Nick came in silent and closed up; nothing like his usual open self. I didn't know where he'd been, but when he'd left several hours ago, he'd been carrying what looked like a letterman sweater.
Since the reunion fiasco he'd been quiet and withdrawn. That wasn't his style; I'd seen him shut down before when something was niggling at him, but not like this. Usually he turned snappish and short-tempered, something I knew how to deal with-if a game of volleyball didn't start him talking, I'd pick a fight.
It never took more than three punches.
But this was something different. He had himself on a tight rein, everything tamped down inside. He was cool, polite, distant. I had no idea how to reach him, and it hurt like hell. Not just for me, although that was there too: I knew Deke's death had ripped him up, and Sidney Glover's betrayal had turned his world on its head.
He was hurting near as bad as I'd ever seen him, and there was nothing I could do except watch. That's one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, let me tell you.
"We got any cases?" he asked, picking up the mail and flipping through it.
"Murray's running a couple of background checks for the insurance company. And Friday, you and I need to stake out the burger joint on Spencer Street and see what we can see."
Nick cocked an eyebrow. Didn't surprise me: when we'd talked about the case yesterday I'd thought he was a million miles away.
"There's odd activity down there, and it's maybe the front for a fence. All those burglaries downtown-all that stuff's gotta go somewhere."
"Yeah." Nick dropped the mail back down, poured a coffee and sat next to me. Silent. Morose.
I reached out and put a hand on his knee. I couldn't help it; I had nothing to give him except my presence, and there was a time that would have helped.
He looked at my hand for a minute, then looked up at me. He was so near the edge; I could see the cracks, see that what was inside him was bare moments from tearing him apart.
He looked down and laid his hand over mine for a long minute, squeezing it. Then he looked back at me. His eyes were wet, but the walls were back in place, with no sign of a crack.
"I can't right now," he said in that flat, emotionless voice that broke my heart. Then he drew back his hand, stood up and went below. Away from me.
Took everything I had not to go after him.
That night, when I put down my book and switched off my light, he sat up instead of lying down. "I ain't been sleeping so good," he admitted, swinging his feet to the floor.
I propped myself up on my elbow. "No kidding. You wanna talk?" I patted the edge of my bunk, relief flooding through me. But it was short-lived.
"Nothing to talk about. You were there." He shrugged, avoiding my eyes. "Reckon I'm just gonna walk on the beach a bit." He looked at me at last from dark, bruised eyes. "Don't come after me, Cody. I'm fine, really."
I bit my lip on everything I wanted to say-this isn't fine, let me help, please don't run away from me-and made myself nod. "Good you told me." It came out hoarse, harsh. "If I'd woken up and you were gone, I'd've worried."
"I know." He stood up and squeezed my shoulder briefly, then left the room.
I lay awake, listening to his quick jerky movements above-decks; nothing like the way Nick usually moved. Then the boat was silent, and I knew he'd gone. I closed my eyes, and did what I could in the way of sleeping.
It wasn't much. Nick and I share for a couple reasons, but Murray living in the forward cabin isn't one of them. We were bunking together before he ever came aboard.
Maybe if we'd worked at it, we coulda learned to sleep alone. I dunno. All I know is, when Nick's not in the room, I can't relax. It's a legacy from Vietnam-with one of us on watch, the other could sleep, really sleep, for a few precious minutes. That was the only true downtime we got.
I closed my eyes, tried to hear the rhythm of Nick's breathing in the waves against the hull. Whispered his name to the dark and pretended I heard him answer. Waited ten whole minutes before I stripped off my t-shirt and replaced it with one of his. One that smelled of him.
I slept at last, still listening for his footsteps, waiting for the rock of the boat that meant his return. Slept and dreamed for the first time in weeks.
That's the other reason me and Nick don't sleep alone.
You'd think I'd dream of war, and sometimes I do. Gunfire and heat and the stink of death, things I can't-or won't-remember by the light of day. They're bad, those dreams, wake me up in a cold sweat, cryin' sometimes.
Then there's the nightmares. The real ones. The ones so raw I can't find a way out; the ones when I'm in there for real, lost and cut off, nothing to find me but fear. Sometimes I see jungle, sometimes I see California, don't matter.
I was caught in a canyon, trapped, dying. I knew it; could feel my life draining away, pain overpowering my senses. The wreck of a chopper lay below and Nick was struggling to get free of the cockpit. Blood covered his face, and he was calling for help. Calling for me.
I tried with everything I had but I couldn't make a sound. I watched his struggles getting weaker, watched until he laid his head down for the last time. "Where are you, man? I need you. Cody, I need you..."
That's when they came for me, fresh-faced medics with empty eyes. Now, now when it didn't matter anymore I found my voice, shouting to their blank, impervious faces. "My partner's down there! Don't you hear me? Help him. Help him!"
Carried off the mountain, away from Nick. Saved in an empty world where I couldn't ever find him. Too late, too hard, I failed him, lost him, let him go when I should have held him close.
"Cody. Cody, I'm here, it's okay. It's over. It's all over."
His voice cut through the walls of fear, broke the world in my head into pieces. I opened my eyes, dizzy, disoriented, and found him beside me, sitting on my bunk, holding my arms.
"Nick?" I didn't waste any time, just busted out crying. Fear, relief and plain pure need.
Nick helped me sit up and held me. Pushed my head down on his shoulder, stroked my hair until I'd cried myself out. There was a time I was ashamed to cry, but not with him, not now.
"I'm sorry," he said softly. "I didn't stay close enough-didn't think-I wasn't here when you needed me."
I thought of the dream and shuddered. "No. No, Nick. I-I'm fine."
"Yeah, but it was a bad one, huh?"
I shuddered again and didn't answer. He didn't need me to: he knew.
"C'mon. Let's get you some coffee."
I didn't know if I wanted coffee, but I wanted him-needed him-so when he got up, I followed. Stuck to him like glue while he poured us coffee, then shook my head when he pointed upstairs. Sometimes the sea air helps, but it wasn't what I wanted that night.
"C'mon, then." He shepherded me back downstairs. I made one move toward my churned up bunk but he guided me to his instead. They're small for two, but not impossible-we've proved that a hundred times. When the nightmares come, we gotta be close. That close.
I half-lay on him and drank coffee while he rubbed my shoulders. Eventually my heart stopped pounding, my eyes stopped burning, the Riptide's cabin became more real than the site of the chopper crash.
"How was the beach?" I asked at last.
Nick shrugged, shoulder against mine. "Windy. Wet. Lonely."
"Didn't make you feel any better then, huh?"
"Of course it didn't." He sighed. "Only you do that."
"Hasn't seemed like it lately."
"Sorry." He slid both arms around me, gentle and open. Nick can be prickly at times, but when I need him, he gives me everything. No matter the cost. "It's just been hard, you know? I been trying not to think about it."
"Somehow that never works, big guy."
"You can say that again. Ah, Cody... I know fifteen years is a long time, I know people change, but I thought I knew these guys. You know? I liked them. I trusted them. What does that make me?"
"A good guy, Nick. A real good guy with a whole lot of friends who grew up to be losers. There's a good reason you were the only guy from the team they never approached, you know?"
"I guess." He stopped talking and I thought that was all I was gonna get. I was nearly asleep, still in his arms, when he spoke again.
"All through that crap... everything I wanted to do, you backed me up. You never questioned me, even when I was acting like a damned fool."
"You always act like a damned fool. Why'd I start now?"
He laughed at that. "I dunno, Cody. I look back...everything I thought I knew, those guys, it's all screwed up. Turned inside out, like I don't know which way's up. And all I got...all I got to hang on to is you."
I turned over so I could look at him. "So hang onto me, buddy. Doesn't matter how screwed up you are, I've still got your back."
"I know you do." Nick smiled, but his eyes were wet. "It just seemed like this time, maybe it was too much to ask, you know?"
"Don't you ever think that." Fear and anger nearly choked me, and I grabbed for him, my partner, held him tight. "Hurt so bad to watch you hurting, Nick. I wanted to help so much."
Nick sighed and wrapped his arms around me. "You did help, Cody. You help me every goddamn day just by being alive."
He held me like that the rest of the night. When the bad dreams come, the real ones that get me where I live, sleep becomes the enemy. Tryin' to suck me down into the dark where they're waiting. I dozed and woke and dozed again, safe as long as Nick's arms were around me.
He watched through the night, and as the first pale rays of dawn lit the cabin, he laid his head down on my shoulder. "I'm tired, Cody," he whispered. "So tired." I knew he wasn't talking about his sleepless night.
"Let it go, buddy. Let go." I rubbed his back, my own nightmares vanished with the dark. "Let me help."
And finally, he did.
It was nearly noon when Murray tapped hesitantly on our door. Nick was half-asleep, draped over me like a blanket, and it took me a minute to extricate myself and find a robe. Nick didn't speak, but his eyes tracked me as I moved around the room then went to the door.
"Hey, Boz." I finally stuck my head out the door. Murray was standing in the corridor, shifting from foot to foot, looking worried.
"Oh-Cody!" He broke out in a grin. "I was kinda worried-" He glanced at his watch then looked back at me, his expression turning apologetic. "I heard you, uh, shouting last night. I got up to see if you were okay but then Nick arrived, I guess he'd been out somewhere. He ran to your cabin so I...well, I went back to bed. I hope that was the right thing to do." He hesitated. "You are okay, right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." I rubbed my eyes. Shouting. Screaming, more like. "Sorry I scared you, Boz. I had a nightmare, that's all."
He nodded slowly, then took off his glasses and started polishing them vigorously. "I'm sorry I woke you. I just wanted to check..." He hesitated, then put his glasses back on. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry. Thank you for checking on us, buddy." I squeezed his arm. "It was kind of a rough night, but we're okay."
"Rough? With the sea?" He frowned slightly. "I didn't notice."
I grinned at my literal partner and didn't correct him. "I was thinking we might take the boat out this afternoon. Do a little fishing then anchor at Fisherman's Island for the night. We can have an easy day tomorrow then be back in plenty of time for the stakeout. Whaddaya say?"
"Fishing sounds like fun. And I can still access the satellite from the island-yeah, Cody!" Murray's face brightened. "I'll go batten down the Roboz!"
He disappeared topside and I retreated to our cabin. Nick was sitting up, arms wrapped around his knees. He still looked tired and there were dark circles under his eyes, but the pinched, strained look was gone from his face.
"Yeah." I sat down on my own bunk. "And maybe some target practice on the beach, a couple of wrestling matches. That kinda thing."
Nick grinned, sliding forward on the bunk and dropping his legs over the side. He leaned forward and grabbed my hands. "I ever tell you you're the best friend I got?"
I laughed, squeezing his hands tight. "Tell me that again tomorrow when I got you pinned in the sand, buddy."
He punched my shoulder affectionately. "If I go easy on you, that just might happen."
I pulled him into a hug. I didn't care who ended up on top in the wrestling matches: it didn't matter. Either way, it was a win in my book.