Sun shone through the trees dappling the ground with hints and beams. Insects buzzed in the shade, and the undergrowth rustled with life. If it hadn't been ninety-eight degrees and nearly one hundred percent humidity, it might have seemed like a nice day in the jungle. Instead it was a day of wading through swamp and trying to keep quiet and hoping against hope that the chopper that was supposed to airlift them out was where it was supposed to be or at least close enough to make a mad dash.
"Are we almost there?" The groggy whisper of Anderson, his arm over Cody's shoulder, was hopeful.
"Yeah... shouldn't be too much farther," Cody told the wounded man. "Just hang on, okay?"
"I'm aces." The man replied, "Or I will be as long as your buddy has that bird on the ground when we get there."
"Hey, it's Nick. He's never let us down before."
Nick had never let them down but, of course, this was war and things happened. As much fire as they'd been drawing over the past two days, Cody almost hoped that Nick was playing it safe and wouldn’t make their rendezvous. They'd lost so many men to the Viet Cong, it would kill Cody if something happened to Nick too.
He dragged himself and Anderson out of the knee deep water they'd been wading through and up onto some dryer ground, letting the man get what rest he could. The hole in his side was still bleeding, attracting flies, no matter how Cody had tried to bandage it. How much blood could one person lose and still be able to walk, let alone make what would surely be a run across open ground to get to the helicopter?
Cody could hear their radioman making the call, trying to keep the volume down as much as possible. The jungle here was so dense that the guerillas that had been trailing them could have been two miles away, or ten feet and they'd never know until they heard the gunfire... or felt it.
They got an acknowledgement back, the chopper would be at the deserted village about five hundred yards ahead of their current position in about fifteen minutes. They'd have to be fast. It would be a touch and go landing, this far out. Touch and go and then out, dodging gunfire and tracers all the way home.
They kept moving, Anderson becoming more and more of a dead weight as they went. They reached the edge of the clearing just in time to catch the first sounds of the chopper. The familiar 'whap, whap, whap' was the most beautiful sound Cody had ever heard.
"Is't here, Cod...?" Anderson mumbled. He was feverish now, on top of the blood loss.
"Yeah, man. Can't you hear it? Nick will get us home..." It was all they could do to keep from cheering as the nose of the Huey appeared over the edge of the trees.
It touched down just in front of their position, and the gunfire began, shots ricocheting off the sides of the chopper, the guerillas too far away for their ammo to pierce its armor and still retain their cover. It was close, so close, but still a long way for wounded and exhausted men to make a run for it.
The side doors slid open and Cody could see the gunner at his position, laying down cover fire for them. He had to hope it would be enough.
"Okay! Okay! Move it! Move it!"
"Come on, Andy... not too much farther now." Cody tried to help the man to his feet, the ‘clack, clack, clack’ of the chopper's gun almost drowning out the words.
"Sorry...c’n... legs won’ work, man." Anderson’s head lolled off to the side, his eyes barely open.
"Sure they will..." Cody pulled on his arm, glancing back towards the chopper as the other men made a dash for it. It was no use, Anderson had reached the end of his strength. "Fuck."
Cody leaned down and pulled the man up and over his shoulder. It was going to be a rough run, over torn up earth with the extra weight, but there was no way he was leaving the other man behind.
"Come on, Allen!" He heard one of the other men calling to him, but he didn’t have the extra breath to answer. He could only hope the chopper could hang on long enough for him to make it.
A bullet came far too close, zinging past him as he ducked around the end of one of the huts. He paused for just a moment to get his bearings.
"Cody!" It was Nick’s voice, this time, calling him from the doors to the chopper. "Get your ass up here!"
"I’m trying!" More bullets kicked up the dirt just ahead of him making him have to dodge drunkenly, almost falling over from the shift in weight.
He managed to right himself and keep moving, but the chopper was still so far away.
"Cody!! Come on!"
More shots rang out and suddenly he was knocked to the ground, as grenade landed far too near to his path. He scrambled back to his feet, trying to pull Andy with him.
"Cody!" Somehow, Nick was there with him, pulling Andy's arm up over his shoulder.
"Nick! What??" This was wrong. So wrong. The pilot wasn’t supposed to leave the chopper...ever. "You're not supposed to be here!"
"Yell at me later," was Nick's only reply as the two of them dashed the last few yards and tumbled themselves and Andy into the back of the chopper. The co-pilot had them off the ground and away in moments.
"What the fuck did you think you were doing?!" Cody finally yelled as Nick scrambled back into his seat in the cockpit, his co-pilot already flipping switches and rotoring them up and out over the trees.
"Hey... You were going too slow. I have a two o’clock tee time at the Country Club."
And that, apparently was the last Nick was going to say about it. About the fact that he endangered his life to help Cody, or the punishment he received when they got back to base.
Tiny Tommy’s was where old wrecks came to die. Or if they were reparable, they were resold to a new owner. Of course, reparable was a relative term. Some of the ships in the yard had holes in the hull that you could drive a jeep through, while others looked like all they needed was a good coat of paint and their brass polished.
"It will be so great, Nick. I mean I know she's not much to look at right now but fix her up, scrape her hull, give her a new coat of paint and she'll be beautiful. Don't you think she'll be beautiful, Nick?"
Actually, the only thing Nick found beautiful at that exact moment was Cody. His face was lit with enthusiasm, his body almost bouncing with excitement. And that grin – it had hit five thousand watts and was still amping up.
"Yeah, she's something alright," Nick conceded.
The boat was a piece of shit. But this was the first time in a week that Cody had looked happy about anything.
"I'm going to go see how much the guy wants for her. Wait here." Cody bounced off, leaving Nick to wonder just where Cody thought he was going to go. He'd barely moved from Cody's side since an unexpected back fire had sent Cody diving for a ditch, dragging Nick along. The rush of adrenaline and subsequent flashback had given Cody nightmares every night since.
Nick looked a bit closer at the boat. Well, she might not be anything amazing at the moment, but he could see the potential. Or at least he could see where Cody could see the potential, which was more important anyway.
"Oh, well. Come on, Nick. Let's go." Cody's face was back to its sad, haunted expression, his body no longer thrumming with excitement.
"It's too much money and Tommy has someone coming in to look at her this afternoon. He said the guy was really hot about buying it."
Right, Nick thought. He knew a con when he heard it. 'The guy' probably didn't even exist and even if he did, he couldn't possibly be more enthusiastic about buying this piece of... flotsam... than Cody was.
"There's got to be some way—"
"I don't have that much money, Nick. Won't have it for at least another month and she'll probably be long gone by then." Cody's shoulders slumped even lower and he started walking toward the gate.
Nick couldn't stand it. There had to be something he could do. "Cody, wait."
"Yeah?" The lackluster tone, banished at the mere idea of one of his long-time dreams coming true, was back. It nearly broke Nick's heart to hear it.
"Tell him you'll take the boat."
"Did you even listen to me? I don't have the money so I can't get the boat." Cody's voice was almost angry, roughened with sound of disappointment.
"I have the money. I'll give it to you."
Cody looked at Nick with a frown, his eyes searching over Nick's face, "But that's the money for your chopper, Nick. I... I can't take that."
"Why not? It's not like I'm giving it to you," Nick continued, putting one hand on Cody's shoulder. "It's just a loan and I expect you to pay back every cent."
"Yeah... yeah. I can do that." The grin was back, hitting the ten thousand watt mark on all of Nick's meters. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah, of course I'm sure." Nick looked at the boat, hoping he sounded as certain as he was trying to feel. "Once we get her seaworthy we can move aboard and give up the apartment. You'll be able to pay me that much quicker."
"Yes. Absolutely!" Cody had already headed for the office but turned to call back to Nick, "You won't even miss the apartment. Living on the boat will be the best!"
Nick had his doubts, but he was willing to give it a shot. How could he do otherwise in the face of that smile?
"This is just so Boss! I never thought I’d be living on a boat. You guys are just the best!"
"Living--? Murray, I don’t think—" Cody attempted to interrupt.
"It’s just perfect. Perfect. I can put my computers over here and there’s a space for the Roboz over there and -- well, I will have to pull in some cable for the extra phone connection, but really..." Whatever else Murray said was beyond Nick’s range of hearing as Murray went down the stairs to the aft cabin, still waving his arms with enthusiasm.
Nick had his hand over his face, trying to cover up his laughter. Tornado Boz had entered the premises and there was no stopping him.
"What are we going to do, Nick?" Cody frowned at him. "When I asked him if he’d like to help us out with some of our cases, I didn’t mean for him to think he was moving in here."
"Aw, come on. It’s not that bad, Cody. I’m sure Murray will be a big help...with the information gathering side of things."
"No... no, I’m sure he will," Cody agreed, "but that’s a lot different than him living here with us. I mean we just finally got that cabin fixed up and ready for you to move into, you know, so you could have your own space and I could have mine and..."
"I know." Nick pulled Cody over to the stairwell, putting one arm around his shoulders, "But look at him."
They both watched as Murray bounded up the stairs, grabbed another box of his stuff and then ran back down with it.
"How can you say no to that much... enthusiasm? You’ll break the little guy’s heart."
"It’s okay, Cody. Really. We’ve shared a cabin ever since we moved onto the Riptide. I mean, it would have been nice to have my own cabin, but it’s not like I’m any worse off than I have been all along, you know?"
"Yeah... I guess."
Nick hadn't really wanted to move into the other cabin anyway. It was too dark and too enclosed, and too far away from Cody. He still slept better knowing there was someone nearby that he could trust. He probably always would.
Cody shrugged. "I just wanted you to be able to have some privacy."
"Can’t miss what you haven’t had," Nick chuckled. "It’s not like I have many secrets from you any way."
"Cody?" Murray’s voice drifted back up the stairs, "Can I drill a hole in this wall? I need to—no wait, that would be below the water line... probably not a good idea. Never mind, Cody!"
"My boat," Cody moaned, sitting down on the couch.
It was a joy to watch him. Cody and sunshine just seemed to go together. They were both golden and bright and they both made Nick feel warm. Even now, watching him dance with Veronica out on the terrace of her beautiful home in the Hollywood Hills, he was drawn to the man. His best friend, the man he'd been in love with since – well, sometimes it felt like forever.
They looked good together, Nick had to admit. Veronica's cool beauty contrasted well with Cody's golden warmth, setting it off and enhancing it somehow until it was almost too brilliant for Nick to look at.
But he couldn't turn away. He couldn't take his eyes off the sight that might not be his for too much longer. Veronica had made it clear that she had chosen Cody and that she always got what she wanted. And why shouldn't she? She was beautiful, and rich, and she made Cody laugh in way that Nick hadn't been able to lately.
"Wow, Nick. Have you tried this?" A piece of puffed pastry appeared in front of Nick's face, causing him to draw back. "It's got crabmeat inside, and these are curry, and this one... hmmmm... I'm not sure what that one is, but they're all delicious. You should have some."
"No. That's okay, Murray. I'm not very hungry right now." He might never be hungry again.
"Watching Veronica and Cody dance?" Murray followed Nick's gaze. "They're pretty good aren't they?"
"Yeah," Nick admitted. "Not bad."
"That Veronica's a very nice girl," Murray continued with a smile. "At least, Cody sure seems to think so."
"Yeah, he does."
"Are you sure you won't have one of these?" Murray held up his plate in what was surely meant to be a tempting manner, but Nick wasn't tempted. In fact, the smell of curry almost made him feel sick to his stomach.
"No thanks, Boz."
"Okay, well, I'm going to go back inside. They have chocolate covered strawberries and I wanted to try one." Nick didn't even turn his head to watch him leave.
Murray was right though, in spite of her I get what I go after attitude, Veronica was a pretty nice girl. If Nick had met her under any other circumstances, he'd probably have liked her just fine.
But these weren't other circumstances, and Nick could barely keep from hating the woman who was probably going to destroy his life... and she didn't even know it.
The music ended and Veronica leaned in to kiss Cody's cheek and then swirled off to speak with some of her other guests.
"Cody..." Nick tried to reply with a smile.
"What's up? You look kind of... I don't know. Off?"
"Nothing. Just post-case let down maybe... Or the crab puffs that Boz was shoving in my face." That comment made Cody smile at least.
Cody sad down next to Nick, looking out over the terrace, "This place is kind of like where I grew up. Elegant and open... great view..."
Considering the fact that the entirety of the Los Angeles Basin could be seen from Veronica's back door, Nick had to agree. The only negative feature was the smog that obscured some of it, giving the whole thing a hazy sort of unreal look. With the money that Veronica's father had, Nick was surprised that he allowed it.
Nick might not be rich but he could ignore the smog. He was feeling pretty unreal himself and clinging to that unreality, because if he let the true reality sink in, he wouldn't be able to sit here and chit chat.
"I hated that place." Cody continued. "It was beautiful, but it was cold and so full of expectation that I always felt like I was going to choke on them."
"Well, yeah, sometimes childhood can be that way," Nick agreed. He'd heard Cody's feelings about his childhood and his family before. "Veronica seems to be handling it all pretty well."
"Yeah, she's a good kid," Cody agreed. "It's a little different for her though. She's her father's darling and can do no wrong in his eyes."
Whereas, came the contrasting comment, Cody's family always seemed to be standing on the sidelines waiting to see not if Cody was going to disappoint them, but just how much it would be this time.
"Well, her dad seems to like you pretty well too." Nick pointed out.
"Hey, we solved the case, caught the embezzler and saved him a whole lot of money. He thinks we're all pretty damn wonderful right now."
"Yeah, but the fact that Veronica likes you gives you the edge there, buddy." Nick was proud that he managed to get the words out in a steady manner. He was going to be happy for Cody, even if it killed him...and it probably would.
"Maybe, just a little." Cody shrugged then changed the subject, "Hey, do you think we'll have enough money from this job to fix the Mimi and do some...stuff on the Riptide?"
"Yeah, I guess." Nick looked up. "We'll split it out and you can do whatever you want with your share."
"With my—" Cody frowned. "What do you mean 'my share'? Aren't we just putting it in the bank account like always?"
"Come on, Cody." Nick put a smile on his face, but kept his eyes focused, unseeing, on the view. "Being with a girl like Veronica is going to take some serious cash. She's used to the best."
"You may have a point there." Cody laughed.
Suddenly, it was more than Nick could take. He said something in reply, but he wasn't sure what. The next thing he knew, he was climbing into the 'Vette and starting it up.
"Nick! Nick!" It was Cody – of course it was – jumping into the other side of the car before he could just take off.
"Look, Cody. I'm just too tired to be good company. I'm just going to get some air and then head back to the Riptide."
"That's fine." Cody nodded. "Me too. Just drive."
"What about Boz?"
"I tossed him the keys to the Jimmy. He'll be fine."
Fifteen minutes later they were flying up the Ventura Freeway, the wind whipping through their hair and making it pretty much impossible to carry on any kind of real conversation.
They were almost to Agoura when Cody tapped him on the shoulder, "Hey, can you pull over to that gas station? I drank too much champagne at the party."
Nick nodded. He could use a bit of a stretch himself, he'd had a death grip on the steering wheel since they'd begun their drive and he ached now, outside as well as in.
He parked the 'Vette near the back of the building and Cody ran in. All things considered, Nick was glad Cody had invited himself along, he wanted to store up all the memories he could.
The parking lot was dry and dusty, and very warm. That wasn't unusual for this part of Los Angeles County, the hills cutting off the cooling ocean breeze. Maybe Nick should think about moving here after... well, just after.
"Oh, hey..." Nick tried for a tired smile.
"What... what did you mean earlier, about me taking Veronica out?"
Oh, fuck... That's what he got for letting his guard down – conversation.
"Well, when you do." Nick answered.
"When I—Look, Nick, when was the last time you saw me go out on a date?"
Nick frowned. It had been quite a while, "We've been broke, Cody. I get that. I've been trying to drum up some more work for us but—"
"Broke had nothing to do with it."
"Well, of course it does. Can't ask your date to go Dutch."
"No, you can't but that's not—"
"So now it's okay. Pretty new girlfriend, money in your pocket, nothing to worry about."
"Pretty new girl-- Nick, who the hell do you think is my girlfriend?"
"Veronica, of course." And damn, didn't it hurt to even say her name?
"Veronica? I'm not dating Veronica."
"Well, not yet, but it's pretty obvious that you will be." Nick snapped, no longer able to keep the conversation civil.
"Obvious to who?!" Cody snapped right back.
"To me! To everyone!"
"To you? You're the most oblivious person I know! I don't want to date Veronica."
"Right." Nick rolled his eyes, "Then why don't you tell me who you do want to date, since I'm so oblivious!"
Two seconds later, Nick got his answer as he found himself pressed up against the 'Vette, his arms full of Cody Allen who was doing his best to show Nick exactly who he wanted to date. And damn, Nick was more than happy to hold this conversation... non-verbal was officially his favorite.
"Yeah, 'Oh'..." Cody smirked. Nick would allow Cody that, he apparently was as oblivious as Cody had claimed.
"No, Nick, I always try to prove a point by looking for my room mate's tonsils... with my tongue."
The only possible response to that was to return the favor.