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Cody's relationship with his mother was difficult, at best, but that was one of the things that made the annual visit important. If he put it off too long, she appeared in California, and that was a whole other kind of hard.

The kind that made dropping out of college and walking into a recruitment office easier than going home for Christmas after Janet had left. He'd never been back for the holiday since.

But this year, they were in Connecticut for a case, and it only made sense to extend his stay and spend the holiday with his mom. Nick and Murray dropped him off, and if he fucked around getting his duffel out of the trunk so long that Nick got out of the car to help him, well, that was simply because of all Murray's computer equipment in the way.

"Have a great time, big guy," Nick said, and gripped his shoulder.

"Yeah," Cody said, because none of the other stuff in his head was helpful -- Don't leave me here, I've changed my mind, I wanna come home too --and anyway, Nick got it. He gripped Nick's elbow, hung on slightly longer than strictly necessary, then hoisted his bag. "Safe trip. Merry Christmas."

"Thanks," Nick said, "I'll pick you up Monday, all right? Don't miss your flight, you know?"

"Yeah," Cody said again, and looked at his mom's house. He looked back at Nick, but Nick was already getting in the car. This was it. "Bye, guys," he called out, and headed up the walk.

***

Small talk and dress pants were two of Cody's least favourite things, and he had three days of both to look forward to. He shifted uncomfortably on the hard couch. He'd only been there two hours and it already felt like two days.

His mother welcomed him with a familiar tirade against his grandfather (eighteen years dead), his own father (twelve years divorced and eight years dead) and his sister (married to an Irish veterinarian). She had just begun a new chapter featuring his own unborn children when the phone interrupted her.

Cody was heading for the door, planning to (escape) give her some privacy, when she stopped him with a wave. "Cody, it's for you. Your friend Nick."

Cody frowned. Nick should be on a plane west by now. He took the receiver. "What's wrong, Nick? Flight delayed?"

"Overbooked," Nick said, sounding frustrated. "Murray's heading home to feed the Roboz and unpack his computers. He can finish up and get the report in by Monday, so it's not a dead loss. But I'm stuck here overnight and there's not a hotel room available in town."

"Hold on." Cody looked at his mother, still frowning. Fortunately, she liked Nick. "Mom, Nick's stranded at the airport. I can invite him here, right?"

"Stranded? At Christmas? How dreadful. Really, the airlines are becoming a disgrace. I remember when -- "

"Mom. I want to invite Nick to stay here tonight. Is that okay with you?"

"Tonight? Well, of course. I'd planned a sort of picnic supper, he won't mind that, I suppose?"

"Thanks, mom," Cody said, and lifted the receiver back to his ear. "Get a cab, buddy."

"Sure? It won't cause trouble?"

"Hurry up," was all Cody said before he put the phone down. Everything was better with his partner beside him. Even Christmas in his mother's house.

***

Elizabeth Allen was not particularly fond of Second Lieutenant Ryder, who was part of her wayward son's ridiculous fall from grace, but she rather liked scapegrace Nick with his winning smile, and lazy way of speaking that belied a proper upbringing after all.

He charmed her with a complaint about the festive decorations everywhere (such a nuisance trying to get anything done about town!) then entertained her with a blow-by-blow of their latest case, including a hilarious story in which he'd jumped on a moving car.

Of course, he'd done no such thing. She laughed heartily and served the meal -- caviar and biscuits, sliced cornish game hen (Cody's favorite -- so important to remember the little things), some tomatoes (such a price!), cheese, rolls (so fresh!) and a pumpkin pie (leftover from Thanksgiving and quickly taken out of the freezer and microwaved to accommodate Nick's unexpected arrival, but no-one needed to know that).

"So refreshing," she said, loading her plate and pouring a glass of wine for each of them. "Cody, you're not eating. And I fixed your favorite!" The deli counter at Harrington's had fixed it, in truth, but strict accuracy was hardly necessary.

Cody looked rather white, but he nodded and picked up a plate. "I'm looking forward to it, mom," he said, and she saw him elbow Nick.

"I didn't say I enjoyed jumping on the car," Nick said mildly, and Elizabeth raised her eyebrows.

"You mean that was a true story?"

"Unfortunately, yes," Cody said, and helped himself to two slices of game hen. "Gave us a hell of a fright, but no harm done in the end."

"I sprained my ankle," Nick complained.

"You're lucky I didn't shoot you myself," Cody said, with a smile which didn't reach his eyes. He took a piece of pumpkin pie, and only nodded when Nick lightly punched his arm.

"Anyway," Nick said, "despite death threats from my partner here, we finished with those crooks all locked up, and just the east coast connection to run to earth."

Really, Elizabeth reflected, when Nick talked, Cody's life sounded almost glamorous. Danger, excitement, guns, car-chases… "Are you happy?" she asked unexpectedly, looking from Cody to Nick. "Is this what you want to do for the rest of your lives?"

"I," Cody said, "we." He looked at Nick and gave a tiny shake of his head.

Nick reached out and rested his fingers on Cody's sleeve. "Sometimes it's boring, and sometimes it's downright scary," he said quietly. "But we get to help people, and make a difference, and we get to work together, an' those things are important. So yeah, I'm pretty happy, Mrs Allen."

"Yeah," Cody agreed, and picked up his wine. "We'll do it until we can't anymore, or until we're not happy, I guess."

"I always thought it was second best," Elizabeth said contemplatively. "I thought you would be happier practising law and this was the closest you could get. But that's not right, is it? I see that now."

Cody went even whiter, and Nick gripped his wrist.

"Neither me or Cody are cut out for desk jobs, you know? Or calling stuffed shirts 'sir'. We did enough of that in the army." Nick picked up his wine with his free hand, and took a sip. "There's times we miss a steady paycheck, sure. An' there's times it's dangerous, or wet and cold, or we're exhausted but we can't quit. But there's nothing much else I'd rather do, that's for sure."

Elizabeth took a long drink from her own glass. She'd always told herself Cody would grow into his future -- as a child tumbling in and out of trouble instead of making good grades; as a teenager messing with motorbikes and sailboats instead of making the track team; as a young man marching off to war. He'd come home and she'd said Vietnam had changed him, and it had -- but perhaps not as much as she'd imagined.

"I do need an early night," she said, and stood up. Quiet, and some space to think -- important, when one finally saw one's son as the man he was. A little disappointment, of course, because houseboat and P.I. hardly went with wife and children, but then, he was almost past the age where anyone suitable would consider him.

"Merry Christmas, boys," she said, and as they stood, hugged first Nick, then Cody. And when she said, "I love you, son," she meant it more truly than she had since he was seventeen.

***

Cody had discarded the hated dress pants in favor of sweats, and was contemplating the early hour versus the lack of entertainment when a light tap on his door was quickly followed by Nick slipping inside.

Nick had also changed to sweats, and looked freshly showered. "Did you wrap your mom's gift? C'mon, you gotta put it under the tree."

"Since when did you become the sugar plum fairy?" Cody asked, raising his brows. "You hate Christmas!"

"Maybe I do, but your mom has a tree, and there's at least one package with your name on it. You gotta do what you gotta do, big guy."

Cody supposed that was true. He turned to his duffel and extracted a wrapped present. "All right. Saddle up the reindeer, Mr Claus."

"It's a harness, moron." Nick's eyes twinkled and he took Cody's arm. "C'mon."

They'd spent the early evening in the den, a small room easily made cosy with minimal heating. But the large sitting room was cold, made colder by the blue and white lights flashing against the tree's silver decorations.

Cody shivered and placed the package. "She's always done the tree in blue and silver," he said suddenly.

"Pretty," Nick said consideringly, and sat down on the couch. "Looks kind of cold, though."

Cody thought of the large house in Ventura where he'd grown up, before his parents had divorced. It had been cold and pretty too. Like his mom, like everything about his family life.

He'd found warmth in the summer sun on his grandfather's boat. He had no illusions about the Riptide; back from Vietnam, all he'd craved was a boat under the California sun. That, and Nick by his side.

"I always thought so," Cody agreed, and sat down tentatively at Nick's side. "I'm sorry you got stranded, buddy, but I'm glad you're here tonight."

He felt Nick's surprised glance, then Nick slung an arm around his shoulders. "Family ain't easy, huh?"

Cody leaned back, leaned in. Family. His own little family on the Riptide was all he wanted, if he was honest with himself. "Wish we were at home," he confided softly.

Nick chuckled. "Why? You miss Murray's Christmas soundtrack, or me bitching at him about it?"

Cody allowed himself a grin. "You have a point. And we'd be tired from the flight, and Murray's computers would be all over the salon."

"It'd be too late to get pizza and there's bound to be a crowd at Straightaway's tonight. I don't remember what's in the fridge, but I think we were fresh outta Cornish Game Hen, you know?"

Cody poked Nick in the ribs. "You coulda made lasagne."

"Oh, great. Galley slave." Nick settled more comfortably into the corner of the couch, and pulled Cody closer.

Cody went willingly. It was dangerously close to cuddling; recently he'd been letting himself acknowledge the physicality of his relationship with Nick. Ever since the day on board the Contessa when his body had reacted so unexpectedly, he'd started noticing things.

How much he liked it when Nick would come up behind him and stand close, shoulder against shoulder, hip against ass, for example. Or the warm feeling down his center when Nick rested an arm around him.

With the noticing came a certain distance -- he'd become unwilling to initiate the more intimate touches, preferring to leave Nick to set the space between them. Although space didn't seem to be a high priority for Nick, most of the time.

Like the night in Chicago a few months back, after Cody's lady had knocked him on his ass. Cody rubbed a hand across his eyes, stood up abruptly and went to the sideboard. "Want a nightcap?"

"Sure," Nick said, and pulled his sock feet up on the coach. "Something on your mind, guy?"

"Natalia," Cody said, not bothering with prevarication, as he poured them both two fingers of whiskey. He would have preferred a beer, but his mother didn't keep any in the house.

"Really?" Nick sounded surprised. "You would'a brought her to your mom's for Christmas?"

"I didn't say that." Cody took the opposite corner of the couch and held out Nick's drink. "I was just thinking about that night in Chicago."

Nick took his drink then plopped his feet in Cody's lap. "I feel kind of bad about that. I was an asshole about the hotel. Maybe things could'a turned out different -- "

"Yeah," Cody cut him off, leaning back into his own corner and pulling his legs up, sliding them over and around Nick's. "Maybe I could've spent a few hundred bucks and a few more months making a fool of myself. You should'a let me."

A slow grin spread over Nick's face. "Well, that was kinda how I saw it. But you know, you liked her."

"I liked the excitement. And she sure was a good dancer." Cody shrugged. "You weren't an asshole anyhow. If it was you with a girl, I would've felt the same way. That's why we made that rule."

"A long time ago now," Nick said, and sipped his drink. "A lot of good years. You wanna know something?"

Cody tasted his own whiskey and looked at his best friend. I wonder, he thought suddenly, how he feels when he's touching me? "You gotta ask?" was all he said.

Nick grinned and rubbed the sole of his foot along Cody's thigh. "When we shipped home, all I wanted was to think we'd still be friends, you know? Ten years later, I mean. I just couldn't even think of my life without you in it. You know?"

Cody laid a hand on one of the sock feet in his lap and squeezed, touched. It wasn't news exactly, and he'd felt the same way himself -- still did, if it came to that -- but neither of them had voiced the sentiment before.

"You goin' mushy on me?" he said, but his pitch was off, and he knew by Nick's smile that Nick heard what he was really saying.

"Yeah," Nick said, still smiling. "I guess I am. You got a problem with that?"

Cody found himself smiling back. He hated mushy stuff -- from girls, from his mom, from everyone -- but this was different. Nick was different. "Don't make a habit of it," he said, and downed the rest of his whiskey.

***

He woke up to Nick's voice in his ear, conscious of biting cold and a full bladder competing for his undivided attention. "Huh?" he said, shaking his head, starting to shiver as he tried to focus on his partner's words. "Nick?"

"It's after three. We both fell asleep. C'mon, pal, you're frozen."

Cody swung his feet to the floor and shook his head again. "C-c-cold," he managed through chattering teeth.

"I know, big guy," Nick said, and a warm, strong arm went around his shoulders. "C'mon. Let's go get warm, okay?"

Cody woke up properly on the way upstairs, but didn't shake off Nick's supporting arm. Nick was shivering too, nearly as cold as Cody, and sticking close was only sensible.

Cody made a quick detour to the bathroom, then followed Nick to his room. The light was still on, and Nick was under the covers in a half-sitting position, obviously still cold, and Cody didn't wait for an invitation.

"Wassup?" Nick muttered as Cody joined him. "Bad dream?"

"Cold," Cody said succinctly, and lay down. "C'mere. We'll get warm faster if we're together."

"Huh. Okay." Nick slid down the bed and curled in against Cody's back, wrapping his arms around him. "You're right. Nice."

It was nice. Warm, certainly, and the mattress was soft, and Nick was holding him in the way reserved, usually, for heartbreak or night terrors.

Cody didn't ever want him to let go. "Merry Christmas, buddy," he whispered, and closed his eyes.

Nick held him tighter. "It will be," he murmured, very low, "because I got you." Then he spoke again, louder. "Merry Christmas, big guy. Catch some zees, it's gonna be a big day tomorrow, you know?"

"Yeah," Cody said. He wasn't sure if the first sentence had been for his ears or not. "Since you're here, I might even enjoy it."

"Giving me too much credit," Nick murmured. "C'mon, you wanna roll over? My back's still cold."

Cody rolled obligingly and snuggled up against Nick's back. "Should'a said."

"I did," Nick said unarguably, and laughed when Cody did. "Seriously, sack out, pal. It's fuck off o'clock already, and God knows what time your mom gets up."

"Good point," Cody conceded, and wrapped his arms around Nick's chest. "This okay?"

"Lemme tell you something." Nick laid a hand over Cody's wrist where it rested on his chest. "Whatever you want outta this is okay by me, all right? You understand me?"

Cody breathed deep, holding his partner, fear, want and confusion chasing themselves through his head, through his heart. He wasn't exactly sure what Nick was suggesting, or offering, but equally, he didn't know exactly what he wanted.

"I don't know," he said softly. "Nick, I don't know what I want, and I don't know if I understand. I just -- I don't know."

"It's not that you have to want anything," Nick said hurriedly. "You know? Forget it, okay?"

Cody sighed, and kept holding on. The rational part of his brain suggested that his own bed, some space, a quiet withdrawal, would be the sane course of action. But the other part, the noticing part, found Nick's close warmth impossible to relinquish. Along with the sweet curve of Nick's ass, and the way it fitted against Cody's hips.

For maybe the first time, Cody allowed that thought, and the stirring that followed in his groin, without horror. "I just wanna hold you tonight," he whispered, "and know you're there." It might not be the whole truth, but it was all the truth he was ready to admit.

Nick reached back and squeezed his thigh like he knew. Maybe he did. Cody found the thought comforting -- Nick knew him so well, knew everything about him. He never had to find someone to be, for Nick.

"Tomorrow's gonna be over before you know it," Nick said gently, "an' then we'll be back on the Riptide with the Roboz spilling glasses of water on us just like we never were away at all, you know?"

Cody tucked his head down against Nick's shoulder. As always, Nick seemed to know exactly what he needed to hear. "Thanks," he muttered. "G'night, buddy."

"Night, man," Nick said, raising up and clicking off the light. He laid back down and curled in like it was the most natural thing in the world, like he belonged in Cody's arms, like this night was nothing extra-special.

Like he hadn't just made the Christmas Cody had dreaded into something magical and precious.