Three times during the night Cody nearly gave in and called an ambulance. Skin burning with heat, Nick struggled from nightmare to nightmare, sometimes crying in pain. But he knew Cody, and Cody's touch could still soothe him.
"I wish you'd let me take you to the hospital," Cody whispered, laying a cool damp towel against Nick's neck.
Nick cracked his eyes open. He was pale as death, and he moved his head like it hurt him. "No." His right hand moved restlessly across the sheet.
Cody caught the questing fingers, folding them gently inside his own. "Why not? They can make you more comfortable -"
"You," Nick interrupted, and gave a dry cough. "Need you. If it's bad - if they come -" he whimpered softly and pressed his eyes closed. "You got my back."
Cody choked on a lump in his throat. "I sure do, big guy. Take it easy, huh?"
"Can't let you go, man. Can't hold on without you..." Nick moaned then fell silent.
"You don't have to. I got you, Nick. I got you and I'm never letting go." Cody didn't know if Nick heard him or not, but he kept talking, as much for his own sake as Nick's.
Anything was better than the silent fear, the terrifying idea of a world gone wrong, a world where Nick had somehow slipped away.
"That can't happen," Cody said, perching on his own bunk, all his attention on Nick's slack body, now seemingly at rest. "You promised, man. You promised you wouldn't leave me. Don't you remember?"
The terrifying plunge of ridge and sky. Vision clouded with blood and fear, each as dangerous as the other when it came to getting out. Left hand worse than useless, no longer able to hold the stick, even if the chopper was in any shape to fly. His one hope was Cody. If Cody had seen the bird go down... If Cody led the men across the swamp... There was nothing but pain. Pain, and the stink of fearful death, and deep inside, one last bright spark of hope. Nick closed his eyes and clung to it, Cody's blue blue eyes on a summer's day, Cody smiling just for him.
His one hope was Cody. If Cody had seen the bird go down... If Cody led the men across the swamp...
There was nothing but pain. Pain, and the stink of fearful death, and deep inside, one last bright spark of hope. Nick closed his eyes and clung to it, Cody's blue blue eyes on a summer's day, Cody smiling just for him.
"I thought you were dead. Worst moment of my life. You were the only thing keeping me alive out there, Nick, you know that? Without you I'd'a been dead in a week. Seeing you there all covered in blood... I still dream about that, guy. You didn't know that, huh? Those are the nights I won't tell you what I see. Still too raw, I guess."
Cody took a deep breath and dragged a hand across his eyes. His tears were hot and fresh, burning as hard as that day in the jungle. The true nightmare of war, above and beyond the horror of the daily grind.
"Then you opened your eyes, called me. All the way back, I prayed, I begged, I bargained. Anything not to lose you. You know that, right? I'd trade anything, even my goddamned boat."
Cody wasn't sure if it was his imagination, but he thought Nick looked easier. There was a little more color in his cheeks, his breathing seemed deeper. Gently, Cody felt his forehead.
"You're still hot, buddy. Can't really tell, and I don't wanna wake you for the thermometer." Cody dunked the towel in the bucket of cold water beside the bed, wrung it out, then laid it over Nick's chest. "I decked a medic when they tried to throw me out. Guess you don't know that either. I wasn't gonna leave you, buddy. Not then, not ever. And when you woke up, I made you promise you wouldn't leave me either."
Heat and pain, burning him up. But through it all, Cody, real and close, giving Nick no option. He could have given up - he thought he would, a hundred times or more. The inviting cool dark lingered at the edges of his mind, but there Cody could not follow, would never find him. Every time Nick drifted, the pain of aloneness pierced him more sharply than his wounds, the burn of losing Cody seared him hotter than any fever. He would not go, could not go alone.
He could have given up - he thought he would, a hundred times or more. The inviting cool dark lingered at the edges of his mind, but there Cody could not follow, would never find him. Every time Nick drifted, the pain of aloneness pierced him more sharply than his wounds, the burn of losing Cody seared him hotter than any fever.
He would not go, could not go alone.
"An' you never did, not really, anyhow. I didn't wanna come back when our tours were up. You know I signed on for a second one because I couldn't bear to lose you? There was nothing back here for me, not without you. College, law - all that was over."
Cody frowned as Nick moaned, moving to his side. "C'mon, buddy, what is it? You hurting? Easy, huh?"
Nick shifted into him, clutching his hand more tightly. "Won't leave you, pal. Promise. You 'n me, fr'm now on. Z'how it's gonna be."
"You heard me, huh? Thought you were sleeping. Been nearly fifteen years since the first time you told me that." Cody stroked Nick's forehead. Nick rolled his head against Cody's hand. His eyes were still closed. "Since you're awake, how about I take your temperature?"
But when Cody held the instrument against Nick's mouth it slipped from his lips. "Were you talking in your sleep, babe?"
Worried Nick might be slipping into delirium, Cody laid his palm across Nick's forehead. But this time he was certain: Nick was definitely cooler. And his breathing was deeper, more even. Cody moved the cool towel to Nick's neck, shifting back to the other bunk, the terrible tension that had had him in its grip releasing its hold.
"You're gonna be okay, buddy. We're gonna be okay. One more time, you and me. You know you're the best friend I got, huh?"
Nick rolled onto his side, curling up. Cody got up and pulled the towel away, drawing the blankets around Nick instead. "Still not out of the woods, huh? There, buddy. Warm enough now?"
Nick settled with a soft sigh, and Cody sat down beside him, resting a hand on his shoulder. "If I hadn't found you, Nick... if we'd never met. Don't know where I'd be, you know? Don't know who I'd be."
Oppressive heat and the tang of fear from every pore. The chopper under his hand, flying him, lifting him. The bitter irony of flight, his dream, condemning him to certain death. And Cody. Nick's golden boy with a core of steel. Nick's heart, Nick's light. Nick held the chopper in the air with his bare hands and brute force. Before Cody, he'd been headed for destruction. Now he had one task - keep Cody safe. Cody's rakish grin masked his fear, but not from Nick. Nick held it, used it, fed his rage, his strength, until the chopper seemed to shudder in the air. That night he flew them home on heart alone.
And Cody. Nick's golden boy with a core of steel. Nick's heart, Nick's light.
Nick held the chopper in the air with his bare hands and brute force. Before Cody, he'd been headed for destruction. Now he had one task - keep Cody safe.
Cody's rakish grin masked his fear, but not from Nick. Nick held it, used it, fed his rage, his strength, until the chopper seemed to shudder in the air. That night he flew them home on heart alone.
Nick was trembling under Cody's hand. Cody pulled another blanket around him, frowning, and Nick raised up for a moment, breathing hard. "Cody?"
"I'm here, pal. I'm here."
Nick moved his head, eyes only half-open, staring around blearily. "Cody?" He sounded frightened.
"Hey, Nick. Hey, it's okay." Cody shifted to sit directly in front of Nick, slid an arm around him and eased him against his chest. "I'm right here."
"Cody.' Nick sagged against him, relieved, and Cody took the opportunity to slip the thermometer under his tongue.
"Ungh," Nick mumbled.
"Just a few minutes, babe. Take it easy."
Nick rested against Cody, his eyes drifting closed, until Cody gently repossessed the thermometer. The reading was below one hundred, and Cody breathed a sigh of relief. "Now we're getting somewhere, big guy. C'mon, you wanna go back to sleep?"
But when Cody laid Nick down on the pillow, Nick gripped his wrist. "Don't go."
"I'm not going anywhere, buddy. You can count on that."
Nick smiled with his eyes closed, but didn't let go. Awkwardly Cody climbed back on the bed, leaning back against the wall and guiding Nick back against his chest. "Better?"
"Yeah." Nick nestled into him. "Nice to listen to y'r heart."
"Aw, buddy." Cody threaded his fingers in the hair at the nape of Nick's neck. As close as they were, Nick's openness touched him deeply. Nick was always the more demonstrative of the two of them, more likely to let Cody know by word or deed how much he valued Cody's friendship.
"You know, right? You know I need you too?" Cody breathed deep, struck by a sudden fear.
Nick gave a soft snore, and Cody smiled wryly. "Typical. For once I wanna talk about my feelings, and you're asleep." He kept stroking the dark head pillowed on his chest, enjoying the closeness. He and Nick were intimate in a way Cody knew he could never be with the pretty girls who occasionally decorated the Riptide's salon, and less often her cabins.
"Nothing I gotta be for you, Nick. Right from the start, you took me for who I was, never wanted excuses or embellishments. Where I'm from, that's kind of a big deal. But then you've always been kind of a big deal to me. Even if I don't let on like I should."
Fear, the sick taste of loss in his throat, the cold stone weight of his heart. A chill edged barrier keeping him from Cody. His Cody turned stranger, smarmy smiles and flashy suits. Lured, tempted. Nick hurt in ways he hadn't known how, had never imagined. Fear and anger clouding thought, tearing down the safety of his place at Cody's side. "Can't lose you. Can't lose you."
His Cody turned stranger, smarmy smiles and flashy suits. Lured, tempted.
Nick hurt in ways he hadn't known how, had never imagined. Fear and anger clouding thought, tearing down the safety of his place at Cody's side.
"Can't lose you. Can't lose you."
Nick muttered something, fisting the sheet. Cody rubbed Nick's back, then reached down and carefully checked the dressing on Nick's wound. It was dry and cool at last. Breathing a sigh of relief, he kept talking. "Y'know, Nick, life's real funny. Fourteen years this fall we been partners, and you still take my breath away. No girl keeps me interested past the third date, seems like, and you - I miss you when you're taking a harbor tour, Nick. Hell, who'm I kidding, I miss you the moment you step off the boat. And you don't even put out."
Cody's voice was a soothing rumble, his touch magic. The pain was a long way away, the fear too, shielded as if by glass. It might return - the bullet wound was a prickle in Nick's consciousness, promising a slow recovery - but for now, Cody was his armor. Nick needed no other.
Nick needed no other.
It was a long night. Cody slid down into the bunk until he was lying half-under Nick, taking his weight, holding him against the fear and the nightmares. He talked himself to sleep, with no idea if Nick could hear him, just aware his voice soothed Nick.
Truth be told, it soothed Cody too. Words he never spoke out loud, feelings he barely acknowledged in the daytime world. Here in the small safe cabin, holding Nick, still together despite the horrors of the past few weeks - if there was ever a time, it was now.
"I can't do without you, pal. Haven't been able to since 1972. Sure, I pretend, talk about girls and real estate and career traction. That's all smoke and mirrors, Nick. I think you know that - hell, you know everything else there is to know about me. Truth is, big guy, I found my place, and it's right here with you."
Nick opened his eyes to early sun, feeling better than he had in days. A dull ache in his side replaced the sharp, bright burn that had taken up residence. He felt weak and sore, but his head was clear and no longer throbbed.
Cody was close beside him, curled up into him. Amid the confused muddle of fever Cody had been constant - no surprise, that, but a deep comfort nonetheless. Tricor could never have torn them apart, not as deep as their bond went, but the hurt was still fresh.
Nick closed his eyes, revelling in Cody's closeness, remembering his touch in the night, his voice in the dark.
"Don't you ever pull a stunt like that again, you argyle-loving bastard."
Cody started awake then settled back, grinning. "C'mon. There's a lot to be said for career traction."
"And real estate."
"What?" Cody gave Nick an odd look.
Nick blinked. "I don't know." Real estate had popped into his head when Cody said career traction. "Whatever it is, don't take it up, huh?"
"I'm done with everything including volleyball until you're on your feet again." Cody stretched. "You feeling okay?"
"I sure am. Don't worry about me, I'll be up and about s'afternoon. Don't you have a date with Selina from Straightaways?"
"Nah, that was yesterday. I canned her."
"On account of me?" Nick grimaced. "Sorry, man."
"Don't be silly. She's got no conversation, you know? I was glad of an excuse to ditch her."
"First I heard of you dating chicks for their conversation."
"You're a funny guy." Cody sat up cautiously, careful not to jostle Nick. "I'll get you your pills, and maybe some tea, huh?"
"What, no breakfast?" Nick sat up slowly, gritting his teeth. He still hurt.
"Baby steps, big guy. C'mon." Cody took his weight. "You wanna hit the head?"
"Yeah, but I'll be fine. You don't have to come."
"No place I'd rather be."
Nick stared into his partner's blue eyes, for once so open, giving him everything. I found my place and it's right here with you.
"I take it back." Nick pulled Cody into a careful, one-armed hug. "I want you to come. I need you come. I need you here with me. Cody... say you'll stay."
Cody returned the embrace, holding Nick tight but gentle. "You know I will."
Nick hesitated, his heart asking the question, his head unwilling to shape the words. Always?
"Listen to me, you idiot." Cody leaned in close, his forehead resting against Nick's. "I won't leave you, pal. Promise. You and me, from now on. That's how it's gonna be."
Nick's face relaxed into a smile. "Thank you," he whispered into Cody's neck. "I love you, too."