Cody hated Tricor and everything in it. Everything it stood for, up to and including career traction, Argyle socks and neckties.
He stopped short of hating their share of the reward, but only because it was covering Nick's medical bills. If they hadn't needed it so badly, he'd have been more than half inclined to give it all away. He had an idea there was some kind of charity for retired seamen, something like that.
Movement from the other bunk pushed all thoughts of retired sailors from Cody's head. He moved, quiet and slow, to Nick's side. If Nick was still sleeping, the last thing he wanted to do was disturb him.
But Nick had his eyes open and was struggling to sit up. "Take it easy," Cody soothed, sliding his arm around Nick's shoulders. "What is it?"
Nick blinked at him, moving his head from side to side. "Cody? Cody, 'zat you?"
"It's me, buddy. It's me." Cody steadied Nick against his body and picked up the cup of water from the nightstand. "I got you. Just tell me what you need, okay?"
It had started with an infection in the gunshot wound. Nick had gotten sick fast, so sick that Cody overruled his weak protests and drove him to the hospital. He was glad he had; he was pretty sure the three nights on a drip had saved Nick's life.
Even though Nick had somehow contracted pneumonia and had to spend another week in the hospital.
Cody tried not to think about the long, lonely nights on the boat, after the nurses had thrown him out. He hadn't slept; he couldn't, not with Nick so ill and so far from him; if Murray hadn't been there to keep him sane, to drive him when he couldn't drive himself, he didn't know what he'd have done.
But at last Nick was over the worst and out of danger. His fever was gone and the pain was manageable, and although he'd been discharged AMA (as always), Cody knew the only option was to bring him home.
Nick's vision seemed to have cleared, and he rubbed his head slowly against Cody's shoulder. "Sorry." He coughed. "Think I was dreaming."
"I know." Cody ran a hand through Nick's hair then held the cup to his lips. "Have some water."
Nick sipped obediently, then coughed again. Cody laid a hand on his forehead, checking for fever, then made to ease him back down.
Cody stopped at the tone in his partner's voice. "What's wrong, buddy? Are you hurting?" Fear sharpened his voice.
"No... 'm fine." Nick fumbled for Cody's hand. "Just don't wanna go back there... don't wanna go back alone."
Cody swallowed a lump in his throat. Normally he kept his emotions in check with ease; since Nick had been hurt, he felt like he was on an emotional rollercoaster. "You're not going back. And you're sure as hell not going anywhere without me, you got that?" He shifted onto the bunk, moving Nick's pillow and easing Nick to lay back against him instead.
Nick snuggled contentedly into his shoulder. "Glad you got me out," he muttered hazily. "Don't remember... enemy fire. Don't know how I got us down..."
Cody gave up trying to fight the tears. He held Nick close, stroking his hair, saying his name softly. Doing his damnedest to keep Nick in the present, in the cabin; to keep the past away.
Nick relaxed slowly, his breathing turning even, his body heavy in Cody's arms. Cody stopped crying, but he didn't return to his own bunk. The nightmares were too close and far too real. He couldn't risk them stealing Nick away.
Nick was improving every day. He was well enough now to spend a couple of hours on the fantail every afternoon, soaking up the sun and what passed for fresh air this close to LA.
And soaking up the attention from the Contessa girls, every waitress Straightaway had ever had, and, as far as Cody could tell, every babe in a bikini on the coast. The flock of women that gathered, like moths to a flame, every day at two p.m. was really starting to get him down.
He pushed his way between two brunettes who looked vaguely familiar and a shapely redhead in a swimsuit he was sure was illegal in at least nine states, and finally made it to his partner's side. Nick was sitting in a corner of the benchseat, legs stretched out along the cushion, wearing a grin reminiscent of a cat with a canary.
Cody thinned his lips and held out a pill bottle. "C'mon, big guy, time for your painkiller, huh?"
The light went out of Nick's grin. "Aw, Cody-not now, man. Come on. Listen, how 'bout you get me a beer, huh?"
Cody stared at him. He didn't really think Nick was serious-about the painkillers, maybe, but not about the beer-but he couldn't help flashing on Nick, white and still, in the hospital bed. Flushed and restless, fighting Cody, begging him to stop the pain. Clinging to him in the night, blue eyes dull and frightened.
"No beer." Cody turned on his heel and nearly ran inside, and when four o'clock came, he sent Murray out to chase the bimbos off the boat. He couldn't face it, not today.
Murray helped Nick inside, and for once Cody didn't go down to him. The rattletrap rollercoaster inside his heart was revving up to full speed, and he was pretty sure even looking at Nick would make him burst into tears.
It wasn't something he felt like explaining. Hell, he didn't think he could explain it if he tried.
"I was joking about the beer."
Cody looked up from his magazine, then leaped to his feet. Nick, pale as a ghost and clinging to the rail for support, was standing at the top of the stairs. "Nick! You're supposed to be sleeping!" He grabbed Nick, taking his weight, and supported him to the couch.
Nick sank down thankfully, grabbing Cody's hand and pulling him down beside him. "It was a joke," he said again, heavily. "I'm sorry, Cody, okay? And I'm supposed to be cutting back on the pain pills..."
"I know." Cody fought not to cry. He'd known it was a joke, Nick was saying it was a joke. But somewhere deep down inside, he guessed he just didn't get it. "You should be in bed. You shouldn't be climbing the stairs."
Nick nodded. He looked exhausted. "I wanted to explain. I didn't... Cody, just don't be angry with me, okay?" He lowered his head. "Not... not yet."
"I'm not angry with you." Cody gave up the fight, gathering Nick close and crying unashamedly down his neck. "I couldn't be bothered with all those girls today, that's all." It was a lie and they both knew it, but they were together. And that, after all, was what mattered.
Cody woke to a shuffling sound in the cabin, and was on his feet almost before his eyes were open. "Nick!"
"It's all right, man. Go back to sleep." Nick, standing by the door, yawned then grinned. "Just hittin' the head."
"Just-oh." Cody nodded, the panicked pounding of his heart steadying. He sat down on his bunk, listening to Nick's feet on the deck, the hiss of water from next door. He had to fight the irrational urge to follow, to see for himself that Nick was doing okay.
"Go back to sleep." Nick re-entered and shot him a worried glance, then got back into bed.
Cody couldn't help it. He went to Nick's side, pulled the blankets higher, laid the back of his hand against Nick's forehead.
"Cody." Nick caught his hand, pulling it down and holding it against his chest. "You don't have to worry, pal. I'm all right now, you know?"
Those damned ever-present tears threatened to swamp Cody again. He nodded carefully, fighting them back. Nick was all right now. He knew it; it was the reason he could sleep again. "Night, buddy."
He went back to his own bunk, determinedly closing his eyes. Determined not to cry. Nick was all right now. That was good news.
Cody couldn't stop himself listening to the soft breathing from the other bunk, alert for any hitch, wheeze or cough. He couldn't stop himself waking anytime Nick moved, every sense alert. But although he ached to hold Nick in the night, to sit beside him, stroke his hair, watch his face as he drifted in and out of sleep, he kept himself in his own bunk.
Nick was all right now.
Cody had gotten used to their early morning routine, the two of them in the head together. Moving around each other. His hands and body helping Nick, supporting him. It had become so familiar, so comfortable, he'd almost forgotten it was because Nick was ill.
And now Nick was better. Nick held the door, grinning and shaking his head as Cody tried to follow him. "I don't need you anymore," Nick said cheerfully, and the narrow wooden door swung shut in Cody's face.
Cody stood, blank-faced, staring at the closed door. Nick's words were like a kick in the guts. He took one step in the direction of their cabin, then realized that was no good-Nick would be back in a matter of minutes, cheerful, ready to start the day.
For Cody, the day was already over.
Still in the sweatpants he'd slept in, Cody ran up the stairs, grabbed the keys to the Jimmy and gave Murray a wave. "You around if Nick needs anything?"
Murray looked at him in frank astonishment. "Where are you going? Is everything okay?"
"I-" Cody stopped. He couldn't explain: he had no idea where he was going, and nothing was okay. Nothing would ever be okay again. He settled for shaking his head and running up the stairs before Murray could ask anything else.
He headed up the coast toward Ventura, concentrating on the road. Fighting the emotions that threatened to engulf him; fighting not to think at all.
Cody hadn't realized he had a destination in mind until he got there; he pulled the car off the road and stopped in the tiny lot, suddenly aware he'd come here on purpose.
The old store-fronts were boarded up and weathered by the wind, signs falling down. It had been a strip-mall once, but the land it was built on had eroded. There wasn't much left. Cody walked along in front of the rickety boardwalk that had served the stores when he'd been a kid. His grandfather had brought him here for icecream nearly every week.
Cody turned his back on the derelict stores and made his way down the sandy path to the ocean.
There was no one on this stretch of beach. It was dangerous to swim, and too rocky for the surfers. He shoved his hands in his pockets and started to walk.
The seaspray stung his cheeks and his bare shoulders. There wasn't much heat in the sun yet, and the ocean breeze raised gooseflesh on his skin. Cody shivered and walked faster.
I don't need you anymore. He knew Nick had simply been talking about the shower-he and Nick needed each other down deep, in a way Cody had no idea how to change. But that was the problem. Something hadchanged.
Cody finally reached the cut in the beach he'd been headed for and clambered over the rocks, heading a little inland, into shelter. He stopped at last, dropping down onto a rock. The sea was hidden from view behind the point. At his feet, a brackish stream wended sluggishly down toward the ocean. The sun was hot on his back.
Him and Nick. Partners, best friends. How it had always been. Then Tricor had come along. Cody was furious with the outfit, and furious with himself for his bull-headed stubbornness. He'd nearly thrown away everything that mattered chasing some stupid idea of success.
Nick had seen right through it, of course. Right through the Tricor bull, and right through Cody's bull, just like he always did. He'd pulled them out of that mess and nearly gotten killed into the bargain.
Cody shifted a little, staring at his eddying, muddied reflection in the stream. If he lost Nick, he'd die. Maybe not literally, his heart might go on beating (although he wasn't sure on that one), but inside, where it mattered, there'd be nothing.
He had words to describe Nick, when people asked: buddy, partner, best friend. They'd fought a war together, shared a bond-outsiders nodded wisely at that, like they knew.
They didn't know. No-one knew. Cody got to his feet again and started walking. No one knew what Nick meant to him. He'd barely known himself, not until he'd nearly lost Nick.
They'd been close since the beginning in 'Nam, and they'd stayed close; through the disembodied nightmare of discharge, through the lost and frightening years that followed. Through the structure of the Military Police and the fear and joy of freedom. They'd held each other through countless nightmares, the waking kind as well as the dream kind. They'd drunk together, cried together, lived together.
Nick wasn't his buddy. Nick was his world, his life, his blood, his bones.
Cody scrambled over a few rocks, climbing higher. Point Mugu State Park started somewhere around here, and he'd spent his boyhood playing and hiking around these rocks and trails. He kept a careful eye out for rattlesnakes in the rocks, but nothing stirred.
Nick hates snakes. Cody tore his eyes from the ground, looking up at the sun and at the slope above him, suddenly feeling desperately alone. He wasn't used to being in-country (in the country; he hesitated over the words, repeating them to make sure) without Nick a half-step ahead.
He went another half-mile, leaving the rocky stream-bed behind and entering the woods. The trail swung this way and that, now and then allowing a glimpse of the Pacific through the trees. At one of those points, Cody stopped and scrambled away from the trail, leaving the trees behind until he was perched on a rocky ledge that overlooked the ocean.
The Channel Islands were close from here. He could see the nearest, humpbacked against the sky.
Maybe by next weekend, Nick'll be well enough to go fishing.Cody closed his eyes for a moment. The sun, the sea, Nick. He opened them again and sighed. He was kidding himself. By next weekend, Nick would have taken at least one of his concerned female visitors up on her not-too-subtle offer, and be making the most of his enforced vacation from the agency.
Cody didn't blame Nick-how could he?-but he hated the idea anyhow. "I'm not ready to share him yet," he said to the sea. "But how the hell can I tell him that?"
He couldn't, that much was clear. Cody sighed, resting his chin on his hand and looking out to sea. It wasn't Nick's problem, it was his. What he had to do was get over it. And he couldn't do that here.
He stood up slowly and started back to the track. His stomach growled at him, reminding him he hadn't had breakfast, and he scowled slightly. He was at least an hour from the car, closer to two maybe. It was gonna be a hungry walk.
Cody grabbed a sapling near the trail, using it to lever his body up the steep slope. He got one foot on the edge and the slim branch snapped in his hand.
Rocks hit and scraped, tearing at his bare chest. The back of his head clonked hard on something and he cried out, scrabbling for purchase with clumsy fingers. "Nick! Nick!"
A shock of impact knocked all the breath out of him. Cody whimpered a little, struggling to breathe, one part of his mind rationally recognizing that he was winded. Breathe can't breathe ribs ohgod Nick I fell Nick where are you gotta breathe.
He fought back panic, taking tiny sips of air. He didn't know if he was bad hurt, but he knew Nick was coming. That had to be right.
Hurry, Nick. Everything hurt. He was starting to breathe easier, but his head was still spinning. Dark and light fell across his vision in waves, playing tricks on him, showing him things that weren't there. Pitbull shouting, Murray's hands on a keyboard, the Roboz scrolling numbers faster than thought.
Cody closed his eyes, struggling for focus. "Won't be long, Nick. We're goin' fishing... don't go without me, buddy..." He heard the words in his own ears, as though from a long way away.
Nick dried himself off and picked up his sweatpants, then, with a grin, went to the closet instead and rummaged until he found his cargo pants. He was starting to feel like himself again; he could finally stop dressing like an invalid.
He ran up the stairs to prove to himself that he could, and arrived safely, if slightly breathless, in the salon.
Cody didn't shout at him. Nick frowned briefly, looking around. Murray was at the table, sitting over coffee and the newspaper. There was no sound from the galley.
Nick went to the coffeepot at a more cautious pace, and poured himself a cup. "Morning, Boz. Where's Cody?"
"Huh? Oh! Good morning, Nick! Wow, you're up and dressed... that's great! How do you feel?"
"Fine, Murray. I feel fine." Nick sat down slowly, feeling the burn in his side that said running up the stairs hadn't been his finest move. "Do you know where Cody is?"
"Great!" Murrray beamed, then frowned briefly. "Cody went out a little while ago... he didn't say where. He just asked me if I was around if you needed anything, and when I asked where he was going, he just waved and walked out the door."
"Huh." Nick sipped his coffee. "Waved and went out the door? Sounds like he had a hot date."
"Oh, yeah!" Murray's face lit up again. "I bet that's it."
Nick turned and parted the blinds, looking out the window. The Jimmy was missing from its spot. It was perfectly possible that Cody had a date for breakfast, but recently, Cody had been sticking to Nick like glue. Nick pushed away a twinge of uneasiness. Cody didn't have to tell him every time he stepped off the boat.
Nick just couldn't help wishing that today was one of the times he had.
Nick was feverish again. Cody could feel it burning as though the fever was his. The cabin was pitch dark, and something, maybe his old brown robe, hindered him at every step, but he fought through.
If he could just get to Nick, everything would be okay. He would hold Nick safe until the fever broke, and after this, he'd never let him go again.
By lunchtime, Nick had gotten past officially worried and was headed for frantic. Cody never disappeared, and whatever Murray said, walking off the boat without telling your best friend where you were going, and staying gone for four hours, was disappearing in Nick's book.
Nick had been through everything he could think of, trying to figure out where Cody could have gone. He'd called Straightaway and Mama Jo, and even Quinlan. He'd even been through their closet, wondering if that would give him a clue, but he couldn't figure out which of Cody's clothes were missing.
"Boz," Nick called, climbing the stairs back to the salon. "Did you notice what Cody was wearing?" It was a slim chance-depending how absorbed Murray was in what he was doing, you had an even chance of sneaking past him with a troop of dancing girls and a performing pony-but by now, Nick was grasping at straws.
"What Cody was wearing?" Murray wrinkled his forehead. "Sweatpants, I think. Yeah, he looked like he'd just gotten out of bed. That's why I was so surprised when he left."
Nick dropped heavily onto the couch, staring at Murray in horror. His heart pounded. "Let me get this straight. Cody ran out of here in his sweats and nothing else, and refused to tell you where he was going?"
"When you put it like that, it does sound a little... odd." Murray looked concerned. "You don't think he went to meet someone about a case, do you?"
"In sweats? Nah." Nick pinched the bridge of his nose. "Did someone call? Something like that?"
Murray shook his head. "It was the first I'd seen him this morning. Unless he was up early, talked to someone while I was still in bed, maybe?"
"Nope. I woke up before he did. I went to take a shower... he was going to help me, but I told him I was fine on my own. He must have gone out right after that." Nick lowered his hand, fear welling up inside him. Cody had looked a little tired, a little stressed, but Nick knew his own illness was to blame for that. There'd been nothing to show Cody was upset, and Cody had said nothing about going out. Something must have happened in the moment after Nick had gone into the head.
"Maybe he just needs a little time out." Murray leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees. "Nick... I know you guys are close, but since you got hurt, I don't think Cody's left this boat except to go to the hospital. He's been with you all day and all night except when the nurses kicked him out, or maybe to go to the bathroom. Don't take this the wrong way, but perhaps... perhaps he needed space."
Nick stared at Murray. "I didn't think of that." He thought of his partner, holding him through the pain, the fever, the nightmares. It couldn't have been easy. Nick's heart wrenched as he thought of the lonely, frightening nights in the hospital, strange nurses leaning over, strange lights, strange voices. His memory of his illness was hazy, but the one thing he did remember was the safety of Cody's arms. Lying back, letting go, trusting Cody's strength. Trusting Cody's love for him to keep him safe, make him whole.
"I'm sure he's okay," Murray said comfortingly. "He'll be back for dinner, you'll see. And Bambi and Tammy'll be over soon. Relax, Nick. You're not a hundred percent yet, you know."
"Bambi and Tammy." Pain stabbed through Nick's heart as he thought of the look in Cody's eyes when he'd made that stupid joke about a beer. What the hell had he been thinking? Everything Cody had done for him, and he couldn't even acknowledge the guy was still worried about him. What had Murray said? All day and all night except maybe to go to the bathroom.
"I think it's boss how they come over every day to check up on you."
Nick nodded absently, thinking about Cody. All day and all night, except when those damned girls come over. Jesus, Cody. I'm so sorry.No wonder Cody needed space. "I'm an insensitive jerk," Nick said, and stood up. "Boz, I gotta go find him."
"Nick! Nick, no!" Murray jumped up, grabbing Nick's arm as his partner started out the door. "You're not well enough to go out! And if Cody needs space, then-"
Nick shook his head. "I'm fine. And if Cody wants space, he can have it, right after he hears what I got to say to him. But right now, I'm going to find him."
Murray sighed. He was, after all, used to the intense relationship between his partners, and he hadn't really expected to be able to dissuade Nick from his purpose. "Nick... where are you going to look?"
Nick paused. His plan hadn't gotten further than 'Find Cody'. When Cody needed space to think, he walked down the beach. But this time, he'd taken the car. Nick shrugged. "Every beach in Southern California."
It wasn't dark any longer. Cody blinked. There were trees above his head, trees and sky. Vietnam. But the sky was the clear blue of California. He started to sit up and a sharp pain like a knife stabbed into his side.
Cody fell back with a soft cry. He landed on rough rocks and grit.
Point Mugu. I fell. A wave of fear broke over Cody as he remembered the sea-lookout. The terrain had been very steep. How far had he fallen? How bad was he hurt?
He lay still, breathing as deep as he could, trying to assess his own body.
His left leg felt fine, but his right was numb below the knee. When he tried to move it, it felt dead and heavy, and he wondered if it was caught under a rock. After the earlier pain, he was afraid to try and lift his head to look.
There was a treetrunk against his ribs, in the same area where the pain had come. Cody hoped that meant the two were related. His head ached and he was desperately thirsty. He tried to look at his watch and found his left arm seemed fine save for a dull throb in his shoulder, but that his watch was a casualty of the fall.
Cody licked his lips desperately. Someone would come. The trail where he'd fallen was popular (you weren't on the trail, smart guy). Nick would miss him soon (Nick's got no idea where you are) and find him. Nick had to find him.
Cody thought about the pain in his side. Just ribs. He could make it out with broken ribs. He got his right arm around the tree and raised himself up a little.
The pain was like fire, but he could still breathe. Ribs. Stop it. He rested a moment, then tried again, this time getting his left leg under him.
He made a final effort, half-propping himself against the treetrunk, struggling to breathe. Through streaming eyes, he saw that his right leg was trapped in a deadfall. He gave an experimental tug, and succeeded only in jolting his ribs again.
Cody stared at the steep, rocky terrain around him and slowly closed his eyes. Even if he could get his leg free, he doubted his own ability to get back to the trail without falling again.
He was stuck.
The roar of the chopper drowned out a little of the terror building in Nick's brain. He knew it was irrational (he hoped it was irrational) but with every moment, it ramped up another notch. Murray could call Cody's vanishing act what he liked, but Nick called it MIA.
Murray was in the co-pilot's seat, peering anxiously down as they skimmed the coast. "How d'you know he would have gone north?"
"I don't," Nick said grimly. And he didn't. But when Cody was upset, he turned to his grandfather, and that meant Point Mugu. Right now, that was all he had to go on.
Below them, the plush beachfront homes of Malibu slowly gave way to wilderness. Ahead, Nick could see the gray shapes of the naval base and he pulled off, circling out to sea, back the way he had come. Trying to take time to think.
"Look! Nick, look!" Murray was leaning over, pointing frantically. "Down there! I think it's a car!"
"Of course it's a car. It's the fucking Pacific Coast Highway," Nick snapped.
"No! Look, down by the beach."
Nick scowled, but changed his trajectory anyway. The Jimmy was no dune buggy, and Cody knew better than to drive it out onto the sand. But it was worth a look.
Mimi growled comfortably as he throttled her back, sinking lower. The car Murray had seen was red, and did look a lot like a half-cab. Nick's scowl became a frown as Mimi powered in from the sea. What he'd taken for a collection of beach huts from high above on the road side had some kind of parking lot in front. And the car in the lot was a bright red Jimmy.
"You're right, Murray! What the hell is this place?" Nick dropped Mimi as low as he dared. The lot wasn't big enough to land, and the beach sloped dangerously. He couldn't set down.
"It looks like it used be a strip mall." Murray peered through the windscreen. "Do you think it's the Jimmy? I can't read the licence plate!"
"It's our Jimmy," Nick said grimly. There was no-one in the car. "But the question is, where the hell is Cody?"
Murray shot Nick an anxious glance. "Maybe we should call the police. You shouldn't fly for much longer, Nick."
Nick ignored Murray. He was hurting some, but it was manageable-more than manageable. Finding Cody was what was important. He lifted Mimi higher, scanning the landscape, then set the big bird cruising along the beach.
Cody stared dimly through the undergrowth, pushing sweat-damp hair out of his eyes. He was thirsty, terribly thirsty, but he'd lost his canteen.
He was on his own. He couldn't see anyone, alive or dead; couldn't remember how he'd come to be on this strange slope. The air smelled of pines, like California, and when he closed his eyes, he imagined he could hear the sea.
Cody fought against the illusion. He had to stay put, stay where Nick could find him. As long as Charley didn't find him first.
Nick climbed grimly up the slope. Murray panted behind him: not from exertion, the pace Nick was setting was too slow for that, thanks to the ache in his chest and the pull in his side-Murray was panting because he was talking too much. As far as Nick was concerned, he could have saved his breath.
Sure, everything Murray said was valid: they had no way of knowing Cody had taken this route; Nick was barely well enough to walk along the beach, let alone climb a mountain; Cody might even now be back in the Jimmy, heading unknowingly home. But something drove Nick onward, and as much as he respected Murray's judgement in general, when it came to Cody, Nick had learned to trust his instinct.
He glanced over his shoulder, out to sea. What had driven Cody to take up mountaineering, he had no idea. And why Cody hadn't come back down... Nick swallowed hard, and stopped. "Boz," he said, cutting through Murray's reasoned argument as to why they should turn back.
Murray came up beside him. "Why would Cody come up here? He-"
Nick held up a hand. "Murray, please. I think he's in trouble, okay? But if you want to go back down and wait for me, I understand."
Murray stared at Nick, an expression of shock on his face. "No! No way. I might not think he's up here, but I'm not going to let you kill yourself searching alone!"
"Thanks, Boz." Nick meant it. He squeezed Murray's arm. It was something to have a guy who'd follow you, even if he didn't believe you. "I'm not gonna kill myself, man. I promise."
"No need to promise." Murray put his hands on his hips. "I'm not gonna let you. I brought my comm-link to the Roboz. If you need help, I'm gonna get it, and no arguments."
Nick nodded, starting back up the trail. He was glad Murray had his comm-link. It might come in handy when they found Cody. If they found Cody.
Cody was starting to get cold. He'd awoken from a fevered doze, surprised and frightened that he'd slept. His head ached and his leg was cramping, but worse was the knowledge that the sun was dropping lower, he had no food or water, and he was still trapped.
He leaned himself cautiously against the tree, hunkering down as much as possible to conserve warmth. Desperately, with every part of his soul, he wanted Nick.
From somewhere above came the sound of movement, whether animal or human, Cody couldn't tell. But it sounded large, human-sized. Cody's heart pounded.
Rescue? Possibly. He couldn't remember much about the mission that had gotten him into this mess, but he had an idea there was no-one who'd know where to search. Not even Nick. Maybe it was a patrol passing near.
Or maybe it was the VC. Cody covered his eyes with his hand, shaking. He couldn't shout, even if he'd wanted to-even if he dared-fear had stolen his voice. Death was with them every day, but not like this. Not alone and trapped.
Not without Nick. Cody's eyes snapped open and he struggled against the log that held him fast. Nick would expect him to fight, so he would fight. His ribs blossomed with pain, shooting stars across his vision, but he ignored them.
The fear wouldn't win. He wouldn't let it. He closed his eyes on the world and thought of Nick. Doing my best, buddy. Wish you were here.
"You don't have to wish," Nick answered, and Cody quit struggling. Nick wasn't with him; he knew that, but he'd take Nick's voice, even if it wasn't real.
"You came," he said, keeping his eyes closed against reality. "I didn't want to die, Nick, not without you."
"You jerk." Nick sounded like he was crying. "You're not gonna die. I'm not gonna let you. Do you hear me?"
Cody wanted to laugh, but found that he was crying instead. "I hear ya. The thing is, they're getting close, Nick. I lost my weapon, I lost my canteen... I got nothing. I-I'm scared." He breathed deep. "So glad you came."
"He's passed out." Nick, perched precariously on a rock just above where Cody lay, looked up at Murray worriedly. "As far as I can tell he's not bad hurt, but he's hit his head so it's hard to know. Did you raise the cops?"
Murray, leaning down from the trail, nodded. "The search and rescue squad are on their way. I was able to give them the satellite coordinates of our position, and they'll have the ambulance waiting." He licked his lips nervously. "Nick, I'm kind of worried that he didn't seem to know where he was."
Nick shrugged a shoulder, moving cautiously closer to Cody until he could slide his own jacket around Cody's bare shoulders. "Out here alone all day, scared... it's not surprising he thinks he's back there, Boz. It's just... it's just what happens."
Murray looked at him for a moment, as if to be sure Nick was telling him the truth, then nodded. "I wish we brought some water."
"Yeah, but at least we found him." Nick had been running his hands over Cody's body, then turned his attention to the deadfall. It took him several minutes, but at last he was able to prise the log off Cody's leg. "There."
"I tried to stop you. If you'd listened... Oh, God, Nick. How could I have doubted you? You always know when it comes to Cody."
Nick reflected that if he'd known a little better, been a little less of a jerk, Cody would be safe at home where he belonged. "The thing is, Boz, everything you said made sense. I'm not saying I knew he was in trouble. But what matters is that we've found him now, and help's coming." Nick looked up at the trail speculatively. "I wonder if I could get him up there?"
Murray paled. "That's not a good idea, Nick. You're not strong yet-if you both fall-"
Nick looked at the drop below them, then back at the trail, ten feet above. Murray was right. It was too far, and even if they made the trail, he knew he didn't have the strength to carry Cody out. "You're right," he agreed, sliding his body between Cody and the tree, easing his partner into his arms.
Cody tensed and whined. Nick stroked his hair and wrapped the jacket more firmly around him. "I got you, Cody. It's okay, I got you."
"I can see the lights! Down there!" Murray pointed excitedly. "They're here!"
"That's great." Nick didn't bother twisting to look. Almost all his attention was on Cody. The rescue team still had a half-hour climb, give or take, to reach them.
"I'm going to go meet them," Murray declared, then paused. "Uh, unless you'd rather I stayed?"
Nick smiled. He understood exactly where Murray was coming from. Sitting around feeling helpless was the last thing he wanted to do. "You go, man. Tell 'em hurry."
"I will!" Murray started down the trail.
Gently, Nick eased himself closer to Cody, wrapping his body around him. Cody still felt cold, but his breathing was steady and regular. Nick stroked his hair again. There was a small cut on the back of Cody's head, and a decent-sized lump.
"Hey," Nick said in his partner's ear. "You wanna wake up, man? Talk to me a little?"
Cody didn't answer, but he moved his head a little. Nick thought that was a good sign. "Come on, baby. I'm here, now. I got you. Talk to me, huh?"
This time, Cody twisted in Nick's arms-then cried out, dropping back against Nick's chest, shaking.
"It's all right. You're all right." Nick ran his fingers through Cody's hair. "Take it easy."
"Hurts," Cody said hoarsely. He shuddered. "They're comin', Nick. They were over there-"
"They've gone," Nick soothed. "Area's secure, babe. We're just waiting on pickup."
"Pickup." Cody relaxed, leaning into Nick's body. "You got your canteen?"
"Sorry," Nick said softly. "I wish I did."
"Never mind." Cody ran his tongue over his lips, and settled more comfortably against Nick. "At least I got you."
"Yeah," Nick said roughly, fighting back tears. "You got me all right, big guy."
Faintly from below, Nick could hear shouts and the clang of equipment against rock. He breathed a sigh of relief. "Here they come, partner."
"Can't hear 'em yet," Cody mumbled. "Maybe they're behind the hill."
"Maybe." Nick slid a hand over Cody's chest. "Where you hurt, man?"
"Ribs, mainly. And my ankle's caught."
"Not anymore. I pulled you out."
"Huh. It's kinda numb." Cody shifted a little, looking down at his leg, then slowly drew his knee up. "I think it's okay." He let it slide down again and fell silent.
Nick held him close, leaning back against the tree and listening to the distant sounds of help coming nearer. He fought the urge to ask Cody what had made him come up here. He wanted to apologize; he wanted to hear Cody tell him they were okay; but his own guilt would have to wait.
"Hey." Cody's voice sharpened. "You're not supposed to be out here... supposed to rest." He twisted to look at Nick, then whimpered as his hurt ribs protested.
"Easy," Nick cautioned, carefully moving so that Cody could lean against his shoulder and look at him at the same time. "I'm okay. If you think I'd stay in and rest when you need me out here, you don't know me very well, man."
Cody smiled wryly. "You're a stubborn jackass." He shook his head a little and looked around, then back at Nick. "For a while I thought we were still in 'Nam," he said hesitantly.
"Point Mugu State Park," Nick said gently.
With a sigh, Cody leaned back into Nick. "Better than 'Nam." He found Nick's hand, sliding his own over it and twining their fingers together. "Glad you're a stubborn jackass. Glad you came."
There was fear all around him. Cody could taste it, smell it. The enemy was creeping closer, he knew it, even though he couldn't hear or see. He wanted to fight but his limbs would not obey him; wanted to scream but he had no air to breathe. He reached out in the dark but he was alone; Nick was gone beyond his reach.
"Cody! Cody!" Suddenly the dark was gone, and with it the enemy. Nick had hold of him, was talking to him, was fighting for him. Cody felt his strength return.
"Nick?" He forced his eyes open, taking in an unfamiliar room. The light was dim and greenish, and moments later Cody's brain registered the distinctive smell of a hospital. "Nick?"
"Here, pal." Nick leaned forward into Cody's field of vision. He looked haggard and worried. "You were dreaming, baby."
Cody blinked, then nodded slowly. Nick stroked his hair and pulled the covers up high. Cody shifted a little, feeling the burn of broken ribs, the dull throb of his ankle, and watched as Nick retreated across the room and got into bed.
He shivered. Nick didn't look well yet. He wanted to get up, go to him, hold him, but his own body rebelled, shooting pain across his chest as he moved. Cody whimpered softly.
Nick was back out of bed in an instant, back at Cody's side. "What's wrong?" His eyes were filled with fear, and Cody reached out, laying a comforting hand on his arm. "Cody, are you hurting?"
"Just want... want to be with you." Cody squeezed Nick's arm. "You have to rest."
Nick looked at his own bed, then at the door. Then he carefully climbed on the bed beside Cody and eased himself under the blanket. "I'll rest when you're okay," he said softly. "This is all my goddamn fault."
Cody snuggled in against Nick, warmth and content flooding through him. He eased an arm around Nick's shoulders and drew him close. He closed his eyes. "Not your fault. You're sick." Cody breathed in deep. "I'm gonna keep holding you, Nick. Keep you safe. Never gonna let you go, not this time."
The doctor had only insisted on them spending one night in hospital. Nick had been a little feverish from exertion; Cody slightly dehydrated and under observation for concussion. They'd been allowed home the next morning, Nick under orders to rest, Cody with his two broken ribs taped uncomfortably, his twisted ankle strapped and with painkillers for his headache.
Murray had flatly refused to drive Nick to pick up Mimi, still on the sand below the trail Cody had taken, or even the Jimmy, still in the deserted parking lot. But he did call Baxter Aviation and arrange for both vehicles to be collected and safely stored until their owners were well enough to take possession of them.
"I could fly her now," Nick protested, and was rewarded with a glare.
"You're supposed to be in bed, Nick Ryder. Unless you want to end up back in the hospital, that is."
Nick emphatically did not want to end up back in the hospital. He'd submitted with good grace the previous night, but that was because it meant spending the night with Cody. Now that Cody was home, the only place Nick wanted to be was next to him.
But Cody was sitting up in the wheelhouse, staring out to sea, showing no sign that he wanted company.
Nick went to bed for a while but he couldn't sleep. Cody's mood hung over him like a pall, and he slipped out of bed, through the empty salon and up the stairs.
Cody was sitting behind the tiller, a pensive expression on his face. He glanced at Nick when he came in, but didn't speak.
Nick leaned against the wall. "How you feeling?"
"A little sore." Cody shrugged. "You were an idiot to come up there after me, you know. You could've gotten sick again-still could."
"I know." Nick swallowed hard. "But what would you have done, man? Don't pretend you'd have left me up there alone, because I know you wouldn't."
"Yeah, you got me on that one." Cody smiled a little. "Listen, what time are you expecting your girlfriends to arrive today? I'm thinking I'll go over to Straightaway's, get out of the way. I don't really feel like company."
"No-one's arriving." Nick squeezed the bridge of his nose. "I'm sorry about that, Cody. I'm real sorry. It was a joke, a bad one. I was a jerk. Everything you did for me, all that time, and all I could do was make like it didn't matter; like I'd never been sick at all. It must've been hell, what you went through looking after me." He stopped and lowered his hand, risking a glance at his partner. Cody was staring at him intently, his expression unreadable. "It must have been hell, and I want you to know how much it means to me."
"It wasn't hell." Cody got up and went to the doors, standing looking out, half-turned away from Nick. "It wasn't hell at all." He glanced back over his shoulder at Nick, then shrugged. "Watching you hurt... that hurt me, yeah. Leaving you alone in the hospital... I didn't think I'd get through that, if you want the honest truth. But once you were home... Nick, you didn't need anything from me that I wasn't happy to give. I nearly lost you. I... I needed that time with you, buddy. I needed to be able to... to love you, I guess." He paused, looking away. "You needed me so much. Nearly as much as I needed you. That wasn't hell, Nick. That was something I'm still trying to figure out how to live without."
There were tears pouring down Nick's face. "I didn't think. Cody, I'm so sorry." His own words echoed in his ears, forgotten until now. I don't need you anymore. It was a lie: he needed Cody like air, like water. "I was trying to be strong again. I didn't mean to push you away."
"I know. It wasn't that." Cody turned back from the doors. His own cheeks were wet. "I didn't think you meant it like that. It was just that I realized things were back the way they used to be. You weren't mine anymore. That's what I figured out, Nick. For a little while, you were all mine, and I-I didn't want to share you. I still needed you too much."
Wordlessly, Nick held out his arms. Cody looked surprised, then incredulous, and finally stepped close, leaning into Nick and sliding his own arms around his partner.
Nick held him gently, careful of his broken ribs. "You got no idea how much I need you," Nick whispered. "And you don't need to worry. You're not gonna be sharing me anytime soon."
Cody shivered. "It's okay. I'm okay with it, now. You're my best friend, Nick. I love the way things used to be, between us."
"I don't want you to be okay with it." Nick ran his hand through Cody's hair. "You're more than my best friend, man. You're everything to me. And what we're gonna do, you and me, is figure out how things are gonna be between us from now on. I don't know how long that's gonna take. But one thing I do know."
"What's that?" Cody took a half-step back, looking into Nick's eyes.
Nick smiled. "I love you. I need you." He pulled Cody close again. "Everything else is just detail."
"That's two things." Cody's voice was muffled against Nick's neck. Nick felt fresh tears against his skin.
"Yeah? You got a problem with that?"
Cody raised his head. His eyes shone with tears, but they weren't sorrowful; he was grinning with pure joy. "No problem, Nick. No problem at all."