"I thought you said this was a vacation." Max leaned against the rental car and shivered in the crisp air, the snap of cold catching in his throat, breath a white cloud matching mists draping in streamers over the valley slopes. Naked gray trees flowed up and over graduated crests toward the tower of the Zugspitze in worship to the crown jewel of the Bavarian Alps. He zipped up his coat and thrust gloved hands into his pockets, huddling into the lingering heat from the car before it faded.
"It is." Grant slapped his teammate on the back. "Thought you'd appreciate the time off as much as the rest of us."
"Nothing like a few days of crisp mountain air to clear the head." Nicholas emptied the luggage from the trunk and inhaled deeply. "Ah, refreshing. I can't wait."
Max watched his two friends head toward the quaint A-frame of the half-timbered chalet that would be their home for the next few days in this small pocket of Alpen foothills. From this vantage he could see the main lodge of the resort down toward the base of the valley, the rustic stone and timber structure surrounded by another half-dozen chalets peppering the valley slope. He knew his teammates -- his friends -- meant well, but they hadn't done what he did. It had been his part to play, as much as it had sickened him to be with the witch who'd killed their friend. Their family. They didn't have to live with it. A few days in Winterland wasn't going to change that.
He didn't think he'd be able to relax here anymore than at home. Not after... He shook his head to banish the memory of Casey before it could take hold.
"Hey, buddy, come on." Grant turned back, picked up Max's bag from the pavement. "It's not Florida, and it's not Baja, but we thought..."
"You thought? This wasn't Jim's idea?"
"Well, yeah, it was. Sort of." Grant noticed the stiff tension in the larger man's movements. "Look, we've all been having a hard time with this whole thing. Jim suggested we spend some quality time off. We," he glanced toward Nicholas, "thought this would be a great opportunity to do just that." A mischievous glint lit his eyes. "Besides, we never get to travel. It'll be good for us."
Good for us? Max blew out a breath, resigned. "What's wrong with another week on a boat? Someplace warm, with lots of water, and sunshine, and fishing."
Nicholas came up behind Grant, wide grin brighter than the look in his eyes. "Come on, mate. The sooner we get settled, the sooner we can hit the slopes."
Max's eyes widened. "Hit the slopes?" His gaze followed the lines of cable lifts laid out against a white skirt of fresh snow, then wandered up to the looming summit of the Zugspitze, barely visible through the mist. Thank goodness he couldn't see the rest of the Alps. Not that he was afraid of heights -- he was a pilot, after all. It was the idea of careening down them on two thin strips of wood at breakneck speed that bothered him.
Nicholas blinked, puzzlement raising a dark eyebrow. "You know we're here to ski, right? I mean, why else would we come here, just at the brink of the season before it gets crowded?" His tone turned reverent. "Nothing like racing down virgin white slopes on new-fallen snow to relax body and mind."
Tenative, Max took his bag from Grant and headed toward the chalet with the pair. "Yeah, nothing like."
Grant snapped his boots into his skis and inhaled, relishing the momentary gasp as the cold air hit deep in his lungs. Just being out here, before the tourist season got going and the slopes were merely scattered with die-hard skiiers rather than teeming with them, helped draw him out of the morasse he'd been sulking in the past few weeks. He hadn't been sleeping well, and knew by looking at his companions they were in the same state, though Max's face was more tired and drawn than he'd ever seen. They'd had some late phone conversations to break up sleepless nights, but Max never said much. Even a one-sided conversation was theraputic for Grant, but he could tell from the occasional grunts in those conversations the therapy was lost on Max.
Looking now at his friend, Grant saw the continuing effects of Max's struggle to come to terms with what had happened. The tall man's shoulders were slumped, his skin pale, new lines traced worry on a face that showed a subtle loss of weight in the hollows of cheeks and sunken circles around eyes. Of all of them, Max had done the most vital part of the mission, and had suffered the most. Grant couldn't imagine doing what Max had done -- and having to accept those actions as part of the job rather than a betrayal of Casey's sacrifice.
His friend had sunk into a state of mourning and guilt that would linger and affect his performance on the job if something wasn't done to help him through it. And Grant was just the one to do it. His spirit lightened with anticipation. Yes, he could help Max. He would make a point of it.
"Come on, mates, we're losing daylight." Nicholas pushed away toward the lift, gliding across the snow without effort. Grant glanced over at Max, still ski-less.
Max looked down, focused on snapping his boot onto the ski. "No, I've got it." He snapped the other ski on and leaned heavily on his poles.
On the lift, Grant looked down over the slopes. "Looks like we've pretty much got the runs to ourselves."
"Are you sure they're even open for skiing?"
Grant turned to the Australian. "Oh, yeah. Look over there." He indicated with a hand. "Looks like a team -- they're all dressed the same. Hey, maybe it's a local women's ski team." He nudged Max with an elbow, wide grin glowing on his dark face. "Didn't think snow bunnies would be out this early."
Max answered with a half-hearted smile. "They probably come out this early to avoid guys like you."
"What do you mean, guys like me? I'm the perfect gentleman."
"I bet they believe that, too." Grant saw some of the old Max under the strain. He'd have to work on that.
"Here's our stop. There's Nicholas." The pair got off the lift and headed toward Nicholas.
"There you are." Nicholas looked over the diagram of the runs posted near the lift. "Looks like only a few of the runs are open." He pointed to a black line with a gloved finger. "I'll be on my way up to that one. Any takers?"
"Sorry, the last time I tried a black diamond, I broke an arm." Grant grinned. "Not my arm, though. Just the unfortunate woman I crashed into."
"And we had a wonderful few nights reminiscing."
"After you broke her arm?"
"Well, I had to make sure she was okay, didn't I?" Grant indicated a red line. "We can start here. Meet you at the bottom."
Nicholas nodded and headed off in the direction of his chosen run.
Max hesitated as they passed the fork between the blue and red runs. Grant stopped, looked back. "Hey, time's a'wasting."
"You sure you don't want to warm up on a lower run?"
"You know how to ski, right?"
Max hesitated, his eyes travelling over the lower runs. "Yes."
"Just how many times have you gone skiing?"
"Counting the time I went with my brother before he," a pause, "once."
Grant blew out a breath. "I thought you skiied..."
Max looked at him, blue eyes narrowed. "No one asked me if we should come here."
"We thought you knew..."
"Well, no one asked me, did they?" Max looked away, his voice crisp as the air around them. "We could have gone somewhere warm and sunny if you guys wanted to get away. You could have asked me."
Well, shit. Grant felt his anticipation of the next few days drain away. "Sorry. We just thought... You waterski, windsurf, rock climb -- we just thought you skiied too."
"You could have asked instead of assuming. I don't ice skate either, in case that was on your itinerary."
Grant felt himself mentally scramble to rescue this mission -- vacation. "Okay, tell you what. Let's warm up on the blue runs, let you get the feel of it."
"No, you go on. Don't hold back because of me. I'll be fine." Max headed toward the blue runs. Grant stared after him. The whole point of the trip was to lighten Max's -- and his and Nicholas' -- mood.
It wasn't looking good for the home team.
A couple runs later, Nicholas shushed to a stop next to Grant at the base of the red run Grant had just finished. "Well, where's Max?"
Grant pointed down the slope to the more advanced blue pistes. He indicated Max's navy- and white-clad figure skiing carefully down the run. "There. Did you know he's only skiied once before today?"
"I thought he..."
"So did I. He made it abundantly clear no one asked him."
"Well, bloody hell."
"Tell me about it."
Nicholas adjusted his goggles. "Well, I guess we'll have to go to Plan B."
Grant stared, eyebrows arched high. "Plan B? What do you mean, Plan B?"
"Come now, Grant, you're not telling me you don't have a Plan B, are you?" Nicholas rolled his eyes dramatically. "Well, it's a good thing I've got a Plan B tucked away for just such an occassion."
"Do you now? Nicholas, you sly dog."
Lengthening shadows stretched across the white field in front of the lodge where Max found Grant and Nicholas removing their skis. He cut to a stop near them, having finally gotten the hang of snowplow braking. "Thought you two would still be on the slopes. It's not even sunset yet."
Nicholas picked his skis off the ground and stuck them into the snow like a stake on new territory, bottom to bottom. "It's been a while since I've skiied last. Wouldn't do to be too sore to ski tomorrow -- I'm not twenty any more."
"Been a while? I would never have guessed the way you raced down those trails." Grant stuck his own skis into the snow. "Where'd you learn to ski like that?"
"Ski team in college. I coach every now and again these days." Nicholas removed his gloves. "Speaking of, I could help you out, Max."
"Really? Like, transporting me to a beach in Cozumel?"
"No. Grant doesn't have all the bugs worked out of the transporter yet. I can help you with your skiing tomorrow."
"What makes you think I need help?"
Wary of the edge in Max's voice, Nicholas tread lightly under the guise of sincerity. "Well, if we're going to place at the pre-season amateur freestyle competition tomorrow afternoon, you're going to have to be able to pirouette on those skis."
Eyes bugged out. "What?"
Settling into the story, Grant fought a grin. "You know, once you leave the ramp, turning three-sixty before you land. It's pretty easy once you get the hang of it. The trick is spinning fast enough so you're facing forward before you hit the slope again, but not too fast so you go past three-sixty."
"Ramp?" A pause, followed by a slow grin. "You guys are putting me on."
"No, we're serious." Nicholas indicated the top of the slopes. "You saw those colored flyers posted on the terminals at the top of the cable run? Or the ones on the bulletin boards outside the lodge?"
"I didn't look at them."
"See, you should have. We're scheduled to perform our run right after the snow bunnies." Grant's grin glowed against his dark completion. "And if we're lucky, they'll catch us after we finish our routine." He didn't think Max's eyes could get any wider. "Then there's the other part we'll have to practice. We'll need to time our jumps and pirouettes so we're synchronized."
"You two can't be serious. That's crazy."
"Maybe, but the prize will be worth it."
"What prize could possibly be worth attempting to break your neck by jumping and pirouetting down a hill on skis? Why not just do cartwheels? People do that by accident."
Grant pulled his skis from the snow, deciding they'd yanked Max's chain enough for now. "We haven't decided yet, but we'll come up with something."
"You were shittin' me." The Aussie's tension loosened with relief, a sincere grin brightening his face as he rounded on Nicholas. "You're good. Really good."
Nicholas pulled his own skis from the snow. "Yeah, I know."
"Humility is overrated. Take off those skis and let's get something to eat. I'm starving."
Max followed his teammates to the table in a corner of the main lodge's restaurant, near enough to the roaring fireplace to be a little on the warm side. Walls were built of rounded river rock, capped by rafters of timber stained a warm honey oak. The restaurant was less than half-full of patrons, but would hold over two hundred when full. Across the room from the fireplace a long mahogany bar lined half the wall, backed by mirrors and bottles arranged artistically with steins, some of which looked to have seen Kaiser Wilhelm's rise to power. A low raised stage filled the middle third of the wall opposite the entrance, stools and mike stands empty, waiting for the next performance. Max sat next to Grant, stretched his left leg out alongside the table. He'd banged it pretty good in the couple tumbles he'd taken, and could already feel the swelling. His shoulder was faring better, but he'd only hit the ground with that once. He stretched his arm across his chest to loosen the shoulder, and hoped the ache would vanish by morning.
This wouldn't have happened if they'd gone fishing instead.
Nicholas settled himself across from Max, rubbing his eyes before putting his round glasses back on. "I can safely say I'm exhausted. I think I'll finally get some sleep tonight. Nothing like crisp mountain air and a few hours of skiing to numb body and mind."
"I agree with you there." Grant reached up and back, stretching. "How are you doing, Max?"
He realized both Nicholas and Grant were right. He'd focused on skiing, and the rest had faded into the wings. The weight he'd been under was lighter, not so dark, not so leaden. And somewhere along the way, he'd loosened his grip on the guilt haunting him with Casey's ghost.
He hated to admit this was a good idea. Fishing allowed one to brood. Skiing didn't.
"I'll be lucky if I can walk tomorrow." Max flexed his knee. The ache sharpened, shot up his leg. "You two might have to compete without me."
Grant blinked. Max chuckled. That felt good. "You know, the pre-season amateur freestyle competition tomorrow afternoon. My pirouette landing will be off with this knee."
"You must be feeling better. Been a long time since you carried a joke." Grant thumped a hand on Max's shoulder. He winced in pain and leaned away from Grant.
"I was until you reminded me of my bruised shoulder."
"Sorry, bud. I'll buy the first round."
"Only the first? I thought by now you'd owe us, what, three or four now, isn't it, Nicholas?"
"That sounds about right."
"Wait, wait. What do you mean, three or four? Since when?"
Nicholas leaned forward onto the table. "Well, there was the promise of a round after your brilliantly executed bottomless elevator worked. Nothing like looking down a few dozen stories through open elevator doors."
"Oh, then there was the wager about the psychopath in Hawaii. Told you I could pull it off."
"Okay, that's two." Grant leaned back against the wall, front legs of his chair in mid-air, then rocked forward, legs hitting the floor with a solid thud. "Wait. You should be buying me a round -- you didn't think the elevator thing would work. Where do you get three or four?"
"I made the rabbit appear."
"I never doubted that. I wouldn't have wagered that. Come on, I'll give you guys two rounds."
"Then you forgot about the Cuban KGB agent deal you pulled off in East Berlin."
"How does that make me owe you two a round?"
Nicholas leaned back in his chair. "As I recall, we were worried about you being incommunicado behind the Wall. You said, with great confidence I might add, you'd buy us a round after you showed us you could be just as convincing as the next guy."
"Now wait a second. I know I didn't promise a round..."
Max grinned, the ache of his shoulder and knee fading behind the comfort of familiar riposte. "I told you, Nicholas, we should have recorded it. I knew he'd conveniently forget when we tried to collect."
"You're right, Max. Note to self -- make sure Grant signs an IOU the next time he promises rounds."
"Hey, wait a minute. I said I'd give you guys two. Isn't that enough?"
"Nicholas, maybe should we settle for the two. Might be too much work to get the others out of him."
"I don't owe you any others."
"I say we start with the two. We might be able to convince him after that if we start now." Nicholas looked up as a waitress in sharp black slacks, white oxford, and black vest stopped at their table. He flashed her a smile. "And I'll spring for the pizza."
Max stared out the window at the fiery flamingo glow lighting the pristine face of the Zugspitze. Sunrise lit the peak's sister Alps as well, painting them with liquid golden light along granite edges, bleeding to rose brilliance on snowy crests. Another of the many sunrises he'd seen the past few weeks. The chalet faced west, so he couldn't see the blazing arc swell above the horizon. Fine by him. He was hoping for once to sleep through this. As exhausted as he'd been last night, after a day's worth of skiing, and being chased from the lodge at last call, he thought he'd sleep. Well, sleep better anyway.
The sunrise told him he was a few hours short of his hopeful six. Okay, four was still more than he'd been getting, but it had been restless sleep. The nightmares hadn't left him alone last night either, but he was grateful the worst ones had been absent from the lineup. He hadn't woken in a cold sweat last night, nor had he found the covers twisted around him after he'd thrashed through a dream. The luminous numbers on the bedside clock had ticked off the hours while he tried to relax enough to sleep. After time had inched forward only a few hours, he gave up.
Max turned from the window. Both Grant's and Nicholas' doors were still closed. A spike of envy cut through him. How could they sleep? He shoved the memories bubbling up into a dark corner of his mind and slammed the door. He couldn't move forward if he couldn't shut them away. The mission he'd been called up for last week, the one requiring nothing more than his piloting skills, had suffered because of the ghosts. It bothered him enough to call Jim and ask to keep him off the list for a few more weeks.
He'd have to move to the red pistes today, get a better workout. He tested his knee, worked it through the range of motion to stretch it. Yes, a better workout should help, provided he didn't break anything. Hell, he'd ski himself into the ground if it would keep the nightmares away.
Max looked up as a door opened. A sleep-tousled Grant stretched arms above his head and rubbed his eyes, squinting at the light in the general living area. "Turn that light off."
"Feel fortunate we're only getting the leftovers and not the full course. You should have stopped after the third round. And before the shots. Glad I didn't get into that one."
Grant rubbed his eyes with his palms. "I've been worse. At least you sound like you're only shouting in my ear, instead of using a bullhorn." He glanced at Nicholas' door. "He's not up yet?"
"Damn, Max, you look like hell. Did you sleep?"
"Gee, thanks for noticing. Some."
"Not as bad."
Grant nodded. "That's a good start, isn't it?"
Max combed fingers through his short hair. "I guess."
Grant wandered into the living area to the windows and rubbed the morning stubble on his cheeks. "Well, I hope you'll be able to focus for the competition this afternoon. We can practice the jumps this morning after a warmup on the easy runs."
"If I didn't know you better, I'd almost think you were serious about that."
"Hey, gotta have some fun. Besides, I'd hate to try and keep up with Nicholas. Did you see him yesterday? He was like hell on skis."
"Sorry, missed him. I was trying to stay upright." Max flexed his knee. "Managed pretty well too after banging my knee a few times."
"If we could slow him down, just for a bit..."
Max recognized the tone -- Grant was scheming. "Why would you want to do that?"
"Well, think about it. We came here to hang out, do some skiing, and relax. Pretty tough to hang out when each of us is off doing our own thing. I'm guessing you'll be on the red runs today with me, but we'd just be holding Nicholas back. He'll head for the black runs again today."
"What makes skis faster? Glide better?"
"Wax. But they're rentals -- why would we bother to wax them?"
"They've already been waxed. And we're only here for a couple days, so it would be pointless to wax every day unless one is practicing for competition. Serious skiiers would bring their own skis, and wax."
"Is there a point here?"
"They sell wax at the rental lodge."
"Some people go cross-country skiing here."
"Okay, maybe it's the lack of sleep, but I'm lost."
"I picked up some kick wax yesterday." Grinning, Grant ducked into his room and returned with a tin somewhat smaller than a hockey puck in his hand. "Never know if we'll decide to do some cross-country skiing. Might be a nice change."
Max shook his head, wondering at that moment if Grant had recovered yet from last night. "I need more -- still lost." Something clicked. "Wait. You're not serious."
Grant's coffee-brown eyes held a glint of mischief. "Oh yeah? Watch and learn, my friend, watch and learn."
"You realize it won't take him more than a few strides for him to figure out something's wrong, don't you?"
"I'm not so sure about that. He's good, but he doesn't ski regularly -- he admitted that. And according to the weather report, it'll be somewhat warmer today. The snow will have a different texture."
Max stared at Grant. "How long have you been cooking this up?"
Grant looped an arm around Max's broad shoulders. "Do you really want to know?"
"You're right, I don't really want to know."
The trio headed back out to the slopes under a brilliant azure sky accented by feathery white clouds painted across the cerulean plain by some cosmic artist. Max blinked against the glare of sunshine off the snow while he watched Grant trace a red run on the sign.
"This one and this one should be good for you. How's the knee?"
Max flexed his knee, relieved at the slight pull rather than a biting ache. "Should be okay, provided I don't use it as a landing pad."
Nicholas glided up beside them, adjusting his bindings. "Still no takers on the black runs?"
"Sorry, but after last night, I'm going to stick to the devil I know." Grant watched Nicholas test his skis, adjust the bindings, test again. "What's up?"
"I don't know. They don't feel right."
Max struggled not to glance at Grant. "It feels warmer today. Maybe it's just the snow -- probably stickier."
"Yes, stickier. That sounds about right." Nicholas danced on his skis, as if to work out a new routine. "I don't remember snow being this sticky even at this temperature." He skiied a few feet and returned. "I guess I'll be able to adjust."
"You know, you could take the red runs for a few, get a feel for the snow. Max is going to venture on the reds as well."
Nicolas looked at his teammates, sensing an aura of conspiracy between the two. Dark brows pulled together. "What do you know that I don't?"
Fighting to keep a serious look on his own face, Max shrugged. "I don't know about you, but I'm going to test the red runs. Catch you guys later." He adjusted the grip on his poles and shushed off toward the easier red pistes.
Grant watched him leave. "Sounds good. Hey, Nicholas, feel free to take a few red runs with us today. I know it would be a step down for you, but we really need to practice our routine together."
Nicholas chuckled. "Now wouldn't that be something to see. The three of us skiing down a slope, off a ramp, and trying to land in sync. Like the Three Stooges."
"I get to be Larry." With a grin, Grant pushed off in the direction Max went. "Later."
A couple hours later, Max plowed to a stop at the bottom of a run to rest a minute. Yes, he had gotten the hang of it. And he found it exhilarating, liberating. He blew out a breath, looked up at the slopes to watch Grant carve his way down one of the more advanced red pistes. The thin, crisp mountain air, blazing sunshine reflecting off the snow, the physical workout of skiing was rejuvenating. Weight he'd become accustomed to the past few weeks had lightened, fading from a looming, soul-draining darkness to a shadow shrinking beneath the glow of bonding with close friends. He felt his strength return, the leech of self-reproach driven off by the realization that nothing could be changed now. It was done, all of it. He'd done what was needed, they'd accomplished the mission, and though there was a hole in their family where Casey had been, Shannon had joined them.
Let the past go, his brother had told him. One of the bits of advice he'd left with Max after the daring rescue. Easier said than done. More easily done when there were distractions, when one became focused on something far removed from the job. The physical activity, the concentration, the outdoors -- it all worked together to wash away the stain of guilt and heal the pain of loss. How long had it taken him, how many days -- weeks -- of grueling hikes through the Outback, of punishing climbs up the most challenging routes in the Blue Mountains and Nowra, before the pain and guilt of his losing his brother had faded enough for him to return to his life?
The point was, it had helped. Mental, physical exhaustion helped. Max watched Grant carve his way down a slope off to his right, then head his direction, slowing to a stop next to him. Being with friends helped too.
Grant pulled off his gloves and blew out a breath. "This is almost too warm. The snow's starting to melt, and I'm sweating." He gave Max a once-over. "You look better. Welcome back to the living, bud."
"You know, that just tells me how awful I've been."
"Hey, somebody has to. And I know how much you like me to pull punches."
"I've had bruises to prove it, too."
Max watched Grant unzip his ski jacket halfway and rock back and forth, waiting. "What?"
Grant's bright grin lit his dark face. "You want me to say it?"
"You can thank me now."
"For dragging your ass out here instead of onto a boat in the Caribbean."
Max rolled his eyes. "Fine, okay, thanks. Happy?"
"Alright, which one of you clowns messed with my skis?" Nicholas shushed to the conspirators and unsnapped the bindings on his skis. He picked them up and stuck each upright into the snow.
Max held his hands out in front of him. "I had nothing to do with it."
Nicholas glared at Grant. "I knew it was you. Sticky snow, huh?"
Fighting to hold in the humor, Grant deadpanned. "I have no idea what you are talking about."
In a blur Nicholas scooped up a handful of snow and dumped it down Grant's back before he could react. "Feel sticky?"
Grant danced away, struggling to shake the snow out of his shirt and maintain his balance on his own skis. "Hey, what gives?"
"I should have known. It was that kick wax you bought yesterday, wasn't it?"
"You knew I bought that?"
Nicholas scooped up another handful of snow and chased a dodging Grant. "Come back here."
Grant grunted as he hit the ground, skis askew. "Hey, all in good fun." He ducked his head as the snowball hit. He unfastened his bindings, grabbed a handful of snow and angled to his feet to face Nicholas and another snowball. "At least you were able to join us amateurs here."
Nicholas turned to Max with a grin and followed through with a snowball. The Aussie brushed the shattered lump off his chest. "Hey, it was his idea." He stumbled backwards and lost his balance.
"Come on, get up." Nicholas turned and launched another snowball at Grant after Grant's ammo splashed against the Brit's back.
Ten minutes later the snowball fight had wound down to three grown men trying to catch their breath through bouts of laughter and exhaustion. Nicholas lay on the ground, leaning back, braced by elbows planted in the snow, gasping for air. "Someone would think we are three mischievous schoolboys out here."
Grant lay on his back, arms and legs stretched out. "Would they be wrong?" He swept his arms and legs in arcs, leaving a nicely-proportioned angel imprinted in the snow. "Man, this feels good. I haven't had a snowball fight in years."
A loose ball dropped next to Grant's head, splashing snow into his face. "And to think I missed out on this growing up in Australia near the coast."
"Be grateful. You also missed out on snow-washes and iceballs."
Nicholas pushed himself up. "The snow never lasted long enough when I was a kid to have any really good snowball fights. No forts or snowmen either, really."
Another ball landed next to Nicholas. "So it was your idea to go skiing?"
"Hey, I thought you could ski. You seem to be doing well."
Max dropped back onto the snow. "I guess so. I haven't broken anything yet, so that's a good sign."
"At least you looks less like the living dead and more like the living half-dead now. Or is it the half-living dead?" Grant covered his head as snow rained on him. "Hey!"
"At least with more sleep I can look good again."
"He does have you there, Grant."
Grant rolled to his stomach to look at his teammates. "I've never had any complaints."
"Is that with the lights on or off?"
Jumping to his feet, Grant tossed snow at each of them. "Maybe I'll have to track down a snowbunny or two, now that I'm refreshed."
"Remember, you don't have to break their arm to get them to sit down with you for a drink. All you need to do is ask." Max pushed himself to his feet and brushed snow from his ski pants. "I can show you how it's done."
"Grant, do you even speak German?" Nicholas gathered his skis and poles. "I don't know that I've ever heard you speak German."
"I speak the language of love."
Nicholas leaned toward Max, speaking in a stage whisper behind a hand. "That translates to colliding with them and breaking their arm so they can't fly away. Some call it playing the sympathy card."
A snowball slammed against Nicholas' chest. "Let's see who gets the last laugh, Nicholas. I'll have a snow bunny under my spell before last call."
"Oh, Grant, my friend, you can not hope to compete." Nicholas adopted a French accent. "The ladies will melt in my hands."
Max chuckled, shook his head, and pulled his poles out of the snow. "I think you both have gotten snow-dazed."
"Care to join our little gentlemen's wager?"
A vision of sharing a drink with anonymous female company began to materialize.
Memories of the witch Barazon flashed through Max's mind, followed by fuzzy images of Casey against the fence that sealed her fate. Claws of ice tore through his chest, a band tightening around him, lungs straining to expand. In an instant he was bent at the waist, head lowered to his knees, a strong arm on either side supporting him. Somewhere near he heard Grant's voice float to his ears.
"Max. Max, can you hear me?"
His voice was swallowed by the fist squeezing his chest. He couldn't breathe, couldn't see, couldn't speak. Everything vanished, leaving him teetering on the edge of the dark void that hunted him.
"Set him down, Grant." He felt the ground underneath him. "Max?" Someone tapped his cheeks with the flat of a hand. "Max, can you hear me? It's Nicholas."
"Put his head down." Max was propped up, head pushed toward his knees. "Max, say something."
Sweat materialized everywhere, his ski pants and jacket becoming suffocating thermal generators. Nausea twisted his guts into a nest of eels while his head spun in an eddy of disorientation.
Cold slid down his back, shocking his system into shivers and snapping the band constricting his chest. Max drew in a deep breath, cool air settling his stomach. Another breath anchored his mind, slowing its reeling. Nausea seeped away, leaving his nerves trembling in its wake.
"Max, can you hear me?" Grant held his shoulder, steadying him. "Hey, buddy, say something."
Then it came, swelling, rising from the deep dark place he'd banished it, burning through the center of him, the guilt, the regret, the anger, the pain, all twisted together into a knife of emotion that finally burst from him, a cry of despair with tears of frustration and loss.
"Oh god, Max, let it out." Nicholas braced him on the other side. "Just let it out. You'll feel better, trust me."
He did. He wept, releasing something inside that washed out of him, leaving a hollow behind that was soon coated with the reassurance of friendship. His friends. His close friends were here with him, just as they'd been the whole time he'd been shutting them out. He put his trust in them now, certain they would support him through the storm he'd been running from.
He hadn't had friends like these after his brother...
Masculine pride aside, Max leaned into them and let himself release it all, until there were no more tears, no more cries of regret or futility, no more ghosts of guilt. He didn't know how long it had been, how long he'd sat there and mourned, how long his friends had sat there with him, saying nothing, just being. He straightened, breath hitching as he drew in cool mountain air to clear his mind.
"You all right?" Nicholas sat back, a shadow of pain darkening his own face.
Max didn't trust his voice yet. He nodded, unzipped his jacket, and wiped his face dry on his shirt.
Grant pushed himself to his feet and extended a hand to Max. "Come on, let's head in. We can commiserate over lunch."
Nicholas stood as Grant pulled Max to his feet. "And after lunch, we really need to practice those synchronized pirouttes."
A chuckle escaped, lightening the mood like a breeze clearing away fog. Max straightened, ran fingers through hair damp with sweat. "Hey, guys." He winced as his voice cracked.
Grant and Nicholas each met his eyes with their own. "Yeah?"
"Thanks. I needed that."
Nicholas laid an arm across the taller man's shoulders. "We know. We've already been there."
"We were just waiting for you to catch up." Grant squeezed the Australian's shoulder and led the way back to the lodge.