Breaking through to the surface, Dirk breathed in deeply and found his footing against the sandy ocean floor. He absentmindedly pushed his wet hair out of his eyes as he waded back toward the shore. The blue-green water was warm and there was a gentle breeze from the south that kept the temperature at a comfortable seventy-seven degrees. The long three mile swim had done him a world of good, he felt loose and tired in a good way. He had been too tightly wound for too long, in fact six months too long.
The reason for all of his stress and anxiety was currently laying in one of the two chaise lounges outside of their bungalow. The bungalow was situated on a private beach on a private island without another hint of civilization in sight. It was what he had requested for the two of them when the sabbatical from NUMA and Admiral Sandecker had come through. Walking up to his recumbent partner, he noticed that the overhead umbrella that had once completely covered Al with shade was now no longer keeping the sun off of the sleeping man, so Dirk quietly adjusted it.
Sitting down in the other chaise, Dirk couldn’t help giving Al a quick once over, making sure he was still okay. It was almost an unconscious habit at this point, making sure Al was alright, was breathing, and was alive. His partner was laying on his back the picture of contentment, arms crossed across his chest, his legs sprawled, and he was snoring faintly. After two weeks on the island, Al’s skin no longer had the sickly gray tinge to it that spoke of near death and illness, instead it had a sun kissed glow about it that testified to the fact that Al was alive and getting stronger. He was dressed for the beach, shirtless with just a pair of swim trunks slung low across his hips. Dirk’s eyes couldn’t help tracing the large raised scar that ran across Al’s abdomen. It stood out in contrast against his skin, a grim reminder of a mission gone wrong.
Dirk shook his head, forcing away memories from that night and instead switched his thoughts to being thankful to see that Al was finally gaining some of the weight back that he had lost in his prolonged convalescence. When he had left the hospital Al had been mostly skin and bones but now Dirk could no longer count the other man’s ribs and his face was filling out. His partner was finally looking more like his old self.
Grabbing the towel off the back of his chair, Dirk quickly dried off. He was contemplating if he should make lunch or if he should wait until Al woke up when his phone buzzed. Picking it up, Dirk saw it was Rudi checking up on them, so he sent a quick text back reassuring the tech that they were doing fine before he put the phone on silent not wanting it to accidently wake his sleeping partner. Then he stretched out, eyes closing, the calm warm breeze and the gentle stillness quickly lulling him into a light doze.
His wayward thoughts wouldn’t settle into slumber and they pushed the memories of the almost fatal mission to the forefront of his mind.
The two of them had been exploring a shipwrecked whaling vessel off the coast of Nantucket when they had stumbled across an illegal drug smuggling operation. They had followed the men back to a warehouse that was a good twenty miles outside of town. Al had wanted to go back and get the authorities but Dirk had convinced him they hadn’t enough evidence of wrongdoing and that they needed to get a closer look. After sneaking through an upstairs window they had gotten more than enough proof that the men were smuggling drugs into the U.S. when they had found an unlocked office housing an equally unlocked file cabinet. Unfortunately it was when they had tried to sneak back out they had been caught by a guard taking a smoke break. They had managed to disarm the man and had almost gotten back to their car when a firefight had broken out. Dirk never even realized that Al had been hurt. The other man had fought beside him and had kept up the usual smartass remarks all the way back to their car and halfway to Nantucket before he had gotten quiet.
Dirk was ashamed to say he also hadn’t even noticed the silence at first because he had been lost in his thoughts about what they stumbled across and about the files folders that were undeniable proof resting in the backseat. It wasn’t until he commented on the lights of Nantucket being just ahead that he had noticed how quiet his partner had gotten, how Al wasn’t just resting, he was slumped over unconscious in the passenger seat. Dirk had made a hasty exit to the side of the road, barely noticing when he cut off two lanes of traffic to the sound of honking horns and screeching brakes. Once he finally got the car stopped he had fumbled at the side of Al’s neck, with a fear like he had never known coursing through him when at first he couldn’t find a heartbeat. Then on his third try a weak and sluggish pulse was felt. Turning on the overhead light, Dirk quickly discovered the problem. Al had a bullet shaped hole in his abdomen with no exit wound. Dirk had never driven so fast in his life, all the while begging and at times shouting at his partner to hold on.
Dirk shifted in his longue chair giving up on trying to sleep, and turning his head, he rested his gaze on his still slumbering partner. How often had he sat at Al’s bedside after that night watching and waiting?
The bullet that had lodged itself in Al’s stomach had bounced around, his liver was nicked, he had lost his spleen, and part of his small intestine. The surgery lasted over six hours and according to the doctors Al’s heart had stopped twice. Afterward Al was unconscious for four days, it was in those four days that Dirk realized something that he should’ve a long time ago, he loved and was in love with his best friend. Sitting in that hard plastic chair at the hospital, Dirk had finally grasped the fact that he couldn’t envision a future without Al by his side.
After Al had finally woken up, Dirk too relieved to hide how he felt had kissed the other man, and thankfully Al had returned the tender caress. Sadly, they did not have their happily ever after right away, instead within a week of the surgery Al was running a very high fever. The doctors tried treating it with antibiotics but eventually the decision to go back in and clean out the infection was the only option left. It was the beginning of a long battle, over the next five months Al had two more surgeries and for every day where Al seemed to be getting better there were three where he got worse. He was in and out of intensive care and Dirk basically lived at his bedside, sleeping in his truck when he was kicked out for the night only to return bright and early the next day. Those were dark times when he thought he would lose Al, when he had listened for every breath, and had counted every heartbeat.
Eventually and thankfully, Al’s health finally turned a corner and his immune system was able to fight off the infection but it had taken a toll on the man’s body. He had lost almost a third of his body weight and a lot of muscle tone. Once Al had been released, they had both needed to get away for awhile, to rest and relax and explore the new turn their relationship had taken. For the last few weeks they had done just that and two days ago under the star laden sky they had exchanged vows and rings sealing their commitment to each other for the rest of their days.
Al shifted with a groan, his hand going to the scar on his abdomen, his face grimacing in pain. Dirk frowned; Al had refused any prescriptions since they had arrived instead taking only over-the-counter pain relievers, but Dirk had brought his meds along just in case and if Al needed it then Dirk would insist. Al had been through enough agony and hurt to last a lifetime; Dirk wouldn’t let him try to tough it out when relief could be so easily obtained. He had asked his attending physician about the lingering pain that Al seemed to be feeling daily, and the man had been honest with him about how the pain may lessen over time or it could become chronic something that Al would have to manage for the rest of his life with the help of medication.
“Take a picture it will last longer.”
The schoolyard taunt from the man next to him dragged Dirk from his pensive thoughts. With a twinkle in his eye, Dirk snatched up his phone and knelt next to Al. “Say cheese.”
Dirk took the picture, just as Al squinted up at the phone and grumbled, “Fucker.” It was said so fondly Dirk didn’t give it much heed. He took a quick look at the picture, and then showed it to Al who said with a sleepy smile, “Actually that’s not bad.”
“Of course, two handsome fellas like ourselves should be on the cover of GQ magazine,” Dirk quipped, putting his phone back down before asking a bit more seriously, “How are you feeling?” Glancing to where Al’s hand was still on his abdomen, he didn’t wait for an answer instead stood up saying, “I’ll go get your pills.”
His forward progress was halted when Al reached out and caught his hand and pulled him down until Dirk was perched next to him. “I’m okay you know? I have a doctor’s note and everything,” Al said with a wide grin.
Dirk rewarded his attempted humor with a return smile that apparently didn’t reach his eyes if the change in Al’s expression was anything to go by.
Al reached up and grabbed him by the back of the neck drawing Dirk down until their mouths were inches apart and Al whispered against his lips, “I’m alright…I promise.” Then he sealed their mouths in a long passionate kiss. Dirk quickly took control, tangling one hand into Al’s hair and the other gently ran a caress from his collarbone down his chest and skimmed his fingertips just under the waistline of Al’s swimming trunks.
Breaking the kiss their eyes met and Al said with a teasing grin, “I want you, but I am not into exhibitionism, so let’s take this inside.”
“Are you sure you’re up for it?” Dirk asked, concern creasing his brow.
A bubble of laughter escaped from Al which Dirk had to share breaking the tension as he realized what he had said.
Unexpectedly, Al surged up capturing Dirk’s lips while he covered Dirk’s hand with his own pushing it the rest of the way under his shorts, before breathing out against his mouth, “What do you think?”
Dirk gently caressed him, loving the moan the action elicited, then withdrew his hand and helped Al to his feet. They staggered back toward the bungalow, Dirk walking Al backward unwilling to stop kissing or to break the embrace now that he had him in his arms. Stumbling into the bedroom, Dirk gently lowered Al onto the bed, quickly divesting himself and his partner of their clothing. Then he carefully settled himself over him making sure not to rest his full weight on Al’s still tender abdomen. He slowed their kissing down taking his time to explore and to pour all of the love he felt into each caress. They had almost missed this; they almost missed out on loving each other.
Afterwards, Dirk lay on his back trying to catch his breath, with Al cradled against his chest just enjoying being able to have him in his arms when he heard a soft, “I love you."
Dirk smiled, and whispered back, “I love you too.”
Those words which at one time seemed so difficult to say now flowed between them often. They had been given a second chance and neither one was going to take it for granted.