There'd been a time when Cody'd thought that the ocean solved everything. That coming back would wash him clean, wipe away the darkness, take away the fear.
He should've known nothing was that easy.
Night was coming on, and the beach was emptying of the winter tourists. Cody jumped down to the cool sand, eyes on the gray-blue water. Alone on the beach, it was easier to forget, or at least to imagine. That he'd never seen death, never fought, never killed.
King Harbor was a good place, he knew, and leaving the MPs had been the right decision. He'd just never figured on it being so hard. Never realized how much he'd relied on the structure on base, how much the uniform had helped him keep the fear at bay.
In the distance, he heard the thunder of a chopper, and it took him a moment of heartstopping fear before he realized it was the Mimi, not a Huey, her rotors bringing Nick home at last from a day of flying cargo, not a death-defying mission over endless tropical green.
Cody quickened his pace, jogging down the beach towards the chopper's newly-rented slip. Usually he crewed for Nick, but they were short on cash and he'd managed to pick up a day's work at the boatyard, so Nick had gone alone. Cody'd missed him like he missed the sun.
A day without Nick meant a day looking over his shoulder, jumping at shadows. A day when no-one had his back. A day in fear.
The Mimi roaring closer brought safety, brought peace. Brought Nick.
Nick unstrapped his harness and unfolded himself slowly, joints creaking with disuse. He'd been flying all week, logging less than half his hours, and today it had all caught up with him. With Cody in the co-pilot's seat, he never felt the long hours in the air, but today, every mile had dragged.
His neck burned with the bone-deep ache that had dogged him since 'Nam, his eyes stung with the strain of watching the sky. His mind ached with the stress of being alone.
Touching Mimi's dash in a brief gesture of farewell Nick swung his way out, feet clumsy on the rungs. Cody caught him as he hit the tarmac, hand strong on his back.
Nick was home.
Their apartment was a dump by anyone's standards, but it had two things going for it: it was right on the beach so Cody heard the waves at night, and it was tucked down an alley where no-one came.
Inside, they'd made the single tiny room into a denlike bedsit. A ratty couch, an old tv, a narrow single bed: it wasn't much, but it was theirs, and the most precious thing they'd gained was privacy.
There were no spotchecks, no midnight summonses to duty. Once they were curled up together in the sagging bed, only the past could disturb them, and it hurt less with every passing day.
Cody's breathing got easy as Nick lay on his chest, his weight comforting and real. Almost without thought, Cody found the sore place in Nick's neck, fingers moving in the rhythm he knew so well, the one that took Nick's pain away.
Nick turned his head a fraction and kissed the corner of Cody's mouth. "It's good to be home, man."