Cody Allen went to bed on Christmas Eve, 1986, in a pensive mood. Murray had been playing carols all week so that even Cody's nerves were on edge. Picking out the living tree had turned into a farce, and Nick had gotten in a brawl with the pushy, loudmouth guy doing the selling.
Three hours and an assault charge later, the guy had turned out to be wanted by the cops in four states, but that hadn't really done anything to restore the Christmas spirit on board the Riptide. Nick had refused to have anything more to do with a living tree and had locked himself in the head until Murray had quit pestering him.
Meanwhile, going over to Straightaway's to use the bathroom, Cody had run into Boyd Jefferson and Jerome Styles, guys he'd been at college with. Both had beautiful women on their arms, both were dressed in suits that Cody knew at a glance were worth thousands. In his own jeans, sweater and deck shoes, he'd felt like the hired help.
They'd wished him merry Christmas, then asked after Janet, and Cody couldn't get away from them fast enough.
The Riptide was quiet now. Murray was either in bed or busy with his computers: at any rate, his seasonal soundtrack was silenced. Cody's own cabin was silent: Nick had gone out somewhere while Cody was at Straightaway's and hadn't yet returned.
Cody got into his bunk and turned out the light, firmly closing his eyes and just as firmly closing ears that wanted to listen for Nick's step on the deck. Nick needed some space; Christmas wasn't his favorite time of year, and after the week they'd had, Cody couldn't blame him.
"Cody? Cody, d'you have that brief I need?"
Cody blinked, opening his eyes in confusion. He was in a luxurious office, sitting behind a glass desk, and Boyd Jefferson was leaning against the doorjamb.
"Uh--" Cody looked around wildly.
Boyd walked further in the room, giving a wide smile that showed all his teeth. "Oh, there it is, Allen. Thanks, man." He lifted a paper from the clear glass surface and swung out of the room.
Cody jumped to his feet and followed, staring out the door. A piped, jazzy version of Jingle Bells trilled down the gray-carpeted corridor. Just outside his office, a pretty auburn-haired receptionist sat, head bent over her typewriter.
Cody cleared his throat softly, and the girl raised her head. When she saw him, she smiled brightly. "Mr. Allen, here's your mail." She passed him a stack. "And your wife called. She said she'll be by with the car at two to pick you up. It sounds like a wonderful holiday."
"Holiday," Cody repeated, staring at the girl.
"Yes, skiing in Calgary. Three whole weeks! You're going to have the best time, Mr. Allen."
Clutching his bundle of mail, Cody retreated into the glass-and-steel office. He sat down at the desk and looked at the top envelope.
The address was neatly typed. Cody Allen, Senior Investigator, Jefferson & Styles Lawyers.
Career traction. That was what he'd said he wanted. That was what this glass-and-steel office looked like. A senior investigator for a firm of lawyers definitely counted as career traction, he guessed.
Glancing down at himself, he saw he wore a navy suit of the same expensive cut as Boyd's. He ran a finger inside his tight collar, wishing he could loosen his tie, and suddenly, on an impulse, reached down and pulled up his trouser leg. Argyle socks.
Cody straightened up, smiling a little grimly.
On the desk stood a photograph. Cody picked it up, wondering. It was himself, in a pale-blue and lemon skisuit and goggles, laughing and cuddling a woman in a pink snowsuit against a background of snow. Cody shivered involuntarily. He couldn't ski, and he hated the snow. And the woman in the pink snowsuit was Janet Ingram.
"Hey Cody. Can I see you about this brief before you go?" Boyd was back in the doorway, his smile as polished as his shoes.
Cody banged the photograph down and jumped to his feet. "To hell with career traction, Jefferson. And to hell with your brief. I'm going home."
Cody pushed Boyd out of the way and turned his back on the pretty receptionist. This was a nightmare, but once he got back to the Riptide, he knew he could rely on Nick and Murray to help him sort it out. He squared his shoulders and strode down the hall, wishing his partners were beside him right now.
The only sound was the slosh of the waves against the Riptide's hull. Cody knew without opening his eyes that Nick wasn't home yet: there was no soft breathing from the opposite bunk, no running water in the head.
He turned over, settling himself more comfortably, pushing away the strange dream. Career traction was stupid anyhow. It meant mortgages and the rat race, and no precious, lazy time for fishing.
No partnerships. No friendships. No fun.
Cody snuggled into his pillow. Nick was right. Argyle socks were for assholes.
"Cody! Cody! Have you packed the picnic?"
Cody blinked again. He was standing in a pure white kitchen, an enormous picnic basket on the island in front of him. He clasped it manfully. "Yes?"
"Oh, good. I'm so glad." Joanna Parisi bustled in, looking totally unlike her weekday self in a flowered summer dress with wide shoulder pads and a ruched skirt. "It was a wonderful idea to have a Christmas picnic. I can't wait for you to meet my mother and father, Cody."
Cody smiled uneasily. "Well, sure." Hefting the basket, he followed Joanna outside.
The house was in one of the new developments going up toward the city. They weren't even in King Harbor anymore, Cody realized, looking about him, let alone near the beach. He carefully placed the picnic basket in the trunk of the modest Ford sedan out front, and went around to the driver's seat like a man in a daze.
Joanna got in beside him and took his arm. "This car's so much nicer than that truck you used to have," she said smugly, and cast a glance into the backseat. "It's going to be wonderful for the baby seats."
"The baby seats?" Cody said, startled.
"Well, yes." Joanna snuggled a little closer. "I'm so glad you're as excited to start a family as I am, Cody! And now that I've given up work, we'll have so much more time to spend together. Especially since Nick and Murray have been so understanding."
"Of course. Well, you're going to be a father. You couldn't keep on doing dangerous jobs and being shot at. And with the money for your share of the agency and the Riptide, you'll be able to start a wonderful landscaping business, just like we talked about."
"A landscaping business?" Cody was starting to feel like a parrot. Or maybe a turkey. He opened the door of the car and got out. "Joanna, this is some kind of mistake. Listen, tell your folks I'm sorry, all right? Something's come up. I have to go home."
Cody sat bolt upright, grabbing for the cabin wall. It was solid wood under his hands and the boat creaked comfortingly as he moved. He inhaled deeply, smelling the sea, overlaid with the tang of grease and fish: the scent of his boat.. The scent of home.
Nick's bunk was still empty and Cody got up, unsettled by the dream. He'd been spending time with Joanna since Michael's defection, and he'd be a liar if he said the idea of marriage had never crossed his mind. But living ashore and going on Christmas picnics... Cody splashed his face with cold water in the head, washing away the dream.
Maybe he just wasn't the marrying kind. He went slowly back to bed, closing his eyes and listening to the waves. Married to the ocean. That fitted. At least the sea had never asked him to become a landscape gardener.
The Riptide rocked softly at anchor under a pure blue sky, but far off, there were soft white caps just visible. Cody gave a sigh of content. "It might storm tonight, boys."
"You've been saying that all week," Nick said comfortably, nudging Cody with his shoulder. Cody grinned, turning to his partner, then froze.
Murray, sitting a few feet away, started talking about white caps and wind speed and pressure changes,, but Cody wasn't listening. There were fresh lines around Nick's eyes and his black hair was flecked with gray. Murray too; his brown hair was graying at the temples, and while his face looked as youthful as ever, he sported a tiny dapper mustache, an inch wide, just below his nose.
"Guys?" Cody ventured, wondering if he should be afraid.
Nick sipped his beer. "In fact, you say it every year we come out here. And then Murray lectures us on currents and winds and God knows what. Face it, Cody. It's 1995, which makes it ten years we been coming out to Cooper's Island for Christmas. And ten years you been saying it's gonna storm, and ten years Murray's been talking about currents. I for one am sick of it. Can't we just fish?"
"Ten years?" Cody said, dazed. He looked around him, realizing the shore nearby was in fact Cooper's Island. They were anchored in a small bay Cody remembered from fishing trips as a child, but as far as he could remember, he'd never brought his partners here. "Ten years?"
"Aw, don't mind him, Cody." Murray leaned awkwardly past Nick to pat Cody's leg. "You know how Nick gets at Christmas time."
Nick grinned, settling more comfortably into the bench seat and nudging Cody again. "Boz, if one thing's sure, Cody knows how I get. Ain't that right, big guy?"
Cody stared at Nick. Nick was older, but he was still Nick. His blue eyes were as deep and true as Cody knew them to be, and all of a sudden, Cody knew he was safe. He leaned in to Nick and breathed in deep, smelling the sea, and the boat, and the sunshine. "I still say it might storm."
He closed his eyes, hearing Murray go off into a fit of giggles and feeling Nick's arm slide around his shoulders, drawing him close.
Cody was home.
Cody's eyes flew open. He'd forgotten something very important. It was Christmas, and they were in port.
"Hey, big guy. It's okay. Are you dreaming? Talk to me." Nick was sitting on the edge of Cody's bunk, a hand on Cody's shoulder, his eyes a little worried.
"Dreaming?" Cody sat up, heart thundering. He stared at Nick. Nick's hair was black, showing no trace of gray, and Cody took a long breath. "Yes... or no. Nick, I don't know."
"Take it easy, Cody." Nick slid an arm around his partner. "It's okay. I'm here. I got you. Whatever it was, it's gone now."
Gone now. Cody's gut wrenched as he thought of Cooper's Island and the three of them, celebrating Christmas together under the endless sky.
"Nick." Cody jumped out of bed, grabbing his partner's hand. "Nick, you don't wanna stay in King Harbor for Christmas, right?"
"What are you talking about, man?" Nick followed Cody upstairs, and as Cody started frantically tidying the salon, gently caught his hands. "What are you doing? I think you're still asleep, huh?"
"No... not asleep." Cody breathed deeply, and let Nick put his arm around him again. "I had a dream... it was so real, Nick. Can we... can we go out to Cooper's Island for Christmas?"
"Cooper's Island?" Murray came up the stairs, yawning. "There's some really interesting tidal patterns out that way. When are we going?"
Cody looked at their third partner. For a moment, his hair looked gray, and there was a shadow on his lip that might have been a mustache. "Now," Cody said, and Murray nodded happily.
"That's great. It's lucky we didn't get that living tree after all."
Nick held Cody close for a moment. "You sure about this, man? It's four o'clock in the morning."
Cody looked in Nick's eyes and nodded.
Nick smiled. "Anchors away," he said softly. "I'll go cast off."