Lights flashed. People screamed in the distance. Nick’s back hit the ground, and it was all blue sky and smoke. His body was cold when it should have been hot, going colder by the second. The sounds faded, and then the light, and there was peace for a while. Just sweet peace.
When Nick woke, pain flooded him like he’d never felt before. He jerked, fighting for breath, clawing at whatever was burning inside his right arm.
“Hold him down!” someone yelled. “Jesus Christ! Hold him!”
“Irish,” someone breathed close to his ear. A smooth voice, one that meant safety and home. “Irish, it’s Six. You got to be calm, bud.”
Nick immediately tried to still himself. If Ty was telling him to calm, it meant his panicking was a threat to someone. Where were they? Were they still out in the field? Were they prisoners again? Pain burned through him. He gritted his teeth and fumbled around for Ty’s hand, desperate for something—anything—to ground him.
“Six.” Nick gasped, barely recognizing his own voice.
Ty’s fingers were hot in Nick’s hands, but Ty’s grip was unwavering. “We’ve got you.”
“Who the fuck let this bag run out?” someone else shouted. Nick belatedly recognized Kelly’s voice, and damn, he sounded pissed. “Get out of the fucking way! You can’t do your job, I’ll do it for you!”
Ty’s face swam into Nick’s flickering field of view. He had Nick’s hand in both of his, holding Nick’s fingers close to his face the way they’d held each other every night in captivity. Nick clung to him, breathing hard, trying not to beg for help.
“You’re okay. Hold on, Irish.”
Nick stared into his eyes, clutching at him until cold began to soak into his arm. It climbed through his veins, cloying, cloudy, seeping into every part of him and pushing out the heat and pain.
“That’s it, bud,” Ty whispered. He petted Nick’s face, thumb resting against Nick’s cheekbone. “You’re okay. It’s all okay.”
Nick closed his eyes, trusting Ty to be telling him the truth.
When he woke again, it was to a much more pleasant world. The pain was just a distant whisper at the edges of his being, and the panic had left him with Ty’s assurances. He turned his head, squinting against the bright lights. He could hear someone sweeping, accompanied by the tinkle of broken glass and the rustle of plastic. And of course the beeps and whirring of monitors that he knew all too well.
“O’Flaherty?” Kelly said carefully. His voice was a whisper, as if he wasn’t sure that Nick was really conscious and didn’t want to wake him if he wasn’t.
Nick turned his head to find Kelly sitting on the other side of his bed, a tentative smile on his face. “Hey, Doc.”
Kelly set aside the book he’d been reading and scooted his chair closer. He rested one elbow on the edge of the bed, giving Nick a small smile. “Welcome back, Staff Sergeant.”
“All okay. You were the only casualty.”
“What’d I lose?”
“Your pride,” another voice answered. It took Nick far too long to focus on the man who’d come up behind Kelly. Elias Sanchez bent closer, as if he realized Nick couldn’t see him. “Not only did you get yourself shot, but you also lost our bet.”
“Bullshit,” Nick grunted, closing his eyes again.
Eli and Kelly both chuckled at him. Eli tapped Kelly on the shoulder. “Six needs you for his report. I got this.”
Kelly gave Eli his chair, offering Nick a gentle pat on the chest. “I’ll come check on you when we’re done.” He pointed at the machinery, shooting Eli a look he probably didn’t think Nick would notice. “Watch his pain. If it tops again, he’ll do even more damage to himself.”
The sweeping sound stopped for a moment. “If he’s going to fucking trash my MedBay again, we’ll tie him down.”
“Come near him with those restraints and I’ll fucking kill you,” Kelly snarled.
Eli squeezed Kelly’s shoulder. “Doc.”
“Nobody fucking ties him down,” Kelly growled, pointing one long finger at whoever had been given the task of cleaning up whatever mess Nick had made in his earlier rampage.
Eli waved Kelly away, and Kelly left them with one last look at Nick. Nick watched him go with a frown. He wasn’t sure why Kelly was so opposed to the restraints. Hell, last time he’d been injured Nick had asked them to restrain him because he’d almost killed the corpsman who’d been there to administer a blood test and had woken Nick too abruptly. The restraints were just to keep everyone safe, including Nick.
“Why’s he angry?” Nick asked Eli.
“You been talking in your sleep,” Eli said with a reassuring smile. It didn’t reach his eyes, though, and from the sadness in them Nick knew immediately what he must have been saying. Heat flushed across his cheeks. “None of us knew how much all that shit stuck with you and Grady. You never talk about it, so we figured you were okay. But you called out for Ty a couple times, so they had him come in here. You were . . . begging.” Eli winced and lowered his head.
Nick fought hard to swallow, forcing himself to keep looking at Eli so Eli wouldn’t know he was ashamed of it.
“Grady said he has the same dreams, told us a little about what you were probably dreaming.”
“Oh,” Nick said weakly, his eyes going unfocused because it was just too much effort otherwise.
“Doc didn’t take it too well. Hell, none of us did.”
Nick recalled the flash of anger in Kelly’s normally placid gray eyes and shivered.
“Hey Lucky, you ever need to talk that shit out, I got you. You know that, right?”
Nick met his eyes and nodded, earning himself a gentle pat on the head as Eli leaned closer. Nick stared at Eli for a few seconds, trying to remember what had happened this time after he’d been hit. It was all a haze of fire and drugs.
Eli began to grin, his dark eyes finally sparkling. “First person to get hurt this tour, that was the deal.”
“Deal’s a deal, papá.” He reached into the pocket of his uniform and withdrew a black permanent marker. “It’s for your own good.”
“Oh God,” Nick grunted, and he could only give a long-suffering sigh as Eli began a Sharpie doodle on his forearm. “If you draw a dick on me . . .”
“Would I do that?” Eli asked without looking up from his work. “I been practicing that Celtic knot stuff you showed me. This is going to be classy as shit.”
Nick couldn’t help his smile as he closed his eyes, relaxing as Eli’s familiar presence filled him with warmth and safety. “You’re classy as shit.”
February 22, 2013
Nick stepped over the body of the man he’d just killed and reached for the car Ty and Zane were trapped inside. He’d seen the NIA agents closing in on the squad car, and he’d moved as fast as his ruined knee allowed to get to them. The relief when he reached for the door locks was the first good thing he’d felt in weeks.
And then someone grabbed him from behind.
“No!” Ty cried. He banged on the glass, struggling with the handle. “No!”
A knife drove into Nick’s side before he could react. His eyes were locked on Ty’s, everything moving in slow motion, the streets of Miami morphing into a desert with streaks of military lightning overhead. The attacker twisted the knife to bring Miami and the real world crashing back down on him, and Nick screamed.
Ty echoed it with an anguished cry and threw himself against the opposite window, slamming his fist into the already cracked glass over and over as Nick sank to his knees. He bowed his head, losing sight of his friend, losing sight of everything. He was still being held around the neck by the man with the knife, and Nick’s mind raced for a way to free himself. His attacker yanked the knife out of Nick’s side and plunged it in again, wrenching another scream from Nick. He arched his back, eyes squeezed shut as tears streaked down his face. His fingers grazed the KA-BAR he’d stashed in his boot, and he gasped for one last lungful of air.
He flipped the knife in his palm and jammed it into the killer’s throat, then folded over and desperately grasped for the wound at his side to stanch the bleeding. Black SUVs were drawing near, full of more NIA agents with guns and knives who no doubt wanted to ask Ty and Zane some very pointed questions.
If the rest of Sidewinder was going to help them, they would have reached Nick by now. They’d obviously been held up in battle or, God forbid, hadn’t made it out alive. Nick was on his own, Ty and Zane’s lives in his bloody hands.
Nick began crawling for the cruiser, keeping low as the rattle of gunfire from further down the street got closer. His fingers reached the gun he had dropped during his tussle. There was so much blood, he didn’t know if he’d be able to grip the damn thing. He collapsed in the debris, holding on to the handle of the knife in his side and crying out in agony. It would be easy to give up. It would stop hurting if he just gave up.
He met Ty’s eyes through the glass of the police cruiser. He would never make it to the door. There was only one way to get Ty and Zane out of that car, and as they stared at each other, Ty seemed to read his mind. Nick reached out with a trembling, bloody hand and aimed the gun as Ty and Zane ducked out of sight.
The shot was excruciating. Nick seemed to feel every last inch of his broken body as the aftershock tore through him. When he came back to his senses, Ty was grasping at him, tugging him, trying to help him up. Nick tried to get to his feet, but he couldn’t even feel them. He reached out for the other man nearby for extra support, surprised to see Eli there in the middle of Miami. But his hand passed right through him: there was nothing there but shadow, and Nick collapsed in Ty’s arms.
Ty fell to his knees again, holding Nick to him. Nothing hurt anymore. Nothing.
Nick stared up at the sky. It was the color Kelly’s eyes could sometimes turn. Kelly . . . he hadn’t been able to say good-bye. He wouldn’t be able to. This was it.
He focused on Ty, nodding in acceptance. This was it. “Okay.”
“It’s okay,” Ty whispered. His fingers tightened in Nick’s shirt, cradling him in his lap. “We’ll get you all patched up and you’ll be fine. Zane, help me!”
Nick tried to speak, tried to tell Ty this was the end, that it was okay. The gunfire was closer, and Ty hunched defensively.
“Run, Ty,” Nick managed to get out.
“We’re not leaving you here,” Ty snarled. He was angry, but Nick understood. They’d been angry at Elias Sanchez for dying on them, too.
Nick struggled for more words. He hadn’t given his life for Ty and Zane just to see them die with him in the street. “I’m already dead, babe. Go.”
Nick couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer. They fell shut against his will, Ty’s face against the cheerful sunshine and the silhouette of Eli standing over him and grinning the last things he saw. “See you on the other side, brother.”
March 2, 2013
Kelly didn’t sleep much lately, and when he did, his dreams were full of terror and pain. He woke up every time thinking he’d lost Nick, confused and unsure of what was real and what merely was his deepest fear haunting him. He woke up exhausted, and scared to drift back off for fear that the man sleeping in the hospital bed next to him wouldn’t be there when he woke next.
The last time he’d slept had been for about three hours that morning. He’d curled up on the uncomfortable recliner, too spent to fight sleep any longer, and left the other guys to keep vigil at Nick’s bedside. Zane Garrett had been there when Kelly awoke, sitting in a wheelchair, peacefully reading a book at Nick’s side and occasionally talking to Nick about what he was reading. Kelly had sat and watched them for a few minutes, sadness engulfing him despite assurances from the doctors that Nick would wake at any time.
He hoped Nick could hear them. He hoped Nick knew that they were all there with him, each of them trying to make up for the fact that they’d left Nick behind, alone in the street with his life bleeding out of him.
Kelly sat by the bed now, paying little attention to the sounds of the machines monitoring Nick’s status. Owen Johns was curled on the tiny bench under the window that passed as a couch, snoring softly. They were all exhausted and still recovering from their own injuries, but no one would leave, so they were taking shifts. The others had all gone for lunch at Kelly’s insistence. He appreciated them being there, and he knew they needed to be there as much for their sake as for his or Nick’s. They all loved Nick. They all thought they’d lost him when they’d left him behind. They all deserved to be there when Nick woke. But Kelly needed a little time alone. Time to be alone with himself, with his thoughts and fears and hopes. Time to be alone with Nick, who had yet to wake four full days after nearly bleeding out in the street.
Owen being asleep on the other side of the room didn’t bother Kelly. At least he didn’t have to pay him any attention, and could instead focus on Nick. His friend. His lover. His would-be fiancé who’d never truly proposed.
Kelly smiled sadly. He held Nick’s hand in both of his and traced the tip of his finger over scars and bruises. Nick’s hands had paid for all the damage he’d done to the people trying to hurt them. Kelly’s chest swelled with pride and pain. He flipped Nick’s hand over, following the life line on Nick’s palm. Nick had a knife scar on the back of his hand, and it trailed from his wrist up toward the webbing between his thumb and forefinger, connecting almost perfectly with his life line. Together, they almost encircled his entire hand.
Kelly had always joked about Nick’s scars meaning he’d live forever. Now he wasn’t sure it was all that funny.
He could hear Nick’s laugh in his mind, though. See the way his eyes crinkled when he grinned. It was so real and so close it seemed like he could reach out and touch. But he might never see or hear Nick’s laughter again, and Kelly wasn’t handling it very well.
He sighed heavily as his finger trailed along the scar, his vision blurring with tears and exhaustion. Nick’s fingers twitched, giving the illusion that he was brushing Kelly’s hand affectionately.
Kelly quirked his lips, trying not to be upset by it.
Nick would wake up. He wasn’t dying. He would come back to them, full of laughter and joy, just like he always did.
Kelly’s head shot up at that simple, hoarse whisper, his eyes wide, his heart suddenly racing.
Nick was staring at him.
Kelly pushed to his feet, sending his chair screeching back. Owen leapt up at the noise, crouching, prepared for battle. “What?” he cried.
Kelly leaned over Nick, reaching for his face. When his fingers touched Nick’s skin, Nick’s eyes fluttered closed.
“No, no, Nicko, stay awake,” Kelly begged. He felt Owen moving but couldn’t tear his attention away from Nick’s face to see what he was doing.
Nick opened his eyes again. They were clear and green, but had faded like when Nick didn’t feel well. “Are you okay?” Nick asked him.
Kelly held his breath for a moment, trying to think through the elation to find a response. He finally huffed a laugh and nodded, pressing his forehead to Nick’s cheek. “Welcome back.”
“Where’s Eli?” Nick asked, his eyes closed, his voice tortured from days without speaking.
Kelly’s heart stuttered, and he glanced up to meet Owen’s eyes. Owen’s mouth moved, but no sound came out. He finally swallowed hard and nodded. “I’ll go get Six.”
Kelly returned his attention to Nick, running his fingers through Nick’s hair. “Eli’s gone, bud,” he whispered.
Nick’s forehead furrowed and he squeezed his eyes tight. Then he took in a deep breath and opened them again. “That’s right.”
The relief that flooded through Kelly was bittersweet. Where had Nick been for the last few days, lost in his memories?
“What day is it?” Nick asked, his voice so rough it was almost painful to listen to. “Did I miss Opening Day?”
Kelly laughed, knowing he was dangerously close to hysterical now that the weight of worry had been lifted. He hugged Nick closer, smooshing his face against Nick’s. Nick’s hand settled carefully on Kelly’s back.
“No, you didn’t miss it,” Kelly finally managed. “Still lots of time.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” Nick whispered as his fingers curled into Kelly’s shirt.
His breathing was more labored against Kelly’s cheek, and his grip on Kelly’s back began to tighten, his nails digging in. The beeping of his monitors, which had faded into background noise for Kelly about two days ago, began to encroach on his awareness, beeping going faster, a warning Kelly knew all too well.
Kelly pushed away from Nick just before the machines went into a full-blown panic and Nick twisted on the bed, writhing and gasping. Kelly shoved his chair aside, sending it toppling sideways, as he ran for the door to call for help.
He should have known a gentle reunion wasn’t Nick’s style.
March 4, 2013
It was early March in Boston, and Kelly’s fellow mourners were forced to brave a brisk wind as they gathered in the cemetery. Many in the crowd were in uniform, shined and pressed and stoic as befitted the funeral of a retired member of the Boston Police Department.
Kelly had to squint against the sun to see the small crowd around them. The wind ripped at his lapels, ruffled his hair, and made his eyes water. He wasn’t the only one. Several of those around him were fighting the stiff breeze, using handkerchiefs and sunglasses to fend it off.
He turned his eyes back toward the coffin as it was lowered into the ground. Nick’s four sisters, only two of whom Kelly had actually met, stood together, singing a beautiful version of “The Parting Glass.” The youngest one got choked up before the second verse and wasn’t able to continue. She stood with her head lowered, tears streaming down her cheeks, as her sisters continued the song. Watching her, Kelly couldn’t really feel anything. No empathy, no sadness. Nothing.
Nick moved beside him, jostling his shoulder as he stepped out of line from the others. He was relying heavily on a cane, but something about his perfectly pressed uniform contrasted with the limp and gave him a gravitas that he probably wouldn’t care to lend intentionally to Brian O’Flaherty’s funeral.
Nick took his youngest sister by the arm, straightening her up without a word. She buried her face in his chest, holding to him as he sang the next verse with them.
Kelly shivered at the way Nick’s eyes never strayed to the coffin, how he stared right over the crowd and sang to help his sisters say farewell to a man who didn’t deserve it.
Kelly was still watching Nick when the song ended. He was still watching him when the crowd began to disperse. Nick stood alone as his sisters moved away to throw dirt into the grave. Kelly frowned worriedly when Nick didn’t follow them, and he counted to five before he stood and joined Nick.
“You okay?” Kelly whispered. He took Nick’s elbow, standing close enough that Nick leaned against him with a huff.
“I’ll be fine,” Nick grumbled. He snickered and met Kelly’s eyes. “She moved away on me and I realized I was stuck without someone to lean on.”
Kelly scowled. Nick’s condition was no fucking laughing matter, but Nick kept on making jokes out of it. It was his way of coping, but Kelly wasn’t laughing. He wound his arm around Nick’s waist, and Nick wrapped an arm around Kelly’s shoulders, using the cane and putting a lot of weight on Kelly as they moved together toward the line of waiting vehicles. Nick had chosen to ride in his own car rather than join the family in the procession.
“Nicholas,” a woman called from behind them. Kelly glanced over his shoulder to find Nick’s mother there. She’d remained mostly stoic throughout her husband’s service. In fact, the only person who’d seemed especially upset over Brian’s passing had been their youngest daughter, Nessa. She was only a year or two out of high school—Kelly couldn’t quite remember how old she was—and she was inconsolable over the loss of her father.
Kelly had fought to find sympathy for her. But that girl had known a very different father than Nick had known.
“Ma’am,” Nick said without turning around. He had his head lowered, his arm still around Kelly’s neck, but tightening as he tensed.
“You’re coming, aren’t you?”
Kelly shook his head. “He’s done too much already. I have to get him home.”
“He only had one father,” she snapped, hard eyes on Kelly.
“I’ll see you there,” Nick said over his shoulder, his fingers tightening on Kelly’s jacket before Kelly could respond.
His mother moved away, giving Kelly another look that told him exactly what she thought of the fact that her only son had a boyfriend.
“How the hell did two such horrible people come up with something amazing like you?” Kelly snarled.
“Murphy’s Law,” Nick grunted as they continued on toward his Range Rover. “We’ll stay long enough for people to see my face. Then we’re done.”
“Okay,” Kelly whispered, wondering how the hell Nick had spent his entire life like this, doing what was expected of him to appease people who treated him horribly. It was brand-new insight into Nick’s otherworldly stores of patience. Kelly hugged him closer, and Nick hissed and stumbled a little. “Sorry! Shit, I keep forgetting about the stitches!”
“It’s okay,” Nick said, his voice strained as they reached the car. He lifted his jacket out to peer at his side, where just ten days ago an attacker had stabbed him. Twice. There was blood on his otherwise pristine white shirt. “Hey! Looks like an excuse not to stay too long at a sorry-your-shitty-dad-died party, huh?”
Kelly rolled his eyes and helped Nick into the car.
“You okay?” Kelly asked yet again as they sat in the dim back corner of a bar several blocks from Nick’s childhood home. It was his father’s local watering hole, where the mourners had come to pay their last respects after the coffin had been lowered into the ground.
Nick shook his head, staring at the full glass of whiskey in front of him. He hadn’t taken a sip. It was a drink meant to honor his father’s memory, and he intended to let it sit there. How many times had he been sent to this tavern to find his father and tell him it was time to come home? How many times had he been shouted out of this bar and run home, praying he’d get there before his dad did?
He tapped two fingers on the table, rattling the drink. “Let’s go home, huh?”
Kelly didn’t question him; he merely nodded and pushed his chair back to stand. He helped Nick get to his feet, handing him his cane and offering his arm. It’d been mere days since Nick had been released from the hospital in Miami. Kelly had been with him every second of his recovery, and this routine was one they’d repeated at least five times a day since Nick had woken. He appreciated Kelly being there, but for the first time in their long history of fighting side by side, Nick was ashamed of needing help. Kelly wasn’t a corpsman anymore, he was Nick’s boyfriend.
When Kelly had called his sister Kat to let her know that Nick was alive, Kat had told them about Brian. He was dying, in the hospital with mere days to live. Nick hadn’t made it home in time, nor had he especially tried to, and he knew without a doubt that his mother would never forgive him.
Nick was having a hard time pretending to be the grieving son.
He leaned on Kelly as they threaded their way through the small crowd, spared from the obligation of saying good-bye or shaking hands with his late father’s friends. Everyone knew what he’d been through, everyone knew he probably still should have been at home in bed, if not in the hospital. Everyone knew he was still weak.
Nick fucking hated it.
“Nicky,” a man in uniform said as Nick and Kelly neared the front door. Nick stopped, and Kelly discreetly stepped away so Nick wasn’t leaning on him as he faced the man. “How are you, son?”
Nick gave a curt nod in answer. He was at least five inches taller than the man, but he remembered having to crane his neck to see his face when he stood in their living room waiting for Nick’s father to go to work.
“I was surprised to see you out there.”
Nick didn’t respond. He merely stared, waiting.
His silence apparently made his father’s old partner nervous, because the man continued talking, his words faster and his fidgeting more pronounced. “Everyone knows what you tried to do for your daddy. Even if that liver didn’t take, you gave him one more year. Him dying wasn’t your fault, Nicky.”
Nick made a clicking noise with his tongue and stood a little straighter. “I know,” he said, voice just as flat as his expression.
He turned before the man could say more, reaching for Kelly’s arm as they made their way out of the pub.
“Wasn’t your fault,” Kelly grumbled under his breath. “Why the fuck do any of these asshats think you’d be sitting around blaming yourself because your dad’s body rejected a piece of liver you risked your life donating?”
“Because they think it’s my fault,” Nick said blithely, his head down to watch his steps on the uneven sidewalk.
“You don’t really think that, do you?” Kelly asked, sounding half-horrified and half-insulted.
“I know it. That was my dad’s partner. They worked together for thirty years. He responded to a domestic disturbance call at my house one night when I was about ten. Wrote the report up and everything. Disturbance caused by fall down the stairs.”
Kelly slowed and glanced over his shoulder.
“My dad’s friends all know that if I could kill people with the power of my mind, my dad would have been the first to go.”
Kelly snorted angrily. “What, they think you filled your liver with hate before you gave it to him?”
Nick chuckled, shaking his head as he continued to stare devotedly at the ground. He tightened his grip on Kelly’s arm, and Kelly moved closer to him as they walked toward the car.
“Maybe I did,” Nick murmured after a few seconds of silence.
“I’d be okay with it,” he admitted. He slowed as the pain in his knee swelled, and he had to stand there for a moment with his eyes closed, waiting for it to pass. He’d eventually need surgery to repair the damage that had been done by a vicious kick. The orthopedist wanted him fully healed from his other injuries first, though, and so he was left to limp around and live on painkillers until then.
For a man who’d spent his entire life being active and relying on his dominant physical capabilities day in and day out, it was possibly the most frustrating state of being he could imagine.
“Okay?” Kelly whispered.
Nick took a deep breath, gazing at Kelly.
Kelly raised an eyebrow, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “What?”
“I love you,” Nick said, but the words came out a whisper, as if the mere thought had stolen them before they could form.
Kelly grinned a little wider and slid his arm around Nick’s waist again, squeezing him as they continued on toward the car.