Fifty empty soda bottles graced the table in the Riptide's salon, and Nick, seated in front of them, rubbed his neck wearily. "This is like writing lines at school, Boz, you know?"
"Lines? Oh, you mean like detention?" Murray laughed out. "You know, I never tried that but I guess you're right. 'I must not make trigonometry jokes in art class'. Wow, am I glad Mrs Norridge never made me write that out one hundred times like she threatened."
"Trigonometry jokes… yeah. Of course." Nick rubbed his neck again. "But really, Boz, can't the computer do this for you?"
Murray looked horrified. "Printer paper? I mean, even lined notepaper is extreme, but I just couldn't find a good source of parchment. And I really did have to plump for modern waterproof ink, or I might never be able to verify my results."
"All right! I'm sorry I asked." Nick picked up his pen again and cast a dubious look at the thick book beside him. "'Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground, long heath, brown furze, anything. The wills above be done! but I would fain die a dry death.' What does that even mean?"
"It means he wants to die on land, not at sea," Murray said, assuming a faraway look. "What about you, Nick? Do you think you'll die on the Riptide?"
Nick opened his mouth, closed it, shook his head, and started to write. "I don't think about dying much, Boz. Not healthy for a pilot, you know?"
"Oh. Oh!" Murray looked stunned, then hurried back into speech. "I didn't mean -- that is -- Nick, of course you're not going to die. Wait, I mean -- "
"Forget it, Boz. Hey, this is really some play, huh? You think it's likely to be performed in King Harbor anytime soon?"
Murray, successfully distracted, launched into a description of the last performance of Shakespeare's Tempest he'd seen, and Nick focused on copying as he'd been directed. With luck, the local drama society would avoid Shakespeare for the foreseeable future, but if the worst happened and Murray procured tickets, Nick consoled himself with the thought that Cody would be a fellow-victim.
By the end of the afternoon, Nick had writer's cramp, each of the bottles had a neatly rolled note inside it, and Murray was typing a rate which seemed likely to set his keyboard alight.
"We'll drop these outside the harbor tomorrow," Murray announced with satisfaction, sitting back in his chair as the printer clattered to life. "I have all the co-ordinates here. Have you numbered the bottles?"
Nick breathed deep, and counted to ten a couple of times. "What numbers, Murray? What are you talking about?"
"The line numbers. From the play. They were supposed to be on the bottles, I told you -- no, wait. I didn't tell you, did I?"
"You didn't tell me, Murray. But they're in order, so we can just number them now."
Murray grabbed a marker pen and dived for the table, and Nick caught his arm just in time to stop him sending the bottles flying. "I'll do it, Boz, okay? Why don't you go check on your printout, you know?"
Teeth clenched, Nick painstakingly checked each line number and wrote it, clear and large, on every bottle. The phone rang, but he didn't leave his task, hearing Murray's chatter from downstairs as he answered it. The task was nearly done, another day behind them, another day closer to Cody's return. He laid his pen down with a tired sigh.
"That was Cody," Murray announced, bounding back into the room. "He called early because he's taking his mom out for dinner. Isn't it boss how he calls every day?"
Nick gripped the edge of the table. "Yeah. Really boss." Why didn't you call me? Why didn't he ask for me? Jesus fuck, Murray. "Uh, I been wanting to talk to him."
"I was about to call you, but then his mom needed him. Sorry, Nick." Murray looked briefly apologetic. "But he'll call again tomorrow, you know that."
Twenty four goddamn hours. "Yeah, I know that. So what's the deal tomorrow, Boz? Are we gonna do this in the Mimi?"
"Well, that was my original plan, but the rotor draft will disturb the surface currents, and potentially skew my results. I'd really like to use the Riptide."
Nick shook his head slowly. "I don't think so, you know? Not until Cody's home, anyhow. You know what happened last time I took her out when Cody was away."
"Yes, but I asked him while he was on the phone, and he said it would be okay. You know, as long as we were careful."
Nick frowned. He couldn't imagine his partner saying anything of the kind. "Boz, he loves this boat more than anything."
"Yes, but it's not like we're gonna crash it or anything. I've looked up the tides, we cast off at six!"
Murray headed back downstairs and Nick stared after him moodily. He wanted to call Cody and check Murray's plan (hear his voice) but Cody hated when Nick called him at his mom's. It led to questions about girlfriends and living arrangements he'd been sidestepping for years.
Nick was never quite sure what fantasy Sadie Allen bought into regarding her son's life, nor how Cody explained his marked lack of girlfriends and suburban living on her occasional brief visits to California. All Nick knew was that the everyday reality of their bachelor boat, and the closely-guarded just-as-real truth of two men in one bunk, must never be brought to her notice.
He respected that, because Cody wanted it that way. He didn't like it, and at times like now he actively hated it, but it wasn't a deal-breaker, because when it came to Cody there was no such thing.
Come home, big guy. Need you. Don't you ever forget that.
Dinner was quiet, in that Murray talked constantly and enthusiastically about Prospero, tides and currents, and Nick stared determinedly straight ahead, not listening, chewing mechanically, trying very hard not to picture Cody at dinner with his mother and one or more specially-selected, perfectly put-together debs. Sadie's honey-lure to bring her darling boy home, trotted out on every visit without fail.
Fail it had, every time, but Nick mistrusted Sadie and the debs even more than he trusted Cody. After all, far from home, alone and tempted, anything could happen. Nick was perfectly willing to acknowledge that and forgive accordingly, but it was the aftermath of the anything he feared.
Cody tempted, Cody lured… a beautiful woman with money and style, class, a passport back to the life he'd left. Nick knew he had little enough to offer when all was weighed up, and he'd never blame Cody, not for one second, if Cody took the package deal.
"Hey Boz. Those cellular phones you were testing out, would they work clear across the country?"
"Huh?" Murray stopped in the middle of a convoluted discussion of Prospero's control of the tide. "Phones? I don't really think we could put phones in the bottles, Nick. For one thing -- "
"Forget it, man. Just forget it." Even if they did, Cody would never consent to carrying a fish with an antenna around just so Nick could call him up. That would take even more explaining than a missing girlfriend. "Listen, I'm pretty tired and we got an early start. I'm gonna wash these dishes then turn in, okay?"
By eleven the next morning, they were about sixty miles north of King Harbor and thirty of the carefully-filled bottles had been dropped overboard at Murray's precisely-calculated co-ordinates. The Channel Islands loomed to port, making Nick think of long carefree days fishing with his partner beside him, and miss Cody all the more.
He glanced idly at the course Murray had plotted and swung the tiller. They'd be home in time for a late lunch, and normally he would have gone over and worked on Mimi for the afternoon. But Cody could call early again, and Nick wasn't missing that call again today.
The Riptide came around sluggishly, listing in the light waves. Nick frowned. He wasn't much of a sailor, but he'd been on the ocean enough years to understand the basics.
This wasn't basic, he realized, as the Riptide pitched violently. She was listing more heavily to starboard with every heavy slap against the water, even though there was nothing in the clear weather to be causing it. "Murray!" Nick shouted. "Murray, something's wrong!"
A beat later, Murray stepped into the wheelhouse. He was white as a sheet, and his hands were raised above his head. Bright red blood stained the front of his shirt.
"Boz!" Nick forgot the wheel and rushed toward his friend. He barely took in the huge gorilla of a man holding a machete against Murray's neck, but he couldn't ignore the second, shorter man who stepped in front of Murray, pointing a gun at Nick's chest.
"Not so fast, sailor-man. You just step right back and sit down, nice and quiet, and no-one else needs to get hurt."
Nick stared, feinted left and grabbed for the gun they kept in a compartment behind the wheel. His fingers brushed it as Murray shrieked, and then his forearm exploded in a bloom of fire. He fell back without even a whimper, his breath gone, and as if in slow motion saw the muzzle of the gun swinging around to his face.
Cody, he thought, as his eyes slipped closed. He'd always imagined looking death in the face, but then, it was never supposed to be like this. He should have saved Murray first, at least.
The gun spoke again, over and over, but there was no impact, no pain. Just a deep, empty chill as he fell into the dark.
Two thousand miles to the east, Cody Allen dropped his coffee cup on his mother's luncheon table, heedless of her white linen and her sensibilities both. The agonizing pain in his chest didn't allow him breath to swear, and he grabbed ineffectually at the table with strangely nerveless fingers.
He succeeded only in knocking his plate of salad to the floor.
Ignoring his mother's concerned scolding, he staggered to his feet and made it out of the room.
Once moving, breathing came easier, and the vicelike grip around his heart seemed to relax. Shaking with a mix of reaction and terror, he let himself into the den and picked up the phone.
Nick, Nick… He dialled the Riptide and cursed at the flat blip that greeted his try. Murray and Nick must still be out on the water, but Cody needed to talk to Nick now.
Nick's in trouble… Rationally, it made no sense, but he and Nick had always been connected. Cody knew it, believed it, always had. Something's happened…
With hands that shook, he fumbled the phone book then dialled the airline. A gut reaction, maybe stupid, unnecessary -- the pain inside maybe gas, maybe one of the ribs he'd cracked on their last case making its presence known -- his brain whirled as he stammered his details to the girl on the line.
Whatever the case, he had to be home. With Nick, please God, Nick who would laugh at him for his fears and tease him unmercifully. Nick who would hold him tight and know.
Cody ran upstairs and threw his personals in his bag haphazardly. Nick would bitch him out when he got home, nothing folded right, but he couldn't. It was all he could do to breathe.
He tried one more call to the Riptide with the same result, then dialled King Harbor PD. Over-reaction, and maybe it would ruin Murray's experiment. Cody hoped it did with all his heart, hoped beyond reason he'd land to find his partners furious.
"A mayday call, Joanna. I couldn't make anything out." He hesitated, then spat the words. "I think Nick's hurt."
"Somewhere out on the water. Murray said they were heading toward the Channel Islands."
Cody barely processed her replies. It was taking all his concentration not to vomit, to stay conscious.
"My flight arrives at four. I'll go to the pier first, then to headquarters."
"We'll find them, Cody. Don't worry, we'll find them."
Cody squeezed the receiver tight. Hurry. "See you this afternoon, Jo."
There was neither time nor language available to explain things to his mother. Cowardice perhaps, and Cody would own it willingly if it meant Nick waiting for him in King Harbor. But right now with Nick hurt, lost, out of reach, it was a conversation he simply could not begin.
He called a taxi, wrote a note, and walked out the back door, unseen and unquestioned.
Joanna Parisi met him at the airport, wearing a pastel check suit and a concerned frown. "The Riptide's not back, and not responding to radio calls. A preliminary air search failed to locate her between King Harbor and the Channel Islands. Coastguard hasn't heard from her since Murray called in something about bottles in the water around nine a.m."
"It's an experiment," Cody said. "Something about currents or tides, I don't remember. It's why they're out today."
"Tell me about the mayday call you received. Obviously it wasn't on a regular channel or coastguard would have copied it. I know Murray has communication devices well in advance of anything we're used to -- was it one of those?"
"Uh, yeah," Cody agreed. "It's stopped working now."
"I don't suppose it made a recording?"
Cody's forearm roared in pain as if in response and he dropped his bag with a gasp. He picked it up with the other hand, feeling sick, feeling light-headed. "No. Listen, we gotta find them, Jo. I got a real bad feeling about all this."
Hand on his arm, Joanna ushered him to her waiting vehicle. They'd barely pulled away when the radio crackled to life.
"Coasties have picked up an injured man on Anacapa Island. They're meeting an ambulance to head to Memorial as soon as they dock."
"Roger that." Joanna kept talking. Cody gripped his knees, vision engulfed by darkness, head whirling. He should have been relieved, but he was simply and utterly afraid beyond reason.
Nick, where are you?
Traffic was dreadful as always, and when they reached the hospital, the lieutenant's badge saw them ushered straight to a treatment room. Murray lay on a gurney, eyes closed, pale to the lips, with one nurse applying a dressing to his shoulder while another stitched a deep gash across his upper arm.
"Murray!" Joanna exclaimed as they entered. "What happened?"
"They killed Nick," Murray said, without opening his eyes. "They came aboard with guns and machetes, and we couldn't stop them. They killed Nick."
The words were like blows, stealing Cody's breath, pounding into his heart. There was a tiny measure of relief fluttering in his throat to see Murray appeared to have sustained only minor damage, but beyond that, bigger than anything, was Nick's absence.
Just then Murray opened his eyes. "How did you know to look for us, Lieutenant?" Then his eyes fell on Cody, and the little color in his face drained away. "Cody… you're here… he went for the gun to try and save us and they shot him. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry." His eyes closed again.
"He's fainted," said the nurse ministering to Murray's shoulder. "I think it would be best if you let us finish up here before you question him, Lieutenant. I believe the doctor plans on releasing him this evening."
Joanna said something, and Cody gripped the end of the gurney to stay upright. He couldn't hear, could barely stand, barely breathe. When Joanna took his arm he went obediently at her side, and finally let himself be pushed into a hard plastic chair.
A styrofoam cup appeared in his hands and he refocused with difficulty, taking in the hospital cafeteria, the bitter smell of cheap coffee, a bowl of something sweet and nauseating in front of him.
"Custard," Joanna said as he tried to push it away. "You're going into shock, Cody. Eat it, drink the coffee. You can't fall apart right now."
"Why the hell not?" Cody snapped, but gulped the coffee nonetheless. He put it down again, breathed as deep as the pain in his chest would let him, ran his hand through his hair. "Sorry. Sorry. You're right. We gotta find him."
"And your boat," Joanna said gently. "Don't give up hope yet, Cody. We don't know what Murray witnessed, and he's injured, himself. He may not be sure what he saw."
Murray had sounded sure. Cody shoved the idea away. Nick, his partner, his world, his heart… damaged, certainly. Threatened, in danger. But not, never, gone.
The agony in his chest swelled, taunting him. Alone. Even if he's alive, how can I find him alone? "I know you're right," he managed, and forced a spoonful of custard past his lips. He wanted to gag, wanted to cry, but allowed himself neither.
In the end, Murray remained in the hospital overnight. He managed a scattershot statement -- a silent, unseen boarding party or maybe stowaways who appeared from nowhere armed with guns and machetes. No demands except silence, no mercy, and Murray's last sight of Nick prone, bleeding on the wheelhouse floor. The gun barking over and over as Murray was thrown over the side.
Cody read it through three times. Nick had not been thrown overboard. Murray had seen him shot, but maybe not killed. On top of that, there was the pain in his own chest and forearm -- unexplained, unexplainable. Hardly proof that Nick was alive, but Cody would take it in the face of the alternative.
He's alive, he's out there somewhere and he needs me. That was the only truth that meant anything, the only truth worth believing.
Three days later, Cody was struggling to keep his truth in sight. The official search for the Riptide and Nick Ryder had been called off. Murray, out of the hospital, and installed at police headquarters in front of the computer, had run every parameter he could think of to locate the cabin cruiser, and had come up empty.
Even the Roboz failed to respond to all commands. It was as though the Riptide, and Nick, had simply dropped off the face of the earth.
"I think they scuttled her," Murray said flatly, as Cody and Joanna walked in from another fruitless tour of the coast. "It's the only thing that makes any sense. She's at the bottom of the ocean, and Nick's there with her. I asked him if he thought he'd die on the Riptide, and -- but I never thought -- "
"Murray, we don't know that." Joanna cut him off, and unloaded six bottles from a cardboard carrier. "Look, the coasties have collected these from the Point Mugu State Park beach area. Are they a part of your experiment?"
"Yes, numbers nine, fourteen and twenty-three," Murray said, barely allotting them a glance. "Three days. Interesting, I suppose."
"Yes," Joanna started, but Cody held up a hand. He'd learned to work with Murray's literal mind.
"What about thirty-five, thirty-six and forty, Boz?"
"Thirty -- you're wrong, they were never deployed. We'd only gotten to thirty."
Cody double checked the numbers and smiled grimly. "I'm not wrong, buddy. So what does that mean?"
"They went overboard after I did." Murray sat up straight. "You think the bad guys dumped them -- or Nick?"
"I think they can help us find the Riptide, pal. Come on, what are we waiting for?"
Eight hours later, Dooley had retrieved a further seven bottles from carefully labeled coordinates -- Boz maintained that his electronic location-finder was so simple to operate even Dooley could not be wrong -- and Murray was feverishly typing.
"It's a nuisance having to code this on the fly. I had it all set up, Roboz was starting the analysis and -- "
"And?" Cody prompted. His chest was tight and aching, and he was fighting dizziness and nausea. It might have been from lack of sleep and food; he'd had precious little of either in the last few days. Hang on, buddy. I'm coming. Don't you quit on me yet.
"And." Murray said grimly, and cleared his screen. "I've saved that programme. Now to find the Roboz."
"What do you mean?"
"Roboz was in analysis mode. He won't respond to external instructions because it might interfere with the calculations -- I just finished that code last week. Stupid, Cody! Why didn't I think of that, I could have been in touch with the Roboz for days!" He went back to his keyboard, and the screen flashed green then black again.
"Okay," Murray said at length. "I have a connection, but it's very poor."
"But… that means he's alive, right?"
Murray looked at Cody, his eyes stricken. "Cody…"
"The Roboz," Cody said, fighting to keep his voice steady. "The Roboz is alive… right?"
"Oh! Yes. His circuits are functioning, although the connection is so weak I can't tell if damage has been sustained. But he responded to commands. Wherever they are, satellite access is poor. He can't even tell us which satellite is being accessed right now."
"So can we find them?"
"Not the easy way, so we go back to the hard way." Murray's screen flashed again, and he began typing. "Tide, drift, current, windspeed -- I'd mapped exactly where each bottle ought to end up, and we know from nine, fourteen and twenty-three that the parameters are basically correct. So if we plot where the bottles landed we can extrapolate where they came from… and then determine the Riptide's course."
Murray typed for several minute, and then the printer clattered to life. "Here, Cody. This is where she went."
Letters, numbers, a strange trajectory -- it took Cody a moment to read a course in this strange computer terminology, and another moment to understand that without a chart, it was meaningless. Clutching the printout, he spun to the desk and pulled out the one chart the coasties had given him to work with.
Six pencil marks gave him a heading, and a brief consideration of currents and shipping lanes gave him an answer.
"Guadalupe," Murray said, looking over his shoulder as Cody's shaking finger stopped on the southern island. "That could fit. I've always found satellite coverage poor south of the border. Low population and it has an airstrip, a harbor of sorts…"
"Drug smugglers?" Cody looked up. "Is that what you think they were?"
"Remember the Trade Wind? Running up and down the coast carrying drugs and gold? Obviously it's being done, and how much better in a boat that can't be traced to you?"
"I guess." Cody shuddered. "So now what, Boz? Rent a boat and go after them?"
"Call Joanna," Murray said gently, and patted Cody's shoulder. "She can get the authorities out there in an hour. It'd take us two days or more. I'm gonna see if I can get more details from the Roboz now I have a probable location."
"They've found the Riptide," Joanna said, hanging up the phone and looking at Cody and Murray. Murray was slumped in a chair in front of her desk, but Cody was leaning against the wall. At her words, he strode forward.
"No-one knows. Three men aboard. Two dead, one seriously injured. All appear American. They said there was no resistance, they found them that way -- being Baja California, it might be the truth or it might not. The injured man is being airlifted to San Diego, and the bodies will be available for identification in Tijuana as soon as transport has been arranged."
One seriously injured. Cody fought down bile and gripped Joanna's desk. "San Diego. Okay. The Jimmy's outside. Murray -- "
"Cody, wait. I'll drive you myself. You're in no state to be behind the wheel, even you must acknowledge that."
Cody blinked. He could drive, for days if necessary, if that's what it took to find Nick. "I'm fine."
"You're not fine, neither's Murray, and you're both coming with me," Joanna said, in a tone that brooked no argument.
Cody was about to argue nonetheless, when he realized that Joanna driving meant lights and sirens, and a way through any traffic or gridlock that might threaten their progress. He nodded, tried for a smile, and said, "Okay. When do we leave?"
At long last, they were ushered into an empty waiting room somewhere in the bowels of San Diego's Memorial Hospital. It was after two a.m., that strange time in a hospital when everything echoed, when the air conditioning finally worked and turned everything from stuffy and too-warm to clammy chill.
Or perhaps, Cody thought as he rubbed his arms ineffectually, that was simply him. His nerves were wound tight, he wanted to climb out of his own skin, he had to touch Nick now. Find him. Find him. The feeling was familiar -- after every fight, every skirmish, every time they'd been separated. Every time Nick was in hospital and Cody couldn't reach him.
Cody's mind swung momentarily from dizzy hope (I know I can feel him, I know he's here) to bleak despair (Even if he is, he's had a bullet in him for four days. He could be in the morgue in Tijuana or at the bottom of the ocean and to hell with the mumbo-jumbo connection), while his heart stayed stuck on one thing: Find Nick.
Still no identification, and the med staff were too busy with the patient to provide even a cursory description. "Multiple gunshot wounds and blood loss," Joanna said, returning from a fact-finding mission. "They wouldn't let me even peek at him, so I just don't know. He's critical but stable now, and they're prepping him for surgery."
Murray put his head in his hands with a groan. "If I'd only realized the Roboz was in analysis mode earlier… we could have found them days ago!"
"Don't be so hard on yourself," Joanna said, placing her hand on his shoulder. "Thanks to you, we found them at all!"
"Joanna's right," Cody said, giving Murray's other shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
Murray punched him in the knee. Cody jumped, staring at Murray, to find his partner jabbing his finger toward the door. "But we've wasted days," Murray moaned, leaning toward Joanna and frantically rolling his eyes at Cody.
Suddenly Cody got it. Murray was creating a diversion, giving him a chance to slip away and find the patient. Find Nick, if Nick was here to be found. He gripped Murray's shoulder again, harder this time, and crept towards the door as Joanna gave her full attention to Murray.
There were no wrong turns. Cody forced his frantic panic down, the thing that made him want to run and throw things and scream, and marched, calm and purposeful, until he came to a large, bustling room with what looked like haphazard curtains and hundreds of gowned medical staff.
He skirted the edge until he found the bed he sought.
Nick was alone in the center of the chaos, on a bed near the mouth of a corridor, a paper surgery cap covering his black hair. There were bandages and splints and drips and monitors but all Cody could focus on was his partner's face. Bruised, pale and drawn, but there, alive, feet away.
Cody half ran to the bed, hesitated at Nick's heavily bandaged arm and touched his cheek instead of grabbing his hand. "Nick! Nick, can you hear me, buddy?"
Nick's eyelids fluttered. His mutter was unintelligible, but Cody heard his own name and was satisfied. "It's okay," he said. "It's gonna be okay." Two sets of hands grabbed his shoulders and pulled him away, but the small smile on Nick's lips was all he needed.
Nick was found, Nick knew Cody was waiting for him. It would be okay.
Nick was out of surgery, resting comfortably according to the nursing staff, still sleeping off his anaesthetic. Still not officially identified, but Joanna had used rank and persuasion in equal measures, and claimed him as wanted for questioning in L.A., and therefore hers.
Security had been persuaded not to eject Cody from the hospital on a permanent basis, but there was another complication. Instead of sitting at Nick's bedside, waiting in mingled terror and relief for his partner to wake up, Cody was in the ward's small lounge, trying to explain to two uniformed officers why he'd been reported missing from Minnesota four days ago.
"I live on my boat, and it was stolen so she had nowhere to contact me. I'm not missing. My partner was missing, but now he's in your hospital and I have to get back to him."
"We can't make you call your mother, sir, but we strongly suggest you do. This is a waste of police resources and -- "
The lounge door opened and Cody spun around, forgetting both the officer speaking to him and the one scribbling on a small pad. Nick might be found and out of immediate danger, but Cody wouldn't be able to relax until Nick, whole, healthy and conscious, was back at his side.
Joanna came in, and offered the uniforms an apologetic smile. "Perhaps I can bring Cody down to headquarters to finish this up a little later? Cody, Nick's regaining consciousness but he's agitated. I suggested to the nurse you might be able to calm him."
Cody didn't even glance at the officers. "Which room?"
"Come on, I'll take you." Joanna put a hand on his arm and Cody made himself accept the contact, made himself walk with her. Adrenaline was crashing in on him, making him want to crawl out of his skin, run, scream, fight. He had to get to Nick, had to be with Nick now, and there was no space in him for pleasantries or appropriate behavior.
Fortunately, Nick's room was only fifty feet down the corridor. Cody entered to find his partner on the bed with two nurses bending over him. Murray hovered in the background as Nick tossed on the bed, face flushed, eyes closed.
"Nick!" Cody said, pulling away from Joanna. He was at the bedside in two long strides, pushing past the nurse, ignoring her surprised exclamation. "Nick, take it easy." Nick struck out weakly, away from Cody, and Cody grabbed his hand, catching the punch, bringing Nick's hand back against his own body. "Nick, it's me. It's okay, you made it. It's over."
Nick's tight muscles went slack. He took a deep breath, then another, then he opened his mouth and tentatively tongued his lips. "Cody?" Little more than a whisper, or maybe a prayer.
"I'm here, Nick." Cody squeezed the hand he held, aware on some very basic level that this wasn't the first time Nick had called him in the last four days. "It's okay now."
Nick's eyes opened slowly, finding Cody's face unerringly. "S'really you?"
"Yeah, it's me." Cody reached forward, cupping Nick's cheek, smiling as the last of the fight went out of Nick. "Stand down, buddy. I got this."
Nick managed a tiny smile. "They're tough as shit," he said, words slurred and thick but completely intelligible to Cody. "Y'need backup."
"Murray's here, pal. We got it. Catch some shuteye while you can."
"I'll take next watch," Nick said, and closed his eyes again.
Cody leaned against the bed, his own legs shaking, immensely grateful when Joanna pulled a chair up behind him and pushed him into it. He leaned forward, still gripping Nick's hand, fighting twin urges to vomit and cry. "How is he?" he managed, hearing the wobble in his own voice.
Murray laid both hands on Cody's shoulders. "He's okay, Cody. His arm's broken, he's lost blood, there's a wound in his chest that had gone septic, but the surgeon's comfortable that he's gonna do fine now."
"I guess we have an official identification now," one nurse said, taking down a chart. "Name?"
Cody sat and let Murray and Joanna answer the questions, only interrupting when the nurse started asking about family. "I have medical power of attorney," he said irritably. "I'm his next of kin, and I'm not leaving him. Got that?"
The older nurse patted his shoulder. Cody forced himself to sit still, neither jump away nor push her off him, and then Murray interposed himself neatly between Cody and everyone else in the room.
There were more words, presumably in English but Cody wasn't listening, couldn't listen. All he could do was touch Nick, look at Nick. At one point Murray drew Cody away to the far side of the room. He watched anxiously as the nurse changed IV bags and played around with hypodermics, then at last they were gone, all of them.
Cody sank back into his chair, closer to tears now than he'd been in a decade or more. "He's gonna be okay now," Murray said, and Cody noticed with mild interest that his ability to hear had returned.
Gonna be okay now. Cody took Nick's hand again, barely noticing as Joanna and Murray kept talking. The threatened tears were coming now, unstoppable, pouring down his cheeks -- it had come so close. Too close. Don't leave me. Don't leave me.
Murray was beside him, pushing tissues into his free hand, but Nick's hand tightened, squeezed, held, and it was that which eased the flood. Cody breathed deep, slow, regaining control. "Thanks," he said unsteadily, and mopped at his eyes. Don't leave me.
Cody dozed intermittently through the day, and through the night that followed, in the uncomfortable plastic chair beside Nick's bed. Nick, obviously exhausted and still heavily medicated, was only properly awake for short periods but he knew Cody, knew Cody was there, and that was enough to ensure Cody refused any thought of a hotel room.
Joanna took Murray away as the night drew on, and Cody, hearing them talking with the night nurse, slipped down the hall and took advantage of one of the bathrooms. A quick enough shower -- he was back in his place before the nurse came past again -- and no clean clothes, no razor, but he was fresher, lighter, the looming despair washed away.
He took Nick's hand again and was rewarded with a crooked smile, blue eyes cracked open. "Should go home to bed."
Cody smiled back, brought Nick's hand up and kissed the knuckles. "Not ready," he said softly, and Nick squeezed his hand.
"Get some sleep then." Nick's eyes were already closing again, and Cody reached out, stroked his hair.
"You'n me both," he whispered, watching as Nick drifted off. "Love you."
He was sleeping when Murray and Joanna returned, and reluctantly woke up, and even more reluctantly allowed himself to be shepherded out of the room while the nurse performed Nick's morning care. The cafe downstairs was noisy and bustling, and it was all Cody could do to make himself swallow the coffee and scrambled eggs which appeared in front of him.
"I'm getting worried," Joanna said as Cody finally laid down his fork. He'd managed three quarters of his eggs.
"Is it Nick?" Cody looked up sharply. He wasn't focusing very well yet, and perhaps Joanna had been paged without him noticing.
Joanna glaced at Murray, then put her hand over Cody's. "I've been sitting right here beside you," she said gently. "As far as I know Nick's fine. It's you I'm worried about, Cody. You're -- "
"Jo, leave it," Murray interrupted. "Cody, Nick's okay. We were just with him, you know that, right?"
Cody nodded, and glanced toward the door. "Maybe they're done already. He shouldn't be alone -- "
"He's fine, and we're not allowed back for ten more minutes. Finish your coffee," Murray said firmly.
Cody hesitated, then picked up his cup. He'd never been good at taking orders, but the years had taught both him and Nick to respect Murray's ability to deal with medical bureaucracy. If a ten minute wait would buy Cody the rest of the day at Nick's side, he'd take it.
"Murray, I've never seen him like this. I'm pretty concerned about his mental health."
Cody stared into his coffee. He was a little concerned about his own mental health too, especially while he was still separated from the cure for another ten minutes.
"Cut him some slack, Lieutenant. Nick was missing presumed dead for four days. He's hardly gonna be the life of the party now."
"Yes, but Murray, he's dissociative. He has no idea what we're talking about right now. Maybe a psych assessment, or -- "
"I'm allergic to psych assessments. I get the same grades on them I used to get in Estate Law in college," Cody said, cutting Joanna off and standing up. "I know it hasn't been ten minutes yet, but I can't stay down here in this noisy, crowded shithole, when I could be up there with Nick. Okay? He's my partner, and everyone told me he was dead. He's not, and I wanna be close enough to check on that anytime I want. I dunno if that's a fail on your psych assessment, Jo, but it's all I got."
Back upstairs, Cody found Nick awake, alert, alone and picking at pureed fruit and yoghurt. "Solid food?" Cody slid back into his seat, staring at Nick in awe. "You were dead for four days!"
Nick grinned and conveyed a larger spoonful of mush to his mouth. "Explains why I'm hungry, but not why they won't give me bacon and eggs."
"Seriously… You feeling okay?"
"A little woozy. Arm's a bit sore." Nick raised his left forearm, which was in a cast. "But now they've taken out the catheter, I feel like a million bucks."
Cody winced. "Yeah, I hear you." He watched as Nick ate another mouthful, then rubbed a hand over his face. "Ah, buddy, it's good to have you back."
Nick put down his spoon and stared at Cody. The intensity in his eyes went so far beyond the banter, so far beyond anything they were used to putting into words, that Cody leaned forward and grabbed his hand. "You okay?"
Nick nodded, gripping back. "I thought they were gonna kill me," he said, low. "After everything, and you wouldn't know… I couldn't even save Murray, or your boat or anything. I thought there was no more time, and you know, I would have given up everything for one more hour with you. Just one."
"He's not dissociative," Murray said, walking into the room with Joanna at his heels. "I've studied the phenomenon, you know, and although Cody sometimes disconnects from his surroundings under stress, he remains connected with whatever's happening with Nick. Rather than a lack of focus, it's a very tight focus indeed."
Nick started to withdraw his hand, but Cody held on. The extent of their relationship was secret even from Murray, but after the week's events, the need to touch outweighed anything else. "I know. It's the same for me. You know that, right?"
"Nick! You're awake! You're eating!"
Cody let go at last, and sat back, as Nick submitted to Murray's pats and excitement and Joanna's calmer congratulations. Nick really did look okay -- drawn around the eyes, he'd lost weight, his movements were cautious, but his color was good, he seemed relaxed and followed even Murray's sudden movements without any sign of the wooziness he'd reported.
It was like the weight of the world off his shoulders, especially when the doctor came in and agreed that Nick could be released the following day.
"I've rented a trailer," Murray announced, walking in as Cody tied Nick's shoes.
"What?" Nick and Cody said in unison. Nick was sitting on the bed, wearing a black sweatshirt and matching pants which Murray had bought in a discount store that morning, along with the white sneakers Cody had just tied.
Cody, still in his two-day-old jeans, pushed himself up off the floor. "What are you talking about, Murray? We're going home."
"We don't have a home to go to. The Riptide's been towed to the police dock here in San Diego. Why would we go back to King Harbor? The drive will be hard on Nick, the doctors there don't know his injuries. And maybe I can persuade them to let me have the Roboz and some of my computer equipment. Maybe even some of our clothes. It just makes sense to stay here."
"Huh. I guess you're right." Cody glanced at Nick, who shrugged and nodded. "Good thinking, Boz. But won't a trailer be kind of cramped?"
"Compared to our floating double-storey ranch?" Nick cracked, and slid forward so his feet touched the ground. "C'mon, big guy, gimme a hand here."
The resulting argument over the wheelchair occupied them until the discharge papers were signed. Nick thought he'd won, but Murray quietly produced an orderly with a chair and before Nick knew it he was downstairs being wheeled to Joanna's waiting car. He glowered at his partners as Cody and Murray exchanged a high five.
"I could've walked," he groused, and stood up.
Cody caught him as his knees buckled. "You sure could've, buddy, but for right now, why don't you sit down?"
Nick leaned into Cody, taking all the support offered, as Cody half carried him into the back seat. "Don't mind if I do," he muttered, and when Cody climbed in beside him, leaned back into Cody's shoulder. The exertions of getting dressed and the wheelchair ride had obviously taken more out of him than he cared to admit.
The trailer park seemed quiet and clean, and the single-wide they pulled up in front of looked in good repair. "It's fifty-six feet," Murray said with a grin. "Almost exactly the size of the Riptide, so we should feel right at home. It's fully furnished, and by my calculations it's costing us just about what the Riptide costs in slip fees, water, gas and power per week."
Cody got out of the car and came around to help Nick. So far, his least favorite thing was the two steps up to the narrow porch. "You gonna be able to do this, guy?"
Nick swung his legs out of the car and eyed the steps. "Yeah, because I ain't being carried with a pretty lady watching." He took a deep breath and stood up. "Gimme your arm, man."
"Boz, give us a hand," Cody said, putting his arm around Nick. "Lean on me, buddy. And maybe if I ask nicely the pretty lady won't watch, huh?"
Murray hurried over and helped, as Joanna went up the steps ahead of them and unlocked the door. It wasn't far, and Nick was stronger than Cody expected -- he needed help but unlike earlier could hold his own weight without obvious difficulty.
At last they were inside -- through a workmanlike den, past an old but clean bathroom and into a small bedroom almost completely filled by a double bed, a nightstand, and a narrow set of drawers.
"I don't need to go to bed," Nick mumbled.
"The pretty lady's staying out of this," Joanna said wryly. "I'm going to see if there's any coffee in the kitchen."
Murray held Nick up while Cody stripped off his sweatshirt, then together they helped him onto the bed. Cody spread a blanket over him, and Nick was asleep with a protest about coffee and checking the place out on his lips.
"Is it okay, Cody? Should we have gone home after all?"
"Huh?" Cody shook himself, tearing his eyes away from Nick's face. "No. This has knocked the stuffing out of him. I don't know if he could even sit in a car all the way to King Harbor. And even if he could, then what? Like you said, our home's here, and they might release her at any time."
"Joanna's going to take me down there this afternoon, and I'll see what I can get. Hopefully the Roboz and any computers they didn't damage. Maybe our clothes."
"That'd be good." Cod wrinkled his nose at his shirt. "I've been wearing this for days now."
Murray frowned. "Your duffel's in Joanna's car, isn't it? You hardly would have left it at police headquarters."
"I guess it is." Cody rubbed his forehead. "I don't remember if I have any clean clothes left in there."
"You know what I think? You oughtta take a shower and get some sleep, and worry about clothes later. It's… six nights since you slept in a bed?"
Cody thought about it. "Maybe," he agreed. "But it's the same for you, and you're injured."
"It's a scratch. I don't even feel it now it's stitched, and I had one night in the hospital and the last two nights in the motel. Come on, Cody, it's time to take care of yourself now. I told Joanna she didn't have to worry about your mental health -- don't make a liar out of me."
"Yeah, you're right." Cody allowed himself a cracking yawn. "Make my apologies to Joanna, huh?"
In the bathroom, Cody found a paper sack of basic toiletries, including disposable razors and toothbrushes. He put everything to good use and emerged to find clean underwear and sweats laying on the unoccupied side of the bed. Cody chose the underwear, put the sweats on the dresser for later, and with only a moment's hesitation climbed into bed beside his partner.
Murray had seen them share from necessity before, and there was no chance this trailer had more than two bedrooms. Regardless, even if it did, wild horses wouldn't have dragged Cody from Nick's side yet.
Nick was lying on his right side, one pillow against his injured chest, another under his broken left arm. Cody cuddled up behind him, slipping one arm loosely around his midsection and burying his face against Nick's neck.
"That you, Cody?" Nick muttered, still mostly asleep, and Cody made an unintelligible sound in response. Being close to Nick again, really close, was overwhelming, precious. All he could do was breathe Nick in and know how lucky he was, how lucky they both were.
"Love you too," Nick murmured, and his right hand found Cody's where it rested against his stomach. "Go t'sleep."
The Riptide was running at full power, something Cody rarely asked of her elderly engines. He frowned, blinking against dark, disoriented. The pain in his forearm was back, hot, sharp, along with a tight burn in his chest.
He was crouched in a cramped space, and it took him a few minutes to identify his hiding place as the luggage locker beneath the wheelhouse steps. Barely large enough for a man, accessible from a trapdoor under the tiller in the wheelhouse and a smaller opening into the galley stairs.
There were voices from above, frantic, angry voices shouting. "Overboard -- dead, I swear -- can't be gone!"
Fear came in waves, fear and pain, but he was too weak.
"Cody. Cody!" The low voice penetrated the dark and Cody snapped awake, into the unfamiliar trailer bedroom, dim afternoon light filtering through the blinds, and found himself looking up into Nick's face.
"Yeah." Cody fought away the dream, reached out, touched. Nick was real, safe, here. He breathed deep, relief washing over him because wasn't that always the first hurdle? "Wait. Lie down." Nick was the injured one, Cody's brain supplied belatedly, as he figured out Nick was propped up on his good arm, fingers of his casted left arm stroking Cody's shoulder.
"I'm okay." Nick obediently sat back, dragging a pillow behind his back as he did so. "Okay now?"
"Yeah," Cody said again, and sat up. He took a minute to grab one of the errant pillows and restore it to its place under Nick's cast, then lay back down. Normally he would have curled into Nick's side, rested his head on Nick's chest, but in deference to Nick's injuries he slid further down the bed and rested his head in Nick's lap instead.
"Ah, buddy," Nick said softly, carding his fingers through Cody's still-damp hair. "For a while there I figured I'd never get to do this again."
Cody closed his eyes. "You hid in the luggage locker," he said. Gone. Overboard. Dead. He shivered.
"Yeah. How'd you know?"
"Dreamed it. Just now."
Nick swore softly. "I've never been so scared, you know? They shot me in the chest, and I guess it shoulda killed me, but the bullet hit bone or something and glanced off. That's what the surgeon said. Anyhow, I went down, not even realizing I was still alive, and next thing I knew I could hear voices below, but I was alone. So I took the gun from under the wheel, and I got in the luggage locker and hung on."
"Two guys, both dead," Cody said, knowing the answer already. Hunted, injured, believing Murray had been killed by his adversaries -- the pirates had signed their own death warrants by leaving Nick alive and on the boat.
"I took too long," Nick said, a note of apology in his voice. "If I coulda got 'em the first day -- "
"You would've been floating in open ocean halfway to nowhere," Cody put in. "It took us way too long to find you."
"They searched the boat for me then figured I must've jumped overboard. After that they got careless, but I was slow. With my arm bitched up I couldn't risk a fight. I snuck around and chucked some of Murray's bottles overboard, filled a couple more with water, scrounged some food and crawled back in my hole. We really oughtta fix that up some, y'know? Carpet, curtains, a reading lamp…"
"Shuddup," Cody said, gripping Nick's thigh, and Nick tugged gently at his hair.
"I was getting kinda out of it, an' then I woke up and she was anchored. I couldn't hear anything, so I got my gun, and I peeked out the hatch into the galley. There was one guy there, fucking around at the burner. He turned around and saw me and went for his gun, so I shot him. The other guy started yelling from somewhere topside, so I shut my hatch and laid low. Later on, I heard him in the wheelhouse. Two easy shots. I got out, an' I tried to radio, but they'd toasted it. The Roboz wouldn't respond to me so I figured he was screwed too. I knew I couldn't sail the Riptide, not messed up the way I was, so I figured I'd take a rest an' then try to get ashore." He faltered for the first time. "I had no idea it'd been three days. I guess I was more out of it than I thought."
"If I ever go away again, just don't take the Riptide out of port, okay? I don't care what Murray tells you, I don't care if the goddamn slip is on fire. I can't do this again, huh?"
"I know," Nick said, rubbing Cody's neck. "I told Murray this time, y'know? I wanted to check but you don't like for me to call you at your mom's."
"You can call me at my mom's fifty times a day," Cody said with a distinct wobble in his voice. "I don't care. In fact, next time I go, I'm taking you with me."
"Let's not go overboard, huh?"
Cody raised his head to tell Nick that wasn't overboard, when there was a tap on the door and Murray stuck his head inside. "Are you guys awake?" he asked in a loud whisper.
"If we weren't, we are now," Nick said, grinning. "Hey, Boz. Man, I thought they killed you, you know?"
"I thought they killed you too. I told them -- Cody and Joanna -- that you were dead." Murray looked somber. "But Cody wouldn't believe me, and I have to say, I've never been so pleased to be wrong."
Cody sat up properly. In the past, if Murray had caught them in such an intimate position, he would have hurried out of the room -- to the bathroom, the kitchen, anywhere to regain his composure. Today, he leaned back against the bedhead, shoulder against Nick's, and rested his hand on Nick's thigh.
He felt Nick's glance -- surprised, pleased -- and squeezed his leg in answer. Murray might not know the full extent of their relationship, but he was well aware how important they were to each other. "Thing is," he said, manufacturing a grin of his own, "I got some idea just how hard it is to kill this son of a bitch."
Nick gave an appreciative grunt. "Yup," he agreed, "you sure do. Glad some of it's rubbed off on you, Murray."
"Maybe it has at that." Murray gave a delighted giggle. "Good news, guys. They let me have the Roboz, and I was allowed to get some clothes and shoes. Isn't that boss?"
"It sure is." Cody gave another huge yawn, and decided sitting up was overrated. "Hey, guys? You don't mind if I take another nap, right?"
They'd been in the trailer ten days, and the boat was finally due to be released. There was still a cleanup crew to go through, and then they could go home at last. It was an easy two-day sail, and for once in his life Cody wasn't looking forward to it.
He was still tired -- his sleep was still haunted by the luggage locker, by fear so thick he could taste it, by pain. Cody welcomed it, welcomed the window into Nick's ordeal -- it wasn't the first time he'd dreamed this way. "You knew I was coming… didn't you?" he asked softly, late one evening. They were in bed, Nick reading a cheap paperback, and Cody curled up with his head in Nick's lap.
Nick put down his book. "No," he said, good hand gripping Cody's shoulder, fingers of his other hand stroking Cody's hair. "I thought Murray was dead. I thought you'd start to worry when you couldn't raise us in a day… I thought it'd be too late. I chucked the bottles overboard because I knew it was what Murray would want me to do… even though I knew without him they wouldn't tell anyone anything anyhow."
"I knew when they shot you," Cody said thickly. "I felt it in my chest, like I couldn't breathe. I didn't know what had happened, but I knew I had to get to you."
"That thing still works, huh?" Nick stroked Cody's neck lightly. In Vietnam, it was something they'd believed implicitly -- unerring knowledge of each other's position, instant action if the other needed help.
"Didn't help me find you."
"Got you started fast enough to find Murray alive," Nick countered. "How long would he have lain on Anacapa if the Coasties weren't out looking? I don't even wanna think about that."
"Guess you're right." Cody sighed and rubbed his head against Nick's thigh. "Maybe we ought to wait another week or two before we sail home."
"And then the weather turns bad, and we wait another month, and then it's winter. Cody, it's gonna be okay."
"It's a hundred and fifty miles or near enough. I gotta stay on point… I don't know if I'm ready."
"This isn't like you, pal. What's up? Normally I gotta stop you sailing 'round the Horn when we go out fishing for a weekend."
Cody grinned and rolled on his back. "I know," he said, looking up at Nick. "But you're not strong yet. What if we hit a storm or more pirates? What if we gotta swim for it?"
"We'll be going home, and we'll be together," Nick countered, grinning back. "If I was that storm, or those pirates, I'd just turn tail and go back where I came from, you know?"
Cody laughed. "Even storms and pirates get out of the way of crazies, is that what you're saying, Lieutenant Ryder?"
"You know it, baby." Nick gripped his hand. "I ever been wrong before?"
"Not terminally," Cody agreed, tugging on Nick's hand until Nick slid down the bed to his side. "How you feeling?"
"Like a million bucks." Nick reached for Cody quickly. They hadn't made love yet -- paper thin walls, Nick's injuries and Cody's tension proving passion-limiting. "You think you're ready now?"
"Now it's my fault?" Cody groused, but he wasn't serious.
Nick kissed him, deep and slow, and Cody gave him everything. He was ready, he was Nick's, and nothing else mattered.
"Your fault? Yeah," Nick whispered, and kissed him again. "I can't live without you, you know that? Worst week of my life, knowing you were out with all those girls, hoping you were gonna come back to me…"
Cody opened his eyes. "Worse than the luggage locker?"
"Much, much worse than the luggage locker. I'll take a luggage locker with a gun and a broken arm any day, if it means you ain't gonna take some deb dancing. You know?"
"I do now." Cody took a kiss, and slid a hand behind Nick's neck. "You know I hate that, right? I spend all my time thinking about you, wanting to come home to you?"
Nick ducked his head. "Maybe."
"Moron." Cody reached up for another kiss. "Get this. No girls. Not to make my mom happy, not to fool Mama Jo, not any of Murray's lady friends. No more. How's that?"
Nick hesitated. "People might talk."
"I don't care any more. Okay? I don't care. You're it for me and you oughtta know that. I oughtta show you that."
"You can show me right now, if you want."
"I plan to, buddy. Now and always."
Despite Cody's concerns, the journey home was uneventful. The Riptide's engines sounded none the worse for their hard workout, although Cody had already decided that a full mechanical overhaul was in order as soon as Nick was up to it.
They'd been home five days, and things were getting back to normal. Murray's stitches were out, Cody was sleeping again, and Nick had undergone one more small surgery on the ugly gash the bullet had left in his chest.
Nick was drowsing in his bunk, enjoying a sleep in while Cody showered. His arm had given up hurting and settled for itching instead, and the wound in his chest was now healing well. He still tired easily, and the antibiotics and anti-inflammatories bitched with his stomach, but it was nothing a few naps wouldn't fix.
The best things about those naps, of course, was Cody joining him in the stateroom instead of spending the last weeks of summer on the beach, on display to the summer girls.
"Murray! Murray Bozinsky! Is my son on board that floating death trap?"
"Uh, hi, Mrs Allen," Murray replied, from right above Nick's head. "Um, yes, Cody's on board. Why don't you take a seat and I can get you some coffee? Or some juice?"
"I don't wanna seat, and I don't want any coffee."
Nick winced and sat up. Sadie Allen had a full head of steam going about something. With her on the dock like she was, there was no chance of Cody sneaking away and rescheduling the meeting on his own terms. Nick was pretty sure he hated bringing his mother aboard -- certainly in the seven years they'd lived aboard, his mother had only been on the boat twice.
Murray was stammering pleasantries and stomping loudly above, obviously trying to simultaneously alert them and buy them some time. Nick heard the shower switch off and got up to warn Cody.
But Cody, whistling, ran straight upstairs to the salon. Nick called after him as loud as he dared, but Cody didn't hear, didn't stop -- and then it was too late.
There was an exclamation followed by a crash from the salon, and Nick surmised Cody had dropped his coffee cup. He pulled on a pair of sweats and crept to the foot of the steps. On the whole, he figured he was better out of sight, out of mind, but if Cody needed backup, he wanted to be close.
"Mom? Uh, were we expecting you?"
"Obviously not, since you can't even call me. You disappear, you don't answer your phone for weeks -- weeks, Cody! You don't call. What's a mother supposed to think?"
Nick pinched the bridge of his nose. He knew about Cody's disappearing act from his mother's, and about the missing person report. What he hadn't realized was that Cody had evidently not called his mother since.
The hatch opened, and Nick glimpsed Cody's long legs as he went out on deck. Quietly, Nick slipped up the stairs, poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down at the table. Better than being caught in bed, especially in bed in "Cody's" room, with only one bed slept in.
Cody came back inside with his mother on his heels. He shot Nick a glance of mingled exasperation and plea.
"I don't know what you're thinking out there in only a towel. What will people think? You might as well live in a trailer park!"
"We did last week!" Murray put in, bringing up the rear. "It was pretty boss, really. I never would have thought, but there were some really interesting people and -- "
"You -- last week -- " Sadie shook her bright blonde curls. "Cody, put some clothes on. I can't understand any of this. No wonder you can't hold down a steady girlfriend, no-one worth her salt would stand for this!"
Cody went without bothering to answer, his eyes shooting Nick a mute appeal as he went. Nick would have followed him, but Murray's appeal, while equally mute, was decisive -- he shot Nick a murderous glare, and stood firmly in front of the aft stairs.
"I don't understand any of this," Sadie said again, prowling the salon. "His note was no use -- 'I think my partners are in trouble, I'll call when I can' -- ha! The cops told me nothing. 'We located him in San Diego, ma'am, and asked him to call you.' San Diego! I ask you!"
"The boat was stolen, and Nick was kidnapped," Murray said slowly. "It was kind of a big deal, and Cody's had a lot on his mind."
"So do I! Three beautiful young women invited specially to my golf day to meet my eligible bachelor son, and he's gone! Let me tell you, I won't bother doing that again." She looked at Nick measuringly. "You can put some clothes on too. You're not going to impress me by displaying your injuries, and you should know that by now."
"Yes, ma'am," Nick agreed with alacrity, and stood up. He'd forgotten about his healing chest in all the excitement. He slid past Cody on the stairs, now in jeans and a lemon polo, and gripped his elbow in solidarity. Cody completed the circuit, hand to elbow, affirmation and connection, then he was striding upstairs, best ingratiating voice on.
Nick switched to jeans and found a soft t-shirt that wouldn't pull his stitches. Cody had a lot of fast talking to do. It was gonna be a long day.
By the time Nick came back upstairs, Cody had taken his mother for a walk on the beach. "You think we should take off?" Nick asked, looking out the window at the retreating figures. It was pretty clear that Sadie had a lot to say, and intended to say every part of it. Twice.
"Take off? You mean in Mimi? You can't fly with a broken arm, can you?"
"I could try. But no, I meant in the 'vette. We could go check out that electronics store you like."
"We could," Murray said thoughtfully, "and the idea is tempting, but… Nick, isn't this the first time Cody's gone anywhere without you since we've been home? I think if you weren't here when he returned, he might not cope very well. Not yet, I mean."
"I guess you're right." Nick frowned. Murray had a point. Cody had barely left his side, even sitting in the hospital waiting room all day when he'd had the second minor surgery. "Damn."
"I think I'll make a reservation at Straightaway's. We might as well eat, and Cody's mom enjoyed brunch there last time she came."
"She might have to tone it down in public, too," Nick agreed. "I can't believe Cody didn't call her."
"He's had other things on his mind," Murray said, and patted Nick's shoulder. "I'll make the call. Why don't you walk down the beach and meet them?"
"Meet them? Are you mad? Cody doesn't want me interrupting."
"You know what happened last time he left us alone on the boat. I think I know him pretty well by now, but obviously you know him better. You tell me what's going on in his head right now." Murray raised an eyebrow.
"Oh, shit," Nick said, and shoved his feet in his deck shoes. "I'm on my way."
Murray was right, and Nick shouldn't have had to have it pointed out to him. Nick reflected on that as he headed down the sand. If he had a blind spot in their relationship, it was Cody's occasional insecurity -- his own need for Cody was so great that he struggled to comprehend how Cody could ever imagine his devotion could waver.
But pirates, he supposed, were hardly a fair measure of devotion or fidelity, and were something that could happen to anyone. They'd just chosen to happen on or near the Riptide more times than average.
Cody and his mother were stopped a little way ahead, and Cody waved as he saw Nick coming. He looked both pleased and relieved, and as Nick came up, slung an arm across his shoulders.
"Murray sent me after you," Nick said, off balance. He couldn't remember Cody ever touching him in front of Sadie before. "He's booking a table for brunch."
"That'll be nice, won't it, mom?"
"It'll be nicer than this windy beach," Sadie said firmly. "Really, Cody, Nick's already shown off his injuries and he's managed to walk down the beach. You don't have to hold him up."
Nick started to pull away and Cody gripped his shoulder. "No, I don't," he said carefully. "But you need to know something, mom. This guy -- without him I'd be dead. Not once, not twice, but twenty times or more, maybe. The day I left your house, someone shot him and left him for dead. I wasn't there to save him, but he hung on anyhow, and you don't know how much that means to me, okay? You don't know. So if I wanna touch him, if I need to hang onto him to make sure he's still here, then I damn well will."
Nick opened his mouth, closed it again, then moved closer to Cody. "Hang onto me all you want," he confirmed softly, looking into the turmoil in Cody's face. The admission was huge, especially given Cody's normal reluctance to put his feelings into words. "I'm right here."
"Two men cannot walk around draped all over one another," Sadie said. She looked put out and uncomfortable. "People will get the wrong idea, and you live on that small boat."
"We're a little more relaxed in Southern California, Mrs Allen," Nick said, and put his own arm around Cody. "People are friendly out here, and it doesn't have to mean anything. C'mon, I'm starving."
"She rescheduled the golf day," Cody said with a yawn, snuggling into Nick's side. It was late, and they were both tired -- they'd taken Sadie shopping after brunch, then for an early dinner, and finally seen her onto a plane home.
"Well, yeah." Nick grinned and kissed Cody's hair. "Three beautiful young women can't be stopped by a little thing like piracy and attempted murder."
Cody winced. "I told her I wasn't the marrying kind."
"Lemme guess, she told you people would talk unless you got a steady girl?"
"How'd you know?" Cody rubbed his head against Nick's shoulder. "I told her people had better things to do with their lives than talk about me."
"And she said that's because you're wasting your life on a tuna boat with your army buddies…?"
Cody chuckled. "No, that was a slip after a few too many gins at Christmas. She's never said it again, and I'm kind of pleased about that, because I don't really wanna disown my own mom, you know?"
"She just wants you to be happy, baby. An' she doesn't get that you can be happy out here, living like this."
"You know I am, right?" Cody lifted his head. "That isn't why you worry about the debs when I go east, is it?"
"Ah, man…" Nick sighed. "I know, I do. It's just that you could have anyone you want, you know? An' somehow you settled for me, with all my baggage and hang-ups, and sometimes I can hardly believe it, you know? Those pretty girls, with all their money, all their charm… I wouldn't blame you, that's what I'm saying."
"See, I think there's two people out there who think I'm Bachelor of the Year. One of 'em's my mom, and the other one's you, buddy. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I just don't think beautiful young America of either sex agrees."
"Don't sell yourself short," Nick said gruffly. "You don't know. How they look at you on the beach… You got no idea how good you look, okay?"
"Maybe not." Cody grinned and stretched, contented, then rolled on his back. "But you know what? I didn't 'settle' for you. You're not my last choice, Nick. You're my first choice, my only choice, an' you oughtta know that. Okay?"
"Okay," Nick affirmed, turning over and resting his broken arm across Cody's belly. He leaned in for a kiss. "So when's the next golf trip?"
Cody shook his head. "Not going. I declined golf, I declined Thanksgiving and I declined Christmas. I told her I'd find some time to visit in January, and I told her you'd more than likely come along for the ride."
Nick raised his eyebrows. "She gonna disinherit you?"
"Dad did that already when I joined the army. Everything's in trust for my sister." Cody kissed Nick. "Hope you weren't after me for my money, big guy."
"Not so much. But you got something I want." Nick's fingers slipped under the waistband of Cody's sweats.
"Oh, really?" Cody wriggled sideways, taking more bed, and Nick rolled to straddle him. "And if I let you have it, what's in it for me?"
Nick stared down into the laughter in Cody's eyes. His chest had withstood a bullet, but the way Cody was looking at him, he felt like it might explode at any time. "My heart… you got that already. Proved it, didn't I?" He touched the line of stitches across his chest. "All of me, as much as you want. As long as you want."
"I want it all, Nick Ryder, baggage, hang ups an' everything. For always. Whaddaya say?"
"I say lose the sweats," Nick replied, eyes gleaming. He leaned down and took a long, sweet kiss.
Cody's eyes gleamed right back at him. "Make me," he challenged.
Nick grinned. And then he did.