Topside on the Riptide, Murray's Christmas soundtrack filled the air. Belowdecks, Cody was industriously shaping tiny star candies on waxed paper with the help of a cookie-cutter and a toothpick.
Nick was perched on the galley stairs, watching Cody moodily. Christmas brought back bad memories for him - his parents' constant fighting had been worst approaching the holiday, and instead of his beloved Nan, Christmas had heralded a trip to Chicago to visit his stiff, disapproving grandmother.
Left to himself, Nick preferred not to think about the holiday at all. With the aid of tequila, he'd gotten that down to a fine art - right up until he met Cody Allen.
The first Christmas in Vietnam, Nick had buried the pain of the approaching holiday under a couple bottles of something local and fermented; something he'd used before to get past the fear that dogged their steps. It did the trick: left him comatose and oblivious until the holiday was done and he was back on duty, sick as a dog and hurting on the outside instead of the inside.
And alone. His new partner, his new friend, the guy whose life he'd already saved, was MIA. It took Nick twenty minutes to process the information, and twenty more to puke his guts out and clear his head sufficient to do anything about it.
"What you thinkin' about, buddy?" Cody's voice, low and warm, dragged him back to the present, and Nick blinked himself out of the yellow-greens of Vietnam.
"Seventy-two," Nick said honestly, before he could stop himself.
A shadow crossed Cody's face and he came to the end of the galley, reaching out to rest a hand on Nick's knee. "We both made it."
"Yeah, we did." Nick closed his eyes, thinking of the desperate dash against explicit orders, the chopper he'd crash-landed into a swamp. He'd lost the bird, a jeep and his weapon, but he'd found Cody and two other guys from his unit, found them and gotten them out under the VC's nose.
From that day to this, Nick had never tied on a drunk at Christmas time again. Whatever deity had saved Cody for him once might not be so kind again.
Cody seemed to get it, and that helped. Together, they'd worked every Christmas as MPs, the job keeping them busy and giving them plenty of reasons to curse the "silly season". Christmas dinner was hamburgers and fries and tequila, enough to dull the edge but no more.
Next time something came for Cody, Nick would be ready.
He had been, too. Nick watched as Cody went back to his candies, topping each with tiny white blobs of icing. They'd been through their share of danger together. Christmas seemed to sometimes bring out the worst in soldiers, just as it did in civilians.
Like the time they'd arrested a visiting marine for dressing up in a Santa suit and exposing himself to the female, civilian admin team as they left the base office on their lunchbreak. Nick and Cody had taken down the guy, but the next day, when they were transferring him to NIS, the guy had pulled a knife somehow missed in the search.
They'd both of them spent Christmas in hospital that year. Nick, stabbed in the belly, had needed a blood transfusion and spent two nights in intensive care. So did Cody: not because he was badly hurt, he'd gotten away with a flesh wound to his right bicep, but because he'd refused to leave Nick's side.
Nick remembered the piped music on the hospital soundtrack singing of angels and hope, and waking up, filled with fear of the hospital and aloneness and no Cody, to find his very own angel with matted blond hair and a dirty, tear-streaked face holding his hand.
That year, Nick had nearly believed in Christmas after all.
"What do you think, Nick?" Cody laid aside his tools and gestured at the tray in front of him. "Look okay to you?"
"More than okay," Nick said, casting a cursory glance at the candies then resting his eyes on his partner. With Cody beside him, he could get through whatever Christmas threw at him.
Cody was strong, far stronger than he looked, and not just physically. After they'd left the MPs, they'd both struggled some. There'd been a structure, a safety that the uniform and the army hierarchy gave them that neither had acknowledged until suddenly they were without it.
For so many years used to following orders, full-time autonomy was hard to adjust to and sometimes frightening. Nick had thrown himself into work, and with reason; the new chopper was a breakdown that sucked down cash as fast as he earned it. But the long flying hours made him exhausted and short-tempered, and worst of all, kept him away from Cody.
They'd been partners seven years by then. So long Nick had forgotten how to walk without Cody at his side. With Cody on the ground while he was in the air, flying lost half its appeal, became just another task to clear them through the day.
Alone, Nick would've self-destructed. He was honest enough to admit it, looking back. But however late he landed Cody was at the field, waiting. Beer, and a cheerful word; a friendly arm. Their tiny beachfront apartment, scraping for food, gas and rent money. Cody, grinning optimistically when Nick was ready to chuck in the towel. Dragging him down to the beach to surf when Nick would have stayed in bed and let the darkness gather.
And when Christmas loomed, volunteering them at the Mission. Gaining them both a turkey dinner, and Nick a shift in perspective on their luck.
After that, things had gotten easier. Cody's job at the surf-shop ended and while he looked for work, he crewed for Nick. With Cody beside Nick, flying regained its magic, and somehow, even though Nick could never put his finger on what changed, they started breaking even. Maybe it was the night security work Cody took on at the boatyard - Nick went along too, even though he mainly dozed in the office - or maybe the extra cash Cody picked up doing the airfield's accounts once a month. Either way, before Nick knew it Cody was dragging him down the line of drydocked boats, looming like giant shadows in the night, until he could shine his torch on a big old wooden cruiser, well past her prime.
The first few years, they'd been too tired to notice Christmas. That was how it seemed to Nick, anyhow. Even though, looking back, he figured Cody had shielded him from it. Lots of fishing trips, come December, and as winter set in it was always Cody's turn to go to the store, and Nick's to cook. As for dating, that had somehow become a summer activity, something they started when the brightly-colored bikinis appeared on the beach.
By winter they were hunkered down in their comfortable bachelor existence, so at home with one another they hardly needed words.
And now, this year, everything was different. There was a third aboard; a man they liked, respected and trusted. But they didn't know him, not the way they knew each other, and at this season it set Nick's nerves a little on edge.
Cody turned his attention to the cookie dough sitting on the counter. "What shape shall I make the cookies, Nick? Angels?"
"Candy canes!" came Murray's cheerful voice from above. Nick turned to look, half amused, half annoyed at anyone except himself questioning Cody.
Murray was standing on the bench seat hanging a pink and white paper-chain above the windows. He nodded at Nick. "Angels are hard, and their wings never look right. Candy canes are easy to shape."
Nick nodded back, and turned back to Cody. "Hear that, big guy?"
Cody grinned and started rolling out his dough. "Knew you were a genius, Boz!"
"Not when it comes to cookies," Murray replied. "But those choc-chip ones you made yesterday were wonderful!"
Nick relaxed as Cody, whistling under his breath, shaped the cookies and laid them on the tray. Up in the salon, Murray finished putting up the decorations and laid out brightly colored packages under his strange, metallic tree. Watching, Nick saw that the biggest one had Cody's name on it.
"Hey, Murray. How're you enjoying your first Christmas in King Harbor?"
"It's really boss! I was thinking maybe we could get an angel for the prow, you know, like a figurehead?"
"I don't think that'd work, somehow." Cody squeezed Nick's arm, and Nick scrambled to his feet and went up the stairs, allowing his partner to follow. "Tell you what, Murray. I'm all done in the galley, and I think Nick's had about all the Christmas he can stand for one day, so how about we go along to Straightaway's for a drink?"
Nick listened to Murray's excited assent, and looked at the fond, exasperated smile Cody was giving the little guy. Christmas was always gonna be a tough time of year, there were no two ways about it. But with Cody at his side, in this new world they were building, Nick knew he'd always get through.