by Sheri Young

 "Can I look at that?  Please?"  Cody Allen's intense blue eyes narrowed to drive it home.  "Look.  I know the paramedics did their thing, but I ALSO know how stubborn you can be.  I get the feeling - a real strooong feeling - that they wanted you to go to the ER?  But you didn't.... did you?"

 His raised hands stopped the protest he knew was coming.  "Ah-ah-ah... let me finish.  I'm almost done, okay?  Look, Nick... I know you wanted to bypass that for a couple reasons.  One?  We all know how you feel about hospitals.  Well, NONE of us likes the hospital gig, all right?  But," his voice softened.  "Most importantly, you wanted to get to Boz and me."  A strong hand rested on Nick's shoulder.  "Thanks, buddy.  I appreciate that.  We both do."

 Nick Ryder rolled his eyes before allowing them to lock onto his friend's.  "Can I speak now?  Is it my turn yet?  Or am I still supposed to sulk around like a freaking basset hound or something.  Can I talk or what here?"

 "Sure you can!  As long as I get to check out your side when you're finished."  Cody wiggled his brows.  "And I would have chosen a beagle for the look."

 "That's probably true.  YOU look like a basset."  It was Nick's turn to bite back the grin.  He began easing his shirt out from the waistband of his Levi's.  "And oh, gee, thank you so very much, Dr. Allen.  Of course, you can check it out.  Me?  I'll just stand here and try to remember just when it was you got that license to practice medicine.  Right now?  It escapes me."

 "Have you been waiting all that time to get sarcastic?" Cody chuckled.  "Or did you have a point?"
 Although Nick was careful as he boarded the Riptide, he still winced at the pull on his wounded side.  "Hell, you blathered on so much, I forgot what it was."

 "Imagine that."  The wince hadn't missed Cody's attention.  "Come on.... just wait in the main salon, all right?  I'll get the first aid kit."

 His heartfelt need to help almost made Nick feel contrite for stopping him.  "Cody?  I'm gonna show you somethin', okay?  Check it out."  He raised his shirt higher to expose the bandage.  "There's nothing for you to fix.  I'm not yanking your chain.  If you need to stare at it, I'm not gonna stop you.  You want me to take the bandage off, hmm?  Is that gonna make you feel better?"

 Cody offered a sheepish grin.  "No, Nick.  I'm not asking you to do that.  I'm... being an idiot, I know.  I just can't help but feel like it's my -"

 "No!"  Nick raised an immediate hand to stop him.  "We are not gonna go there.  It was nobody's fault.  You got that?  Not you, not Murray, not me.  The whole thing was a set-up, pure and simple."


 To Murray Bozinsky, the third partner of the Riptide Detective Agency, the banter shooting back and forth between his friends felt like a nice warm blanket - it was normal, something he'd wondered if they'd ever experience again.  He sat at his keyboard inputting the data that K.H.P.D.'s Lt. Joanna Parisi had requested as soon as they'd brought in the top brass from Tricor.  He shook his head at the name.

 Only days before, the dynamics of the agency had been seriously threatened.  When the client intake for the small independent business took a serious downturn, the detectives felt their only alternative was to start working for the Tricor corporation.  Well - two of the three thought it was a healthy alternative.  As expected, Nick was the sole hold out. Having spent a lifetime fighting to remain independent, the thought of answering to know-it-alls in three-piece suits turned his stomach.

 "It turned all of our stomachs," Murray muttered aloud.  But they'd felt they had no choice.  Okay, Nick's choice was to live out of the Mimi and fly charters for a living.  Cody and Boz?  They signed up with Tricor - suits and all - but not without hard feelings.  Nick and Cody had nearly come to blows on more than one occasion, but beneath the harsh words the pain was evident.

 "I'm going to pack up my things and I'm gonna move out..."  Nick's words still brought a chill.  The three of them were a family and the thought of Nick leaving for good was incomprehensible.  He and Cody had even told the Italian as much.

 "Nick, you can't go... this is your home," Cody had pleaded in vain.

 "Not any more, it's not."

 Boz shuddered at the memory.


 Cody tossed the first aid kit on the table.  His gait was determined, his eyes focused.  "Wait, Nick.  I think the lighting's better over here."

 "I don't need open heart surgery, Cody.  It was just a graze.  I was really brave, just like all the Clint Eastwood movies."  His eyes narrowed as he pondered.  "Well, okay, not quite like Eastwood.  I mean, it hurt like hell..."  Blue eyes widened when he saw the panic setting in on his partner.  "At the time, all right?  At the TIME, it hurt like hell."

 It was Cody's turn to roll his eyes.  "Nick... buddy..."  He rested a hand on his partner's shoulder.  "In the first place, nobody holds any more respect for good ol' Clint than I do.  I love his films.  Charles Bronson, too!  Redford?  Newman? Best movies ever made, maybe. But we are talking ketchup here, okay?  Or-or some sort of fake stuff.  But we know it wasn't real, right?  And in the second place, I know it still hurts.  You're brave.  But it still hurts."

 "Damn."  Nick hung his head.  "Yeah.  It does.  It really was a graze, though.  And I did keep working!"

 Cody raised a hand in surrender.  "I know you did.  And you got to Tricor, and you warned us."  He snorted at his own denseness.  "Maybe I should say you hit us in the heads with a two-by-four to force us to see the light.  Forgive me, my friend.  I know I'm being the moron of the world, but if you'll just humor me, I'll leave you alone.  Can you lift the shirt again?"

 "All right, all right."  The tone may have been one of exasperation, but Nick's twinkling eyes betrayed him.  He lifted that shirt, wincing as he tried to glance down and check it out for himself.

 Cody sat on the edge of the bench seat to get a better look at the wound.  Tugging at a corner of the bandage, a small spot of red caused him to do a double-take.  "I think it might be bleeding through a little bit."

 "What?"  He tried to glance again.

 "Ah-ah-ah!"  A hand to Nick's chest urge him to straighten his back. "You may be the one who actually has a license - even if it is to fly that pink garbage barge you call a helicopter - but let ME keep practicing medicine without mine."

 "I'll pretend that made sense," Nick said with a snort.  He tried to peer, anyway.  "So, what's up with this thing?"

 Cody studied the wound with a scrutinous eye once he'd pulled the tape to one side.  "Yuck!"

 Nick hung his head and sighed.  "What did you expect?  A piece of art that should be displayed at some snobby art show somewhere?"  He raised a brow.  "It's not open is it?"

 "No.  Hmm-mmm.  The... butterfly deal or whatever it's called seems to be holding up pretty well.  The bullet may have grazed you, buddy, but it sure seems to have made a mess.  It looks like just a little seepage or something.  Personally?  I still think you need a few stitches."  After carefully reapplying the tape, he rested his hands on his knees and raised his gaze to meet his best friend's eyes.  "I don't suppose they gave you any ointment or painkillers?  Anything like that?"

 "Um...,"  Nick shrugged sheepishly.  "I think they wanted to, but I was in a bit of a hurry."

 Cody nodded quietly.  "Understood.  Tolerable?  Honestly, Nick."

 "Tolerable," Nick assured.  "Not quite comfortable, but very tolerable."

 Cody took a deep breath, exhaling slowly as he scratched his chin.  "All right.  Let me at least grab the Advil."
 "Yes, mom," Nick grinned.


 Murray followed the conversation while he worked, and realizing it had played its course, he stacked his papers and tapped them against the desk until they were lined up perfectly straight before slipping his finished product into a folder.  He found his friends nursing cups of coffee when he joined them in the main salon.
 "Mind if I join you?" he asked with twinkling eyes.

 Nick motioned with a nod to the bench seat. "Of course not, Boz.  What'cha got there, huh?  Don't tell me you already finished the report for Joanna."

 "Let me get you a cup of coffee, buddy."  Cody patted Murray's thin shoulders as he passed behind him.
 "Thank you, Cody.  I'd appreciate it."  Boz gave him a quick grin, scooching in front of him to take a seat.  "And, yes, Nick, as a matter of fact, that's precisely what it is.  Every 'i' dotted, every 't' crossed."  Murray's trademark infectious giggle burst forth.  "Not that it's necessary to cross or dot anything when using a computer."
 Nick studied his good natured friend with thoughtful eyes, reaching out to ruffle Murray's hair.  "This feels right, Boz.  Feels like home."

 "Yeah, it does."  Cody returned, setting a cup of steaming coffee on the table.  "Here you go, Murray."

 "Thanks, Cody."  Boz raised the mug, inhaling deeply.  "Mmmm... Nick made it."  He blew on it before taking a sip of the steaming brew.  "Yep.  Nick made it."

 This time it was Nick who laughed.  "How can you tell?"  He snapped his fingers.  "Oooooh, I know!  Because it's actually good.  Gotta be it."

 "Oh, thank you so very much," Cody feigned offense.  "We all know it's probably because of the way the spoon melts when you try to stir the damn stuff."

 Another joyous giggle.  "Now, fellas.  Don't be silly!  Nick's coffee always has - a bit of an edge to it."
 "I suppose that's appropriate, somehow."  Cody wiggled his brows in response to Nick's glare.  "Can I have some cream, please?"

 The eyes remained fixed on his accuser with a playful glare, but with the knowledge that long-term familiarity brings, Nick had no need to look before grabbing and nudging the creamer toward his friend.  "Sure."

 Deep in thought, Murray fingered the rim of his cup.  "You know, Nick, you weren't the first one to think about leaving the Agency.  Heck!  I didn't just think about it, I did it."  He emitted a soft snort.  "What a stupid idea that was."

 "Nah, it wasn't," Nick said, knowing full well what he was referring to and waving him off.  "You were lead to believe it was the job opportunity you'd been waiting a lifetime for."

 Cody swallowed a mouthful of coffee and wiped his mustache.  "That's right.  Besides, it wasn't like even Bradley Stivers knew it was a set-up.  He was every bit the victim that you were."

 Murray self-consciously adjusted his glasses.  "I realize that, Cody, and thanks - both of you - for saying that, but I should have at least investigated it further.  That's my profession, for crying out loud."

 "That's OUR profession.  The three of us.  We're partners."  Nick rested a hand on his shoulder and gave it a firm grasp. "Hey, you know something?  I'm actually a little hungry, and this coffee ain't gonna do it all by itself.  What do you say we take this over to Straightaway's for some burgers."  He gave the computer genius a wink.  "Cody's buying."

 "You bet he is!" Cody volunteered with a hearty laugh.  He stood, grabbing his cup, as well as those of his friends.  He called out from the galley.  "You know, Boz, I gotta tell you, when you left for that job?  Nick and I were freaking.  We just aren't worth a damn without you.  It wasn't pretty."

 The dark haired man grabbed the keys to Cody's Jimmy from the table.  "Hell, no!  Especially after Code tried to nail his thumb to a crate."

 "You weren't exactly sympathetic when it happened, either, buddy," Cody responded with a sarcastic grin, snatching the keys from Nick's grasp.  "If you don't mind, I would like to know that the door to the wheelhouse is actually locked when we leave."

 Murray sighed, resting a hand on each broad shoulder.  "Yep.  We're home.  Can we go eat now?"


 Cody studied the menu carefully, scratching his temple as if the choice was challenging, even though he'd memorized the selection years ago.  Snorting, he tossed the menu on the table.  "Why change now!"

 "Yeeeeeah, well, I think I'll live dangerously," Nick announced, dropping his menu on top of Cody's.

 "What?  No well-done burger with cheddar, light on the onion?" Murray teased.  He studied the menu, a frown creasing his brow.  "Hmmm.... I can't quite decide between...the BMT oooooor the tuna on whole wheat." His eyes brightened.  "Althoooough, that cheeseburger does sound mighty tempting.  I think I would prefer it with American, or perhaps Swiss."

 "Here we go," Nick said, rubbing his temples.

 The ever patient Cody patted Murray's arm.  "I'm sure whatever you decide will be just wonderful, Boz."
 A friendly blonde waitress approached their table with pen and pad in hand.  "Hello, gentlemen.  Have you had a chance to look over our menu yet, or would you like a couple more minutes to decide?"

 Nick's eyes took in the long, slender form standing before him, and turned on the flashy smile.  "Hi, how're ya doin'?"  He leaned forward a bit to study her name tag.  "Ashley.  Is that your name?  Lovely name.  How're ya doin, Ashley?  You're new here, aren't you?"  He offered a trademark wink.  "I know I'd never forget a pretty face like yours."

 The young waitress blushed a bright pink.  "Yes, I am."

 Cody rested his head in his hands.  "Oh, boy," he muttered between fingers.

 "Well, how about that?  Straightaway always chooses his employees well.  Nice to meet you, Ashley.  My name's Nick.  These are my associates, Cody and Murray."

 Murray nervously adjusted his glasses.  "Hi, there.  Nice to meet you."

 “Nice to meet you, guys,” the waitress said with a giggle.  I’ll give you a couple minutes to decide.”  She was still giggling when she left.

 A blue eye peeked from behind the fingers.  "I'm amazed at what an automatic reflex that is for you.  Absolutely amazed..."  Cody lowered his hands and straightened in his seat.  "Just how in the hell do you do that?"

 Nick looked around as if to see who Cody was addressing, his expression one of pure innocence.  "Do what?"

 "You guys are such cards,"  Murray giggled, shaking his head.  "And this... wow, this is just so boss!  We're here and we're all together and..." he quieted.  "And we are a team again.  We truly are.  We can't let it happen again, guys.  We must never  allow outsiders to threaten the very thread of our existence."  He raised a defiant fist.  "The very heart of the Riptide Detective Agency.  Why... why, the very..."

 Nick tossed a humorous glance Cody's way, the glint in Cody's eyes telling him the unspoken sentiment was returned.  Murray was off on another tangent and while his friends normally chose to tune him out, this day was an exception.

 "I think we get it, buddy," Cody assured, his voice filled with warmth.  "And I couldn't agree more."

 They were interrupted when Ashley returned to take their orders.  Nick grew surprisingly subdued, allowing the young waitress to take their orders without another round of shameless flirting.  The leggy girl left once she scribbled their requests onto her pad, and an awkward silence fell on the table.

 "You know... uh, the-the things you said, Murray?  That whole bit about allowing outside stuff to divide us?"  Nick nervously cleared his throat.

 Boz exchanged a quick glance with Cody.  "Yeah, Nick?"

 "Buddy..." Cody rested a reassuring hand on his troubled friend's forearm.  "You don't have to do this.  I can see you want to put some sort of blame on yourself.  It is all OVER your face, and I'm here to tell you, you do not have to do this."  He lowered his eyes.  "Any more than... than I do."

 "You're damn straight, you don't!"  Nick snapped without hesitation.  He raised a hand, calming himself and hopefully Cody, as well.  "Can we talk about this?  Just... put everything on the table right here, right now.  There's a ton of crap under the surface, and it's driving me nuts."

 Murray snorted at Nick's typical bluntness.  "I think that's an excellent idea.  Bodacious, even."  He nudged his glasses up the bridge of his nose.  "Who's going to start?  I could, you know.  I have thoughts on this, myself."

 "Go for it, buddy," Cody encouraged with hand outstretched.  "The floor's all yours."

 Nick leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table, giving Murray his complete consideration.  His attention was only diverted long enough to give a quiet smile to Ashley as she set their drinks in front of them.
 Murray tugged at an ear.  "Well, to be quite frank, I felt - actually I still do to a certain extent - like I pushed the move to Tricor.  I had such a love affair with that stupid computer that I may have let it cloud my judgment.  I probably should have been paying more attention to the world around me and not focus in on that darn thing.  I should have been more perspicacious."

 Nick's brow shot skyward.

 "Astute," Cody explained with the utmost patience.  "You know, Nick.  In tune."

 "I knoooow," Nick covered.  "But, let's don't use those words right now, okay?  It's challenging enough as it is."
 Murray grinned in response, but wasn't up to a full on laugh.  "I think you guys know what I'm saying.  I don't feel I handled it well at all.  Come on, let's be honest.  The news about Tricor's top of the line equipment was in the newspapers - even in those commercials on TV, right?  What if I was just looking for an excuse to gain access to that technology?  I believe I even mentioned that all of our newfound misfortune was in probability a positive sign."  His shoulders slumped as he considered the possibilities.

 Cody nursed his soft drink as he listened to the scientist. When Murray seemed to have finished, Cody set his glass down, shaking his head.  "I'm not surprised that you feel that way, Boz, but I have to disagree with your logic."

 "I'm not sure I understand, Cody."

 "Well, look at it this way."  It was Cody's turn to lean forward, eyes narrowed to drive the point home.  "Look at the cases we've handled over the years.  All the temptations we've faced.  Whenever any one of us was dead set to do something the others didn't agree with?  Nobody was shy about throwing in their two cents."

 Nick snorted, raising his hand.  "Case in point."

 "We'll get to that in a minute or two, my friend," Cody grinned.  "What I'm trying to say is that... Well, okay, all right, I'm the guilty one here.  I bought into it, and it wasn't like you had to coax me along, either, Boz.  I was looking at the dollar signs, no hiding it.  The agency was dying, and it's not like it was a slow death.  You weren't the only one suffering from tunnel vision, buddy.  I was looking through that tunnel, myself.  You see?  It was sort of like... okay, okay, it was like the whole incident with Sheila, all right?  Remember?"

 Nick's head snapped up, surprised that Cody would bring up such a difficult time.  Cody had loved the woman, and even when all evidence pointed to Sheila having multiple personality disorder, Cody had refused to see it.
 "No, no, it's okay, Nick," Cody assured, seeing the concern etched in his partner's eyes.  "I'm fine with it and Sheila's doing great.  But at the time, you two were not only telling me what was going on, you were shoving proof right in my face."  His voice grew wistful.  "Tunnel vision to the extreme.  You know how I have that tendency to read the last page of a book before I get to it?  Or to know that the bad guys are going to get caught before the end of the movie?"

 "Oh, yeah," Nick nodded.  "That's true enough."

 Cody shrugged.  "What can I say?  I guess I was spending so much time looking down the road that I forgot to look at where I am now.  I was seeing the business going down the toilet."  He ran a hand through shiny blond hair.  "Me turning forty.  And... I was picturing being without a job... giving up the boat... just..."  He toyed with the wrapper to his straw.  "Just losing everything."  He looked from one to the other with self-conscious eyes.  "You guys, too.  I thought Tricor was the only way to keep the three of us together, even if we DID have to answer to a boss.  Honest to God, I thought that was our only answer, Nick.  That's why I got so upset when you wouldn't go along with it.  In my misguided eyes, I believed if we didn't join up with Tricor, you'd end up doing the charter bit full time, and Boz would be in some... hell, I don't know, he'd be running IBM or something.  I thought it wouldn't just be the end of the agency, it would be the end of us, too.  If I hadn't been so panicked about that and had just looked around at signs that were... God!  They were all OVER the place!  This never had to happen.  None of it."
 Nick was silent as he considered Cody's words.  He knew both Murray and Cody spoke straight from the heart, and this wasn't the time for the standard use-mouth-before-engaging-brain reaction.  Leaning back, he rested his arms on the backrest of the benchseat.  "Can I respond to that?"

 Cody gave him a half-hearted chuckle.  "I was kind of hoping you would.  That's what this whole Dr. Joyce thing is supposed to be about, right?"

 "Okay.  Um.... "  He scratched the side of his nose.  "Okay, in the first place, everything we're discussing here?  And yeah, I'll include myself, okay?  We all know that we were wrong.  We were being dumb.  ALL of us.  So, while we do the venting or whatever we choose to call it, we don't need to do all of the-the 'oh, no, that's not true' or-or 'it's my fault' bit, because we know better now.  Can we all agree?"

 Murray frowned, then leaned toward Cody.  "What did he say?"

 "He said love means never having to say you're sorry," Cody replied, barely hiding a grin.

 Murray gasped.  "Oooooooh, I see.  And yes, I think I can speak for both Cody and myself and say we can agree to that."

 "Thank you," Nick snorted.  "And I need to confess, too.  You guys weren't the only ones doing the tunnel vision deal.  As much as you've both been saying since this thing blew wide open 'gee, Nick, why didn't we listen to you', you've gotta keep in mind that I wasn't seeing the damn forest for the trees, myself.  I was seriously busy with the 'woe is Nick' garbage.  You'll notice that I didn't pick up on anything for a good while, either."  He shook his head.  "I was seeing the same dollar signs and power glory that you guys were.  Remember the fancy blue helicopter and nice little uniform line?  I wasn't seeing spies or espionage or any of that shit.  I was seeing snobs, and that stuff always scared me stupid.  I couldn't... I couldn't deal with it.  I can't exist in that world."  Nick shifted nervously in his seat.  "And... I knew you guys could.  I knew it was in your blood, Cody, whether you like it or not..."

 "I don't," Cody snorted.

 Nick allowed a quiet grin to surface.  "... and Murray?  Hell, you can adapt to anything.  You know you could.  You two... you would have done just fine.  So you see?  I wasn't being noble at all.  Huh-uh.  I was feeling, uh.... left out, I guess."

 Murray patted a muscular shoulder.  "I realize it's a moot point, but we would have found some way, Nick.  You didn't believe it at the time, maybe you still don't, but it's the absolute truth.  No matter what the world throws at us?  We ARE a team... partners."

 Ashley returned to their table, balancing three plates with great ease.  "Here you go, fellas.  You had the BLT, right?"  She set a plate in front of Murray, receiving a grin in response.  "Aaaand Swiss and mushroom burger with curly fries?"

 "Thank you, kindly," Cody nodded with a warm smile.

 "You're most kindly welcome.  And a well done burger with cheddar, light on the onions."  She saved Nick's plate for last.

 "Oh, now that looks delicious.  You know, I've noticed a trace of an accent on that lovely voice of yours.  Where are you from, Ashley?"

 The waitress blushed once again.  "Thank you.  I'm originally from Mississippi.  I've been in California for about a year."

 Nick snapped his fingers.  "Mississippi!  I thought so!  Thank you, Ashley.  This looks wonderful."

 Cody snorted softly, squirting ketchup onto his plate for his fries.  He glanced up and did a double take, noticing Nick watch the young woman walk away.  "You can turn it off now, buddy."

 "Sorry," he said with a sheepish grin.  "I love long legs.  She seems like a very nice girl."

 "You're right, Cody.  It must be an automatic reflex," Murray giggled, pulling the toothpick from his sandwich.  "I really should take lessons from you one of these days.  You know?  Become suave, sophisticated, roguish..."

 Nick took a healthy bite of his cheeseburger, his chewing slowing as he pondered Boz's description.

"Roguish?  I'm not roguish," he said after a hard swallow.  "Do you think I'm roguish, Code?"

Cody wiped his mouth with a napkin.  "I don't know.  I think sometimes you'd like to be."

 "Getting back to the matter at hand, I..."  Murray was interrupted by beeping from his pager.  "Excuse me, guys."  He pulled it from his belt and glanced at it.  "Oh, shoot.  I forgot all about that.  It's Gina.  Will you excuse me, boys?  I need to make a quick call."

 "Oh, sure," Nick said, dipping a fry in ketchup.  "Take your time, buddy."

 Cody raised a curious brow as he watched his partner head for the payphone.  He leaned closer to Nick, eyes twinkling. "Gina?  You don't suppose our Boz has got a girl he hasn't told us about?  Huh?"

 "No," Nick said, shoving a fry in his mouth.  "I think that's one of his students.  You know, Code.  The girl he wants YOU to have, as he's informed you on several occasions."

 Cody returned his attention to his meal.  "Oh.  THAT Gina."  He took a healthy bite from his burger, savoring the taste as he chewed.  "Mmm.  No way."  He swallowed and reached for his drink.  "I've had enough of Murray's blind dates, thank you.  I'm crazy about the little guy, and I'll always wish for the very best for him, but no more blind dates."

 Nick clinked his glass against Cody's.  "Man, I'll drink to that!"

 "What are we drinking to?"  Murray's eager voice was filled with excitement when he rejoined them after his call.  "Gina's going to miss class tomorrow.  She said her brother's going to be in town and the family hasn't seen him for a long time.  You really should meet her one day, Cody.  She's just adorable.  Long shiny dark hair, huuuge green eyes.  Adorable little dimples riiiight here."  He gestured to his own cheeks.  "Tiny little thing.  So petite.  Oh, I know you'd like her.  She's so spunky!  Just delightful!"

 Nick's eyes danced as he playfully nudged his buddy.  "Uh-oh, Code.  The girl has a brother."

     "Stop it.  And I'm sure she is all of those... delightful things, Boz.  Maybe one of these days, all right?"  Cody accepted the nudge as the lighthearted gesture he knew it was, then quieted as he considered Murray's question.  He thought long and hard before responding.  "How about trust."

 Nick raised a brow.  "What about it?"

 "Oh, boss!  We're drinking to trust!  That's a great idea, Cody, and I heartily concur.  Let's raise our glasses to trust."  He lifted his glass to join the others.  "We must never squabble again."

 That drew a cough from Nick.  "Boz... we need to keep it realistic here.  We'll have disagreements now and then.  We always have, we always will.  Everybody does.  It's called being human.  But what we need to learn from this is that... whoa, boy, I guess for me, anyway, it's that when I feel threatened, I need to remind myself that I should talk about it with you guys, and not just... do that internal combustion bit."

 "Yeah, please try not to do that," Cody chuckled.  He snorted when he saw Nick's wide eyes and reached over, rubbing a shoulder.  "I'm kidding, buddy.  Just kidding.  I have things that need to be stored somewhere in my brain, too."

 Murray shook his head, amazed to discover they were all guilty of the same insecurities, even if they'd manifested themselves differently for each of the men.  "You realize what we did?  We were each consumed with worry about the three of us being split up over this.  Yet none of us was able to just... SAY it.  Nick?  You said you didn't want to become part of corporate America.  And Cody?  It was a concern about having no direction when you approached 40.  I, too, discussed the basic 'career' question.  What we could never admit was that what was more important to us than any of it, was losing the 'team', the 'friendships', dare I say 'family'?"

 Cody gave him a thoughtful smile.  "Yeah, Murray.  You can say family.  Absolutely, you can say family.  So, I guess, the lesson to be learned here is to speak up?  Not let crap just fester like Nick always does.  And above all, if we are bothered, we have to have enough of the trust we just toasted to, to say it and not hide behind some other B.S."

 "First off, is that one of those 'what makes it so hard for you to believe that I believe that he believes what he believes' deals?  And what... what is this?  Pick on Nicky day?  Haven't I gone through enough?  Have we forgotten about my owie, already?"  Nick slapped a hand to his pained chest, but his show of anguish convinced no one.

 Cody's mouth was open in preparation of the proper retort, but his attention was diverted by a man in worn blue jeans and red flannel shirt heading in their direction.  His distinctive boot-clad saunter suggested a man of great strength.  Yet, there was something oddly familiar about the gait.

 "You okay, buddy?"  Nick slowly turned his head to see what distracted his friend.

 "Some one you know?" added Murray.

 Cody nodded slowly.  "I'm not... sure."

 The powerful man removed his tan cowboy hat, and Cody found himself looking at a mirror image of himself.  Well, perhaps twenty years or so down the road.

 "Oh, for God's sake!  Clint Brannan!"  Cody pushed his chair out and stood, wrapping his arms around his look-alike and embracing him in a bear hug.  "Man!  I had forgotten all about your coming out here."

 "Well, I can always go back to Montana, if you'd prefer!"

 Nick shook his head in disbelief.  The tone was laid back, humble yet confident.  Even the warmhearted laugh from the obvious relative sounded eerily familiar.  "Unreal."

 "Oh, no you don't."  Cody's eyes were positively dancing.  "Oh, geez, I'm sorry.  Clint?  These are my best friends and business partners.  Nick Ryder?  And this is Murray Bozinski.  Guys?  This is my cousin, Clint Brannan."

 "Hey, how are ya?  Nice to meetcha."  He offered his hand and received a firm squeeze in response.

 "It's a pleasure, Nick.  Murray?"  He shook hands with the bespectacled man.  "An honor."

 "Wow!  Cody's cousin!  From Montana did you say?  Big Sky country," he giggled.  "I'd love to visit there someday.  I hear it's just beautiful."

 "That, it is.  Although, I tend to believe a person can find beauty any place they choose to call home."

 Cody patted his back.  "Come on.  Have a seat.  Sit with us for a while.  How did you find us?  Have you eaten yet?  We can always get you something.  How's the River Belle doing?  Cookie still around?  Mom said you remarried.  Good for you, cousin.  Good for you."

 Another heartfelt laugh as Brannan pulled an extra chair to the table and eased himself down.  "Code?  You're makin' my head spin.  Do I have to answer those in any particular order?"

 Nick grinned, his eyes finding Murray's.  The man did not seem to mock, everything about him appeared to be 100% genuine.  "This guy is great!"

 "Ain't nothin' particularly great, Nick.  Jet lag would probably describe it better.  Now, let's take a look see here.  I found your boat easy enough, but obviously you weren't on it.  I asked a nice lady walkin' with one of those... French hoity-toity dogs along the pier if she had any idea where you might be, and she suggested I check this place.  Here ya are.  What else?  Ah.  I have eaten, thank you.  The River Belle's the same ol' River Belle it's been for a couple generations now.  Still takin' care of cows.  Cows still takin' care of me.  Cookie, too."  He chuckled, running a hand across a weathered face.  "And yes, I did remarry.  Very happy.  Happier than I ever knew a man could be."

 "Cows?"  Murray's eyes widened.  "A ranch?  You own a working ranch?  Really?  How exciting!"

 Cody nodded with pride.  "He sure does, Boz.  His daddy owned it before him."

 "You ARE fucking Clint Eastwood," Nick declared.  He shifted his gaze to the younger version.  “How come I don’t remember you mentioning him, Cody?”

 Clint snorted.  "Brannan, son.  Name's Brannan.  But you got the Clint part right on the money."

 “Oh, geez, Nick.  It’s really been quite a while.  I don’t think we’ve seen each other since I was in... high school, I guess.  But I remember when I was a kid, my family would visit the River Belle.  Clint was maybe... late teens?  I wanted to be him, you know?”  He chuckled. “No suits, no protocol, no proper forks.  Riding horses?  Fly-fishing?  Living on a ranch instead of... well, you guys know where I lived.”  He ignored Nick’s snort.  “But... we just kinda went our own ways.  We went from summer visits to postcards and Christmas cards.”  Cody sobered, resting a hand on his cousin's forearm.  "I'm sorry about the whole situation with Liz, Clint.  Mom filled me in.  I'm glad you found Sean."

 "Missed a lot of warning signs, Code," he said, waving it off.  "Ain't gonna sit here and bash Liz. No more her fault than mine.  That's done with."  Blue eyes narrowed.  "Nice to see the smiles and get the friendly welcome, cousin.  Real nice to meet your friends, too.  But the expressions I'm seein' now are real different than what I saw when I first walked in that door back there.  Now, I'm not one to pry.  I'm just askin' if everything's all right with you."  The cowboy didn't overlook the uneasy shifting in chairs, and raised a brow.  "Involves all three of ya.  Bigger'n I thought.  If the timing's bad, I can take a nice walk down the pier.  Looks like there's a lot to experience around here."

 Cody considered his partners before he spoke.  "No, Clint.  That's not necessary.  Is it, guys?"

 Nick shook his head.

 "Noooo," Murray stated with ease.  "No, not at all.  You are Cody's family, after all.  In a certain sort of way, we are, too.  We're just reminding ourselves of the fact, that's all.  Sometimes... life takes you in an unexpected direction and... well... it can throw you now and then, Clint."

 "Can't argue that," Brannan concurred, casually leaning back in his chair.  "If you boys need a soundin' board, I'd be happy to oblige.  I might be a bit more neutral, seein' as how I'm not directly involved.  Of course, there's no need to be givin' me any juicy details that ain't none of my business.  I'm a man who likes to cut to the chase."
 Cody heaved a weary sigh.  "I think we've pretty much talked it through, buddy.  We just got suckered.  There was a corporation that was crooked.  They needed us out of business, and they damn near succeeded.  We were losing clients left and right and... we weren't seeing any way out of it.  So here comes the great Tricor with offers that looked too good to be true?  We bought into it, hook, line and sinker.  Well... Nick didn't buy into it.  You even said as much, didn't you, my friend?  If it looks too good to be true, it - "

 Ryder raised a hand.  "Hold on, all right?  Before we try to make Nick look brilliant, let's also add that I don't go along with it because I was too selfish or.. insecure or some stupid thing.  NOT because I was onto their game.  I was suckered, too."

 "No one among us is perfect, Nick," Clint said with a quiet nod.  "Not even that Mr. Eastwood of yours.  Betcha he's made decisions he's come to regret a time or two, just like the rest of us."

 Boz raised a finger.  "That's a very interesting observation, Clint.  May I call you Clint?  That's not being too forward, is it?"

 "Clint sounds real good, Murray," he answered.  His voice was perhaps an octave lower than Cody's, but other than that, if heard on the phone, Boz wasn't sure if he could tell the difference.  He wondered if the deeper voice could be attributed to the age difference.

 "Thank you.  There are those who might think just because you're a relative of a close friend, that doesn't instantly make YOU eligible to speak with them as anything more than a mere acquaintance.  After all, we were complete strangers only minutes ago, and..."

 Nick drummed his fingers on the table.  "Boz?  Is there a point?"

 "Huh?"  The classic Bozinski chuckle broke him out of his rambling.  "I DO apologize.  What... was I...?  Oh, yes.  We've had a wonderful discussion before you arrived, Clint.  And to sum it up, I guess, we all agreed that we need to remember to trust each other.  No matter what."

 Cody nodded in agreement.  "Absolutely.  We know we're always there for each other, and when we do have questions or concerns or... insecurities, I guess, we can always go to each other and talk it out."

 "Because of the trust you have in each other."  Clint watched with an amused brow.

 "Bingo," Nick replied without hesitation.  "We're real good at remembering that when times are good, and probably most of the time when things aren't going so hot.  I mean... if one of us is hurt or in trouble?"  He slammed an open palm against a fisted hand, wincing at the pull on his side.  "Bam!  We are THERE.  But for some reason... we allowed ourselves to get desperate and it tore us in different directions.  I allowed myself to get caught up in all the reasons why that wasn't going to work for me, instead of looking at all of the obvious questions.  I'm not... proud of myself."

 Cody reached out to give a subtle pat to his friend's back.  “Take it easy.  I was caught up in the 'this is the only way out' nonsense.  The old 'can't see the forest for the trees' saying you mentioned comes in nicely right about now, doesn't it?  We really snapped at each other, Clint.  It got damned ugly.  We did start to lose the trust in each other.  Thank God we saw the light."

 Clint cast a concerned glance in Nick’s direction.  “You all right?”

 Nick waved him off.  “I’m fine.”

 Although not entirely convinced, the cowboy wasn’t about to pry.  "Okay, then... How about the trust you have in yourselves?"

 Cody's brow furrowed as he pondered Clint's modest words.  "Excuse me?  I'm... not exactly sure, but... I don't think we really have a problem with that."  The furrow deepened.  "Do we, boys?"

 Nick cleared his throat and shrugged.  "Not that I know of, anyway.  We're sitting around blaming ourselves.  We know better, but that doesn't seem to stop us."

 Clint shook his head.  "I'm just throwin' thoughts out there, fellas.  Nothin' gospel, all right?  I'm only wonderin' out loud.  If these insecurities have been poppin' up, how much of it is 'are they going to fail me', and how much is 'will I fail them'.  See where I'm goin' here?"

 There was a thoughtful silence that lasted for a good minute before anyone responded.  Murray straightened in his seat, resting his forearms on the table.  "Wow.  That very well could be the truest statement of all.  Am I going to let them down if I take this job?"

 "Or am I going to let them down if we don't," Cody interjected.

 Nick chuckled at the irony.  "Or I KNOW I'll let them down if I try to be in that world.  I can't do it, I'll just screw it up - "

 "And let them down," Cody finished the thought in a hushed tone.

 “See how interestin' it can be to look at things from a different direction?”  The Montana native scratched at his chin. “Sometimes it works?  Sometimes it don’t.  I have a hunch there’s been a lot of ‘no, it ain’t you’re fault’ comments being made.  Maybe you aught to consider aimin’ those thoughts at yourselves.”

 Cody shook his head in amazement.  “Clint?  I’ve gotta tell ya.  I haven’t seen you in years and years, but in a way?  You’re still the same.  You have this really bizarre way of getting to the heart of things without having to move a muscle.  No... raising your voice, no frustration, no wavering.  Bugs the hell outa me.”

 His comment produced a hearty laugh from his cousin.  “I’ve faced just as many frustrations as the next guy, Code.  Now and then, I’ve wondered if I haven’t dealt with more than most.  But that can hardly be true now, can it?  None of us are immune, cousin.  You wanna know somethin’, though?  Very few have what you three have to help you through the nonsense in the world.  I haven’t been here more than a handful of minutes, but it don’t take any longer than that to see it.  It’s worth strugglin’ to hold onto.”

 Nick licked at his mouth, wadding up a napkin and tossing it on the table.  “I’m glad you’re here, cousin Clint.”

 “Oh, so am I,” Murray concurred.  “I just wish we’d given you a more appropriate welcome.  We’re not usually sitting around with our chins dragging on the table, I promise we’re not.  We’re normally a bunch of hip, happening, fun loving guys.”

 “Not a doubt in my mind,” Clint said with a twinkle in his eye.

 Cody’s eyes widened when he realized there was a missing party.  “Isn’t Sean with you on this trip?  How long are you in town for, anyway.  Man!  There’s so much to catch up on.”

 “We’ll be around for a week or so.  For my lovely bride, this is a working vacation, so she’ll be pretty busy, but I’ll make sure to introduce you fine gentlemen to her.  There’s some time to kill in the meantime.”  Easing his chair back, he stood, reaching across to shake each man’s hand.  “Boys?  If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to drive back to the hotel and rest up for a bit.  Never took a likin’ to flying, but I guess it does get you from point A to point B.”

 Cody was quick to stand.  “Do you want to meet up later?”

 “Course I do,” he said with a warm smile.  “I’ll give you a call.  Aunt Evie gave me your number.  Maybe we can all hook up in a few hours.”

 Nick reached out to shake his hand, giving him a solid grasp.  “Thanks again, Clint.”

 “I agree,” Murray said, next in line.  “You’ve been a great help, and we look forward to seeing you later.”

 “You’re more than welcome.  Of course, you guys figured it out all by yourselves.”  He plopped the cowboy hat back on his head.  “You don’t have to worry about counselin’.  You’ve got everything right here at this table, and that’s each other.  Whatever needs doin’, that’s whatcha do.  Simple as feedin’ a pig.”  He gave a friendly nod, receiving genuine smiles in return, before strolling out of Straightaway’s.

 The three men were thoughtful, staring at the door long after he’d left.  Murray held out a fist to bring his friends’ attention front and center.

 Nick gave him a double take before realization dawned in his eyes.  They were all on the same page again. He rested his hand on top of that fist.  “Whatever it takes...”

 Cody rested his hand on top of Nicks, giving a firm squeeze.  “Whatever we have to do.”