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Clear Skies

Chapter Text

Cody stirred his coffee absently as he scanned the front page of the King Harbor Daily. Warm sunlight filtered into the galley from the portholes. Putting the spoon aside, he took a sip as his eyes focused on the gruesome headline: Hangman Kills Again!

He frowned. Every paper in town was talking about the elusive serial killer. There'd already been three murders—no, he corrected himself as he read the first paragraph, four—in the past three months in the LA area, all women in their thirties.

Cody took another sip of his coffee, reading the gruesome details, strangulation and tightly bound resonating unpleasantly in his skull. Hermosa Beach...that's just north of here...

Hangman seems like the wrong name. He's not really hanging the victims. He frowned. Typical newspaper sensationalism.

The article continued, detailing the lack of evidence left behind by the killer. Cody finally threw the paper down in disgust after reading the victim asphyxiated over the course of an hour and forty-five minutes. He rubbed his eyes, trying to push the horrible images out of his head. That'll teach me to read the front page.

He heard someone in the salon, and he got up, putting his dirty breakfast dishes in the sink. Picking up his coffee, he jogged up the stairs. The salon table was partly covered with bills and envelopes, and Nick sat, head propped on his hand, determinedly jabbing buttons on a calculator. "You realize we've got money in the account this week?" he said, looking at Cody.

"Is that really so shocking?"

"After last month, yeah."

Cody grimaced, remembering. "I never want to eat peanut butter again."

Nick smirked and jabbed a few more buttons on the calculator. "I think we can afford steaks this week."

Cody's mouth watered, thinking of the grill. "Sounds great. But not tonight, I'm meeting Pete."

"Oh yeah. It's Thursday, I forgot. When's he leaving town again?"

"Eager to get rid of him?" Cody picked up Nick's mug and poured them both more coffee.

Nick snorted. "Nah. He's a good guy, for a prep."

Cody stirred sugar into his and milk into both. "He's in the area for another two weeks."

"Three month trips to sun-soaked locations, sports cars, jetsetting lifestyle...must be nice to be a corporate lawyer and get the good gigs."

"I'd hardly call his Mazda rental a sports car." Cody handed Nick his mug and took another sip from his own. "And he's only assisting the senior partner on the case. I wouldn't call it a good gig."

"Why, he stuck serving the coffee?" Nick took a long sip from his mug.

Cody grinned as he slid into the seat next to him. "Some people like serving coffee."

Nick smirked and returned to the papers in front of him, writing out a check for a bill printed on light blue paper.

Fingering the handle of the cup, Cody watched as Nick licked the envelope and then the stamp. He always paid bills the same way, writing out one check at a time, stuffing the envelope, sticking on the stamp. Cody preferred to write all the checks at once, like an assembly line, though once he'd mixed up two checks and Nick hadn't let him forget it for a week.

Nick wrote another check, and Cody noticed that he hadn't shaved yet, which was unusual. Nick bit his lip as he scratched out his signature.

There was something familiar about this. Cody tried to think what it was, and vaguely recalled a dream from that morning, something with Nick and too much heat and green. Unbidden, a memory suddenly surfaced, something he hadn't thought of in years; Nick, Cody, a ridge behind enemy lines, and a desperate kiss. Cody remembered those lips on his own, the startlement, Nick's eyes determined and frightened.

He felt his face heat, and put a hand to his neck, hoping it wasn't obvious. When they'd returned to camp, against all odds, he'd put the kiss behind him, pushing it away as the actions of men who thought they were doomed to die, and Nick had never mentioned it again.

Another stamp on an envelope. Nick kept a piece of scratch paper nearby, marking down each payment, subtracting from the amount in their checking account. Murray kept telling him that the Roboz could handle it with one rotor disabled, but Nick insisted on keeping their checkbook balanced the old-fashioned way.

Why did I dream of that kiss? He hadn't thought of 'Nam in at least four months, not since they'd met up with Pitbull for a night on the town.

He shook his head to clear his thoughts and took another sip of his coffee.

"You're quiet all of a sudden," said Nick, attempting to stuff a payment coupon and a check into an envelope. They didn't quite seem to fit.

"Just thinking." The words were out of his mouth before he realized that it sounded like an invitation for Nick to ask. He tried to think of something else he could pretend he'd been thinking about.

Nick had a knowing look on his face as he licked the envelope shut. "Well, I'm thinking about staying in tonight."

Cody felt a profound sense of relief that he'd changed the subject. "What, Cassie didn't call?"

"Katie. Nope, she found some lifeguard to hook up with." He stuck the stamp on sloppily.

"Really? That's too bad. You're welcome to come with us..."

"I've had my share of reminiscing about yachting tournaments," said Nick drily. "Thanks, but no thanks."

"Fine, have it your way." Cody dropped his hand to the table, noticing the phone bill. "Oh, wow, all these phone calls to Pasadena..."

"We gotta talk to Murray about that," said Nick. "They're talking all the time. I mean, the computer calls are one thing. They're a business expense. But an extra hundred dollars a month..."

"You'd think he'd know of a way to make free calls."

"But you know Murray. He'd never think to use it for himself." Nick gave him a wry look and slid the phone bill out from under his hand, tearing off the payment coupon.

"Good morning!" said Murray enthusiastically. "It is going to be a boss and bodacious day, isn't it? Will you look outside? It's beautiful!"

"Yeah, Murray, it's just great," said Cody.

"Take a look at our beautiful phone bill," said Nick, handing it to him.

Murray scanned the page with interest. "Hmm. Looks like they might be mischarging us on certain calls. That data transfer to Chicago took 27.5 minutes, not 29 minutes."

"No, no," said Nick, exasperated. "The calls to Tiffany, man."

"Oh," said Murray, blushing. "Why...yes. There do seem to be a number of them."

"Isn't there some something you can do about that?" said Nick.

Murray was quiet for a long moment. "Are you suggesting that we defraud the phone company? Nick, I am shocked, shocked that you would say such a thing—"

Nick looked at Cody for support. Cody sighed. "No, Murray, not that.'re making a lot of calls each month. I mean, a hundred dollars' worth a month... You know, last month was a bad month..."

"Peanut butter," said Nick, jabbing a finger at Murray.

"...and that hundred dollars would have been great for groceries..."

"Oh," said Murray thoughtfully. "I see what you mean. Perhaps I could set up a relay situation...her former roommate lives in Huntington Park and has a modulated data array processing server there...if I could modify the protocol to send voice..."

"Hey, Murray, you up for dinner tonight?" asked Nick. "I was thinking about cooking."

"Oh, I'm sorry, Nick," said Murray, looking chagrined. "Tiffany and I are registered for a conference which starts tomorrow, and I was planning on spending the night at her place tonight. The conference takes place at Caltech, and since she lives in Pasadena, it would be easier for me to stay with her." He turned even redder.

Nick smothered a laugh. "Sounds great, Murray. Hope you have a good time."

"Looks like it's just you and the Riptide, tonight, partner." Cody drained the last of his coffee.

"You're going out, too, Cody? Oh, that's right, it's Thursday." Murray sat down, setting the phone bill back on the table and frowning at Nick's scribbles on the scrap paper.

"Might go to Straightaway's," said Nick as he wrote out a check to the phone company. "He's been having trouble with his Ferrari again."

Nick loves talking about cars. Good thing Straightaway does, too. "Sounds like a great time."

"Yeah, I know how much you'll miss it," said Nick, giving him a sly look. Another stamp was pasted on crookedly.

"This is going to be a really boss conference," said Murray. "The main speakers are a group of scientists from Belgium who are some of the best in the field of robotics."

"Sounds right up your alley," said Nick.

"I'm bringing the Roboz," enthused Murray. "I think they'll be very interested in his visual discrepancy monitor. Tiffany has set up a panel for Sunday morning, and we're planning on showing off some of the newest features we've added."

So it's "we" now. Cody smiled. "I bet that'll be great, Murray."

"I wish you guys could come, but the conference is for registered participants only," said Murray, sounding truly regretful. "I talked to the hosting group, and there's been so much response to this conference that they're actually overbooked."

Cody tried not to let the relief show on his face. "That's too bad, Murray." Nick licked another envelope shut, saying nothing, but he shot Cody a relieved glance of his own.

Murray was quiet for a moment. "I have something to tell you guys," he said at last.

Cody's heart double-thumped in his chest. Is he moving out? But this is too soon, they've only been dating three months...

"A software company has approached me about programming a new game," he continued. "They have a concept, but the original programmer left after only three days because of a family emergency. They still have a deadline, though, and the director called me and offered me the job."

Nick looked confused. "A job?"

"Well, a short term contract," said Murray. "It would start on Monday. Three weeks intensive programming, and I can do it all on the Riptide and send the results over using the Roboz. I'm really sorry, though, because...well...I won't be able to help you with any cases."

Relief filled Cody. "That's okay, Murray," he said. "We'll just make sure to stock up on pixy sticks and Mountain Dew."

Murray looked overjoyed. "That's very boss, Cody! Very boss indeed!"

"How much are they paying you, Murray?" asked Nick, looking concerned.

"A flat fee of $30,000. Normally for a programming contract, I'd expect more, and royalties, but since this isn't my concept, and it's just three weeks of coding, I think it's fair."

Cody whistled. "Maybe we'll have steaks more than once, eh, Nick?"

Nick nodded, looking relieved. "We're supposed to provide security for Callender's insurance convention the weekend after this one," he added. "Won't need Murray for that—you and I can cover it."

"Do we have any other cases?" asked Cody.

"Not just yet," said Nick. "But I think we're out of the danger of peanut butter for dinner for a little while, at least." He picked up the stack of envelopes. "Look, I'm heading out to the mailbox, and then to the grocery store. Need anything besides Murray fuel?"

"There's a list started somewhere." Cody yawned and stretched. "Oh yeah, I used the last egg for breakfast..."

"Eggs, okay. Where's the list?"

"Chocolate syrup," said Murray.

"Murray, I just bought you chocolate syrup the last time I went to the store," said Nick, turning to look at him. "How can we be out of it again?"

Murray's red face spoke volumes.

"Okay, I'll add it." Nick was clearly trying to stifle a laugh. He starting piling the bills together. "If I ever find it."

"Here," said Cody, reaching across him and pulling the list out from under the calculator. "Eggs and...chocolate syrup." He grinned.

"Why do I feel like I'm contributing to the delinquency of a minor?" murmured Nick as he added the items.

Cody coughed to cover a laugh. "Hey, Murray, when is Tiffany picking you guys up?"

"She's lecturing in the morning, and then has a quick meeting with the convention hosts. Considering the time factor involved in freeway traffic at—"

"Just an estimate would be great," said Cody quickly.

"I would estimate her arrival at two fifteen."

"Need some help getting the Roboz in her trunk?"

"That would be wonderful, Cody, thank you!" Murray looked happy.

"Okay, I'm outta here," said Nick. "See you guys later." Cody slid out of the seat to let Nick out.

"I'm going to start packing," said Murray, going back to his stateroom.

Nick dipped his hand into the cigar box and pulled out a few twenties. "It's good to have a little cash again."

"Yeah." Cody watched him for a moment. "Aren't you going to shave?"

"Hmm?" Nick ran a hand across his face and looked surprised. "Guess I forgot." He headed downstairs.

The dream rose again, brushing against him, and Cody could remember the press of Nick's lips as if it had happened just moments ago. The feel of his five o'clock shadow. The damp heat of the jungle and the smell of insect repellant. He blinked. Why the hell am I thinking about this now?

Cody picked up his clothes from Lucy and came back to the Riptide late in the afternoon. The 'Vette was parked in its usual spot, and he whistled as he walked down the companionway.

"Hey!" he called out as he entered the wheelhouse. "Anyone aboard?"

"Yeah, right here," said Nick, meeting him in the salon. "Did you help Murray with the Roboz?"

"Yeah, Nick, we loaded Tiffany's car and they went on their merry way."

Nick grinned. "Did he remember the chocolate sauce?"

"Yeah, he did," said Cody, laughing. "That canister of whipped cream was genius on your part. You should have seen Murray's face when I handed it to him."

"You gave him the whipped cream? That was for you and Pete."

"Ha, ha." Cody jabbed at him with his elbow and then sat down at the bench seat. "Where'd you end up going, anyway?"

"Straightaway's new girlfriend was having trouble with her brakes."

"That explains the grease on your arm."

"Damn." Nick checked out the smudge. "Anyway, I did a quick brake job for her."

"Did she give you anything in return?"

Nick ignored the innuendo. "Free drinks for the next two weeks." He disappeared down the stairs, and Cody heard the water running in the galley.

Nick reemerged, wiping his arm with a towel. "Hey, there was a message for you from Pete. Said he'd be at Roscoe's a little early tonight. Something about the partner letting him go early today." Nick dropped the towel at the top of the stairs. "Guess he didn't want any more coffee."

"What time?" said Cody, checking his watch.

"Five, I think."

"It's four fifteen already—I'll barely make it with traffic." Cody ran downstairs and changed into a sweater and slacks, cursing while he tried to locate his shoes. One was in the closet, like it was supposed to be, but the other took more cursing to locate until it turned up under Nick's bunk.

He ran up the steps while trying to put his shoes on at the same time and barely managed not to trip. Grabbing a jacket, he waved at Nick and headed out the door.

Traffic was snarled, but not too badly, and Cody made it just on time. Pete was already there, of course, waiting for him at the door; he was one of the most punctual people Cody'd ever met.

After they ordered, Pete updated him on the case he was working on and did imitations of the senior partner, which entertained them both until the food came.

As always, the combination of chicken and waffles was somehow appealing, far beyond what he ever would have expected. He almost wished he could take some back to Nick, but there was no way he could get it home without spoiling.

"Working on a case this week?" asked Pete, poking at the syrupy remains of a waffle on his plate.

"Nothing at the moment," replied Cody. "Murray's taken a software gig, and he'll be busy for the next few weeks, and we have a security assignment next weekend, but other than that, it's pretty quiet. Which is great, considering how busy we were last week."

"Three cases at the same time would tax anybody."

"We all agreed to limit it to two from now on." Cody slid his plate away from him and leaned back in the booth. "Three's just too much. I mean, I was falling asleep in my beer last week when we met."

"I remember," said Pete, grinning. "How's Nick doing?"

"Great," said Cody. "Though it sounds like the girl he was seeing just dumped him."


"I don't think he was that attached. They only dated three weeks."

"You know," said Pete, watching him thoughtfully, "I've been here over two months now, and you haven't mentioned going on a single date."

Cody blinked. "Uh, well, I have...I mean, I must have."

"When was your last date? With whom?" Paul took a sip of his sweet tea.

He racked his brain. "Um...Linda."

"The one who dumped you on Thanksgiving."

Cody nodded.

"Cody, it's nearly April."

He blinked again. Had it really been that long? "What's your point?"

"I don't know." Pete looked worried. "Cody, the whole time I've known you, you've always been on the hunt. Always trying to find someone.'s like you don't care. Are you sure that everything's okay?"

"I've just been...busy."

"Look, when we were in college, you went on a date every night, even during exams week," said Pete. "You always used to tell me that studying was for the dating-impaired."

Cody chuckled, remembering. "Yeah, I guess so. But that was a long time ago."

"I know," said Pete, rolling his eyes. "A world away, and all that bullshit. But even a couple years ago, you were still doing the same thing. When I came out here two years ago to visit my cousin, I called you to get together, and you insisted on making it a double date with two girls you'd just picked up that afternoon on the beach. Later on, I called you again, and we went to the bar and you hit on at least five girls in the first half hour alone."

"There were a lot of good-looking girls at that bar."

"Yeah, but we've gone to the bar, what, seven times this trip? And you haven't bought anyone a drink except me." Pete took another sip of tea. "What's going on, Cody? Are you giving up on the dream?"


"You know, what you always wanted in college. House. Wife. Kids. Boating on the weekends."

The image of a perfect happy family lingered in his mind for a moment, but dissolved. The Riptide had become home instead, and Nick and Murray his family. He was afraid to think of the implications. "I don't know, Pete." He frowned.

"Look, I'm sorry to get all heavy on you like this, man," said Pete, sounding so much like the college Pete that Cody couldn't help but smile. "Why don't we head to the bar, and forget our troubles with some wine and song?"

"Sounds great. I'll get the check." Cody pulled out his wallet.

Chapter Text

The bar was crowded and smoky. The music was loud. Pete had wanted to go to a dance club, and so they'd made their way to Florentine Gardens. They'd only been there an hour, and Pete had spent half the time on the floor already, dancing with a number of pretty girls.

Cody'd been asked to dance, too, but he'd politely declined; for some reason he just didn't feel like dancing. He nursed a single glass of whiskey instead, and tried to carry on shouted conversations with Pete whenever he returned to the bar.

Something felt wrong. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up every so often, and his stomach felt off. He checked his watch. It's barely eight thirty. Some party animal he'd turned out to be.

He took another sip of the whiskey, feeling it burn down his throat. Pete's words had affected him, yes, but there was something else. The dream. The kiss. He couldn't tell.

"Hey, Cody, meet Jessie," said Pete. Cody turned and nodded at the girl, who had black hair and blue eyes. He thought again of Nick, and the unsettling feeling returned full force.

"Jessie, nice to meet you." Cody tried to smile. She gave a little wave.

"She hates that Rick Springfield song," said Pete, and she laughed.

Cody put his drink down. "Listen, Pete, I'm sorry—"

Pete smiled and clapped a hand on his shoulder. "I know. Don't bother with the excuse. See you next Thursday, okay?"

"Yeah," said Cody, relieved. "See you then." They hugged, and Cody headed off to the Jimmy.

Away from the club and the pounding music, his headache faded. Driving back seemed to put his stomach back at ease. It was dark, and the 110 wasn't congested, miracle of miracles. Soon enough his turnoff came into view, and then the harbor.

Nick's 'Vette was still in the same spot. He's probably at Straightaway's. Except Straightaway's Ferrari was missing from its usual spot. Ah, that's right, the new girlfriend.

The Riptide was serene on the calm water. Well, partner, I hate to break up your quiet evening at home...

He parked the Jimmy and headed down the companionway. The light in the salon was on, but no others. He's probably reading. Or he has the Mimi's carburetor in pieces on the table.

The wheelhouse doors were locked. He pulled out his keys. Nick was never very consistent about locking them; the last two Thursdays he'd left them unlocked. "Hey, Nick," he called out as he entered. "I'm home early."

There was no response.

Frowning, he came into the salon. The lamp wasn't on, just the built-in lights. He hung his keys on the hook. Well, maybe he's spending the night on the Barefoot Contessa... He shrugged out of his jacket and flung it on the table.

"Buddy, you here?" Cody went down the stairs, past the galley, which looked the same as it had after breakfast. I thought he was going to make dinner. I mean, he bought groceries for it...

He went to their stateroom. The door was closed, which was odd. "Nick?" he said. There was no reply. Opening it, he flicked on the switch, and he thought he smelled something strange. Sweat. He took a step into the room and froze in terror.

He'd thought he'd seen every horror that could possibly exist. That nothing could shock him, not after the war, not after some of their darker cases. He was wrong.

Cody stood, frozen in shock, and stared at the most frightening thing he'd ever seen.

Nick was on his knees, naked except for his underwear, arms behind his back. Dark lines crisscrossed his body in every direction. His knees were spread apart and every muscle was tightly flexed, tendons standing out in his neck, his thighs, his shoulders. Tension poured off his body like a tangible thing. The lines sank into his skin and were outlined in red. They were everywhere. His legs. His chest. Waist. Even around his neck. Ohgodohgodohgodoh—

Nausea cramped his stomach, and he swallowed heavily. His thoughts rolled and crashed in his head. He tasted acid in his mouth.

The article he'd read that morning suddenly came to him. The serial killer. Asphyxiation using cords taken from the premises. No, not Nick, no, this can't be happening.

For another three heartbeats he stood, blinking, almost unable to react. Nick made a whisper of sound, and flinched. Their eyes met, and a bolt of agony came across like a pure electric shock.

Cody rushed forward, putting a hand on his arm. Nick trembled violently under his touch, a tear rolling down his cheek.

"Nick, I'm going to get help," said Cody. Nick's wrists and elbows were bound painfully behind his back, and they were all tied into the cords from his ankles and his neck in an intricate set of knots. Oh god. He now understood exactly what the papers had described. As the victim wearied, their resistance would fail, tightening the cords around the neck, slowly strangling them to death. It took that girl almost two hours to die—

He'd never seen anything so horrific. Thoughts swam in his head and he couldn't breathe for a moment.

"How long?" said Cody, then realized that Nick probably had no idea what time it was. "When did this..." He swallowed again.

It seemed to take Nick awhile to understand the question. Seven, he mouthed.

It was nine fifteen.

So little time. I have to get him out of this now. "Nick, I'm going to leave you for a moment." Nick made a painful noise, despair stark on his face. "I need to get cutters. Just hold on. Please, you have to hold on." He stroked Nick's face, hoping that his words were getting through. Nick's eyes looked glassy and unfocused, and another tear ran down his face.

Jumping up, Cody dashed into the salon and grabbed the cordless. Thank god Murray bought a new phone. He punched in 911 while he ran through the boat like a madman, throwing open his toolbox and pouring everything on the floor. The operator answered.

"Pier 56, slip 7," said Cody raggedly. "That killer—the Hangman—my friend Nick's been attacked like that—call the police. He's alive. He needs an ambulance. Boat's called the Riptide. Hurry!"

The operator asked questions which he answered curtly while pawing through the tools until he found the pair he needed. He added, "They'll need boltcutters to get through the lock at the gate. I have to go." He punched the off button and dropped the phone to the floor.

Grabbing the short-nosed cutters, he tore through the hallway again. Nick looked even more frightened, his breath coming in weak gasps.


Nick mouthed Help.

"I'm going to get you out of this," said Cody. "You have to hold on for me. You can do it. Just a few more minutes." In just a few minutes he'll be dead. Cody shivered with fright, sweat breaking out on his skin. Vague memories of kneeling in place during his college hazing days made him wince. It had to be excruciating. There was no telling how much longer Nick could hold out, how long he could resist against the pressure before the inevitable happened and his own body strangled him.

First, have to get his neck free. Cody ripped his gaze away from Nick's, and stared at the complex arrangement. He raised his arm to cut the obvious cord that ran from his neck to his ankles.


He blinked. If he cut that wire, it wouldn't release his neck. He could see that the cord had been wrapped around his throat at least three times, and looped through itself. In fact, cutting the cord might make it worse. There were other cords to his neck, and it looked like the obvious cord was actually a counterbalance.

He swore like he hadn't since his army days.

Get a grip. Now. Blinking sweat out of his eyes, he looked over the arrangement, his instinctive sailor's knowledge of knots and lines taking over. Though it was intricate, there was also a bizarre logic underlying it. The Hangman...this monster doesn't have a lot of time to do this. He has to have a method.

He peered closely, crawling around to look at Nick's front, trying not to think about how tightly every muscle in Nick's body was wound, how long he'd held that position, how much agony he was in. He memorized the location of every cord and spent precious seconds examining the different juncture points. Clearly the killer had cut off every cord from nearly every appliance and electrical device they owned, because there was a mix of different colors and thicknesses.

There's no way to cut the cords off his neck except as nearly the last thing. He cursed again.

The course was clear. He could see each cord outlined perfectly in his head, where it led, how it was counterbalanced. There was a fiendish design to it all.

The first cut had to be on Nick's stomach.

"Nick, I'm going to start cutting the cords now," said Cody gently. "You need to stay as still as possible." For a moment, there was a shade of grim humor in Nick's eyes, but it faded. "This first cut is going to pinch. I'm really sorry, buddy, but there's no other way." Nick closed his eyes.

Cody touched Nick's stomach, feeling him flinch weakly, and Cody looked up, frightened that it might have disturbed his horrific balancing act, but Nick continued to hold still and he felt his ribcage expand slightly under his fingertips. He maneuvered the jaws of the pliers around the cord. It was so tight that it was impossible to get a finger behind it to draw it out, and besides, he couldn't pull on it because it would affect other cords. He waited until Nick inhaled.


He tightened his grip on the pliers and cut through, holding his breath. Please let this be the right one. Nick made no movement at all, but a drop of blood made its way through the hair on his stomach.

"I'm sorry, Nick," he said. Anguish poured through him, and he tried to get a grip. I have to cut the cords or he'll die. No choice.

The next cut freed another section of cord from Nick's waist. Cody tamped down hard on his emotions. The map of cords stretched out before him, and he narrowed his frame of vision. There was nothing except the maze of lines before him. Wielding the cutters, he went to work, snapping through each cord neatly and efficiently, unwinding and unwrapping each section one at a time. His sweater was glued to him now, soaked through with sweat, and he could hear each tortured breath Nick took. Now that he'd released some of the pressure, there was the tiniest give in some of the cords, and he was able to avoid drawing more blood, except for the worst of them.

Nick's skin was cold, slick with sweat, and crisscrossed with red marks. Cody deftly cut the cords around his shoulders, trying not to look at the painful welts. More cords, and it was coming faster now, he could see how it had been done, he could almost touch the mind of the one who had done it, figure out how such a horrific feat was accomplished. Nausea burned in his belly, and he swallowed, cutting through another cord, and another. The pattern had revealed itself fully to him, and he unwrapped the cords from Nick's ankles.

More cutting.

More cords.

More agony for Nick.

He finished Nick's wrists, wishing he could spare a moment to rub some feeling into his hands, but there was too little time.

The cutters were poised at the last piece around Nick's waist, which was still connected to his neck. Cody couldn't help but notice the bruises scattered across his midsection, but he willed himself back to the task at hand. When I cut this, it should free his neck. Nick's breathing was more labored than it had been just a minute ago.

He cut the cord, but there was no change in Nick's breathing. Looking closer at the piece that was wrapped around his neck, he realized that it had been looped through itself multiple times.

The curses that raged through his head were violent. Cody's hands shook. He had never wanted to kill anyone so badly as he did at that moment. One minute alone with the monster who did this. One minute and I will tear him to pieces with my bare hands.

Nick made a tortured noise in his throat, his eyes closed in pain.

"Please, Nick, just a few seconds longer," said Cody. "You have to hang in there. We're nearly done. You can do this, I know it." He put down the cutters. "I'm going to untie the cord around your neck. This is going to hurt, but just...god, Nick, just breathe, please..." He reached up to his throat. Taking a steadying breath, he attempted to push the cord back through itself. Nick made a thick noise in his throat. "I'm sorry," he said, blinking back tears. "I'm sorry. I...have to do it again." Three more to go.

Cody was vaguely aware of sirens.

They better have brought boltcutters.

The last loop seemed to be knotted, but he was afraid to use the cutters. His fingers worked at it desperately. Come on—so close—

Suddenly the knot slipped, the cord slackening. Cody cut the last piece, feeling a savage joy wash over him, his heart burning in his chest. Nick was still on his knees, wheezing, and their eyes met. "It's done," said Cody brokenly. "Nick, it's done."

Nick made a weak whimpering noise and fell forward into Cody's arms. "I've got you, I've got you," said Cody. "It's okay. I've got you." He put his arms around him, soothing. Nick's arms hung at his sides, and Cody felt his tears soaking the shoulder of his sweater. "Just breathe, Nick, c'mon. Easy. It's all over." Nick sobbed once, and then made a mewling, pained sound.

The boat shifted, and he heard a voice. "Down here!" Cody shouted. "We're down below!"

Nick was shaking like a leaf, and Cody grabbed the corner of a blanket from his bed and tore it free, using one hand to cover him. Nick made a weak noise. "Shh, try not to talk, Nick." He ran a comforting hand down his back.

"What the hell is going on?" said a familiar raspy voice.

"Quinlan?" said Cody. "We need an ambulance—"

"It's pulling up," he said. "What happened?" His eyes took in the room in typical cop fashion, cataloguing the scattered pieces of cord and the signs of struggle.

"I found him...he was..." Tears sprang up in his eyes, and he stifled a sob. "He was tied. Like in the papers. Being..." He choked past another sob. "He was being strangled to death."

"Anybody here besides Nick?"

"I don't know," said Cody, suddenly feeling frightened. "I never...I didn't think to check..."

"I'll make sure it's clear," he said. He shouted for Carlisle as he went back up.

Nick still trembled in his arms, and Cody shifted until he was certain that Nick was as comfortable as possible. There was a clatter, the familiar sound of a gurney, and then cursing.

Damn—it might not fit through the doorway.

Two paramedics came in carrying gear. "I'm Max," said the older of the two. "What's your friend's name?"

"Nick. I'm Cody." He licked dry lips.

"I think I know what to expect, based on the news reports, but I'm still going to ask you a few questions, and I'll need to examine him more closely."

"Of course." He started to move, and Nick flinched. "Damn."

"We'll help," said Max. "Jeremy, see if you can get to his feet. Cody, I need to assess the damage to his neck first. Just hold still."

"Okay." Cody stayed as still as he possibly could while Max checked Nick's throat. Jeremy pulled the blanket away, exposing Nick's too-pale body, red stripes crisscrossing everywhere. There were more bruises that Cody hadn't noticed before. Jeremy gasped, and Cody suddenly realized how young he was. His face was white as he looked at Nick.

Max looked at Cody. "We need to roll him on his back." With guidance from Max, the three of them were able to shift Nick carefully until he was lying down, Max taking great care with his head and neck. He continued to check him over, using a flashlight to look in his eyes and then check the damage to his neck, examining it very closely. Jeremy fitted an oxygen mask over Nick's face and then checked his pulse and blood pressure.

Max asked Nick a few questions, telling him to blink once for yes, twice for no.

Cody knew they were standard questions, but it scared him, the thought that Nick could be permanently harmed by that sadistic bastard. Oh god, please let it not have been too late. Cody felt sick inside. All that pain...that nightmare...if it was for nothing, if he's lost forever, oh god... Jeremy unwrapped the blood pressure cuff.

"His throat is not as bad as it looks," said Max, turning to Cody. "His reactions are better than expected, and his vitals are promising. Jeremy, you can put the blanket back on him." Cody felt relief crash through him like a tidal wave.

Jeremy whispered something, but Max shook his head. "In cases like this, you check the throat first. You shouldn't intubate unless it's vital." The younger paramedic nodded and pulled the blanket over Nick's body.

Nick's eyes were open and watching Cody. "Hey, it's okay, Nick," he soothed. "They're going to take care of you." He stroked Nick's unbruised cheek, but had to get out of the way so that Max could continue his assessment.

"Just relax, Nick," said Max. "Breathe slowly. You're in good hands."

"I need to ride in the ambulance," said Cody, hearing the panic in his own voice.

"Sure, Cody," said Max. "I'm going to set up an IV for Nick. He's a little dehydrated. Because of his wrist and elbow injuries, I'm going to have to start it in his forearm. This looks a little unorthodox, but it's routine."

Cody nodded. "Hey, Nick," he said quietly, leaning down over him. Nick's eyes focused on his lips. "Max is going to start an IV line..." He stroked his face again. "It's going to sting a little. You just need to remember what he said and just keep breathing slowly."

Nick blinked. Okay came through loud and clear.

"He understands," said Cody, backing off to let them do their work. He was afraid to get in their way, but he stayed within Nick's eyesight.

Quinlan came back down and stood on the stairs. "The place is clear," he said. "No signs of forced entry."

"The wheelhouse doors might have been unlocked," said Cody.

Quinlan nodded. "I had my men track down Bozinsky."

"Murray?" He couldn't imagine how Quinlan had found Tiffany's phone number, but honestly, he didn't care to try to figure it out.

"He said he's on his way." Quinlan paused, looking down at Nick, who made a weak noise of pain as Max guided the IV into place. "What else can I do for you?"

Quinlan, volunteering to help? Cody blinked, surprised. "I...I really don't know." Now that the terror was over, he felt hollow and sick inside.

"Look, Allen, there are going to be reporters everywhere, all wanting to know about the case," said Quinlan, jabbing a finger at him. "The LA Times in particular. I'll try to keep them off your backs. You have your hands full already."

Oh god, the papers. He hadn't even thought of them. "Thanks, Lieutenant."

"I'll try to see if we can avoid releasing his name. No promises, Allen."

Cody nodded, grateful, feeling the prickle of tears in his eyes. He heard Carlisle shout something from abovedeck, and Quinlan left again.

"The IV's in place," said Max. "The gurney isn't going to fit, not with these doorways. I'm going to go radio for assistance. I also need to call ahead with my findings and see if the doctors have any special instructions." He smiled reassuringly at Cody. "He's made it through so far, and his breathing seems to be stable. That's really remarkable, considering what he's gone through. He's pretty stubborn, eh?"

He blinked back tears. "Yeah, the worst." He couldn't help but smile.

"I'll only be a few minutes. Jeremy will know what to do if anything unexpected happens."

"Thanks," said Cody weakly.

Max murmured a few instructions to Jeremy and then left.

Cody knelt down next to Nick, laying his hand on his arm very lightly. "Almost done here, buddy," he said quietly. Nick blinked drowsily. "Everything's okay. They're going to take you to the hospital really soon." Nick looked at him with a question in his eyes. "Of course I'm going to the hospital with you," said Cody. "I'm not leaving you."

There was a creak on the steps. "Cody Allen?" said a female voice.

He looked up to see a woman with curly black hair enter the room. She was dressed in a smart black pantsuit with a white blouse. An ID card was on display, hanging from a chain around her neck. A well-groomed man was behind her, dressed in a suit and tie and also bearing a similar ID card.

Quinlan was behind them. "Allen, these are FBI Agents Munro and Wheeler." His tone was polite, but the look on his face wasn't exactly friendly. "She was in the area, investigating the Hermosa Beach—"

"Thank you, Lieutenant. I can handle it from here." Quinlan scowled, but left. "I'm Agent Munro," said the woman bluntly. "I'm part of a special unit called VICAP that investigates violent crimes. I would like to speak with you about what happened tonight."

Cody hesitated, looking down at Nick. "Can't this wait?"

"Your information is vital," she said. "Extremely vital. We've never gotten to the scene of his crime so quickly before, and with every passing second, that information diminishes."

"I don't know that I have much information to give."

"I think you might have more to say than you think. I have some questions for you. They could make the difference in finding this killer. Mr. Allen, his attacks are coming closer and closer together. Any delay could mean another death."

Cody winced. "Okay, fine."

"Why don't you step over here," she said, pointing to the tiny space between the bunks. "Your friend might not want to hear this at the moment."

He was surprised by her concern. "Okay." Leaning back to Nick, he stroked his arm. "Listen, buddy, I need to talk to the cops. It's okay, you're fine, Jeremy's going to take good care of you, and it'll only be a minute." Nick blinked, looking confused. "I'll be right back, Nick, just relax. I'm not leaving the room, I just have to answer a few questions." Understanding came into the blue eyes. Cody felt uneasy leaving his side.

He moved back between the bunks, careful to step over the pieces of cord that were everywhere. Munro looked down at them, and then exchanged a glance with Wheeler, murmuring something to him about ruined evidence. Cody felt his anger rise, but he pushed it down. Stay calm. She's going to help find that bastard.

"I've been told that you live here on this boat with Nick and with someone named Murray Bozinsky. Is this true?"

"Yes." It seemed surreal to be thinking about the agency or even the boat. He tried to concentrate. "It's my boat and we all live here and operate a detective agency."

She didn't seem impressed. "Where is Mr. Bozinsky this evening?"

"He left for his girlfriend's place in Pasadena around three this afternoon."

She had no notebook or pen in hand, but from the intense expression on her face, he knew she was internally recording his every word. "What is his girlfriend's name?"

"Tiffany. Tiffany Palmer."

"Does he always leave on Thursday nights?"

"Well,, not usually, but there's a conference this weekend near her house. It starts tomorrow morning, and he's—he was going to stay the night there so he'd be closer to it."

"What kind of conference?"

"Something about robotics. It's being held at CalTech. He's giving a panel on Sunday morning."

She nodded. "Whose room is this?" There were flashes behind her, and Cody leaned to the side to peer past her shoulder. Wheeler was taking pictures of the pieces of cord on the floor.

"Mine and Nick's. Murray's is at the bow."

"Are you normally home on Thursday nights?"

"Well, sometimes, but not for the last two months. A friend of mine's in town on a short term assignment, and we've been going out to dinner and then to the bar afterwards."

"What's your friend's name?"

"Pete Ferguson. He's an old college buddy."

"Does he have a local number where we can contact him?"

Speechless, he stared at her. I can't believe she wants to check my story.

"Mr. Allen, this is standard procedure. Does he have a local contact number?"

"Yes," he said, his teeth nearly grinding together in frustration as he gave her the number.

"And you've seen him every Thursday for the past two months?"


"What time did you leave?"

"About four fifteen, I think. Maybe more like four twenty. Usually we get together at five thirty, but Nick said..." Nick, oh god, Nick. The horrific image of Nick, bound and struggling for breath, floated up unbidden. "Uh...there was a message that Pete was getting out of work early, and wanted to meet at five."

"Where did you go?" More flashes behind her.

"We met at Roscoe's, and then went to a dance club...the Florentine Gardens."

"Which Roscoe's?"

"The Hollywood location."

"What time do you usually get home?"

"Uh, about one or two in the morning."

She narrowed her eyes. "What time did you get here tonight?"

"Around...nine fifteen, I think."

"What brought you home early?"

Cody didn't really want to explain the disquiet of his dream. He couldn't imagine that she'd understand. "I guess I just didn't feel like dancing. It was too loud. We'd never been there before, and I felt a little out of place. So I left."

"Did you stop anywhere on your way back?"

"No, I drove straight here."

"I noticed the gate at the top of the walkway. Is it usually secured?"

"Yes, we use a combination padlock. It was locked when I got here, and I locked it again after I went through."

"Did you notice anything out of the ordinary when you got on board the boat?"

"No. It all looked normal. The wheelhouse doors were locked, which isn't unusual. Half the time he leaves them unlocked. The light in the salon was on, and no other lights, but that's also normal for Nick. I figured he was sitting and reading, or working on a part for his helicopter."

"He owns a helicopter?" she said with a hint of surprise.

"Anything else?" He looked at her pointedly, feeling tension rise within him. He didn't want to leave Nick alone for long.

"Yes. Did you notice anything out of place when you came aboard?"

"Well, there's a lamp in the salon, at the end of the bench seat, and it wasn't on. Just the built-in lights were on. And Nick wasn't in the salon. Which was odd, because the rest of the boat was dark, so I was a little confused. I went into the hallway and noticed that he hadn't made dinner..."

"How did you know?"

"Well, the galley looked the same as I'd left it this morning after breakfast. He bought groceries earlier today, and he'd told me he was going to make dinner." He took a calming breath but it didn't seem to help. "I came through the doorway and that's...that's when I found h-him."

"What condition was he in?"

He clenched his jaw for a long moment. She needs the information. I just need to get through it quickly and it'll be done. "He was tied up in cords. He was kneeling on the carpet." Deep breath. "Uh, at the foot of my—uh, this bunk." He pointed to his right. "He was facing the door."

"What did you do?"

"I told him I was going to get help. I ran for my toolbox and the phone."

"Then what?"

His face felt flushed. "I found the cutters and told—told the operator the location and what had happened. And I, uh, hung up and came back to the room."

"Did you see or hear anyone on the boat?"

He shook his head.

"Did it occur to you to leave the cords in place until the ambulance arrived?"

"If you found your best friend tied that way, would you have waited?" he said with some heat.

"I'm not certain that you understand how complicated the arrangement is."

"I think I have a good idea, considering I got him out of it."

"You were very lucky." Her eyes reappraised him. "Would you be willing to reconstruct how you cut apart the cords?"

"No," he said immediately. Not for anything.

She nodded. "After you freed him, what did you do?"

"I held him," said Cody, staring directly into her eyes. "I covered him with a blanket because he was cold. And then Quinlan came in, and after that, the paramedics."

Her brow furrowed. "He was cold. Was he naked?"

"No, he was wearing underwear when I found him."

Her eyebrows lifted a bare fraction of an inch. "Underwear?"


"Let me make certain that I understand. When you first came in and found your friend bound and kneeling at the foot of your bed, he was wearing underwear."

"Yes." He understood where she was coming from; sometimes people took pains to preserve modesty.

"This might be a painful question for you to contemplate, and I apologize for having to ask it, but as a private detective, I think you might be able to answer. Was there any sign of sexual assault?"

All of the air seemed to have left the room. He closed his eyes. All of the women were raped. It's a logical question. He reopened them. "I didn't...I wasn't looking for that. No. I don't think so, but I'm not sure."

She nodded. "Did you notice anything else out of the ordinary today while you were on board?"

"Uh, no."

"Anything, no matter how trivial."

"Well, when I left I was trying to find a pair of shoes, and one of them was under Nick's bunk, but it could have easily been kicked there."

"Anything else?"

"Can't think of anything."

"Are you wearing the shoes in question right now?"

He nodded.

"I need them as evidence."

Cody flushed in disbelief, but bent down and pulled them off his feet. He noticed another flash, from a different angle, and his stomach leapt into his throat. He dropped the shoes to the floor and pushed past her roughly. "What the hell—"

Wheeler had stripped off the blanket and was taking pictures of Nick's nearly naked body, the bruises and red lines from the cords standing out vividly against his flesh. Jeremy stood to the side, looking uncomfortable.

"What the hell are you doing?" blazed Cody. He grabbed the blanket and covered Nick again. "That's enough!" he said to both of them, his tone fierce. "He's been through enough already. He's my partner and he's alive, he's not part of a crime scene! Any more questions you have—for either of us—can wait until he's stronger."

"What's going on?" said Quinlan, coming down the steps.

"The agents are going to give us some space," spat Cody. "And if those pictures show up in the news, I'm going to go to the papers and explain to them exactly how you treated the victim. I'm sure that'll make a good story." He glared at Munro, who simply returned his gaze.

"My card," she said, handing it to him. He yanked it out of her hand and shoved it into his pocket. "We need to photograph the rest of the boat," she said to Wheeler, who nodded. They both left, Cody's shoes in an evidence bag.

"They've got the right size gurney, now," said Quinlan. "I've been limiting the personnel coming aboard—there are cops and ambulances everywhere. This case has been pretty high-profile, and everyone wants to know what happened."

Cody nodded and sighed, running a hand through his hair. "Yeah, I can imagine."

"I'll try to keep people away for the transfer into the ambulance..."

"I know, you can't promise anything." Kneeling down next to Nick, he stroked his cheek again, worried that he still seemed cold. "You with me?"

Nick's eyes opened slowly, and he blinked.

"That's great, Nick, that's really great. They're coming with a gurney right now, and they're going to take you to the hospital."

"I'm real sorry," said Jeremy, sounding miserable. "He said he had to, for evidence..."

"It's okay," said Cody quietly. He turned back to Nick. "Just relax."

"Cody! Nick!" Murray's anguished voice rang out abovedeck. He heard Quinlan say something, and then Murray rushed into the room. He turned pale when he looked down and saw Nick and the horrible ligature mark on his neck.

"Murray, it's okay," said Cody soothingly, standing up and touching his arm. "He's going to the hospital any second now."

"But he...that killer..." His brown eyes filled with tears.

Cody pulled him into an embrace. He couldn't hug Nick, but at least he could hug Murray. "We just have to hope for the best."

Murray sniffed, and Cody leaned back and tried to smile at him. Murray looked determined. "Cody, I'll—I can stay here, at the boat, for now. I think I can be useful. Quinlan's a little worried about...well, the media, and I think it would be helpful if I stayed tonight."

"Really, Boz?" Cody was speechless.

He nodded. "But you'll call and give me regular reports, won't you?"

"Yes, of course," said Cody, hugging him again. Knowing that Murray would be there to make certain that their personal belongings—and their home—were treated with care was a tremendous relief. "How did you get here so fast?"

"We were having dinner with some of the convention hosts in Hermosa Beach. The manager came over and told me there was a phone call..." He shivered, and then knelt down next to Nick. "Nick, you need to just concentrate on getting better, okay? I'll see you in the hospital. Please, take care of yourself." He whispered something else and then stood up.

There was the telltale rattle of another gurney, and Cody thought he might pass out in relief.

"Cody, I'm sorry that this took so long," said Max. "These doorways are a tight fit, and we don't respond to pier calls very often. We had to borrow a gurney from the Coast Guard."

"I'll go speak with Quinlan," said Murray, and he left, wiping his eyes.

Max bent down, giving Nick one last checkover. "I see you're still hanging in there," he said. "Just try to relax and take it easy. This is going to be a little bumpy, but just concentrate on breathing."

Nick blinked once, slowly, looking a little dazed.

"It's okay," said Max quietly to Cody. "He's just exhausted from the stress." He looked at Jeremy. "Let's get him in the van."

Securing Nick to the gurney and getting him out of the Riptide wasn't easy. Nick winced several times, and for the first time Cody actually regretted living on a boat.

"Cody, before you go," said Murray. "Here, you'll need shoes. These were under the salon table." He handed him his battered pair of deck shoes, and Cody slipped them on. "Your jacket, too."

"Thanks, Murray," said Cody, trying to keep his emotions in check. He hugged him gratefully and then shrugged his arms into the jacket.

"Just...don't forget to call," said Murray, looking hopeful.

"I won't," promised Cody.

The pier was a zoo. There were emergency vehicles and cop cars and curious onlookers everywhere behind the fence. Cameras flashed. It was early enough in the evening that some of the businesses were still open, and people were out walking. All of this activity was bound to attract attention. He cringed, knowing that Nick was on display for everyone to see.

Max had pulled the edge of the sheet up to Nick's chin, so the ghastly ligature mark wasn't visible, but Nick's pale face was still there for all to see. Another flash, and another, and he could see Nick wince slightly. Damn. He hated seeing Nick vulnerable like this.

The paramedics took the gurney up the companionway carefully, and Cody could see some of King Harbor's finest attempting to deal with the picture takers. They passed through the gate and to the waiting ambulance.

The pier drive was narrow, but the police were doing their best to keep it clear. Max and Jeremy loaded Nick into the back of the van. Max turned to a man in a Coast Guard uniform, and they traded a few words as Jeremy went to the front of the van.

"Ready, Cody? Go ahead, jump in," said Max. He shook hands with the Coast Guard officer, and followed Cody into the vehicle, shutting the doors. "Okay, Jeremy, we're ready. Just follow the cop car."

Cody blinked. "There's a police escort?"

"Yeah," said Max, leaning over Nick again and checking his reactions. He pulled back the sheet to expose his throat. The van rolled forward. "His respiration is holding. That's good." He looked up at Cody. "Neck injuries are very unpredictable, and I'm going to be monitoring him very closely. If I ask you to get out of the way at any point, you'll need to move as quickly as you can."

Cody nodded. "I understand." Nick's eyes opened, looking scared, and Cody reached out and laced his fingers into the damp black hair. "Nick, it's okay, we're on our way to the hospital."

Nick's eyes latched onto his, the intensity frightening. Cody murmured more words of comfort, gently stroking, and finally Nick seemed to relax, his eyes growing unfocused again.

"You guys must have known each other a long time," said Max.

"Yeah, since 'Nam." Cody's eyes kept getting drawn to the harsh red line just below Nick's chin. "We were in Air Cav together."

"Oh yeah? I had a cousin in Air Cav."


Max nodded. "He didn't come back, though."

"I'm sorry."

"A lot of guys didn't come back," said Max. He checked the IV line again, and Nick's eyes flicked to him and then back to Cody, looking afraid again.

"It's okay, Nick," soothed Cody. "Just rest. We're nearly to the hospital."

"How long?"

"Two tours." Cody watched as Nick's eyelids slid closed. "I was a door gunner. He was a chopper pilot. I mean, he still is..."

"Yeah?" Max looked impressed.

"His helicopter's just down the street at the helipad. We use it for cases, sometimes." Nick's eyes opened again, and Cody saw the now-familiar flash of fear. "Hey, buddy, you're safe now, you're safe. We're almost to the hospital. Almost there." He gently stroked his cheek, and Nick's eyes slid shut again. Cody felt a stab of concern.

"Don't worry, this is normal," said Max quietly. "Listen, when we get to the hospital, they're going to have to take him for a bunch of tests—x-rays, scans, that sort of thing. And, let me be blunt here, you're not immediate family, so—"

"I'm listed as his next-of-kin," said Cody. "We've been through this before."

Max looked relieved. "Yeah, well, I was trying to figure out some way we could sneak you in...I have a couple friends on staff...but this is even better."

Cody smiled. "Yeah."

"Your friend on the boat..."


"Is he calling Nick's family to notify them?" Max adjusted the oxygen mask.

"He doesn't really have any family, to speak of." Nick's eyelids fluttered once, but stayed shut. "But Murray and I are there for him."

Max gave him a look of sympathetic understanding.

The hospital was a blur of noise and faces, and Cody was shunted to the side nearly immediately as a team of medical personnel raced off with Nick. He couldn't help but feel his heart squeeze in fear. Please. Please let him be okay. Please let him return to me. His eyes filled with tears.

Paperwork was thrust at him, more forms than he could ever imagine filling out in an evening, page upon page of medical histories and patient information, and by the end of it his hand was shaking so badly he could barely write in Nick's social security number.

A blonde nurse named Kathleen took him to a waiting room. Got him a cup of coffee. Smiled. He sat, dazed, watching as she left.

Everything seemed washed out. Too pale. He blinked and shook his head, trying to clear it, but it only seemed to make him dizzy. The coffee was hot and bitter in his mouth.

He shivered, realizing that his sweater was soaked through with sweat. He wished he'd brought a shirt. Taking another sip of coffee, he suddenly noticed blood on his wrist. Nick's blood.

He covered his face with his hands and cried.

Chapter Text

Hours passed, and Cody dutifully called Murray to report...well, nothing, really, though he tried to sound upbeat. Kathleen had come back and told him that Nick was still undergoing tests and scans. A trickle of fear ran down his spine. What if he's taken a turn for the worse? What if he's stopped breathing? What if... He could almost hear Nick's voice saying, the what-ifs will eat you alive, buddy.

He rubbed his eyes and checked his watch for the seventy-eighth time. Two o'clock in the morning. Please, I just want to know if he's all right.

He'd been alone in the waiting room at first, until a middle-aged couple had sat down for a couple hours, waiting for news of their son. After they'd left there'd been an elderly woman who kept falling asleep, and now he was alone again. The magazines held no interest, and if he drank another cup of coffee, he was afraid he'd never sleep again because it was stronger than even Nick's. Buddy, please be okay.

Another five minutes passed, and then another, and he tried to control himself and not check his watch but he kept failing. He wondered if it were possible for Nick to slip away while he wasn't next to him. Blinking, he found he couldn't imagine it. He tried not to think of Nick, alone and shivering in a room, being poked and prodded.

There was a knock at the door, and Cody looked up.

"Mr. Allen?" asked a man in a white coat. "I'm Dr. Stevens."

Cody stood up and shook his hand, functioning entirely on autopilot. The whole room seemed to be shrinking and he swallowed heavily.

"Why don't you sit down for a minute?" asked Stevens, who took a seat next to him.

Sit down? This is going to be bad. There was an ominous buzzing in his ears.

"Let me get right to the point. Mr. Ryder has gone through a terrible ordeal, but, based on our examinations, I think that he is going to make a full recovery."

Cody blinked. Blinked again. His mouth wouldn't work.

The doctor continued in a reassuring tone. "I'm going to keep this short for now. The primary concerns were the possible damage caused by lack of sufficient oxygen over a sustained period of time, and the damage to his throat. Based on my examination and the results of the tests, I believe that he won't suffer any lasting damage. The lack of petechial hemorrhaging, and the fact that he has only mild swelling to the face and neck, seem to support this. His reaction times are excellent. Only time will tell for certain, but I've seen enough strangulation cases to have a good feeling about this." He smiled reassuringly. "His remaining injuries are mostly superficial. He has multiple contusions, primarily on his torso, and multiple ligature wounds. He was slightly dehydrated when he was first brought in. The position he was in also caused a great deal of muscle strain. The stress of the ordeal is traumatic, and there's always the issue of shock with this sort of situation, but I believe he's passed that danger."

Cody nodded, feeling a tight pressure in his chest relax. "His it...permanently damaged?"

"The damage is moderate," he answered. "However, he is still breathing on his own, and the swelling has already begun to diminish. I believe his throat will recover completely in time." He flipped through his notes quickly. "We've checked the contusions, and there isn't any abnormal swelling. His hands and feet are swollen and bruised, but I don't think they've sustained any permanent damage." He smiled at Cody. "All in all, this is a remarkable result."

"He's a remarkable guy," said Cody, feeling cheesy as he said it, but he couldn't stop himself.

The doctor laughed. "I'm certain." He flipped a few pages in his notes. "We're going to monitor his throat very closely for the rest of the night. Even though I feel that he is progressing nicely, throat injuries can be rather unpredictable, and he'll need to stay in the ICU until morning."

Suddenly Cody recalled Agent Munro's questioning, and he felt a cold rush of fear tighten around his heart. "Has he—did you find signs—"

"We found no evidence of any sexual assault," said the doctor comfortingly.

Cody let out the breath he'd been holding, relief washing over him. "Can I see him?" he asked, unable to hide the quiver in his voice.

"Yes, very soon," said Dr. Stevens. "Once he's finished with the latest test, he'll be taken to the ICU. In the morning he'll be transferred to a private room. Now, normally we do maintain visitor controls, but given the situation, and the fact that you are already registered as his next-of-kin, we feel that it would be in Mr. Ryder's best interest for some of these controls to be waived."

Cody's brain buzzed. More tests. Private room. Controls waived? He was getting confused.

"Meaning that, once he is transferred to a private room, you will be able to visit him whenever you want, and for however long you want, except during procedures," said Dr. Stevens, smiling.

"You're...serious?" asked Cody, stunned. Nick had been in the hospital before, and it had always been a constant struggle.

"Yes, of course. As I said, Mr. Ryder would benefit from this. I've examined him a few times already, and I believe that he's been looking for you."

"Thank you," said Cody, feeling his eyes well up again.

"I'll send a nurse very soon," he promised, putting his notes back together and standing up. "You'll be able to visit him for short spells in the ICU." Cody shook his hand gratefully.

Cody called Murray. He'd never been so happy making a phone call before. Even though it was after two in the morning, Murray was still up and monitoring the situation on board the Riptide, and he sounded positively jubilant about the news.

After he hung up, he went back to the waiting room. He couldn't seem to sit still. Pacing the floor, checking his watch, he felt like he was going to explode.

"Mr. Allen?" said Dr. Stevens.

"Please, call me Cody," he responded immediately. His heart sped up. Is there a problem?

"We're a little short of nurses tonight. I'm going to take you to the ICU."

"Thank you," he said gratefully, following him down the hallway. They entered an elevator, and Dr. Stevens hit a button. "I want to thank you, also, for—for allowing me to stay with my partner."

"I like to treat the whole patient," said the doctor. "Based on my observations, and my discussion with the paramedics, I think your presence will be a great comfort to Mr. Ryder." He paused, and a look of understanding came to his face. "My son's in a same-sex relationship, and I can't imagine how painful it would be for him if his partner were in the hospital and he couldn't be with him."

Same-sex— "Wait, Dr. Stevens," said Cody, astonished. "We're not in a relationship. We're partners in a detective agency. I mean, we're best friends, but we're not—we haven't—" Haven't what? Kissed? He pushed that thought down.

The doctor looked embarrassed. "I'm very sorry. I simply assumed, as did the paramedics, that you were in a relationship." He paused. "That doesn't change things, however. I believe you will be a great help to his recovery."

"Uh...yeah." Cody was disturbed. The paramedics? Max thought I was gay? He thought we were gay?

The elevator doors opened, and Dr. Stevens seemed to have recovered from his embarrassment. They walked down a few more hallways until they arrived at the bustling ICU. The rooms were glassed in, and as Cody approached he saw Nick's pale face and rushed to the bed.

"I believe he's still awake," said Dr. Stevens. "We are limited in our use of painkillers because some of them have side effects that impair breathing, so for the moment he's only been given a light dose of something safe."

"Buddy, can you hear me?" asked Cody. Nick was still wearing an oxygen mask, his hair sticking up at odd angles against the pillow. His neck and face were swollen, and there were dark smudges of fatigue underneath his eyes. The bruise on his cheekbone had darkened considerably and looked painful. Eventually his eyes opened, looking wary, the whites smudged with red, and Cody grinned, reveling in his gaze, stroking his unbruised cheek. "I'm right here, Nick, I'm not leaving. I'm right here." Blue eyes stared at him for a long moment, relief overflowing, and then his eyelids slid shut and the lines of pain on his face softened.

Cody kept his hand pressed against the warm face of his partner, not wanting to give up that comfort, and watched as Nick succumbed to sleep.

"Mr. Allen," said Dr. Stevens quietly. "A counselor will stop by during the morning to speak with Mr. Ryder. Also, some of the authorities involved in his case will be visiting in the hopes of obtaining his statement." He made a few notes on the chart at the foot of Nick's bed.

I hope it's not those FBI jerks. "How can he...give a statement?" Do they expect him to blink it out?

"He will be up to whispering, I believe," said Dr. Stevens, hanging the chart again. "Don't worry. I'll assess his physical condition, and if I don't think that he's up to it, we will postpone it.

"Thanks, doc."

"Certainly. I'll return in the morning."

Cody nodded, turning back to Nick. Buddy, this has been the worst night of my life. And yours, too. I hope that this nightmare ends soon. Sighing, he rested one hand on Nick's arm, drawing comfort from the touch.

The hallway stretches out in front of Cody. Confusion. Voices, at first, and then an ominous silence. The door is there. He reaches out, touches the handle, but he's too afraid to open it, he knows what's behind it. He's frozen, sweat rolling off him in waves, the door so close. Fear rushes through his veins, his heart hammers in his chest, icy terror grips his stomach. He hears a familiar voice begging, and he pushes the door open suddenly.

It's too late. Nick is dead, his face a frightening shade of blue, his tongue hanging out. Cody screams and falls to his knees, grabbing at his cold, lifeless body. Too late. Someone laughs, he hears footsteps running away, and he screams for help, even though it's useless.

Cody came awake with a start. His head rested on the edge of the bed, and he lifted it slowly, blinking. He heard beeping. Other sounds. Voices from the hallway. Rubbing his eyes, he sat up.

Nick was still asleep, black eyelashes stark against his skin. During the night, nurses had checked in constantly, monitoring Nick's vital signs. Nick hadn't woken at all during any of their visits. Even still, he looked tired and vulnerable. Cody checked his watch. Seven. Yawning, he stretched a little. So, two hours of sleep? That'll have to last me through today. Again he looked at Nick. And it'll be a very long day.

A nurse whose nametag read Eleanor sent Cody off to get breakfast in the cafeteria while Nick was transferred to a private room. He sat down in the plastic chair and sighed, looking at the food on the tray, knowing he'd have to eat it because if he didn't, hunger would catch up to him later.

The eggs were barely tolerable, and the toast was soggy, but he ate them anyway, sipping a cup of coffee that tasted like the bottom of a very burnt pot.

The cafeteria had large glass windows, and he stared outside. The morning was gorgeous, bright and beautiful with a clear blue sky, and Cody couldn't help but realize that Nick had come very close to never seeing it. A chill ran down his spine.

"Cody!" said Murray. "I finally found you!"

Cody looked up to see Murray, weighed down by two large bags. "Hey, Murray," he said, standing up and embracing him tightly. "It's good to see you. Really good to see you."

"I've brought clothes for you and Nick," said Murray. "The FBI agents are still processing evidence on the Riptide, and Quinlan's been working with them, too. And we've got a room at Straightaway's—"

"Wait, slow down!" said Cody, smiling. "Have a seat. How are you doing?"

Murray dropped the bags to the floor and sat down, sighing. "I'm...I'm fine," he said, but the dark circles under his eyes said differently. He took off his glasses and polished them on his shirt.

"You look tired." Cody took another sip of coffee and grimaced at the awful taste.

"I didn't get a chance to sleep," he said. "And...I'm not certain that I could have, considering."

"Nick's doing really well," said Cody reassuringly. "They're moving him to a private room as we speak. We'll be able to see him as soon as they're done."

"Really? We can visit him?" Murray perked up immediately.

Cody nodded. "He's already looking better. The swelling has gone down, and the doctor thinks there'll be no permanent damage from the...from last night." For a moment the image of Nick caught in the cords swam into his head, and he pushed it out again, swallowing heavily.

"What a monster," said Murray, sounding outraged. "How could anyone do that to another human being? It's horrible!"

"Keep it down, Murray," said Cody.

"I'm sorry, Cody, it's just's just so terrible. You know, I just can't stop thinking about what could have happened...what would have happened if you hadn't come back earlier...if I..."

"Murray," said Cody emphatically. "You know what Nick says about could-haves. We need to put that out of our minds and concentrate on helping him heal."

"You're right, Cody, you're right," said Murray, slumping in his chair. "I wasn't thinking."

"So what was this you were saying about clothes? And Straightaway's?"

"I took some clothing for you both. I...well, I didn't have a lot of time, and I'm not certain whose clothing I took, exactly..."

Cody stared at him. "Are you saying you snuck past those FBI agents to get our clothes?"

Murray blushed. "Well, yes, I suppose when you put it that way..."

Cody grinned. "That's great, Murray!"

Murray smiled bashfully and then continued. "Agent Munro said that they'll be investigating the crime scene for another day and a half, at the least. They've rented us a room at Straightaway's for two nights."

"Good," said Cody. "I want to be close. And the sooner they're off my boat, the better."

"Of course," said Murray soothingly.

"What else is going on? What about the media?"

Murray hesitated for a moment, and Cody felt a flash of panic go through him. "I spoke with Quinlan this morning, and he said that the agents told him they couldn't really stop the media from finding out Nick's name through other sources. They said that because of the location of the crime, and that it was discovered so early in the evening and that the crime location was witnessed by hundreds of people, it would be impossible."

Hundreds? "So Nick's name will be in the papers?" said Cody in disbelief.

"I'm afraid so." Murray looked down at his hands. "Quinlan tried his best, Cody. He even shouted at Agent Munro, but she said it was out of her hands."

"Damn," said Cody, looking down into his empty cup. "Damn."

"I'm sorry, Cody," said Murray.

"You have nothing to apologize for," said Cody, crushing the cup in his hand and dropping it to the tray.

"I just mean that I'm sorry...that..." He seemed to be struggling with words.

"It's okay, Murray. C'mon, they should have Nick settled by now." Cody picked up one of the bags, and together they walked off into the hospital.

Eleanor came to fetch Cody and Murray from the waiting room, and she took them both through the hospital maze quickly, eventually coming to the fourth floor where they passed a nurse station with a single nurse typing away at a computer. This part of the hospital seems quiet.

They turned a corner, and Cody immediately noticed two uniformed King Harbor police officers flanking a doorway, one with a clipboard. "This is Mr. Allen and Mr. Bozinsky," said Eleanor, whose greying hair was pulled back in a braid. "I believe they're on the list."

The officer with the clipboard grinned. "Sure, I know Cody," he said. "Busted him a few times. Come to think of it, I've busted Murray, here, too."

"Hey, Henderson," said Cody. He noticed that the list of names had pictures attached. Henderson waved them in, and they followed Eleanor into the room. He could see that Nick was still asleep, thankfully.

Eleanor turned to them. "There's a bathroom attached to the room with a full shower. I'll have a cot brought in, but with the staffing shortage at the moment, it's going to take a little longer."

"We don't need it right now," said Cody.

"There's a cup with ice chips and another cup with water here on the tray. Until we receive new orders from Dr. Stevens, he's to have only clear liquids." She gave them both a stern look. "If you think he needs assistance in any way, or if you need anything, please use the nurse call button," she said. "Feel free to use the shower. I'll have meals sent to you as well."

The thought of more hospital food turned his stomach, but not leaving Nick was of paramount importance. "Thanks, Eleanor."

"You're welcome, Mr. Allen."

"Call me Cody," he said, trying to smile, but not quite succeeding. Murray introduced himself as well, and shook her hand. She nodded brusquely and left.

Cody dragged a chair next to the bed, and sat down, his hand immediately reaching out to rest lightly on Nick's arm. Murray approached the bed from the other side, looking stricken. "Pull up a chair, Murray," said Cody quietly.

"The ligature marks," said Murray. "I didn't realize they'd be so pronounced."

Cody's eyes wandered to the mark on his neck. The red band had darkened and light bruising was already radiating from it. The swelling had receded, thankfully, and they'd removed the oxygen mask. Nick's lips looked dry.

"It must have been awful," said Murray. "I can't even...I can't imagine how it must have been. For both of you."

"Both of us?" said Cody, confused.

"Finding him like that—" Murray shuddered. "It sounds like something out of a nightmare."

The horror flashed in his mind again, and Cody shivered. "Yeah."

"The police have to find him," said Murray determinedly. "He has to be caught."

Or I'll find him first, and strangle him with my bare hands. Cody gently stroked Nick's arm. "Murray, did the FBI agents say anything else to you?"

"Those agents should face criminal charges! They insisted on tampering with my computers!" said Murray, outraged. "And they—" Nick shifted slightly, and Murray hushed, looking sheepish. They both watched, but Nick stayed asleep. "They kept going through our shoes," continued Murray, much more quietly. "Especially yours. I think they took all of them."

"My shoes?" said Cody in disbelief. "I don't get it. Did they take anything else?"

"All of the...evidence, and some of my electronic equipment. Nearly everything is missing its cord, so I'll have to splice in new power supplies, but that will have to wait until it's all returned." He frowned, as if he didn't trust them to bring it back. "They're going over the entire boat with a fine-toothed comb. Everything is covered with fingerprint powder." He blew out a breath and rubbed his temples. "Thank goodness the Roboz is with Tiffany, or I'd be cleaning it out of his rotors for a week."

"The Roboz..." Cody stared at him for a moment. "That's great, Murray! I mean, there's no way they can impound him as evidence, right?"

Murray looked at him uneasily. "Well, no, but if he had been on board, then the surveillance system would have been active..."

Cody paused. "Murray—please tell me you're not blaming yourself—"

"No, that would be silly," said Murray, too quickly.

Nick stirred again, and Cody's attention was immediately focused like a laser on him. He could feel Nick's arm tense underneath the blanket. His eyelids fluttered and he made a rasping sound in his throat. "Hey, buddy," soothed Cody, lightly stroking his arm. "It's okay, you're fine, everything's okay."

Nick's eyes flew open, and he looked disoriented.

"Try not to talk," said Cody. "Your throat's in rough shape. Just take it easy."

Nick blinked, and then blinked again, staring at him, and then his eyes moved to Murray. "Nick, you're going to be just fine," said Murray encouragingly.

"Wh—" rasped Nick, and then his eyes squeezed shut in pain.

"Nick, please, don't talk," said Cody. "You're at Marina Medical Center."

Nick's eyes fluttered open again. He looked tired all the way to the bone, but even so, his eyes sought Cody's, clearly asking a question.

"You're going to be fine," said Cody. "Dr. Stevens said that it's mostly superficial, except for your throat. And that will heal, too. You just need to give it time."

He gave the barest of nods, and then licked his lips.

"Want some water?" asked Cody. Nick blinked once in return, and Cody grabbed the cup from the tray, letting Nick have a sip. His face pinched in pain, but he took another sip as well and then relaxed. "Better?" Nick blinked once, slowly.

"Do you need anything else?" asked Murray anxiously. Nick seemed confused by the question, and his eyes flicked back to Cody.

"You're going to be okay," said Cody, his hand brushing against his cheek, and then he frowned. "Are you cold?" Nick's answer was another slow blink. "Murray, I'm going to go get another blanket for him."

"I'll stay," said Murray.

Cody got halfway down the hallway before he realized that he could have just used the call button.

The nurse at the station looked up at him expectantly. "My partner—" he began. "Uh, Nick Ryder, in room..."

"415," she supplied helpfully.

"Yeah," he said. "He just woke up. He seems a little cold."

"I'll take care of that," she said brightly.

"Thanks." A hand on his shoulder made him start and turn.

"Cody," said Pete. "Are you okay? Is Nick okay? What's going on?"

"Pete?" said Cody, in surprise, and then he hugged him impulsively. "It's good to see you, man, really good to see you." Pete stared at him for a moment, and Cody realized how bad he must look, unshaven and still wearing last night's clothing. Not to mention that I probably smell awful, too. He shrugged it off. "I had no idea you were stopping by."

"There's a waiting room around the corner," hinted the nurse. Pete thanked her and steered him to it. Fortunately, it was empty.

"Is he okay?" said Pete, looking worried.

"Yeah," said Cody, and he couldn't help but smile. "The doctor said he'll make a full recovery."

"What happened?" asked Pete. "I mean, I got a call from the FBI late last night...well, more like really early this morning, actually. They wouldn't tell me anything, and I tried calling you, but the line was busy. And then I got the paper this morning, and Nick is front page news." He held up the LA Times, whose headline screamed, HANGMAN ATTACKS AGAIN!

Seeing the newspaper was like being hit with a bucket of ice water. Cody grabbed it and scanned the article. There was a photo of Nick, and mentions of their detective agency and the Riptide. Flipping through until he came to the rest of the article, he read with growing unease, a wave of anger washing through them. Why couldn't they have kept Nick's name out of this? The article talked about the mysterious killer, how he'd successfully managed to elude the police, and how Nick had been saved just in time. Cody read it all, then folded it back up and handed it to Pete.

"Anything I can do for you, let me know," said Pete sincerely. "Anything. Seriously. Any errand. Just say the word. You need a lawyer? I'm there for you."

"Well, if we need to secure the rights to the musical version of Nick's story, I'll let you know," said Cody, exhaling. He slumped down in a nearby chair.

"You know what I mean," said Pete, sitting down next to him. "Just because I work in the entertainment business doesn't mean that I'm completely blind to the rest of the law."

"I'm sorry, Pete, that was rude. I'll let you know if I need help." He sat and thought for a moment. "Shouldn't you be helping the senior partner right now?"

"I'm not due till nine." He laid a hand on Cody's arm. "And if you need it, I'll take the day off. I'm serious, Cody. That article..." He shivered. "Is it true?"

"Yeah." Cody couldn't help but shiver as well. "It happened just like they said. I came home and found Nick tied up, being slowly strangled to death. Another fifteen minutes...and he would have..." He put his hand to his mouth, irrationally not wanting to say the word out loud.

"You looked so out of sorts at the bar," said Pete. "I mean, I thought it was because of our dinner conversation. But now..." He shook his head. "I never believed in psychics or ESP before, but wow. Cody, how'd you know?"

"I didn't," he said simply. "I had no idea. I just the hair on the back of my neck was prickling, you know the feeling. And I just wanted to go home. It was just a coincidence."

"Well, it was one of the luckiest coincidences ever," said Pete, smiling.

"I can't believe it happened," said Cody. "It almost seems I'm in a movie, and every so often, it suddenly hits me and then I just get overwhelmed."

"That's understandable." Pete's hand was still on his arm. "You've just gone through something horrific. Something no one should go through."

"Yeah, but he's alive," said Cody, swallowing past a lump in his throat. "I mean, I keep feeling scared, and it's the most horrible image in the world, but he's alive, and he's going to be okay..."

"Just because he lived through it doesn't mean it can't still cause you nightmares," said Pete. "Right now, you're just as vulnerable as he is, in a way."

Cody was unconvinced. "I don't know about that."

"I do," he said firmly. "Listen, there will be people everywhere crawling out of the woodwork to help Nick at first. Just keep yourself focused on two things: what's good for Nick, and what's good for you. Nothing else matters right now, no matter what anyone tells you. Even if you feel terribly selfish. Guilty. All of those trademark Cody feelings. I'm serious."

He nodded. "Yeah, you're probably right."

"After all of this attention ramps down, you'll be glad you paid attention to those two things." He took his hand away and leaned back. "And then hopefully we'll go out and have a beer and celebrate something."

"Celebrate what?"

"Life. Getting through it all. A new pair of socks. Whatever." He grinned. "Cody, I'm here for you. Just keep in touch, and let me know what you need." He checked his watch. "It's up to you right now—either tell me to stay, or I'm heading to work."

Cody thought for a long moment. As much as he wanted Pete to hang out all day, he also selfishly wanted Nick to himself. "Get to work," he said finally. "I'm sure the senior partner's wanting his cup of coffee right now..."

Pete laughed. "Clearly you've met him before."

"Do you want to see Nick before you go?" he asked, and then groaned. "Wait, I don't think you can. You're not on the visitor list."

"That's fine," said Pete. "There'll be plenty of time later, I'm sure."

"Thanks for coming, Pete. I really appreciate it." Standing up, they hugged before Pete left, holding up two fingers as he went.

"I'll remember," called out Cody.

Nick was asleep again, an extra blanket on top of him, fresh from the warmer. Murray looked up at him, blinking hugely behind his glasses, and Cody was alarmed anew at how tired he looked.

"The nurse said you could use the call button next time," he said.

"Yeah, I realized that a little too late," said Cody ruefully. "I ran into Pete, though."

"Pete?" said Murray. "Oh, but they probably wouldn't allow him in to see Nick just yet."

"We'll have to ask Henderson about adding people to that list," said Cody. "Listen, Murray, I really need to take a shower. Would you mind staying put for a little while?"

"You can count on me." Murray smiled and then yawned.

"Great. I won't be long, I promise." He grabbed one of the bags of clothing that Murray had brought, and pawed through it. He wasn't kidding, he really grabbed at random. Nick's red harbor tour t-shirt was in the bag, and a couple of his dark sweaters. Finally, at the bottom of the bag, he found one of his own sweaters, white with pastel lines, and a pair of his jeans.

The shower was utilitarian and nothing more, but as long as it had hot water, Cody didn't care. It was a good escape. He concentrated on washing himself, lathering away the sweat and grime.

Shaving was good, too. He was relieved to get rid of the stubble. Putting on fresh clothing felt wonderful. He checked the mirror. He looked a little worse for wear, but all in all, better than he'd expected. Now back to the hard part. Taking a deep breath, he opened the door.

Murray's shoulders were shaking, his face in his hands, and Nick looked frustrated. Cody ran forward and put a comforting arm around Murray. "Are you okay?"

"Yes," said Murray, hiccupping. "I'm fine. It's just...I'm just..."

"Murray, I think you should go back to Straightaway's and get some sleep," said Cody firmly.

"I can't just leave—"

"Nick's fine. And you really need to take care of yourself. You're handling a lot of things right now, and you need to rest. If you don't, you'll wear yourself out and end up in the hospital yourself." He squeezed his shoulder. "I'm serious, Murray. I slept during the night, but you didn't, and that'll catch up to you quickly. And no amount of Mountain Dew can fix it."

Murray giggled, and then wiped away his tears. "You're right, Cody, but I still don't like leaving Nick here..."

"I'm with him," said Cody soothingly. "I'll call if anything happens. You just take it easy. Do you have money for a cab?"

"A cab? But I brought the Jimmy—"

"You're too tired to drive." Cody hazarded a glance at Nick, who looked relieved. Clearly he'd been thinking the same things.

Murray nodded. "Okay, then. I'll check in at the Riptide, though." He dug in his pocket for a moment and handed Cody the keys.

"We're just a phone call away," said Cody, hugging him again as he stood. "I mean it, Murray, take care of yourself."

"I will." Murray turned to the bed and said goodbye to Nick, touching his shoulder gently, and then left, yawning.

"Sorry, Nick, but he really needs the sleep." He turned, only to see that Nick had fallen asleep. Grinning, Cody pulled his chair close and sat down, putting his hand on Nick's arm. He sat like that for a long time.

He'd never imagined that watching anyone breathe could be so wonderful.

Chapter Text

As soon as Nick's eyes fluttered open again, Cody was ready with water. Nick took a few sips, his eyes hooking into Cody's with an unnatural intensity. Cody couldn't quite interpret it; Nick's gaze seemed to be expressing too many emotions at once.

There was a knock at the door, and Cody looked up to see a woman enter, dressed in a skirt suit with a cream-colored blouse. He had the vague feeling that normally, under other circumstances, he'd find her attractive. She introduced herself as Claudia Stanton, a professional counselor, and asked to be alone with Nick for a moment.

He hesitated. Nick was still vulnerable, and Cody wanted to stay right next to his side. Then again, he understood that he was too close to everything, and maybe she just wanted to appraise Nick without him hovering nearby. Nick gave him a look that said it was okay, and Cody left, going down to the waiting room again. There was a girl there with baggy sweats on, looking sullen and hostile.

No Yachting magazine, so he picked up whatever was nearest, which happened to be a celebrity mag touting Cher's latest exploits. The girl left after only a few minutes, pulled away by a nurse to visit her father, apparently.

"Mr. Allen?" said Claudia, coming into the room.

"That was fast," he said, surprised. He put the magazine back on the table.

"It was just an introductory meeting," she said softly. "I only wanted to explain who I was, that my services have been provided by the state, and show him my credentials. The rest will be up to him."

He nodded, not quite knowing what else to say.

"It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Allen," she said.

"Pleasure to meet you, too," he said, standing up and shaking her hand. She turned and left.

Back in the room, Nick looked more alert than he had been, and Cody was relieved. He sat down next to him. "Morning."

"Morning," whispered Nick.

Cody couldn't help but grin. Hearing Nick speak, even in a raw, whispery voice, was like being a kid at Christmas. "How're you feeling? Need anything?"

"No." He shifted a little in the bed.

"Just let me know if you do." He paused. Nick's eyes were still intense, and Cody felt a little shiver inside. Trying to lighten the mood, he smiled. "You might have a bear of a nurse, but you certainly have a swan of a counselor."

"Yeah." Nick obviously didn't care; his gaze was still fixed on Cody.

Cody tried another angle. "I'm glad Murray's gone to get some sleep. He looked pretty exhausted."

"Why'd you come back early?"

Trust Nick to be direct. Cody inhaled and ran a hand through his hair. I dreamed of kissing you. I was thinking about the future and just needed to talk. I felt out of place and wanted to be home. "I had a weird feeling," he said. Nick watched him and waited. "Okay, fine, I had a bunch of weird feelings. Pete and I were talking about...things, and the club was really noisy, and I just...everything just, and I wanted to come home."

Nick gave him a half-smile that warmed his heart like nothing ever had before. "Glad you did."

"Me too," he said. He got up and sat down on the bed next to Nick. "I really thought...I thought you were going to die. When I saw you..." His hands shook. "I just...oh god, Nick, I'm so sorry. I wish I'd never gone out at all—"

"'Sokay," whispered Nick, and suddenly Nick was holding him, and he clutched at Nick's hospital gown, tears springing to his eyes. The whole hellish ordeal was in Cody's head, crowding out everything else, and he wept with the hurt of it, the damned unfairness of it, and pulled Nick tighter against him until the steady rhythm of his breathing calmed him down.

He shifted slightly and Nick exhaled sharply. "Damn, I'm sorry, Nick," he said, as he helped lower him back to the bed. Nick looked paler, tears on his cheeks, wincing as he tried to wipe them away with his hand, which still looked swollen and tender.

Cody grabbed a few tissues and helped dry his face. A few more motions, and he had Nick covered by the blankets again, safe.

"We're a couple of sad sacks, aren't we?" said Cody, smiling wryly.

"Thanks," said Nick softly, his eyes saying everything he couldn't put into words.

They sat for a moment, and then Cody couldn't help but reach out and touch his face again. Having Nick here, warm, alive—it was almost too much to believe after last night. Nick closed his eyes and sighed lightly as Cody gently ran his fingers across his forehead. "We're through the worst, Nick. Everything's downhill after this."

Someone cleared their throat behind him, and Cody whirled to see agents Munro and Wheeler standing there, watching them expectantly. Wheeler had a black leather notebook in hand.

"Have you ever heard of knocking first?" said Cody.

"The door was open," said Munro.

"Dr. Stevens—"

"He'll be here momentarily," she said. She was dressed in a black pantsuit, though it was slightly different than the one she'd worn the night before. Wheeler looked immaculate in his suit, pen in hand.

Cody turned to Nick. "Looks like the FBI agents are here to talk to you. Do you feel up to it?" Inwardly he cringed, because it didn't matter if Nick was ready or not, he'd want to get it behind him.

"Yeah," whispered Nick. "Want it done."

Cody nodded and got off the bed as Dr. Stevens came into the room. "Good morning," the doctor said cheerfully.

"Good morning," said Cody. The agents both murmured a reply as well.

"Morning," whispered Nick.

Dr. Stevens smiled. "I see you're awake. Well, that's the first hurdle. Let me check your vitals." He turned to the others. "Would you all mind waiting outside?"

He must want to talk to Nick in private, see if he's really up for it. Cody approved. He went out into the hallway, where Henderson gave him a grin and a mocking salute. Munro and Wheeler stood slightly off to the side, standing relaxed and confident. Munro made a quiet comment to Wheeler, and he wrote something on his notepad with quick, efficient motions of his pen.

Dr. Stevens came to the door. "Agent Munro? Agent Wheeler? I believe he's ready for you."

Cody began to follow them in, but Munro turned and gave him an impassive look. "This is an official investigation—"

"Nick wants me in there," he said coldly. "There's no way you're doing this without me."

After a moment she nodded. "Very well. But I must remind you that, should you in any way interfere with this investigation, I will have you removed."

"You can try," he said, smiling. He walked to the bed and stood next to it, giving Nick a nod. I'm here if you need me, buddy.

"Good morning, Mr. Ryder," she said. "I'm FBI Agent Munro. This is Agent Wheeler. We're here to take your statement regarding last night's incident."

Nick looked a little pale, but there was a determined spark in his eye. "I'm ready."

She nodded. Wheeler flipped to a new page in his notebook. "I'd like to walk you through yesterday's events. Even though some of my questions may seem rather trivial or unimportant, every detail is important." She gazed at him levelly. "We have caught suspects with the most inconsequential of details. I'm certain that you understand this, considering your occupation. I can promise you that this information is going to help in far-reaching ways. It might even be the key we need to catch this suspect.

"I'd like to hear everything about your day, starting from the beginning. What time did you get up?"

"Around eight, I think," whispered Nick.

They stepped closer. Munro's eyes fixed on Nick's lips. "And what did you do after you woke up?"

"Took a shower." He seemed to think for a moment. "Forgot to shave, though. Then I had breakfast. Murray was already up, in his stateroom, and Cody was still asleep. I made myself some eggs. Scrambled. Then I went up to the salon and pulled out the bills."

"Is this something you normally do on Thursday mornings?"

"Not really. More like whenever I have the time. Sometimes Cody pays them instead."

"Then what happened?"

"Cody came up just as I was finishing. We talked about what we were doing that night. Murray came down, too, and he mentioned his conference this weekend."

Damn. I forgot about Murray's conference. Cody frowned. He was so excited about speaking, too.

"I think..." Nick's brow was furrowed. "I said I was going shopping, and they added a couple the grocery list. I took some money from the cigar box, and left."

"Did you take anything else?"

"Yeah, the bills. I went to the mailbox, first, and then—"

"Where is the mailbox located?"

"It's on the pier, just a little further down. I went there on foot and put the bills in, and got our mail from the box."

"Then what did you do?"

"I got in my car and went to the grocery store."

"Which one?"

"Alpha Beta." He licked his lips, and Dr. Stevens gave him a drink of water.

"What time did you arrive?"

"Ten, I think. Maybe a quarter after. Didn't take long, either. Wait—I missed something. Before I left, I shaved." Wheeler flipped back a page, and Cody noticed that he was taking notes in shorthand.

"Where did you go after you left the grocery store?" Munro was concentrating fiercely on Nick, her brown eyes completely focused on him, as she had been on Cody the previous night.

"On my way out into the parking lot, I saw Sasha," he whispered. "Straightaway's new girlfriend. She looked upset, and it turned out her brakes were giving her trouble. So I told her to take her car back to Straightaway's and I'd see if I could do something. Then I dropped the groceries off at the Riptide. I don't remember seeing..." He coughed suddenly, and turned white, his hand going to his throat. Cody tensed.

Dr. Stevens murmured something to Nick and gave him another sip of water. "Give him a moment," he said.

I was right. This is too much for him, too soon, but he's so damned determined to get it out of the way—

"I didn't see Cody or Murray," said Nick, whispering even more quietly. "I grabbed a set of tools and headed over to Straightaway's. He's got a garage out back, and Sasha was already there."

"What time was this?"

"About eleven, I think. Maybe a little later. Anyway, I started working on her car, and it took a little longer than I expected. She has a Fiat, and bleeding the air out of the calipers was a pain."

"Where did you get the parts?"

"Straightaway had everything ready, he just hadn't had time to actually do the job."

"What time did you leave?"

"About quarter to four."

"You were at Straightaway's garage from around eleven until quarter to four, then? Did you leave at any time and come back?"

Nick thought for a moment. "No. One of the waitresses brought us sandwiches, around noon, I think, and we ate lunch. Then I finished fixing her brakes, and we talked for a minute—"


"Me and Sasha."

Cody thought he could see the beginning of irritation on Nick's face. Hope his patience holds out.

"And...Straightaway wasn't around?"

"No, she said he was golfing. And that they'd be going to a restaurant up the coast later that night. One month anniversary."

"Where did you go after that?"

"Back to the Riptide."

"Was anyone else there?"


"What did you do?"

"I brought the mail in with me and opened it."

"Was there anything unusual or out of place that you noticed?"

"With the mail? No."

"With the boat."

Cody caught the flash of humor in Nick's eye for a brief second. "No, it looked fine. Except...I couldn't find one of my deck shoes."

Munro shot Wheeler a quick glance and then turned back to Nick. "Weren't you already wearing shoes?"

"Yeah, but I was wearing some old sneakers so I could work on her car. I wanted to change into deck shoes when I got back to the boat."

"When did you put on the sneakers?"

"When I came back to the Riptide earlier."

"Did you find the other shoe?"

"No, I ended up just putting on a different pair of sneakers. Mine had brake fluid on them."

She nodded. "All right. What happened next?"

"I had a beer. Took a leak. Put the bills in a pile next to the cigar box and made some coffee. Listened to the phone messages. There was one from Pete saying he wanted to meet with Cody earlier than usual. And a message from Murray's girlfriend, Tiffany. Something about target practice and watermelons. I couldn't make it out. Then Cody came in. Around four, or maybe just a little after. Looked like he'd picked up his dry cleaning. We talked for a minute, and I told him about Pete's message, and he left."

"What time did he leave?"

"About a quarter past four." He took another sip of water from Dr. Stevens and closed his eyes for a second.

"You were planning on staying on the boat for the rest of the night?"

He reopened his eyes. "Yeah. I figured I'd catch up on a book, maybe watch some TV."

"What happened next?"

"Sat in the salon, and cleaned my gun. Started a new grocery list. Read a few articles in Aviation History. I went down to my room to stash my gun, and after I put it in the drawer, I felt weird—like someone was watching me—"

"What time was this?"

"Around six. Maybe a little before." Nick coughed again and grimaced in pain, and Dr. Stevens murmured something again and gave him another drink. Cody felt a chill. I don't know if I can listen to this. But I have to. Munro waited patiently until Nick began to speak again. "I was standing there, just wondering, but then I thought maybe one of the guys had come back or it was Dooley—"


"Dooley's a friend of ours," interjected Cody. "He runs errands around the pier, helps out with things."

"I'll need his contact info," she said.

"I'll get it for you," promised Cody.

She turned back to Nick. "You were still in your room?"

"Yeah. So I turned around and headed for the stairs, and I called out and asked who was there. I felt a breeze on the side of my face. There was a little creak, and suddenly I realized there was someone—someone was hiding in the closet—" Nick took a few quick breaths. Cody noticed that Dr. Stevens had his eye on the heart monitor. "I started to turn toward him, but it was too late. He was already behind me. He hit me with a taser."

Wheeler was still scratching out shorthand at an amazing rate. Munro tilted her head. "You were wearing a sweater?" she asked.

"No, just a t-shirt. I went down on my knees. He grabbed my hair and there was something in his hand, but I elbowed him in the side and tried to kick him."

"How did he react?"

"He punched me in the gut," whispered Nick. "Then he hit me a few more times—he had some kind of...collapsible weapon. A nightstick. I kicked him in the knee and that's when he got angry and hit me with the taser again. I think—I think he had a rag with chloroform on it. I remember the smell. Everything went black." Nick closed his eyes again, the stress radiating off him in waves.

"Maybe you can tell them the rest later—" began Cody.

"No," whispered Nick, his eyes snapping open. "No, I want to get that bastard. Don't want him to do this to anyone else." Coughing, he grimaced, his hand slipping up to his throat. Dr. Stevens immediately gave him another sip of water, and then a sip from a different cup. Nick made a look of distaste.

"When you woke up—"

"My hands were tied behind my back. My ankles were tied. I think—it felt like rope. My mouth was taped shut." He licked his lips, and Dr. Stevens gave him another sip of water. "I was on my side. Still in the same room. I looked around, but he wasn't anywhere near. I sat up, and looked for the phone, but it was gone. I saw the clock—I think it to seven. My clothes were gone, except my underwear." He took in a few shallow breaths, and Cody came closer, putting a hand on his arm.

There was no change in Munro's expression. "The lights were on?"

"Yeah. He came back down. He was dressed in black. Had on a black ski mask. Green eyes. Um, maybe five ten. Five nine. Medium build. Black turtleneck and black pants. Black jacket, cotton, I think. Black gloves. Black shoes. Leather. Maybe...suede. Couldn't really see any birthmarks."

"Any other distinguishing characteristics?"

"Can't remember. I think he might have been clean shaven, but I don't know for sure. His left hand was full of cords. He had a gun. I think...I think it was a snub-nose Beretta. He...and he gestured to...I had to kneel." Nick was suddenly pale, his eyelids fluttering, and Cody squeezed his arm, frightened.

"Mr. Ryder, can you hear me?" asked Dr. Stevens.

A long moment passed, and Cody's heart was in his throat, the tension unbearable, but then Nick reopened his eyes. "Yeah, 'm okay." Another sip of water. Another minute or two passed, and then Nick gave a slight sigh. "He started tying the cords, and taking off the ropes. He had a knife. One of those short hunting blades, with a serrated edge on one side. And some kind of wire cutters. Yellow handles. I think...I think they were Murray's. He didn't...he moved fast. Like he'd practiced it all before. Kept wrapping things around. It got real hard to breathe and then he took off the tape. I couldn't make a noise. Had to balance."

"What were you balancing?" she asked.

"If I moved my legs...if I moved my arms too would tighten around my neck. I could feel it." He shivered. "Had to kneel. Had to stay perfectly still."

"What did he do next?"

"Turned off the light, closed the door, and left." Nick was pale. Too pale for Cody's liking. He stroked his arm reassuringly, and looked at Dr. Stevens, who simply nodded.

"Do you think he left the boat at that point?"

"I...don't know." Nick's brow furrowed. "I think I felt the boat rock—it was hard to stay balanced—but then it's...kind of blurry. Just remember having to hold still. Keep my arms and legs tensed."

Cody felt sick. Two hours, over two hours he had to hold that position, had to keep perfectly still. Thinking he was going to die. He took a shaky breath.

"Do you remember anything else after that?"

"Just Cody—" His eyes flicked to Cody, and for a moment he was startled by the raw emotion in them. "Cody came in. He left, and came back with cutters, and he got me out I remember my throat hurt. And a paramedic talking to me, I think."

"Did the suspect speak to you at any point?"

Nick thought for a moment. "No. No, he didn't say anything at all."

"Is there anything else about his physical appearance that you remember?"

"He...had some keys, I think, in his left pocket. Couldn't see a wallet. Looked like his knee was wet. Left knee." His eyes slid shut. "Maybe...had a watch...think I remember seeing silver at the edge of his glove...left wrist..."

Munro's face had barely changed during the questioning, but somehow Cody thought he could tell she was pleased. Nick had given her quite a bit of description. He wondered if they would be able to find the bastard now. Nick's the only one who lived. He's the only one who's even seen him. Sudden terror gripped his heart. No wonder he's under police guard. If he thinks that Nick can identify him...if he feels he needs to finish the job... Cody tried to keep his thoughts under control. He squeezed Nick's arm again. Nick lay still, breathing shallowly.

Munro stood, waiting patiently, looking over at Dr. Stevens for a moment and then back to Nick.

"What else?" whispered Nick.

"Have you noticed any unusual activity on the pier?" she asked. "Anyone who didn't seem to fit in, strangers...perhaps someone you saw repeatedly in the past week or two?"

"There are a lot of strangers at the pier," said Cody. "It's a tourist attraction. There are people everywhere, day and night."

"Anyone seem suspicious to you?"

"No," whispered Nick. "Didn't notice anyone."

"A week or two?" asked Cody, worried. "You think he had us under surveillance?"

"It's a logical conclusion," she said evasively.

"Listen," said Cody, feeling his temper taking over. "He's just been through hell. We deserve some answers. We're detectives—"

"He's watched some of the other victims," she said. "Sometimes for a week, sometimes for a month." She looked back at Nick. "Do you remember seeing anything unusual? Anything at all? Perhaps a visit from the electric company, or the phone company. Meter reader."

"No," said Cody. Nick agreed.

"I've already interviewed your friend, Mr. Bozinsky. He recalls someone delivering something last week."

"That was for Mimi—" whispered Nick.

"Mimi?" she asked, confused.

"Nick's chopper," said Cody.

"Friend of mine from the airport dropped it off. Can't remember anyone else." Nick took another sip of water. "Just Dooley hanging out as usual."

She paused, and asked, in the same calm manner she'd asked all of the other questions, "How long have you and Mr. Allen been in a romantic relationship?"

Cody gaped at her at first, and then raw anger flooded him.

"We're not in a relationship," said Nick, too loudly, and he coughed, the expression on his face one of agony.

"Mr. Ryder," said Dr. Stevens, concerned. "You need to whisper." He gave him a sip from both cups.

"I apologize, Mr. Ryder," she said crisply. She didn't appear sorry at all. "Based on the information we'd received, we made the assumption that you were in a same-sex relationship together."

Once he had recovered, Nick glared at her. "Last five people I dated," he whispered angrily. "Katie, Allison, Linda, Jennifer, and Carly."

Munro didn't seem to notice his hostility. She narrowed her eyes. "Allison? Do you know her last name?"

"Allison Thompson," supplied Cody. He tried to look calm, but he was seething inside. First the paramedics, then the doctor, now the FBI agents. If they think he's gay—if the newspapers start reporting this—

"Allison Thompson," she repeated.

"We dated a month," whispered Nick. "She was here taking care of her sick aunt. We broke up when she went back to San Gabriel."

She turned to Wheeler, who pulled an envelope out from the inner pocket of his jacket. Fishing inside, he handed her a photo, which she showed to Nick. "Is this her?"

Nick looked closely at it. "Yeah, that's her. I don't understand—"

"Mr. Ryder, I'm sorry. This may be difficult for you to hear. There are cases that haven't been reported to the news, and one of them is Allison Thompson."

Nick turned even whiter, and Cody saw Dr. Stevens glance at the heart monitor again. "Allison—she—he killed her?"


"Who else?" demanded Cody.

"Mr. Allen, this is an ongoing investigation—"

"Nick just gave you the best information you've had so far in this case," said Cody, furious. "That bastard might want to come back and finish the job—Nick's in danger. Real danger. The least you can do is give us the big picture."

"I'm not at liberty to reveal..." She took one look at their stormy faces, and sighed. "All I can tell you is that the other unreported victim was a gay male in his thirties."

Cody felt an icy hand clutch at his heart. If the papers find out the other victim was gay—they'll assume Nick is gay. He took a deep breath and leaned against the bed to steady himself. Oh god. He swallowed heavily. If they go back and start talking to some of the other Air Cav vets, they might find out about Nick and Bobby Henson.

"How serious was your relationship with Allison?" asked Munro.

"Just a few dates," whispered Nick. He looked exhausted. Shellshocked. "Dinner. Went to the beach a couple times. Arcade, once. Did that photo booth thing..."

"Photo booth? You mean there were pictures of you both together?"

"Yeah." He blinked, long and slow. "We cut 'em in half. She took one half...wrote our names on the back...put it in her wallet..."

Munro turned to Wheeler. "Do you remember seeing that in her purse?" He pulled out the envelope again and thumbed through the contents, finally selecting a sheet and handing it to her. She checked it over carefully. "No, it wasn't in her wallet," she said, looking deep in thought. "Either she got rid of it, or the suspect took it. Since most women hold onto that sort of thing until the next relationship, it's most likely that she kept it. This might be how the suspect found out about Ryder." She turned back to Nick. "Did you keep your half?"

"In the nightstand," he said wearily.

She turned back to Wheeler, who shook his head. "He might have taken that half, too," she mused.

Nick's eyes slid shut, and Cody felt him relax under his hand. Dr. Stevens cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, Agent Munro, but I'm going to have to ask you to leave for now."

"Thank you for your time, Dr. Stevens," she said. "Good day, Mr. Allen." She left, Wheeler following close at her heels.

Cody exhaled, rubbing his eyes with his hands. "Damn. I thought this was going to get easier."

Dr. Stevens smiled. "It will. You just need to give it some time. It's all very intense at first, but eventually things will calm down."

Cody touched Nick's cheek lightly, worried. "Is he going to be okay?"

"I'm certain he will be fine," he said soothingly. "He's fatigued right now, but within a few days his energy levels will be better."

"I wish he had waited to give his statement."

"I don't think he wanted to wait. He was worried that he would forget the details and he wanted to get through as much as possible. I gave him a numbing agent to make it easier to speak, which should have no lasting effects." He finished checking Nick's vitals, and then made a few notations on his chart. "He'll probably sleep for a few hours. When he wakes again, we'll see if we can get a little nourishment into his system."

"Thanks, Dr. Stevens," said Cody, and the doctor nodded and left.

Nick was completely out, his breathing calm and even, and Cody couldn't help it; he wanted to be near him. He sat down on the bed, trying not to wake him.

Unbidden, thoughts of the press and the LA Times filled his head. If they find out about the unreleased victims... He was certain that anyone following the case had to wonder why the killer had suddenly attacked a man instead of a woman. He rubbed his temple, frowning. If the papers said Nick was gay...

Then again, if they did release information about the other victims, and Allison Thompson's connection to Nick came out, it might be received differently. How could they withhold the identities of the other two, but not Nick? Anger flared within him. In his gut, he knew it was because there was no way they could have hidden it, but he still felt like it was another unfair blow.

His attention went back to Nick, black hair wild against the white pillow, and he felt warmth fill his chest. He's alive. It had been so close. Just fifteen minutes more, and he'd have found Nick dead.

The thought of losing him was horrible. It pierced his heart like an icy blade. Would the killer try again? He shivered at the thought.

The dream resurfaced, and he looked at Nick's lips, remembering the intensity, remembering Nick clinging to him like a drowning man. Nick and Bobby had been careful, discreet, but still, there was no way to hide their easy affection with each other; Cody figured it out in his second week in camp. And after Bobby died, I had to watch him fall apart. He hated remembering those days, but Nick had pulled out of it, and they'd become good friends, then great friends.

And then that day on the ridge. He remembered the horrible burning pain of the bullet wound like it was yesterday. The downed chopper. The dead bodies. Nick revealing that he loved him, making it sound like an oath, and then swearing he was going to get Cody back to camp, no matter what. The strange light in his eyes, and then that kiss, nearly painful in its despair and hope.

Cody wiped away the wetness on his cheeks. I'm going to get you home, too, Nick. Safe and sound.

When had friendship turned to something more? Because he could feel it, that something more, and it was expanding in his heart. Maybe it'd always been there, and he'd been too scared to look at it closely. Do I love him like that? Like Bobby did? The thought was alarming. Nick never said anything about the kiss ever again. I was a scary moment, out there in the jungle.

He swore softly and put his head in his hands.

Nick woke after a few hours, and Eleanor and Cody both tried to coax him into drinking a little broth. He finally succumbed, barely consuming half the cup, but Cody was relieved nonetheless.

Eleanor had brought a tray of food for Cody, as well, and he ate it distractedly while Nick fell asleep again. While he knew it was for the best—Nick needed to rest—he couldn't help but wish, selfishly, that Nick would stay awake and talk to him. He wanted the reassurance that Nick was okay, that he was really going to be fine despite everything.

There was a knock at the door, and Murray entered hesitantly. "Cody?" he said quietly.

"C'mon in," said Cody. "He's sleeping right now, but I'm sure he'll wake up soon."

"How is he doing?" said Murray, pulling a chair closer to the bed and sitting down.

"He gave his statement to the FBI agents earlier," said Cody, standing up and stretching.

"Really?" said Murray, looking worried. "It's so soon, though."

"Yeah, but you know Nick, he just plowed through it like a bull." Cody took a few steps, swinging his arms, trying to ease his stiff muscles.

"True." Murray looked better; some of the strain had left his face, and the dark circles under his eyes had diminished.

"How's Tiffany?"

Murray looked up, blinking. "She's fine. She's at the conference. She wanted to stay with me, but I told her I would just be sleeping and it wasn't logical for her to sit and watch me sleep."

Cody involuntarily glanced at Nick. "Yeah, of course."

"She argued with me at first. But I pointed out that if she went to the conference, she could take notes for me, therefore allowing me to experience at least a portion of it, and she couldn't come up with a counterargument to that."

"No, I can't imagine she could," said Cody, amused.

They both looked up at a knock at the door. "Allen, Bozinsky," barked out Quinlan, striding in.

"Quinlan?" said Cody in disbelief. "Murray, we really have to see about altering Nick's guest list."

"Stuff it, Allen," said Quinlan, grinning. "I've just been talking with the Feds. They say Ryder gave his statement today."

Nick stirred on the bed, groaning, and Cody immediately grabbed for the water, giving him a couple sips. Blue eyes fluttered open, looking bewildered, and Cody squeezed his shoulder soothingly. "It's okay, Nick, you're at the hospital. Everything's fine. Well, except Quinlan's here."

"Ryder," said Quinlan gruffly. "Good to see you're still here."

Murray and Cody both exchanged looks of shock.

"Can't say the same about you," whispered Nick, half-smiling.

"Listen," said Quinlan. "You three bozos have never been high on my list, but this attack—nobody does this in King Harbor. Not in my town. I've put extra men on this case, and I've been talking to the Feds."

The thought of Munro and Quinlan interacting almost made Cody laugh. "What did they say?"

"There've been other victims that haven't been released to the press," said Quinlan.

"Too bad Nick wasn't one of them," said Cody.

"Cody, Lieutenant Quinlan tried..." said Murray.

"Too many people hanging all over that damned pier," growled Quinlan. "The LA Times had a reporter there within minutes." His hand was on his hip, and his other hand gesticulated vehemently. "I threatened them all, but it didn't work. The name of your boat is painted on it, Allen, and all the locals know about your harebrained detective agency."

"What else did the Feds tell you?" said Murray, adjusting his glasses.

"They gave me a big hunk of papers about the killer. Some report on his behavior."

"And what does it say?" asked Murray.

"I'll tell you what it says," said Quinlan, pointing at Murray. "That killer's a big sicko. He's killed six times, and he's getting better and better at it. He doesn't leave anything behind—no fingerprints, no evidence—nearly everything he uses he finds at the scene."

"He hasn't left a single clue?" said Murray in disbelief. "I find that very hard to believe. Even the most clever of criminals—"

"I told you, he's like a ghost," said Quinlan, shaking his finger. "He's smart as hell, too. The other guy, Brian Staedtler—he had trouble subduing him. Nearly got away. He brought chloroform, but didn't expect the guy to fight so hard. Staedtler got beaten up a helluva lot worse than Ryder, here. And the killer screwed up with the cords, too. Couldn't restrain him properly at first." Cody glanced at Nick, who seemed to be absorbing every word.

"Are you saying..." said Murray, looking thoughtful. "Are you saying that he learned from his mistakes?"

"He brought a taser with him this time, didn't he?" said Quinlan grimly. "He must have known that Nick was stronger."

"A taser?" asked Murray, looking intrigued. "They're not that common."

"They're easy to find, Bozinsky," said Quinlan. "Military surplus stores carry them all the time."

"Still, it could be a good lead." Murray put his hand to his chin, his eyes somewhere far away. "I could work out a data array generator that might help..."

"Spare me your computer nonsense," said Quinlan. "I've got detectives working on this. Let us handle it."

"How long ago were the other murders?" whispered Nick.

The three of them turned to look at him. "Allison Thompson was killed three and a half weeks ago," said Quinlan. "Staedtler was killed two months ago."

"He took his time before he went after a male target again," said Murray, still deep in thought. "He had to perfect his technique."

Cody felt sick to his stomach. "Damn."

"I want you to stay out of this," said Quinlan, glaring at them all.

"Look, Lieutenant, I just want Nick to get better," said Cody, holding up his hands. "Right now that's all that matters."

"I would very much like to see the behavioral profile you mentioned, Lieutenant," said Murray.

"What?" asked Cody. "Murray, I don't think that's a good idea—"

Quinlan looked aggravated. "Didn't you hear a word I said, Bozinsky?"

"I think I might be able to bring some new insights to the case," insisted Murray. "Could I look over your copy?"

Quinlan stood still for a long moment, his gaze going from Murray to Nick and then back to Murray again. "Fine. Stop by the station and you can have an hour with it. No more." He turned on his heel and made for the door, where he paused for a moment. "Get better, Ryder," he growled before he left.

"Surreal," said Cody, shaking his head. Then, to Murray, "What the hell are you thinking?"

"I just want to understand," said Murray, coloring.

"Nick needs us right now—"

"Cody," whispered Nick. "It's all right." He lay silent for a moment. "Murray, I think you should give your presentation Sunday morning."

"My—Nick, no, I don't—"

"I know how much it means to you," whispered Nick, grimacing as he shifted slightly in bed. "There's no way it should be ruined what happened."

"I want to help."

"I know, but I'll be okay. I might even be out before then." He coughed, and Cody gave him another sip of water. " should go. Doesn't happen often, y'know, and Roboz'll pout if y'don't..."

Murray smiled sadly. "You're probably right. But if you need me, Nick, I'll be there. You just say the word."

"I will, buddy." Nick smiled, and then the smile faded and was replaced by a look of utter weariness.

That interview with the agents took a lot out of him. Cody watched as Nick fell asleep, the lines of pain smoothing out slightly. "I agree with him, Murray," he said softly. "You should give your presentation on Sunday. Don't let this bastard take something else away from us."

"That's what Tiffany said." Murray smiled sadly. "I mean it, though. If anything happens, if you need me—"

"We know," said Cody warmly, walking over and giving him a hug. "Thanks, Murray."

Murray eventually left for Straightaway's, telling Cody that Tiffany was waiting for him there; she'd driven back from the conference that day just to see him.

Eleanor brought more broth for dinner, along with some liquid supplements, and Nick grimaced but drank it all. There were no other visitors, and Henderson and his partner were replaced with another pair that Cody didn't recognize. Eventually an orderly brought a cot in, which was inspected by the cops first, and then there was a tray of hospital food for Cody, which he tried not to think about as he ate. Nick woke twice more while Eleanor was taking his vitals, but only for a few moments. Cody could clearly read the flash of fear in his eyes, and tried to reassure him both times.

Murray had brought a couple magazines, and Cody tried to distract himself with articles about restoring wooden hulls, but there was a buzzing in his head, and he realized that he was completely exhausted.

It was nearly nine o'clock when Eleanor came in again, dimming the lights, and Cody crawled into the cot, still wearing his clothes. He was asleep before his head hit the pillow, fading into a dark, dreamless sleep.

Something was wrong. Cody came awake slowly, blinking. Hospital. Nick. Then he heard it again, a hoarse rasp that sounded like his name, and he was off the cot like a shot, rushing to Nick's side and pulling him into his arms. "Nick, shhh, it's okay," he said, grabbing for the call button and pushing it. "It's okay, you're safe. You're safe." Nick's hospital gown was soaked with sweat, and he was shivering, clutching at Cody's shirt weakly. He made another rasping noise. "Don't talk," begged Cody.

Eleanor was there, turning up the lights, and Nick winced. "I think he's had a nightmare," said Cody. "He might need something...a painkiller...I don't know..."

She nodded, working around Cody to assess Nick's situation. "I'll be right back."

Cody soothed him, running a hand down his back, cradling him gently. Nick hadn't had a dream this bad in years, not since the incident with General Walker, and he couldn't help but worry that this was only the first in a new—and worse—series. "It's okay," he repeated. His shoulder was wet with Nick's tears. "Shh, Nick, it's all over, you're safe, you're safe in the hospital." Nick's hands relaxed on his shirt, and then tightened again, and he moaned weakly. "I know you're hurting. Eleanor's gone to get you something. Just take it easy."

"You..." said Nick roughly, and then he coughed, his whole body tensing from the pain.

"Please don't talk," said Cody. "Just relax." Nick's head was heavier against his shoulder, and he felt the tension in his body began to give, his hands slowly slipping out of Cody's shirt.

By the time Eleanor returned, Nick was asleep again, and she shrugged philosophically, putting aside the medication and bringing in an orderly to help strip the bed and get Nick into a new gown. He was out for good, not even a twitch, and Cody sat next to the bed for a few minutes, troubled. If he can't let this go... A stab of fear pierced his gut, and when he lay down on the cot again, it took a long time to fall asleep.

Chapter Text

The next morning meant prolonged visits from both Dr. Stevens and Claudia, and Cody got to know the little waiting room around the corner very well. The sullen girl was back, sitting in the corner. Another woman waited there as well, watching her two year old daughter run around the room making noise. After a half hour, the little girl suddenly noticed Cody, and immediately decided that he was the funniest thing she'd ever seen, crowing with delight and pointing at him. Cody played peek-a-boo with her for a few minutes, and she reacted with astonished laughter time and time again. "Must be the moustache," said her mother, smiling as well.

Back in the room, Nick didn't seem to want to talk about Claudia's visit, though he told him that Dr. Stevens was happy with his progress and he might be able to leave sooner than expected. Cody was surprised, especially after the nightmare last night, but Nick really did look better. Some color had returned to his face, and the swelling had receded. He was able to get his own sips of water now that his hands weren't so tender, and he looked a little more rested, as well.

Too bad we can't go home. Straightaway's is nice, but it's not the Riptide...

He blinked, suddenly frozen in shock as a nightmare image of Nick swam into his head, bound and gasping. Taking in a shaky breath, he ran a hand through his hair. I don't know if I can sleep in that room ever again. Hell, I don't even know if I can set foot in there. He swallowed heavily. And if I can't, what about Nick?

"Cody?" whispered Nick. "You okay?"

"Yeah," he replied, trying to push those thoughts from his head.

"What're you thinking about?"

Cody stood next to the bed, and looked down at his hands. When he looked back up at Nick's face, the blue eyes held a knowing look. "Nick, I just...I don't know. I mean..." He trailed off, realizing how stupid it was to make Nick worry about his own problems.

"Don't shut me out," whispered Nick urgently, his hand grabbing Cody's wrist loosely. "Please, Cody."

He was surprised at the fright on Nick's face. "Look, I was just wondering about...well, if you get released tonight, and we go to Straightaway's..."

"You're worried about going back to the Riptide."

Cody could only nod. Nick's hand was warm on his arm.

"I don't know what'll happen," whispered Nick. "All I know is I gotta try. It's home, and I don't want to run away from it. Especially not because of...because of him."

"I don't know if I can go back," said Cody quietly.

Nick's hand squeezed. "You have to try," he whispered. "It's your boat, Cody. You can't..." He coughed, and grabbed the water, taking a few sips.

"There's only one thing that absolutely has to happen," said Cody firmly. "You need to rest and get better. That's what's most important. Everything else will wait." He pulled his hand away from Nick's and touched his shoulder. "This is probably a good time for another nap...Eleanor won't be in to torture you for at least another hour."

Nick smiled and put the cup down. "Good plan." Shifting on the bed, he relaxed, his eyes closing, and he was asleep soon enough.

Cody sat for a long while, watching Nick. What would he do if they couldn't go back to the Riptide? He shivered, feeling wretched. The Riptide was more than a boat. She was a cherished friend, his home, his escape. He rubbed his eyes, feeling completely undone. If Nick came to the realization that he couldn't set foot there ever again, then he knew that he couldn't, either.

He blinked. Would he really give up the boat if Nick wouldn't live there?

He knew the answer in a heartbeat. There was nowhere Nick could go that he wouldn't follow him.

It scared him.

It thrilled him.

I'm a basket case. I'm the one who should be seeing Claudia. He blew out a breath and let his hands fall into his lap.

"Cody?" asked Murray, coming into the room.

"Hey, Murray," said Cody quietly. "He just fell asleep." Murray seemed to be waiting for something, and Cody glanced in his direction. "C'mon, Murray, pull up a chair."

When Murray was settled, he handed him a brown paper bag. "I thought you might like something besides hospital food."

"What's this?" asked Cody. Inside the bag was a bearclaw, and his stomach rumbled at the sight of it. "Hey, thanks, Murray, you're the best." He devoured it in a handful of bites.

"Wow, you were really hungry, Cody," said Murray, obviously impressed.

Cody just smiled around the last mouthful of donut and then went and washed his hands in the sink. When he returned, he noticed Murray watching Nick, looking sad.

"Hey, Murray, he's going to be okay," said Cody, squeezing his arm. "The doctor says he might even be released tonight."

"That's really boss," said Murray, looking surprised. "I didn't expect that so soon."

"Me either, to tell you the truth, but he says that Nick's healing really well." He sat down again.

"I stopped by the station today and read the report," said Murray quietly. He frowned, lacing his fingers together in his lap.

"I'm sorry, Murray," said Cody sincerely. "I know it wasn't pleasant."

"Quinlan says that he'll provide police protection for us for at least two weeks, maybe three, in case the...killer decides to come after Nick again," continued Murray. "When I spoke with Agent Munro, however, she was fairly certain that he won't try again. She says it's very rare for a killer like this to return to the same victim."

"So the FBI won't be providing any protection?"

"Oh no, Cody, definitely not," said Murray. "They don't do that sort of thing. It's up to the local police department. They're just two agents, after all. In fact, it's rather surprising that there are two agents assigned to this instead of just one, but that's because this is such a high-profile case."

"The media."

"And the number of victims. It's been on everyone's minds. Well, at least, everyone who lives in the LA area."

"You read that report," said Cody, thinking hard. "What do you think? Do you think he'll try to attack Nick again?"

Murray blinked in surprise. "Well, I don't know. I mean, most of his behavior has been fairly standard for a serial killer of his kind..."

"So you're saying he's predictable. And generally, killers like him don't come back a second time."

"Generally, no, Cody, but he's not exactly a textbook case. The fact that he's killed both male and female victims is rather unusual. Also, all of the other victims were raped. Including the...male victim." He looked exceedingly uncomfortable. "I've been trying to put together theories about why he would choose Nick as his next victim. Originally, I thought it might not be him, that it might be a copycat killer, but Munro is absolutely certain it was him, based on the cords—"

"She told you that?"

"No, Quinlan mentioned it this morning. He also said that they think that Nick was chosen because of a photo that one of the prior victims had—"

"Allison Thompson," said Cody, frowning.

"Yes. One of the theories is that, up until now, all of the victims have been single—"

"Nick's single."

"Well, yes, but he's...actively dating. None of the other victims had been on dates for months, except for Allison. And that was a fluke. Apparently she was here in King Harbor for a month, staying with her aunt, and she met Nick on the beach and had a fling with him. Agent Munro suspects that the killer found the picture and realized that she hadn't been entirely single, and he became terribly angry. She thinks he might have already been targeting the victim who lived in Hermosa Beach, and because it was so close to King Harbor, he decided Nick as well. But it wasn't for the same reasons that he killed the other was if he were tying up loose ends."

"I don't understand," said Cody, frustrated. "Does this mean he won't come after Nick again?"

"I'm trying to explain, Cody," said Murray. "This attack on Nick—that was unpredictable behavior. Nothing he had done previously would ever make anyone think he would change his MO so drastically. Even though Agent Munro believes that he is no longer a threat to Nick, I'm not inclined to agree. It could be that the killer has traits of perfectionism. Nick is a threat to him, and a threat to his 'work.' If he's obsessed enough, I think that he could be driven to try to...attack him again." He fell silent.

"Damn," said Cody.

"He's going to keep killing." Murray adjusted his glasses. "His attacks are coming closer and closer together. He's not going to stop. Not unless he's caught."

"Do you think there's a pattern?"

"Not exactly." Murray looked deep in thought. "More like an...absence of one, in fact. Even though he's targeting a very specific sort of person, he's doing it in a very random manner. Too random, perhaps."

"Too random?" Cody was bewildered. "Is that even possible?"

"He''s just that the locations the victims live in... Well, geographically, they're in a pattern that's a little too perfect for just basic human sampling. It reminds me of the random number data generators that I helped create at MIT. You see, it's difficult for a computer to put together a truly random set of numbers. No matter how many times it's done, there's a small set of numbers that will be chosen with a higher degree of probability." He sat back in his seat. "I know this sounds silly, because there have only been six victims, after all, but the locations...their degree of relativity to each other makes me wonder if a computer was involved in choosing the areas."

"Maybe you could look into that further," said Cody, growing intrigued. Part of him wanted nothing more than to get as far away as possible from anything to do with the killer, but far stronger was the desire to keep Nick safe and punish the bastard who'd hurt him.

"Most of my systems have been confiscated." Murray lifted his hands up in frustration. "I have the Roboz, and my portable computer, but to do an analysis this large, I need something more powerful. I could use Tiffany's systems, but she's in Pasadena."

"Whatever you can do," said Cody. "I think we should investigate what we can."

"So I'm your newest client?" whispered Nick.

Cody jumped to his feet, startled. "Nick! I didn't know you were awake."

"Obviously," he whispered.

"You understand, though, right?" Cody came closer. "He needs to be caught. If we can do anything to help the police..."

"This sounds like a little more than helping." He fixed Cody with a worried look.

"If you don't want us to, we won't," promised Cody. Please want us to.

Nick exhaled softly. "I'm not going to stop you. careful. Whatever you do."

"We'll be very careful," said Murray. "I'll turn everything over to Quinlan. Our names won't even be mentioned to the FBI."

"Okay," whispered Nick. He looked up at Cody, but the worry hadn't faded from his eyes, and Cody reached out to run his fingers through his hair.

"Are you up to going to Straightaway's tonight?" asked Cody quietly.

"Yeah." Nick looked determined. "I hate hospitals, man. I want out of here."

Cody sighed. "I just...this was pretty serious, Nick, are you sure—"

"I'm sure," he whispered immediately.

Cody traded a look of concern with Murray. Even though Nick was making a lot of progress, it still seemed like it was too soon. Maybe he could talk to Dr. Stevens privately. "Will Claudia be making house calls?"

Nick narrowed his eyes. "Don't think so."

"You can't get through this by yourself," said Cody. "This isn't just a sprained ankle from falling off a moving car. This is..."

"I know," said Nick softly. He blinked a few times, looking tired. "I know that it won't be easy, that everything won't snap back to normal, that I'll probably be fighting nightmares for a month. But I don't want to do it in a hospital. I hate it here, Cody..." His look was imploring. "I just want to get out of here."

"Okay." Cody sighed. "Okay. But if anything goes wrong, anything at all, I'm bringing you right back. Or calling Claudia. Whatever it takes."

Nick smiled, and Cody squeezed his shoulder for good measure before sitting down.

"Tiffany sends her best wishes for a speedy recovery," said Murray brightly.

"Great," whispered Nick. "Tell her...I said thanks..." Once more he was asleep, and Cody felt the tension within him unspool just a bit.

Lunchtime was more of a success than breakfast had been, with Nick eating mashed potatoes and a little Jell-O, and drinking more broth and water. During the afternoon, Cody and Murray were kicked out for a little while as Eleanor took out Nick's catheter and IV line and Dr. Stevens examined him again. The little girl and her mother were gone from the waiting room, but the sullen girl was still there. Fortunately, Cody didn't have to bother going through the dismal collection of magazines again, because he could talk to Murray. Even if the conversation did revolve around static bitmapped images and the ramifications of partial compression rates. He found it a bit frightening that he was actually able to follow part of it.

Cody managed to catch up with Dr. Stevens on his way out. It turned out that the doctor hadn't really recommended discharging Nick tonight, but he wasn't completely against it.

Back in the room, Nick seemed more alert, and was even sitting up. Eleanor looked irritated as she swept out of the room.

"Hey, buddy," said Cody warmly. "You're looking better."

"Yeah, I feel better," whispered Nick.

Well, if he really wants to leave this badly, how can I stop him? Cody smiled and sat down. Anyway, it's not like we're going deep sea diving. We'll be stuck in one of Straightaway's rooms, where I can watch him like a hawk. "Murray, which room did Straightaway rent out for us?"

"The honeymoon suite," said Murray brightly. Cody and Nick stared at him. "Oh, no, that was a joke, guys, it's not the honeymoon suite. It's one of the family suites. Isn't that funny? Honeymoon suite!" He giggled to himself.

"Ocean view?" asked Cody, hoping that he'd be able to keep an eye on the Riptide.

"Er, no," said Murray. "The agents insisted."

"Yeah, I was afraid they'd say that," said Cody glumly.

"At least we don't have to go far to get a drink." Nick settled back in the bed.

"No booze for you." Cody waggled a finger at him. "Not with pain medication, buddy, you know better. They don't mix."

"Haven't been taking pain medication."

Nick didn't exactly look smug, but still, Cody could see the stubborn set of his jaw, and he groaned. "Why not?"

"Told them the truth. Sometimes makes me sick to my stomach."

It was the truth, but not entirely. "You could have taken a half dose, at least. It doesn't always make you sick."

"Oh no, Cody, that's not a good idea," said Murray. "Not with throat damage like that. If he'd vomited, it could have been very bad."

"Yeah," agreed Nick, a half-smile curving his lips.

"Fine. But if they give you a prescription, I'm having it filled." He gave Nick a warning glare. "And if you need it, you're taking it. Your throat's probably healed enough by now."

"If it's healed enough, then I don't need to take them." Nick's bland look didn't fool Cody at all.

"This isn't open for discussion," said Cody. "You're going home too early—don't try to argue about it, I know you are—and if so, then I'm going to get painkillers for you, just in case."

"Okay," whispered Nick.

Surprised, Cody's mouth closed with a snap. Usually this argument took at least three more exchanges before one of them exploded. Maybe Nick's in more pain than I thought. Worried, he looked at him again.

"I need to check in with Tiffany," said Murray, checking his watch. "She's in between lectures right now, waiting for my call."

"Tell her we said hi," said Cody, watching as Murray left.

"He's lucky," whispered Nick.

"Who, Murray?" Cody turned to look at him. Nick's eyes were hard to read.

"Yeah. That Tiffany girl...she's great for him."

"C'mon, Nick, you'll find a girl like that one day." His tone wasn't convincing, not even to himself. A strange possessive feeling filled him.

"Maybe I will." Sadness washed over his face. "Or maybe some psycho will find her and torture her to death."

"Nick..." Cody was at a loss for words. Nick had shifted from contented to maudlin in the blink of an eye. Considering what he's gone through, it's probably normal. "That wasn't...she..."

"I know." Nick exhaled. "One in a million chance. One in a billion. Whatever. Murray could probably give you the stats. But hell, Cody, the numbers don't matter. I feel...cursed."

"You're not, buddy, you're not." Cody grabbed for his hand. "Listen, you got through a war. You know the statistics for chopper pilots—it's unbelievable that you came back."

"Crashed a chopper. Three guys died. You nearly died." Nick's eyes were closed now.

"But you lived. You got me out of there. And no one could have piloted any chopper away from that ambush. We were lucky." He squeezed Nick's hand. "Nick, you can't think that this bastard—that your luck was somehow responsible. It wasn't."

"I guess. But...I just...I can't believe Allison's gone. She was just leaving to go back home. She said she'd come back sometime to visit her aunt. Maybe have another go at us. She was sweet, Cody, she was sweet, and he fucking destroyed her..." Tears leaked out from under his eyelids.

"I'm sorry, Nick, I'm so sorry." He kept hold of his hand, not wanting to lose that connection.

More tears. Nick opened his eyes, looking absolutely miserable. "She wanted to be a nurse," he whispered. "She was going to start night school."

Cody said nothing, just clasped their fingers together tighter. Nick's emotions were always like a summer storm; fierce, deeply felt, and then gone, leaving clear skies in their wake, but this... I don't know how he'll get to a clear sky after this.

"Damn." Nick wiped his eyes with his free hand. "Sorry."

"You don't have anything to be sorry for." Nick's expression was full of pain, and Cody's heart contracted in sympathy. "Nick..."

He blinked, and then gave Cody a faint smile. His eyes spoke volumes.

He stood there for a long time, holding Nick's hand. The room was quiet, except for the soft beeping of the heart monitor and the faint voices of the cops joking at the door.

It was early evening before Cody could actually get Nick out of the hospital. There were discharge papers to sign, and he'd spent a half hour talking to Dr. Stevens, who'd gone over the various aspects of Nick's injuries and what to watch out for. Most of it Cody had foreseen, such as keeping the near-liquid diet for another day or two and Neosporin for the ligature wounds, but other aspects were surprising. The doctor had mentioned some swelling and pain in Nick's knees and other joints, not just from kneeling for so long, but also from being bound so tightly. He was given pages of instructions involving applying cold packs, prescriptions for liquid medication, and the number for Claudia.

Then he had to confer with Quinlan and Murray, who had thought up a plan to get Nick into Straightaway's without being seen. Then there was more paperwork to sign, and the prescriptions to fill, and by the time he got back to Nick's room, he was exhausted.

Murray was sitting in a chair, but the bed was empty. "Where—" said Cody.

Murray pointed at the bathroom door, which was closed. "He took a shower, and I think he's getting dressed."

"By himself?" asked Cody, concerned.

"Well, yes," said Murray. "Eleanor tried to help him, but let's just say that Nick wasn't very receptive to the idea."

Cody laughed. "Sounds like Nick." He sat down in the other chair and yawned.

"Cody," said Murray hesitantly. "Do you think you think that Nick will be able to come back to the Riptide?"

"I hope so," said Cody quietly. "I really hope so, Murray. But, knowing Nick...I think he will, whether he can or not."

"He's very stubborn." He looked down at his hands. "But that's how he lasted so long."

For a moment he was confused, but then he realized what Murray meant.

"Two hours and fifteen minutes," said Murray, shivering. "I just can't imagine what went through his head."

The whole thing's a puzzle Murray will pick apart for days. "Me either."

"None of the female victims lasted more than an hour and a half, except for the last one," said Murray, his eyes getting a faraway look. "She was a tennis instructor. The male victim made it to two hours. The shape of the neck, the structure of the muscles...the killer must have known that men would take longer to asphyxiate."

"Can we not talk about this now?" asked Cody.

"What? Oh, of course, Cody, I'm sorry." Murray adjusted his glasses again, looking apologetic.

"It's fine, Murray, it's just...I don't I want to think about it right now. I just want to get Nick safely to Straightaway's."

The bathroom door opened, and Nick emerged, wearing a long-sleeve shirt with a collar that nearly hid the mark on his neck. The shirt was rumpled, and paired with equally rumpled khaki pants. He was also wearing a pair of dress shoes which looked like they'd never been worn before.

His hair was still damp, and he tried to button the left cuff, fumbling at the material. He was clean-shaven, though still too pale by far. Cody couldn't stand to watch it any longer; he got up and crossed the room, buttoning the cuff for him.

"Thanks," breathed Nick. This close, Cody could see how much the effort had cost him, and he put a hand under one elbow, helping guide him back to the bed. Nick sat down stiffly, one hand coming up to his throat for a moment.

Eleanor came in with a wheelchair, and Nick seemed like he was going to argue, but a single fierce look from Cody stopped that. After the final discharge papers were signed by Nick, they went down to a side exit, while Murray and an undercover officer left from the front door in a cop car.

Nick got into the Jimmy, brushing off Cody's help. The sunset had faded into dark, and as Cody started up the car and headed for Straightaway's, he couldn't help but feel uneasy. He checked the rear-view mirror constantly for anyone tailing them, but it seemed clear.

"Are you going to talk to the press?" asked Cody.

"What do you think?" whispered Nick.


"Good guess." Nick was looking out the window, the lights playing across his face strangely, and Cody had to rein in the sudden impulse to touch him.

"You'll get offers—"

"I don't care if they want to pay me a million dollars," growled Nick softly, and then he started coughing.

"Here." Cody passed him a cup of water he'd brought from the hospital, and Nick sipped from it, rubbing his throat. "I just wanted to be on the same page. Because the phone's going to ring. A lot."

Nick only nodded, leaning back in the seat.

Straightaway's was near, and Cody pulled up to the side entrance where trucks dropped off deliveries and the employees came and went. Henderson was there, in plain clothes, and he nodded at them. Cody left the engine running and jumped out, helping Nick out, and Henderson got in and drove off.

"I see Straightway's got a new valet," whispered Nick, and Cody chuckled.

Inside, they went through the kitchen and up the service elevator. Cody could feel Nick trembling, and he tightened his grip on Nick's waist, taking more of his weight. By the time they got to the room, Nick looked white as a ghost, and was favoring his right leg, and Cody got them inside and steered Nick directly to the bedroom, ignoring his muttered protest. "You're getting in bed now."

"I just got dressed." Nick's eyelashes fluttered for a moment, and Cody lowered him down on the mattress carefully. "'M okay."

"Sure you are." Bending down, he took off the unfamiliar dress shoes. He wasn't wearing socks. Murray must not have— He heard the door open. Cody cursed, realizing he'd left his gun in the Jimmy, and called out, "Who's there?"

"It's me, Cody," said Murray, coming into the room. "It worked perfectly! They thought Anthony was Nick, and they followed us."

"Great job, Murray." Cody smiled at him. Nick tried to unbutton his shirt, but it was clear that his hands were shaking too much, and Cody gently pushed them out of the way and did it himself. There was an expression of annoyance on his face for a moment, but it was quickly replaced with one of exhaustion, and as Cody pulled the shirt off, Nick started to list to one side, his eyes fluttering shut. "Whoa, wait, Nick..." He guided him to the bed.

"Mmm." His eyes reopened a crack.

"C'mon, I need to get your pants off."

"Gotta buy me a beer first," he slurred.

"Help me out here." Cody unbuttoned his pants, and Nick tried to push them down. "No, Nick, just lift your hips for a second." Nick blinked owlishly, but then complied.

Right knee looks swollen. He pulled the pants off carefully, not wanting to cause any discomfort. "That's great, Nick, thanks. Go to sleep." He pulled the covers up over him.

"Yeah," agreed Nick, and a moment later, he was out.

There was a knock at the door, and Murray went to answer it. Cody heard Henderson's voice. Coming back swiftly, Murray jingled the keys to the Jimmy at him.

"Keep them. You'll need them to get to Pasadena." Cody went to the little fridge in the kitchen, checking the freezer unit inside, relieved to see that someone had stocked it with ice cubes.

"Pasadena—" Murray paused. "I was going to drive up in the morning."

"You should drive up now," said Cody. "It'll be easier. Plus, I'm sure Tiffany will be delighted to see you."

"I thought I could help." Murray sounded disappointed.

Cody whirled around. "Murray, are you serious? You've been an incredible help. I just drove here without Nick being harassed by reporters—I call that a major help. And the ice in the freezer—I'm sure you had something to do with it."

Murray nodded. "I brought over some clothes, too. And one of Nick's guns is in the nightstand..."

Cody felt relief course through him. "That's great, Murray. See? You've been a huge help. And Tiffany's probably going to want to help you out tonight for the presentation. I'm sure the Roboz needs a good coat of polish..."

"Actually, the alloy—oh, I see what you mean, Cody." Murray finally smiled. "Are you sure you won't need me?"

"We'll manage," said Cody sincerely. "Really. Remember what Nick said. Your presentation—this kind of thing only comes around once, and you don't want to miss it."

"All right," said Murray. "I bought some books and magazines, and there's some food in the fridge. And I told Straightaway to have them make some Jell-O and—"

"Murray, you're a wonder," said Cody, and he pulled him into an embrace. "You're the best."

After Murray left, Cody checked out the suite. There were three rooms. The outer room had a large picture window at one end. The view was of the back alleyway next to Straightaway's garage, which made him think of Sasha, and Nick working on the brakes on her Fiat. Was the bastard watching him, then? Watching him, waiting for the moment to strike... He shivered and closed the drapes, turning out the lights as he walked back into the bedroom.

The bedroom held two queen sized beds, a nightstand, and a couple of dressers. A TV was situated on one, promising HBO. The door to the bathroom was near Nick's bed, and inside, a nightlight cast a dim glow on the white fixtures.

Nick was fast asleep, and Cody checked his forehead. A little cool. He found another blanket in the closet and covered him with it.

He stripped out of his clothes, feeling dog-tired. Has it really only been two days? It feels like an eternity. The clock read eight twenty-five. Forty-eight hours ago I was driving back from the club. I had no idea that my best friend was being nearly strangled to death in our bedroom. He tried to take a calming breath.

The sheets were cool as he slid in. Reaching up, he turned the light off, and listened to Nick's steady breathing in the other bed.

He fell asleep and dreamed of the ocean.

The next morning Cody woke up at seven. A shower, shave, and fresh clothes, and he felt a tiny bit of the darkness disappear. Maybe that's how you get over something like this. Each day, a little more fades away.

Nick was still fast asleep. Cody couldn't remember seeing him sleep so much before, except maybe that time in Baltimore. The blankets had drifted, and part of his shoulder and upper arm were visible, dark, bruised lines crisscrossing them, and Cody grimaced as he pulled the blankets up higher. Nick didn't even stir.

Wandering back out to the outer room, he peeked out the window again. King Harbor was already stirring. He could hear someone in the next suite taking a shower. Yawning, he let go of the curtain and stretched.

Picking up a magazine at random, he sat down on the couch, propping his feet on the table. He tried to read an article about rudder maintenance, but the words kept shifting, and eventually he realized he'd read the same sentence four times. He put the magazine down in disgust.

The room began to grow brighter, illuminating the tiny efficiency kitchen and the avocado green couches.

He picked up a pad of paper next to the phone. Straightaway's...your place to relax was printed at the bottom. Grabbing the pen, he started making a list.

Clean up the boat

Get everything back from the agents

Cancel job at convention

Talk to Murray about better security—video on the slip?

His mind buzzed with thoughts of his boat and the investigation, and he tried to concentrate on the list, but couldn't. Sighing, he put it aside. Grabbing the remote, he turned on the TV, turning down the sound as far as it would go as soon as the picture materialized.

It was a movie he didn't recognize. A man and a woman stood opposite each other, the woman gesticulating, the expression on her face one of abject despair. Her reddish-brown hair curled in waves down her back.

The man stood, watching and waiting for her to finish. His hair was honey-brown, and his good looks were striking. Cody continued to watch, fascinated even without the soundtrack.

The woman made a single motion with one of her delicate hands, and her fingers seemed to express everything. She was reaching out, and it was clear that this was one last effort. Her eyes were full of love. The man hesitated, his expression veiled, and she surged forward, and they kissed.

It was electric. So much passion between the two. Raw emotion. Cody was immediately drawn in, watching as the man grabbed her by the waist and their lips met.

Love. What would they do for love? Cody knew what he would do. He knew what would happen if he were ever face to face with the Hangman. He'd kill him.

His mind circled the issue for a moment, but then attacked it. So you love Nick?

Well, of course I love him. He's my best friend. We've always said we loved each other.

But he could feel it. That something more, crawling into his head, his heart. The couple onscreen had something between them, a fire, an intensity, and he remembered Nick's kiss, electric with the same passion. Nick had kissed him with the same energy, and even if Cody'd tried to put it out of his mind, it persisted there.

He'd been dumped by plenty of women, and dumped some himself, in the years that followed. But it was always there, in the back of his head, the comforting feeling that Nick had somehow promised him something, and that if he ever wanted it, he could have it. All these years, the fixed star of Nick's affection had sustained him through heartbreak. Through Janet. It had reassured him, given him shelter in the bleakest of hours...the thought that Nick was his wild card in the pocket, and would always be there for him.

On the TV, the man pushed her away, and left. The woman put her face in her hands and sobbed, sliding to the floor.

Cody felt sorrow rise up inside of him. Denying this will hurt them in the long run. For a moment he thought he could feel it, gripping his heart with agony. I want Nick? He frowned and tried to imagine them in bed together, sweaty and naked, and his stomach clenched at the thought. Taking another deep breath, he thought of them kissing, of their lips sliding together, of holding him in his arms. He liked the thought. His cock gave an interested twitch.

"Damn," he said aloud. Even though he'd guessed at it, he was still surprised, somehow.

Is this it, then? No more denial? He was still for a long time, watching as the woman cried and beat the floor with her fist. What now? Declare my undying love for Nick, while he's in the middle of dealing with the most horrific thing that's ever happened to him? Rubbing his eyes, he sighed. It'll have to wait. I can't put this on him now. And I don't even know entirely what I'm feeling.

Returning to the list, he added a few more items. The man was now dating someone else, it seemed, and her bubbly demeanor reminded him of Tiffany, though that comparison ended as soon as he looked into her eyes, which were completely vapid. A well-dressed older couple looked on, nodding, and Cody put together the plot easily; money and prestige compared to a poor heart that was true, that old chestnut. He started a separate list for groceries.

The woman was shown going to work, going home, dying a little each day. Her eyes were lifeless. It was a good performance; she genuinely looked dead inside, and Cody squirmed on the couch a little uncomfortably.

The man was now planning a wedding with the bubbly girl, who wore giant hoop earrings and a turquoise blue outfit that revealed quite a bit of tanned flesh. His cock twitched at that, too, and Cody rolled his eyes. "Not very choosy, are you?" he muttered to himself.

Back to the woman, who now wore black clothing and whose face was pale. Cody put down the list, engrossed. She put an album on the record player, and stood in the center of her living room, transmitting sorrow and crushed dreams with her very being. Even though he couldn't hear the music, he didn't need to; somehow she simply embodied the entire concept of loving and losing someone. She crossed her arms in front of her body, slowly falling to her knees, her head cocked to one side.

Meanwhile, the man stood at a huge party, his fiancée looking radiant. Her parents toasted them, and he responded with a smile on his face. Once he'd sipped his champagne, he put the glass down with a fleeting expression of sorrow. The fiancée grabbed his hand and led him out to the dance floor.

Now a bird's-eye view of the woman's room, with her lying on the center of the floor as the camera slowly spun above her.

A view of the dance floor, the engaged couple in the center, the camera spinning around them. Cody was confused. This can't be their it an engagement party? This makes no sense. The older couple looked on in approval.

Their dance done, the man led his fiancée back to her seat. A new guy appeared, handing them each a fresh glass of champagne, and then lead the groom off to a hallway.

Ah. He must be the best friend. Maybe he's telling him that he's making the biggest mistake of his life. They stood close, and the friend's mouth moved nonstop while the man stayed quiet, looked frustrated. His body language was tightly controlled, while his friend gestured wildly. Yep, definitely telling him he's making the biggest mistake of his life. Cody nodded in approval.

The woman was feeding bread to some ducks in a river. She stood on a bridge, watching the water, her hair caught by a breeze. But there was nothing calm or pleasant about the expression on her face; she looked as if she was marking time, just waiting for the end of things. The last of the bread fell from her hands.

Cody guessed that the best friend had now graduated to yelling; the cords on his neck stood out and he jabbed a finger in the air, looking a little like Nick with that action. Cody grinned. Finally the man looked up at him, and the reserve melted away, and his eyes filled with such emotion that Cody felt his heart quicken. This must be it.

Sure enough, the fiancée came bubbling into the hallway, and he dismissed her, handing her his engagement ring and stalking off. She burst into tears, and the best friend comforted her, but the look on his face was one of triumph as he watched the man stride down the hallway.

At the bridge, a single tear slowly trickled down the woman's pallid cheek.

The man raced to his car. The ex-fiancée's parents shouted at him, but he shouted something back and got in, driving like a madman.

Her eyes spoke of the pain that was eating her alive. The camera was tightly focused on her face, excluding all else except for a tiny slice of grey sky. It was as if she was giving up, letting go of everything. Cody found himself on the edge of his seat.

And then a hand appeared, touching her face, and she whirled around. He was there, smiling, holding her arms, pressing in close, and she seemed to want to back away, but the railing of the bridge held her in place. She wouldn't react at first, looking in the other direction, but he put his hand on her chin and forced her to meet his eyes, and then the camera focused on his face and there were no more walls between them, just two people loving each other.

They kissed again, and Cody found himself smiling. The credits began to roll.

Checking his watch, he realized that it was almost nine. Getting up, he stretched and went back into the bedroom. Nick was still asleep.

"Hey," said Cody softly, sitting down on the edge of his bed. "C'mon, Nick, you should get up. You need to eat some breakfast." He put a hand on his shoulder, and Nick blinked, looking at him bleary-eyed. "I'll put a call into the restaurant. Why don't you take a shower?"

"Huh?" said Nick. He blinked again, still looking fatigued, and Cody felt a stab of concern. "What time izzit?"

"Nearly nine. You really need to eat something."

"Yeah." Nick blinked again, and then sat up slowly, yawning.

"You okay on your own?" asked Cody. "I'll call in the order."


"Breakfast, remember?"

"Yeah." He seemed to think for a moment. "Yeah, I'll be fine." He got up unsteadily and made his way to the bathroom.

Cody listened for a moment until he heard the shower start. Dialing the restaurant, he talked to Cynthia, who'd worked there for years. She must have already talked to Murray, because she said it was all taken care of and she'd bring it up soon. Hanging up, he sat back down on the bed and pulled open the nightstand drawer.

Like Murray had promised, Nick's Magnum was in there, one of his backup guns from the Mimi. Three full clips were next to it. Cody checked to make certain that the safety was on and put it back in the drawer.

Nick came out of the bathroom wearing a towel around his hips. "Did Murray bring some clothes?"

"Lie down first," said Cody, pulling out one of the tubes of Neosporin.

"I can do that," protested Nick.

"I know you can," said Cody. "But you're not going to. Lie down." He spread out a towel.

Surprisingly enough, he did so without protest, and Cody began applying the ointment to the ligature marks as quickly as he could. He wondered why Nick was being such a docile patient. Usually he was annoyed by that sort of attention.

"Turn over," said Cody, and Nick rolled onto his back. Cody felt his eyes following his every move, and he hurried through the application. "Done." He replaced the cover on the tube and then went and washed his hands in the bathroom. "Here, wear this for now," he added, grabbing his orange bathrobe from a hook on the door.

Nick rolled his eyes, but shrugged into the robe, leaving his towel on the bed and following Cody out into the living room.

There was a knock at the door, and Cynthia was there with a tray of food. "Here, Cody, I don't have a lot of time—we've got all sorts of unexpected guests," she said breathlessly.

"Thanks, Cynthia," he said. The cops flanking the doorway looked bored as she handed Cody the tray and then took off back down the hallway.

He brought the tray in, and one of the cops closed the door behind him. "Hey, look, Nick, breakfast." He put it down on the coffee table and pulled off the cover to reveal a plate of scrambled eggs, a few glasses of water and milk, a cup of coffee, a plate of toast, and a little bowl of Jell-O. There was also a small plate of eggs, sunny side up, and bacon, which he nabbed.

Nick flicked on the TV, turning the sound up. A car exploded onscreen. Picking up the plate of scrambled eggs, he salted and peppered them and tried an experimental forkful. Cody watched as he swallowed carefully, and then ate another forkful.

Cody breathed a sigh of relief and turned to his own eggs, dipping his toast into the yolk. It was good, as Straightaway's food always was. He drained the cup of coffee and noticed Nick staring longingly at it.

"Soon, buddy," he promised. Another car exploded on screen, and the protagonist was blown off his feet, tumbling to the ground. "How are you feeling this morning?"

"Little bit better," said Nick, and then he coughed. "Throat still hurts," he whispered.

"Yeah, but—"

"I know, that's to be expected," he whispered, looking annoyed. He finished most of the eggs, and then drank the glass of milk. "Y'know, I never liked Jell-O," he added.

"Well, leave it, then." Mentally he tried to figure out how many calories Nick had consumed that morning. He needed more, that was for certain.

Nick yawned and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. "Yeah."

Cody couldn't help but grin.


"You." Cody put his plate down on the tray. "Doesn't matter that you're a worse conversationalist than ever. I'm just's just so good to have you here."

Nick smiled in return, and Cody took his plate and glass away as Nick leaned back against the couch. He grimaced as he shifted his legs.

"Knee bothering you?" said Cody, instantly concerned. I forgot all about that last night. Should have put ice on it. He got up and made a makeshift icepack. Back on the couch, he noticed that Nick looked like he was barely keeping his eyes open, and Cody checked his knee out carefully, looking over the swelling. "Buddy, you should have mentioned this before..."

"You were asleep."

"It kept you up all night?" said Cody, feeling awful.

"Nah, just a little. I fell asleep again later..."

Cody sat down next to him. "Here," he said, taking a pillow and putting it on his lap. "Lie down."

Nick gave him a puzzled look, but complied, sliding down and resting his head against the pillow, bringing his legs up onto the couch with a wince. Cody reached over and balanced the icepack on his knee.

Nick shivered. "Cold."

"Yeah, that's the point." Cody put his hand on Nick's back, feeling how tight his muscles were. "Hey, you need to relax a little," he said soothingly. He rubbed lightly, trying to loosen the muscles.


Encouraged, Cody slid his hand inside of the bathrobe, gently pressing and stroking, trying to undo the tension. His fingers touched a bump, and Nick hissed, arching away. "What...Nick, what's wrong?"

"That's where..." Nick drew in a breath. "That's where he hit me with the taser."

"Damn. Sorry." Cody started to withdraw his hand.

"No, you don't have to stop..." Nick looked up at him. "It's fine. Just..."

"Okay." Cody worked his hand further in, mentally marking the spot where the burns were, and he began to lightly work on Nick's spine, carefully kneading the flesh with his fingertips. Nick made a moan here and there as Cody found a particularly tense spot and slowly rubbed it away. The movie was drawing to a close, and the protagonist was facing off with a legion of bad guys in a warehouse, using spectacular martial arts maneuvers to pound them all into submission.

"Feels good," murmured Nick.

Nick's warm, damp skin under his hand was heavenly. He could just faintly smell the clean, freshly washed scent of his hair. Nick's left arm was tucked under his body, but his right hand was pressed against Cody's leg, and he could feel the heat through his jeans. Nick winced again as Cody's hand found the other taser mark. Cody apologized once more.

"'Sokay. My knee's kind of freezing, though..." He reached down and pulled the icepack off, letting it fall to the floor with a thump. His hand went back up to his throat, rubbing lightly.

"You need some ibuprofen?"


"Painkiller? Something to drink?"

"Just want to sleep." His hand went back to Cody's leg, and he yawned.

Cody kept his hand on Nick's back, stroking lightly instead of rubbing, keeping his motions soothing and gentle. He turned down the volume on the TV with his other hand.

Within minutes Nick was deeply asleep, ribcage expanding and contracting evenly. Cody's legs were tingling, but he wasn't about to move. Onscreen, the warehouse exploded as the martial arts expert got out just in time, dragging along a pretty, disheveled woman behind him.

He flipped through a few more channels, but there wasn't much else on. Giving up, he finally turned it off.

Gently, lightly, Cody ran his hands across Nick's neck, not quite touching the raw mark left from the cords. Nick didn't move a muscle, and Cody kept stroking, reassuring himself with the touch. Nick was alive, warm, breathing. Sleeping in his lap. He traced his jaw, noticing that Nick had done a sloppy job shaving. Touched the edge of his ear. If he wakes up, I'm going to have to do some explaining...

Sighing, he gave up his explorations. Nick slept on, oblivious.

What have I gotten myself into this time? He put his elbow on the arm of the couch and rested his head on his hand. And where will it take us?

Chapter Text

"Let's go down to the bar," said Nick suddenly.

Cody looked up from the magazine he was reading. "What?"

"Let's go down to the bar." He coughed and took a sip of water. "If I watch any more TV my head will explode." He fixed Cody with a pleading look. "C'mon, let's get a beer. See if Straightaway is hanging out."

Cody checked his watch. It was only three thirty in the afternoon. He couldn't think of any reason not to go. "Okay." He put the magazine aside.

"Great." Nick sat down on the couch and began to put on his shoes. His light blue long-sleeved shirt was wrinkled from being transported in a shopping bag, as were his pants. The black dress shoes looked strange with the casual outfit, but they were the only pair that hadn't been taken by the FBI.

Cody pulled on his old pair of deck shoes, which were so battered they functioned mostly as slippers around the Riptide. They, too, were the only pair left, according to Murray. And the only reason he had them was because he'd walked out in them. The soles were nearly worn through. "Nick, if you..."

"I know my limits. I promise I won't push it too hard, Doctor Allen." Then the look on his face softened. "Just...don't hover, okay?"

"Fine." Cody stood up, straightening his own wrinkled shirt.

Nick led the way out, and Henderson and the other cop exchanged glances, but followed them down to the bar, sitting near the front door. At least they're in plain clothes.

The main room was nearly deserted. A man in a rumpled suit sat at one table reading a paper, and a couple in beachwear sat at another.

Nick sat down at the bar and ordered a beer despite a sharp look from Cody. "He'll have one, too," he said, pointing a thumb carelessly in Cody's direction.

"Yeah," agreed Cody, giving in. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he could see the man with the paper watching them.

The bartender brought them both a beer and smiled nervously at Nick. "Thanks, Tanya," he said, taking a long swig and giving the petite brunette a nod.

"Nick!" said Straightaway, coming over to sit down next to him. "Good to see you looking well. Listen, I was driving the Ferrari this morning, and I noticed a grinding noise..."

"Front or rear?"

"Rear. Started up and then wouldn't quit. I thought it might be the differential."

"Probably. Could be the pinion gear or the bearing." Nick looked thoughtful.

Cody rolled his eyes and went back to his beer. If there was anything he could count on, it was Straightaway's complete self-absorption, which was a blessing in disguise this afternoon. It'll get Nick's mind off other things. He took another sip of his beer, trying to clandestinely look in the mirror above the bar. The man with the paper was now watching Nick avidly. Cody looked closer and noticed his arm shift, visible past the edge of the paper. Damn, I think he's taking notes. A reporter.

"Hey, Tanya," he said quietly. She came near, looking at him expectantly. "That guy at the table over there, the one with the paper—don't look at him—has he been here long?"

"A couple days," she said. "We've had a lot of people suddenly check in since..." She flushed slightly, glancing at Nick.

"Has he asked you about it?"

She nodded. "He's been slipping money to all of the waitresses, and asking them stuff, too."

"Thanks, Tanya." He drained the rest of the beer. She smiled and went back to drying glasses.

Nick was now whispering about the various aspects of differentials, his hands moving animatedly, and Cody's eyes crept back up to the mirror. The reporter had set down his paper and gestured for the waitress.

"Tanya, another beer, please..." said Cody. She pulled one out of the fridge, popping off the cap with a practiced motion and setting the bottle in front of him.

The waitress approached the reporter and he spoke to her, slipping her a few bills. Cody remembered her from the Barefoot Contessa. Sandy. A real knockout. She'd been on the crew only two weeks before Mama Jo booted her. She'd never given any of them the time of day. The reporter said something else, and she nodded, taking away an empty glass.

Looking over his shoulder, his eyes met Henderson's, who gave him a slight nod. Clearly he'd noticed the reporter as well. He returned to his beer, toying with the edge of the label.

"Well, if it needs to be rebuilt..." Nick was saying.

"That damned rack and pinion place on Green screwed up my cousin's car last time," said Straightaway, frowning. "And that was just a Camaro."

"That place is no good," said Nick. "Now, Arturo's shop up on Ocean..."

Another hour passed, and Cody never wanted to hear the word differential again. He knocked back the last of his fourth beer and decided he needed to use the restroom. Looking around, he noticed that the reporter seemed completely engrossed in the paper. Henderson and his partner were still sitting at the table, playing cards but definitely alert.

The restroom was empty. He frowned at the trash can in the corner, remembering having to dig through it to get Nick's wallet back a few years ago.

Finishing his business, he washed his hands and checked his reflection in the mirror. The dark circles under his eyes were starting to vanish.

He came back out in the room. Sandy was walking past Nick with a glass of red wine on her tray. Why did she take the long way around the bar? Nick was still deep in conversation with Straightaway.

He watched from behind as she skillfully tipped the tray, knocking the entire glass on Nick. Red wine cascaded over the front of his shirt.

"Oh no, I'm so sorry!" she said breathlessly. "It's wine—oh, I can't believe this—I'm so sorry!" She scrabbled at his shirt. "Here, let me get this—I'll put some club soda on it—"

Nick was reaching up to grab her arm when the first flash startled him. The reporter stood, camera in hand, and he snapped at least four shots before Henderson and his partner grabbed him and pulled him forcibly out the front door.

"Sally—" began Straightaway.

"Sandy," she said, letting go of Nick's shirt.

"Sandy—you're fired." He shot her an angry glance. "Go see Cynthia. She'll give you your last paycheck."

"But it was an accident!" protested Sandy.

"It didn't look like it to me," said Cody dangerously, glaring at her. "Besides, I wouldn't be too upset about losing your job. You've got a nice bonus in your pocket for that little stunt."

She huffed and whirled around, stalking out of the room.

"Tanya, go watch her and make certain she leaves without helping herself to anything," said Straightaway. The bartender nodded and left. Straightaway turned back to them. "Nick, I'm really sorry. She's new..."

"Don't worry about it," said Nick, trying to rebutton his shirt. His hands were trembling, and despite Cody's immediate desire to help, he knew he should leave him alone.

"Piece of shit reporter," said Henderson, sitting down next to Cody. His partner stayed near the door. "That's Wallace Stronk from the King Harbor Daily. He's always pulling this crap. Just ask Tony." He jabbed a thumb in his partner's direction.

Cody felt a headache building. "I remember him. He sold photos of a crime scene to the Enquirer a couple years ago, didn't he?"

"Yeah, but he screwed up. He didn't realize that it was on private property, and the Enquirer couldn't use them." Henderson looked at him, disgust on his face. "Since then, he's been hanging around everywhere. He wants another shot at it. Wants to get on staff with them."

Nick had finished buttoning his shirt, and took a sip of his beer. He still looked pale. "He did that article on the Stuykers six months ago."

Cody groaned. "I forgot about that. That's right—we had a case go bad, and Stronk did an interview with Mrs. Stuyker afterward."

Henderson scratched his head. "Alice Stuyker? The embezzler?"

"That's the problem," said Cody. "She wasn't, but he really made it sound like she was. The real embezzler was actually the vice-president of her company, and he tried to pin it on her. The article was cagey, though, and she gave up trying to sue Stronk."

"I hate reporters," said Henderson grimly. Nick was silent, hand on his beer.

"What the hell is going on?" demanded Cynthia, coming into the room with Tanya on her heels. "Ken, you know we're already short-handed—"

Straightaway stood up. "If you'll excuse me, I have something to discuss with my general manager...the beers are on the house, gentlemen."

"Thanks," said Cody.

"See you round," said Nick. He drank the last of his beer and set the bottle down on the counter. His eyes closed for a moment, and then reopened.

Cody threw a few bills on the counter for Tanya. "Hey, maybe we should go back up to the room. Check out the HBO."

"Yeah." Nick hopped down from the barstool in his usual way and then winced.

"We'll be right behind you," said Henderson, strolling off to rejoin Tony.

"Elevator or stairs?" teased Cody.

Nick ignored him, and they went to the elevator and got off on the fourth floor. Nick's limp became more pronounced the closer they got to the room, and Cody finally couldn't take it anymore, putting an arm around his waist and helping him through the door and to the couch.

He grabbed the ice bucket and went back to the door where the cops were now standing guard. "Mind getting some ice?" Henderson rolled his eyes but snatched the bucket from him while Tony grinned.

Nick put his feet up on the coffee table, looking drained. "I can hear you saying 'I told you so' from here."

Cody walked over to the kitchen and took a hand towel from the stack. "You're hearing voices now? Maybe you should get some professional help." There was no reply, and Cody realized that Nick had been talking to someone professional, and maybe he'd crossed a line by saying that, but one look at Nick dispelled that notion; he just looked worn out. The red stain on his shirt spread out across his chest. "Maybe Straightaway's laundry service can salvage your shirt."

There was a knock at the door, and Cody retrieved the bucket of ice from Henderson, who looked none too pleased at having been an errand boy. "Thanks," he said, closing the door.

He filled a plastic bag with ice and wrapped a towel around it, folding it with practiced ease, and then poured a glass of water and retrieved the bottle of liquid ibuprofen medication. Nick was still wrestling with the shirt, and Cody took over, unbuttoning it. He pulled Nick's shoes off one at a time while Nick shrugged out of the shirt.

Setting the icepack on Nick's knee, he took the wine-soaked shirt and threw it over the nearest chair. "Here, take this," he said, holding out the tiny measuring cup. He handed him the glass of water, and Nick knocked back the medication without comment and then drank the water.

When he was done drinking, Cody took the glass back to the counter, and found the bottle of aspirin tablets. He swallowed two of them, chasing it with water, and then brought back a damp washcloth. Nick rubbed it over his chest, cleaning off the last of the wine.

"Need anything else?" asked Cody. "Something to eat? Drink?"

Nick shook his head slightly, tossing the washcloth to the table. He shifted his legs and winced.

Cody sat down next to him. "You feeling okay? That was a pretty nasty trick..."

"Yeah," said Nick, resting his head on the back of the couch. "Stronk's an asshole."

"Henderson probably took the film," said Cody.

"Yeah." Nick rubbed the back of his neck.

" you want to talk about anything?"

"I just want..." Nick's voice was so quiet that Cody leaned closer. "I don't know, Cody. Just forget it."

"Nick." He touched Nick's arm. "Whatever it is you want..."

"The things I want, you can't get," said Nick, his eyes haunted. "Just—it's too much right now."

It was odd to see Nick this way. Defeated. Quiet. Normally he was the outspoken one, the one who jabbed his finger into the tiger's eye. "Let me help you. That's all I ask."

There it was, the flash of anger. "What the hell do you think I've been doing?" rasped Nick. "I don't—damnit, Cody, I never wanted any of this—I hate all the fucking attention—I'm just trying to get through this and put it behind me. And you—" He put his hand to his throat, agony on his face.

Cody hastened to get another glass of water. Nick sipped it carefully.

"Look, I'm sorry," he whispered finally, putting the glass down. "It's just..." Again his hand reached up to rub the back of his neck. "Look, I don't know what I'm saying. Just forget it." His face was tight with tension.

Cody exhaled tiredly. "I don't want to forget it," he said. "I just want to know how I can help—"

"You can't fix this," whispered Nick, and he shut his eyes, his hand stilled on his neck. "I wish to hell you could, but you can't."

"I'm sorry, Nick—"

He winced. "I'm the one who should be apologizing." He opened his eyes, looking at Cody, and they seemed troubled down to his core. "Look, I know—you're just worried. And believe me, I really appreciate the concern. I do. But I'm kinda...messed up right now."

The admission was tough to hear. Cody leaned closer, threading an arm behind his shoulders, and pulled him close. "It'll be okay," he said. "And you're not messed up. You've just been through..." He shivered, thinking of Nick, trussed and frightened to death, in pain. "Whatever you need to say to me, you know you can say it. Anytime. Whatever you need, you just ask, okay? And...if I know it's just because I want to help."

"Okay," whispered Nick, and he leaned his head on Cody's shoulder and sighed.

Cody thought he could hear singing in the hallway. He looked up from the newspaper he was reading. Nick was curled up on the couch, napping restlessly, but when he heard the voices his eyes snapped open.

There was a knock at the door, and then Murray and Tiffany came in, looking absolutely ecstatic.

"Nick! Cody!" said Murray. "We brought dinner from East West Wing Lauk!" He held up a bag.

Nick gingerly sat up, blinking. "Hey, thanks, Murray."

"I've got dibs on the General Tsoo's chicken!" sang out Tiffany. She put her bags on the table and began unpacking containers of food.

"Three kinds of soup!" said Murray, adding his bags to the table. "Fried rice for you, Cody, and your favorite...shrimp in black bean sauce."

"That's great." Cody folded up the newspaper and dropped it on the coffee table. "Wow, it smells awesome." He watched as Nick ran a hand across his face and then headed to the bathroom, still not very steady on his feet. Both of his knees seemed to be hurting.

"How is he doing?" asked Murray.

"As good as can be expected," said Cody, staring at the now-closed bathroom door. "Dr. Stevens said his joints would be a little sore for a while. Throat pain. He's still pretty achy and worn out."

"Poor guy," said Tiffany. Her giant pink earrings bobbed up and down.

"So how did the Roboz do?" asked Cody. "Did he charm the ladies?"

Tiffany and Murray both giggled. "Well, Cody," said Murray, "as I told you on the phone this afternoon, he was a smash hit. His vertical discrepancy modulator took the Belgians by storm!"

Nick had reemerged from the bathroom and took a seat slowly. "We always knew the Roboz was a rock star."

"Pretty soon people will be asking for his autograph," said Cody.

Tiffany laughed out loud. "You'll have to write a subroutine for that, Boz!"

"I suppose I could rewrite his radio operational software to allow for the required motions..." mused Murray.

"What do you want, Nick?" asked Tiffany. "We have...won ton lo mein..."

"Egg drop soup?" whispered Nick.

"Oh, yes, that too," she said. "You know, one of my professors did an experiment once, where he tabulated the approximate value of egg to egg drop soup in various locations in the LA area..."

"The sampling rates must have been a yolk," said Murray. "Get it? Yolk?"

Tiffany giggled. "Stop egging me on!"

"What's the matter, Tiff? Chicken?"

"I can take whatever you can shell out!" They both laughed.

Nick sighed and dipped his spoon into his soup, but there was a half-smile on his lips.

"Did you go to any other seminars after yours?" asked Cody.

Murray wiped off his glasses and put them back on. "Well, Cody, we spent the afternoon in a talk called 'Gear-driven Gyro-stabilization Methods.' It was an adequate lecture, though I feel that there was insufficient attention paid to the Matteson stabilization technique, which I used in my earliest work with Roboz. But still, it was satisfying."

"And then, science karaoke!" said Tiffany, beaming.

"Science carrot-oaky?" whispered Nick, looking completely confused. He stole a glance at Cody, who shrugged.

"Karaoke!" said Murray. "It's amazing. There was a Japanese robotics expert there, and he brought a machine with him that plays music. There's a microphone attached, and you sing into the microphone. The lyrics are displayed on a small monitor, and you're supposed to sing them aloud."

"But all the lyrics were in Japanese!" said Tiffany.

"You don't speak Japanese?" asked Cody.

"No, only French," she said, giving Murray a significant glance. He flushed red to his ears.

"So you weren't singing in Japanese?" whispered Nick, gesturing with his spoon.

"Oh, no, of course not!" said Murray. "We had to make up science-themed lyrics. Some of the songs were American pop songs, anyway, so we would just try to come up with something that fit."

Tiffany sang, "Some 'bots bore me, some 'bots shock me,
I think they're okay,
If they don't interface with Unix
I just walk away.

They can walk and they can talk,
But they cannot compare
'Cause the 'bot with the best mad dash
Is always Mister Roboz.

'Cause we are
Living in a robotics world,
And I am a robotics girl
You know that we are living in a robotics world
And I am a robotics girl.

Some 'bots wear pants, some 'bots slow dance,
That's nothing to me
If they can't start my brain then
I just let them be

Some 'bots move and some 'bots groove but
But I don't check their code
Only 'bots who're cute and orange
Engage my playful mode.

'Cause we are
Living in a robotics world,
And I am a robotics girl
You know that we are living in a robotics world
And I am a robotics girl.

Murray clapped enthusiastically. "Brava! Brava!"

Tiffany stood up and took a little bow. "Thank you!"

Cody couldn't help but laugh. It felt even better when he heard Nick chuckling next to him. "Tiffany...that was..." He started laughing again.

"Brilliant!" supplied Murray.

"You should have heard the Boz, though," said Tiffany admiringly. "He sang 'Bohemian Rhapsody' as 'Bit-mapped Two-Meg Density' and it was terrific!"

"I'll bet it was," said Cody, suppressing a chuckle.

"I see a little silhouette-o of a disk..." sang Murray. "Scan the drive! Scan the drive! Can you do the gif tango..."

"Sounds like a blast," whispered Nick. "Too bad we had to miss it."

"Well, next year's conference will be held at a bigger venue," said Murray, helping himself to some cashew chicken. "They said that there would be plenty of room, and they'd even be able to sell guest tickets, in case people wanted to just attend a lecture or two."

"I had no idea that robotics was so popular." The shrimp were excellent, and Cody speared another one on his fork.

"Oh yes, Cody, it's the wave of the future," said Murray. "Everyone will have a robot in their home by the year 2000. At least, that's what Dietger Janssens claims."

"There are a lot of hurdles, though," said Tiffany. "There are some engineering issues to overcome, first. And ease of use. If the technology isn't simple enough for the average person to operate, then it will never catch on." She cut into an egg roll and drizzled sweet and sour sauce on it.

"Yes, the average person doesn't want to spend thirty hours destructuring and rebuilding a code sampling algorithm." Murray nodded in agreement. "It needs to be hard-coded in, and it needs to do what it's supposed to the first time."

"Buggy 'bots are the worst," said Tiffany. "When I first constructed Marvella, she had a processing delay that manifested every time she turned left...her eyestalks would retract! So frustrating. It took months to find the bug." Murray made a sympathetic noise around a mouth full of chicken.

"Marvella?" asked Cody. "You have a robot, too?"

She blinked. "Well, who doesn't? I mean, among robotics experts, it's pretty common."

"It would be like a mechanic not owning a car," pointed out Nick, grinning at Cody.

"I don't have her now, though. I donated her to my high school. She's doing very well in Mr. Erickson's class. No problem turning left at all!" She took a bite of her eggroll.

"That's great," said Nick. "Can't have those eyestalks...uh...retracting."

"Yeah. The shame." Cody shook his head in mock dismay.

After they finished lunch, Cody cleared the table, and Murray and Tiffany chatted with Nick on the couch. Cody retrieved more ice from the machine down the hall. Back in the room, he stashed the ice, and then pulled out the iron and the ironing board. He was nearly finished with Nick's shirts when he checked his watch and realized that Nick probably should be taking the anti-inflammatory medicine.

Pouring the liquid into a cup, he brought it out to Nick, who took it, grimacing at the flavor and then rubbing his throat. Cody didn't miss the fine lines of pain that were gathering on his face. Back at the tiny kitchen, he folded a towel around some ice and brought it back, setting it firmly on his knee, and then took a seat next to him.

"Murray said that he thinks that the agents are nearly through with the Riptide," whispered Nick, turning to look at Cody.

"Oh," said Cody stupidly. A thousand questions popped into his head. Is it too soon to go back? Will he be able to go back? How long should we keep the room here at Straightaway's?

"I believe they'll turn it over to us tomorrow morning," said Murray. "However, we'll have to do some cleaning. I've already asked Dooley for assistance."

"I'll help, too!" piped up Tiffany. "I have Monday afternoons free. Usually I go to the target range, but I can skip that."

Murray beamed. "Why, thank you, Tiffany, that's very boss of you!"

"We appreciate it, Tiffany," said Cody gratefully. "We can use every pair of hands we can get."

"What I really need is my electronics equipment," said Murray, frowning. "I have some highly sophisticated pieces that are still at Quantico—"

"Did they say when they'd return those?" asked Cody.

"Well, I talked to my old college friend Jeff Walker, who runs the department there at Quantico. I gave him my passwords so he'd be able to get in and check the information, and he said that he'd finish as quickly as possible. In fact, I think he's probably checked it all out at this point. The next hurdle, though, is getting it back. He said he'd do what he could."

"How about our shoes?" whispered Nick. His voice sounded rougher.

"I don't know," said Murray. "I have a feeling that they're going over them with a fine-toothed comb. The electronics were only peripherally attached to the crime scene, and as such they can be released fairly swiftly. But the shoes...Quinlan mentioned that they were evidence, which means they could keep them indefinitely."

Nick groaned. "Damn. The least they could do is buy us a few pairs to get us through. I'm sick of wearing these dress shoes of Cody's."

"They're not my dress shoes," said Cody automatically.

"They're actually left over from a case," said Murray apologetically. "You remember the Runaway Groom, right? Well, those were left behind, and the bride said she didn't want them, so I stashed them in the computer room and forgot about them. It was just a coincidence that they were near Nick's size."

"I'm wearing his shoes?" whispered Nick. "Murray, that guy was a jerk!"

"Does it really matter?" asked Murray. "I mean, it's better than going barefoot."

Nick frowned. "Look, there's gotta be a way I can get just one pair back..."

"They're at Quantico, Nick," said Murray patiently. "When the FBI needs your shoes, they get your shoes."

"We'll get you another pair tomorrow," said Cody.

"Well, gentlemen, it's been quite lovely, but I need to get some sleep," said Tiffany, yawning. "Science karaoke really takes it out of you!" She got up and found her jacket. Murray walked her to the door as Cody and Nick waved goodbye to her.

"How are you doing?" asked Cody, turning toward Nick.

Nick bristled for a half-second, but then relaxed. "Fine." When Cody simply sat and watched him, he sighed. "Okay, my knees hurt. And my elbow. And my throat. And I have a killer headache. Satisfied?"

"Guys, we should talk about our contracts," said Murray seriously as he sat down again. "Even after my equipment returns, I'm going to have a delay in starting up the coding, because I need to splice cords together in order to run everything. If I get everything back tomorrow, I might be able to pull it off in three weeks if promised. But I'm not certain."

"Could Tiffany help you?" asked Cody.

"That is a terrific idea!" said Murray. "I'll have to ask her. I know she's working on a project this week, but she's nearly finished. What a bodacious time that would be!"

"I'm sure you'd have fun." Cody grinned at Nick.

"There is one thing, though," said Murray hesitantly. "I mean, I know that it's none of my business, but I think you should cancel the security contract for this weekend."

"Security—oh." Cody had forgotten entirely about that. "Murray, of course that's your business—it's our business together, remember? We all should talk about this and decide what we're going to do."

"Well, I think you should cancel," he said decisively, avoiding looking at Nick.

"We promised Callender we'd do this for him," whispered Nick. "How's he going to find someone else this late?"

"That doesn't matter," said Cody immediately. "We can't think about Callender. We have to think about you and your health. I can't do it alone, after all—"

Murray looked thoughtful. "You could get Dooley—"

"No!" said Nick and Cody at the same time.

"Oh, okay. But maybe someone else?"

"Murray, there's just not a way to get someone in and train them," said Cody patiently. "It's too close, and I've got my hands full..." Nick winced beside him. "Look, I'm all for cancelling, too."

"Callender's one of the few guys who's stood behind us," whispered Nick. "He's helped get us gigs before, and this convention's really important to him. We took on the contract and said we'd help him..."

"Nick," said Cody gently. "You know it's just too soon."

"I don't know that." Nick looked at him, furious.

"So how do you want to find out?" said Cody, aggravated. "By passing out after trying to chase a suspect in the middle of the convention?"

"You know how these convention gigs work. They're easy money. You stand around, watch a couple exits...they're insurance salesmen! Nothing's gonna happen."

Cody tried to rein in his temper. "Okay. So you stand around all day. And when your knees give out and you're on the floor and I have to carry you to the hospital, what will we say to Callender then?" Nick just glared at him.

"He's got a point," said Murray quietly.

"Look, I don't want this to be because of me. I don't want to let him down. And the agency." Nick started coughing, one hand on his throat, and grabbed the glass of water on the coffee table and took a sip.

"You're not letting him down," said Cody, trying to sound as calm and reasonable as he could. "You're not letting us down, either. If this had happened to me, would you have cancelled the contract?"

All of the blood seemed to rush out of Nick's face at once, and the glass fell out of his hand to the floor.

"Nick—" Cody grabbed his arm, alarmed. "Nick, what's wrong?" Nick's eyes looked glassy and he was white as a ghost. "Here, lean forward." He exchanged a worried look with Murray. A few minutes passed, and he ran a hand over his back comfortingly until Nick sat up slightly. "You okay?"

Nick only nodded, leaning back against the couch, still looking pale. "You're right," he whispered. "We should cancel."

"I'll do that tomorrow morning," said Cody. "Are you sure you're okay?"

Nick ran a shaky hand through his hair. "Yeah. Fine."

"I think you should lie down," said Cody firmly. "No, not on the couch. C'mon."

"What can I do, Cody?" asked Murray.

"If you're staying here tonight, you'll need to get more towels," said Cody. "And sheets for the sofa bed."

"I'll be back," promised Murray.

Cody put an arm around Nick's waist and hauled him to his feet, helping him to the bedroom. Pulling back the blankets, he helped Nick sit down. He pulled out the tube of Neosporin as Nick got out of his shirt slowly and carefully. "You should take your pants off."

This time there was no sly joke. Nick's face was pinched with pain. Cody helped take his pants off, frowning at the swelling in his knees. He unthreaded the cap from the tube of Neosporin and began to apply it to his wrists.

"Your elbows look pretty sore," said Cody, concerned. "And your knees. You're going to make that ice machine work for its money tonight." Nick didn't respond, and Cody glanced at his face. He looked awful.

The ointment was thick and greasy. He rubbed it in as carefully as he could, trying to cause the least amount of pain. Ankles and knees, waist, shoulders, even his neck, though he did that with the lightest touch he could. Nick didn't make a sound.

"I'll go get some more ice," he said, putting the tube of ointment on the nightstand. "You just take it easy."

By the time he returned, Nick was curled into a ball of misery on the bed. Cody sat down next to him, cajoling him into taking a half-dose of the painkiller medicine. He put icepacks in place and pulled the covers up over him, wishing he knew what else to do.

The medication worked swiftly, and Nick was out like a light in under twenty minutes.

Cody helped Murray pull out the couch bed, and set to work putting the linens on while Murray went and brushed his teeth. He came back and chattered away about Tiffany and the coding project, and Cody nodded in what he hoped were the correct places, until he could eventually escape, claiming fatigue. He entered the bathroom, brushing his teeth perfunctorily. Maybe I should call Dr. Stevens tomorrow. I wonder if Nick will call Claudia...after all, we'll be going back to my boat tomorrow...

Tomorrow scared him. I have to stop worrying about all of this. Nick's alive. That has to be enough for me.

What if it isn't enough for him? He paused, the toothbrush still gripped in his hand. What if he wants it back like it was before? It can't be that way. He has to understand that. He spat into the sink. Every time he looks in the mirror he'll see that mark on his neck. He'll never be able to forget what was done to him. Everyone will know. He rinsed out his mouth, and then put both hands on the sink, his head lowered, eyes closed against the fright. Nick, you have to put this behind you, you have to get through this. He didn't want to think of what he would do if Nick couldn't. If Nick became self-destructive. Or worse.

Wiping his lips off on a towel, he undressed, throwing his clothes in the corner of the bedroom and sliding in between the sheets. Nick's breathing was steady, and Cody turned off the lights and listened to it for a very long time.

Cody woke. It was still dark, and he lay there, confused for a moment. Then he heard it again, a low raspy moan from the other bed. "Nick?" he asked, turning on the bedside lamp.

The light blinded him, but he swung his legs out from underneath the covers and crossed to the other bed. Nick had kicked some of the covers off, and was only half covered by a sheet, dark bruising showing vividly on his skin. "No," he gasped.

"Nick, wake up," said Cody, gently shaking his shoulder. "Hey, buddy, wake up. You're having a nightmare."

Nick made another noise deep in his throat, and his hands clenched into fists.

This could get ugly. "Nick, c'mon." He stroked his arm lightly. "You're having a nightmare. You need to wake up."

Nick's eyes suddenly snapped open, and he pushed himself away from Cody, looking completely panicked. His breath came in gasps, and he blinked a few times.

"Nightmare," repeated Cody. "You're okay, Nick. You need some water?"

Nick looked around wildly, as if he didn't believe where he was. "Cody?" he said hesitantly.

"Right here."

He blinked a few times. "Where..."

"Straightaway's." Cody put a hand on his leg. "It's okay, you're safe, remember?"

Nick nodded once, barely a flicker of motion. His chest still heaved.

Cody inched closer to him. "Bad, huh?"

"Yeah." A whisper of sound. "You..." He shivered visibly.

Now that he was next to him, Cody could feel him trembling, and he put an arm around him. Nick rested his head on his shoulder, eyes closed. "It's okay."

For a long moment neither of them moved. Cody felt Nick's heartbeat begin to slow, felt the taut muscles under his hands begin to give.

Nick swallowed, wincing. "When Lemana...when they kidnapped you...did you think you were going to die?"

"I didn't know," said Cody. "I kept hoping that I could get away somehow. That you would find me."

"I thought...maybe I should just...stop. Just let go. Let it end."

Cody's mouth was suddenly dry. "You mean...while you were..."

"All I needed to do was let go," he whispered quietly. "It would have been over."

Cody suddenly felt the sting of tears in his eyes. "Nick..."

"But I couldn't do that to you," he said raggedly. "I didn't want to leave you alone."

"You didn't, Nick," said Cody softly. "You're still here."

"But I can't stop thinking..." He sucked in an unsteady breath. "What if...he comes after you?"

"The agents don't think—"

"Forget about the agents," he said with some heat. "They don't know this guy. He's a sick fuck down to the core, and he doesn't play by anyone's rules. If he comes back—" He choked off the rest of the sentence.

"Nick, they're doing all they can to catch him. He's got to make a mistake somehow, and they'll get him."

"Yeah, sure, they always say that crap," whispered Nick angrily. "What if he doesn't make that mistake for three years? What if..."

"If you start thinking in what-ifs," said Cody, "you'll go crazy."

"I think I'm already crazy."

"You're not. I don't let crazy people live on my boat."

Nick just looked at him. "If he came after you...if he hurt you...or..."

"You can't be afraid of him, Nick." Cody returned his gaze. "He didn't kill you. You're alive, and you're going to recover." He drew a deep breath. "If you let him destroy your life, then he's gotten what he wants—only more."

Sighing, Nick lay back down on the bed. His eyes were tightly closed. "I just want you to be safe."

"You think I don't want that for you?" said Cody quietly. "I hate this. I hate that this happened to you."

"It's over, and I'm okay," said Nick, his eyes reopening, fixing Cody with a direct gaze, though there was something lurking behind it, something uneasy. "I was lucky. But if he comes back—if he decides to target you, or Murray, or, hell, Mama Jo—"

Cody's anger suddenly surfaced. "You're not responsible for him. You're not responsible for who he targets. It's not your fault that he tried to kill you, and it won't be your fault if he goes after someone else you know."

Nick lay there for a moment, quiet. "Never said..."

"I know. And it's still not your fault." Cody watched as emotions flooded Nick's face and made interpretation difficult. "You have to let us—me, Murray, Mama Jo—everybody, Nick—fend for ourselves. You're not responsible for us, either."

One hand rested on his belly, and he looked distinctly miserable. "I know that."

Maybe in your head, Nick, but definitely not in your heart. Cody sat back and studied him, the too-pale face, the dark circles under his eyes. "More painkillers?"

"No," said Nick emphatically.

"Turned your stomach?"

"Yeah," he said, barely a whisper of sound. He rolled on his side, his legs pressed against Cody.

"Want to try to sleep a little more?"

Nick didn't respond, and Cody got off the bed, pulling the covers back into order and tucking him in. Impulsively, he touched his cheek lightly before turning off the lamp and crossing over to his own bed.

He slept only fitfully. Once or twice he woke because he heard the bathroom door close, but he heard nothing that would give him cause for alarm, and sank back into restless dreams.

Just before dawn, he dreamt he walked on the beach. Far in the distance he could see a familiar outline. He could just make out the dark hair. Try as he might, he couldn't catch up.

Chapter Text

Despite all of Cody's hoping otherwise, tomorrow dawned. Thinking of going back to the Riptide made him both incredibly homesick and scared witless. Never thought I'd be afraid of my own boat.

He showered and shaved, but didn't pack anything; he had a feeling that they'd be returning to Straightaway's that night. After he was done, Nick took his time in the bathroom while Cody called Cynthia and asked her to bring up some food.

Breakfast was a somber affair. Murray slept through it, and Nick and Cody ate in the bedroom, Nick still looking tired and worn. Cody wished he could smooth away the lines of fatigue on his face.

Soon enough the Feds would call and release his boat, and they'd have to put things to rights. He finished his orange juice.

I wonder how badly they've torn things apart. He was certain they'd gone over everything with a fine-toothed comb. He thought of the girlie mags under his bunk and winced.

There was a knock at the door, and he exchanged a surprised look with Nick. Sliding open the drawer, he pulled out the gun.

As Cody walked through the outer room, Murray sat up, hair mussed, arm outstretched and looking for his glasses.

"Who is it?" said Cody through the door.

"Agents Munro and Wheeler," came the answer.

Cody peered through the peephole and then stuck the gun in the waistband of his jeans. He opened the door. "Good morning."

"Good morning, Mr. Allen," said Munro. She wore yet another black pantsuit. Wheeler nodded at him curtly, and he returned the nod.

"Come in," said Cody, and they entered the room. Nick stood in the doorway to the bedroom, his face devoid of expression. "I thought you were going to call first," he added lamely.

"Our preliminary investigation on your boat is finished," she said, handing Cody the keys to the wheelhouse doors.

"Preliminary?" he echoed.

"Depending on further investigative work, we may need to revisit the scene," she said.

"Oh," said Cody.

"I have a few questions for you, Mr. Ryder," she continued, turning toward Nick.

"Okay." Nick looked at her expectantly.

She crossed the room. "I would like to ask them in private, if you wouldn't mind." Nick flashed a look at Cody, and then they both entered the bedroom, Munro pulling the door closed behind them.

"Mr. Allen, if you don't mind, I was hoping you could answer a few questions as well," said Wheeler.

"Sure," said Cody, surprised to hear him speak. Wheeler began by asking him some of the same questions he'd already been asked when they'd interviewed him on the boat. Is he double-checking me? Or just distracting me from going in there and making sure she doesn't upset Nick? He tried to concentrate on answering, and not glance at the door to the bedroom every five seconds.

Wheeler did ask a few new questions. Mostly about his shoes and how they were normally arranged, and a question about his toolbox and tools. His mind wandered to the bedroom. If she's asking Nick a hundred questions about exactly how he was positioned and which cord was wrapped where... He nearly growled at the thought.

Finally the door opened, and Munro came out, nodding at Wheeler. "Thank you for your cooperation," she said. "We will contact you if we need any further assistance in the matter."

Cody bristled as they walked out the door. That's it? Rile us up, make us go over our stories...Nick. That thought cut through like a knife, and he dashed through the doorway into the bedroom. "Nick..."

"I'm fine," he whispered, his face shuttered, except for his eyes, which were full of disquiet.

"You don't look..."

"Just...need a minute."

Cody sat down next to him. "Take all the time you need."

Nick only nodded, his eyes a million miles away. They were both silent. Then Nick exhaled. "Think we can pick up a pair of shoes on our way to the Riptide?" he whispered.

"We can," said Cody. "Are you—" A warning look from Nick stopped him from finishing the question.

"Guys," said Murray, knocking at the door. "I was hoping to take a shower..."

"Yeah, sure, Murray," said Cody, standing up. "It's all yours." He walked back out to the couch, locating the keys to the Jimmy, which Murray had left on the coffee table. His sunglasses took a little more searching, but he eventually found them on top of the small refrigerator.

Nick came out into the room and handed him his wallet, which he'd left on the nightstand. "Thanks," said Cody.

Nick paused for a second. "You know where mine is?" he asked, and a troubled expression flitted across his face.

"Your wallet? No." He racked his brain but had no idea. "Maybe the FBI agents have it."

His expression was fierce. "I swear, if they mailed it off to Quantico—"

"Looks like I'm buying you a pair of shoes, partner." Cody smiled sympathetically.

"Yeah." Nick sat down on the couch, one hand rubbing his knee. "Damn. I had forty bucks in it."

While Murray was finishing his shower, Cody called Callender to cancel the insurance contract. It turned out that Callender had already called his cousin and his cousin's best friend in Iowa to come out to LA to take the gig. He expressed wishes for a speedy recovery for Nick and hoped they would catch the bastard who did it, and Cody hung up the phone feeling much relieved.

After arranging everything with the cops at the door, Cody drove Nick and Murray to the shoe store. Nick grabbed a pair of deck shoes from the rack and sat down, slipping off the dress shoes, and Cody tried not to notice the wincing. He wandered over to the counter. "I'll take that pair of shoes that he's trying on," he said, pointing to Nick.

The salesgirl narrowed her eyes, looking at the shoes, and then punched in a few numbers on the register. "18.76," she said, making a notation on a pad of paper next to the cash drawer. The pencil had bite marks on it.

He handed her a bill and thumbed through his wallet. Only twenty dollars left. I'll have to raid the cigar box.

Glancing back, he saw a grim look of determination on Nick's face as he tied the new shoes. Cody's heart made a weird double thump in his chest as he stood there, watching his stubborn partner struggle with the laces.

Nick pulled the last bow taut and eased himself upright again, a look of relief on his face. He rolled his shoulder, grimacing, and put his hand on the back of his neck, absently rubbing. It was a gesture so inherently Nick that a warm glow spread to Cody's face. All at once he felt it, the flash of love's heat in his veins, and he steadied himself by putting a hand in the counter.

Cody gulped in a breath. All of the Sheilas and Tammis of the world didn't stand a chance. He was doomed. You're not supposed to fall in love in a shoe store. It's supposed to be somewhere grand, like the top of the Empire State Building, or overlooking Monterey Bay.

Blinking, he suddenly realized that he was still standing at the counter, wallet open in hand. The salesgirl gave him a strange look. "Uh, thanks," said Cody lamely, putting his wallet away and pocketing the change. His heart hammered in his chest. He felt like he was broadcasting banana from every pore. He walked back to Nick and Murray, trying to appear nonchalant, but it was like containing a storm in a teacup.

"Well, I suppose if you don't want them, we can donate them to charity," Murray was saying to Nick. He tapped a finger on his cheek thoughtfully. "Then again, I've always thought it would be really boss to have a museum."

"A museum?" asked Nick, standing up slowly and carefully.

"Yes, wouldn't that be really neat?" enthused Murray, gathering up the dress shoes. "We could set up displays for our most interesting cases. These shoes from the runaway groom case would be a great exhibit, don't you think? And then there's the compass from Martin's case, or the mermaid costume from Arnie's case..."

"Murray, nobody wants to look at radioactive seaweed or empty horse sperm containers." Nick frowned.

"Radioactive seaweed—oh!" Murray laughed. "I remember that, from the tank on the Arrivederci. But Nick, all of that seaweed has decomposed by now—"

Nick rubbed his temples. "Yeah, exactly."

"I think you're missing the point, Nick. Many of our cases are very interesting from an anthropological viewpoint—"

"You guys ready?" asked Cody, trying to interrupt as gently as possible. He hoped that Nick couldn't see the flush in his cheeks.

"I was just asking Nick about a Riptide Detective Agency museum," said Murray. "What do you think, Cody?"

Cody thought about repeating Nick's line about radioactive seaweed, but he didn't want to hurt Murray's feelings. "I don't know, Murray. I mean, we didn't keep anything from our cases..."

"Oh, I have lots of things in storage!" said Murray.

"You do?" said Nick and Cody at the same time.

"Oh, yes. I have a storage space for some of my electronic equipment, and it's optimal for archiving artifacts, you see. Temperature and humidity controlled."

"Why don't you tell us about it on the way to the pier?" said Cody. He realized that he had unconsciously reached out to Nick to take hold of his arm, and forced his hand back to his side. His heart skipped another beat.

The trip in the Jimmy was short, and Murray was strangely silent, causing Cody to look in his direction more than once. The pier loomed in view, and seemed busier than usual. A woman with a microphone was interviewing someone a short distance from the gate to slip 7, a cameraman recording them both.

"Isn't that Dooley?" said Murray. "And that's Suzy Gordon from the Channel Seven news."

Cody groaned. "Great. Just what we need." Parking the Jimmy in his reserved spot, he opened the door, scanning the small crowd. Tourists and curious onlookers. Suzy hadn't noticed them yet, but it was only a matter of time. Where's our police escort?

The gate was padlocked with their backup lock, and yellow crime scene tape fluttered in the breeze. He winced at the sight, and ripped it away. The metal of the combination lock was warm in his hands as he turned the wheel.

"Mr. Ryder!" said a woman's voice. "Mr. Ryder! If I could have just a moment of your time—" There was a flurry of footsteps.

Cody was already at the second number. Next to him, Nick muttered something under his breath.

"Ms. Gordon!" said Murray. "I watch you on the news all the time!"

"Mr. Ryder, I would love to speak with you," said the petite blonde. "If you have a moment..."

Cody looked up to see that the cameraman was already recording them. With a growl, he got between the lens and Nick. "No comment," he said, glaring at Suzy. He could hear Nick fumbling with the last number on the lock.

She rolled her eyes. "People are so unoriginal."

"Ms. Gordon, I find that your approach to the news is—ow!" Murray rubbed his ribs. "Nick, why did you bump me like that?"

The gate swung open. Cody pushed Murray through, still protesting, and kept himself between Nick and the camera.

"His story should be told," said Suzy, frowning. "That creep is still on the loose. The public needs to know what happened."

"No comment," said Cody, closing the gate and relocking it. The cops that had been assigned to them pulled up and Suzy sighed, muttering something about Jerry Dunphy as she walked away. Cody gave one of the plainclothes officers a thumbs-up signal and walked down the companionway behind Nick and Murray.

The Riptide floated at her slip, calm and serene. He thought of how many times she had been an oasis for him, how he loved to curl up in the heart of her and shut out the storm.

But what am I supposed to do when the storm is inside her?

No vaulting over the side for Nick; Murray helped him get aboard. Cody stayed on the dock and checked all of the lines carefully, giving the Ebb Tide a quick look as well before hopping into the fantail. The afternoon sun was hot and heavy, and a glance back at the pier revealed Dooley waving to him. He waved back, noticing that Suzy and her cameraman were getting into a news van. Suzy looked miffed.

Inside the Riptide it was cooler. Murray's face was scrunched up in sympathy, and Cody looked across the salon to see Nick, frozen at the top of the stairs.

A wave of fear and nausea churned in his gut. He crossed the salon swiftly and laid his hand on Nick's arm. "Buddy, you don't need to..."

"I do," said Nick, swinging his head around to fix Cody with intense blue eyes. "If I don't—" His voice shook on the last word.

"Okay," said Cody softly. " don't have to do it alone." Gratitude stole over Nick's face, and he nodded, taking a deep breath.

The ring of the telephone broke the tension in the air. "Oh, that's Tiffany!" said Murray. "She probably just got out of class." He dashed off.

Cody turned back to Nick. "Ready?"

Nick nodded again, as if he couldn't trust his voice. He turned and walked down the steps, Cody following at his heels, hand still on his arm.

The hallway to their stateroom had never seemed so long before. Sweat broke out on Cody's forehead, and he swallowed nervously. I can't believe this happened on my boat. I can't believe I'm afraid of my own bedroom.

He felt light-headed. The only thing that still seemed real was Nick's arm, warm under his grip.

The doorway loomed. A door he had entered a thousand times before. He swallowed again, echoes of a nightmare reverberating unpleasantly within his skull.

The bedroom looked the same. Two bunks, dresser, closets. But somehow it was a thousand times different. Home. Horror. He gulped against a fresh wave of nausea. Everything was still so fresh in his mind. Someone tried to kill Nick here. Painfully. Slowly. A wave of heat passed over his skin and he wiped his free arm across his forehead.

Closing his eyes, he counted to ten, willing himself to calm. It's just my room. Our room. Something bad happened here, but it doesn't change the fact that it's still home.

One calming breath. It's just a room. Another. He opened his eyes, feeling the sweat cool on his body, pushing the stress and pain deep down inside him.

Nick was still in front of him, and it only took one look for Cody to realize that something was very, very wrong. He could see tendons standing out in his neck. "Hey..." He moved in front of him slowly. "Nick?" He stepped closer, putting his other hand on Nick's elbow. "I'm right here."

Nick was shuddering now, breath coming in stuttered gasps, and for a moment Cody thought he was going to pass out, but then he made an inarticulate noise that pierced directly through Cody's heart. Folding his arms around him, Cody pulled him close, murmuring promises of safety, of hope, of understanding. Nick burrowed his face in Cody's neck, crying in short, painful bursts, his body shaking with the force of it.

A fierce sense of possession suddenly burned in Cody's heart, shocking him with its strength. If that bastard ever touches him again... He held Nick even more tightly, stroking his back with one hand. "It's okay, it's okay," he whispered. "You're safe. I've got you." He felt hot tears on his neck. "Shh, Nick, I've got you." He brought his hand up in one long stroke to the back of his neck, gently caressing.

Slowly Nick quieted, and Cody kept running his fingers through the hair on the nape of his neck. Always a fierce storm with Nick. And now the calm. "Better?" he asked.

He felt Nick give a slight nod, and realized that he was supporting more of Nick's weight than expected. "Think you might want to lie down?" There was a pause. "I'm sure Murray wouldn't mind if you used his bunk while we do some cleaning..." Again he felt a nod against his neck. A fine tremor ran through Nick's body. "Okay, c'mon, buddy. You can make it." He locked one arm around Nick's waist and drew him away from their room, away from the remembrance of terror that swirled within it.

Nick leaned on him heavily, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. "What'd they feed you at the hospital? Rocks?" teased Cody. He managed to pull him up the stairs and through the salon, past Murray's concerned gaze.

Murray's room was only slightly messy, a few of the familiar devices on their sides, revealing missing power cords. Nick stumbled and Cody tightened his hold, angling him toward Murray's bunk.

He pulled off the new deck shoes, watching as Nick wearily drew his feet up under the covers, shivering. Concerned, Cody put a hand to his forehead. Cold and clammy. "You feeling okay?"

"Yeah," croaked Nick, and then he blinked sleepily.

"I'll get you some water." He raced down to the galley, pouring out a glass, and brought it back in record time, only to find that Nick was already asleep. He left it on the nightstand. Pulling another blanket out of the closet, he spread it out over Nick's still form, lightly stroking his arm before he went back to the salon.

"Tiffany should be here soon," said Murray, paused over the TV, holding a dusting cloth.

"That's great, Murray." Cody ran a hand through his hair.

"There isn't much dusting to do," said Murray. "The agents cleaned off most of the fingerprint powder."

Cody frowned as he surveyed the shelf behind the TV. "Yeah, it doesn't look too bad, but..."

"Everything's in its general area, but not exactly where it should be." Murray took off his glasses and polished them. "I've gone through the galley and reorganized it, but the head still needs to be done, and your stateroom..." He suddenly looked uncomfortable. "We don't have to do it all today, of course."

"I want to get it done," said Cody, not liking the sound of desperation in his own voice. "I mean...the sooner we get it done, the sooner we can..." Move back in? Nick can't even stand to be in our room for more than a few minutes. He sighed and rubbed his temple. "I'm going to make some coffee."

"I could work on your room," said Murray, very quietly.

Cody was touched. "That's really nice of you, Murray, but if it's just the same, I'd rather do it. Thanks for offering, though."

Murray nodded and went back to cleaning the TV set.

Cup of coffee in hand, Cody went back down the hallway to his room. Firmly filling his mind with images of restoring the old boat, and all of the joy they'd gotten from her over the years, he managed to enter the doorway without feeling sick. Progress.

He set the coffee cup down on the dresser and looked around.

First things first. Bunks. He pulled off the old sheets and put on new ones. Nick usually did it, so it took a moment to locate the sheets, but he found them. Making the bunks and tucking the blankets under reminded him of being in basic training.

He went through the jumble of stuff in the dresser, pulling everything out and then putting it back in correctly, tucking Nick's photo of his mom back underneath his socks. He took another sip of coffee before turning toward the closets.

How long did that bastard hide in the closet, waiting for Nick? He grimaced as his hand touched the knob. Was he there when I was in the room, looking for my shoes? How about earlier, when we were loading stuff into Murray's car? How did he know which one to hide in? If he'd hid in mine, I would have found him when I put the dry cleaning away.

The door to Nick's closet opened with barely a squeak. Cody frowned. He'd been after Nick to oil the hinges for days, but he couldn't remember him doing so.

The inside was a mess. A shocking sight, as Nick usually kept it neat. Clothes were shunted aside, stuffed into the drawers underneath, and the boxes above were a shambles. Cody sighed.

Boxes first. He vaguely remembered how Nick kept them stacked, and began to methodically rearrange them. There was a black shoebox on the left, I think... Some of the boxes were labeled. There were several missing; those that contained shoes were gone.

There was one shoebox he didn't remember. Navy blue. Worn around the edges. As his fingers closed over it, the broken lid popped off and he made a hasty grab before the whole box fell off the shelf. A flash of green caught his eye.

Pictures of 'Nam. He would recognize that wild jungle green anywhere. The first few were of some of the guys in their platoon. Chase mugging with a jacket he'd had custom-made in Saigon. Steve smoking at camp. Pics of himself, grinning jauntily at the camera, arm slung around Nick. Another of him in front of one of the Hueys that Nick had flown.

And then, at the bottom of the box, a picture of Bobby Henson and Nick. Bobby looked like he was whispering something in Nick's ear, and Nick was grinning and looking at the camera, a strange mix of elation and wariness on his face. Cody's fingers brushed across a piece of material, and he pulled out a curled-up bit of olive drab fabric with Henson embroidered on it. He smoothed it out, and it curled up again. Damn. The dream surfaced again. The heat, the damp, the scratch of Nick's five o'clock shadow.

A fierce wave of jealousy washed over him, and he pushed it down. Bobby's been dead for over a decade. He fingered the bit of fabric again, remembering him. The picture wasn't the best, but he didn't need it to call him to mind; his face was a recurring image in a decade's worth of 'Nam nightmares. Brown hair, brown eyes so dark they were almost black. A little shorter than Nick. Tanned. Big hands. Wiry. He could almost hear his laugh, an infectious, low chuckle; could almost hear his slight Southern drawl.

Mostly he remembered how Nick was like the walking dead after Bobby died. How the light in his eyes disappeared for weeks, how he walked point and volunteered for every godforsaken tunnel duty that they encountered.

Cody studied the photo again, looked at the true joy expressed in every line of Nick's body. Nick always falls so hard. He traced the edge of the picture. He gets consumed by love. Like it bleeds out of every pore. Peggy almost destroyed him. He frowned. Bobby did destroy him. Worse than I've ever seen. I thought he wasn't going to come back.

An excited shout signaled Tiffany's arrival, and he put the box and the photos down.

Making his way back up the steps, he saw Tiffany giving Murray an exuberant hug, as if she hadn't seem him for months.

"Hey, Tiff," said Cody. She immediately turned and gave him a big hug as well, her short pink hair tickling his cheek.

"Oh, and look who I ran into!" she said, sounding pleased.

"Hey, stranger," said Pete warmly. "This pretty girl was telling me you needed some help, and you know I'm a sucker for pretty girls."

"Pete!" Cody hugged him. "Hey, man, it's good to see you."

"You look better," said Pete. "So what needs to be done?"

Just like Pete, straight to the point. "Well, most stuff just seems...kind of disorganized. Murray, you have a plan of attack?"

Murray adjusted his glasses. "Well, yes, now that you mention it, I do. The salon is in need of reorganization...all of the items in storage in the bench seats need to be redone. And the head still needs a quick tidying. Pete, if you want to help Tiffany in the salon, I'll organize the head, and Cody, you could continue in the stateroom."

"Sounds like a good plan to me," said Cody. "Uh, but we shouldn't run the vacuum or anything...Nick's asleep in Murray's room."

"Okay, then." Pete grinned at Tiffany. "I hope you know where everything goes, because I haven't a clue."

"I can make some educated guesses," said Tiffany. "Logically speaking, everything must have a place. I mean, there's only a finite amount of space on a boat."

"Thanks," said Cody. "We really appreciate it." Pete waved him off, and Cody returned to the stateroom.

Looking around, he came to the realization that the stateroom was the worst. The closets were a mess, the overhead storage was a nightmare, and all of the things they'd shoved under the bunks over the years were in a hopeless jumble. He pulled everything out and began organizing it one area at a time.

Looks like the agents were very interested in what was under the bunks. There's no dust here at all. And no shoes. Damn. He began to put things back systematically, and managed to get it all sorted out.

Looking back at Nick's closet, he noticed that he'd left the shoebox out. Gathering the photos up, he thumbed through them one last time, grinning at the silly poses they'd made, at the boys they'd been before war had made them put aside their childish things. There was one more shot of Bobby, and it was such a quintessential Bobby pose that Cody's heart ached. He stood, one hip angled slightly, rifle on shoulder, grinning lazily at the camera, cigarette dangling from his lip. Behind him was a downed chopper, and he was pointing at it with one thumb. Some private joke between him and Nick, most likely; Bobby had always hated flying, and especially flying in choppers.

"Cody, we should probably think about dinner," said Murray, coming into the room. He looked around nervously.

"Dinner?" said Cody. "But it's only—" He squinted at his watch.

"It's four fifty-three," said Murray. "I think Pete and Tiffany have worked up quite an appetite. Did you know that the human body—"

"Maybe you guys could go out to eat, while I take Nick back to Straightaway's," mused Cody. He put the pictures back in the box and put it back on the top shelf. Gotta remember to get some cash from the cigar box.

"We could get carryout again," said Murray brightly.

"I don't know if Nick's up to much company right now," he said, looking Murray in the eyes.

"Oh, I didn't think about that." Chagrin showed plainly on his face. He seemed to think for a moment. "Still, Cody, don't you think it would be a good idea to make some new positive associations?"


"With the Riptide." Murray made a gesture with his hands. "Right now Nick is feeling very overwhelmed with negative memories. If we had a nice dinner in the salon, it might help remind him of the positive things we've experienced here."

"It could be a good idea," hedged Cody.

"You could just ask him," said Nick, leaning on the doorway.

Cody tried not to look startled. "Hey, buddy." He noticed that the dark circles under his eyes had diminished a little, and he looked a little calmer.

Nick rubbed the back of his neck absently. "Hey, yourself."

"How about it? Dinner on the Riptide?"

"As long as you're paying." Nick smiled.

Cody smiled in return. "That could be arranged. If the cigar box cooperates, that is."

In the salon, they briefly conferred over which restaurant, and they all finally decided on the Lahani Haloha, Tiffany volunteering to pick up the order. Cody brought up a fresh pot of coffee from the galley and set it on the warmer, giving Nick a look that promised a hell of a bitching if he even thought about drinking any.

The air had grown cooler, and the setting sun illuminated the cabin with long rays. Cody looked out across the water, noticing a small boat whose occupants seemed very interested in the Riptide. He frowned and closed the blinds.

"Have you ever thought about living on dry land again?" asked Pete, sitting down at the salon table.

"Nope," said Cody. He poured a cup of coffee for himself and sat down next to Nick. "The minute I saw the Riptide at Tommy's, I knew that she was going to be my boat."

"You mean the minute you saw the price tag," said Nick, and coughed.

"Yeah, laugh it up, but I remember the price tag for the 'Vette, and it was something like...let me ninety-nine." Cody took a sip of coffee.

"Really?" said Murray, looking intrigued.

"It wasn't free." Nick gave Cody an exasperated look. "I traded for it."

"What did you trade?" asked Murray.

"He worked weekends at the junkyard for a whole summer," said Cody, grinning. "One of the hottest summers on record, in fact. I think it melted his brain a little, because right after that he bought the Mimi."

"Don't start on her," said Nick, jabbing a finger at him. "She's saved your tail more than once."

"And you live on the Riptide," said Cody pointedly. "You might not want to call her cheap, or she might pump bilgewater in your bunk when you least expect it." Nick grinned in response, but Cody could see a flicker of unease pass over his face.

"What about the Roboz, Murray?" asked Pete. "How much did he set you back?"

"Oh, I built him myself!" said Murray proudly. "He's completely one-of-a-kind. Baba has—I mean, my sister Melba has a friend who works in the plastics industry, and he made a shell to my specifications. It was actually my parents' gift for my thirtieth birthday, which reminds me of a funny story involving cake and my father's head—"

"Are you saying," said Pete, "that someone created a prototype for you? Did you get any sort of notification in writing about the exclusivity of your design?"

"Well, my parents did, I believe." Murray adjusted his glasses. "My father is very good with contracts and that sort of thing. He's worked for a university for years, you see."

"Have you monitored the company since?" Pete leaned his elbows on the salon table. "Is there any possibility that they've created duplicate pieces?"

"The mold was destroyed after the prototype was finished," said Murray. "I'm not worried about it; the company is well-established and they often do single pieces like this. That's why the price is higher."

"So his birthday's the same as yours," said Cody, intrigued. "We should have a joint celebration."

"Well, technically, no, because that was only the day his shell was delivered to me. I'd actually already begun working on his artificial intelligence system years before that. I might be able to calculate the date of his first actualized line of code, though. An interesting thought."

"Hey, food's here!" called out Tiffany. She bounced down the stairs, her hands full of bags. "Aw, nobody even set the table!"

"I'm sorry," said Pete, leaning back. "We were just talking about the origins of the Roboz."

"Oooh, really?" she said, unpacking the containers from the bags. "The Roboz is totally awesome. I mean, I miss Marvella—she took all of my phone messages and prioritized them based on their number of origin—but the Roboz can do all of that, and call out and order a pizza, y'know?"

"Really?" asked Nick.

"Well, with the BozVoiceBox module set up, yes," said Murray, coming out of the galley with hands full of plates, silverware and napkins, which he began to disperse.

Pete raised an eyebrow at the mismatched set. "What do you guys do, take a fork home with you from every restaurant you've ever eaten at?"

"And a knife," added Nick.

Pete covered a laugh with a cough. "The food smells terrific."

"I picked up nearly all of my household goods at garage sales," announced Tiffany. "When I first moved out, I mapped a grid of the city and a cross-referenced it with a list of current real estate sales so I could find the section with the highest probability of dishes."

"How did that work out for you?" asked Cody.

"I have a complete set of Star Wars glasses," she said enthusiastically. "And some very nice FiestaWare."

"If I ever get a house, remind me to call you for a consultation," said Pete. He spooned barbecued pork onto his plate.

"Oh, sure!" said Tiffany. "I'll just need the longitude and latitude, and let me know if you prefer Princess Leia or Han Solo." She glanced over and gave him a sly grin.

Pete laughed out loud. "Leia, for certain, though she—and the other stuff—will have to wait until I make partner, I'm afraid."

"That sounds like a lonely life," said Tiffany sympathetically. "You know, though, if you find the right princess, she'll follow you anywhere." She gave Murray a wink.

"I'd like to believe that." Pete put down his fork for a moment, and Cody glimpsed sadness in his eyes. "I haven't had much luck, though. Most girls either get excited or repulsed when I tell them I'm a lawyer. And you have to watch the excited ones; they usually want to get you alone and find out if you have any coke."

"I don't understand." Murray frowned. "I mean, you could just go to the nearest corner store if they're thirsty—"

"He means cocaine, Murray," said Nick.

"Oh, I see." He blushed.

"What about before you were a lawyer?" Tiffany took a sip of her drink, which had a pink umbrella stuck through the plastic lid. "Any great loves?"

"Well, one," said Pete. "While we were in college, I was pretty hot and heavy with this girl, an economics major. I even proposed to her."

"Oh, yeah, Susan Reynolds," said Cody. "Wow, that really takes me back. She was gorgeous, always wore these really tight—er, I mean, she was really...fashionable."

"Wait...Susan Reynolds?" said Nick, his face scrunched in concentration. "Short, dark hair, great body? The woman we ran into in Baltimore?" They looked at each other for a moment and then laughed in unison.

Pete looked surprised. "You saw her after college?" he said. Cody nodded.

"Yeah, we went to this party, and woke up in Baltimore. And then we were running around town trying to get a ride back to base..." Nick coughed.

"We ran into her on the street," continued Cody. "She wanted us to come to her Civic Pride meeting. Poor Nick's so hungover he can't even pronounce his own name, and she's lecturing him on repainting the courthouse." Nick laughed and then coughed again, rubbing his throat.

"What drove her out of your arms and into Baltimore?" asked Tiffany.

"She was kind of old-fashioned," said Pete, taking a bite and chewing with a thoughtful expression on his face.

"Old-fashioned? Explain, please." Tiffany gave him an interested look.

"Well, she was really...polite. On the surface. I don't know how to explain it, really. She was sweet and nice to everyone. Always did everything the right way, said the right things." He frowned. "It's more that...I think our dreams didn't add up, you know? She wanted a perfect house with two children. The white picket fence thing. I mean, I'd like to have kids, too, but I don't care about the fence. And I'd love to live somewhere vibrant. Somewhere like Portland. Or New York. When I told her that, she was horrified. She didn't want to break off the engagement, at first. I think she thought she could change my mind."

"She even called his mom," said Cody.

"Wow," said Nick.

"Yeah, and then I started noticing how manipulative she was, and how everything had to be perfect, her kind of perfect, and finally I realized that we just weren't meant to be. I drove her home after a movie, and then I turned to her in the driveway of her sorority house and told her it was over."

"That was a mess." Cody shook his head.

"She wasn't happy about it." Pete toyed with his fork. "Threw the engagement ring at me. It went right out the window. After she flounced off, I spent all night looking for it."

"And then I came out the next day and we went over the whole lawn with a fine-tooth comb," added Cody. "The sorority girls were glaring daggers at us from the windows the whole time."

"That was a learning experience," said Pete ruefully. "We never did find the ring. Took me two more years to pay it off, and I had nothing to show for it."

"Now I don't feel so bad that I almost puked on her shoes," said Nick, taking another sip of water. Pete laughed.

"Cody, how about you?" asked Tiffany. "Who were your great loves?" Cody blinked, caught off guard.

"Janet," said Nick automatically. "They even hooked up twice."

"The famous Janet," said Pete, grinning and digging into his mashed potatoes.

Tiffany piled shrimp onto her plate. "What happened?"

"We just...weren't compatible," said Cody. He thought of their time together in San Francisco, the few hours they'd made it work. "We had the passion, but we couldn't agree on anything for more than a minute. In the end, we couldn't even agree on how to make a relationship together. We were both willing to give up a lot, but then we both realized that it just wouldn't work." He took a sip of coffee. "And you, Tiffany?" he said, smoothly changing the focus away from himself.

'"Oh, that's easy," said Tiffany, beaming. "Astro Boy and Murray."

"Astro Boy?" said Nick. "The cartoon about the robot?"

She nodded. "He was abandoned by his creator, but he never gave up. He still wanted to do good things and help people. I love that!" She took a sip from her cup. "Plus, he was powered by a hundred thousand horsepower engine." She grinned wickedly.

"This is so much fun!" enthused Murray. "I'll go next. My great loves...let me think...well, Tiffany, beyond a doubt...oh, of course! Madame Curie. An incredible mind, and such an amazing scientist. I would go to sleep with her picture under my pillow and hope that I would dream of her."

"Oh yeah, Madame Curie rocks!" said Tiffany.

"Hmm...who else..." He looked thoughtful for a moment. "Stephanie Davison."

"Stephanie Davison..." Nick blinked. "Wait a minute, are you crazy? The girl who killed her husband and tried to frame you for the murder?"

"Is that true?" asked Pete, turning toward them in disbelief.

"Sorry to say, but it is," said Nick.

"The heart loves where the heart loves, Nick," said Murray sagely.

"But Murray, you barely knew her," said Cody.

"Oh no, Cody, I knew her for an entire semester." Murray put his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his hands. "She had the most beautiful handwriting..."

"Sounds like the plot of a murder mystery," said Pete, taking another bite of pork.

"Nick, it's your turn," said Murray eagerly. "I wonder if I can guess yours. That nurse, Peggy?"

Nick looked distinctly uncomfortable, and Cody could feel the sudden shift, tension flowing from him. "Yeah, Peggy," he said, taking a sip of water. "She was a sweetheart."

"Hmm. I can't think of anyone else." Murray tapped a finger on the side of his cheek.

"Tanya Frederickson." Nick grimaced. "I proposed to her while we were in our senior year of high school, but it turned out I was from the wrong side of the tracks, at least in her parents' eyes. We stopped seeing each other after that."

Bobby Henson. Cody thought anew of those dark brown eyes. How Nick seemed happier every time he was near.

"There was one woman...her name was Renée," said Nick haltingly. "We met her because of a case...I mean, we only spent a day, maybe a day and a half together, but I always thought that if we'd had more time..." He exhaled, then shook his head. "Or maybe not. I don't know...sometimes I think it would've been better if we'd never met at all."

Cody was surprised. He'd known, of course, that there had been something between them, but Nick had never talked about it before. Murray was staring at him, a look of surprise on his face.

"A chance at love should always be taken," said Tiffany.

"I'll drink to that," said Pete, raising his glass.

Cody raised his own, toasting the others, and sipped. He thought about Tiffany's words. Was that really a good idea, to take every chance at love? She's young and idealistic. She doesn't understand that sometimes love is too painful. Sometimes it's better to not take the chance. Janet had been a big chance, both times, and both times it had hurt. And let's not even get into Sheila...

He looked at Nick, and could see the melancholy that the conversation had inspired. This close on the news of Allison's murder, it had to be painful.

What if I take a chance with Nick, and it doesn't work out?

For a moment he froze in his chair, thinking back to the pain and agony of being dumped by Janet, to the pain and agony he'd gone through with Sheila, and his stomach dropped. If he pursued his love of Nick, and then fell out of love with him—if this were only a temporary thing, and he ended up alone—

The room suddenly seemed stifling. He shifted in his chair, willing himself back to calm.

He looked up to see Nick giving him a strange look, and he looked back down at his plate, taking a deep breath.

"I think you're leaving out the real great love of your life, Murray," said Tiffany, grinning. Murray looked curious. "Your random number generator!"

Murray giggled. "And one would think that your great love would be your quantum data modifier relay, but, given the number of data sample charts involved, I really think your great love is your laser-access data storage device."

"Or maybe just a really nice, crunchy pickle," said Tiffany brightly. Murray collapsed into laughter.

"Are these two always like that?" Pete asked Cody.

"Worse," Nick and Cody said in unison. Nick coughed again.

"You should have seen them during the Libations Project," said Cody. Nick winced.

"The Libations Project?" asked Pete.

"They drank wine coolers all night long and tracked how many lines of code they could enter in between each cooler," said Cody.

"Purely a scientific experiment," added Tiffany, grinning.

"Lying on the floor of the salon at two AM singing 'Auld Lang Syne' was just a bonus, right?" asked Nick.

"There are people who would pay to see supine performances of nostalgic songs," said Tiffany. "You should count yourself lucky." Cody almost snorted at the look on Nick's face.

Pete leaned back in his chair. "We used to go to the bar and try to see how many legal references we could cite after a few shots..."

Nick gave Cody a knowing look. There was little that could compare to the drinking they'd done in the army, much less the drinking they'd done in 'Nam. He returned the look, and listened as Tiffany chattered about the how the color of an alcoholic drink could be used to classify its potency, but really he was thinking about Nick.

He loved him, of that he was certain now. They'd always loved each other in the platonic, brotherly sort of way. Or at least, he had loved Nick in that way. But he was now keenly aware of the something more that had awakened in his chest.

Tiffany's question about "great loves" made him wonder if he should include Nick. He's always been by my side. He's always been there for me, no matter what happened. He could feel it, a sense of possession, an awakening desire that both intrigued him and frightened him.

Whatever Tiffany had said amused Nick, and his lips curved into a smile. Cody loved that smile, knew that smile better than his own. He knew what it felt like against his own.

His body reacted, and he winced at the tightness of his jeans. Surreptitiously he adjusted himself, desperately thinking of cold water and Mama Jo. Nick is my best friend. My roommate, business partner, brother in war. He took a shallow breath as it hit him. If he isn't a great love, I don't know who is.

"Are you feeling okay?" asked Pete, looking at him in concern.

"Fine," said Cody, too quickly, and he felt Nick's curious stare. "Just a little tired, I think."

"Of course," said Pete. "It's been a...difficult week. For all of you."

"Yes, you'll probably want to be getting back to Straightaway's," said Tiffany, sounding sad. "I'm sorry, guys, but the rest of my week is pretty full, and I probably won't be able to help you much more."

"Except for the coding project," said Murray. "You can still help with that, right?"

"Oh, of course," she said. "I can do some lines and send it out via modem. But I doubt I'll be making the drive out here until the weekend."

"That's okay, Tiffany," said Cody. "Believe me, you've done more than enough—we appreciate it."

"Thanks, Tiff," said Nick, smiling.

"I was wondering," said Murray hesitantly, "if you would mind if I borrowed the 'Vette, Nick."

"Sure." Nick took one last sip of soup and put down his spoon. "Running up to Pasadena, then?"

"Yes," said Murray, looking over at Tiffany with stars in his eyes. She giggled. "Unless, of course, you need me," he immediately added.

"No, I think we'll be fine." Cody drained the last of his coffee. "Have fun, you two."

"I think I'm going to head for the hills, too," said Pete apologetically. "I have an early meeting with the senior partner tomorrow."

"Hey, Pete, thanks so much for helping out," said Cody, standing up and giving him a hug.

"No problem, Cody," he said, returning the hug. "Call me if you need anything. Anything at all."

"I will," promised Cody. Tiffany and Murray hugged Nick, and Murray snagged the 'Vette keys from the hanger as he walked out of the salon.

"Till next time," said Pete, waving and following them out.

Cody got up and started clearing plates and silverware, taking them back down to the galley. Slipping them into the sink, he turned to walk back up, but paused as Nick came into the small space, his hands full of mugs and glasses. He reached out and helped him transfer them to the counter. "You about ready to head back to Straightaway's?"

"Yeah," said Nick. He frowned.

"What's wrong?" asked Cody.

"Nothing, man." He rubbed the back of his neck.

"Something's wrong, I can tell," said Cody, starting to worry. "Your knees? Your throat? Did you—"

Nick looked unhappy. "Look, I just don't like chasing you away from your boat."

"What?" Cody put the dishrag down and turned to him. "Nick, I'm fine with spending a few nights away. In fact, I'm fine with spending as much time as you need away from the Riptide."

Nick winced at that. "I know how much you hate being away from her."

"Right now, it's probably the best thing," said Cody honestly. "I mean, I know that I couldn't spend the night in that stateroom tonight."

"You couldn't?" Nick's expression turned to one of intense guilt.

"Whoa, Nick," said Cody, reaching out and touching his arm. "Stop it—it's okay. We're in this together, partner. We both just need some time to cope with...with what happened. The Riptide's still home; we just need to adjust a little, that's all."

Nick nodded without enthusiasm, and turned and headed back up the stairs. Cody sighed and left the dirty dishes in the sink.

Locking the wheelhouse doors was bittersweet. On one hand, he was glad to put the darkness behind them, but on the other hand, it was his boat. Nick was right; he did hate spending time away from her. A look at Nick confirmed that he still felt awful, and Cody had no idea what to do about the guilt that swirled around him.

He walked up the companionway slowly on purpose, and Nick gave him a look which clearly said I know exactly what you're doing. Cody grinned in reply and opened the gate.

"Nick! Cody!" said a familiar female voice. Cody looked up from relocking the padlock to see Tawny Clark approaching them.

"Hi, Tawny," said Nick. "What a surprise."

"Arnie told me that he saw you guys—hey, what's that supposed to mean?" she said, putting a hand on her hip.

"Reporter, looking for a story," said Cody. "And it just so happens Nick has a story."

"Look, my editor asked me to see if I could use my relationship with you to get an exclusive for the Spotlight," she said, looking irked. "I told him to go to hell. He told me to go to the unemployment line."

"He fired you?" asked Cody.

"No, I told him I'd ask," she said.

"And here you are, asking," said Cody.

"Don't jump the gun," she said, irritated. "I haven't asked, and I'm not going to."

"Get ready for the pink slip," said Cody.

She gave a dismissive wave of her hand. "What he doesn't know won't hurt him. He's not going to know that I didn't. I'll just come back with 'no comment' and that'll be it." The look on her face softened. "Really, I just wanted to know how you're doing, Nick."

Nick narrowed his eyes. "Off the record?"

She frowned. "You heard me, off the record!"

"Off the record, I feel okay," he said quietly. "I'll feel even better when that bastard gets caught and can't hurt anyone else."

"Thanks," she said, smiling. "You take care of him, Cody." She gave him a fierce look.

"Of course," said Cody. "Don't I always?" Nick snorted.

"See you around," said Tawny.

"Bye, Tawny," said Cody.

"That was unexpected," said Nick, turning to look at him.

"Yeah, who would have known she was still seeing Arnie?" asked Cody.

The lot behind Straightaway's was only half-full, and Cody parked the Jimmy where he could see it from their room. Getting out, he stretched and looked up at the sky, which was just beginning to darken.

"Nice night," said Nick, slamming the door shut. "Probably good fishing."

"Yeah." Cody looked across the horizon, his eye immediately seeking out Venus. "Maybe we should take a trip out into the ocean." As soon as he said it, he regretted it. Out on the water, trapped on the boat where he was attacked...great idea, Cody.

"Sounds good," said Nick. "Maybe find a nice deserted island. Grill a few fish—"

There was a blinding flash, and then another, and Cody reached for a gun that wasn't there as he crossed the front of the Jimmy, moving instinctively for Nick. Nick was up against the side panel, blinking, hand outstretched. There was someone in front of him, holding a camera, taking picture after picture.

Damnit. Wallace Stronk. "Stop it!" shouted Cody.

The pictures stopped, and Stronk looked at him, smiling. "Public property," he said. "I can take as many pictures as I want."

"You bastard," said Cody, seething, hands clenched in fists. "He's a vet, damnit. You don't—"

"I have the legal right to—"

"Hey there, Wally," said Henderson. "Making a public nuisance of yourself again?"

Stronk turned red. "I'm well within my rights, officer."

"I think that Mr. Straightaway might disagree with that." Henderson held out his hand.

"This film is a matter of public record—"

"I'm not going to ask twice." Henderson glowered at him. Tony dropped a cigarette to the pavement and ground it out with his heel, making the motion look menacing.

"Fine," said Stronk angrily, pulling out the roll of film and giving it to Henderson.

"Goodnight, Wally," said Tony, giving him a wave. "Stay out of trouble."

"Let's go," said Nick. He rubbed his left eye again, blinking slowly, and then looked at Cody.

"Are you okay?" asked Cody softly.

"Yeah, sure," said Nick, turning toward Straightaway's.

Cody is walking down the street. San Francisco. It's cold and damp, and he feels the fog crawling on his skin. The streetlights glimmer and fade, and the dark settles on his shoulders like a living thing.

The pavement is wet. A car slinks by, headlights gleaming against the puddles, and he feels someone watching him from behind tinted windows.

He turns his collar up against the cold. Puts his hands in his pockets. The city breathes when he breathes, exhaling mist, and he can feel the sidewalk pulsing beneath his soles.

A broken wind-up toy in the street. He looks up to see the stars swirling and undulating. He feels a chill down his neck at the sight.


He turns, and Nick is standing there, looking like he did in 'Nam, young and cocky. His eyes are clear and blue, shedding a pure light like a beacon in the dark and empty street. Cody can feel it inside his chest, the echo of its force still reverberating against his ribcage.


"I thought you were gone," says Nick, and then his outline turns to frost, wavering in the steamy air. Shimmering, bleeding away into the dark, his eyes are the last thing to fade, the blue glow slowly tamped out by the blackness.

"Nick, wait—" Cody dashes down the cobblestones toward him, but he's gone.

Cody came awake, panting, blinking his eyes. The alarm clock revealed that it was just after two, and he groaned, rolling on his side. His heart hammered in his chest.

"Cody, you okay?" came Nick's sleepy voice from the next bed.

"Yeah." Cody wiped the sweat from his forehead. "Yeah, I'm fine." He couldn't help but shiver. Staring at the dark ceiling, he blinked a few times, trying to get rid of the image of Nick fading into nothingness, his clear blue light swallowed by the dark.

Chapter Text

In the morning, Cynthia lingered for a moment as she delivered the breakfast tray, telling Cody that they were still running short-handed after Sandy's firing, and that several of their guests had checked out now that the story wasn't as hot. Spying one of the maids with a towering pile of linens, she chased after her, waving at Cody that she'd talk to him later.

Closing the door, Cody went to the couch and sat down, putting the tray on the coffee table. "Nick, breakfast's here," he called out.

Nick came out of the bedroom, toweling his hair dry, another towel wound around his hips. "Smells good," he said, his voice raspy. The ligature marks on his body were now a dark purple, bruises radiating outward from each one. He threw the towel on the floor and stretched his shoulders gingerly.

There was a newspaper on the tray, and as Cody picked it up he realized it was a copy of the King Harbor Daily. He unfurled it, sipping a glass of orange juice as he read the headline, and tried to ignore the sight of Nick, half-naked, flexing his muscles not twenty feet away from him, which was suddenly a very difficult task, despite having seen it every morning for the past eight years. He blinked, not really focusing on the headline, instead letting his eyes wander to the article.

There was a grainy picture of someone standing next to a truck. A Jimmy, actually, just like his. Cody looked closer and realized that the someone was Nick.

Frowning, he set down the orange juice and reread the headline. HANGMAN VICTIM UNSTABLE!

He swore aloud, eyes scanning the article, which accused Nick of being a stressed-out vet with an anger problem who might not even be fit to mingle with the general public. Nothing was said directly, of course, but it was there nonetheless, painting a picture that made Cody's blood boil. A quick glance confirmed that the byline belonged to Wallace Stronk.

Nick was saying something that Cody didn't really hear, and then a hand grabbed the paper from him. Nick's eyes roved over the front page, his expression turning to one of disgust. "What the hell is this?" There was a long pause as Nick read the article. The paper shook in his fingers. "I served my country. I did two tours. Where the hell was this..." He finished with a particularly nasty epithet, one that Cody hadn't heard him use since the war. "How can he say this?"

"He's a jerk," said Cody quietly, trying to tamp down the rage in his chest. He took a deep breath. "Look, most people know his reporting is nonsense. Worse than nonsense. They'll forget about it as soon as the next big headline hits."

"This is crazy, man," said Nick, looking furious. "This guy doesn't even know me, and he's writing—he—" He threw the paper to the floor and swore again, his hands closing into fists.

Cody got up and walked around the coffee table, holding up his hands, trying to placate. "He's a jerk. He's just trying to shock people, he's just trying to sell stories. You know that the Daily's a bottom feeder newspaper..."

"I know that!" said Nick loudly, and then his hand went to his throat and he began to cough.

"Then don't let it bother you," said Cody, coming closer. "Stronk's an ass and he'll get his comeuppance eventually."

Nick did not look convinced. He rubbed the welt on his throat.

"Breakfast?" said Cody.

There was a long pause as Nick stood there, until the anger finally melted away. "I'm sorry, man," he whispered. "I didn't expect that."

"You're allowed." Cody sat back down, snatching a piece of bacon from the plate. "And who would expect that? Except that vets from 'Nam are always getting it in the press."

Nick sat down and stared at the breakfast tray. Cody could see the unhappiness in his eyes; Nick could never hide anything from him there. "Eat," said Cody. "C'mon, Cynthia made oatmeal for you. It's not even on the menu."

Nick leaned forward and poured milk and brown sugar into the bowl, then picked up a spoon and stirred it.

"We should finish cleaning out the Riptide today," said Cody. "Maybe reorganize the anchor locker. I need to put away my tools..." A sudden flash in his head, a pair of short-nosed cutters in his hand and cords slick with sweat, and Cody felt sick to his stomach.

Nick ate a bite or two, looking completely disinterested in the oatmeal. There were dark circles under his eyes and lines of fatigue on his face; he looked like he'd aged ten years in the last three days. Cody's heart ached to see him look so worn out.

"Maybe Murray can set up today," said Cody. "His electronics equipment is supposed to be returned soon..."

Nick didn't respond, only ate another spoonful listlessly. Cody noticed him wince as he swallowed.

There was a lump in his throat. Will anything ever be the same again?

The Riptide seemed a little warmer, somehow. Maybe it was the familiar sound of electronics whirring in Murray's cabin, but some of the darkness had dissipated, and Cody felt a little calmer as he entered the salon. "Hey, Murray, we're here!"

Murray came bounding down the stairs. "Oh, hi guys! I'm setting up the equipment for the coding project right now."

"Need any help?" asked Cody.

"Oh, no, I'm almost done." Murray adjusted his glasses. "Are you guys going to be here long? Because Agent Munro said that someone would be dropping off the rest of my electronics later, and I'm going to be leaving for an appointment later this afternoon. Plus, sometimes I don't hear if someone knocks."

"I don't know," said Cody. "Why don't we let you know if we're leaving?"

"That's a good idea." Murray nodded. "I should put Roboz into Surveillance Mode so that he'll let me know if someone boards." A strange look passed over his face. "I have to...I mean, I have the setup to get back to." He ran back up the stairs.

"Something's bugging him," said Cody. "I wonder what's wrong."

Nick was already halfway down the steps, heading toward their room. I wonder if we'll be able to sleep there soon. He followed him in, noticing that it didn't feel like a horror scene any longer; it was just a room. Their room. It'll feel like home again. I know it will.

Nick stopped suddenly, one hand braced on the wall, panting, and Cody stood still for a moment alarmed. "Nick?"

"It's supposed to get easier," whispered Nick.

"Are you serious?" asked Cody, incredulous. "What did you expect—you come back after a day, and everything's right back to where it was?"

"I thought..." Nick's eyes were squeezed shut, and he looked pale. "It's..."

"Nick, this isn't a puddle you have to jump over, it's an ocean," said Cody firmly. He guided him to his bunk and made him sit down. "You're acting like there's only one big wave to crest and then you're done. There are lots of waves, some big, some small. This is going to take time."

"I don't want to be afraid of this room," whispered Nick. He opened his eyes, and tears spilled down his cheek. "I want to be home again. I want us both to be home again and this..."

Cody sat down next to him, putting his hand on his arm. "You can't force it, Nick," he said simply. "You can't just will everything to be okay."

Nick turned to him, and Cody pulled him into his arms. This time there were no gasping sobs, just quiet tears, and Cody held him until he pulled away, wiping his eyes. There was a look of determination on his face, a look so quintessentially Nick that Cody smiled to see it. "I want to sleep here tonight," he said.

Cody blinked. "What?"

"I want to sleep here tonight." Nick's determined look turned into his stubborn look, and Cody realized that there was no way to talk him out of it.

"We should take it slow."

Nick shook his head. "Even if I have to sleep on the bench seat, I want to sleep here."

If he sleeps on the bench seat, then I'll be alone in here. He gave an involuntary shiver. He knew he wasn't ready yet. "Look, let's just talk about it—"

"Cody, please." His tone made Cody's hair stand up on the back of his neck. "I need to be home."

He sat for a long moment, staring into Nick's eyes, and he couldn't help but remember the pure light of the dream the night before. "Okay." He took a deep breath. "But I'm not getting rid of the room at Straightaway's just yet." Nick opened his mouth to argue, but Cody cut him off. "Just in case, Nick. I don't want to have to scramble to find something."

"Deal," said Nick, a ghost of a smile curving his lips.

Cody smiled in return. "Great. And now maybe we can finish putting everything back to rights?"

"Sounds good." Nick got up and went down the hallway, and Cody looked around the empty room for a moment, silently wishing that putting everything to rights was really that easy.

"That was an outrage!" fumed Murray.

Cody looked up from his book. Nick shrugged at him and then they both looked back at Murray.

"An outrage, I tell you!" Murray hadn't even taken off his windbreaker; he'd just come in and started waving his hands in the air. "Journalism has taken the low road. The days of solid, reliable, ethical reporting have reached their end—"

"The article," said Nick and Cody at the same time, trading another look.

"Yeah, Murray, that was a pretty nasty trick," said Cody.

"Yes, it certainly was!" said Murray, hands on hips. "To think that an individual, holding the public trust, would so egregiously—so vilely, I might add—violate basic rules of''s...unbelievable!" He grew louder with each word.

"We know, Murray," said Cody. "The article is horrible. He's a jerk."

"He's worse than a jerk, he's—what?" Murray looked confused, faltering in the middle of the sentence. "How do you know about the article? I mean, it hasn't even been written yet."

Cody blinked. "But...aren't you talking about the Daily's article on Nick?"

"No, I'm talking about Read Only Magazine," said Murray, frowning. "That's who my appointment was with—Roland Jacobs, one of their reporters. He contacted me by phone yesterday."

Cody was beginning to see the big picture, and he didn't like it. "What happened at your appointment?"

"Well, he began by asking me several rather basic questions about computing, and it became very obvious that he wouldn't know where the power button was on a TRS-80!" Murray gestured dismissively with one hand. "And then he started asking very strange questions. He wanted to know about the agency, and I thought that it might be good publicity to talk about the role computers play in our detective work, so I continued to cooperate, but then he began to ask questions about Nick, and his experiences in Vietnam, and I realized that I was being played! And when I insisted we terminate the interview, he tried to pay me for information about Nick! As if I would trade confidences for his filthy lucre!"

"Was this reporter on the short side?" asked Nick. "Heavyset, bad rug, rumpled suit? Walrus moustache?"

"Walrus moustache?" asked Cody. "Hey, his moustache is just like mine."

"That's him!" said Murray. "He was wearing a gold pinky ring—"

"—on his left hand?" finished Nick.

"Wallace Stronk," said Nick and Cody at the same time.

"Wallace Stronk?" said Murray, looking bewildered for a moment. Then his face lit up in recognition. "Wait, isn't he the reporter who wrote that very unflattering article about Alice Stuyker?"

"The very same," said Cody.

"Of all the ridiculous, conniving, low-life tricks!" fumed Murray. "I believe that I will lodge a complaint to the Association of Press Reporters."

"You don't really think he's a member, do you?" asked Nick, sitting back against the bench seat.

Murray stood for a moment longer, then looked at Cody. "Wait—are you saying that this pond scum—this wretched excuse for a journalist—wrote an article already?"

"It was in today's King Harbor Daily," said Cody. "It was a piece about Nick being a vet. And it wasn't very flattering."

Murray sat down, looking defeated. "Nick, I'm so sorry. If I had known that he was Wallace Stronk—"

"If you'd known, you never would've gone to the interview," said Nick softly. "He tricked you, Murray. He's scum. Don't let it get to you. You didn't do anything wrong."

"What did you tell him?" asked Cody.

"Well, I explained the difference between dual processors and—"

"About Nick," added Cody hastily.

"Oh." Murray thought for a moment. "I told him that Nick was the bravest man I've ever met, and that he served his country well and received honors for his service."

There was a pause, and then Nick touched Murray on the arm. "Thanks."

"It's the truth," said Murray firmly.

We'll see what Stronk does with that. Cody smiled, relaxing. "Anybody up for Scrabble?"

Cody sat on the fantail and watched the sun sink beneath the horizon. The harbor was quiet; there were only a few boats on the water, and the curious onlookers on the pier had dwindled down to a handful.

He took a swig of his beer, watching as the sky darkened. This was the first free breath he'd taken since Thursday night, when everything had gone to hell, since coming in and finding Nick in the middle of a psychopath's horrible attack. He took another sip, feeling himself slowly relax.

The few low-slung clouds above the last bit of sun were fiery red.

Tonight he would try to sleep in his own bunk again. Tonight he would have to face the nightmare head on.

He finished the beer and set the bottle on the deck. Will Nick be all right? He could only barely imagine being in the room at night; he couldn't even fathom what Nick would feel like once the dark pressed in. Maybe we'll have to sleep with the light on.

The wake from a passing boat splashed against the side of the Riptide. He yawned, the slight buzz from the beer making him languid, and reclined on the seat, putting his feet up on the cushion. No stars were visible yet; he looked at the sky, dark blue with lavender clouds, and let his mind wander.

No matter how hard he tried, his thoughts swung back to Nick like the needle of a compass returning to north. He'd tried to explain away this sudden surge of emotion for Nick as a reaction to the attack, or getting his wires crossed, but he now could recognize it for what it was. He was in love with his partner, his best friend, his roommate. Well, at least that last part could make it easier...

He shook his head. He was still left with the problem of trying to bring this up to Nick. Especially now, while he was still so vulnerable. The news of Allison's death had hit him hard, and Cody didn't want to intrude on that.

He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He could feel it in his heart, a constant thrumming for him, an agony of desire to hear the words again from Nick's lips. Now that Cody knew what he wanted, it was maddening to wait.

I can't say anything yet. I need to give him some time. Frustrated, he let his hand drop to the cushion.

"Hey," said Nick, coming down the steps from the wheelhouse. He handed him a fresh beer.

"Hey," said Cody, sitting up. Even though he didn't feel like drinking, he took a swig.

"Nice sunset," he said.

"It is." He suppressed a shiver as a cool breeze came across the ocean.

"Look, I know..." Nick paused, then sat down. "I know that I've been rough to deal with."

"Nick, you—"

"Just let me finish. I know that it hasn't been a cakewalk, the past few days. I know it's not easy to deal with everything that happened. And I know it won't get easier overnight." He took a deep breath. "I just wanted to say thank you, man. If you hadn't come home when you did..." He took a drink from his own beer. "And for everything later, too. If you hadn't been there for me, I don't know how...I don't know if I could've gotten through it."

"You would have," said Cody with certainty.

"I don't know," said Nick, a troubled expression on his face.

"To living," said Cody, raising his bottle.

Nick clinked his own against it, the sound carrying across the water, then took another sip. He stared out across the ocean at the last fading light from the sun. "This is going to sound weird, but while I was...trapped, I just kept thinking of you. I didn't think of my mom, or Allison, or Katie. I mean, I thought of Murray once or twice, but I couldn't stop thinking of you, and what would happen if you found me d—"

"Nick, please," said Cody, feeling his stomach churn.

"Sorry. It's just're probably the most important person in my life, y'know? And thinking of you—thinking of how much that would hurt you—it was awful." He closed his eyes and tipped his head down, the rosy glow of the last rays of light illuminating his dark hair.

The taste of beer was sour in Cody's mouth. Right now I could tell him that I love him, too, finish that promise he made on the ridge. But he knew that it was the wrong moment, that it was too close to the horror he'd just endured, and he didn't want that darkness to overshadow them. "Thank you," said Cody, "for holding on. For waiting for me."

Nick smiled, but it was a sad, broken smile, and Cody hurt to see it. "I had to, man." He downed the last of his beer but didn't elaborate.

"We should go check on Murray," said Cody at last. "He's probably skipped dinner again."

"Yeah. You go ahead, I'll catch up." Nick put the empty bottle on the deck. Another cool breeze ruffled his hair, and Cody watched Nick for a minute before he went belowdeck.

First Cody couldn't find his spare toothbrush. Then the hot water ran out when he took an impromptu shower. He realized he'd left his shaving kit at Straightaway's with his toothbrush and cursed, hating the thought of going through tomorrow morning without shaving.

Looking at himself in the mirror, he frowned. He looked okay, still damp from the shower, but his moustache needed a trim. He used Nick's toothbrush to brush his teeth.

It was quiet in the salon. The blinds were closed against the dark night air. Nick still hadn't come in from the fantail, and Murray, having received the bulk of his electronics equipment in the early afternoon, was in Zen Coding Mode and Cody hated to interrupt him during those.

The galley had an unpleasant smell, no doubt from food going bad and the trash not getting taken out. Something I need to do tomorrow. And I need to buy a pair of shoes. Maybe I should make a list. Grabbing scrap paper and a pen, he scribbled down a few things.

Maybe I'm just putting off going into that room alone.

Sighing, he put down the pen and left it on the galley table. Entering their room, he flipped on the light, trying to ignore the immediate flash of panic it inspired.

Feeling like an idiot, he opened the closet doors and checked under the bunks. Everything was still neatly arranged underneath, just as he'd left it. Sitting down on his bunk, he ran a hand through his hair.

Life just doesn't prepare you for some things.

The Riptide rocked gently, and he felt soothed by the familiar motion. He slipped off his battered shoes and shoved them under the bunk. Why is the Hangman so interested in shoes?

Sighing, he lay down on the bunk, staring at the ceiling. I wonder when we'll be able to take a new case. It's a good thing Murray has a coding gig...

He heard water running in the head. Toeing off his socks, he put his hands behind his neck, and realized how tired he was.

The door opened, and Nick came in. For a second he paused, a flash of fright passing over his face, but then he pulled off his shirt and pants like he'd done a thousand times before. He slid in between the sheets.

"Is it that time already?" asked Cody, and yawned. He got up and made his way to the head and relieved himself. Washing his hands, he thought about how long he might have to go before the FBI returned his shoes, and how many pairs he should buy in the meantime. He wiped his hands off with a towel and returned to their room, peeling off his sweater and tossing it to the floor, where it was quickly followed by his pants.

His hand paused on the light switch.

"Turn it off," said Nick gruffly.

Cody hesitated, but finally did. The blinds let in a bit of the light from the pier. The room looked just as it had when Nick had been bound and left to die. He wondered what he was thinking right now.

"G'night." Nick's voice was low and gravelly.

"G'night, Nick," said Cody. "Sleep well, buddy." He got into his bunk.

"You too."

The night seemed to push down on him. He could feel the heavy dark air against him, could feel the weight of the terrible memories.

Voices carried across the water, made sinister by his imagination. Every shadow on the wall seemed like a monster. Cody shivered under the covers. Closing his eyes, he conjured up happier moments, assignations in the dark of their stateroom with Tammi, card games with Murray in the salon, fishing with Nick, quiet conversations between them about love and friendship and family.

Deep, calming breaths. He inhaled and exhaled until he could reopen his eyes and see that the shadows were just shadows. Good, maybe I can get some sleep now.

He closed his eyes, feeling the exhaustion in his bones, and tried to think of something that would help him drop off. Something innocuous. Piloting the Ebb Tide, slicing through the waves, the sun warm and cheerful on his face. Just a few clouds in the sky, shaped like bunnies...

There was a weak cough from Nick's bunk.

Cody turned toward him. "You okay?"

There was no answer.

Crossing the room quickly, Cody knelt down next to his bunk. The dim light from the windows revealed Nick, breathing hard, looking wide awake. "Hey, buddy, it's okay. You want to sleep in the salon instead?"

Nick shook his head.

"How about I sit with you for a little while, then?"

"Okay." Nick closed his eyes.

Cody went back and retrieved his pillow and blankets, spreading them out on the floor next to Nick's bunk. "I'm right here," he said softly. He sat down, his back against the bunk's frame, and put his hand on Nick's arm.

There was a long moment of silence, and then Nick sighed. "Thanks," he said softly.

"Anything you need, partner, I'm here for you," said Cody. He listened as Nick's breathing calmed. The steady motion of the Riptide was gently soporific, and he felt his eyelids grow heavier and heavier. He lay down on the floor and fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

He woke only once in the night, Nick's hand warm and heavy on his arm.

Cody woke, giving a groan of pain as his back protested sleeping on the floor. Getting up, he stretched gingerly. Nick was still completely out, and Cody rearranged the blankets over him before heading off to take what would hopefully be a very long, very hot shower.

While lathering his chest, he remembered the room at Straightaway's. I think we'll be able to cancel it now. Just need to pick up my shaving kit. Turning so his back was to the spray, he let the water loosen the tight muscles. Nick'll want a shower, too. I should leave him some hot water...

The thought of Nick in the shower was enticing. In fact, it made him a little breathless to imagine him naked and wet, water sluicing across his arms, down his back, a lazy, sexy grin on his lips. Just thinking of those lips made Cody's cock twitch, and he stroked himself to hardness, picturing Nick against him, steamy and wet.

I've got a hard-on for a guy. Cody blinked. Sure, he'd had moments before where he'd gotten a bit of a rise, but at this moment, he was hard as a rock. He couldn't even picture what they'd do together besides kissing, despite knowing, at least from hearsay, of what went on between two men.

He stroked harder, giving himself over to the feelings, imagining Nick biting his neck, thinking of those teeth grazing his skin. Thinking of hands wandering over his body and touching him. He bit his lip, stifling a moan as he thought of Nick behind him, rubbing against him, hot mouth on his neck. He came, gasping hard, his legs suddenly like noodles.

He closed his eyes and ducked his head under the spray for a moment, then shook off the excess water. I just jerked off while thinking of my best friend.

During the war, he'd known lots of guys who'd taken a little pressure off with their buddies. Some of them, like Nick, had even had what could be called relationships, though he didn't think any of those had survived stateside. He'd never condemned them or even cared much, beyond the danger of being found out by the CO.

Turning off the water, he grabbed a towel and began to dry himself off. We'll have to be discreet. If anyone found out, it could hurt the business. He paused, frowning. I wonder what Murray will think?

He brushed his teeth and went back to their room to get dressed. Nick was still sleeping heavily, which was surprising, as he usually couldn't sleep during the daylight hours. Then again, he's had a helluva week. Slipping on a pair of white slacks and a light blue shirt, he made his way up to the salon.

There was a fresh pot of coffee on the warmer, which meant that Murray had already been up and was most likely back in Zen Mode. Cody poured himself a cup and stirred in milk and sugar. The blinds were open already, and he gazed out over the harbor. A light fog was beginning to dissipate.

The coffee wouldn't be strong enough for Nick's taste, but for Cody it was fine. He took an appreciative sip and watched as the Barefoot Contessa lumbered out of the harbor on its morning charter. Real fishermen would have been out on the water by five.

He headed out to the fantail, taking a seat and putting his feet up. The sun slowly rose higher in the sky, and he finished his coffee, putting the empty cup on the deck.

The harbor ebbed and flowed with its usual weekday bustle, and he watched the boats come and go. Paul waved to him from the Treasure Seeker, and he waved back. It's like nothing ever happened at all. He stayed there for a long while, just watching the water.

His stomach growled, and he realized that it was almost ten. I should make some breakfast. Wake Nick up. He swung his legs off the seat.

"Hey! Cody!" shouted a female voice from behind the gate.

He looked up to see a girl waving at him. She looked vaguely familiar, and he jumped off the boat onto the dock, the wooden planks hot under his bare feet. The undercover cops were watching her closely.

"Is Nick there?" she asked loudly. She was petite and cute, wearing a teal miniskirt and immaculately white high-tops, and she looked like she was barely into her twenties.

Katie. He very nearly groaned aloud. "Uh, yeah, he's here." He gave the cops a quick nod to let them know she was all right. He reached the gate and stood there.

"I'd really love to see him." She smiled brightly.

"That's great," he said.

She blinked, looking confused. "Um. Can you unlock the gate?"

"Oh, right," said Cody, turning red. "I can do that." Grabbing the lock, he spun the dial quickly, but screwed up the combination twice in his haste. Finally getting the gate open, he gestured for her to come through.

"I know I totally should have called first," she said, "but I've just been so busy. I just wanted to—you know, make sure he's okay." She gave him another dazzling smile.

"I'm sure he'll be happy to see you." His stomach did an ugly flop.

She hopped over the side of the Riptide like a pro, and he followed her into the salon. "Wow, looks like you guys have been cleaning," she said.

"Yeah. Listen, he was asleep earlier. Let me make sure he's up," said Cody.

"Nick? Sleeping during the day?" she said doubtfully.

"He was pretty tired. Just stay here. I'll be right back."

"Okay," she said, sitting down on the bench seat.

Nick was in their stateroom, pulling on a short-sleeved shirt, his hair damp. "Thought I heard a girl's voice," he said.

"Katie stopped by to say hi," said Cody. "She's in the salon."

"Katie? No kidding," said Nick. "Good thing I shaved. I'll be up in a second."

Cody went up to the salon and stood next to the coffee counter, picking up a whale mug. "He'll be right up. You want a cup of coffee?"

She looked a little surprised, as if she hadn't expected Cody to stick around. "No, thanks. Caffeine is really bad, you know."

Nick came up the steps. "Hey, Katie," he said.

"Hi, sweetie," she said. Her tone was friendly, but her eyes lingered on the very visible bruising on his elbows and wrists, and then openly stared at the mark on his neck. "I was just driving by and thought I'd say hi."

"I have to admit, this is a surprise," said Nick, sitting down next to her. Cody noticed that she shied away almost imperceptibly. "How's your lifeguard?"

"Oh, Chaz?" she said. "He's great."

Cody poured a cup of coffee for Nick, stirring in a little milk, the way he usually took his first cup of the day. He sat down next to him and handed him the mug. "Thanks, Cody," he said, taking a sip and making a face that meant it wasn't strong enough. "So you've said hi. Anything else?" Cody's gut unclenched at the tone, and he nearly grinned. So Katie's not his favorite person, is she?

She blinked, looking disconcerted. "Well, actually, there is. You know I'm in school, and I'm taking this journalism class, and I'm doing a project right now. We're talking about victims of vibrant crimes and it'd be really awesome if you could help me out with it."

"I don't remember you taking a journalism class," said Nick, taking another slow sip of his coffee. "You said you were taking Spanish. And Algebra."

"Oh yeah, I just signed up for it." She looked at the table. "Um, so the thing is, I can get a really awesome grade if I can interview somebody who's a victim—"

"Of a vibrant crime?" said Cody. Nick nearly choked and Cody thumped his back.

"Yeah, exactly, and since I heard that you was hoping that you could help me out." She turned on her high-wattage smile again.

"How many questions?" asked Nick.

She looked excited. "About fifty, I think. I promise it won't take long."

"How much of your grade's this thing worth?"

She blinked again. "Worth? Oh, I mean, ten—no, twenty percent."

"Twenty percent?" Nick leaned back in his seat, crossing his arms over his chest. "That's a big chunk."

"Yes, which is why I need your help." Her fingernails were painted teal and pink, and she drummed them nervously on the table.

Nick's expression was bland. "You really think that this'll help?"

"Oh, absolutely!" she said. "I mean, having a real victim..."

"Well, I think I probably have the time," said Nick lightly. "So how much is Stronk paying you?"

"Five hund—" She stopped, her mouth closing with a snap. "Who said anything about him? I mean, who is he?"

A flash of anger roared in Cody's ears. "Get the hell off my boat," he growled, gripping the table hard. "Or I'll throw you off." Nick gave him a surprised look.

Her eyes went wide and she held up her hands. "I'm sorry! I just really needed the money, and he said you'd be okay with it, I swear I didn't mean to—"

"I'll walk you to the gate," said Cody. Fury prickled in his chest.

She got up hastily and nearly ran up the dock. Cody stalked up the companionway after her and locked the gate behind her.

"I'm really sorry," she said through the fence. She wiped her eyes. "Please believe me. I just really needed the money..."

Cody just glared at her and then walked back down to the Riptide. Nick was on the fantail, slipping on his new shoes. Cody took a deep breath and tried to calm down. "Going somewhere?" he said, keeping his tone light.

"Gonna take a walk," said Nick, tying the laces.

"Great, that sounds—"

"Alone." Nick finished and sat up. The expression on his face was difficult to read.

"Nick, I don't think that's a good idea," hedged Cody.

"I don't care what it is," said Nick, pulling on a jacket. "I'm talking a walk." He gave him a challenging look.

"Fine," said Cody, exasperated. "Fine. Take a walk. Paint a target on your back."

"What do you want me to do?" said Nick. "Sit in the salon for the rest of my life? I need to..." He looked away, his jaw clenched.

"I'm sorry." Cody let out a breath. "You're right."

Nick looked back at him warily. "Okay, then, I'm leaving."

"Go ahead." Cody looked at him. "Just...don't blame me for wanting to look out for you, okay?"

Nick gave him a small smile. "I don't." He touched his arm and then stiffly climbed onto the dock.

Cody switched the channel on the TV, and frowned as yet another soap opera came on.

"Oh, this is an excellent show," said Murray, coming down into the salon. "I love this one. There's a plot involving a large diamond—"

"How's your coding coming?" asked Cody, biting into his sandwich.

"Poorly." Murray's look changed to one of misery. "I'm missing two key pieces of equipment. No one seems to be able to locate them, and, worse yet, one of my hard drives was damaged in transit. They didn't even think to park it! And they call themselves computer professionals. Ridiculous." He sat down on the bench seat. "Jeff called me to apologize. He tried to keep everything in order, but he said the case is just too high profile and several other agents became involved."

"What can you do?" asked Cody.

"Well, Tiffany has a Sync-33 terminal and an Ultra Codec peripheral station, so I might need to spend a few days at her place," he said. "At the very least, though, the splicing is done." He looked around. "Is Nick still sleeping? That's unusual for him."

"No, he went out for a walk." Cody popped a potato chip in his mouth.

"Nick went out for a walk?" said Murray, sounding worried. "Alone?"

"The cops followed him." He switched the channel again. "He wanted to be alone, Murray, and what was I supposed to do? I can't..." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "I don't know what to do. I don't want to suffocate him." He winced at his own choice of words.

"He'll be fine." Murray smiled reassuringly. "You know Nick; he just needs a little space now and then."

"Yeah, I hope so." He pushed a few potato chips around the plate.

"Oh, have you seen this soap opera before?" asked Murray. "This is quite fascinating. The lady you see here is pregnant, but not with her husband's child—"

The screen flashed, and suddenly the news came on. Suzy Gordon appeared, and a banner reading Breaking News popped up at the bottom of the screen.

"But how will we know who the father is now?" asked Murray.

"Shh!" said Cody, turning up the volume.

" Monrovia today," Suzy was saying. "The victim was Ashleigh Warren, aged thirty-two, a nurse at a local hospital. Authorities have confirmed that this is the work of the so-called Hangman, a killer who strangles his victims to death..."

"Another victim," said Cody, feeling sick. He shoved his plate away.

"Did she say Monrovia?" Murray looked thoughtful. "I had thought that he would strike in Montebello, based on my initial hypothesis."

Cody blinked. "Monrovia borders Montebello."

"Yes, exactly. I'll have to try to fine-tune this further—"

"How did you know he was going to strike there?" Cody was stunned.

"The answer is rather complex, involving—"

"Is there a simple answer?"

"Well, yes," said Murray. "I explained to you before that I believe the Hangman is using a computer to assist in planning the location of his crimes."

"And you predicted that he would attack someone in Montebello."

"Yes. I mean, I informed Lieutenant Quinlan that there might be a discrepancy of up to five miles. I'll have to revise the algorithms slightly in order to adjust for the latest location."

"You've been talking to Quinlan?" Cody felt like the world was spinning without him.

"Of course," said Murray impatiently. "We're on a case, remember? I'm doing whatever I can do to help the authorities catch the Hangman."

He'd forgotten that Murray had already started investigating. He remembered something else. "Did you find out anything about the taser gun?"

"I'm not able to tap into the proper resources. The FBI hasn't returned my satellite uplink processor relay."

"Oh." Cody wiped his mouth with a napkin. They both watched as Suzy's announcement ended and a commercial came on.

"Cody..." Murray looked a little nervous. "Do you think Nick's really going to be all right?"

His first impulse was to nod and put on a brave face, but this was Murray he was talking to, and he didn't want to hold anything back. "I don't know," he said quietly. "I think so, though. I mean, when we came back from 'Nam, he was pretty torn up. And then he disappeared for a while. By the time I met up with him again, he seemed fine. As fine as you can be after 'Nam."

"And this time?"

"I think he's not fine," said Cody, and it hurt to say it out loud.

"He's afraid that the Hangman will target you."

Cody nodded. "And you."

Murray obviously hadn't considered that. "Me?"

"Yes, you. Anyone near him. He feels like we're in danger because of him." He took a deep breath. "I think that he'll be okay eventually. But it's hard to see him going through this."

Murray nodded sagely. "He's been through a lot, but he's very strong, Cody."

"You're right." The soap opera had come back on, and the pregnant lady was crying dramatically. "The phone will start ringing again any second," he said morosely. "Every paper in town will want a statement from him."

"No, it won't," said Murray brightly. "I've programmed Roboz to watch all incoming calls and filter out those from recognized news sources. Especially the King Harbor Daily," he added disapprovingly.

"That's brilliant!"

"It's actually rather simple. I took an existing filter program and simply widened the net." Murray crunched into a potato chip. "I wonder if Nick knew this woman, too."

"What was her name? Ashleigh Warren?" Cody frowned. "Well, I don't remember her, so I doubt Nick will, either."

"I'll contact Lieutenant Quinlan and see if I can get a precise location," said Murray. "I might be able to pinpoint the next attack."

"Do you hear something?"

"That's just the Contessa returning. You remember their 'Tuneful Tuesdays' promotion—"

"No, that sounds like a chopper," said Cody grimly. There was only one chopper he could identify from sound alone. "Mimi."

Their eyes met. "I doubt he's in any danger," offered Murray.

"He can barely bend his knees, much less work pedals," said Cody, exasperated.

"He'll be fine." Murray patted his shoulder, and then wandered off toward his stateroom.

An hour passed, and Cody tried to think of anything but Mimi dropping like a stone into the Pacific. He could feel a headache building. Quinlan called, looking for Murray, and then a reporter from the LA Times somehow got through, irking Murray and sending him into a frenzy of coding edits, but there was still no Nick.

Another hour passed. Cody cleaned the galley, took out the trash, went over the bills three times, and even made the bunks.

There was no way he could sit here and wait for Nick a minute longer or he'd go insane. "I'm going grocery shopping," he called up to Murray. Murray called out that he needed more Mountain Dew, and Cody drove to the Alpha Beta and tried to lose himself in the mundane task of picking out steaks.

It worked, to a degree. He began to relax, and filled the cart with things they only rarely bought; mushrooms and onions for a garnish, green leaf lettuce, haricots verts. A bottle of wine.

What the hell are you doing? Planning to propose to him? He stopped in the aisle, his face suddenly flushed. I just want to have a nice dinner. He's alive. That's something to celebrate. He took a calming breath and went through the checkout, glad that he'd brought enough money to cover it.

Back on the Riptide, he marinated the steaks in a plastic bag, and chopped the lettuce and scrubbed the potatoes. He hadn't cooked in weeks, so it took a little detective work to find the spice rack, which Nick had relocated into the cabinet over the stove.

The sound of Nick's voice brought a wave of relief so strong that it made Cody light-headed. He dashed up the stairs and found him grinning and talking to Murray, and sounding more than a little buzzed.

"Where'd you go?" demanded Cody.

"Little place called Straightaway's," said Nick with a sloppy grin. "You should try it sometime. Good beer."

Anger bubbled up inside of his chest. "Good thing you're out there having a good time while we're both worried out of our skulls."

Nick blinked. "I only went up in the Mimi. Cody, you know if I had to I could fly her blindfolded, with one hand tied behind my back."

"I know that."

"Then what's the problem?"

"It's too soon," said Cody heatedly.

"For you or for me?" demanded Nick.

There was a long moment of silence, and then Murray coughed deliberately and they both looked at him. "Guys, I think you both have valid points here," he said. "This is like arguing about which sectors of a corrupt drive to purge. Both of you are right."

"Yeah," said Nick. "Yeah, Murray, I know. I just...I'm crawling up the walls here."

"I'm sorry," said Cody.

"Me too, man." Nick gave him a quick hug, and Cody felt himself react to the feeling of those arms pulling him close.

"I bought steaks," he said, trying to shake off the dizzying rush of Nick's nearness.

"Steaks?" Nick perked up. "That sounds really good." He sat down, rubbing his knee.

Cody ran to the galley and grabbed a bag out of the freezer, coming back up and tossing it to Nick. "And frozen peas," he said.

"Those might be a little tough," said Nick, catching the bag without even looking at it.

"Your knee won't mind." Cody went back downstairs and started slicing the mushrooms.

The morning sun filtered through the blinds. Cody'd opened them for the first time in days, hoping that the reporters who'd staked them out in boats had finally given up. The harbormaster had chased some of them away, but there'd been a few who'd stubbornly kept on circling, desperate for pictures.

There was nothing but the dazzle of the early morning light on the water. He breathed in relief.

He noticed the Trade Winds coming in from its morning charter, motoring slowly past their slip, and he waved at Captain Fred. Must have had a good trip to come back so early.

It was just like any other Thursday in King Harbor.

Except that it's a week since the attack. He frowned into his cup of coffee. Does the Hangman care about anniversaries?

He'd started thinking about the Hangman more and more. It was only natural, as he'd been talking to Murray about it whenever he took a break from coding. Nick had spent more time flying Mimi and hanging out with Straightaway, and that left Cody time to contemplate the case.

"She's never gonna ask you out," announced Nick, coming up behind him.

"What?" said Cody.

Nick wandered over to the coffee counter and poured himself a cup of coffee. He added a dash of milk. "Sonya. Sarah. Whatever the hell her name is."


"The girl Mama Jo hired a week and a half ago."

"What makes you think I'm interested?" asked Cody cautiously.

"She's your type. Dark hair, a little on the tall side, actually likes to fish, unlike the rest of them." He took an experimental sip and made his not-quite-right-but-at-least-it's-drinkable face. "Phil's been after her all week. He was telling me about it last night."

"Unsuccessful, then."

"Yeah." Nick smiled, standing next to him and looking at the girls scrubbing the Contessa's deck. "You know Phil. His best pickup line's, 'Are you tired? Because you've been running through my head all night.'"

"Yeah, your lines are so much better." Cody smirked.

"My lines are classics."

"Sure. Especially the one about losing your phone number and then asking if you can borrow hers."

"Hey, I've gotten girls with that line. When's the last time Phil went home with somebody who wasn't wearing bellbottoms?"

"True." Cody took another sip of coffee.

"Good morning!" chirped Murray, emerging from the stairs, still wearing his pajamas.

"Morning," said Nick and Cody in unison.

"You're up early," commented Cody.

"Yes, well, I fell asleep on my keyboard last night. Can you believe that?"

"Considering that it's pretty much a weekly occurrence here on the Riptide, yes, we can," said Nick.

Murray giggled. "I took it as a hint and went to bed early."

"Good for you." Cody smiled at him. "Want some breakfast?"

"Oh, that would be boss!"

"I think I could wrangle up some scrambled eggs." Cody headed toward the galley, Murray fast on his heels, chattering about delayed protocol subspecifications, and only pausing to take a breath as he sat down.

"Enough for me, too?" asked Nick, sitting down across from Murray.

"Sure." Cody grabbed the carton of eggs out of the fridge.

"I've narrowed down the location of the next murder to West Covina." Murray looked thoughtful. "I called Lieutenant Quinlan last night and informed him. I think I might have even pinned it down to within four blocks."

"Wow," said Cody. He pulled a bowl out of the cabinet.

"They better catch him this time," said Nick grimly. "And lock him in a dark hole forever."

"Considering how many people he's killed, I can't imagine he'd be eligible for early release. Not even for the best behavior on the planet." Cody cracked several eggs into the bowl.

"You might want to start heating up the pan, Julia Child," said Nick.

"Oh, yeah." He turned on the burner.

"What are you planning on doing today, Nick?" asked Murray.

"Don't know." Cody snuck a look over his shoulder to see Nick looking pensive. "I was going to work out..."

"You're not going to?" Cody turned toward them and leaned on the counter, whipping the eggs together with a fork.

"I just..." He rubbed the back of his neck. "There's no way to hide the marks, y'know?"

"Does it bother you?" asked Cody.

Nick hesitated, looking glum. "I forget about them. But then—you saw how Katie stared, and she knows me pretty well."

"Katie is an idiot," snarled Cody, feeling his face heat in anger. The eggs sloshed dangerously close to the rim of the bowl.

Nick looked up at him, surprised. "Hey—"

"Who's Katie?" asked Murray.

"The airhead he was dating last month—"

"Hey!" said Nick, jabbing a finger at him. "Look, she might not be the smartest—"

"She just tried to play you!"

"Stronk's most at fault for that," said Nick.

"Stronk?" said Murray.

"He tried to bribe Katie to get information about Nick," said Cody. "But unlike you, Murray, she actually went through with it."

"That's terrible!" said Murray. A sudden loud chiming rang out from his stateroom. "Oh, that's the chat notification—sorry, guys, I'll be right back!" He dashed up the stairs.

"Why are you so burned about Katie?" asked Nick.

Cody poured some of the eggs into the pan. "I think it was a cruddy thing to do."

"Well, yeah, but you're not usually—"

"Guys! Guys!" shouted Murray. They glanced at each other, and then Cody slid the pan to another burner and they ran up the steps to his stateroom.

"What's going on?" asked Cody, Nick right behind him.

"Of all of the terrible, horrible, rotten things to do!" announced Murray. "Why, I can't believe that a fellow human being, much less someone claiming to work for the public good, would stoop to such a degree—"

"Murray, what happened?" asked Nick.

"Wallace Stronk, that's what happened!" Murray drew himself up to his full height, waving his hand in the air. "That low-life scum! That degenerate! That scoundrel!"

"Murray, what happened?" they both said loudly.

He blinked. "What happened? Wallace Stronk's article is on the front page of today's King Harbor Daily, that's what happened!"

Nick looked like he was going to explode. "Murray," said Cody, as calmly as he could, "what is in the article?"

"My prediction, that's what!" said Murray, looking angry. "My prediction about the next victim's location!"

Nick suddenly looked pale. "Murray, is your name mentioned?"

"Well, no, it isn't." Murray adjusted his glasses. "But this is disastrous! That set of coordinates was our best chance of catching him, and now it's ruined."

Beside him, Cody could hear Nick release a breath. "Not to mention that it'll panic everyone who lives in West Covina," added Cody.

"This is reprehensible," said Murray. "Five days' worth of data revisions, completely wasted. A murderer still loose in the city. Stronk should be arrested for this."

"Believe me, Murray, I agree," said Nick. "How about some eggs instead?"

"Eggs?" Murray looked confused. "Oh, I forgot all about them! I'm so sorry."

"Julia?" asked Nick, looking at him.

"Yeah, sure," said Cody, going back down to the galley, trying to appear calm. Inwardly, though, he was seething with anger. Stronk. That bastard. Some things are unforgivable.

Cody flipped through the first half of the latest Yachting magazine, trying to pretend he wasn't afraid of turning off the light. He was also trying to pretend that he hadn't checked the closets three times. Nick still hadn't come down.

In fact, Nick had barely spoken since Murray's tirade about the information leak. Who could have told Stronk? A cop, maybe? One who wouldn't mind a little cash in his pocket in return for slipping a little information? He took a sip of beer and then set it back down on the floor, turning his attention back to the magazine. One article was dog-eared, but he couldn't figure out why; he didn't have to worry about buying the perfect sail, after all.

Nick appeared in the doorway, yawning hugely. They'd both had difficult nights; Cody from sleeping on the floor, Nick from waking up disoriented and frightened at least five times before dawn.

"Hey," said Cody, looking up from his magazine.

Nick certainly looked healthier, and the bruising was fading, but there was a haunted look in his eyes. He pulled off his shirt and stretched his arms out, yawning again. "Think it's time to hit the hay."

"Yeah, good idea." Cody tossed the magazine to the floor and turned off the reading light.

"Cody," said Nick awkwardly. "You don't need should sleep in your bunk tonight."

You want to pretend you don't need me? "I'm okay, Nick, really."

"I know how much it hurts your back," said Nick. "And I'm a big boy. I need to get through this on my own."

For a moment Cody couldn't speak. "Is that what you think this is?" he finally said, and the words came out harsher than he intended. "Trial by fire? Prove you're a big strong guy and that nothing hurts you?"

"Cody, man, what's—"

"You went through something horrible," said Cody. "Something really awful. You can't just brush it off. It's not a rite of passage. It was evil, and if it takes you a night or a decade to get through it—"

"Cody, listen to me!" said Nick, sounding bewildered. "Believe me, I'm not forgetting what this is all about. But if it's all the same, I'd rather not lie in my bunk, worried about how much your back is gonna hurt tomorrow."

It's worth it. "I told you that I don't mind," said Cody quietly.

"I know. But let's just try, huh?"

"Okay," said Cody. A wave of disappointment rushed through him. He'd gotten rather used to sleeping closer to Nick, feeling his hand on his arm.

"G'night." Nick flipped off the switch, and Cody heard him shucking off his pants, heard the creaking of the bunk as he settled in.

"Night," replied Cody, sinking into his own bunk. It felt wonderful to lie down on something soft instead of the floor, but in the back of his mind he couldn't help but feel the separation acutely.

The Riptide rocked gently at her slip, and Cody tried to lose himself in the rhythm, tried to ignore the feeling of wrongness that seemed to settle over him.

Chapter Text

Cody opened the blinds and looked out across the grey surface of the water. Clouds had gathered overnight, and a steady rain was falling. A few seagulls clustered on the bow of the Contessa, looking miserable and pecking at each other.

He stared at the other boats, bobbing at their slips. Everyone was back in the harbor to wait out the storm. He could feel the damp press of humidity and the feeling of stagnation resting over the boat like a physical thing.

The phone rang, startling him, and Cody picked it up. "Riptide Detective Agency."

"Oh, have I reached a detective?" Pete's voice was unmistakable. "I'd like to hire you. I'm looking for this guy I used to know named Cody Allen. Blonde, six feet tall—"

"Six two," Cody corrected him automatically.


"Hey," said Cody, and then he started laughing.

"How's it going?" asked Pete.

"Okay, I guess." Cody sat down on the bench seat and propped his feet up. "Look, I'm sorry I didn't return your calls—"

"Don't worry about it," said Pete. "I know you've got a lot on your mind. How's the investigation going?"

"Not so good." Cody sighed. "It's been two weeks since the attack, and we haven't made much headway. Murray's still tracking down information about taser purchases, and I've struck out with the few things I investigated."

"I read in the papers about the Claremont murder. Sounds like it was another deviation from his pattern."

"We were so close," said Cody, frustrated. "Murray pinpointed the location in West Covina, and then nothing, all because of Wallace Stronk."

"Asshole reporter," said Pete. "I was in West Covina that night for a party, and let me tell you, it was like a ghost town. Only half the guests even showed." There was a pause. "How's Nick doing?"

Barely sleeping. Off the boat as much as he can. "As well as can be expected."

"That bad, huh?"

"Yeah." Cody looked up toward the pier, wondering if Nick was already at Straightaway's, having a beer with Henderson. "Just...don't tell me it'll take time. I've heard that three times a day for the past two weeks."

"Okay, I won't tell you that."

"So how's the case?"

"Done, actually. A little bit of work left for Monday, and then I fly out Tuesday for New York."

"So soon?"

"It did kind of fly past, didn't it?" There was a crackle of static on Pete's end. "The cordless phone is dying—sorry, I'll go back inside and switch phones."

"That's too bad that you're leaving. I was getting kind of used to having your ugly face around." Cody grinned.

"You'll have to make do without it after Tuesday," said Pete. "Why don't you come out tonight and meet up with me and Jessie? You could bring Nick."

Nick's not my type. The joke died on his tongue. "I don't think I'm very good company right now. And Nick's just not that into clubs." He put his feet back on the floor.

There was a click as Pete changed phones. "Even when you're bad company, you're still better than some people at their finest. C'mon, Cody, you're one of my oldest and best friends, and I really would like to see you before I leave town."

"How about the weekend, then?"

There was a light intake of breath. "Well..."

"You're hanging out with Jessie."

"There is this trip to Santa Barbara we might have planned..."

"Say no more."

"So come out with us tonight."

"I'll think about it."

"In Codyspeak that means no," said Pete. "C'mon, Cody, have a couple hours at a bar, drink a few drinks, dance a little."

"It's just was two weeks ago...and..." Cody stumbled over his own words.

"I know," said Pete quietly. "But what better way to purge this demon than with a celebration?"

"I don't think I can leave him home alone tonight," said Cody.

"So bring him. He might want to get out and go someplace."

"With two policemen in tow?"

"Ah. You have a point."

"Plus, he's not much into dancing, and he doesn't like the crowds."

"Okay, so Nick won't come. That still leaves you. I'm serious, Cody. You need some time away. You need to unwind and think about something besides electrical cords and shoes. Jessie has a friend, Susan, and she's your type, tall and dark-haired. She even likes boats. I'll even pick you up."

"Pete, I really don't think I want to meet someone right now." Cody gritted his teeth together.

There was a pause for a moment, and then Pete cleared his throat. "You know, Cody, I've been thinking for a couple weeks, and I think I've finally figured out what it is."

"What what is?"

"Tell me...who is Cody Allen's secret crush?" asked Pete.

Cody swallowed nervously. "What?"

"Who is it?" he asked again. "I know you have one. No dates for months. Foolish grin on your face at the oddest times. Panicky looks when you're caught thinking about whoever it is."

"No one," he said too quickly.

"I lived with you, remember? I know all the signs. I mean, there's Cody the Girl Hunter, strolling through bars handing out lines, having flings here and there, and then there's another Cody, Cody the Lovesick, who sits under Ellen Haskle's window for days hoping to catch a glimpse of her, and when he does he runs back to his dorm room and hides under the covers."

"I didn't hide under the covers—"

"I was there, remember?"

"Okay, fine, maybe I did. But it wasn't for long."

"Only because she knocked on the door and then you ran and locked yourself in the bathroom."

"It seemed like a good idea at the time."

"Just tell me," said Pete gently.

"Nick," he said in a very small voice.

"What?" asked Pete.

"Nick," blurted out Cody. "It's Nick." He swallowed heavily. The room was suddenly too warm and too small.

There was a long silence. "Nick, as in...Nicki?"

"No. Nick."

"Nick, as in...Nick, your roommate, Nick?"

"Yes. That Nick." My Nick. He held his breath.


"Tell me about it."

Pete gave a low whistle. "Cody, I never really thought you were interested in guys."

Cody let his breath out. "Me either." He looked around to make certain no one was within earshot.

"I thought it was Tiffany."

"She's a sweet girl, but not my type. And I'd never do that to Murray." Cody ran a hand through his hair.

"So what did Nick say?"

"About Tiffany?" said Cody stupidly.

"No, when you told him."

"I haven't told him."

"Damn." Pete sucked in a breath. "You never make things easy, do you?"

"No." Cody put his head down on the table and stared at the wood grain.

"So let's try to simplify it. You've fallen in love with your best friend, who happens to be a guy. The course is clear. You need to find out if he's open to a relationship with a guy, and if he's open to a relationship with you in particular."

"I think it's yes to both counts."

"Both counts? I mean, I had suspected that he might play both sides, but—"

"What? How did you know?" asked Cody in a rush, sitting up.

"Whoa, Cody, calm down," said Pete. "You know that I'm in the entertainment business. A large number of our clients are gay. The partner I'm out here with is gay, too. After awhile you start picking up on things. Even little things, like Nick occasionally looking over a good-looking guy when he thinks no one's watching."

Nick checks out other guys? Cody frowned, and then sighed. "It just feels like the wrong time to tell him."

"What do you want, an engraved invitation?" Pete's chuckle reverberated through the phone line. "Look, why don't you just come out with us tonight? Forget your troubles. Stop obsessing over everything. Cody, I mean it, this can't be healthy." He paused for a moment. "Wait, didn't you say that Nick's under police protection?"

"Well, yeah."

"So he'll be safe. We'll have a quick dinner and then head out to Hermosa Beach. It's pretty close, right? I'll even pick you up."

"I'll think about it," said Cody cautiously.

"Okay, then, think about it, and I'll call you later."


"Take care," said Pete.

"Bye," said Cody, hanging up the phone. His heart was racing. I can't believe I told someone. I can't believe I told Pete.

Then again, there was no better keeper of secrets than Pete Ferguson, except maybe Nick Ryder.

The seagulls had advanced from pecking to actively fighting, and their raucous cries rang out over the water. Cody looked out the window to see a very annoyed-looking Tammi going after them with a broom.

"Good morning, Cody!" said Murray enthusiastically. "Wow," he said, peering out the blinds, "she does have a wide sweep with that. Get it? Sweep?" He giggled to himself.

"That's funny, Murray."

Murray glanced at him. "Who was on the phone? If you don't mind me asking, that is."

"I don't mind, Murray, you know that." He put his elbow on the table and his head in his hand. "It was Pete."

"Pete? That's wonderful! He's been trying to reach you for days."

"He's leaving on Tuesday," said Cody.

"Are you going to go out with him tonight?" asked Murray brightly. "It is Thursday, after all."

Cody looked at him sharply. "Murray, it's the two-week anniversary of the attack. I don't want to leave Nick alone tonight. Unless you want to stay..."

Murray looked chagrined. "Cody, you know I can't. I need to use Tiffany's Ultra Codec peripheral, and I'm so behind on the coding already that it's going to take a metric ton of Mountain Dew to meet my deadline. The only chance I have is using her terminals and having her assistance in the coding, and the only time she has for it is tonight and over this weekend."

"Murray, I understand," he said. "It's okay. I'm just...not comfortable with him being here alone tonight."

Murray sat down next to him and fixed him with his earnest brown eyes. "Cody, do you think that maybe you're a little in Nick right now?"

"What do you mean?"

He paused, looking distinctly uncomfortable. "Ever since the attack, you've been acting like—well, like Nick's bodyguard. Keeping tabs on him whenever you can. Hovering near him when he's on the Riptide. I've never seen you wear your gun so much before."

"Considering that he was attacked, Murray—"

Murray nodded. "I know, Cody, I know. But it's been two weeks. Nick has the police to watch over him, and there's been no sign of the Hangman targeting Nick at all."

"I think he's still in danger," said Cody tightly.

"You could be right," said Murray. "But don't you think that both of you need to try to return to some sort of normalcy? You should accompany Pete tonight."

"One night at a club isn't going to fix everything."

"Of course it won't!" said Murray brightly. "But you'll have a chance to feel the music. To taste the night! Touch the rhythm of the stars—"

"I get the picture!" interrupted Cody. "But I just think it's too soon."

"You'll go out tonight if I have to kick you off the boat myself," said Nick.

Cody looked up to see Nick standing near the stairs to the wheelhouse, arms folded across his chest. He groaned. "Nick, I don't think it's a good idea..."

"I think it's a great idea," said Nick, walking over and sitting down. "Murray's absolutely right."

"I am?" said Murray. "Yes, I am! You need to get off the boat. You've done nothing but stew in here for days."

"This isn't fair," protested Cody.

"What, two against one?" said Nick. "Or the fact that you aren't making the decisions for all of us by yourself?"

"Hey, I'm just—"

"We know," said Nick quietly. "You're just trying to help. And so are we."

"Fine," said Cody. "I'll go out."

"Good," said Nick. "Anyone up for breakfast? I'm thinking about flapjacks."

"That sounds terrific! I'd love pancakes!" said Murray.

Cody smiled at Murray's enthusiasm, but inside he couldn't help but feel uneasy.

Cody had just started brewing a fresh pot of coffee when Murray came into the galley. One look at Murray's face was all Cody needed to put aside the can of Folger's. "What is it?"

"Cody, there's been a new victim," said Murray. He glanced at him, looking troubled.

"Where you predicted? What was it...Glendale, right?" He leaned against the counter.

"No," said Murray.

"Then where?"

"West Hollywood."

"West Hollywood," repeated Cody. "That's pretty far north of here. What was her name?"

"His name," said Murray.

Cody froze in horror, staring at him. "No."

"I'm sorry, Cody." He looked at the floor.

Cody swore, and then swore again, more violently. Murray flinched. "Sorry," said Cody, gripping the edge of the counter so hard that his knuckles turned white. "What the hell are we going to do?"

"I've thought about that," said Murray cautiously. Cody looked up at him. "I believe that we need to make the connection between Nick and Allison Thompson public. To do this, however, we'll have to reveal Allison's identity as a victim."

"I don't care," said Cody. "If people start thinking that Nick was—Murray, I mean, they're already staring at him everywhere he goes—"

"I think that I might have a method of disseminating the information to the LA Times," continued Murray. "I've already begun the first steps, but if you think that we shouldn't, then I'll stop."

So it's the Thompsons' privacy in their grief, or Nick's reputation. But if people think he was raped... "Nick needs this more than the Thompsons," said Cody.

"We should ask him," said Murray, adjusting his glasses.

"You know what he'll say," said Cody. Murray gave him a stubborn look. "Fine, we'll ask him."

Nick was on the fantail, reading the King Harbor Daily with a grim expression on his face.

"Nick, we have something to ask you," began Cody.

Nick handed him the paper, and Cody read the headline, feeling the blood rush from his face.

"What's the matter, Cody?" Murray leaned over his shoulder. "Hangman victims not revealed to press," he read aloud. He grabbed the paper. "Victims...wait, did Wallace Stronk find out about Allison Thompson and Brian Staedtler?"

"Yes," said Cody, groaning. He sat down on the fantail next to Nick and put his head in his hands. "This is awful."

"I thought this was just what we wanted!" said Murray, scanning the article further.

"Murray, the very fact that Stronk wrote the article means that some people might not believe it."

"Yes, but he doesn't mention the connection between Allison and Nick," said Murray triumphantly. "If we can get the LA Times the scoop by this afternoon, and they get it in the morning edition, then we might head this off at the pass."

"Scoop?" said Nick in a dangerous tone.

"Buddy, you need to let the press know this," said Cody, turning to him. "If you don't, then everyone will think that the Hangman...did to you what he did to the other male victims."

"I can handle it," said Nick.

"People are already staring at you in the streets. Do you really want to invite something worse to happen?" said Cody. Nick opened his mouth to say something, but didn't. "Think about it. The only thing you need to do is let us reveal that you and Allison were dating, and that's why the killer targeted you. Is that really such a bad thing?"

"Did Allison's aunt ever meet you?" asked Murray, tapping his cheek thoughtfully. "If she were to contact the papers herself, it would be the perfect way to send the information."

"She's grieving," said Nick. "She's also got cancer. Every single reporter in LA is going to call her today. I don't like this."

"I don't either," said Cody in his best Nick-please-listen-to-me tone. "But this could really screw your life up."

Nick raised his eyebrows and looked at him skeptically.

"Even more than it is," amended Cody. "And it could affect the agency."

Nick sighed, and Cody knew he'd won. "Fine. But leave Aunt Aggie out of it."

"Done," said Murray. "I'll get right on it. I think I have just enough time before I leave for Tiffany's."

"Need help loading anything in the car?" asked Cody. A sudden feeling of déjà vu crept over him.

"Oh, that would be boss!" said Murray. "Now that you mention it, I could definitely use some help. I need to take several systems with me, along with the Roboz..." He stopped and looked at them. "Uh, I mean, I'll just leave the Roboz here. In surveillance mode."

"What?" said Nick. "Murray, you were just telling me last night that he's impossible to code without."

"But I just don't want to..." Murray paused, and then hiccupped.

"Why don't you want to take the Roboz?" asked Cody, confused.

Murray twisted his fingers together. "I don't think it's—hiccup—a good idea."

Nick frowned. "Murray, you've been dancing on eggshells for two weeks about the Roboz and the security zone or whatever the hell it is. What's going on?"

"It's just..." He hiccupped again. "It's all my fault!"

Nick and Cody exchanged glances.

"What are you talking about?" asked Cody.

"If I hadn't been so eager to take the Roboz—hiccup—with me, none of this ever would have—hiccup—happened!" Murray looked miserable.

"You can't be serious," said Nick, dumbfounded.

"Murray, the Hangman would have found a way around the Roboz," said Cody quietly. "He targeted Nick, and there's nothing any of us could have done to prevent it. He watched us. He knew when we were going to leave, where we were going, and how long Nick would be alone." A chill ran down his spine.

"It's not your fault," said Nick, jabbing his finger at Murray. "It's the fault of that sick bastard. Don't you dare go blaming yourself for his fucked-up behavior. Cody's right. He knew exactly what to do."

Cody swallowed heavily. He knew exactly what to do. And now we're both going away again tonight, leaving Nick alone in exactly the same way, two weeks after the attack...

"I'm sorry," said Murray, sounding anguished. "I wish I'd never taken the Roboz with me. I wish I'd never gone to Pasadena that night. I'm so sorry—" Nick stood up and enfolded Murray in his arms, murmuring something soothing, and Cody wrapped his arms around them both, feeling guilty and frightened and full of compassion for them both.

"Murray, everything's okay," said Nick, his voice full of emotion. "You can't drive yourself crazy over what happened. It's over, and we're all okay. That's what matters."

"I just feel so guilty," said Murray, one last hiccup bubbling up.

"Don't. You should feel great, Murray; you and Cody, you're the best friends a guy could ever have."

Cody closed his eyes, feeling a wave of longing wash over him. Best friend, and it's just not enough. Abruptly, the hug ended, and both Murray and Nick were wiping away tears.

"I think I need to start packing," said Murray. "And I need to contact the newspaper."

"Yeah, and I have to fill out those papers—" Nick trailed off suddenly, glancing at Cody.

"Papers? What papers?" asked Cody. Murray tried to look innocent, but Cody could see right through him. "What are you guys doing?"

Nick looked embarrassed. "Look, I've been meaning to tell you, but there just never seemed to be a right time, y'know?"

"Tell me what?" Thoughts circled in his head like sharks.

Nick blew out a breath. "I've applied for compensation. From the Victim's Compensation Board."

"There's no criminal offender to sue yet, but having the paperwork started will help if the Hangman is ever identified," explained Murray.

"Compensation?" asked Cody, surprised.

"It's a relatively new law," said Murray. "Usually it provides money for damages, health care, and lost wages. Since we're self-employed, we'll have a more difficult time getting lost wages, but this might cover some of the bills that our health insurance doesn't."

"If the Hangman is caught," said Cody.

"Yes, exactly." Murray checked his watch again. "I really need to contact Samantha—she leaves for lunch around this time." Spinning around, he made his way back into the Riptide.

Nick looked uncomfortable. "Look, normally I wouldn't, but Murray mentioned it, and it seemed like a good idea. I mean, we had to cancel the insurance convention contract, and..."

"It is a good idea, Nick." Cody sat back down on the cushions. "We both could use some new shoes."

Nick half-smiled. "Okay, well, I'm going, then." The keys to the 'Vette jingled in his hand for a moment before he got off the boat, betraying only a little stiffness in one knee.

"See you later," called out Cody.

The club was packed. The music was loud, and Cody winced, sitting at the bar, nursing his whiskey.

"Having a good time?" asked Jessie, grinning next to him.

"Yeah," he said, trying to smile. "This is great."

"You look like you're having root canal surgery," she said. "C'mon, come dance with me, it'll be fun!" She grabbed him by the hand and pulled him out onto the dance floor.

Jessie wasn't a great dancer, but she made up for it in enthusiasm, and he realized he was enjoying himself. Pete joined in, along with a few other young legal professionals, and soon they had their own corner of the dance floor.

"Hungry Like the Wolf" came on, and Jessie started mock-howling at Pete, and everyone laughed. Cody found himself dancing with a very short blonde girl with vivid red lipstick and painted-on eyebrows, and she invaded his personal space so quickly and thoroughly that he nearly tripped on his own feet.

Her perfume was something citrusy, grapefruit or oranges, and she writhed with abandon, pulling up close to him. Her lips were moving and he realized she was singing along with the song and snapping her fingers.

A few more moves, and then she was gone, dancing with the guy next to him. Jessie was back, now making howling noises at him, and he laughed and danced next to her for a moment, until the song ended and he went back to his whiskey at the bar.

His thoughts went back to Nick again, and he felt the happiness evaporate. It was too much like two weeks ago. He was hot and his stomach was uneasy.

"Another shot!" called out Pete, sitting down next to him. The bartender put down a lemon drop, and he slammed it. "This is great, huh?" he said. "Too bad I'm leaving. I really like LA."

"Yeah," said Cody. I hope the cops on the night shift are good. Tony and Henderson went home at four, and I don't know the guys who relieved them.

"You're right back at Pier 56, aren't you?" said Pete. "You came here physically, but everything else is back on the boat."

"No, Pete, really, I'm having a good time."

Pete raised an eyebrow. "Really?"

"Jessie's having a great time," said Cody, changing the subject.

"I've bribed the DJ to not play Jessie's Girl." Pete smiled. "A hundred dollars, but it'll be worth it."

"Are you going to keep seeing her?"

"I don't see how," said Pete, looking pained.

"You could stay in LA."

"I've told you before that I can't. I'm still too low on the totem pole to start asking for permanent assignments." He motioned to the bartender for another shot and pounded it down. "Oh, good song," he said, as "Relax" came on.

"You go ahead," said Cody. Pete went back out, grabbing Jessie by the waist and spinning her around on the dance floor.

Cody's stomach felt worse. He asked for some club soda and paid for it along with Pete's shots.

The music seemed louder, somehow. Cody drank the soda, hoping it would help, but it didn't seem to.

"C'mon, Cody, they're going to play the Hustle next," said Jessie, tugging on his arm.

"Okay," said Cody. He went out on the floor and danced in line next to the petite blonde again, who bumped into him every so often. The girl on his other side kept stepping on his foot, and after the third time, he slipped back to the bar.

He felt edgy. Strange. The hairs stood up on the back of his neck, and his stomach clenched.

I felt like this before. Two weeks ago.

Grabbing in his pocket for dimes, he rushed off to the payphone in the front. Dialing the Riptide's number, he got a strange machine recording, and realized it was the callbox Murray had set up to filter out unknown numbers. "Damn." He pounded the wall.

He heard the faroff wail of a police siren. "Of course!" he said, putting in more dimes and dialing.

"King Harbor Police Department."

"Yes, Lieutenant Quinlan, please."

"Hold, please."

Cody waited. The feeling wasn't as strong as it had been before, but it was there, crawling on his skin.


"Hi, uh, Lieutenant," said Cody. "This is Cody Allen—"

"I know who it is. What do you want?"

"Well, I'm at a—I'm out at Hermosa Beach, and I was just hoping that you could check on the officers who are guarding Nick at the moment."

"What? Why?"

I have a bad feeling about it. "Don't they have a police radio? Couldn't you just radio them and ask them if everything's okay?"

"Allen, I'm not your personal messaging service," growled Quinlan.

"Please, Lieutenant. I just...I just want to make certain that everything's okay."

There was a long pause, and then surprisingly, Quinlan exhaled and said, "Fine. Hold on this line and I'll go radio Lewis and Birchfield."

"Thanks, Lieutenant," said Cody gratefully. He stood there waiting. The night air was cool, and as he looked around, he realized that a girl was standing behind him, waiting to use the phone. "I'm sorry, it'll be a minute," he apologized. She rolled her eyes.


"I'm right here," said Cody.

"They're not answering."

"What?" asked Cody. "Why not? Are you sure?"

"I'm telling you, they're not answering. Maybe they're taking a leak. Maybe their radio unit is turned down too low. Who knows?"

"It's two weeks to the day," said Cody, his heart squeezing in terror. "Almost to the minute. The Hangman might be there right now. You have to send over another unit!"

"The department's already stretched too thin—"

"Damnit, Nick's in real trouble—"

"Allen, you don't even know if something's wrong—"

"Fine," he said angrily. "Thanks for all your help." He slammed the receiver down hard on the phone. The girl gave him a curious look as he raced back into the club.

"Pete, listen, I need to borrow your car," he said, grabbing Pete's elbow.

"What?" asked Pete, blinking.

"I need to get back there. Now."

"Cody, it's only nine—"

"I don't care what time it is. The cops aren't responding. Something's up, I know it. I don't have time to wait for a cab. Let me borrow your car, I'll bring it back tomorrow."

"It's a rental, Cody, and it's due tomorrow morning," said Pete. "Look, can't you just—"

"I need your car!" shouted Cody. People nearby stopped and stared at them, but Cody didn't care.

"I guess I'm leaving," said Pete, turning to Jessie.

"What?" she asked. "But this is your party, and everybody's still here."

"Cody needs a ride home, now."

She was quiet for a moment, and then kissed Pete on the cheek. "I wish I'd driven," she said. "I'd let him use mine."

"C'mon," said Cody, grabbing his arm. "Give me the keys."

They were only fifteen minutes away, but Cody turned it into twelve, taking corners like a madman and running every red light they came to. Pete looked distinctly green by the time they arrived at the pier.

A few cop cars had clustered in the pier drive, lights flashing over the water and the boats, tingeing everything with red and blue streaks.

He roared to a stop, putting the thing in gear so hard that his teeth rattled and Pete had to brace himself on the dash. Jumping out, he could see Quinlan getting out of a beat-up Ford, and he didn't bother to stop, he just kept rolling forward, running through the gate and down the companionway even as he heard Quinlan hiss, "Stop!"

The light in the salon was on, but the blinds were closed, and he could see a silhouette moving. Racing up through the wheelhouse and into the salon, he brandished his gun, shouting, "Freeze!"

The girl straddling Nick leaped back a foot and screamed, folding her arms over her bare chest.

Nick looked completely surprised. "Cody? What the—"

Cops suddenly burst through the door, Quinlan among them, and Cody lowered his gun as they all started to laugh.

"I'm just a stripping telegram," sobbed the girl. "I wasn't doing anything wrong, I swear, please don't arrest me."

Nick was shirtless, wearing only a pair of slouchy sweatpants. "What the hell..."

"Allen here told me that you were being attacked," said Quinlan, pointing at Cody.

Nick glared at Cody. "I think there's been a misunderstanding."

"I can see that, Ryder," said Quinlan, smirking. "And such a pretty little misunderstanding, too." The girl flushed and grabbed for her blouse.

"I didn't..." Cody swallowed nervously. "I couldn't get through to you, and Quinlan said the cops weren't answering their radio."

Nick stood up. Cody had gotten so used to the ligature marks that he'd forgotten how they looked to others; those standing nearest him were staring openly at him. "I thought the cops were up at the pier drive."

"A girl fell in the water," said a new voice, and they all looked as another cop shouldered his way into the salon. He was drenched. "I jumped in to save her and Jake helped pull us both out. She was on that sailboat that does the fishing charters."

"The Barefoot Contessa?" said Quinlan.

"That's the one," he said. "Said she slipped on something. Hit her head on the railing."

"I can't get arrested," moaned the stripper. "This is only my second week."

"They don't arrest people for singing telegrams," said Nick, standing up and touching her arm. "It'll be okay."

"What if they tell my mom?" she said, crying harder. Nick pulled her into his arms and soothed her, and Cody felt his stomach flop.

"We're done here," said Quinlan loudly. "Everybody off the boat. Except Lewis and Birchfield." The other cops grumbled as they filed out.

"I'm sorry," said Cody. "I thought..."

"You didn't think, Allen," said Quinlan.

Pete came down the stairs, looking ill. "Everything okay?"

"Just great," said Nick in a sarcastic tone, watching as the girl finished buttoning up her blouse. Pete's eyebrows raised.

"False alarm," said Cody weakly.

"Can I go?" asked the girl.

"Sure, Candy," said Nick. "Thanks. Wish it could have gone a little differently." She smiled nervously and kissed him on the cheek. There was something familiar about her, and Cody frowned as she grabbed her bag and dashed off the boat.

"You better get this straight," warned Quinlan. "No more crying wolf, or you'll lose your babysitters." He turned to Lewis and Birchfield. "You two, call for replacements. You're off-duty when they get here." He stalked up the stairs and out through the wheelhouse, followed by the two cops.

"I'm sure you two have a lot of catching up to do," said Pete. "If you guys don't mind, I think I'm going to hook up with Jessie and call it a night."

"Yeah, thanks, Pete," said Nick. "Have a good night, man."

"Pete, I'm sorry," said Cody, handing him the keys. "I really am." He watched as Pete left.

The silence in the salon stretched out. "Nick..." His voice faltered.

"I know." Nick sighed heavily. "I know, Cody, you were worried, you're trying to keep me safe, you just want to know I'm okay." He slumped down on the bench seat.

"I panicked," said Cody, sitting down next to him. "I'm sorry, Nick. I really am. I got in the club, and it was just like two weeks ago, with Murray gone, and the Roboz gone, and I couldn't reach you..." He ran a hand through his hair. "Quinlan tried radioing the cops, and they didn't answer. It was much like that night." Sick to my stomach. Hair on the back of my neck prickling. He frowned. Something isn't adding up here. "Did Candy say who hired her?"

Nick blinked. "What? You're not serious, are you?" Cody opened his mouth to reply, but Nick beat him to it. "Of course you're serious." He exhaled sharply.

"Did she tell you who?"

"My Reserve buddies," he said. "We all pool together whenever something big happens. Sent one to Len about a month ago when he was recovering from gall bladder surgery."

Cody nodded. Should be easy enough to check out. "Weird that one of the Contessa girls would fall overboard."

"Cody, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," said Nick, sounding worn out. "Look, I'm going to bed. I'm done." He went down to their stateroom.

A stripper, and an accident on the Contessa. Cody paused, clicking the safety on his gun and putting it back in the waistband of his jeans. With a start, Nick's words registered, and he ran down to their stateroom. Nick was already under the covers, facing the wall. "I'm sorry," said Cody, putting his hand on his arm. "Nick, I promise, I'll try not to interrupt any more lap dances." There was a snort from the general area of the pillow. "Really. G'night."

"G'night," said Nick gruffly.

Back up in the salon, Cody called Murray and told him about what had happened, making him promise to get him a list of the guys in Nick's Reserve unit. By the time he went to bed, he had a plan of things to check the next day.

Sleep was a long time coming, but eventually he dropped off, dreaming of the ocean.

"This is crazy!" shouted Cody into the phone. "You know this is crazy, Lieutenant! Nick is the only one alive who's seen the Hangman. It's only been two weeks, and after what happened last night—"

"Let me tell you what happened last night," growled Quinlan. "My men got sent on a wild goose chase, that's what."

Cody tried to get a grip on his temper. "Look, I don't think this was a coincidence."

"What?" barked Quinlan. "You think the killer hired Nick a lap dance? What next, a massage with a happy ending? Why stop there? Maybe he'll send him a mail order bride."

"Lieutenant," said Cody in his best, most convincing voice, "please, you have to listen to me. I think that the accident on the Contessa was no accident. I think that the Hangman was trying to test the waters, so to speak, and see how we'd react."

"Let me tell you what I think," said Quinlan. "I think the broad had a few too many and fell off the boat. I think that Nick's buddies thought it might cheer him up if they sent over a little pick-me-up. I think that my captain has given a direct order to terminate police protection, and there's not a damned thing I can do about it. You know what else I think? I think I'm hanging up now."

"He's still in danger—" Cody threw the phone down in disgust after he heard the dial tone.

"Good morning, Cody," asked Murray, coming into the salon from the wheelhouse. He had a set of computer printouts under one arm. He looked at him quizzically.

"That was Quinlan," said Cody miserably. "They've pulled the police protection."

"Well, it has been two weeks."

"He could have pushed for three." Cody sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Something's not right about last night. I think the killer's involved with what happened."

"You think that the Hangman sent Nick a singing telegram?" asked Murray, sounding confused.

"Yes. Maybe. I don't know. I'm going to investigate today. See if I can find a link." He leaned back in the seat. "So how's Tiffany?"

"Great," said Murray, beaming. "We really accomplished quite a bit! She put together a bridge processor with variable integration dataflow, and it worked perfectly. It's going to save us a lot of time in the code compression phase."

"Sounds like a good thing."

"Yes, it most certainly is. And my contact at the LA Times verified the connection between Allison and Nick, and that information appeared in this morning's front page article about the Hangman's unreported victims."

"That's great!" said Cody. "Thanks, Murray."

"Also, I brought you the names and addresses of everyone who regularly serves in Nick's Reserve unit," said Murray, handing him the printouts. "Tiffany helped me access the information. She really knows her way around a modem!"

Scanning over the pages, Cody recognized several names. "This is exactly what I need! I'll get started calling them. And I still need to go talk to Tammi and Mama Jo about last night. Maybe interview the owner of the telegram service. Do you want to come with me?"

"I'm sorry, I have coding to do," said Murray, looking awkward. "Cody, I hate to say this, but maybe last night is just exactly what it appears to be."

"If it is, then I'm going to lose nothing except a little time. Which right now I have plenty of. I'm going to the Contessa first." He grabbed his windbreaker. "Where will you be today?"

Murray adjusted his glasses. "Well, here, mostly. Tiffany said she'd like to go out to eat tonight, and she invited you and Nick and Pete as well, and Pete's girlfriend."

"Aren't you both busy with coding?" asked Cody.

"Yes, but she pointed out that working too long without adequate rest breaks can be detrimental," he said, blushing.

"Good advice," said Cody, grinning. "Pete and Jessie are off to Santa Barbara, but if Nick's up for it, I'd love to join you guys."

"That's so boss! Where is Nick, anyway?"

"I have no idea. He left earlier. Listen, I'll catch up with you later." He waved and took off for the Contessa.

After two weeks of sitting around on the boat and chasing dead ends, he was more than excited to get a fresh lead. He walked down the dock toward the charter sailboat just in time to see Mama Jo disembarking.

"Hi, Mama Jo," said Cody. "I was hoping I could talk to you for a second."

"If it's about Sonya, then don't bother," said Mama Jo, giving him a glare. "She's off limits."

"Sonya?" asked Cody. "No, it's about Tammi."

"I'm just going to pick her up from the hospital," she said. "If you want to talk, you'll have to walk." She took off at a brisk pace.

"Is she okay?" asked Cody, keeping up with her.

"Minor concussion, they kept her overnight for observation," said Mama Jo. "She'll be fine."

"How did she fall in?"

"Slipped on some oil on deck."

"Oil? How did oil get on your deck?"

"How am I supposed to know?" Mama Jo looked irritated. "Some of the girls don't know a cupola from a cupholder. They spill things all the time."

"Did you find the empty oil can?"

"Empty—" She stopped and stared at him. "Exactly what is this about?"

"I'm just trying to get a better understanding of what happened," he said smoothly.

"You think that psychopath had something to do with it," she said, putting her hands on her hips.

"I don't know."

"Well, I know this—Tammi's lucky that those cops were around, or she wouldn't have come out of the water still breathing. She was alone on deck." She started walking again. "Tell Nick that Sonya's off limits for him, too."

"I will," he said. Clearly the interview was over. "Thanks, Mama Jo." She didn't reply.

Back on the Riptide, Cody pulled out the printouts and began the tedious work of calling the reservists. As he made the calls, he scribbled notes next to their names, circling if he'd left a message on a machine and double circling if he'd left a message with a person.

Twenty calls made already. Yet nothing had come of it. He'd only managed to speak directly to two of them, Leonard Matthews and Hector Alvarez, and though both of them thought that the group had done it, neither had personally ordered the telegram.

Lunch was sandwiches. He remembered to make one for Murray, and lingered long enough in the computer room to make certain that he actually ate it instead of taking one bite and then getting distracted by a tantalizing bit of code.

More calls, and he finally came to the end of the list. Round one, done. He'd call them all again either that evening or tomorrow. Putting the printouts away, he yawned and stretched. A stripper. Some oil on deck, and Tammi falling in. Cops fishing her out. The Hangman.

If only I'd stayed home last night instead of going out with Pete.

Pete. He frowned.

Oh, wow, did I mess that up. Dialing hastily, he muttered "C'mon" under his breath as he listened to the phone ring.


"Pete? Hey, this is Cody."

"We're kind of busy right now." He could hear Jessie's voice in the background.

"I know. This'll just take a second." He took a deep breath. "I'm really sorry about last night, Pete. Really sorry. I was an ass."

"Yeah, you were."

"You don't have to agree that easily," said Cody, wounded. "Look, I just wanted to apologize. It was your last evening out in LA, and I really ruined it."

"My last evening in a great club with my girl and one of my best friends."

"I'm sorry," repeated Cody.

"Well, it wasn't a complete washout," said Pete. "I went back and we picked up where we left off. Mostly."

"Is there any way that I can make it up to you?"

"Actually..." There was a short pause. "Yeah, there is. I turned in my rental today, and Jessie and I are taking her car to Santa Barbara, and we'll be back Sunday night. The partner will be driving us both into LA on Monday for the final meeting and the celebratory lunch, but I don't have anyone to take me to the airport on Tuesday..."

"Done," said Cody immediately.

"Excellent," said Pete. Jessie's voice called out in the background, louder this time. "I have to go. Talk to you soon."

"Bye," said Cody, hanging up.

The afternoon was still chilly, the grey clouds and rain lingering from yesterday, and Cody made a fresh pot of coffee. He was just pouring himself a cup when Nick came in, pulling off his damp jacket and hanging it off the key rack to dry. Cody didn't even bother to ask, just poured him a cup and handed it to him.

Nick took a sip, and then looked at him, and Cody immediately knew something was wrong. "Quite the little switchboard operation you've got here," said Nick.


"I stopped at Len's to remind him about that twenty he owes me, and he mentioned you'd called." Nick took another sip, but his eyes didn't leave Cody's.

"I was just trying to find out who made the arrangements for the stripper." He flushed.


A hundred reasons flashed through his head, but he discarded them all and decided to go for the truth. "I think that it's connected to the Hangman."

Nick's expression didn't change.

"It does make sense," insisted Cody. "Just listen. There was a method to the whole thing. First, he distracts the cops. To do that, he sets something up on the Contessa, knowing that they'll be watching the pretty girls as much as the Riptide. I mean, at this point, nothing's happened for two weeks, so they're bound to be paying less attention, right? Anyway, he slips on board the Contessa and spills some oil, knowing that Tammi will be doing her nightly round to check the lines—"

"Tammi's the only one doing the nightly round?"

"Every night, about 8:30 or 9." He put his coffee cup down on the table. "So she slips in the oil, right on cue, falls in, and the cops hear her shout and they go to help pull her in. The stripper shows up like she's supposed to..." He suddenly faltered, and realized exactly why the stripper looked familiar.

"Are you listening to yourself?" said Nick. "This—"

"Nick, the stripper looked like Allison Thompson," said Cody, his stomach making an abrupt flip.

"Candy?" he asked in disbelief.

"Same height, same hair, same build." Cody felt goosebumps spring up on his skin. "This was his work, I know it!"

"So they're both blonds," said Nick, sounding aggravated. "Cody, this is southern California. Everyone's a blond."

"He chose her on purpose. Don't you see?"

Nick looked like he was barely keeping his temper in check. "And if this is all true—if he did set this up—what the hell did he get for it?"

Cody sat down, defeated. "I don't know," he said finally. "He might have been testing us. Maybe he wanted to set up a false alarm so that next time we wouldn't be so quick to respond. Maybe he just wanted to watch us scurry around like ants."

There was a long silence as they both stared at each other.

"I've been trying to give you space," said Nick, slowly and carefully. "I've been trying to let you work through this on your own. I know you need some room sometimes. But you're letting this wind you up so much you're jumping at your own shadow."

"Nick, this guy isn't through with you," said Cody heatedly. "He's going to come back and try again. I know it. He set that whole thing up last night."

"First of all, the guys in my unit are always sending out strippers. Second, it's easy to have an accident on a boat. Remember when Murray fell in a month ago? Third, nothing happened."

"But maybe this is part of a bigger plan," argued Cody. "Maybe he wanted us to relax and have a laugh and think it's all over."

"I don't want to think about him," said Nick suddenly. He jabbed a finger in the air. "I don't want to think about him, or what he's thinking, or what he's doing. I don't want to think about him."

So you can't stop thinking about it, either. "Okay," said Cody, putting his hands up. "But you can't blame me for looking out for you. For us." Did I just say 'us'? Nick seemed oblivious.

"Nick! Cody!" said Murray as he came up the stairs. "Guys, you won't believe this, but I just partitioned a disk in such a way that..." He blinked at them. "Uh...are you okay?"

"Sure, Murray, we're fine," said Nick, sitting down on the bench seat. "Partitions, huh?"

"Yes, partitions!" said Murray enthusiastically. "This will get me on the cover of Sectors Monthly for certain. I must admit, it is both boss and bodacious."

Cody sat down next to Nick, trying to ignore the tension in his body language. "What time are we supposed to meet Tiffany?"

"She'll be at Pete's on the Pier around six. Nick, are you coming?"

"To what?" said Nick.

"Dinner with Tiffany," said Cody.

"Sure." Nick drank the last of his coffee.

"Sounds like fun," said Cody, trying to sound upbeat. Nick gave him a look that said he knew better.

The restaurant was packed, and Cody looked around in vain for Tiffany until he saw a familiar shock of pink hair. "Hi guys!" she said, waving and bouncing toward them. She wore a bright pink miniskirt and a tight white tank top.

"Tiffany!" said Murray. He gave her a big hug and she giggled.

"Thanks for inviting us to dinner," said Cody.

"Of course!" she said brightly. "I'm celebrating because my classes are over, and I couldn't think of anyone better to celebrate with."

"Your table's ready," said a harried hostess.

"Oh, how boss!" she said. "Great timing."

Tiffany and Murray sat on one side of the booth, and Cody and Nick on the other. Tiffany chattered about what a relief the last day of class was, and how she was looking forward to taking the summer off and spending some time at the range. Cody was across from her, and he smiled and nodded in the right places. She really is cute, even though she's not my type.

The waitress wore all black and a long-suffering look. She didn't write down their orders, which made Cody nervous, because in his experience waitresses who did so tended to forget things.

The food came right after she dropped off their beers, and Cody had to grudgingly admit that she'd gotten all of their orders right. He'd ordered a steak, while Nick got barbecued ribs, and they both set into their meals with gusto. Murray had to be reminded to eat, of course, because he was enthusiastically explaining his partitioning discovery to Tiffany.

Cody cut another piece of steak. It was delicious, and it made up for the rock-hard potato, which was nearly inedible. The waitress appeared again, and Cody ordered another beer. Nick asked Murray what happened to the mapping system he was thinking of installing in the Mimi, and he began to explain the logistics.

"This really is a delight," said Tiffany, popping another bite of her own steak in her mouth and chewing with a contented expression on her face.

"They've always cooked a great steak here," agreed Cody. "Their pork chops are pretty good, too."

"My brother Steve cooks a great steak," she said. "Best steak I've ever tasted. Of course, it came from cows we raised, so that helped, too."

"You had cows?" Cody could feel Nick's leg pressed against his own, and it made him warm inside.

"Cows, chickens, horses..."

"I hope you didn't eat the horses."

She laughed. "Oh, of course not. I do miss riding, though. I don't get many chances now that I live in Pasadena."

Nick said something about cables, and Cody glanced over to see him sucking barbecue sauce off his fingers. He nearly groaned aloud at the flash of heat it inspired, but caught himself just in time. "Uh, yeah, I can't imagine that you would."

"I suppose I could, if I made the time for it, but I'm just so busy. CalTech, and the robotics group, and Murray, of course." She took a sip of her soda. "I had to make a decision. Horses or target shooting. I figured that target shooting would be more practical."

He blinked, trying not to think of the bare skin of Nick's elbow, which was somehow pushed up against his forearm, setting off a delicious tingling sensation. "Of course. I mean, who wouldn't..." He noticed Nick looking in his direction, and tried to pay more attention to what Tiffany was saying.

"I've been thinking about entering a shooting competition this fall."

"Really?" His pants were growing tighter by the second.

"Murray thinks it's a boss idea." She turned and smiled at Murray, who nodded enthusiastically.

Cody shifted discreetly, trying to think about ice-cold showers. "It sounds great. I'm sure you'll do well."

"She's amazing!" said Murray. "I've seen her hit a target just twelve millimeters in diameter."

"You guys care for dessert?" asked the waitress.

"Oh yes, I would love some ice cream!" said Tiffany. "Boz, would you like to split a sundae with me?"

"Of course, my sweet!" said Murray. "Anything your heart desires!"

The waitress was making a spectacular effort to not roll her eyes. "You want to split a sundae, too?" she said, turning to Nick and Cody.

"No, I'm good," said Nick.

"No, thanks," said Cody. "Two cups of coffee, though. Extra cream."

"Extra hot fudge, please!" said Tiffany. The waitress nodded and left, rubbing her temple.

"I was speaking to that new student in the robotics program," said Tiffany. "He's made lots of progress with his interactive robots."

"He's very talented," said Murray. "I think he'll go far..." Cody only half-listened to them discuss linked AI systems; really, all he could think about was Nick's knee pressed against his own.

"Here's your sundae," said the waitress. "Extra hot fudge. Two spoons. Two coffees." She plunked down the cups of coffee and the dessert and turned on her heel. Tiffany dug into the sundae with relish, and Murray followed suit.

Cody reached across Nick and nabbed a few containers of cream. He pulled the foil lid off one and poured it into his coffee as Nick did the same.

"How did you know that he wanted coffee?" asked Tiffany.

Cody blinked. "He didn't ask for it?"

"No, you asked for it, for both of you," she said, twirling her spoon in the gooey hot fudge. "How'd you know?"

"We drink a lot of coffee," he said. "I guess I never really thought about it. Either he remembers to order it, or I do."

Nick was stirring his coffee slowly, eyes fixed on it as if it was the only thing in existence.

"You know, you're right," said Murray slowly. "In fact, even though they don't always order the same thing, they always seem to know what the other wants. I've always wondered how that works. If we were on Vulcan, I'd assume there was a mind-meld situation at work—"

"But that's just a temporary situation," said Tiffany, turning to look at Murray. "Since the order is different each time you would have to reengage the mind-meld each time—"

"It's not that complicated," said Nick, looking up at them. "If it isn't the right drink, it doesn't really matter that much."

"If you set up a random sampling of a finite set of drinks," said Murray, as if Nick hadn't said a thing, "then you're looking at a closed set and the odds are lessened significantly."

"And if you factor in certain variables, such as time of day, time of year, special occasions...I'll bet that it would narrow it down considerably." Tiffany looked intrigued.

"We'll have to experiment," said Murray.

"Absolutely!" she agreed.

Cody and Nick exchanged glances, and Cody plastered a smile on his face as he turned back to look at Murray. "So you'll be gone the whole weekend, then?"

"At the very least," said Murray. "We'll need the Ultra Codec for at least three, if not four days, and then I'll be able to do the rest of the work from the Riptide."

"Looks like the Riptide's ours this weekend, partner," said Nick, taking a sip of coffee. "We could take a trip out into the ocean. Go fishing."

"Supposed to storm," said Cody automatically. "Murray, do you think you'll be able to continue the investigation? Maybe work on those taser leads?"

"I'll try," said Murray. "But I'm still not able to access the satellite. That will have to wait until the FBI returns the last of my electronics."

"Might as well kiss it goodbye, Murray, along with all our shoes." Nick set the mug down and shifted in his seat, his knee rubbing against Cody's.

"I still can't believe they took them all," said Cody. "I had some really nice loafers. And my dress shoes. And that pair of suede boots..."

"And my wallet," said Nick. "I've been running all over town getting replacement IDs. Only good thing was that I'd left my military ID on the nightstand."

"Your wallet?" said Murray, frowning. "I don't think the FBI has your wallet. I personally inspected everything they removed from the boat, and I would have remembered something as important as that."

Nick suddenly looked angry. "You think that bastard took my wallet, too?"

"Well, they never found your clothes," said Murray. "I assume he destroyed them. If your wallet was in your back pocket, then it was probably destroyed along with your pants."

"Damn," said Nick. "I had a couple things in it..." He fell silent.

"Here's the check," said the waitress, dropping it off at the end of the table. Tiffany grabbed it. "Let me know if you need anything else."

"We will, thank you," said Murray.

Cody drained the rest of his coffee and put the mug down, wiping his moustache off with a napkin. Tiffany put a few bills on top of the check and then arranged a handful of pennies into a smiley face.

"Back to the boat?" asked Cody, looking at Nick.

"Nah. I think I need a drink." He got up and Cody followed suit, watching as Murray took Tiffany's hand and guided her out of the booth.

"Thanks for dinner, Tiffany," said Cody, giving her a hug. "See you soon, Murray. Keep in touch." He hugged him, too, and they went their separate ways. Murray and Tiffany walked off briskly toward her car, and he ambled down the pier with Nick, who didn't seem to be in any kind of hurry.

"Cold tonight," remarked Nick.

"Yeah, it is." Cody put his hands in the pockets of his windbreaker. "There's a storm coming in tomorrow."

They walked in silence, the wind occasionally gusting and blowing his hair in his eyes. The sound of a raucous party on one of the large yachts traveled across the water, and Cody saw figures dancing on the deck. Someone flung a bottle of champagne over the side and it made a splash.

Nick walked to the rail and stopped there, putting his elbows on it and staring out over the harbor. The wind lifted the collar of his jacket. Cody stopped, too, and stood next to him, their arms touching.

"Some party," said Nick, gesturing with a jerk of his shoulder.

Cody nodded. A few years ago they would have joined it, competed with each other to see who could bring home the prettier girl. Hell, even a month ago they might have still checked it out. But now it seemed wholly different, a lot of noise and show for nothing. "Change," he said aloud without meaning to.

"Change?" said Nick, puzzled.

Cody kept staring at the yacht. A girl got up on the bridge and pulled her top off, whooping. "Nothing stays the same."

"Well, yeah, that's what change means."

A heartbeat passed, and another, and Cody wanted more than anything to hear words from Nick, to take him in his arms. "What happened two weeks ago..."

Nick half-turned to him, blue eyes dark in the dim light of the pier.

"Something like shows you what's important," said Cody. He held Nick's gaze. "And who's important." His heart gave a mad double-thump in his chest.

Nick looked uncertain for a moment, and then a flash of sadness flickered across his face. "See you later, man," he said, and walked off toward Straightaway's.

Cody watched as Nick hunched his shoulders against the cool night air. Turning back to the harbor, he stared at the party for a moment, but his gaze was soon drawn to the choppy black waters below, and he couldn't help but feel uncertain and afraid as he watched the waves.

Chapter Text

Saturday morning, and King Harbor was hopping. The sun had unexpectedly come out, though it wouldn't last for long, as a dark mass of clouds was rolling in on the horizon. Boats were motoring in and out of the harbor, taking advantage of the last glimpse of sun before the storm began.

Cody hung up the phone, making another notation on his Reservist list. He'd slept well the night before, and hadn't even noticed what time Nick had come in because he'd been out like a light. He wondered if Nick had even slept at all.

He'd managed to talk to six more from Nick's unit, and though they all seemed unsurprised about the stripper, none of them had directly called in the order. The woman who ran the telegram agency hadn't been very helpful, either; she confirmed that it was the Reservists who had ordered Candy, but she had no record of an individual name, and it had been paid for in cash.

It just doesn't make sense. It seemed very wrong for Nick's buddies to hire a stripper. Even if they had wanted to cheer him up, why pick a date exactly two weeks after the attack, almost to the minute? Nick seemed unconcerned about the timing, but it made the hair on the back of Cody's neck stand up.

The next name on the list was Doug Hansen, the guy Len and Matt both thought most likely had ordered the telegram. He punched in the number, and there was no answer. He made one more fruitless call, and then put the paperwork away and poured himself a fresh cup of coffee.

He heard water running in the head, and went down into the galley and began to make breakfast. Eggs and toast, some orange juice. Bacon sizzling and hissing in a pan. By the time Nick was out of the shower and dressed, he had everything on the galley table, and Nick took a seat without a word and began to eat.

Cody took a big swig of orange juice and then smeared grape jelly on his toast. Glancing at Nick, he noticed the dark circles under his eyes, and wondered what kind of nightmares he'd had the night before, or if he'd even managed to sleep at all.

The jelly was sweet against the buttery toast, and he took another bite. The day stretched out ahead of him, and absently he began to plan what he might be able to accomplish. With a storm coming in, there was little he could do abovedecks on the Riptide. There wasn't much cleaning left to do belowdecks, now that he thought about it. I could call the Reservists again this afternoon. Maybe Nick and I could go out to see a movie. Or check out the arcade. It's been a while since we played a round of pinball.

Nick only ate a little, and then pushed his plate away. "Thanks for the breakfast," he said, rubbing the back of his neck.

Cody searched for something to say, but nearly everything that popped into his head seemed like it would cause a reaction; he'd abandoned asking Nick how he was feeling or if he was okay. "Sure," he said. "Did you have a good time at Straightaway's?"

Nick gave him a sharp look. "It was okay."

"I was thinking about reorganizing the anchor locker today." He ate the last piece of bacon in three bites.

Normally Nick would reply with Great, I'll help or even a sarcastic Sounds like a wild time, but he only made a noncommittal grunt.

"Are you still mad at me about calling your Reserve buddies?" asked Cody. "I just want—"

Nick looked up at him, surprised. "No."

"So what's wrong?"

Nick squirmed a little in his seat, which made fear skitter along Cody's backbone. He picked up a napkin and started shredding it into pieces.

"C'mon, Nick, tell me."

Nick kept looking down at his hands, silent, until he tossed the remains of the napkin aside and laced his fingers together. "Look, I've just been noticing things."

"Things?" asked Cody carefully. Has he figured out that I'm a desperate idiot for him? Did last night's conversation clue him in? His heart skipped a beat.

"Yeah. And I don't like it. I mean, I know you're in love, and it's good to see it, man, but..." He trailed off, and then fixed Cody with a hostile look. "But I don't have to like it."

Cody's guts twisted inside as he tried to process what Nick was saying. This can't be happening. "You don't like it," he echoed stupidly.

Nick pushed himself out of the galley seat and stood up. "I know, I shouldn't even be saying this. You love who you love and all that. But it just burns me up. I can't sit here and watch it."

Something didn't make sense. Cody stood up too, feeling off-balance. "I don't think..."

"I can't sit here and watch you do this to Murray," said Nick. "I mean, how many dates does the little guy get in a year?"

Cody blinked in confusion.

"And you can't let it go?" continued Nick. "You can't just let him be happy? Is this your ego, pissed off that you can't believe Murray's got a girl like Tiffany?"

Cody opened and closed his mouth, gaping like a fish. "Wait—you think I'm in love with Tiffany?"

Now it was Nick's turn to look confused. "Well, yeah. I mean, I've watched you talk to her..."

"I'm not in love with Tiffany," said Cody firmly. Watching Nick look at him in disbelief, he repeated himself. "I am not in love with Tiffany."

"Are you serious?" Nick threw his hands up into the air. "Twice now I've seen you getting a hard-on just talking to her. Last night, for example. And you're acting lovesick, Cody, you've been wandering around with stars in your eyes for the past week. I've known you a long time, man, I know exactly what that means."

"Fine," said Cody. "I'm in love, but not with Tiffany."

Nick's brow furrowed. "Then who?"

No more hints. Just like that, he knew that the waiting was over. He took a step closer, and Nick's expression didn't change; he just kept staring at him, bewildered. Cody's head felt like it was full of bees. His heart was pounding so hard he thought it might explode. Now. Bridging the distance, he reached out and pulled Nick to him, kissing him hard and strong. I'm kissing him. Really kissing him. Rational thought suspended, and he was only aware of Nick, their lips pressed together, the heat between them washing over him in waves.

For a heart-stopping moment, Nick froze against him, but then he pushed him away, though not forcefully.

Cody took a step back. A welter of emotions rose on Nick's face; astonishment, a flare of desire, and then, for just a second, a terrible, naked vulnerability that he hadn't seen since Bobby Henson stepped on a landmine over a decade ago.

Nick had one hand braced on the wall, and he trembled visibly. Very softly, he said, "Why'd you do that, Cody?"

"You asked," he answered, just as softly.

Nick looked like a frightened animal, ready to run out the door. He blinked, and then suddenly his expression shifted to one of anger. "What the hell, Cody?" He jabbed a finger at him. "Is this your idea of a pity party? Nick Ryder can't get a date, everyone stares at him—"

"No," said Cody. Nick's words hurt, but he forced himself to calm down. I need to hang on. Let him work it out in his own way.

"Then what the hell is this?" he said, his hands now in fists. "It's been ten years—hell, longer than that—and now, suddenly, you decide you love me?"

Cody forced himself to meet Nick's glare. "Yes."

"It doesn't work like that," said Nick, breathing hard. "It doesn't work like that, Cody, you can't just—" He turned away and pounded the wall.

Cody winced. "It does work like that. I know, it's stupid and it doesn't make sense, but like you said, the heart loves where the heart loves."

Nick turned to look at him, eyes full of pain. "After the ridge, you turned it off. Like nothing ever happened."

"I didn't know what to do," said Cody, panic setting in. "It was a pretty big shock, Nick, you have to know that. I was scared. I was an idiot and I wasn't ready to deal with it." Please let me not screw this up.

Nick backed away. "You turned it off, and then we came home. I was so screwed up—you don't even know."

"We were all screwed up."

"I burned my notebooks," said Nick quietly. "Anything that could remind me of Bobby. You. 'Nam. I spent a year drinking and picking fights and then I met this guy in a bar who looked like you, and..." He turned pale. "I just..." His back was against the wall. "He wasn't a good guy," said Nick, an edge of panic in his voice. "But I was lost." He shut his eyes. "Knowing you didn't love me like that...knowing that I was going to be alone..."

A wave of fear lodged in Cody's chest at the thought that Nick had been so hurt by his withdrawal that he'd hurt himself. And even more jarring was the idea that Nick might not love him in return. I never thought that he might not feel the same way anymore. Always, in the back of his head, in his heart, he'd been secure in the knowledge that Nick would be there for him, waiting for him, and the sudden realization that Nick might push him away completely made him feel sick to his stomach.

"I had to try to live with it," said Nick, opening his eyes. "The fighting didn't help. The drinking made it hurt more. The guy...he fucked me over worse than all of it put together." He took a deep breath.

"It's okay," said Cody, reaching out a hand, trying to soothe him, but the muscles of Nick's shoulder were tight under his fingers.

"I got to the point where I was a walking zombie. I just flew the choppers, unloaded, loaded, whatever I had to do. I tried to lock it down. And then when I saw you again, it was raw. It hurt like hell. And then, you wanted to be friends, you wanted us work together again. That was rough, watching you chase every girl within ten feet; hell, just being near you hurt."

Guilt churned inside of him. I can't fix the past. "I'm here now."

"Now?" said Nick angrily. "Now, when I'm so fucked up I can't even string together four hours of sleep, when I can't even open a closet door without feeling like my heart is gonna explode..." It was all there in his eyes, his fear and anger and frustration, and Cody couldn't help but step closer, wishing he could take it all away.

"Yes, now." He looked at him, willing him to see how serious he was. "I'm not doing this out of pity, Nick, I'm doing this because I love you. I want us to be together." He held his breath, hoping for the best.

Nick blinked, and then blinked again. "You say that now," he said in a low voice that frightened Cody more than anything else had. "But a month from now, a year from now, when you see somebody new on the Contessa, hell, when Janet comes back next time, you'll just wander off and then what, Cody? Then what do I do?" There was anguish in his eyes. "I can't feel this again. If I let this dog off the chain..."

"So that's it?" said Cody, stunned. "You don't want to try again?" His heart scalded in his chest. This can't be happening. This is all wrong. Shock turned to anger. "You're scared, and you don't love me anymore?"

"What?" said Nick, looking shell-shocked.

"You don't love me, then," repeated Cody in anger, even though he knew, deep down, that he was twisting the knife.

Nick's eyes suddenly blazed with hurt and righteous fury. "Get this straight," he said in a dangerous tone. "I love you. I love you yesterday, today, tomorrow. I love everything about you. I love how you always see the best in things, how you want to salvage any situation, how you think something good will happen even when the rotor's blown and we're taking enemy fire and the chopper's falling in the ocean. I love you, the way you walk, the way you get embarrassed when I catch you crying over the end of Old Yeller. I love that your watch never works. The way you shoot tequila. How you hold the wheel when you're driving. How you sing in the shower when you think no one else is aboard. The way you eat popcorn. How you put on your shoes. I love how whiny you get when you can't find your favorite sweater. How you put a stamp on an envelope. What you look like in grey jeans. I love you for always, and even if I'm sent through the gates of Hell and the devil himself burns everything else away, I will still love you."

Cody could only stand there and gape.

"Losing you the first time—it wrecked me, buddy, it wrecked me big time. Losing you again..." He shuddered. "There's no coming back from that."

How many times am I going to hurt him? Cody felt guilt wash over him. "I want to try again," he said quietly.

"I can't do it again," whispered Nick.

"You can," said Cody. "You just have to take a chance." If I have to get down on my knees and beg, I will.

Nick's eyes were full of emotion, and Cody felt his heart thumping in his chest. Please, don't give up on us. Nick lowered his eyes, and Cody couldn't help but feel a flash of fear. "If you're serious," said Nick quietly, looking back up at him. "If you're really serious, then you better think about it. Because I'm through playing games. If you want games, there's a pretty girl named Sonya on the next boat over who's more than willing to play hide-and-go-seek." He pointed in the direction of the Contessa.

Is that a yes? He felt warm all over, his face suddenly hot, his heart shooting sparks. He tightened his grip on Nick's shoulder. "Nick, I want to try. No games."

"If you close down again, if you..." Nick's voice cracked, and he wiped his eyes with his hand.

"I can't promise you that I won't," said Cody. "I don't know what will happen tomorrow. I don't know where this will take us. All I know is that Tiffany said something the other night, that we should always take a chance on love, and Nick, she's right, and we have more than just love."

"She's young. She doesn't know how much it hurts." Nick was trembling under his hand. "She doesn't know. It can break you."

"What's worse, living without love, or loving but losing?"

"You tell me, pal, because I've been doing both for the past twelve years." His blue eyes were intense. "I just keep walking forward, one day at a time, and it hurts a little less each day, but it still hurts."

"I'm sorry, Nick," said Cody, and he pulled him into his arms, felt him shudder with emotion. "Just—you have to give me this chance. Please."

Nick shifted, and then returned the embrace fiercely, and Cody felt hot tears against his neck. "I don't know," he said, sounding confused and frightened.

"Please," whispered Cody.

Nick backed away, wiping his eyes. "I don't know. I told you, I don't know, I need some time."

Cody could feel the panic rising. I don't want to waste another minute. "How long?"

Nick blinked. "No idea," he said. "Look, this's been a tough couple of weeks." He took a deep breath, visibly composing himself. "This is a pretty big shock, y'know?"

"Yeah, I know," said Cody. "I've been wanting to tell you all week, but it just never seemed like the right time."

Nick nodded, looking distracted, and then he lifted his hands as if to say something, but then let them drop. "I think I'm going to take a walk," he said.

Cody tensed. "You want some company?"

"No, I'm good." Nick made his way unsteadily up the steps.

"Be careful," said Cody, his heart in his throat. There was no reply.

Usually being aboard the Riptide made Cody feel safe and secure. It was his escape, his sanctuary.

But now she felt claustrophobic. The same statehouse that had always seemed like a warm and secret heart felt like a suffocating box instead.

Even the salon seemed stuffy. He was wound up and scared and restless, and he knew there were only two cures, the ocean or Nick, and since Nick was gone and he couldn't take the Riptide out into a storm, that left him wound up and scared and restless.

He stuffed his gun in the waistband of his pants and took a walk down the pier, his nerves jangling inside, and even the sight of the boats and the water did nothing to soothe his mind. Have I screwed things up permanently? He felt a shiver go up his spine. What if Nick doesn't want to come back? What if he's so freaked out he doesn't even want to be friends?

The rational part of his brain scoffed at that, but still, it made him wince. He couldn't imagine going forward without Nick. He'd always just assumed that Nick would be there all the days of his life, and now he wanted that even more. It had turned from something he desired to something so invaluable and precious that the idea of losing it made him instantly break into a cold sweat.

Turning to the harbor, he leaned on the rail, and realized that it was very nearly the same place they'd leaned at the night before. The yacht that had hosted the party was empty and silent now, beer cans littering the deck, and the dark clouds above it were forbidding. A cold wind whipped at his jacket.

"Ready for the storm?"

He turned to see Mama Jo standing next to him. "Uh, yeah, sure," he said, caught off-guard.

"You look terrible, Allen," she said brusquely, giving him the once-over.

"Great, thanks," he said, turning back to the harbor.

"Who is she?"


"She better not be on my crew," growled Mama Jo.

Does everybody know I'm in love? "You know I would never do that," he said in a cajoling tone.

"Hmph," she said. Her eyes narrowed for a moment. "Keep it that way. Last thing I need is your sorry hide wandering around the ship day and night. Bad enough you kept sneaking onboard to mess with Tammi during her night rounds."

"I don't know what you're talking about," he said, half-smiling.

She grimaced. "Save it for someone who believes you." She looked out across the harbor to the storm, and then back to Cody. "Ted stopped by to check out our lockers and see if any cans of oil were missing."

Ted? He was confused for a moment until he realized she was talking about Quinlan. "He did? Did he find anything?"

"What's to find?" she said, raising an eyebrow. "We don't inventory every single can of oil in the locker, and with so many girls in and out of it all day, there's no tracking any of it."


"None of the girls, including Tammi, remembers seeing anyone on board. Or anything out of place."

"Another dead end," said Cody bitterly.

She said nothing, staring at him intently, until he began to feel uneasy. "Some advice, Allen," she said crisply. "Your floats need replacing, and your hull needs scraping."

"Thanks." The wind blew his hair into his eyes for a moment, and he brushed it out of the way.

"I've had three husbands, Allen," she said in a softer tone. "None of them knew me worth a damn. And now I sit on a boat all day and watch men chase after my girls nonstop, and none of them know them worth a damn."

He could only stare at her, wondering what she was getting at.

"There are two kinds of love in this world," she continued. "Love, and crazy love. Love will get you through the day. Get you kids, if you want them. It lasts, or it doesn't. Sometimes when you just have love, you wake up in the middle of the night, hear him snoring, and you just pack everything up and take off for your aunt's house." Her eyes were hard. "Crazy love, though, it's in your bones. It burns you up."

"Crazy love, huh?" he said, trying to keep his tone light, wondering how the hell he had gotten into this conversation, and wondering how he could get out.

"I've had crazy love once," she said. "He got killed in Korea. Still hurts like hell." Her eyes narrowed. "Crazy love usually self-destructs. Crushes people. It's not storybook love. It's not pretty. I hope you're just in love, Allen."

"It doesn't always end badly," said Cody feebly.

She simply raised an eyebrow and then made her way briskly down the pier.

He mentally shrugged, and looked back at the yacht. The girl who had taken her top off last night emerged from the cabin, looking pale and shaky. She took only a few steps before she ran to the side of the boat and was spectacularly sick over the railing.

He turned away and began to walk aimlessly down the pier. The pier drive was emptying as the wind picked up, and some of the shops had closed already. Mama Jo's divorces had been the fodder for the harbor grist mill for years, but he'd never heard about her wartime love affair, and it surprised him. The thought of her pining for anyone was a bit surprising.

The first few drops of rain pelted his face, and he sighed, turning back toward home. He locked the gate behind him and went aboard the Riptide, double-checking that everything was closed securely. The light on the answering machine was blinking, and he stabbed the button irritably, only to hear a curt message from Nick telling him that he was staying at Len's tonight and not to worry.

Damn. He sat down at the bench seat and put his head in his hands. I really am an idiot, and I've chased him away.

On Sunday a similarly curt message from Nick was waiting for Cody when he returned from the grocery store. Bags in hand, he felt his stomach flip in unease, and he had to take a deep breath to stop himself from dropping the groceries to the floor and running directly to Len's place.

Instead he pulled in the lines and motored out into the ocean. The air was clear after the storm, and the water was relatively calm, and he didn't bother to pull out the fishing gear or even unpack his swimming trunks.

He stripped down to nothing and dove into the water.

It was cold, but he'd been swimming in the ocean for years, and he was used to it. Underneath the surface it was quiet and still, an empty space to lose himself in. A place where everything was reduced to air/not air, breathing/not breathing.

After the initial shock, the bracing chill, he swam around the Riptide once or twice, and then got back on deck to lie under the deliciously warm sunshine. Until he was too hot, and then jumped back in the water again.

Again and again he repeated the cycle, enjoying the cool water and the hot sun. The stillness. The quiet. The ocean soothed him like nothing ever could, except Nick's presence, and he soaked everything up like a balm, letting it lull him to calm, to forget about the frightened inner voice which was still babbling about having lost everything. Nick would never let this ruin our friendship, even if he doesn't want to pursue a relationship.

Still, despite all of the peace the ocean brought, a sliver of doubt wormed its way in, and he found himself wondering what Nick would say when he returned.

If Nick ever returned.

By Monday Cody had convinced himself to lose hope about the whole thing. He piloted into the harbor in low spirits, and stopped at the pump station and picked up fresh water and cleaned out the holding tanks.

When he approached slip seven, Dooley was on the dock waiting for him, and helped him tie up the Riptide.

"Hey, dude!" Dooley grinned. "Listen, I was hoping you could help me out here. Hot date tonight. I told her I had a Scarab powerboat."

"Dooley, you don't even have a rowboat," said Cody, tying up one of the stern lines.

"Can't you help a bro out?" said Dooley, sounding desperate. "She's hot!"

"No," said Cody. He looked him straight in the eyes. "You're not touching the Ebb Tide."

"Okay, we're cool," said Dooley, holding up his hands.

A thought occurred to him. "Did the FBI ever contact you?"

Dooley gave him a frightened look. "What?"

"About the Hangman attack two weeks ago," added Cody impatiently.

"Well, yeah," he said, looking relieved.

"What did they ask you about?"

"Where I was that night, if I'd seen anything weird, how often I come aboard the Riptide..."

"And did you notice anything out of place?" Cody dropped the excess line back into the boat.

"Just some weird wet footprints." Dooley scratched his arm.

"How were they weird?"

"It was just this weird line of footprints. Like only one foot was wet or something."

"Where did it lead to?"

"How should I know?" said Dooley. "Hey, Murray called me and wanted me to give you a message. He said he and his girl were busy and he won't be coming back till tomorrow."

"Thanks, Dooley." Cody checked the floats between the Riptide and the dock and had to admit that Mama Jo was right; some of them did need replacing.

"That's worth a beer, right?" said Dooley, grinning.

"Yeah, go grab one." Cody checked under the fantail seat and found that he only had two spares. This means a trip to the Boating Emporium.

Hooking up the power cables and the phone line, he looked across the dock to the Ebb Tide, still docked securely on the other side of their slip, each line knotted precisely.

"Catch ya later, Code!" said Dooley, raising the bottle of beer and toasting Cody as he left.

The afternoon bled into the evening, and the sun slowly set over the edge of the harbor. Cody sat on the fantail with a magazine, but he had to admit that he had no idea which article he was reading; his mind was sick with worry. The earlier calm of the ocean that he'd captured was nearly undone.

A trio of teenagers piloted past his slip, two girls and a boy, and he nodded at the boy, who nodded back. A rental powerboat. The motor sounded like it needed some work.

The sunset was brilliant and gorgeously clear, not a cloud in the sky, and he finished his beer and gave up on trying to read any further. He made his way into the salon and tossed the magazine on the table. Maybe something's on TV.

He felt the Riptide rock slightly, and looked up to the wheelhouse. Nick emerged, coming down the steps, still wearing the same clothes he'd had on when he left.

"Hey," said Cody automatically. His heart leapt in his chest.

"Hey," said Nick. He looked tired, his clothes rumpled, but his eyes were clear. "I've been thinking. About things."

"Thinking is good," said Cody. He took a step closer.

Nick fixed him with a steady gaze. "You really want me?" he asked. "You really want us?"

"Yes," said Cody immediately. "Yes."

Nick's expression was difficult to read. "It'll change things. Everything."

"I've thought about it," said Cody firmly. "I want to try."

There was a pause as Nick gazed at him, and then he grinned, and it was like the sun coming out over the water. He turned and went below to their stateroom.

For a moment Cody stood there. Does this mean yes? It was hard to wrap his head around the enormity of it all. He felt like he was standing at the edge of a cliff, looking down. He's right. This changes everything.

Why am I still upstairs?

He went down the steps, and Nick was standing at the bottom, hands crossed over his chest, still grinning. "Took you long enough," he said.

"If you'd—"

Nick drew in closer, interrupting his thought, and he raised a hand to cup Cody's cheek. Cody shivered at the warmth of his fingers, at the slight scratch of his calluses.

"Nick," said Cody, dazed. He'd never looked more beautiful, a smile on his lips, black hair slightly mussed, blue eyes full of desire, and he leaned in ever so slowly and kissed him, slow and sweet and deep until he thought he might melt into the floor.

"You've wanted to do that a long time," breathed Cody once they'd broken apart, one hand sneaking up to rest on Nick's hip.

"Feels like a hundred years," said Nick. Everything was there in his eyes; he looked like a drowning man thrown a line. His face was flushed, and he paused before drawing in closer and capturing his lips again. This kiss was stronger, fiercer, his lips possessive and hot against his own. Masculine, and hungry, yet there was an undercurrent of shyness, of awkwardness, as if Nick still couldn't believe what was happening.

They broke apart. "I need you," said Cody softly, and looked into Nick's eyes, feeling passion thrumming in his veins, and Nick closed his eyes and groaned in a way Cody had never heard before. His cock twitched at the sound.

"You have any idea what that does to me?" asked Nick, reopening his eyes. They were alive with a light that Cody hadn't seen in years. "Cody, you're..." He couldn't seem to find the words.

Cody grinned and pushed him backwards, one step, two, until Nick was against the wall, and then he kissed him. Hard. At first Nick seemed surprised, but then he braced one hand against the paneling and returned the kiss fiercely. Cody let his hand stray across the front of his jeans, and felt a flare of heat ignite in his belly as he realized that Nick already had a raging hard-on. Slowly he slid his fingers up to the fly and popped the first button, and Nick made another groan which caused his heart to skip a beat.

"Cody, I'm..."

"Shh," said Cody, and then kissed him again, delighting in the way Nick shivered as he lightly stroked the edge of his upper lip with his tongue. His fingers unbuttoned another button, and another, and then he reached in past the elastic of his waistband. Nick gasped and bucked against him, and Cody held him fast against the wall and stroked lightly down the length of his cock, marveling at the hot velvet of his skin.

Nick grabbed his arm and seemed to be clinging for dear life as Cody began to stroke in earnest, moving from root to tip, enthralled by the feel of Nick's cock in his hand, by the whimpers coming from Nick's throat. He bit down lightly on Nick's lower lip, and the groan it inspired made another wave of heat surge in his groin.

Nick's eyes were closed, his head resting against the wall, lips slightly parted, face flushed. Cody thought he'd never seen anything more sexy in his life. His hand moved faster, and suddenly Nick tensed and let out a guttural cry, and his cock pulsed in Cody's hand, warm bursts of hot fluid coursing over his fingers.

Nick's eyes opened and nearly rolled back in his head as he began to slide down the wall. "Whoa—Nick—" Cody grabbed him around the waist and hauled him to the bunk. "Talk to me, buddy!"

"Okay," said Nick, panting. "I'm okay. intense..." He gulped a few times, and lay down, closing his eyes. "Haven't since...before."

Cody raised his eyebrows. "Hope that was a good way to end a dry spell," he said, aware of how goofy he sounded.

"Yeah." Nick seemed to be recovering. "That good. You have no idea." He reopened his eyes.

"I'm hoping to get an idea," hinted Cody.

Nick grinned, amused, and then sat up, his hands reaching out for the hem of Cody's shirt, and Cody got the hint and pulled it off. He felt warm fingers unbutton his pants as he flung the shirt into the corner of the room. "You're gorgeous," said Nick huskily as he unzipped his pants, and Cody blushed as he pulled those down, too, aware that Nick was still fully dressed and he was now standing before him wearing only his underwear. His erection had flagged when Nick nearly fainted, but he was regaining his momentum now.

Nick lay down again on the bunk, scooting back until he was up against the wall. "C'mon, lie down," urged Nick, his eyes devouring Cody.

Blushing again, Cody pulled off his underwear and then lay down next to him, and Nick captured his mouth, kissing him and running a hand down his side, setting off sparks. I can't believe we're doing this. I can't believe I'm in bed with Nick. He moaned into the kiss as Nick's tongue slid into his mouth, slick and hot, and his cock responded, now achingly hard. So good.

Fingers trailed lightly across his stomach, and he gasped, breaking the kiss. Nick gazed at him, blue eyes intense as his hand stroked gently, languidly, as if they had all the time in the world. Cody felt himself relaxing, and he reached one hand out to touch Nick's cheek. Must have just shaved. Nick reached out and took his hand, kissing the palm softly, the soft heat of his lips intoxicating. Cody felt a shiver run up his spine.

Putting Cody's hand firmly at his side, Nick went back to lightly tracing patterns on Cody's skin. Cody watched Nick's biceps flex as his hand moved. He felt hot all over, his skin becoming more and more sensitive as he craved more of Nick's touch, and Nick kissed him again, slow and sweet, the heat building between them until Cody was ready to beg for something more.

He didn't have to beg. Nick placed one more light kiss on his jaw before wriggling further down the bunk, kissing chest and belly, and then without a word of warning Nick licked the underside of his cock, and Cody yelped and nearly jumped off the bed.

Nick grinned, giving Cody a searing look, and then licked again, and Cody gasped, desperately wanting more. He felt Nick's hand close around his hip, pressing down, and he took the hint and shifted onto his back.

Another searing look, one which almost made Cody's toes curl with the promise of passion it imparted, and then Nick took Cody's entire cock in his mouth.

"Ungh!" Warm and wet, velvet, hot, his brain was firing on too many circuits at once. He'd gotten blowjobs from a few girls before, but it had never been like this. Lying there, hands tangled in the sheets, he couldn't help but moan as Nick's mouth did wicked, wicked things to his cock. So hot. So unbelievably hot. He gasped and wriggled on the bunk and Nick tightened his hand on his hip, holding him down and then speeding up his rhythm.

Cody couldn't hold out against such a skillful assault, and the very fact that it was Nick reducing him to incoherent noises made it that much hotter. He looked down and moaned again as blue eyes met his own. "God, Nick," he said breathlessly. "I can't...this is..."

Nick swirled his tongue, and then again, and Cody cried out, feeling his orgasm building. Nick didn't stop; he kept the rhythm going, the wetness and the heat spiraling, Cody's body growing tighter and tighter until he crested the wave, screaming as he did so, his entire being reduced to nothing but his cock and Nick's mouth as he came harder than he had in years.

His heart thumped madly against his ribs as he lay there, panting, and Nick was gentle about releasing him, clearly understanding how sensitive his cock was after an orgasm like that. Nick. Orgasm. This is absolutely surreal. He looked at Nick's sly half-smile, and grinned back. The very best kind of surreal. The boneless kind.

"Thanks," he said, blushing at how stupid it sounded.

"Yeah," said Nick. Even though he looked happy, there was a hint of awkwardness in his expression.

"Pretty strange, huh?" said Cody. "But great." He reached out and traced the line of Nick's jaw, and let his fingers slowly drop to his shirt, where he tried to unbutton the top button one-handed.

"It's okay—" protested Nick, and he grabbed Cody's wrist, and Cody noticed the flash of uncertainty in his eyes.

"What's wrong?"

Nick looked uncomfortable. "Just..."

The marks from the attack. Cody nearly groaned aloud. Of course Nick might be a little self-conscious. "I want to see you," said Cody gently. "Please."

Nick closed his eyes, and then reopened them, exhaling lightly. He began to undo the buttons, Cody helping, and then he shrugged out of the shirt, peeling it off his arms. The jeans took a little longer, and the damp underwear hit the floor last. Nick was half-hard, and Cody snuggled up close, unsurprised when Nick put his arms around him and pulled him even closer, kissing his forehead and sighing. "Wanted this so long," said Nick quietly.

"Clearly," said Cody, amused, feeling Nick's cock against his hip.

"When I met you, you looked like a scared pretty-boy in the middle of a jungle," said Nick. There was nothing joking in his tone. "The guys all said you wouldn't last. They took bets about when you'd crack. Guys who came to 'Nam because of a broken heart—they were always the first to go." He took another breath, and pressed a kiss to Cody's temple. "Bobby was worried about you. He liked you from the first. Joe kept saying you were a spoiled East Coast dropout, but..." The aftershave he was wearing was unfamiliar, but somehow appealing, and Cody closed his eyes, feeling Nick's breath gust over his cheek.

"And then Bobby was gone," said Nick softly.


"And you were there." Nick kissed him again. "And I thought, okay, Bobby's it, I mean, I still liked girls, right, still kept thinking about Tanya..." His fingertips trailed lightly down Cody's arm. "Then there was one time, out on patrol, and you were writing a letter. I mean, you were always writing letters, but then I looked over your shoulder, and your hand, and the pen, and it just hit me. The middle of the worst jungle we'd ever humped through, booby-traps everywhere, and you're just writing away."

"Lots of guys wrote letters in the middle of the jungle."

"Not like yours." Silence for a moment, and then the hot press of lips against his brow. "You were just you, just Cody, no matter what. It was like the jungle couldn't get to you. After that, I couldn't keep my eyes off you. And I knew that we had to get into Air Cav. I had to get into a chopper so I could keep us both safe."

And then you made that promise to me on the ridge, and it took me twelve years to accept it. "Here we are," murmured Cody. "Both safe. Both here."

"Doesn't even seem real," said Nick, his hand brushing Cody's cheek, and Cody opened his eyes to see that Nick's were full of wonder.

"It is real," said Cody, and he kissed him, really kissed him, sealing the pact they'd made on the ridge, and suddenly knowing in his bones that, despite all of his worries and thoughts that it might not last, it was forever.

"Love you," said Nick.

"Love you, too," said Cody. Nick kissed him again, gently and thoroughly, and Cody felt himself responding.

"We'll have to tell Murray," said Nick softly.

"Yep." Cody nipped at Nick's bottom lip. "Don't think he'll care too much, though."

"Probably not." Nick shivered as Cody let his hands wander lower.

"And by the way," added Cody, "the only time I ever cried at the ending of Old Yeller was when I was eight years old."

"Yeah, right," said Nick, grinning.

Chapter Text

Daylight streamed in through the windows, and Cody blinked, his muzzy brain registering that something seemed off. Rubbing his eyes, he tried to figure it out.

I'm in the wrong bunk. He blinked, trying to clear his head, and then he felt a warm body pressed up against him from behind, one arm wrapped around his waist possessively, and the evening's events came rushing back.

Nick. He smiled and closed his eyes for a moment, savoring the peaceful, easy breathing behind him. Together. We're in one bed together. He felt wonderful, and the delicious warmth of Nick only made it better.

Sighing, he knew that he had to get up and use the head, and he carefully wriggled out from under Nick's arm. Nick murmured something, his brow wrinkling, and Cody was still for a moment, gently stroking his arm until he drifted back deeper into sleep.

In the shower, he grinned, thinking of the night they'd shared, and the nights they would share, and the grin kept getting wider. This was all new territory for him, but it was a journey with Nick, so what did it matter? He'll keep me safe, no matter what. And with a night like last night...

Back in their room, Nick was still out like a light. I must have worn him out. He got dressed, raided the cigar box, and took off for the Alpha Beta, locking the doors to the wheelhouse behind him.

He was hungry, and everything looked good. He filled the cart in short order, very nearly humming as he got to the checkout lane. He paid the checkout girl and stashed the groceries in the back of the Jimmy.

Back at the Riptide, he heard Nick taking a shower, and he started to put away the groceries, making a few trips back up and down the companionway until he'd unloaded everything. His stomach growled, and he started making breakfast, whipping eggs together and getting out a bowl for the flapjack batter, throwing bacon and sausage in pans, cutting up fruit. By the time Nick emerged from the hallway, he was nearly done.

"Morning," said Cody, knowing he was still grinning like a fool, but he couldn't help it. Nick was wearing a tight blue t-shirt, and every muscle was outlined by the clingy material. He looked good, though it highlighted the fact that he'd lost a few pounds over the last two weeks. What made it even better was that he knew that Nick had chosen that shirt on purpose. His grin grew wider.

"Cody, what..." Nick looked at the huge breakfast on the table. "Who else did you invite, the whole Contessa crew?"

"Just us," said Cody. The toast popped up and he grabbed it, trying not to singe his fingers. "Just you and me today, partner."

"I thought Murray was coming back," said Nick, sitting down, looking at the huge plate of cut fruit. He reached out and poked at the caterpillar Cody had made out of pieces of honeydew, with grapes for eyes.

"I doubt it." Cody transferred sausage to a plate and added it to the overcrowded table.

"You made links and patties?"

"Regular and spicy, too." He pulled out two plates from the cabinet, and then realized that there wasn't enough room to set them down anywhere on the table.

"Cody..." Nick just stared at him and then began to laugh.

Cody laughed, too, and then sat down and handed him his plate. "C'mon, eat," he said, helping himself to a little bit of everything.

"I'll try," said Nick, still chuckling. "But listen, seriously, never put a smiley face on the scrambled eggs again."

"I thought you liked catsup on your scrambled eggs."

"Well, yeah, but I don't want them staring at me." He smiled, and then grabbed Cody's hand for a moment and squeezed. "Thanks."

"Cody? Nick?" called out Murray's voice.

"So much for Murray staying away," murmured Nick. "Murray! We're in the galley!"

"Oh, hi, guys!" said Murray, emerging from the hallway, Tiffany in tow. "Jeff said the last of the equipment should be here within an hour or two, so we stopped by to..." He blinked, staring at the table.

"Have some caterpillar, it's delicious," said Nick.

"Please, Murray, Tiffany, join us," said Cody.

"There's plenty," added Nick, giving Cody a look.

"How boss, a smiley face!" said Tiffany. Murray opened a cabinet and grabbed two plates, and then he and Tiffany squeezed in next to Nick and Cody.

"We've been making great progress on the coding project," said Murray. "In fact, I think we'll be finished on Saturday, right on schedule!"

"The Boz is a genius with video games," said Tiffany, piling scrambled eggs on her plate. "He can make that code sit up and beg!"

Murray giggled. "And you should see Tiffany with the logarithms for code compression! She's like a thing possessed!"

"Watch out, or my head will start spinning around!" she teased.

Murray giggled again, and then poured syrup on his pancakes. "These look wonderful."

"It's a buttermilk mix," said Cody absently. Nick's foot pressed against his, rubbing gently.

"Mmm, good caterpillar," said Tiffany.

"Wow, Nick, it's a good thing you made so much food," said Murray. "How did you know we were coming to breakfast?"

"We didn't," said Nick. "And Cody made breakfast, not me."

"Cody?" asked Murray. "Really?"

"I can cook," said Cody defensively.

"Yes, but you usually don't," said Murray. He took a bite of the pancakes. "Oh, these are bodacious!"

"I put banana slices in the batter." Cody took another bite of bacon—extra crisp, exactly as he liked it—and watched as Tiffany poured syrup on her sausage patties.

Nick frowned. "What's that noise?"

Cody strained to listen. "Must be Tuesday."

"Tuesday?" said Nick.

"The Contessa has a new promotion," said Murray. "Mama Jo has two new girls on the crew, Sonya and Sherri, and they're both excellent singers. So on Tuesdays, the charter customers are treated to performances."

"And nobody jumps overboard?" asked Nick.

"Well, not that I know of," said Murray. "Say, isn't it funny that there are two new girls on the crew? You guys should ask them both out on a double date!"

"You really think Mama Jo would let that happen?" Nick took a drink of orange juice and gave the glass an appreciative glance.

"Fresh squeezed," said Cody quietly.

"That's never stopped you before," said Murray. "I mean, you've never let Mama Jo stand in the way of your dating. Didn't you have a competition last year to see who could bed the most—"

"Yeah, we remember," said Nick, a little too abruptly.

Murray looked confused. "You even made a chart—"

Cody smothered his laughter behind a cough. "I don't think Mama Jo's really forgiven us for that, Murray."

"Oh?" said Murray. "Oh! I understand. Well, that's too bad, really. I know how you both like the kissing!"

Nick's eyes seemed to transmit a wave of heat, and for a second Cody couldn't quite breathe, and he coughed again. Yeah, we do like the kissing. "Are you going to stay here at all this week, then?"

"All of the equipment's already set up at Tiffany's," said Murray apologetically. "It just makes more sense to pick up the last of the electronics here and finish everything at her place. I won't be back until Saturday night at the earliest."

"That's too bad, Murray." Nick poked at his food on the plate, and Cody frowned, worried that his appetite still didn't seem like it had completely returned.

"I think we should go out Saturday night," announced Tiffany. "Whether we're done with the project or not."

"Activision is expecting the prototype—"

"Honestly, Murray," said Tiffany, gesturing at him with a forkful of pancake, "I don't think it'll matter if it's not on their desk Sunday. I mean, really, are any of the upper level management going to be working that day? If you get it to them on Monday, I think it'll be just fine."

Murray frowned. "Now, I've explained this before; contracts often have terms built in for penalties for late prototypes."

"Can't you just call them?" said Tiffany. "Can't you just pencil in a new date on the contract?"

"I might be able to," said Murray hesitantly, "but that's not how I like to work. If I say something's going to be done—"

"They have to understand that one of your best friends was attacked and nearly killed," she said. "And there were delays because of the FBI. I can't imagine they wouldn't give you a day or two." She seemed to sense Murray's next statement, because she added hastily, "It wouldn't hurt to just call them and double-check."

Murray hesitated, and then smiled. "You're right, my love, it wouldn't hurt. I'll do that tomorrow."

"That means Saturday we can celebrate!" she said gleefully.

"What do you have in mind?" asked Cody.

"We should go to the arcade!" she said. "I love bumper cars. And they have a shooting gallery."

"That would be so boss!" enthused Murray. "What do you think, guys?"

"Sure," said Nick.

"Sounds like a date," said Cody. He ate another slice of bacon and rubbed Nick's foot with his own. Love you, he said with his eyes.

Love you, too, answered Nick.

The phone rang, and Murray sprang up out of his seat and ran upstairs to answer it.

Cody drank a little orange juice, and put the glass down, wiping his moustache off with his napkin. "You guys are heading right back to Pasadena, then, after you get the equipment?" A whole night, just me and Nick and a bunk...

Tiffany nodded. "I just hope it's all there. Poor Boz...this has been awful, seeing him parted from his systems!"

"Cody, it's for you!" called down Murray.

"Excuse me," said Cody, putting his napkin on the table and heading upstairs. Murray handed him the phone. "Hello?"

"Hey, Cody, it's Pete."

"Pete? How are you doing? How was Santa Barbara?"

"It was great," said Pete. "We had a terrific weekend."

"That's really great." Murray's boisterous laughter echoed up from the galley.

"Listen, I don't have a lot of time," said Pete. "I'm packing, and I've got some last minute errands to run. I really just wanted to call and let you know that my flight is at eleven—"

"Flight?" said Cody.

"You're taking me to the airport, remember?"

Cody nearly groaned aloud in frustration. "Yeah, Pete, I'm sorry. I forgot." Then he panicked, looking at his watch. "Eleven? Wait—"

"Eleven tonight. But I need you to drop me off at eight because I'm going to try for an earlier one."

So much for a relaxing evening at home. "Okay, seven o'clock, I'll pick you up at the apartment."

"Great. Thanks a lot, Cody, I really appreciate it."

"No problem. See you at seven." Cody hung up and went back downstairs, where the others were already clearing the table.

"Great breakfast, Cody," said Tiffany.

"Yes, it was really boss!" Murray was putting the fruit into plastic containers. "I don't know if we can fit all of this into the fridge, though."

"It's really full," said Tiffany, opening the door and trying to maneuver the carafe of orange juice into it. Nick's eyebrows raised.

"I just wanted to stock up for the week," said Cody.

"Are we expecting a siege?" asked Nick.

There was a shout from abovedecks, and Murray ran up the stairs. "Tiffany, the electronics are here!" he called after a momentary pause. She went bounding up behind him.

Nick looked at him, amused. "You thinking we're going to be holed up here all week?"

"I was hoping for it, actually." Cody grinned, feeling nervous energy skitter up his spine.

"Fine by me," said Nick. He drained the rest of his orange juice. "Hey, what was the phone call about?"

"Pete," said Cody. "Listen, I promised him I'd take him to the airport tonight. It won't take long."

"I'm sure I can entertain myself while you're away." He put the empty glass on the counter.

"I hope you'll be even more entertaining while I'm still here," said Cody slyly.

"With the right incentive..."

Cody snorted. "Believe me, I'll come up with one."

"We should see if Murray needs help," said Nick, and he went upstairs, not so subtly adjusting his jeans first.

Murray was already directing the delivery service to put the parcels in Tiffany's pink convertible, and Nick and Cody helped them get the trunk closed after shifting everything inside. The rest of the packages went in the backseat. Murray insisted on personally inspecting each box for damage, and finally signed the slip, worrying aloud that there was still a war dialer missing.

"Ready, my love?" asked Tiffany.

Murray nodded. "Well, this is it," he said to Nick and Cody. "We're off for a week of intensive coding."

"With a few recuperative breaks," said Tiffany with a wide smile.

"Good luck with both," said Cody smoothly. Nick looked like he was trying to hide a chuckle as they waved goodbye.

Back on board, Cody finished cleaning the table, and Nick started to brew a pot of coffee. The galley was a tight space, and they were used to working around each other, but there was a new electricity underneath every touch. He put down the towel he'd wiped the counter with, and turned to Nick to say something, but Nick cut it off with a kiss and then pulled him into his arms.

"I can't believe this," he said quietly.

"Me either," said Cody.

Nick's hands wandered, dipping behind his waistband, past his underwear, until his hands, hot and strong, were stroking the sensitive skin of Cody's ass. Cody groaned and grabbed the back of Nick's neck, pulling him close and kissing him with passion.

Nick pinched him, and he yelped, breaking the kiss and giving him a dark look. Nick only grinned in reply, removing his hands from the back of his jeans, and then gave him another quick kiss, short and sweet. "Bunk," he whispered.

"Yeah," said Cody stupidly.

Nick pulled him down the hall and into their room. He grabbed the hem of Cody's sweater, pulling with more force than necessary, and there was a ripping sound from the sleeve. "Hey!" Cody glared at him. "I like this sweater." He took it off the rest of the way.

"Sorry," said Nick, who clearly wasn't. His fingers were unbuttoning Cody's jeans, and he pushed Cody backwards until he ran into Nick's bunk. "C'mon. Take 'em off."

Getting the hint, he pulled them off, and shucked off the underwear, too, but he wouldn't let Nick push him down on the bed; he grabbed Nick's shirt in retaliation and yanked it off over his head.

He's definitely lost a little weight. For a moment the ligature marks distracted him, reminding him of the horror of that night, but one look at Nick's face and the subtle flash of sadness made him realize that he couldn't dwell on it or it would affect Nick, too. Giving him a blistering kiss, he undid the fly on his jeans, reaching in and stroking him, and Nick whimpered into the kiss.

"On the bunk," said Nick breathlessly. "Please, Cody..."

He lay down and watched as Nick pulled off his own jeans and then slid down next to him and wrapped his lips around his cock. Cody sucked in a breath and then moaned.

Unlike last night's frenetic actions, Nick's motions were gentle, light, sensual. His mouth stroked him in a deliciously slow motion, and Cody groaned as Nick teased him with his tongue, moving just enough to make him burn for it, yet not enough to tip him over the edge. The slow rhythm was maddening. He looked down to see Nick's blue eyes fixed on him, watching him, and he felt his cock throb at the sight.

It was erotic as hell to see the look on Nick's face, suffused with passion and desire. C'mon, Nick, do that thing that you did last night. Janet had refused to do anything oral except kiss, and even Sheila had only half-heartedly given him a few blowjobs, but this was a different level entirely, because it was obvious that Nick actually enjoyed doing this. He felt hot fingers stroking his balls, maddeningly slow. Nick's mouth was hot and wet, like silk.

"Please, Nick," he said, aware he was whining.

Nick let his cock slide out of his mouth, and chuckled when Cody made a noise of disappointment. "Something wrong?"

"Please...I need..."

Nick's hands did something to his balls that made his eyes roll back in his head. "You need..." prompted Nick.

"...want to..." Cody licked his lips and moaned again. "Nick, it feels so good but please..."

Nick chuckled again and then took him into his mouth, and there was a swirl of tongue that made Cody buck his hips and gasp. "Yes," he cried out, and Nick swirled his tongue again and Cody thought he might lose his mind at the pleasure of it. "Oh, god, Nick." His legs tensed and he could feel the pressure building in his balls, and Nick seemed to understand, moving with long, velvet strokes that made Cody shudder in need.

Another swirl of Nick's tongue, and Cody cried out as he came, his entire body shuddering out an orgasm of such marvelous intensity that all rational thought was suspended as he exploded into Nick's mouth.

For several gasping breaths he lay on the bunk, heart pounding as Nick settled in next to him and pressed a kiss to his jawline.

"Good?" said Nick, an amused look on his face.

"Incredible," breathed Cody. "You...I mean...I...just..."

"Love you too," said Nick warmly, kissing him on the neck.

Cody's legs felt like jelly. He turned toward Nick, still loopy from the dazzling orgasm he'd just had, and kissed him, and kissed him again, and a third time, and each time it was something fresh and fine.

Reaching across Nick's furry chest, he opened the drawer and pulled out the bottle of lotion he used on the rare occasion he was alone in the room. Another kiss, and then he slathered the lotion on his hand. When he finally reached down and took Nick's cock in his hand, Nick whimpered and his hands tightened on his waist.

"I loved touching you yesterday," murmured Cody, nuzzling his neck. "Love feeling you in my hand." He stroked him, long, slow strokes guaranteed to make him crazy in the shortest possible time. "My hand down your jeans...up against the have no idea how hot you looked. How hot you sounded, trapped, nowhere to go, desperate for more of my hand..."

"Cody," said Nick breathlessly.

"The look on your face..." Cody sped up his strokes, feeling Nick's cock jump in his fingers. "You were wild for it. Like you always wanted that, my fingers around your cock."

Nick was writhing on the bed, muscles taut. "Oh, god, Cody—"

"And your face, when you was gorgeous. I loved seeing you, watching you as you came in your jeans..." He stroked harder, knowing he had the rhythm just right, watching as the tendons stood out in his neck.

Nick let out a wild cry, and then was perfectly still for a heartbeat, every muscle tense. His cock pulsed and he cried out again as he came in Cody's hand, hot fluid trickling between his fingers and gushing onto his stomach, his face perfect in ecstasy.

"You're..." Cody almost said gorgeous, but he'd never said it to a guy before, and somehow it seemed strange to say it aloud. But he is. "You're gorgeous."

With a sigh, Nick turned toward Cody, pulling him close and kissing him, though his aim was off and he only managed to hit the side of his moustache. Cody chuckled, looking deeply into his blue eyes, which were still a little spacey, and ran his hand along Nick's arm, stroking the warm skin.

His eyes slid shut. "Thank you."

"I should thank you," said Cody, knowing that he had a foolish grin on his face. "Watching you is pretty amazing."

"Feeling it...even better." Nick yawned.

"You sure it was okay?" asked Cody, suddenly feeling worried. "I mean, Nick, I've never done this...well, to another guy. And I don't know what else to do. You've..."

"I've done things," said Nick slowly, his eyes reopening. "It's not rocket science. There are things that're just...natural to do together." He flushed faintly. Reaching out, he gently touched Cody's cheek. "But even if this is all you ever want to do, it's okay, Cody."

"I want more." He blushed. "I mean, I want to do more, and—"

"Whatever you want." Nick's fingers made him shiver as they strayed to his neck, and then his collarbone, lightly rubbing. "Whenever you want."

"Really?" Cody gave him a teasing look. "Even if you're in the middle of tinkering on that rustbucket helicopter?"

"Never thought you'd be jealous of Mimi. But yeah, even in the middle of—hey, I don't tinker. I work on her. And I'd throw you down on the couch and make you scream so loud you'd scare the pelicans away."


"Hell yes."

Cody pulled Nick closer, enjoying the scent of him, of what had transpired between them. Nick's eyelids were drooping a little, and Cody gently stroked his face, feeling happier than he had in ages. Memories of the hospital room and uncomfortable chairs were receding, and instead something new and wonderful was unfolding. "I'd like that," he said quietly. "About time that couch got up to no good."

Nick smiled, and then yawned again. "What makes you think it hasn't?" he murmured sleepily.

"Really?" Cody's hand stopped. "You've had some action in the Mimi?"

"Sure. Once or twice. Took a couple girls around for a harbor tour, they wanted to stop at Fisherman's Island..."

"You never told me about that."

"You were busy with that stewardess...what was her name..."

A stab of jealousy surfaced, and then faded away. Doesn't matter now. "Kathy."

"Yeah. Kept telling me how athletic she was. Didn't seem to be listening much." He yawned again.

"I think tonight we should just relax," said Cody, purposely keeping his voice smooth and low. "Just the two of us. Drink a few beers. Watch something on TV." Nick's eyelids slid shut. "Keep it light, you know, maybe a little dinner..." Nick began to snore softly.

Cody let his own eyes shut, and held him close, stroking his arm until he, too, drifted off to sleep.

Dreams, shifting and flowing, the desert surrounding Cody, hot sun on his back, and far off a winking blue light. He slowly came awake, yawning and stretching, and when his eyes opened, he realized that Nick was watching him, the look on his face sweet and full of wonder.

"Nice nap," said Cody, rubbing his eyes with his hand.

"Yeah." Nick kissed him and then sat up. "Think I'm gonna take another shower."

"Mmm." He still felt pleasantly drowsy.

"Want me to save you some hot water?"

"Nope." He stretched again, curling his toes and flexing his muscles, feeling so lovely and sated he didn't want to get out of bed.

"Show off." Nick grinned crookedly, and bent down and kissed him on the cheek before leaving for the head.

Cody lay still in the bunk, feeling the boat rock gently. His thoughts spun lazily in his head, flashes of excitement and wonder and happiness. A cool breeze flowed through the stateroom from one of the windows, and he sighed at the rightness of it all. I love him. He loves me. It all seemed so simple.

Getting out of bed, he put on a pair of jeans and a white shirt, leaving it unbuttoned. Checking the time, he realized that it was still early in the afternoon, and he headed for the galley and rummaged around for something to eat. Looking at the groceries that were stuffed in the fridge and covered half the counter, he had to admit that he had gone a little overboard in his shopping trip.

Arms encircled his chest, warm hands pulling him closer, and he leaned back into Nick's embrace, feeling a damp kiss against his neck. "I could get used to this," said Nick.

"Want some lunch?" said Cody.

"Little late for that, isn't it?"

"We need to keep your strength up," said Cody slyly. "I've got plans for this week."

Nick laughed, and then let go. "What time are you picking up Pete?"

"Seven. I'll probably leave around six, and I should be home by eight, as long as the 405 cooperates."

"I think there's construction on the 405. Might want to leave a little earlier. He's up in Burbank, right?"

"Yeah. You're right." He pulled slices of bread out of the bag and began laying them out for sandwiches. "Five-thirty...but rush hour..." He frowned as he located a tomato and began slicing it. "Maybe five."

"Good idea." Nick pulled two beers out of the overcrowded fridge and popped off the caps. Taking a healthy pull off one, he put the other next to Cody on the counter.

"It'll only be a couple hours."

"Stop worrying about it." He took another swig. "I've waited a decade already; another few hours isn't going to kill me."

"You want turkey, or corned beef?"

"You bought both?"

"Would you get a choice if I only bought one?"

"Corned beef."

"Okay." Smearing mustard and mayo on Nick's sandwich, he put it on a plate and put it on the table.

Nick grabbed a bag of potato chips and sat down. "You think Murray's going to get married?"

"To Tiffany?"

Nick rolled his eyes. "No, to Snowflake. Of course, Tiffany."

"Maybe," said Cody. "I don't know. They seem good for each other, though. I think it's a good match." He took a bite of his turkey sandwich.

"Yeah." He ripped open the bag of chips and took out a handful, dropping them on his plate. "He's had some rough luck with girls, y'know? After what that Stephanie chick put him through..."

"And then Gloria, twice..."

"It's a wonder he even wants to try again." Nick took a sip of beer. "I hope she sticks with him."

"She seems like the sticking type."

"True." He looked pensive for a moment.

Cody took another bite of his sandwich. The tomato wasn't ripe enough, but the lettuce was crisp and the turkey was fresh, and it wasn't bad. He watched as Nick ate a few potato chips and stared at his sandwich. "Are you going to eat?"

Nick looked up at him. "Yeah, sure." He picked up the sandwich and took a bite. "Good corned beef," he said with his mouth full.

They sat in silence, and Cody polished off his sandwich and stole a few chips from Nick's plate, which was more entertaining than getting them out of the bag. Nick ate half of his sandwich and then poked at it a little.

"C'mon, spill," said Cody. "Something's bugging you."

Nick looked up, startled. "Nothing's bugging me."

"You're thinking about something, though."

"Yeah." He grew quiet for a moment, then pushed his plate away. "Look, when I was with Bobby, in 'Nam..."

Cody took a sip from his beer and pushed his plate to the side as well.

"We had to be careful, y'know? We couldn't tell anyone. Couldn't be seen together. Really together."

"Some of the guys knew." Cody leaned back in his seat, wondering where this was going.

"Well, yeah. A couple guys guessed, and just didn't talk about it. Joe found out somehow, and I thought he was going to make trouble, but he didn't." He exhaled. "Look, the point is, even here at home it's not..."

"You think we need to hide it."

"Yeah." He looked uncomfortable. "I don't even like saying it. I want everyone to know you're mine. If I could, I'd get in Mimi and fly over King Harbor and broadcast it for hours."

A warm glow filled his chest. "Really?"

Nick nodded, and then looked glum. "But as much as I want to, it would hurt the business. It might even hurt you. Murray."

"We can take care ourselves, Nick, we're grown men."

"The business can't deal with it," said Nick flatly.

Cody finally nodded, knowing he was right.

"Bobby and I had rules," said Nick quietly. "Nothing in front of anyone else. No telling anyone. The only time we did anything together was when we knew we were alone."

Cody felt reality sinking in around him. It was like waking up from a beautiful dream to find something ugly staring him in the face. "Are you saying that we should have rules?"

"I think it's for the best." Nick rubbed the back of his neck. "I think we should keep everything the same, except when we're on the boat. I mean, belowdecks."

Even though it hurt, it made sense. "You're right," said Cody. "But how far do we keep things the same? Are you going to find another Katie?"

Nick's jaw dropped for a moment, but then he recovered. "No," he said emphatically. "No. It's me and you. For the long haul. No more messing around."

"If we stop dating, people will talk," said Cody.

"Buddy, you've already stopped dating," pointed out Nick. "And considering what just happened, I doubt anyone will be surprised that I'm not."

"Okay." Cody exhaled. "Okay. Fine. But belowdecks, you're mine."

Nick gave him a look that contained some heat, and Cody had to shift until his jeans were comfortable again.

"It's going to be hard to keep my hands to myself," said Cody.

"Believe me," said Nick, with some sadness, "I know how tough it is."

"We'll make it work." Cody reached out and took Nick's hand in his.

"Bobby and I never told anyone," said Nick haltingly. "But you and I...we have Murray, and we have to tell him."

"Of course."

"But I don't know who else we could tell. I mean, I think Len's figured it out, but he's pretty smart about that stuff. And he's an old soldier; he'll never mention it. But you...I mean, maybe you want to tell Pete..."

"Um. Pete already knows." Cody's face grew warm.

"Pete knows?"

"He called, and he—he wanted to know why I wasn't dating, and he guessed—"

"He guessed that we were together?"

"No, this was..." He took a deep breath. "The night that I found you, when we were out to dinner, he kept asking me when the last time I had a date was, and he wanted to know if I'd given up on having a house with a white picket fence. And then last week he called and he wanted to know who I had a crush on."

Nick stared at him. "And you told him?"

"Well, yes. Nick, he's one of my best friends. He's a good guy. And he wouldn't tell anyone, I know it. I mean, he already keeps a lot of secrets about his clients..."

"If you trust him, I trust him." Nick still looked disconcerted. "What about Tiffany?"


"Of all the people we know, she's the most likely to figure it out."

"True." Cody thought for a moment. "I think I trust her. I think Murray's really serious about her, and she's serious about him."

"Good. Anyone else?"

"Can't think of anyone."

"Your mom?"

For a second Cody just stared at him, and then his stomach did an ugly flop. She'll never forgive me. "No," he said. "No. Not unless there's no choice."

"Then it's settled," said Nick gently. He squeezed Cody's hand.

"Settled," said Cody, feeling vaguely like a ceremony had happened somehow and that he should be doing something with rings.

"Love you."

"Love you, too."

"Want another beer?" Just like that, it was as it always had been, Nick dispensing beers, looking calm and collected, except for the unease that had been lurking in the back of his eyes for the better part of two weeks.

"Sure," said Cody automatically.

He watched as Nick got up to retrieve one from the fridge, cursing mildly when he opened the door and containers fell out. "Here." Nick handed him a cold one, and then began piling things back in the fridge, slamming the door shut quickly so it would hold everything in.


"I'm gonna go pick up a part," said Nick. "Mimi needs a little tinkering."

"Okay," said Cody.

"See you tonight." Nick pressed a kiss against his temple, and then went up the steps. Cody heard the jingle of keys.

Cody sighed and ran a hand through his hair. For better or for worse.

The 405 was congested, traffic slowed down to a crawl. Cody rested his elbow on the door frame and sighed.

The southbound lanes were still moving, which meant that it was probably a stalled car or an accident. He turned on the radio, hoping to hear a report, and his gun poked him in the back. Pulling it out of the waistband, he put it under the seat instead.

It's already six-fifteen. He considered giving Pete a call, but he wasn't certain he was going to be late.

He unbuttoned the top two buttons on his shirt. The Jimmy wasn't unpleasantly hot, yet, but it was getting there. He stared at the car ahead of him, which had multiple Baby On Board signs hanging in the rear window. He couldn't see any babies in the car, though, just a middle-aged woman with poufy hair who kept looking at herself in the rearview mirror.

The traffic sped up a little, only to slow down past the next bend. The news came on, and he listened to the traffic report, relieved to find out that the construction bottleneck was only three miles ahead.

PCH came on, and he hummed along absently. The cars slowed down and sped up, and he finally passed the construction project. The freeway was still congested even after he'd passed it, but at least it was moving at a decent clip. He pulled into Pete's apartment complex in Burbank at two minutes after seven.

"You're late," said Pete, dragging a suitcase behind him. A carry-on was slung over his shoulder.

"Traffic's awful," said Cody. "Fortunately, it's just the northbound." He helped him stash his luggage in the back, and then they both got in.

"Thanks for taking me to the airport," said Pete.

"Thanks for putting up with me, even when I'm a jerk," said Cody.

"Even when you're a jerk, you're still a pretty good guy." Pete stifled a yawn behind his hand.

"Jessie keeping you up?"

"As a matter of fact, yes." Pete turned and gave him a rarely-seen wide grin. "I think I have her convinced to come and visit me in New York."

"Wow, that's great!" said Cody warmly.

"She's great." Pete turned in his seat and found the reclining lever and clicked it back a couple spots. "Anything new with you?"

Cody blushed furiously. "Yeah, actually, there is."

"You told Nick?"

He nodded.

"And he was receptive to the idea?"

"More than receptive, I'd say." Cody was grinning now, and he glanced at Pete to see him smiling in return.

"That's good. You guys have always lived in each other's pockets, anyway, and you might as well take the last step." The sky was darkening, and Pete looked out the window at the fading sunset.

"It feels surreal." Cody passed a car covered with bumper stickers. "I mean, we've been friends for so long."

"I can imagine. Turning a friendship into a romantic relationship has to be kind of awkward. I mean, most romances begin with people telling each other their life stories."

"Nick and I know almost everything about each other already."


He could feel an ache from being apart from Nick. And it's only been a few hours. "I don't know how he lasted so long."

"What do you mean?"

"I keep forgetting that you don't know the whole story." He was quiet for a moment. "In 'Nam, Nick was...involved with a guy named Bobby Henson who got killed. Later on, we were on a mission together with a troop of guys, and he was flying the chopper and we were hit with enemy fire and went down in unfriendly territory. We crashed, and some of the guys died."

Pete let out a low whistle.

"Yeah, it was rough. It was pretty heavy fire. Nearly everyone was hit. I took one in the leg. Once we were on the ground it was even crazier. Two of the guys got mowed down as soon as they got out of the chopper..." He shivered as long-buried memories surfaced. "It was down to me and Nick, and this other guy, Steely. He was a medic. He patched up my leg, and together we all made it into the jungle."

"So the three of you all got out alive?"

"No, we all went into the jungle. Steely got hit..." He exhaled shakily. "And then it was just me and Nick, and we were cresting this ridge..." The turnoff for LAX came into view. "Just past it there was either an ambush or a rescue. We had no idea which. And Nick turned to me, and he had this crazy look in his eyes, and he told me he loved me and that he was going to get me back safe."

"What did you say?"

"I was so out of it, I almost didn't understand him. But I understood it perfectly when he kissed me."

"Wow." Pete stared at him.

"I just sat there in the mud and stared at him. He tried to help me stand up, but I couldn't. I was just too far gone." The heat. Stubble pressed against his cheek. Fevered whisperings in his ear. "He picked me up and carried me. Two clicks. He carried me right through enemy territory, and another chopper pilot spotted him and got us out of there."

"That's amazing."

"Yeah. But I couldn't handle it. Which airline?"

"Uh, Delta."

Cody took the drive for Departures and looked for the Delta sign. "I guess I was too scared then. It was pretty overwhelming. I just tried to pretend like it didn't happen, and then after we came home we went our separate ways."

"Sounds like a movie," said Pete.

"Yeah. My War-Time Lover." Cody laughed and pulled the car up to the curb.

"You're really lucky, though." Pete smiled at him. "This is a once in a lifetime deal. I'm serious. You two—there's something there, something pretty intense. I can see it with my eyes closed."

"We glow?" teased Cody.

"Radioactive." Pete hopped out and grabbed his luggage from the back. "Thanks for the ride. I'll call you when I get back to New York, okay?"

Cody got out and gave him a big hug. "Thanks. For everything."

"Sure. That's what friends are for." He waved as he headed into the terminal.

Back in the Jimmy, Cody checked the time. Eight-fifteen. Nick is home. Waiting for me. It was already getting dark. He pulled back out into traffic, avoiding the 405 and taking the PCH instead.

His stomach flipped and he felt goosebumps break out on his skin. I can't wait to see him. An entire week together. He grinned. Almost seems like a honeymoon.

The surface streets were only partly crowded, and he drove down the highway, his mind filled with thoughts of what he wanted to do to Nick. For hours.

Hermosa Beach was dark and the traffic was light. Later on in the summer it would be crawling with tourists. He passed the Welcome to King Harbor sign and turned down Anita Street, the marina coming into view.

Pulling up into his spot, he put it into park a little harder than he should have, and something hard hit the back of his foot. Swearing, he bent down and realized it was his gun, and he tucked it back in the waistband of his pants. Might as well bring it in. Making his way down the companionway, his heart began to thump harder. The light was on in the salon, and in their stateroom, and he thought of Nick waiting for him, naked, his eyes smoldering.

The salon was empty, and Cody raced down the steps into their bedroom. There was an unfamiliar noise, a grunt, and he froze as he entered the doorway.

Nick was struggling desperately with someone who was dressed entirely in black.

Alarms rang in Cody's head, and his heart made a massive double-thump in his chest as he saw the flash of a knife and the blood on Nick's clothes. The Hangman. Here. On my boat. I was right—he came back— He wasn't wearing a mask, and a strange, disassociated part of Cody's brain registered that he had neatly trimmed brown hair.

The Hangman turned to look at Cody, his eyes frighteningly blank, utterly without a trace of human warmth.

Cody took two swift steps forward and clocked him, striking him so hard he felt the impact up to his shoulder. The Hangman went down, and Cody stepped over him, grabbing for Nick. "Nick, talk to me, talk to me—"

Nick was dazed and pale, panting for breath. There was blood everywhere, and Cody tightened his grip, the fear overwhelming him as Nick trembled underneath his hands. Nick blinked, and suddenly seemed to realize that Cody stood in front of him. "Don't turn your back on him!" he shouted.

"He's out cold," said Cody. "I'll call the police." He started to turn, and out of the corner of his eye he saw something black rising up next to him. He felt the slice of a sharp blade on his forearm at the same time his gun was being yanked out of the back of his pants. Time seemed to have slowed to a crawl as he tried to move out of the way of the knife, searing pain blossoming in his arm.

Another hand pushed him hard on his chest, and he lost his balance and fell to the ground, and then there was the deafening roar of a gun fired in close quarters, the sound of something wet, and Cody blinked and saw Nick standing there, gun in hand, as the Hangman fell limply to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut. For a moment there was silence, and then his ears began to ring, and Nick lowered the gun, his hands shaking badly.

"Nick." Cody lay frozen in shock on the floor for two heartbeats, and then he was up in a flash, grabbing the gun from him, guiding him to sit down on the bunk. Nick was staring at the opposite wall, and Cody turned to see the blood still trickling down the paneling. "Nick!" said Cody, putting himself directly in Nick's line of sight. "C'mon, buddy, c'mon, say something."

Nick looked up at him, eyes hazy and confused.

"Yes, he's dead." Cody's hands were restless, hovering over Nick's body. Nick gave him an exhausted nod, and then suddenly started to slump forward, and Cody barely caught him, carefully laying him down, then lifting his legs gently onto the bed. "It's all over, Nick. I've got you." He could see a handful of cuts oozing blood on his torso, and more worrisome, a puncture wound in his thigh that had bled more than the rest, soaking the leg of his jeans. He grabbed the phone from the nightstand, but there was no dial tone.

Racing to the head, he pulled out the first aid kit from the medicine cabinet. He grabbed some towels. Please let someone call the cops. It was a loud shot. Someone had to have heard it. Back in the room, Nick was still staring at the bloodstains on the wall, and Cody knelt down next to him and cut his shirt off with scissors, throwing it to the floor. Nick shivered weakly. "Everything's going to be fine," he promised, wrapping his leg tightly in a towel. Nick groaned and closed his eyes. "Just hold on, Nick."

"Hurts," said Nick weakly.

"I know, buddy, I know." He covered him with towels, wrapping one around his torso. Blood seeped through almost immediately. "Just hang in there." He put one hand on his neck, feeling for his heartbeat, and Nick's eyes slid closed. "No, c'mon, stay with me, Nick, stay with me." He touched his cheek, and blue eyes reopened, staring at him fuzzily. "Hey, stay with me, partner. C'mon."

Nick groaned again. "Where..."

"He's dead. Just concentrate on staying awake. The ambulance will be here any minute." It better be.

"Ambulance..." He squinted, trying to look past Cody.

"Not for him, Nick, he's dead, he doesn't need an ambulance. For you."

"Oh." Nick blinked again, blearily, and then his eyes focused on Cody. "You okay?"

"Just a scratch." Cody didn't even know where to put pressure; there were too many cuts. He settled for the wound on his thigh and pressed his palm down on it. Nick inhaled suddenly. "Sorry."

The boat rocked, and then he heard Quinlan's voice calling out, "Police!"

"Down here!" shouted Cody, his skin crawling with déjà vu. "We need an ambulance! The phone's out, I couldn't call—"

"Hell," swore Quinlan as he came into the room, followed by his partner. "That the Hangman?"

"Yes," said Cody.

"Guess we don't have to worry about spending the taxpayers' money on a trial." He bent down and checked for a pulse, even though a large section of the back of his skull was missing. "Carlisle! Make sure an ambulance's coming, and radio the coroner." Carlisle nodded and took off.

Nick shivered under his hands. "Lieutenant, can you get another blanket?" said Cody, worried. "I can't let go..."

Quinlan swore again as he peered over Cody's shoulder, and then brought over the blanket from Nick's bunk and spread it over him. Nick blinked, long and slow, and Cody turned back to him. "Stay awake—you've got to stay awake, Nick, they'll be here soon—"

"Might be going into shock," said Quinlan grimly.

"Talk to me," said Cody desperately.

"Hurts," said Nick weakly.

"I know." Cody wished he could stroke his face, touch him, kiss him. "I know, but just stay with me, Nick."

"Always," murmured Nick.

Carlisle came down the steps. "Where's the ambulance?" demanded Cody.

"Pulling up," he said. "Let me look." He held his fingers against Nick's neck and looked in his eyes, pulled down the blanket and checked the wounds. "He might be getting a little shocky." He put a hand on Cody's shoulder. "You're doing the right thing. He'll be fine. The EMT's will be down in a minute. I'll go up and wait for them, let them know what the score is."

"Those FBI agents are gonna show up, too," growled Quinlan. "Nobody else gets on the boat until they get here and check it over."

Carlisle gave a curt nod and left.

Quinlan looked back at the corpse. "Ryder shoot him?"

"How'd you know?"

"You would have just knocked him out. Where's the gun?"

"Uh, I think..." He shook his head, trying to clear it. "I took it from him and put it on the floor. To my right, I think. It's my gun. Registered to me."

"Okay, we'll check it all out."

A frightening thought occurred to him. "You don't think they'll make Nick stand trial, do you?"

"Stand trial?" said Quinlan incredulously. "Are you crazy? They'll probably want to give him a medal."

Nick sucked in a breath and made a pained noise. "Take it easy, Nick," soothed Cody. "I'm right here." Blue eyes stared at him, clouded with pain.

The EMT's arrived, and they took over. Cody let go of Nick and then he noticed the throbbing in his arm. Looking down, he saw that the sleeve of his shirt was stained with blood.

"What's your story?" asked Quinlan gruffly.

"My story?" asked Cody, confused.

"What happened, Allen?"

"I dropped off a friend at the airport, and I came back, and found Nick fighting with him—the Hangman," he said. "I punched him, and I thought I knocked him out. I had my back to him, uh, the Hangman, and as I turned away, he came at Nick with a knife, and Nick pulled my gun out of the back of my pants and shot him."

He nodded. "You know the FBI agents will want to hear it again."

"Of course," said Cody wearily. His arm throbbed more insistently. "I'm going to go to the hospital with him. I'm not waiting around for them."

"I don't think they care, Allen. They'll find you." His eyes flicked to the Hangman's body.

"I thought he'd be...something else," said Cody, his thoughts circling his head in a strange way. "Scarier. This guy looks like a satellite TV salesman."

"Yeah. Too bad he didn't have a neon sign saying, 'I'm a crazed strangler.' Too bad none of them have signs." Quinlan gave him a sarcastic smile. "C'mon, upstairs."

The steps seemed difficult to navigate, and he found himself being shoved into the bench seat. Blinking, he looked up at Quinlan, who took his arm in hand and began to wrap gauze around it. "Keep pressure on it," he said. "You understand what I'm saying, Allen?"

"Sure. Pressure." He felt dizzy and rubbed his eye.

"I'll call Straightaway, have him set a room aside."

"A room," he repeated stupidly.

"It'll be a day or two before you can get back on board," said Quinlan. "C'mon, let's get you into the ambulance." He took Cody's good arm and helped lift him up.

"Thanks." He felt unsteady on his feet, and leaned on the lieutenant, making his way up the companionway to the ambulance. Flashbulbs went off, and he tried to lift his arm to block his face, but it hurt too much.

"Just a few more feet," said Quinlan. "Almost there."

He saw the open doors of the ambulance, and there was a buzzing in his skull, and Quinlan's voice was barking orders. He was still moving his feet, and someone else was helping him lie down, and there was a warm blanket, and he wished he knew where Nick was.

Chapter Text

The waiting room was completely empty. Cody's arm throbbed constantly, and no matter how he shifted, he couldn't get comfortable. Any movement at all provoked new pain, and he finally slumped in his seat and tried to stay perfectly still.

Nothing to do now but wait until Nick was transferred into recovery. He closed his eyes, trying to block out the throbbing in his arm.

His mind looped in small circles. He couldn't seem to grasp what had happened. The Hangman is dead. Nick is okay. It's all over.

But it didn't seem over. It felt quick, too quick, and there were unanswered questions lurking in his mind that he was afraid to look at too closely.


He opened his eyes. Murray and Tiffany were standing in front of him, looking concerned. "Hey," he said. Sudden realization set in. "Oh. Oh. Murray, I forgot to call you. I'm so sorry. I just got caught up in everything..."

There was a flash of unhappiness in Murray's eyes, but he smiled anyway. "I understand, Cody. I mean, I think I understand, but Lieutenant Quinlan didn't really have time to explain much."

"It's over," said Cody, sitting up straighter and then wincing at the flare of pain in his arm. "I came home, and found the Hangman attacking Nick, and Nick shot him. The Hangman's dead."

"How is Nick?" asked Murray. Tiffany hung back, letting them have some space, but she watched Murray with concern on her face.

"They have to finish stitching him up in the ER, and he'll need to stay in recovery for an hour or two for fluids, but then they'll release him. He's going to be okay."

"We just came from the Riptide," said Murray, and Cody noticed how pale he looked.. "I saw the blood, and I didn't know...I mean, Lieutenant Carlisle said that Nick would be fine..."

"I'm really sorry that you had to worry like this," said Cody. "I feel awful, Murray."

"I know." Murray sat down next to him and laid a hand on his arm. "It's just that—sometimes you both get so wrapped up in each other, you know, and I try to give you some room, and then...well, something like this happens." A startling flash of guilt lit his eyes for a moment.

Why is he feeling guilty? "Murray..." began Cody tentatively. "You know this had nothing to do with you, right?"

"I didn't think the Hangman would come back," said Murray quietly. "I thought...I thought the agents were right, that he was done with Nick."

"Please," said Cody desperately. "Murray, you can't blame yourself. You can't. You can't and I can't and Pete can't—nobody except the Hangman. He was just waiting for Nick to be alone again." He swallowed, feeling the acid rising in his throat.

"Yes," said Murray, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes. "I know what you're saying. But I feel I shouldn't have left my best friend—" He hiccupped.

"It's okay," said Cody, pulling him into an embrace. "He's okay, really. The killer's dead. It's all over." Murray hiccupped again, and then was quiet, returning the hug.

Finally Cody drew back. "Murray, I have something to tell you." He felt a nervous flutter in his stomach. "Nick and I...we' a relationship now."

"A relationship?"

"With each other."

Sudden comprehension dawned in his eyes, and Tiffany came up from behind to put a hand on his shoulder. "Oh," said Murray. "I always wondered...and you wouldn't believe how many clients have taken me aside and asked..."

"It just started," added Cody hastily. "Yesterday."

"Nick's always loved you," said Murray in a strange tone of voice. "I mean, I don't think most people would notice, but I did." His expression was odd for a moment, but then he smiled, and it reached his eyes. "I'm glad for you, Cody. I'm glad for both of you." He reached across to give him a hug.

Cody returned it, trying to ignore the new flare of pain in his arm, feeling overwhelming relief. "Thanks, Murray."

"Congratulations," said Tiffany softly.

"Thank you." He leaned back in the seat. "Murray, this doesn't change anything. I mean, between us. You're still more than welcome on the Riptide. It's your home, too."

"Thanks, Cody. That means a lot to me." Murray exhaled and then took his glasses off, wiping them distractedly with his shirt. "You aren't going back to the Riptide tonight, are you?"

"No, we can't," said Cody. "The FBI has to process it, has to be cleaned." He suppressed a shiver. "Quinlan said he'd let Straightaway know we were going to stay there tonight."

"We can drive you there, if you like," said Murray.

"That would be great." Cody smiled, and then rubbed his temple, still feeling a little fuzzy.

"Excuse me," said a nurse. "Mr. Allen, your friend is in recovery now, if you'd like to see him."

"We'll be here, waiting for you," promised Murray, giving his arm a squeeze. Cody gave him a grateful smile and followed the nurse out of the waiting room.

The hospital seemed like a maze to him on the best of days, and despite his ability to navigate through the streets of King Harbor with ease, he was lost within four turns. Giving up, he tried to keep his arm still as they came to the recovery wing.

"Mr. Ryder?" asked the nurse. "Mr. Allen is here to see you."

Normally Cody would have been amused at the use of their formal names, but he was far beyond humor at the moment. He pulled up a chair and sat down as close to the bed as he could. "Hey," he said, reaching out and touching Nick's hand.

Nick's eyelids fluttered open, and he looked confused. "Cody?"

"Right here." Cody stroked his hand, and the nurse left.

"You okay?"

"I'm fine. Just a couple stitches." Cody's thoughts were getting clearer by the minute, and a picture began to emerge that made his stomach clench.

Nick turned his head slightly. "Good." His lips curved in a half-smile.

"You didn't call for help," said Cody.


"You didn't call for help."

"The phone was disconnected."

"You could have yelled. Made some noise." Cody fixed him with the most serious gaze he could muster. "You couldn't have been fighting with the guy for very long, and when I came down the dock I didn't hear anything. You didn't call for help."

Nick stared back and was silent.

"You wanted to kill him," said Cody, and the pressure in his chest was near to bursting. "You didn't want help because you wanted to kill him. No trial. No police."


"Don't, Nick." Cody was aware that his voice was close to breaking. "You just wanted to take him on, man to man."

"Listen to me," said Nick urgently. "He's a sick fuck, Cody. He wasn't going to stop. When he tied me up the first time..." He shuddered. "His eyes. They weren't human. He didn't get off on it, like the others he killed. This was him...righting a wrong, or something. I don't know. Just inhuman. He wasn't going to stop."

"You could have called for help."

"So the Contessa girls could walk in on him?" said Nick in disbelief. "So maybe Frank shows up with a golf club? Are you serious, Cody? I could barely keep up with him. They wouldn't have stood a chance." He raised his other hand and winced, letting it drop back to the bed.

"It would have kept you alive!" shouted Cody.

Nick struggled to get up on his elbows, and stared at him. "He had a gun. A taser. A knife. Who knows what else. He was trying to kill me with everything he had. Nobody could have walked into that and lived. I didn't want him to hurt anyone else." He closed his eyes and sank back into the bed with a sigh. "It wasn't like I meant to not yell, anyway. It was just—he was coming at me, again and again..." He shivered.

Cody scrubbed his eyes with his hands. "I'm sorry, Nick, I'm sorry." The tears came, even though he tried to hold them back. "I hate this so much. The hospital. Seeing you hurt..." He put his head down on the edge of the bed and sobbed.

Nick's hand was gentle on the back of his neck, rubbing softly as he cried. "It's okay, Cody," said Nick. "It's okay." His fingers were warm and comforting.

It felt like there was no end to the tears. Everything Cody had been desperately trying to tamp down within himself seemed to be rising to the surface, the pain, the fear, the uneasiness. He cried into the blue hospital blanket, feeling overwhelmed with it all, even the knowledge that Nick was alive.

The sobs finally tapered off, and Cody just lay there a moment longer, giving in to the soothing power of Nick's touch, letting his fingers take away the horrible stress of the past weeks. He sat up slowly, and grabbed a tissue, wiping his eyes.

"Okay?" said Nick.

He nodded, not trusting his voice, and grabbed Nick's hand.

The worry in Nick's eyes melted away into relief. "Want to get out of here," said Nick quietly.

"Soon," said Cody. "Tiffany and Murray said they'd drive us to Straightaway's."

"Straightaway's." Nick frowned.

"We don't have much of a choice." He let his fingers slide over the back of Nick's hand, tracing the knuckles lightly. "At least this time we won't have a guard posted outside the door."

Nick was quiet for a long moment. "Too bad I don't think I'm up for more."

I can't believe he's thinking about sex. Laughter bubbled up and he gave into it. "It'll wait," he said, and enjoyed Nick's grin in response.

A nurse came by and checked on Nick, and they both waited patiently until she left. "We should tell Murray and Tiffany," said Nick. "About us."

"I already told them," said Cody.

Nick raised his eyebrows. "You're just a regular town crier." His tone was playful.

"Murray was a little upset because I forgot to call him and tell him what happened tonight." He rubbed his eyes.

"You didn't call him?"

Cody looked up to see a worried expression on his face. "I was a little preoccupied. I mean, I had to get stitches, and fill out paperwork for both of us. And then he caught up with me in the waiting room, and I told him—"

"He's here?"

"Well, yes, they're waiting to give us a ride home—"

"I want to see him." Nick's tone was resolute.

"I don't know if they allow—"

"Cody, come on, he's probably going nuts. Another attack, and he finds out that we're together, and now he's sitting on the outside, that brain of his turning circles."

A sense of shame filled him. "You're right. I didn't think about it. I'll go see if I can find him."

"Thanks." Nick closed his eyes, and Cody reached up and stroked his cheek gently, unsurprised to see the lines of pain gathering on his face.

The waiting room was deserted, except for Tiffany and Murray, who were conversing quietly and seriously with each other. "Hey, you guys want to give Nick some company?"

"Of course!" said Murray immediately, but then he looked worried. "Is everything okay?"

"He's fine," said Cody soothingly. "I have to meet with the doctor and start working on the discharge paperwork, and I think he could really use some friends right now." He explained, or tried to explain, where Nick's bed was in recovery, and then went to the nurse's station.

Paperwork upon paperwork. Discharge instructions. Prescriptions. Cody carefully gathered them together, talked to the doctor, and then made his way back to recovery, where Murray and Tiffany were both excitedly telling Nick about their latest coding achievements. At the same time.

"Hey, guys," said Cody. He reached out and laid his hand on Nick's foot, giving him a squeeze through the blanket.

Nick looked grateful for the rescue. "Time to go?"

"Once the nurse comes in and disconnects the IV," said Cody, giving his foot another light squeeze. No, you cannot take it out yourself, he warned with his eyes.

"Fine," said Nick, grimacing.

"So where are you going on your first date?" asked Tiffany.

Nick looked at her in surprise. "What?"

"Your first date. You and Cody. Where are you going?" she said slowly.

"Date?" asked Cody.

"Most people who are dating go on dates," she said.

"She's right," said Murray. "It's a common practice—"

"Murray, I get it," said Cody. "We just haven't...talked about it, you know."

"Who kissed whom first?" she asked, looking intrigued. "I bet it was Nick."

"Now, you never know," said Murray. "Sometimes Cody takes the upper hand—"

"Oh, no," said Tiffany. "I'm certain it was Nick in this situation. He hit the target dead center."

"One thing I've learned about Cody," insisted Murray, "is that you can't always count him out. Certainly he has more misses than hits—"

"Hey!" protested Cody.

"—but he gets the job done." Murray smiled in satisfaction.

Nick caught Cody's eye. "Can you please get the nurse to hurry up?" he said.

"I'll bet three hours of programming time on the Rand 56 at the college," said Tiffany serenely.

"Really?" asked Murray. "Wow. Well, I'll take that bet. And let me just sweeten the pot, my heart's delight. I'll grade a hundred papers for your next class if I lose."

"Oooh!" she said, bouncing a little. "Done!"

Cody smiled tightly. "Did it ever occur to you that you might not find out?"

"But you heard the bet, Cody, and it's a good one," said Murray enthusiastically. "Don't you want me to win three hours of programming time at CalTech?"

"I'll settle the bet," said Nick. Cody shot him a panicked look.

"Oh, awesome!" said Tiffany. "So who was it?"

"We kissed each other." Nick looked pleased with himself.

"No fair," said Tiffany, one hand on her hip. "There's no way that you two simply lined up with each other and kissed at exactly the same time. When you factor in the weight of attraction, plus the gravitational pull, and the mass of each object—"

"Oh, I see what you mean!" said Murray, gesturing excitedly. "I'd definitely say that Cody has more mass—"

"Absolutely not!" said Tiffany. "Just look at Nick, and you can see that his mass is much denser—"

"Please, Cody, the nurse," begged Nick.

"I'll go get her," said Cody.

The nurse kicked them all out from behind the curtain while she removed the IV and dressed Nick in scrubs. She also insisted on having Nick ride down to the pickup point in a wheelchair. Cody was surprised when he submitted without a struggle.

Tiffany and Murray pulled up to the door to meet them, and Cody realized it was raining heavily; the top to her convertible was up. The air was damp and faint flashes of lightning lit up the eastern sky.

After getting Nick safely ensconced in the front passenger seat, and thanking the nurse, Cody crawled into the backseat with Murray. Tiffany took off for Straightaway's, though at a much more leisurely pace than she usually drove. The dark streets were misty, and for a moment Cody thought of his dream, Nick and the pure light of his eyes shining through the dark, and he suppressed a shiver.

"I certainly hope that odious reporter isn't waiting for us at check-in," said Murray. "I hate to imagine what sort of lies he'll breed for tomorrow's headlines."

Cody groaned inwardly. More media attention for Nick.

"Are you planning on telling your story to the press?" asked Tiffany.

"No," said Nick immediately, but his tone was soft.

"Does Straightaway's have a side door?" she asked.

"There's an employee entrance," said Cody. "It's on the east side. It's the same color as the building."

"Okay." She yawned and covered her mouth with one hand, her nails glittering in the light from a passing car.

Cody tried to think how to get Nick into a room with the least hassle. "Murray, could you pick up the key when we get there, and check us in?"

"Of course," said Murray immediately.

"Almost here," said Tiffany.

He thought he heard Nick sigh in relief, but he wasn't certain. Tiffany parked near the entrance, and Cody waited impatiently for her and Murray to get out so that he could. Dashing around to the other side of the car, he opened the door carefully and gripped Nick's elbow tightly, helping him get out of the seat. Nick leaned heavily against the side of the car for a moment, pain showing on his face.

"Not much longer," murmured Cody. Nick nodded.

Tiffany held the door open for them, her other hand holding the bag of dressings and prescriptions, and followed as they walked toward the elevator. Nick was limping badly, and Cody supported as much of his weight as he could, but he knew Nick wouldn't last long. C'mon, Boz...

"Got it!" crowed Murray, coming around the corner. "It really was quite simple—"

"Shh!" said Tiffany. "It's three o'clock in the morning, Murray!"

"You're right, my love," said Murray in a more subdued tone. He showed the key to Cody. "Third floor." He grinned widely. "Maybe I should have really asked for the honeymoon suite this time...get it? Honeymoon?"

"If this is the honeymoon," said Nick, "I'm scared to see what happens on the anniversary."

"C'mon, into the elevator," said Cody, propelling him forward. Nick stumbled but caught himself with a wince.

The elevator doors closed, and Cody braced himself for the upwards motion, holding Nick tightly until it hit the third floor and resettled, the doors opening. Murray took Nick's other side, and together they helped him down the corridor until they came to the right room.

"Oh, and by the way, Cody, the room has an ocean view," said Murray as he unlocked the door.

"That's great," said Cody distractedly. "Almost done, Nick."

The room was smaller, and wasn't partitioned as the suite had been. Two queen size beds, a couch and an easy chair in front of a TV, desk with chair, and no fridge. Nowhere to keep ice. Not that we need it this time.

Together they managed to get him to the bed, Tiffany hauling back the covers as Murray and Cody worked to get the scrubs off. First they stripped off his pants. He made Nick sit down on the bed slowly. A slow burn of anger filled his belly as he helped Murray take off Nick's shirt, revealing the bandages. Quinlan's wrong. I think I could have killed the Hangman.

As gently as he could, he eased Nick back onto the bed. After getting his legs under the covers, Cody carefully checked over the dressings, worried that he might have pulled a stitch or two on the way there, but everything looked fine. Murray yawned, and Tiffany followed suit.

"You guys are great. Thanks for helping us out." Cody pulled the blankets up to Nick's chest.

"We should go," said Tiffany.

"You're going to be okay?" asked Cody, worried. "You still have an hour's drive back to your place."

"Forty-two minutes, I'd say," said Murray.

"Forty-one point five," said Tiffany.

"Care to make a small wager, my dear heart?"

"Absolutely." She kissed him lightly on the nose. "If I win, you pay for our next round of miniature golf."

"Done!" said Murray.

Cody gave them both a hug, and they left, still discussing animatedly what Murray would get if he won.

"Those two are made for each other," said Nick.

"Clearly," said Cody. He locked the door and then came back and sat down on the bed. "Speaking of made for each other..." Leaning forward, he kissed him very softly on the lips.

Nick gave him a crooked grin. "Bet you like this. Me being trapped in bed and all..."

Cody gave him another soft kiss. "Nope. Not like this. Anyway, you're not the running type."

"Yeah." Nick's eyelids drooped.

"Pills first," said Cody. "Stay awake, it won't take long." Locating a glass, he filled it with water and had Nick take the antibiotics and a quarter of a pain pill. When the glass was empty he put it on the nightstand. "Need your pillow fluffed?"

Nick started to laugh, but grimaced. "Damn." He peered down, looking at his chest. "Must look like Frankenstein."

"Frankenstein's monster," corrected Cody automatically. "You look fine, Nick." He reached out and let his hand stroke Nick's black hair.

Nick's eyelids slid shut. "G'night."

"G'night," said Cody quietly. He continued to stroke Nick's hair lightly until he was certain he'd fallen asleep.

Moving to the other bed, he swiftly stripped off his clothes and got in between the covers. He wished he could sleep next to him, but he was afraid of hurting him during the night.

Reaching out, he turned of the light. Sighing, he rolled over and closed his eyes.

The pier is gorgeous. The summer sun is warm and bright. The water glows and reflects sparkling waves on every surface. Cody grins, walking hand in hand with Nick. Murray and Tiffany wave to them from the pretzel shop.

Nick kisses him sweetly, and they stand close to each other, seagulls calling out and wheeling in the sky. They kiss again, and suddenly Nick cries out and falls to his knees, bloody and gasping. Cody shouts for help, but it's too late. Nick's eyes close as he slumps to the ground. A man with a knife is casually wiping the blade on his shirt.

Cody lunges at him, but the man brushes him aside easily and shoves him to the ground, breath knocked out of him. Murray has his gun out, shouting something, and the killer simply turns and shoots him in the forehead. Tiffany screams and rushes to his side and the killer calmly squeezes off three more shots. She slumps down next to him.

The sunlight is dimming, the sun sliding behind clouds. Cody has no gun, no knife. He's holding onto Nick. The killer smiles, eyes bored and distant, and walks away.

Cody came awake with a start, his heart hammering against his ribs. Sitting up, he rubbed his eyes, trying to calm his breathing, trying to forget the feeling of Nick's lifeless body in his arms. He shivered, his skin crawling.

There's one way to remedy that. Getting out of bed, he crossed over to the other one and got in under the covers. Nick was on his side, facing the opposite wall, and Cody got in close, sliding up against him.

"Cody?" said Nick blearily.

"Yeah, right here," whispered Cody. "It's okay, just go back to sleep."

Nick didn't feel as warm as he usually did, and Cody wondered if that was a side effect of having lost blood, or because the room was too cool. He kissed the shell of his ear lightly, and Nick made a noise of contentment. "Love you," said Cody quietly. He murmured a few more words, keeping up a soothing stream of nonsense until he heard Nick's breathing even out.

You are everything I want, everything I need. He traced the edge of Nick's jaw with his fingers, letting his hand lightly trail over the back of his neck and along his collarbone. Love you so much. He drank in the comforting smell of Nick's hair, the feel of his body pressed against his own, the sound of his measured breaths. Snuggling closer, he sighed and let sleep claim him.

The shower was roomy, and the water deliciously hot. Cody stood under the spray for a long time, letting it sluice over him, washing away some of the lingering stress. By the time he was done he felt almost human again.

He had no choice but to put on his clothes from yesterday. Cynthia had left a few extra items in the bathroom, so he could shave, thankfully, and brush his teeth. Tiptoeing back into the room, he realized that he didn't really have to; Nick was still deeply asleep.

He sat down on the couch. It almost seemed like they'd never left Straightaway's, like this was a continuation of the earlier incident, somehow. Except Henderson and Tony aren't outside the door.

The clock between the beds read ten o'clock, and Cody realized he was hungry. But Nick needs the sleep... He ran a hand through his hair, still wet and slicked back from the shower. He needs to eat, though. And it's time for another antibiotic, and probably a painkiller. And he definitely needs to drink some water. Picking up the phone, he dialed the front desk and reached a very stressed-out Cynthia, who informed him that she was dealing with an even larger influx of reporters than last time. She promised she'd send up a tray.

I'll let him sleep till the food gets here. Cody sat down in the easy chair, letting his head rest against the back. He yawned. Feels like I ran a marathon.

The view of the ocean was quite nice, though nowhere near as beautiful as his view from the Riptide, of course. The window was partially open, and he relished breathing in the fresh ocean air. The harbor was busy. Looks like a few charters are coming back early. Must be a good day for fishing.

I'd love to go out fishing. Out into the ocean. Just the two of us. He grimaced when he thought how impossible that would be now. He couldn't imagine how hard it would be for Nick to be completely trapped on a boat where he'd been attacked not once, but twice. A room where he'd killed someone.

There was a knock, and he heard a puzzled gasp from the bed. "It's okay, Nick, just room service," said Cody, going to the door. Cynthia had brought the tray herself, and handed it off quickly as he tried to thank her. She only nodded distractedly and took off down the hall.

Closing the door, he set the tray down on the coffee table. "C'mon, Nick. Breakfast time." Crossing the room, he got Nick to his feet slowly, and helped him into the bathroom.

"I'll be okay," said Nick.

Cody nodded, but left the door open a crack just in case. There were two covered dishes on the breakfast tray, and a full carafe of orange juice and another of water. Thank you, Cynthia. Pouring glasses of each for both of them, he took a swig of orange juice, and lifted the cover of one dish. Bacon and eggs, toast, hash browns. Putting it back down, he went back to the bathroom, where Nick emerged, looking pale and shaky.

"Think you can make it to the couch?" asked Cody, lending his support. Nick nodded, and together they crossed the room slowly. After he sat down on the couch, Cody opened the bottle of antibiotics and shook out a couple pills, lining them up in Nick's hand along with another quarter of a painkiller. Nick looked like he wanted to protest, but didn't after Cody gave him a look that promised him he'd lose the argument. He handed him a glass of water, and Nick took the pills without comment.

"Feeling any better?"

"Little," said Nick, then coughed. Wincing, he put a hand over his ribs. White bandages stood out in stark contrast to his skin. "Any clothes here?"

"Just the scrubs you wore."

Nick groaned. "I was afraid you'd say that." His hand lingered on his side.

"I'll figure something out. Eat."

He nodded, but then Cody realized that he probably didn't want to lean forward. Taking the cover off a dish, he handed it to Nick, and then unrolled a set of silverware and gave him the fork. "Thanks," said Nick. Cody picked up his own plate.

The eggs were getting cold, so Cody ate those first. The bacon wasn't crispy enough for his liking, and he really wished Cynthia had given them something other than strawberry jelly for the toast, but all in all it was a decent meal, and he was glad to see Nick eat nearly half before trying to put it back down on the table.

Cody snatched the plate from him and put a glass of orange juice in his hand, giving him a look.

"Fine," said Nick, and he drank the whole glass. "Anything else, Mom?"

"The water, too," said Cody, exchanging glasses.

Nick rolled his eyes but drank it as well. He handed the glass back to him and then let his head rest on the back of the couch, closing his eyes. Cody stroked his arm, and frowned. "You're cold," he said.


Going back to the bed, he picked up the scrubs. He noticed that Nick's left sock was heavily stained with blood, as well as his left shoe. Grabbing a blanket off the bed, he came back to the couch and helped Nick put the scrubs on. He covered him lightly with the blanket and wrapped it under his bare feet.

He sat down and pulled the newspaper off the tray and unfolded it. HANGMAN KILLED, blared the headline. Noticing Stronk's byline, he skimmed the article, his eyebrows raising as he realized that Stronk was accusing the FBI of mishandling the case.

There was a sharp knock at the door, but Nick didn't react. "Who is it?" called out Cody.

"Agents Munro and Wheeler."

Well, it had to happen sooner or later. Cody got up swiftly and let them in. Munro wore yet another black suit, and Wheeler was dressed immaculately as always, yet he knew that they'd both probably been up through the entire night going over the evidence on the boat and interviewing people. "Have a seat," he said. Wheeler sat down in the easy chair, pulling out his black notebook, and Munro pulled over the chair from the desk and sat down.

"We're here to take Mr. Ryder's statement," she said crisply. "Mr. Allen, I've already obtained your official statement from Lieutenant Quinlan, but I will ask you to elaborate on it." She paused to look at Wheeler, who was poised over his notebook with a pen, then looked back at Nick. "Mr. Ryder, I'd like to begin with what happened in the afternoon."

No time for small talk. Then again, with the hours they've probably put into this case, they'll want to finish this up as soon as possible.

Nick had been watching her through half-open eyes, but he blinked and sat up straighter. One hand went up to his ribs. "I left around three to work on Mimi—my helicopter. I picked up some parts from a place in Long Beach, but traffic was bad. Made it back to the helipad around four-thirty. I went over my checklist and figured I'd work on changing a couple hoses. When I was done I stopped by Straightaway's and had a beer with Straightaway."

"What time was that?" asked Munro.

"Around six, I think. I got back to the Riptide at seven, and watched a little TV, but there wasn't much on. I was thinking about making some dinner, but then the phone rang. It was Len, one of my Reserve buddies, and we got to talking for a while."

"What time do you think the phone rang?"

"No clue. Maybe seven-thirty. I know when I hung up, though, it was eight-fifteen."

Eight-fifteen, and me back in the Jimmy, thinking about him. Cody shivered.

"I went down to the head, then back to our—to the stateroom to look for something. I don't remember what. But I got the weirdest feeling when I walked in the door, and then he came at me—"

"From which direction?"

"Same closet as before," said Nick. "He had a taser and a knife. Taser in his right hand, and I knocked it away from him and kicked it under a bunk. He switched hands, caught me a couple times with the knife, and I knew that he just wanted to kill me this time, quick as he could." Cody winced. "He he was in a hurry. He wasn't wearing a mask, either, and he just came at me."

"He didn't say anything?"

"No. Just kept swinging with his knife. And then he pulled a gun out of his pocket with his left hand. The same snub-nose Beretta he had last time, I think. I got him up against the wall and I broke his wrist. He dropped the gun and I kicked it away."

Wheeler scratched away at his notepad. "No shots were fired?" asked Munro.

"No. I think he didn't want to attract attention, but maybe after the taser didn't work he got worried. He kneed me in the gut and I shoved him to the floor. He got up like a jack-in-the-box, fast, and came at me again. Caught me on the forearm. I kicked him in the knee and he was up again in a flash." He looked a little pale, and Cody put his hand on his arm, worried. "I've never seen anyone move like that. He just didn't seem natural." He took a deep breath and then winced, frozen for a moment, pain clearly visible on his face.

"Go slow," said Cody quietly. "Just take your time."

Nick nodded, and shifted slightly. "He kept coming at me. I wasn't...I didn't..." He took in a slow breath, and Cody tightened his grip on his arm, getting more worried. "He seemed like a robot. Like...nothing fazed him. He just kept going. I tried to block. I even clocked him once, really hard. It should have taken him down, but it didn't. He just got up again. Maybe a little slower..."

Munro nodded, staring at him with a look of intense concentration.

"He didn't seem upset at all. He didn't smile, or frown, just kept watching me like a hawk. I was getting tired, and he got me up against the bunk and caught me in the leg with the knife. I wanted to go for the gun in the nightstand but I wasn't sure how to do it. Everything was getting kind of blurry, and I was thinking I could make one more move—shove him to the floor—and go for the gun, but then he turned away from me, and I realized Cody was there."

"You didn't realize that Mr. Allen had come aboard until he was in the cabin?"

"No." Nick took another slow breath. "And then Cody slugged him, and he went down. I couldn't...everything was still blurry, and weird, and then Cody was right in front of me and I yelled something. I knew the Hangman was going to get up. Cody turned toward him, and he had the knife out, and I grabbed Cody's gun with my right hand and pushed him out of the way with my left. And I shot the Hangman in the head."

"One shot?"

"Yeah." Nick met her gaze.

"Mr. Allen," she said, turning to him. "When you came aboard, did you have any idea what was transpiring below?"

"No," said Cody. "I didn't hear anything until I got into the room."

"According to your statement, you found the assailant and Mr. Ryder locked in mortal combat."

"Yes. I punched the Hangman and stepped over him to check on Nick, and then when I turned to get to a phone, he came at me with a knife and cut my arm. I felt someone grab my gun and push me down and then I hit the floor. I saw Nick fire the shot."

"The assailant never said anything?"

"No," said Cody and Nick simultaneously. Wheeler's pen moved efficiently.

"I think," said Nick slowly, "that he was planning on killing Cody, too." Though he was trying to control it, Cody could see a flash of fear in his eyes.

The look on Munro's face did not change. "Why do you think so?"

"Just a hunch. The timing, maybe."

"Thank you very much for your time, gentlemen," she said. Wheeler relaxed almost imperceptibly.

"That's it?" asked Cody.

"Yes." She gave him the slightest of smiles. "It's over." She gathered herself as if to leave.

"What about our shoes?" demanded Cody.

"The remainder of your possessions will be released as soon as our supervisor has signed off on our reports and the case is closed," said Munro.

"Why shoes?" asked Nick.

She hesitated, and glanced over at Wheeler, who gave her an inscrutable look. "We're still working on theories," she said.

"Care to share them?" asked Cody.

"We haven't finished our investigation," she said finally. "His residence will give us the best picture of his identity, and we'll be investigating there later today."

"You have an idea," said Nick bluntly.

"I have theories," she said. "Based on the preliminary reports of his background, I have theorized that he had an inappropriate attachment to his mother, who felt trapped in her marriage with his father and unable to divorce him. She desperately wished to be single again, and apparently talked quite strongly about single people."

Cody blinked. "He targeted single people because his mother...liked single people? Or hated them?"

"We're still not certain. I would theorize that she loathed them for their freedom. I've hypothesized that he felt anger toward them, but also a deep jealousy. To kill them as he did—to possess them and take their breath, little by little, to take their very soul—I believe that in his mind he was both elevating them and destroying them at the same time. Allison angered him because he found out that she had betrayed him with someone else. She wasn't truly single. He felt he had to punish the object of her betrayal."

"But why Cody, too?" asked Nick softly.

"I can't say, Mr. Ryder," she said with a touch of dry humor. "After all, it's your theory, not mine, that Cody was targeted."

"He timed it too close," said Nick evenly. "He knew when Cody would get back. He was planning on killing me and then Cody."

"How did he know that Nick would be there alone?" asked Cody, turning to Nick and looking at him. "I only left for a few hours."

"There was a bug planted on your boat," said Munro.

"A bug?" Cody looked at her, disbelieving. "On my boat? On my boat? That's crazy!"

"As crazy as it may seem, it was transmitting information to a wireless receiver," said Munro evenly. "I suspect that this is why the Hangman was so certain that Nick would be alone."

"You've met our other partner," said Nick. "He's a genius with that stuff. He has a robot that finds bugs. I don't see how he could have missed one."

"It was planted on the Ebb Tide," she said.

"What?" asked Cody. "But...that's not close enough to pick up anything!"

"It was close enough. I've been informed that he has some rather sophisticated electronics equipment."

How the hell did he get it aboard the Ebb Tide without me noticing it? The lines and the cover looked untouched. Cody was puzzled. "How did you find it?"

"Both Mr. Dooley and Mr. Ryder mentioned that the Hangman's left leg and foot were wet. But not his right. I wondered why he would get wet at all. The dock is elevated from the water, and there was no evidence of any water onboard the Riptide. But last night as I was investigating, I noticed the Ebb Tide, and I thought he might have used it for surveillance. I expected to find physical evidence that he had been onboard, perhaps hairs or fibers. I was surprised to find a bug, as we had no evidence that he had used a bug in any of the other cases, though that doesn't rule out their use."

Nick looked troubled. Cody leaned forward in his seat, suddenly tense. "So he was listening to us. Did he make tapes, or was he relying on a live feed?"

"Live feed," she said, and his heartrate returned to normal. No tapes of us having sex, then. The thought of the Hangman listening to them made him feel sick to his stomach. "He was positioned nearby, perhaps at Straightaway's, or another boat. We're not certain at the moment."

"I still don't understand about the shoes," said Cody.

She met his gaze. "Though we don't have all of the details yet, there is some evidence that he was struck with shoes as a punishment while he was a child. We're still trying to obtain his juvenile court records."

There was a long, awkward pause, and Cody's eyes fell upon the newspaper on the table. "Well, one thing is for certain. Stronk's not that impressed with your investigation."

A flash of emotion came over her face, but it was gone quickly. "I think you'll find that Wallace Stronk's journalist credibility is quite overstated."

"We knew that already, believe me," said Cody.

"Stronk crossed a line in his investigation," said Wheeler unexpectedly. Munro shot him a look. "The story will be in the LA Times tomorrow. His next exposé will be of the interior of a jail cell."

Nick and Cody exchanged glances.

"He bribed medical examiners to reveal the identities of Allison Thompson and Brian Staedtler," said Munro. "His career is over."

"Thank you for your time," said Wheeler. "We'll be in touch." They both stood up, and Cody walked them to the door, locking it behind them.

"It's over," said Cody, sitting down on the couch next to Nick and putting an arm around him.

"Doesn't feel like it," said Nick tiredly.

"We—" There was another knock at the door, and Cody groaned. "Who is it?" he called out as he approached the peephole.

"Quinlan," barked a voice.

"Great," muttered Nick.

Cody opened the door, and Quinlan came barging in, a paper bag in his hand. "What are you doing here, Lieutenant?"

"Brought you something, Allen," said Quinlan gruffly. His eyes roamed over the room, stopping at Nick. "You've looked better, Ryder."

"Thanks," said Nick, an insincere smile on his face. "Didn't sleep well last night. Too much metal in my diet."

"What's in the bag?" asked Cody.

"Clothes," said Quinlan, tossing it at him. It hit him squarely in the chest and he exhaled in surprise as he caught it. "And shoes. Thought Ryder might need them."

Nick blinked. "That's pretty decent of you."

"Well, one of you pansies finally did something right, for a change. Getting rid of this guy means we can all catch up on our sleep."

"Thanks, Lieutenant," said Cody. Clean clothes means I don't have to leave Nick. And I don't have to face the blood just yet.

"And here," he continued, handing him a card. "Crime scene cleaning service. Good company. Fast, too."

"I'll call them." He looked at the name printed on it, and recognized it as a local crew. A sudden realization hit him. Quinlan's trying to apologize for having to pull Nick's police protection.

"Where's geek-o?" asked Quinlan

"His name is Murray, and he's in Pasadena," said Nick, yawning.

"Tell him I have the paperwork he's looking for down at the station." He turned and strode out the door.

Cody closed it behind him and relocked it. "Crazy world. Quinlan doing us favors..." He opened the bag. Quinlan had chosen well for Nick. There was an old, soft button-up shirt and a pair of loose-fitting cargo pants. Pulling them out, he put them on the coffee table along with a pair of socks and then peered further into the bag. White jeans. That'll work. He took them out and unfolded him.

Nick laughed, pressing his arm against his left side. "I thought you got rid of those. Tell me you at least threw away the concert tickets. What were they for? Peter, Paul, and Mary?"

The flowers on the leg grinned cheerfully at Cody. "Buffalo Springfield." He pulled out the matching blue shirt and groaned as Nick tried to stifle more laughter.

By the afternoon of the next day, Cody and Nick were walking down the companionway, the Riptide floating serenely in her usual place. Cody felt a prickle of anxiety as he looked at the blank windows. The blinds were pulled down, hiding the familiar view of the salon table.

Nick sank down on the fantail seat with a sigh, and Cody left him there, unlocking the wheelhouse doors and entering the darkened salon. He took a deep breath and went down to their room.

The smell of chemicals was strong. He turned on the light, his eyes immediately drawn to the paneling, feeling his stomach clench as he studied it. They did a good job. He couldn't see any trace of blood. He opened the blinds and then the windows, letting in the familiar smell of the ocean, hoping it would dispel the overwhelming odor of cleaning products.

Rummaging through the closet, he changed into something a little more current than the clothes that Quinlan had brought. Sighing in relief, he tossed the flowered pants into a laundry basket.

He went from room to room, moving things, touching things, letting it all sink in. Clean. Back to normal. He absently shifted the TV a few inches. Is it really, though?

Back at the fantail, Nick was lying down, spread out across the seat, his eyes closed. "Enjoying the sun?" asked Cody, sitting down on the deck next to him.

"Mmm," was Nick's only reply.

A pelican stood on the back of the Ebb Tide, but Cody didn't bother shooing it off. He drank in the cool breeze from the sea, leaning against the fantail bench. The sun was warm.

There was a shout, and then he heard a splash. Looking up, he saw the girls on the Contessa laughing and pointing. Some hothead probably got too frisky and Mama Jo pulled her famous cool-down maneuver. True to form, a masculine voice started shouting and spluttering.

The sky was a bright blue, with barely a cloud visible. A perfect day. He glanced over at Nick, whose eyes were still closed. His olive skin gleamed in the sunshine. A perfect day. A day with Nick.

More splashing and laughter from the Contessa. Cody let his head drop to the fantail seat and sat there for a long moment, counting Nick's breaths, content to listen. Nick lay motionless, except for the rise and fall of his chest.

"Everything okay?" murmured Nick.

"It's all cleaned up," said Cody. "You can't even tell...what happened."

"Good." Nick's eyes were still closed, dark lashes still against his skin. "Sounds like the girls are having a party."

Six months ago, they would have rushed over and joined in the fun, maybe snuck off with Tammi or Bambi or Lisa, but now it seemed a million miles away, distant and murky. "Well, someone's not having a good time."

Nick chuckled. "True. Mama Jo has that move down pat."

Cody's arm throbbed, and he repositioned it. If it hurts this much, I can't imagine how much Nick hurts. "Time for a pain pill?"

"I'm fine," said Nick, too quickly.

"C'mon, let's go belowdecks," said Cody, standing up and stretching gingerly. Reaching out, he clasped Nick's hand and helped him sit up.

By the time they reached the salon, Nick was out of breath, his face pale and pinched with pain. "Gimme a sec," he said, leaning on him heavily, and Cody held him, taking his weight and letting him catch his breath.

"You need to lie down," said Cody, concerned.

"I'm fine," repeated Nick. "Just need a minute."

"You might have pulled stitches." Cody tightened his grip. "C'mon. Down to the cabin."

Nick winced. "Can't we just..."

"You want to strip down to your underwear here, give the girls a show?"

He exhaled. "Fine."

The steps were tricky. Cody became alarmed when Nick turned white as a ghost after the second step, and ended up half-carrying him down the rest. Guiding him to his bunk, he helped him lie down, stripping off the cargo pants and carefully helping him out of his shirt.

"S'posed to feel better," grumbled Nick.

"It's only been two days," said Cody. He carefully removed each bandage, checking the stitches and adding Neosporin before putting a new dressing on. Most of the cuts looked like they were beginning to heal except for one low on the ribs of his left hand side, which looked a little red and had bled a little. Nick hissed in pain as he taped the fresh dressing in place. It worried him. "Maybe Doc Harris will make a boat call..." he mused aloud.

"And interrupt his golfing? Doubt it." Nick made another hiss as Cody smoothed the bandage. "Besides, it'll be fine. I'm on antibiotics, right?"

"Well, yes, but sometimes they need to switch prescriptions and use something stronger." Leaning down, he kissed him lightly, warm lips against his own. Nick's hand slid behind the back of his neck and pulled him closer, and the kiss grew more passionate. That is, until Cody put his hand on Nick's arm to steady himself. Nick groaned in pain and broke off the kiss. "Damn. I'm sorry," said Cody, immediately drawing away.

"It's okay," said Nick. "Just...didn't..." Both of his forearms were bandaged, the left more heavily than the right.

"Shh," said Cody, pulling up the sheets. "Take a breather, okay?"

"Yeah." Nick's eyes closed.

Back on the fantail, Cody watched the harbor, cold beer in hand. Everything seemed changed, yet the same. Captain Fred waved from the Trade Winds, a light breeze ruffled the water, there was the familiar clang and piercing whistle of the sailboat masts.

It has changed. He took a long pull from the beer bottle. There was a new, fresh light over everything. A blue sky, a blue pair of eyes, and Cody felt himself start to relax, felt the tension begin to drain away.

Finishing his beer, he went below. The Riptide wasn't as jumbled as it had been the last time the agents had gone through it, but he still wanted to clean it, to move things, to make it his again. He cleaned the galley out entirely, wiping down the counter, completely rearranging the cabinets, filling a garbage bag with of spoiled food. Checking what was left in the little fridge, he frowned. Maybe I could make a stir fry. There's some rice left in the cupboard...

A clean skillet and a little oil, a few vegetables and some chicken that was still good. Rice steaming in a pot. He'd barely cooked in the past couple years, but he still remembered how, and he added a few seasonings to the stir fry.

Nick emerged from the hallway, hair sleep-tousled, yawning and barefoot. "Hey," he said, slowly sitting down at the galley table.

"Hey," said Cody. "Feeling better?"

"Sure." He rubbed his eyes. The purple shirt he was wearing had short sleeves, and the bandages stood out against the olive skin of his arms.

"Hope you like chicken, because that's all there is." Cody poured the skillet's contents onto two plates, spooned out some rice, and then sat down, sliding Nick's plate toward him along with a fork.

"Smells great," said Nick. He took an experimental bite, and then grinned. "You found the spice rack."

Cody took a bite, too, and frowned. Too much of something, but he didn't know what.

"It's fine," soothed Nick. He ate a few more bites, and started in on the rice.

As he ate, he couldn't help but steal more glances at Nick, relieved to see that he was looking better. He tasted a forkful of rice. It was a little undercooked. The stir fry was growing on him, though, and he had to admit that it wasn't half bad. He got up and poured water for the both of them and grabbed Nick's antibiotic pills as well.

Nick was watching him, a crooked smile on his lips. "I keep looking back on stuff, and y'know, I should've guessed something was up."


"When you cooked those weird French green beans last week."

"Haricorts verts," said Cody automatically.

"Yeah, those." Nick grinned and took the pills without argument. "You always used to make those for the girls you wanted to impress. Couldn't understand why you made them for me."

"I didn't really think about it," said Cody. "I just grabbed them at the supermarket."

"I kept thinking someone else was going to show up at dinner."

"No." Cody reached across the table and took his hand in his own. "Just you."

After they finished eating, he stayed and cleaned the galley while Nick wandered off. He ran the trash bags up to the Jimmy and took them to the dumpster. The late afternoon sun was rich and golden, and as he came back down the companionway he felt free to breathe, to enjoy the intoxicating smell of the ocean.

Back onboard, he went downstairs looking for Nick, and found him in their stateroom. Nick's closet door was open, revealing the mess left by the Hangman and the FBI agents. "Hey, partner..." He trailed off, noticing that the navy blue shoebox was on the floor, photos spilling out everywhere. "Nick?"

Nick half-turned to him, and Cody's heart sank at the pain and sorrow written on his face. "Hey," he said softly. He held a picture in his hand, a picture that trembled slightly, and Cody could see it was the same one he'd looked at two weeks ago. "It fell off the shelf."

"I can see that," said Cody, bending down and picking up the scattered photos.

"You don't forget..." Nick exhaled. "You don't forget, but sometimes you don't...remember."

Cody finished putting the pictures back in the box and stood up. "He was a good guy."

Nick nodded, looking lost, and Cody came closer, putting a hand on his arm. "This's why I keep my feet on the ground," said Nick, mimicking Bobby's southern drawl. Bobby grinned in the photo, thumb still eternally hooked in the direction of the downed chopper.

Cody squeezed his arm comfortingly. "I'm sorry."

"Nothing to be sorry for," said Nick simply. "I just wish..." He abruptly dropped the picture in the shoebox. "He hated flying, y'know? Hated it."

"I remember," said Cody.

"In the end, it's the ground that got him." His tone was bitter and rich with irony.

Is that why you dragged me into Air Cav? So we could stay in the air? "A lot of guys didn't make it," said Cody. He put the shoebox back in the closet and then pulled Nick close. "Love you."

"Love you, too," said Nick softly.

Cody kissed him. Nick's eyes were still sad, and Cody knew that nothing could really erase that grief; it was too raw, too much a part of Nick. When he fell in love, he fell in love forever, and a part of him would always love Bobby. And Peggy. And the others he'd given his heart to.

But the rest is mine. A warm glow seemed to settle in his chest. He kissed him again, one hand coming to rest on his shoulder, and Nick made a contented noise as he kissed back, gently, sweetly.

Nick broke the kiss, brushing his cheek against Cody's, standing still and silent in the room.

"Nick," said Cody finally.


"You think you're up for a wild night of...Scrabble?"

Nick's answering chuckle made him grin.

Chapter Text

Pete's on the Pier was packed. It was Saturday night, and Cody and Nick had to wait for a half hour for a cramped table near the doors to the kitchen. Murray and Tiffany showed up just as they were opening their menus, apologizing profusely for being late.

Cody couldn't help but grin as he noticed a hickey on Murray's neck, just barely covered by the collar of his shirt.

"Oooh, I think I'll have the ribs. They looked so good last time." Tiffany closed her menu and put it down.

"Anything you'd like, my darling heart," said Murray. "Tonight's dinner is on me!"

"I take it the project went well?" Cody scanned the entrees, musing over the strip steak.

"Finished!" crowed Murray. "We turned it in to Activision's main office today!"

"We even added some very boss tweaks," said Tiffany, beaming.

"I might have hidden a quite bodacious Easter egg in sector 4-36," said Murray, winking at her.

"Oooh!" she said. "Really? I can't wait to see it!"

"Sector 4-36, imagine that," said Cody, wondering if he wanted a baked potato or mashed potatoes.

"I just want to know what happens in sector 4-37," said Nick drolly.

"Dry ice-spewing Komodo dragons. Tiffany, didn't you order the coleslaw here last time?" asked Murray.

"It's not my favorite. Vinegar-based." She made a face.

The perky blond waitress came back to the table. "Do you all know what you want?"

Tiffany ordered first, and then they all followed suit. The waitress scribbled everything down and took their menus, bouncing off through the kitchen doors.

"The head of Game Development said it looks like it'll be a big hit." Murray took a sip of water.

"What's it called?" asked Nick.

Tiffany looked surprised. "You really don't know?" Cody bit his tongue to stop from pointing out that they'd been preoccupied for the past few weeks.

"Dragonscape 2000," said Murray. "I'm not certain where my name will appear in the credits. Most likely just under 'programmer.' The concept was done by someone else."

"Have they paid you yet?" asked Cody.

"We deposited the check on our way here." Murray grinned from ear to ear.

"I should have ordered the lobster," said Nick.

Murray frowned. "I don't remember seeing lobster on the menu—"

"Joke, Murray." Cody let his hand slide over to Nick's leg. With Nick sitting on his left, on the inside of the booth, he could relax a little over someone walking past and bumping into him.

"Are you guys up for going to the arcade afterward?" asked Tiffany.

Cody started to answer "maybe" but was interrupted by Nick. "Sure," he said. "We'd love to, right, Cody?"

"Okay." Cody gave him a look that clearly read Only if you're up for it.

I'll be up for it was Nick's reply.

"They have a few carnival games there," said Tiffany, sounding enthused. "They even have a Shoot the Star game."

"Shoot the Star?" asked Cody, trying to remember what it was.

"Oh yeah," said Nick. "C'mon, Cody, you know that one, with the red star on a target card."

"If you obliterate the red star, you get a prize," added Tiffany.

"I don't think I've played that one before." Cody unrolled his silverware and put his napkin in his lap.

"Cody's more of a milk bottle toss kind of guy," explained Nick.

"When it's not too badly rigged," added Cody.

"How about it, Nick?" Tiffany had a gleam in her eye.

Cody looked at her suspiciously, and then back to Nick. "How about what?"

"What's the wager?" asked Nick, with an answering gleam in his eye.

"I win, and you make barbeque ribs for me. With your special sauce."

"And what do I get if I win?"

"What do you want?"

"How about you take me shooting at that club in Pasadena you belong to," he said.

"Deal." They shook on it.

Worry flashed through Cody. He's only been out of the hospital for four days. "I don't think..." One look at Nick's expression shut him up.

"This'll be so much fun!" said Tiffany. "I can't wait."

Murray lined up his silverware, fork next to knife next to spoon, and looked up. "Did either of you happen to see the LA Times today?"

"No," said Cody. "We were working on the paperwork for the VCB today, mostly." And taking a long nap together on the bench seat. And having a beer on the fantail. And watching the water together. And, later, kissing...

"Oh, I'm so sorry, Nick, I was supposed to finish that for you," said Murray, looking chagrined.

"You were busy with coding, Murray, don't worry about it," said Nick. "Cody and I figured it out."

"What was in the Times today?" asked Cody.

"There was a big article about the case," said Murray. "They've revealed the Hangman's real name. And I talked to Lieutenant Quinlan, too; the FBI agents have done some digging."

"Sean Leonard," supplied Tiffany.

A totally average, unremarkable name. "What did Quinlan say?" He could feel Nick's thigh tense under his hand.

"The Hangman grew up in Arizona, and moved around a lot." Murray adjusted the knife slightly. "His last place of residence was in Florida."

"Warm climates," said Cody. "Probably made it easier for surveillance." He suppressed a shiver.

Murray dropped his voice. "The agents told Lieutenant Quinlan that they believe he was responsible for at least eight strangulation cases in Miami. The MO isn't the same, but they're certain it's his work."

Cody leaned forward. "Did they find out anything else? Do they know why?"

Murray shook his head. "Cody, you know it doesn't work like that. It's all conjecture. He's dead, so there's no way they can do a comprehensive profile on him."

Under his fingers, Nick's muscles bunched. "We don't need a comprehensive profile," said Nick in a low, controlled tone. "He was sick. Now he's dead."

"But if we could have talked to him, studied his psychology, we could have made progress in understanding—"

"Murray, we don't need understanding," said Nick, anger plain on his face. "We need a bullet."

Cody squeezed Nick's thigh in warning. "I see what you're saying, Murray, but I can't regret what happened."

"Yes, that makes sense," said Murray, adjusting his glasses. "I plan on continuing to read the reports, though."

For an instant, Cody could see a flash of determination on his face. It takes guts to read that stuff. To try to be a scientist, unbiased and focused in the face of evil. "Of course you will," he said in a placating tone.

"I still don't understand why the hell the FBI had to take all our shoes," grumbled Nick.

"As I said, this is still conjecture, but from all accounts he was beaten with shoes as a punishment as a child," said Murray. "His father was quite brutal. Perhaps he felt he needed to confront a fear of shoes. Or he might have taken them as a way of triumphing over him. They found over fifty pairs of shoes in one closet, several of which have been identified as belonging to his victims." Murray took a sip of water. "There's evidence that he wore some of them. It might be that he felt it gave him power over them in some way."

An awkward silence descended. Cody looked over at Nick's frown. I doubt he wants his shoes back now.

"Wallace Stronk is going to jail," said Tiffany brightly. "They've found evidence of bribes and illegal wiretaps."

"Good," said Nick curtly.

"Too bad he couldn't have gone a little sooner," said Cody.

Their meals arrived. Murray's shrimp dish was missing its sauce, Cody's burger had no garnish, and Nick was missing his rice. The waitress took all of this in stride, her beatific expression never wavering, and brought out the missing items after a few minutes.

"Great ribs," said Tiffany, chewing contentedly. "Really great. These'd be even better, though, with your sauce. Good thing you're going to be making it for me soon."

Nick's eyebrows rose. "Really? How will I have time, after all the shooting we're going to do at your club?" Murray giggled.

Dessert was a large hot fudge sundae that Murray and Tiffany split. Cody had a cup of coffee. Nick did, too, even after Cody's warning glare.

The walk to the arcade was a little slower than it normally would have been, owing to Nick's still-painful leg. Tiffany and Murray chatted excitedly about coding another project together, while Cody hovered close to Nick, watching him out of the corner of his eye.

The pier was crowded with tourists and locals, and Cody kept on Nick's left side. A girl in a bright turquoise bikini rollerskated past them, and they both tracked her for a moment before grinning at each other.

The arcade was smoky and packed full of people. Murray bought tokens for all of them, and Cody put some in his pocket, feeling the cool metal against his thigh through the thin cotton.

"C'mon, Murray, Galaga!" said Tiffany.

Cody groaned. "Do you want to be here all night?"

"Oh, that's true," she said. "How about...Joust?"

"I'll play the first round with you," said Cody. She popped in the tokens, and Cody sensed Nick standing to his side, watching over his shoulder. The opening tune played, and then Cody started pressing the button, frantically trying to flap the wings of his steed.

"Oh no! Watch out!" said Tiffany. "Aw, Cody, you hit me!"

"Sorry," said Cody. Another flap or two, and suddenly he was hit from above. A few more seconds, and the game was over for him, while Tiffany blithely flapped along, beating the screen with ease and moving to the next one.

"Ooh, mind if I cut in?" asked Murray.

"Sure, go ahead," said Cody.

"We'll just be over at the pinball games," said Nick, not so subtly pulling on his arm.

It turned out that Nick really meant pinball games, and that it wasn't a sly euphemism for finding a dark corner and kissing him silly. Cody tried not to get too disappointed. Instead, he watched as Nick worked the game, forearms tensed, tilted on his hip slightly to keep the weight off his left leg. He looked good in his pale blue shirt, the long sleeves hiding the bandages. Love his shoulders. Arms. His eyes slid to the dark jeans and he cast an appreciative glance toward his ass before looking back at the game board, just in time to see the ball drain. "Too bad, partner." Nick grimaced but let him have his turn.

Cody concentrated on the game play. The F-14 Tomcat game was a fast one, with a four-player multiball. They'd played it before, dissolving into laughter when the first multiball had shown up and all four had quickly gone down the drain. This time Cody tried to last longer, but it wasn't happening.

Turning to Nick, he could see a wicked grin on his lips, and knew he was thinking something dirty. "Your turn," he said, gesturing to the game.

"Thanks." Releasing the ball, Nick's expression turned serious, and he racked up several hundred thousand points before losing down the side drain. "Damn," he said, giving the machine a playful slap.

"Stand back and watch the master," said Cody. Nick snorted in amusement, and then broke into outright laughter as the ball drained on its first pass.

"What were you saying again, master?" said Nick, laughing until the auto-save came on and a fresh ball popped into the chute.

"You have much to learn, Grasshopper," said Cody, but lost the ball after only a little flipper play.

Nick didn't fare much better, losing the ball just after the auto-save light blinked off.

"I can still turn this around," insisted Cody. Nick just rolled his eyes, and, sure enough, Cody lost, his point total well below Nick's.

Tiffany walked up next to them, Murray in tow. "You're not chickening out of the challenge, are you?" she asked. "Because I'm more than ready to take you on."

"Lead the way," said Nick, gesturing with one hand.

"C'mon, then," said Tiffany, enthusiastically heading off to the carnival game section. Cody noticed Nick walking a little stiffly. We're going home after this, he warned him with a look.

Nick looked like he wanted to argue, but then gave him a half-smile. Fine.

There was only one other patron at the Shoot the Star booth, a kid in a pink shirt, and he was nearly finished. His shooting was horrible, though, and the star was mostly intact. He left, looking disappointed.

"Ladies first," said Nick.

"Oh no, I insist," said Tiffany. "After you."

Nick paid and the guy behind the counter looked bored as he loaded the shot and handed the rifle to him. Leaning his right hip against the counter, Nick brought the rifle up into the proper shooting position, but winced. Eventually he managed to get comfortable, and peered down the sights. The first burst was too far to the left, but by the third, he'd obviously managed to figure out how the gun was pulling, because he was sending bursts through the center of the star, and then fanning outward. Eventually he came to the end of his ammo, and the guy retrieved the card. One point was still visible, and there were other bits of red.

"Sorry, you lose." The guy yawned.

Nick handed the gun back to him, and turned to Tiffany, his expression cocky. "When are you going to pick me up? Next Friday work for you?"

Tiffany's eyebrows raised as she took the gun from the guy. "Don't forget that recipe." She ignored the sight and looked over the barrel instead. Squeezing off a single burst, it hit the left side, not a single shot impacting the red. Nick gave Cody a grin.

Another burst, and another, and it became clear that she was making a circle around the star. Nick's grin vanished. After several bursts, the star fell cleanly out of the target, and she grinned, handing the gun back to the guy.

"That was boss!" said Murray.

"Three pieces of shot to spare!" said Tiffany. "My personal best is eight. There's one of these at a fair that's held near the gun club, and we always take turns trying to beat our score."

"Cody, I have a feeling that I've been hustled," said Nick in an amused tone.

"It's more of a reality than a feeling," said Cody. "You're a great shot, Tiffany."

"Thanks!" she said, beaming.

"You want a prize?" asked the guy, sounding annoyed.

"Do you have anything in pink?" she asked.

Flamingo tucked safely under Murray's arm, they wandered farther into the arcade. Tiffany jumped over to a Dig Dug game, and Murray played Moon Patrol while they watched, but Cody could see the not-so-subtle signs of pain on Nick's face.

"Hey, Murray, we're going to get going now," said Cody, tapping on Murray's shoulder. "See you guys around."

"Oh, you're leaving?" said Murray. He turned away from the game immediately. "I'm glad you guys joined us."

"We had a great time!" chimed in Tiffany. "I can't wait for those ribs, Nick. Next week, Friday?"

"Yeah, sure," said Nick good-naturedly. "Sounds good."

"We probably won't be back to the Riptide tonight," said Murray, adjusting his glasses. "Nor tomorrow." Tiffany's grin grew wider.

"You guys have fun," said Cody, giving Tiffany a quick hug. Nick hugged Tiffany, too, and then they waved goodbye, making their way through the dark arcade.

"I can't believe you let a girl beat you," teased Cody.

"C'mon, it was a hustle," said Nick, as if that explained everything. "Besides—"

A kid came barreling out from between two games, nearly running headlong into Nick, who just managed to step out of the way in time. Cody grabbed Nick's arm, steadying him, and he exhaled, looking a shade paler.

And the Jimmy's back at Pete's. He cursed. "Think you can make it to the truck?" he said softly.

There was no answer for a moment, but then Nick nodded.

"I can go get—"

"I'll be fine," said Nick tightly.

"Okay." Cody had to resist the urge to wrap an arm around his waist, to pull him close and help him. The pier was thronged with people, and he found himself scanning everyone nearby, watching for anyone who might get too close. Nick's arms were drawn in close, and he favored his left leg as he walked.

The Jimmy seemed like it was a million miles away, but they finally reached it. Cody couldn't care less who was watching; he came around the passenger side and helped Nick in, frowning at the hiss of pain as he helped Nick swing his leg into the foot well. He closed the door, and then went around the front, getting into the driver's seat. "How are you feeling?"

"Been better," replied Nick, eyes closed and head back against the seat.

Cody put the Jimmy in gear and drove slowly to their parking spot on the pier. Nick didn't make a sound as Cody smoothly navigated between the tourists wandering around the drive.

The gate to their slip wasn't as crowded with the curious as it had been. Cody let Nick fiddle with the combination lock as he stood next to him, looking around for trouble. After hearing a few muttered curses, he turned and took the lock out of Nick's hand and did it himself. "I almost had it," said Nick.

"Sure," said Cody smoothly. "C'mon." They went through the gate, and he relocked it, ignoring the flash of a camera.

Nick took the steps up that led from the dock to the Riptide slowly, and hopped down gingerly. Even so, Cody still heard a choked-off noise of pain which made him frown. Putting his arm around him, he helped him get down the stairs into the salon, and then Nick sat down on the bench seat, looking wiped out.

Sitting down next to him, Cody kept a hand on his back, watching him carefully. "Need anything?"

Nick shook his head, eyes half-closed.

Moving his hand in comforting circles, he let Nick sit and catch his breath. He could hear someone shout from the pier, and an answering shout from a nearby boat.

Nick turned and kissed him suddenly, needily, pressing up against him, and Cody kissed him back, too surprised to do anything else. Another kiss, desperate like a drowning man, and Cody gave himself over to it, letting his lips say what he'd been wanting to say for the past few days. Nick moaned into the kiss and Cody could feel his hand come to rest on his collarbone, light and soft. A flicker of tongue, and Cody's pants felt tight. He shifted in his seat, reaching out and pulling Nick closer, wanting to feel his warmth.

Nick's lips were sending little electric shocks to his groin. He groaned and kissed him harder, delighting in the sensation. Part of his brain kept reminding him that Nick was still hurt, and probably not up to this, but the rest was captivated by the light caresses of Nick's tongue and the incredibly sensuous feeling of their lips moving together. Nick's hand was warm on his neck, his fingers trailing across his skin, setting off sparks.

He wished this could go on forever, this one delicious moment, an oasis of happiness in a hellish month. He felt so much more than a kiss had ever brought him before. Love. Passion. Desire. Emotions flowed between the two of them, strengthening a bond begun over a decade ago in the darkest of times.

Nick suddenly froze, and Cody drew back, opening his eyes, noticing the look of pain on his face. "Sorry," he said through gritted teeth. "Must've...moved wrong."

"It's late," said Cody. "I think you should take a pill and get in bed."

Nick looked frustrated, but took the antibiotic without resistance. He got up and went to the head to brush his teeth and take care of his needs before very gingerly lying down on his bunk.

Cody brushed his teeth as well, stripping off his clothes down to his underwear and then coming into their stateroom. Nick was on his right side, still with the same frustrated look on his face, and Cody knelt down next to the bunk, pulling down the covers.

"What..." Nick blinked in surprise.

"I didn't say anything about going to sleep," said Cody, smiling. "Think you can roll onto your back?"

Nick's lips slid into a grin, and he shifted until he was on his back. "You have something in mind?"

Cody grinned as well, hooking his fingers through the elastic band of his underwear and pulling them down slowly. Nick lifted his hips slightly, and Cody pushed the underwear down to his knees. He savored the sight of Nick's cock, swelling amidst the dark hair.

"I've been wanting more of you," said Cody softly. He reached out a hand, lightly brushing it across his cock, and felt him jump under his touch. "I've been thinking of you, and what we can do together..."

"Me too," said Nick. His face was flushed and his eyes glittered. "I want to make you—"

"Not tonight," interrupted Cody.


"Stop arguing and enjoy yourself," said Cody, leaning forward and kissing him slowly and seductively. Nick responded by returning the kiss fiercely, leveraging himself up off the bed on one arm and grabbing Cody with the other. As Cody expected, it didn't last long, and he winced and broke off the kiss, letting Cody guide him back to the bed. "Just stay still, and enjoy yourself," he said, giving him a warning look.

"Want another kiss," said Nick huskily. Cody obliged, gently pressing their lips together, feeling the heat of his mouth, the hot taste of his slick tongue. Nick made another noise underneath him, and Cody could feel himself responding. He let his fingers slide down, barely touching Nick's cock, and Nick gasped, arching his back.

"Whoa, take it easy." Cody pressed his hips back down to the mattress. "You'll pull stitches like that."

"Just..." Nick was breathing harder, the desire in his eyes easy to read. "Please, Cody."

Another kiss, and then Cody sat down on the edge of the bunk, letting his hands roam over Nick, soaking up the feel of his warmth, the living weight of his body. He pressed a kiss to his hipbone, then lightly rubbed it with his thumb, doing the same to the other side. Nick tensed under his hands, and Cody gave him a look. "You have to relax, or I'm not doing anything," he said.

Nick sighed, but Cody could feel him relax, and rewarded him with another kiss to his hipbone, and then another kiss a little farther in, and another, until he was breathing in his musky scent. A light kiss to his inner thigh, a little lick to the crease between thigh and groin, and Nick made a muffled yelp that brought a grin to his face.

Pausing to savor the sight of Nick's deliciously erect cock, he lightly brushed it with his fingertips, enjoying the sound of Nick's sudden inhale.

He paused, continuing to stroke. Everything he'd done up until this moment had been somehow justifiable in his head, somehow okay, but to take this next step, to put a man's cock in his mouth... It would change things forever, even if only in his head. Nick said that it didn't matter what I did for him. But it does matter, to me.

Looking up at Nick, he saw intense blue eyes watching him with lust, and love, a love so fierce it made him remember that he didn't have to be afraid of forever. Taking a deep breath, he leaned forward slightly and ran his tongue along Nick's cock from root to tip.

"Ungh!" Nick arched his back, gasping. "Cody—what—"

"Don't make me tie you down," said Cody. He licked him again, letting his tongue linger, tracing patterns on the underside of his cock.

"Oh god—" Nick grabbed his wrist.

Cody moved back to the head of the bed, and gave him a long, lingering kiss. Then he fixed him with his most serious gaze. "I want to."

Nick swallowed. "I just...Cody, it's..."

"I love you," said Cody quietly. "And I want to do this. And more." He grinned, and then pinned him with another kiss, letting his hand slide down to grip Nick's cock.

Nick moaned into the kiss. "Not gonna last long," he breathed.

"Too bad," whispered Cody. "I had all sorts of ideas. I'll just have to save them for later." He slid back down the bunk, positioning his torso comfortably on Nick's legs, and gave his cock another lick, and then another.

"Cody," begged Nick.

The taste wasn't unpleasant. A little salty, a hint of bitterness at the tip, but the heat and velvety skin was irresistible, and he took the tip into his mouth. Nick gasped and bucked his hips, nearly rolling Cody off, but he held fast. I know how good this feels. I bet I can make it feel even better. He let his lips slide further down his cock, and moved his tongue slightly. Nick let out another gasp, but Cody pressed down with one hand so he couldn't buck again.

Cody moved his tongue, and Nick made an inarticulate noise that thrilled him right down to his toes. He slid his lips to the tip of his cock, trying to establish a rhythm, but it wasn't as easy as he expected. It felt strange and unfamiliar. Coming down again, he accidentally scraped his teeth against sensitive skin, and Nick hissed.

"I'm sorry," he said contritely. A shiver went down his spine; he knew how it could throw one out of the mood.

"It's okay," said Nick.

Another lick, and Nick shuddered, this time in a good way, and Cody let his fingers trail across Nick's thigh, delighting in the feel of his muscles, the warmth of his skin, the slight tickle of hair. Taking his cock into his mouth, he tried to suck on it again, but it was awkward, and he brought his right hand up, wrapping it around the base to keep it steady. Now he could work his lips up and down the shaft, getting into a rhythm. Nick's legs twitched and moved under his torso, and he was making incoherent noises that almost sounded like his name.

He thought about what he liked, and how he liked it, and adjusted his strokes, sucking a little harder, changing his grip and sliding his fingers up and down, and suddenly Nick let out a wild gasping cry and Cody's mouth was flooded with jets of come. The taste was stronger than he'd expected, bitter and unfamiliar, but he managed to keep sucking until Nick sank back against the mattress with a whimper, his eyes rolling up into his head.

Cody got up and went for the fridge, grabbing the first beverage he could find, and tried washing the taste out with orange juice. Not very fresh orange juice. Spitting it out in the sink, he went for the head next, and started brushing his teeth. The combination of sour orange juice and toothpaste wasn't much better.

Nick appeared at the door, looking contrite. "I'm really sorry. I didn't—I thought I wasn't that close—"

Cody rinsed his mouth out and put his toothbrush back. "Stop it, Nick. There's nothing to apologize for."

"I should have warned you—"

"It was good, Nick. Just...unexpected." Coming closer, he pulled him into his arms. "It was hot. Really hot. And I know it'll be something I'll get used to."

"You're want to do it again?"

"Well, yeah. Of course." Cody nuzzled his neck, breathing in the faint smell of his shampoo. "Love you. Want to do that again. And again."

Nick shivered in his arms. "You have no idea..."

"Believe me, I have an idea. More than one, actually. Like I said." He pressed a kiss to Nick's cheek.

"This is everything I ever wanted," murmured Nick. "More, even."

"You're shivering."

There was no reply; Nick only clutched him more tightly.

"C'mon. Back to bed. I know how to warm you up."

Nick limped slowly to their stateroom, getting into his bunk and yawning. Lying down on his right side, he rubbed his eye and yawned again. Cody climbed in behind him, and Nick turned to look at him, surprised. "Move over, just a little," said Cody softly. He did, and Cody slid in under the covers and pulled them up, wrapping his arm very carefully around Nick's waist.

"Love you," said Nick. He reached up and turned the light off.

"Love you, too." Cody kissed the nape of his neck, and the most delicious feeling of contentment stole over him as he lay in the dark, pressed against Nick.


The sun was low on the horizon, and Cody soaked up the long rays of light with a happy sigh. The sand was warm under his side. Every so often a wave would break higher on the beach, sending a splash of cool water onto his feet.

Nick lay next to him, wearing only a pair of white cotton shorts, lying on his back with his eyes closed, a smile on his lips. Cody rolled closer, snuggling in next to him, and Nick pressed a kiss to his forehead, his eyes still closed.

Trailing a finger through the soft, fine hair on his belly, Cody could feel the raised line of a scar. Tracing the curved edge of his rib, his fingertips brushed over another one, and he shivered. To think he got so lucky, not once, but twice.

"Cold?" asked Nick, pulling him even closer.

"Little," said Cody. Nick rolled to face him, kissing him gently, one warm hand snaking around his waist and rubbing his back, fingers dipping below the waistband of his shorts. Cody returned the kiss languidly, entwining his legs with Nick's, moaning as Nick's sweet tongue traced the edge of his lips. He tasted of beer, and lemon, and the fish they'd grilled for dinner, and Cody smiled into the kiss and let his hand slide around to the back of his neck so he could kiss him even harder.

"Love you," breathed Nick.

"Love you, too." Cody nipped at his lip, and then kissed him again, a long and hard and searing kiss that lit a fire in him down to his very toes. They'd made love twice already on the Riptide before taking the Ebb Tide to the deserted island, and still it wasn't enough. It will never be enough. Nick's fingers stroked his ass, the tiniest scrape of nails enough to make him break out into gooseflesh.

"It's getting cold," whispered Nick. "Think we should head back."

"Yeah," said Cody, a little breathlessly. "I think so."

"I'll get the cooler." He stood up smoothly, and Cody grinned to see him looking so beautifully, deliciously healthy. His erection was barely concealed by the tight shorts.

"Great." Together they hauled everything to the Ebb Tide, standing in the shallow water of the beach and lobbing things in over the side.

A cool breeze sprang up, ruffling Cody's hair, and he turned to watch the beginnings of the sunset. The sky was lit with orange on the horizon.


Nick stood next to him, gently pulling him close and turning to watch the sunset as well, his face lit with the fading rays of light. Beautiful, too. Nick looked at him quizzically.

"Just thinking about how gorgeous you are," said Cody.

"That's funny. I was thinking the same thing." Nick gave him a crooked grin.

"Really?" teased Cody. "You often think about how handsome you are?"

"You know what I mean." Nick turned to look at the sunset, then back to Cody. His expression turned serious. "Never thought I'd see another one," he said quietly. "Never thought I'd have...this. Us. You."

Cody drank in the sight of Nick, dark hair, dusky skin, blue eyes that seemed to be alive with a new light. The unease that had lurked there was gone now that the Hangman was dead. Nick had put all of the pain and fear behind him in a way that Cody knew he'd never be able to do. "I'm all yours, partner." Cody gave him a quick kiss, delighting in the hungry look that came to Nick's face.

"Mine," said Nick in a voice of wonder.

"Yours," said Cody, smiling.

Nick grinned, and the clear skies above were reflected in his eyes.