why he was currently marooned somewhere over the Rockies in this flying deathtrap. And the stewardess —because he didn’t give a flying fuck right now if that was the PC term —still held him prisoner with her trolley of doom.
Fuck, the Xanax wasn’t working fast enough. Justice’s pulse thundered; this was the part during a panic attack that usually convinced people they were going into cardiac arrest. He had a white-knuckle grip on the armrest which, of course, no longer folded up on the newer planes.
Justice could feel the bile churn in his stomach; he could taste the acidity of it in the back of his throat. Sweat dripped down the back of his neck, and his vision grayed out and spun. Trying to keep from flipping out, he closed his eyes. Bad idea. The spinning continued, only inside his head.
“Oh my God,” he whispered to himself. “I’ve got to get out of here.”
The stewardess had returned to her cart, so Justice reached out and tapped her arm ever so lightly, because God forbid he get pegged as a belligerent passenger.
She gave him an absent look over her shoulder. “Yes?”
Justice willed himself not to sound as crazed as he felt. “Um, I really need to get up. Would you mind scooting up for a second?”
She frowned at him, obviously annoyed, but didn’t stop counting out change for someone’s cocktail. “Sir, I’ll be finished in just a few moments. Please be patient.”
“I understand ma’am, and I hate to slow you down but —”
“Sir! I’ll be with you in a moment.”
He fought the urge to bark at her as she completely dismissed him and went about her business. The fact that she refused to let him out just ramped up his anxiety level to a fever pitch. He had to get up. He had to, or he might just start screaming and never stop. He’d get restrained. They’d have to land the plane. He’d get arrested. He’d be put on the no-fly list —as if that would be a problem. But then, he’d miss the wedding.
Before he knew it, Justice was hyperventilating so violently that the old man next to him woke with a start. He took one look at Justice and turned his attention to the flight attendant, catching her eye.
“Ma’am, I’m so sorry to be a bother, but I have to use the restroom,” the old man said. “I’m afraid I don’t have the stamina I used to, and I don’t want to embarrass myself.” He managed to sound pathetically frail and authoritative at the same time.
The flight attendant was immediately sympathetic. “Of course, sir. My apologies.” She moved her cart up a few rows and continued serving.
Justice climbed out of his seat to let his seat mate pass, but not before he caught a wink from the old guy. So he’d recognized Justice’s plight. Although Justice was incredibly grateful, he couldn’t help feeling the flush of embarrassment heat his cheeks. “Thanks,” he mumbled, looking at his shoes.
The old man patted Justice on the shoulder. “No problem, Sonny Boy. Used to be a bit scared to fly m’self.” He toddled off to the lavatory, and Justice didn’t bother to correct him.
Justice wasn’t afraid of flying. He was afraid of not having enough air. He was afraid of being closed in with all those sweaty, shifty people, and their various germs. It freaked him out that the only escape from those things was plummeting to his death. Was that so strange?
* * * *
Justice sat on the lid of the plastic airplane toilet with his head between his legs. He was trying to wait out the panic attack. He couldn’t leave the lavatory until he felt stable enough to handle being stuck out there.
One of the worst things about his panic attacks was constantly feeling like he was going to vomit, but rarely actually having the release of doing so. He’d probably feel better if he could. Instead, he just sat there curled up in a plane bathroom, trying to control his breathing and not pass out. God, why the fuck did Rory have to live in fucking Seattle?
A faint tremor racked the plane, and this time Justice had to swallow to keep from puking. He needed to get back to his seat before he passed out in the bathroom. He splashed some water on his face from the tiny fiberglass sink and steeled himself to go back into the stale, stagnant air of the tight cabin.
Checking himself in the mirror, Justice grimaced at what he saw. On a good day, he was decent looking, but nothing to write home about. His dark brown hair was a bit drab, and curled just a little too much for him to keep it in check. His skin stayed pretty pale unless he made it a point to tan, but being in the sun had given him a smattering of freckles across his nose.
Right now, his skin was a sallow, clammy gray, with yellowish smudges under his eyes. Normally a vivid green, his eyes looked dull and glassy. His forehead and the back of his neck were slick with perspiration, making his wet hair stick to his skin.
Basically, he was a hot mess.
Justice jiggled the sliding door until it opened for him. He took a deep breath and began to squirm down the aisle. It was so small; a grown man couldn’t even walk without turning sideways.
He’d only passed about four rows when the plane gave a violent lurch and listed slightly to the left. It was just enough for Justice to lose his footing and stumble against the row of seats beside him. When the stationary armrest came in contact with the backs of his knees, he fell backwards onto the lap of the passenger in seat 26C.
Warm, strong hands clutched his waist to steady him, and Justice looked up into the most startling blue eyes he’d ever seen. The man who stared down at him had that salty, beach look that made Justice think he might be a surfer.
His sun-bleached blond hair was shaggy, and fell just a couple of inches below his chin, and he had it tucked behind his ears. He had a deep tan, the kind you didn’t get in a booth, and those blue eyes might as well have been reflecting the water somewhere in the Caribbean.
Those eyes crinkled rather sexily with mischief as he looked down at Justice sputtering in his lap. Justice was lucky the guy didn’t punch him. Thankfully, it didn’t even look as if he wanted to punch him.
Because of his anxiety disorder, Justice could be quite socially inept at times, and this lent itself to a certain amount of verbal diarrhea at the worst moments. This, of course, was one of those times.
Justice was transfixed by the little crinkles at the corners of the guy’s eyes, because it looked as if he smiled often, and well. “Well, hello there, sailor.”
This time he was sure a fiery blush covered his cheeks as he realized what he’d said. He wasn’t out to anyone, really, outside his hometown, so such blatant flirting was way out of character.
Justice’s words made Surfer Boy laugh, and he flashed his perfect white teeth. All of his old Matthew McConaughey fantasies flared to life, and Justice had to struggle not to drool.
The silence stretched on, with nothing between them but Justice’s blurted words and the guy’s cheeky grin.
“Erm…I guess I should get off you then. Sorry about that.”
Those big hands tightened briefly at his sides before they helped him to stand. “No harm done,” Surfer Boy said with a wink.
Still standing in the aisle, Justice couldn’t tear himself away from the hot stranger. He could still feel the warmth where he touched him. All of his blood was rapidly pooling below his belt, which wasn’t such a good idea after Xanax, coffee, and a near panic attack. He began to feel lightheaded again.
The man reached a work-roughened hand toward him and smiled again. “I’m Nic.”
Justice took his hand, and he swore he felt a zing of electricity. He always made fun of ideas like that from books or movies, but he couldn’t deny it was what happened.
“Justice. Come here often?”
“As little as possible,” Nic answered.
“Omigod, I can’t believe I just said that. That…I do that a lot. I say things.”
Nic’s smile grew increasingly wider as Justice babbled, but he couldn’t stop.
“I don’t normally…you know…sit on people’s laps. I just…I’m gonna go die now.”
Justice didn’t give himself time to create any further embarrassment. He turned on his heel and made to head back to his seat. The plane chose that moment to take another violent dip. Since Justice was already dizzy again, his stomach roiled. He clamped hand over his mouth in case he didn’t make it to the lavatory, and ran for it.