"I was very lucky, very lucky indeed to be a part of the team operating the Hale Telescope," Murray mused, shepherding Nick and Cody up a narrow staircase. "And of course that project is still going on. But tonight - tonight we can see it with the naked eye."
"Yes, but I don't understand why we couldn't have just watched from the boat, Boz. I have a telescope and everything."
"Oh, no, Cody. The light pollution - we would hardly have seen a thing. Even here we're far too close to the city, really. I wish I'd been able to organize a trip to the Southern Hemisphere, and view from an unpopulated island, but I couldn't do that and work at Palomar at the same time. Such a shame."
Nick nudged Cody's elbow. They'd agreed to accompany their partner to Jerome Sedgewick's palatial "cabin" in the hills, miles from the city, because, in the end, it had been the simplest way to shut Murray up. In the grand scheme of things, a sleepless night in an attic was hardly the worst thing they'd faced.
"What kind of telescope does Jerome have, Murray? I guess it's not as powerful as the Hale one, right?"
Murray laughed. "Not as powerful -- that's a good one, Nick!"
Nick shot a glance at Cody, and laughed half-heartedly. It had seemed a fairly safe comment, even if he didn't get the joke.
Cody nodded knowledgeably. "The Hale telescope at Palomar is the most powerful telescope in the United States, isn't that right?"
Nick pulled a face as Murray exclaimed in agreement. Cody's grin was looking more like a satisfied smirk with every second.
"Tell us again about the comet's trajectory, Boz. How did that guy Halley figure it out, anyhow?"
"Nick, I'm glad you asked. It's such an interesting story!" Murray broke off as they entered the attic and scampered ahead to a large window. "Come on, guys, let's get out on the roof and then I'll tell you all about it!"
"Yeah, Nick, get out on the roof." Cody shoved Nick none too gently toward the window. "That guy Halley?" he hissed under his breath. "Are you kidding me?"
Nick perched on the sill and swung his legs out. The roof sloped steeply, and a waist-high parapet edged a widow's walk which culminated in a set of steps to the ridge pole. Murray was already at the top, fiddling with a telescope mounted near the chimney. "The most powerful telescope in the States," he hissed right back. "You wanna play, big guy, we'll play."
"Oh yeah." Cody bounded out the window. "It's on. Last one to the top dates Murray's next lady-friend."
"Dirty cheat," Nick snarled, caught flat-footed as Cody leaped upward, ignoring the steps. He threw himself forward, eyes on the mossy tiles - it would be all too easy to slip.
A yelp from above was the only warning he got, followed by a clatter as Cody missed his footing. Nick had no time to brace himself or move; all he could do was catch hold of his partner as he fell.
One arm around Cody, the other elbow and both knees slammed against the hard concrete tiles - there was nothing to grip, and the damp mossy roof provided almost zero friction. They were falling, and they were three floors up.
The widow's walk saved them. Narrow though it was, it gave Nick the chance for a foothold, something to brace against. He got his free arm around one of the parapet supports and with a wrench, their descent was stopped.
"Nick?" Cody said unsteadily. His legs were hanging over the edge of the drop.
Nick dragged him upward. "C'mon. Get back on solid ground, huh?"
Cody grabbed the parapet, got a foothold then levered himself upright. "Not our finest hour," he said ruefully, offering a hand to Nick.
Nick took it and stood. His knees ached and burned, his elbow throbbed, his shoulder was on fire. But Cody was grinning sheepishly beside him, and Murray's feet were clattering down the stairs behind them. "The way I see it, we coulda played that a whole lot worse." He gave Cody a smile, then turned in time to stop Murray cannoning into them both. "Take it easy, Boz. No running up here, you know? Only an idiot'd try that."
Cody snorted with laughter. "Two idiots, you mean."
"Yeah, but the second idiot was only trying to save the first idiot, and - "
"Are you both okay? Didn't you see the steps? Nick… Cody! You're bleeding!"
"Huh?" Nick and Cody said in unison, then Murray grabbed Cody's arm.
"You've scraped your elbow," he said, frowning. "I don't think it's deep, but maybe you'd better go in and fix it up. Did we bring the first aid kit, guys?"
"No, but Jerome's maybe got some antiseptic somewhere in this, uh, cabin, don't you think?"
"Oh! You're probably right, Nick. I'll go check out the bathroom."
"Which bathroom?" Nick called after him, but Murray was already in the window and heading down the stairs.
"C'mon, big guy. It's only a cabin, how many bathrooms can there be?" Cody grinned and swung a leg inside the window, giving a thankful grunt as Nick reached out and steadied him.
"Sore?" Nick asked, as he followed Cody through the window. He was aching all over, and starting to feel light-headed as the adrenaline drained from his system.
"A little." Cody returned the favour, giving Nick an arm to lean on as he clambered over the sill.
Nick didn't need the help, no more than Cody had, but he took it just as thankfully. What he needed, what they both needed, was the closeness, the excuse to touch. "Yeah? Anything serious?"
"Old age and stupidity." Cody grinned, resting his arm across Nick's back. "I dunno if they make a cure for that."
Nick chuckled, leaning close, resting his hand on Cody's ribs. Almost a hug. "Who you callin' old, grandpa? The guy who saved your ass?"
"All I'm saying is, next time, I'm taking the stairs. And saving both our asses." Cody squeezed Nick briefly then pulled away. "C'mon. My jeans are all screwed up after that. I wanna get changed, so if you want to play nurse with my elbow, now's your chance."
It turned out all of the six bathrooms (one on each floor, plus an ensuite in each bedroom) had first aid kits. Cody insisted on a shower, then submitted to having his numerous scrapes painted with antiseptic. He even agreed to a piece of gauze and a band-aid on his elbow, showing Nick how shaken he really was.
Nick's knees were skinned from trying to stop the descent, but other than the deep ache in his shoulder and bruised, swollen elbow, he'd escaped without injury. He waited until Cody turned his back, then swallowed two Advil, unwilling to let on how sore he really was.
"You're an idiot," Cody said quietly behind him, and a pair of sweats was gently draped over his shoulder. "You oughtta go to bed, and I'll go tell Murray we'll take a rain check on his comet, okay?"
Nick looked at the sumptuous king size bed Jerome considered appropriate for the cabin's second bedroom, then pulled on the sweats. His aches and pains would love to lie down on the top-end mattress, but it wasn't an option. "I'm fine."
"You're hurting. You should rest."
"Now who's playing nurse, big guy? C'mon, forget it. Murray's waiting." Nick headed out of the room without waiting for a reply.
This time, they took the stairs. A brief pause at the bottom, a silent back-and-forth, and Cody gave in and went first. Nick climbed close behind him, touching his hip now and then, checking in.
Murray greeted them excitedly at the top, gesturing at the sky, pointing out the excellence of the night, the clarity of the stars. "This location is amazing, don't you think, guys? Virtually no light pollution." He went back to peering through his telescope.
"Yeah, amazing, Boz." Nick moved gingerly along the ridge, choosing a spot directly above the attic's dormer window. In case of a further slip, it would provide a buffer, and a safer place to land. "Here, Cody. Let's get comfortable." He sat down on the tiles, bending his knees and bracing his feet a little above the place where the window jutted out. "Look, put your feet on there."
Cody looked at the steep roof doubtfully, but did as Nick said. "We woulda been a lot more comfortable back on the boat."
"I know that, and you know that, but ask Mr Light Pollution over there and he'll tell you science has no time for comfort." Nick shifted directly behind Cody. "Here, lean on me."
"Yeah, you're right." Cody bit off a yawn, and leaned back cautiously. "You're warm. That's nice. We should'a brought jackets."
"There's that senility again. No hope for us." Nick closed his eyes, light headed again suddenly. "You're warm too."
"What's wrong?" Cody's voice sharpened and he twisted around. "Nick, are you sure you're okay?"
Nick shivered. "That was too close," he said, low. "Just stupid horsing around, and it coulda been all over."
"I get it." Cody straightened up, and leaned more heavily on Nick. "So that's why you wouldn't go to bed. You really are an idiot, you know? I woulda stayed there with you if you'd asked."
"People would talk," Nick mumbled, sliding closer to Cody. Cody always got it, always got him. He eased both arms around his partner and held on. "You don't mind?"
"Of course not, moron. Sure you're okay?"
"I am now," Nick said, resting his weight on Cody's back. "Scared me, y'know? I just gotta…"
"I know, big guy. I'm right here, okay? We made it."
It was a long night, interspersed with screeches from Murray and offers to look through the telescope, which Nick and Cody both declined. They saw the comet just fine with the naked eye, its tail stretching behind it, and agreed it was an amazing phenomenon. By that point, they would have agreed with anything.
At last, as sunrise lightened the sky, Murray yawned and packed up his notebooks. "That was really something, huh, guys?"
"Sure was," Cody agreed, struggling to his feet. He moved back along the ridge pole, a little unsteady, making Nick's heart pound.
"Careful," Nick warned, shuffling sideways until he could put his feet on the stairs.
"C'mon, old man." Cody grabbed his hand and pulled him to his feet.
Nick bit off a grunt of pain. Despite the Advil, both his shoulder and elbow had stiffened up.
"Shit. Sorry." Cody put an arm around him, feeling for sore spots with his other hand. "Your shoulder? What?"
"Shoulder," Nick agreed, grabbing a handful of Cody's sweatshirt. "Take it easy. Okay?"
"Yeah." Cody held him steady. "Did you hit your head, pal? What is it?"
"No, I don't think so." I can't lose you. Don't you know that? "I just need a minute, okay?"
"I think you're cold, and I think I better get you inside. C'mon."
Nick let himself be herded down the stairs and helped through the window. He didn't need the help, but hindering him was an overpowering urge to stop and just hold Cody as tight as he could. It was an urge that showed no sign of easing as they made it back to Nick's bedroom.
"This time you're gonna lie down, okay? No arguments."
Nick looked at the bed, and then at Cody. "One argument."
Cody frowned. "I gotta get some sleep too, big guy."
"So share with me. Please."
"Sure." Cody's face cleared. "C'mon then. What're we waiting for?"
"A chunk of cosmic ice with a pension plan." Nick yawned. "You don't mind?"
"Quit asking me that. Get in bed before you need a pension plan yourself. Murray wants to do it all again tonight, remember."
Nick groaned and crawled into bed. "I was trying really hard to forget."
But he couldn't forget, of course. Not about the stupid slip, the crashing terror of Cody's fall. The gaping void of could-have-beens, if he'd been slower, weaker, less lucky. The hours on the ridge pole, holding Cody's warm, living, breathing presence should have been a balm, but he needed more.
Nick lay on his side, tight, tense, forcing himself to breathe slowly, evenly. Cody, a foot or so away on the other side of the bed, was relaxed, maybe sleeping already. Normally Nick would have known, but the pounding of his own heart made it impossible to hear his partner's breathing.
I need you. I need you so much. Do you got any idea? Nick gripped the sheet to stop himself from rolling over and grabbing hold of Cody. Yeah, Cody had an idea, he reasoned. That was why Cody was lying beside him now, and not miles away down the hall, behind a closed door.
Beside him, Cody rolled out of bed and padded across the room to the bathroom. The light flicked on and Nick stared hard at the door, at the place his partner had disappeared. Water ran, and a cabinet squeaked, and Nick sat up, unable to help himself. "Cody?"
"C'mon, buddy." Cody came back into the room. "More Advil. And there's some heat rub here, which'll maybe make your shoulder feel better."
"I hate that stuff," Nick said absently, receiving the Advil with one hand and using the other to grab Cody's sweater.
"Yeah, but you gotta relax. Okay?"
As Nick popped the pills in his mouth, Cody handed him a glass of water. "Let me try this stuff on your shoulder. We gotta do something to get some rest."
Because being touched by Cody was always, always better than the alternative, Nick wriggled out of his sweater and submitted to the greasy cream being rubbed over his shoulder, neck, collarbone and half his back. He didn't like the feel of it, but he loved Cody's hands, strong and sure, rubbing away his pain.
"I guess," Nick agreed as Cody lay down beside him, closer this time.
"Come over here. Lay on me."
Nick didn't need telling twice. He cuddled in against Cody's side, head on Cody's shoulder, arm across Cody's belly. "You don't mind?"
"Told you to stop asking me that." Cody wrapped one arm around his back, rested his other hand on Nick's arm. "You don't need this any more than I do, d'you get that?"
"Not true, man. I couldn't do it without you, you know?"
"You think I could?"
Nick closed his eyes and thought of singles parties, hot chicks at Straightaway's, pretty girls on the beach. "I think you'd do just fine."
"You do, huh? So who'd catch me when I fell off the next roof?"
Nick wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. "Don't fall off any more goddamn roofs, you big klutz!"
"Didn't fall off this one, did I? Because you had my back." Cody coughed. "I don't think you know how important that is to me, buddy. Don't think I ever told you."
"Don't think you know how important you are to me. Never told you that either." Nick lifted his head and looked up into Cody's face. "Sitting on that goddamned roof… I couldn't hold you hard enough, you know? I would'a sat there all night."
"We did sit there all night, buddy. From midnight til 5.30, anyhow." Cody sighed. "Felt good, buddy. Being close then… being close now. D'you get what I mean?"
Being close. That was it, right there -- what he wanted, what he needed from Cody. They'd always been close: emotionally, physically, sharing each other's space as a matter of course. "It's a small boat, and that's a good thing," he mumbled, laying his head back down on Cody's shoulder. "S'easy to stay close."
"I guess you have a point." Cody rubbed Nick's back. "D'you need your sweater?"
Nic squeezed his eyes shut. "Depends, man."
"On what?" Cody's hand stilled on Nick's back.
"If I'm allowed to hold you all night… or if I gotta go back on my own side of the bed."
Cody made a short, surprised sound in his throat. "Buddy… whaddaya mean? 'If you're allowed'... If you need me, I'm here, doncha know that?"
"Yeah, I know." Nick sat up, looking away. "An' maybe I just oughtta put my sweater on, because I need you to let me hold you all night, man. I need that like you wouldn't believe, an' I'm not just talking about tonight, you know?"
Cody propped himself on an elbow and put his hand on Nick's shoulder, gentle, firm. "So why are you over there? C'mon back here."
"Because it's not enough. I don't think it's enough." Nick blinked moisture out of his eyes, no doubt caused by fumes from the stupid heat rub. "I gotta let you go again somehow, you know? It's hard enough anyhow, when you go on a date, hell, when you go grocery shopping without me."
Nick heard Cody's sharp intake of breath, felt the hand leave his shoulder. He turned away, slipping his legs over the edge of the bed and curling his arms across his chest, suddenly feeling the cold. "You know what, big guy, this wasn't such a hot idea, huh? Why don't you go on back to your own room, an' hand me my sweater on your way out, you know?"
The bed moved. Nick waited, closing his eyes, praying Cody would crack some kind of a joke, or at the very least, that his sweater would hit him in the back of the head. Something to indicate Cody was willing to ignore his incautious words, forget it, write it down to the fall and the fear.
Cody sat down beside him.
Nick's heart stopped. Don't call me on it. Don't ask me, please don't ask me. "Door's over there," he forced out.
"Thing is," Cody said, putting his arm around Nick, "I was just getting to thinking that this was a great idea. Only now you've gone cold on me, an' maybe I'm gonna take that personally. Maybe you hurt my feelings."
Nick raised his head. Cody was joking, and that was a good thing. He thought. "I was hoping you weren't gonna take anything I said personally."
"See, now you're hurting my feelings again," Cody said. There was a small smile on his lips, a bigger one in his eyes. "I took it all personally, every word. How you need me, how you wanna be close, how you don't want to let me go. You wanna know how that made me feel?"
Nick nodded. He was shivering slightly, but it was anticipation now, not cold.
"Like I belong with you," Cody said simply, and pulled him close. "Like you want me. Like we have something that matters."
Nick reached for Cody silently. "Didn't mean to hurt your feelings," he managed at last, when Cody had been wrapped in his arms for what felt like several lifetimes.
"So don't," Cody murmured in his ear, and pulled back.
Nick let him go reluctantly. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," Cody affirmed, grinning. He lay back on the bed and pulled the covers over his legs. "I seem to remember telling you to come back over here, didn't I? What the hell are you waiting for?"
"Screwed if I know." Nick threw caution to the winds and dived under the covers Cody was obligingly holding open.
"You're gonna be screwed regardless," Cody said, his voice deep and husky and filled with a whole new kind of magic.
The last of Nick's uncertainty disappeared, at that. He pulled Cody close, slipped his hands beneath Cody's sweater. I wasn't the first time, or even the hundredth time, he'd touched the naked skin of Cody's back, but this time was different.
"How would you feel," he whispered, "if I told you I loved you?"
For the second time that night, he felt Cody go still, heard the sharp intake of breath. But this time, Nick lay quietly, rubbing his partner's back, waiting. Wherever they were going, they were going together -- he was sure of that now.
"Maybe a little scared," Cody said at last. He moved closer, tucking his head down on Nick's shoulder.
Nick freed one hand and stroked Cody's thick blond hair. He was well aware Cody was using the position to avoid eye contact. "Scared?"
"Yeah, I guess. I mean… you're gonna call, right? That's not just a line to get in my pants?"
When Nick laughed, Cody did too, but Nick could feel the undercurrent of seriousness. "If all I wanted was to get in your pants, I woulda done it ten years ago," he said in Cody's ear.
Cody's head came up at that, a crooked grin, a laugh in his eyes. "Yeah? You think I'm easy?"
"What, you would'a turned down the Dream Machine? No way, man." Nick leaned in and found Cody's mouth, soft, receptive, sweet with want. Turning hungry fast, after only a brief moment of uncertainty, ready to taste, ready to take.
"I love you," Nick said breathlessly, as they finally parted. Cody looked dazed, shell-shocked - much the same way Nick felt, but Nick was determined to find a few words worthy of the situation. He tugged at Cody's sweats, wishing he'd paid more attention in English class, maybe memorized a poem for the occasion.
"Get naked," Cody said succinctly, kicking free of his own sweats and dragging at Nick's. "C'mon, pal, we haven't got all day."
Nick grinned, leaned back and pulled off the pants. His partner was sprawled naked on the bed in front of him, no bad guys knew where they were, and Murray was either asleep or safely absorbed in comet research until darkness fell. There was no need for a poem.
"Yeah, Cody, we do. And I plan to spend all of it making love with you."