The call came almost exactly eight years after the first one, nearly down to the day, although that thought didn't occur to Nick until much later. He pretty much stopped thinking when the voice at the other end of the line started talking.
"Mr. Ryder? This is Prentiss Wyatt of Redburn & Wyatt. I'm an attorney in Jackson, Wyoming. I'm sorry to have to inform you...."
No. Not again.
Nick listened numbly until there was silence. "I'll be there," he said, and hung up.
When he turned around, two pairs of worried eyes were watching him.
"Ben's dead. Heart attack. He... they're burying him in two days."
The words sounded strange in his ears, as though someone else had said them, in a language he was supposed to understand but didn't.
Nick was vaguely aware of Cody's arm around his shoulder, urging him to sit down. Of Murray talking quietly on the phone to the airlines. Even of the concerned glances his partners exchanged. But none of those things touched him. He felt frozen, detached.
I wasn't there. I'm sorry, Ben.
"...flight first thing tomorrow for you and Cody," Murray was saying. "It was just a matter of changing your reservations, anyway."
Nick said, "Thanks." At least, he thought he did.
"Thanks, Murray," he heard Cody say. "Hey, it's getting late. Don't you and Annie have Michael's holiday pageant to go to tonight? You should probably head home."
Again, Nick sensed the silent exchange in the pause that followed.
"Okay. But you call me if you need anything, anything at all."
"Sure. You tell Mikey we're sorry we can't see him perform, alright?"
"Oh, of course. He'll miss his uncles, naturally, but I'll try to explain...." His words trailed off, and Nick knew they were all thinking the same thing: How do you explain death to a four-year-old?
I need someone to explain it to me.
Murray gave Nick a hug. "I'm so sorry about Ben."
Nick nodded against Murray's shoulder and tried to return the embrace, but couldn't seem to get his arms to work right. He managed only an awkward pat or two, but that seemed to be enough. Murray gave a final squeeze and let go.
"I'll take you guys to the airport in the morning," he said. "But remember, call me if...."
"We will, Murray, I promise," Cody said. "Thanks, see you in the morning."
After Murray left, Nick stood up. His legs felt like overcooked spaghetti and he felt slightly queasy. He clutched at the seat back for a moment to steady himself.
"Nick?" Cody was right behind him, one arm wrapped around Nick's waist.
"'M okay," Nick said automatically. He straightened up and turned, pulling out of Cody's hold. "Gotta get ready, have to pack—" He stopped. His chest felt like a solid mass of ice, it was hard to breathe.
Cody's arm dropped to his side. "I can do that for you, babe."
"No, I got it." Nick had to move, he had to do something. He went to their cabin and began filling his duffel. His winter clothes were already at hand, in preparation for the trip they were going to make in another week anyway.
Not even a whole week. Five days. I missed him by five days.
Nick reached for a uniform, but after a moment's thought, he changed his mind. As a former Marine, Ben Wilkenson was eligible for a military funeral and full honors, but he wouldn't have wanted that. In fact, he probably left instructions expressly forbidding it.
Ben would kick my ass if I wore this. He took down a regular suit instead.
When the task was complete, Nick threw himself down on the bed. He lay on his back and raised his arm over his eyes.
After a while, he heard footsteps. He looked to see Cody standing inside the doorway, watching him.
Nick swallowed hard. "Cody—" he choked out.
Cody entered, turned out the lights, and slid in behind Nick. He pulled the covers over them both and wrapped his arms around Nick.
Nick could feel the heat of Cody's body all along his, in the strength and shelter of the arms that held him too carefully, as though he was going to break. Cody's breath was warm as well, as it brushed along the nape of Nick's neck where Cody's lips pressed unspoken words of comfort against his skin. Warm, alive.
The tendrils of warmth surrounded him and Nick was grateful. He was still cold inside, so cold. Numb. It wouldn't last forever, he knew. When the ice melted and feeling returned, there would be pain. But the warmth was Cody, and Cody meant love and joy and hope and everything that mattered in this life. So he welcomed the warmth, held it close, and waited for the thaw.
The graveside service was brief, simple, and dignified. When it was over, the small group of mourners trudged through the snow toward the parking lot. Shivering, Cody turned up the collar of his overcoat and crossed his arms tightly in a vain attempt to trap whatever body heat he could as he headed toward the rental car. The icy wind that came down off the mountains and funneled through the valley whipped freely through him, making a mockery of his efforts.
He had reached the edge of the snow-covered field when he realized Nick wasn't behind him. Cody turned around.
Nick was still standing next to the coffin, his head bowed.
He had hardly slept the previous two nights and the strain of it was starting to show. His face was pale and drawn, his expression remote. He was somewhere Cody couldn't reach, hurting in places Cody wasn't sure would heal.
Cody waited, his own heart heavy, while Nick mourned for the man he'd come to think of as a father.
Nick had met Ben Wilkenson some years back, when he escorted the body of PFC Rick Wilkenson, Ben's son, home to Wyoming. It was subsequently discovered that the remains were not Ricky's. Ben's persistence in searching for answers moved Nick, Cody, and Murray to investigate. They discovered that Ricky had died, but not from a training accident as had been reported. He had actually been on a secret mission to locate MIAs in Cambodia.
Because of their investigation, Ricky was given the recognition for his gallant sacrifice that was rightfully his. But it was a bitter blow to Ben, who had harbored hopes that Ricky was somehow still alive. A medal—even a Distinguished Service Cross—was a poor substitute for a son.
Still, knowing was better than not knowing. It was not the happy ending they'd wanted, but it gave Ben a little peace, a little closure.
It also gave him Nick.
Nick's heart had gone out to Ben even before they had met, if only as the bereaved father of a fellow soldier. As they got to know one another over the course of the investigation, a genuine bond of respect and affection developed between them. The two men found comfort in each other: one, a father without a son; the other, a son without a father.
Even after the case was closed, after they'd brought Ricky home and laid him to rest, Nick didn't forget about the old man. He called Ben often, sent him funny postcards and silly California kitsch. In turn, Ben wrote letters extolling the virtues of country living to his "citified" friend. On his birthday, Nick received a handsome custom-made cowboy hat. It fit perfectly, thanks to Cody's help with the hat size.
Nick invited Ben to return to King Harbor the following Christmas. He refused in typical Ben fashion, saying, "What you got in California isn't Christmas. Bikinis? Beach volleyball? Huh. Christmas just isn't Christmas if it's not 15 degrees with a foot of snow on the ground. You come back to Jackson, and I'll show you what a real Christmas is like." Half challenge, half invitation.
So Nick went.
That was around the time things between Cody and Nick began to change. Coincidence? Cody didn't think so.
That's not to say that they all of a sudden discovered splendor in the grass or anything. They'd been fuck buddies, off and on, for years. The sexual revolution was still in full swing in the Seventies, and boy, did he and Nick swing. It felt good, they did it, and had a beer afterwards. Good times.
Looking back, though, Cody realized there had been a sense of... treading water, for lack of a better description. They'd been drifting with the tide, marking time, waiting for... hell if he knew what, exactly. A sign, maybe. Something that said, "This is it. Your real life starts now." God, they'd been idiots. Playing at life, when they could have been living.
That was what changed—they finally stopped treating life like it was some pick-up game down at the park. The petty, stupid stuff—the competition for pretty girls, the one-upmanship, the macho posturing, the casual sex—simply wasn't important anymore.
"We've been in a holding pattern too long, babe," Nick had said. "No more games. It's high time we figure out what the flight plan is."
It took guts for Nick to take a stand and lay it all on the line, but Nick never lacked for courage. And once that stand was taken, there was no question in Cody's mind: where Nick stood, so would he.
Maybe it was the natural progression of things. Lord knows, in some ways it felt like they'd been heading for that moment since about five minutes after they met. They were older, more mature—well, they were older, anyway. So yeah, maybe it would have happened, eventually.
Still, there was no denying that Ben's presence had been a positive influence. The paternal concern clearly filled a void in Nick, who had lost his mother when he was very young, and his father not long after he'd joined the army. He was more settled, more content. Open. Cody was convinced that openness made everything else possible, that it paved the way for the two of them to commit to each other fully, heart and soul.
However, as Cody watched Nick struggle with his goodbyes, he cursed the openness for the double-edged sword it was. Nick was paying the price for his vulnerability. Cody could only pray that the wounds would stop bleeding, and soon.
Nick was flabbergasted. "He what?"
"He named you as the sole beneficiary of his estate. It's right here in the will." The lawyer, Prentiss Wyatt, handed Nick the document. "It's very clear-cut. I drafted the document myself. I assure you, it is entirely in keeping with his wishes." The lawyer cocked his head and studied Nick with his bright, beady eyes. He reminded Nick of a bird. "Frankly, I don't know why you're so shocked, Mr. Ryder. Surely you knew old Ben did not have any living relatives. Really, it shouldn't have come as a surprise to you at all."
Maybe it shouldn't have, but it sure as hell did to Nick. His thoughts were fuzzy and he was tired, too tired to absorb this new development equanimously. He rubbed his forehead, trying to wish away the ache gathering behind his eyes.
"Wait, wait. His estate. What are we talking about, anyway?"
"The house, the land, some savings and other assets. It must go through probate, naturally, but I don't foresee any problems. I can't imagine that there'll be anyone popping out of the woodwork, so to speak, to dispute the will. There may be a few minor claims, unpaid bills and the like, but Ben wasn't one to carry much debt. I don't think he even had a credit card. The mortgage on the property was paid off long ago, so that's free and clear. I couldn't give you an exact figure, but even after taxes, it should be a fairly tidy sum." The lawyer bobbed his head and smiled knowingly. Congratulations, good work, the smile seemed to say, and that was simply all kinds of wrong.
Nick jumped to his feet and leaned across the desk, right in Wyatt's face. "I was not after his money," he ground out through clenched teeth.
The lawyer's smirk suddenly evaporated and he cringed away from Nick as far as possible. Nick could feel Cody's arm across his chest, pulling him back.
"Easy," Cody murmured. "He didn't mean it like that."
"I-I beg your pardon, I m-most certainly did not!" stammered Wyatt. He waited until Nick was back in his chair before continuing nervously, "As I understand it, you've been acting somewhat in locum filii for some time. He—"
"In locum... what?"
"You've been like a son to him. He was obviously quite fond of you, and by all appearances, you were fond of him. You were, weren't you?"
"Of course I was. I was very fond of him, alright? He was a great guy, the best. I would have been proud to be his son. But the fact of the matter is, I'm not."
"That's not relevant. My point is, you are the logical person to inherit, Mr. Ryder. No one will look askance at you for accepting Ben's gift." Wyatt flipped through a file folder and pulled out an envelope. He pushed it to the edge of the desk. Nick, it said in Ben's neat handwriting. "There are some letters for you, I believe. Yes, and a key to the house. You're welcome to stay there while you're in town; Ben specifically made a point of that."
Nick reached out and touched the envelope. He said, almost to himself, "I can't believe he had all this planned."
"Ben did like to keep his affairs in order. It's quite refreshing to have clients who are considerate that way."
"Considerate?" Cody asked, frowning.
"Oh, I don't mean considerate to me," Wyatt hurried to explain. "No, I meant for the family. Especially in cases such as this one, when the client passes so suddenly, being well prepared ahead of time makes things much easier on the family."
"Yeah, if it wasn't for the dying part, the whole thing would be a piece of cake," Nick snapped. He stood abruptly and headed to the door. Behind him, he heard Wyatt start to babble and Cody say something soothing and placating, then he was outside and out of earshot, thank goodness.
The cold immediately struck him from all sides, and Nick belatedly remembered his coat, still hanging on the rack inside. There was no way he was going to go back in now, though. He rubbed at his arms briskly. He watched his breaths puff out in little clouds of vapor. It brought back memories of sneaking cigarettes behind the high school locker room, and Nick had a sudden craving for a smoke.
Man, haven't wanted one since Cody made me quit, after we got back from 'Nam. He tried to take a deep breath to dispel the urge, but it still hurt to breathe, and the sharp, biting air wasn't helping any.
The door squeaked open behind him, and Cody handed him his coat. "Here."
"Thanks, man." Nick shrugged into it and felt around in the pockets for his gloves. "Sorry 'bout that."
Cody shook his head. "Don't worry about it. Wyatt, he's just an insensitive jackass. He didn't mean it like how it sounded."
"Yeah." It wasn't the most convincing response, and Cody eyed him dubiously. Not now, babe, not here. "Look, can we just go now?"
Cody nodded and handed him the envelope.
Cody drove them over to the motel first to pick up their things, then they headed to Ben's house. There was very little traffic, but the streets were icy and it was starting to get dark. The road held most of Cody's attention but, as often as he could, he glanced at his partner sitting silently beside him.
Nick was slouched low in the passenger seat, his features strained and pinched. It looked like he had a really bad headache. No wonder, thought Cody sympathetically. The news about Ben's will, on top of everything else, would have been enough to give anyone a raging migraine. It was a lot to think about.
When they got to the house, Cody pulled up to the driveway and parked the car. With their duffels slung over their shoulders, they walked down the snowy path to the door.
Nick looked down at the envelope he held in his hands. He'd been clutching it since they'd left Wyatt's office. With a sigh and a swallow, he broke the seal and reached in. After a second of fumbling, he pulled out a key and used it to open the door. He flipped on the light switch and stepped in.
The inside was pretty much as Cody remembered it from their last visit. It was cold, though; someone had turned the heat way down. He grimaced as he adjusted the thermostat—it was going to be a while before it would warm up.
Nick was standing in the middle of the room, his bag at his feet, looking lost and a little bewildered. Here, in the well-lit room, his fatigue and pain were even more apparent, etched deeply in the creases around his mouth and the furrow between his brows.
"Hey," Cody said softly, taking Nick gently by the arm, "why don't you go to bed and try to get some sleep."
Nick shook his head, wincing as he did so. "No, I'm fine."
"You're not fine. You're two seconds away from falling flat on your face." Cody sighed. "Look, sit down at least, will you?" He steered Nick to the couch. "I'll go find some aspirin or something, okay? You hang tight." Nick gave the slightest of nods and closed his eyes.
Cody went to the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. On one of the shelves was the aspirin, and next to it was a prescription bottle of nitroglycerin tablets. "Use as directed for angina," the label read. The bottle was nearly empty.
Oh, Ben. Why didn't you tell us you were having heart trouble?
But of course Cody knew why. He wouldn't have wanted them to worry. Stubborn and independent to the end, that was Ben.
After a moment's hesitation, Cody put the bottle back in the cabinet. He'd show it to Nick later, but now wasn't the right time. He took the aspirin and a glass of water back to the living room.
Nick was half-sitting, half-lying on the couch, his body starting to curl in on itself. His eyelids were at half-mast, but they flickered and opened more fully when Cody knelt down in front of him.
"Here you go." Cody dropped a couple of tablets into Nick's hand and held the glass up to his mouth. Nick gave a grunt of protest.
"I can do it," he mumbled around the pills. He took the glass and drank most of the water down. "Thanks," he said, handing it back.
"Anytime," Cody replied with a faint smile. "Listen, I'm going to start a fire, okay? Get us warmed up, then see about some food."
"Not hungry," Nick mumbled, his eyes closed.
Cody didn't argue. Hopefully he would be able to coax Nick into eating something soon, but sleep was the higher priority.
He went to work, and soon had a fire crackling in the fireplace. The heat from it felt good and Cody basked in it briefly before checking on Nick.
Nick had slid all the way over and was fully lying down, his head pillowed on one of the arm rests. He was asleep, at last. Cody bent down to press a light kiss on Nick's temple, then headed for the kitchen.
As he left the living room, Cody switched off the overhead light. He turned to take one more glance and paused, enthralled.
Bathed in the warm radiance of the flames, Nick's face was serene, his body relaxed and easy. The rest of the room was lost in flickering shadow; the rest of the world simply went away. There was only Nick, glowing as if from within.
It brought a sudden lump to his throat, and Cody swallowed hard and took a quick swipe at his eyes before turning away.
Must be getting sentimental in my old age.
Funny, the thought didn't bother him as much as it should have.
Growing old with Nick.
Yeah. Didn't bother him at all, in fact.
Later, Cody was standing at the stove over a steaming saucepan when Nick came up behind him and put his arms around Cody's waist.
"Hey, you're up! How're you feeling?"
He still looked tired, and Cody was willing to bet the headache wasn't completely gone, but Nick did look a lot better.
"Up for some soup? It's Mmm—"
"—mmm, good," Nick joined in, and they both chuckled.
"Yeah, I could do with some soup. Man, I knew that was Campbell's Tomato Soup the minute I woke up. Nothing else smells quite like it, huh?"
After they ate, they went back to the living room and sat on the floor in front of the fire. Cody was propped up against the end of the couch, with Nick's head in his lap.
"This would have been, what, our eighth Christmas with Ben?" Cody wasn't counting that first, terrible year.
"Yeah." Neither was Nick.
"Seems like we've been doing it a lot longer than that, somehow."
"There were the summers too, don't forget." The last couple of years they'd come up for a few weeks in June as well, all of them: Nick, Cody, Murray, his wife Anne, and little Michael.
"Those were fun, weren't they? Especially this last visit." Cody smiled at the memories. "Ben really got a kick out of Mikey being around."
"Uh-huh. Too bad Mikey won't remember much about Ben."
"Oh, I don't know. He might. I know he's only four, but—" Cody could have bitten out his tongue. Nick had been four when his mother died.
Nick didn't seem upset, though, just sober and thoughtful. "Maybe. I hope so. I don't remember much about my mom. And what I do remember, some of it's probably not real. Stuff I made up—dreams, mostly, or wishful thinking. She was a perfect, fairy-tale mom." Nick gave Cody with a wistful smile. Then a look of concern came over him. "Cody...."
Cody did his best to smile back, but the image of Nick as a little boy, clinging forlornly to fading memories, was heart-rending.
Nick had almost never spoken about his parents before. Cody knew that they'd died, and hardly anything else. It had been about the only part of himself that Nick couldn't seem to share with Cody, or anyone else for that matter. So Cody had never pressed him for details. He figured when the time was right, when Nick was ready, he would tell him.
It had never occurred to Cody that when the time came, he might not be ready to hear it.
"Cody, hey, it's okay. Really. It just means my memories are good ones. In them, she was always beautiful and smiling, and we were happy. But my dad, he didn't have that luxury, of remembering only the good things. He was with her when she...." There was a long pause. Nick's jaw clenched and unclenched. Then, "She had a miscarriage, and they couldn't stop the bleeding."
Oh, babe. Cody reached for Nick's hand and laced their fingers together.
"It must've been hard for him. All of a sudden his wife was gone and he was stuck with a snot-nosed kid to raise all by himself. He did the best he could, I guess. But he had to work a lot, he didn't have much time for me. I was pretty wild, too. I think I was trying to get his attention, you know? But he didn't know how to handle me."
He reached up with his free hand and stroked Cody's face with his fingertips. That's when Cody realized his cheeks were wet.
"It was hardest around the holidays. My dad, he just didn't want to deal with it—the decorating, the presents, the parties—it was all just too much. Seemed like everyone else was so happy, so full of Christmas cheer. Their houses were full of light. Ours was dark.
"By the time I graduated, we were barely talking. When we weren't fighting, seems like we didn't have anything to say to each other. So the day I turned 18, I went to the recruiting office and signed up.
"That was the last time I saw him. I was away at OCS and didn't get back home for the holidays that year. I called him a few times, wrote a couple of letters.... He was killed in a car accident the following spring."
Nick sat up, but he didn't let go of Cody's hand.
"I wasn't there, Cody. I wasn't there for my dad, he was alone, he died alone, I wasn't there for Ben, I—"
The desolation in Nick's voice broke his heart.
Nick loved fiercely, more so than anyone Cody had ever known. It ran deep in him, compassion and an instinct to protect. Strong in a way that Cody both envied and relied on, but even the strongest spirit had its limits.
Cody pulled Nick to him, hard. "Nick—"
Nick gasped. The gasp became a sob, then more sobs, harsh, heaving gulps of air that shook his body, that shook them both. Cody hung on tightly to Nick as the emotional maelstrom crashed in.
"Not your fault. It's okay," Cody whispered raggedly over and over, a mantra of forgiveness, of absolution. Nick probably didn't believe it yet; he probably couldn't even hear the words over the guilt and regret that rushed in and threatened to drown him. But Cody wasn't going to let him founder, no way. He'd hold on to Nick, keep him safe and whole, until Nick believed the words himself, however long that took.
'Til death do us part.
It was still dark when Nick awoke, and for a moment, he was disoriented. Then he remembered where he was, what happened. Wyoming. Ben. And last night....
Last night, when he'd finally confessed his secret to Cody.
It had been one of the hardest things he'd ever done and he was still feeling battered and raw. But for the first time in days, he could take a deep breath. The tightness was gone, gone along with the burden he'd carried for so long. Confession really was good for the soul.
Nick turned to look at the sleeping form next to him. By the time they finally stumbled to the bedroom, Cody had been as wrung out as Nick, and traces of the emotional toll were still visible on his face, even in repose.
No, it wasn't confession that was good for his soul, it was Cody. Cody, who loved him despite the confession, not because of it. Cody, who loved him despite the fact that he'd let down the important people in his life, failing them when they'd needed him the most.
Stop it. Can't do anything about the past, except learn from it.
Nick gently smoothed Cody's rumpled hair.
I won't fail you, babe. Ever. I swear it.
Maybe it was his imagination, but Nick could've sworn Cody's face relaxed a little, the corners of his mouth easing into a faint smile. With a lighter heart, Nick slipped out of bed and headed to the kitchen to make coffee.
After it was done brewing, he poured himself a cup and took it into the living room. When he turned on the light, he was startled to see Ben's envelope sitting on the coffee table. He'd forgotten it was there.
Nick sat down, picked up the envelope, and pulled out a folded piece of stationery and another, smaller envelope.
He immediately recognized the small envelope and set it aside. He unfolded the sheet of paper and read:
By the time you read this, you already know what my will says. I hope you aren't too mad at me for doing things this way. I suppose I should have told you that I was making you my beneficiary, but knowing you, I was pretty sure you'd have tried to talk me out of it. This way is better—you can still yell at me, I just won't be around to hear it.
About the property. You don't have to keep it, Nick. I just wanted to live out my days here, in the house that's been my home for so long, not in some hospital or old folks' home. Now that I'm gone, go ahead and sell it. Everything inside is yours, too. Keep whatever what you want, maybe a photograph or two. I'd really like it if you kept that baseball mitt of Ricky's. It's not good for anything, but it would mean a lot to me, knowing it's in your hands.
Ricky. Losing Ricky was one of the worst times of my life. If it wasn't for you, and Cody and Murray, I don't think I would have made it through. You're a fine soldier, a credit to your country, loyal to your friends. I want you to know how much you've meant to me. I'm proud of you, proud to know you, and proud to call you friend. I hope you'll forgive an old man his weakness, but in my heart, you're like Ricky's big brother, a brother he never knew he had, but was there to help him and carry on for him just the same. I'd like to think that he'd have turned out to be as fine a man as you; a father could not ask for more. I know your own father, God rest his soul, would be proud of you, too.
Please remember me to Murray, Annie, and especially Michael. And Cody, of course. You and Cody take care of yourselves, and each other.
I love you, son.
Nick's eyes filled, as did his heart. He recalled what he'd said to Ben about Ricky's last letter, written right before the mission that took his life. "A love letter, setting things straight."
Thank you, Ben.
Nick was wiping his eyes when he heard footsteps. He glanced up to see Cody in the doorway. "Good morning."
"Good morning. Everything okay?" Cody sat next to Nick.
Nick smiled. "Yeah, it is. Here." He handed Cody the letter.
Cody hesitated. "I don't have to— you sure you want me to read this?"
Nick nodded firmly. "I don't have any more secrets from you. Go ahead." His heart skipped a beat at how pleased Cody looked at that. He stood up. "I'll get you some coffee."
He went to the kitchen, poured a cup for Cody and refilled his own, and returned to the living room. Cody was blinking back tears of his own. Nick handed Cody his coffee and sat down next to him again.
After taking a sip, Cody said quietly, "He's right, you know. Your dad would've been proud of you."
Nick could only reply, "I hope so."
As Cody put away the letter, he noticed the smaller envelope and picked it up. His name was on it, in Nick's handwriting.
Cody shot an inquiring look at Nick.
Ah, shit. Oh well, too late to hide it now. "Oh, that. It's one of those 'in case something happens to me' letters. I gave it to Ben a long time ago, for safekeeping. Don't look at me like that, Cody. Ricky had written one for Ben, and it really meant a lot to him. It just seemed like a good idea at the time. I was still in the Reserves and between that and our regular work, well.... Anyway, that's how I told Ben about us." Nick smiled at the memory. "He was surprised at first, but he didn't let it make a difference, you know? Man, I loved him for that."
Cody nodded. He eyed the envelope speculatively as he drank his coffee. When he'd drained the cup, he looked at Nick. "It's addressed to me."
Nick knew it would be useless to protest. He wasn't going to get it back unless he was prepared to wrestle it out of Cody's hands, something he didn't feel up for this morning. "Go ahead. But if you're expecting a literary masterpiece, you're gonna be real disappointed."
Cody read the three sentences out loud:
Whatever's happened, just know that I love you. Nothing will ever change that, and nothing will ever take me away from you. You'll never be alone, because I'm in you, in your heart, always.
After a second, Cody put down the letter carefully and reached for Nick. Just before their lips met, Cody whispered, "I'm not disappointed."
"I was thinking, Cody. I'd like to take Ben's savings and start a scholarship at the high school. The Wilkenson Scholarship Fund, in Ben and Ricky's memory. What do you think?"
They were in front of the fire again, this time Nick was sitting up against the couch, and Cody was in front of him. He leaned back against Nick's chest, and Nick's arms were wrapped around his waist.
"Sounds like a great idea. I think Ben would like that a lot."
"And, uh, the house...."
"You want to keep it, don't you?"
"I-I know it's not practical, we wouldn't be here much, but...."
"It'll save us from staying at the motel when we come home for Christmas."
"Well, the Riptide is home home. But this is home too. Part of your heart is here."
"My heart is wherever you are, Cody."
Cody pulled Nick's arms tighter around him. He sighed contentedly as Nick nuzzled the sensitive spot behind his left ear.
"You've got a big heart, Nick. I can share a part of it with Ben. We'll come home for Christmases. Do some decorating, put up some lights, brighten up the place." No more darkness.
"Home for Christmas," Nick murmured in Cody's ear. In his voice was joy, wonder, and peace.
It was the sweetest sound Cody had ever heard.