Will was tired. Pleasantly tired. Taylor was exhausted. Not that he’d admit it, but Will could tell by the way he dropped down by the campfire while Will finished pitching their two-man tent.
One eye on Taylor, Will stowed their sleeping bags inside the Eureka Apex XT. He pulled Taylor’s Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad out of his own backpack where he’d managed to stash it that morning without Taylor noticing, and spread it out on the floor of the tent. He opened the valve and left the pad inflating while he went to join Taylor at the fire.
“Always.” Taylor’s grin was wry — and so was Will’s meeting it. Taylor ate like a horse — even in the hospital — although where he put it was anyone’s guess. He was all whippy muscle and fine bones that seemed to be made out of titanium. It was easy to look at him and dismiss him as a threat, but anyone who’d ever tangled with him didn’t make that mistake twice.
He was too thin now, though, which was why Will was carrying about three pounds more food in his pack than they probably needed. He watched Taylor feeding wood into the flames. In the firelight his face was all sharps and angles. His eyes looked almost black with fatigue — they weren’t black, though, they were a kind of burnished green — an indefinable shade of bronze that reminded Will of old armor. Very striking with his black hair — Will’s gaze lingered on Taylor’s hair, on that odd single streak of silver since the shooting.
He didn’t want to think about the shooting. Didn’t want to think about finding Taylor in a dingy storeroom with his shirt and blazer soaked in blood — Taylor struggling for each anguished breath. He still had nightmares about that.
He said, talking himself away from the memory, “Well, monsieur, tonight zee specials are zee beef stroganoff, zee Mexican-style chicken, or zee lasagna with meat sauce.”
“What won’t they freeze-dry next?” Taylor marveled.
“Nothing. You name it, they’ll freeze-dry it. We’ve got Neapolitan ice cream for dessert.”
“Just like the astronauts eat.”
“We pay astronauts to sit around drinking Tang and eating freeze-dried ice cream?”
“Your tax dollars at work.” Will’s eyes assessed Taylor. “Here.” He shifted, pulled his flask out of his hip pocket, unscrewed the cap, and handed it to Taylor. “Before dinner cocktails.”
“Cheers.” Taylor took a swig and shuddered.
“Hey,” Will protested. “That’s Sam Houston bourbon. You know how hard that it is to find?”
“Yeah, I know. I bought you a bottle for Christmas year before last.”
“That’s right. Then you know just how good this is.”
“Not if you don’t like it.” But Taylor was smiling — which was good to see. Not too many smiles between them since that last night at Will’s house. And he wanted to think about that even less than he wanted to think about Taylor getting shot.
“Son, that bourbon will put hair on your chest,” he said.
“Yeah, well, unlike you I prefer my bears in the woods.”
There was a brief uncomfortable pause while they both remembered a certain naval officer, and then Taylor took another swig and handed the flask back to Will.
Will grunted acknowledgment.
He thought about telling Taylor he hadn’t seen Bradley since that god-awful night, but that was liable to make things worse — it would certainly confuse the issue, because regardless of what Taylor believed, the issue had never been Lieutenant Commander David Bradley.
Taylor put a hand to the small of his back, arching a little, wincing — and Will watched him, chewing the inside of his cheek, thinking it over. It was taking a while to get back into sync, that was all. It was just going to take a little time. Sure, Taylor was moody, a little distant, but he still wasn’t 100 percent.
He was getting there, though. Getting there fast — because once Taylor put his mind to a thing, it was as good as done. Usually. When he started back at work he’d be stuck on desk duty for a couple of weeks, maybe even a month or so, but he’d be back in the field before long, and Will was counting the days. He missed Taylor like he’d miss his right arm. Maybe more.
Even now he was afraid — but there was no point thinking like that. They were okay. They just needed time to work through it. And the best way to do that was to leave the past alone.
“Warm enough?” he asked.
Taylor gave him a long, unfriendly look.
“Hey, just asking.” Will rose. “I was going to get a sweater out of my bag for myself.”
Taylor relaxed. “Yeah. Can you grab my fleece vest?”
Will nodded, and passing Taylor, took a swipe at the back of his head, which Taylor neatly ducked.
* * * * *
They had instant black bean soup and the Mexican-style chicken for dinner, and followed it up with the freeze-dried ice cream and coffee.
“It’s not bad,” Taylor offered, breaking off a piece of ice cream and popping it into his mouth.
Actually the ice cream wasn’t that bad. It crunched when you put it into your mouth, then dissolved immediately, but Will said, “What do you know? You’ll eat anything. If I didn’t watch out you’d be eating poison mushrooms or poison berries or poison oak.”
Taylor grinned. It was true; he was a city boy through and through. Will was the outdoors guy. He was the one who thought a week of camping and hiking was what they needed to get back on track; Taylor was humoring him by coming along on this trip. In fact, Will was still a little surprised Taylor had agreed. Taylor’s idea of vacation time well spent was on the water and in the sun: renting a house boat — like they had last summer — or deep sea fishing — which Taylor had done on his own the year before.
“They never did arrest anyone in connection with that heist, did they?” Taylor said thoughtfully, after a few more minutes of companionable chewing.
Taylor threw him an impatient look. “The robbery at the Black Wolf Casino.”
“Oh. Not that I heard. I wasn’t really following it.” Taylor had a brain like a computer when it came to crimes and unsolved mysteries. When Will wasn’t working, which, granted, was rarely, the last thing he wanted to do was think about crooks and crime — especially the ones that had nothing to do with them.
But Taylor was shaking his head like Will was truly a lost cause, so he volunteered, “There was something about the croupier, right? She was questioned a couple of times.”
“Yeah. Questioned but never charged.” He shivered.
Will frowned. “You all right?”
“Jesus, Brandt, will you give it a fucking rest!” And just like that, Taylor was unsmiling, stone-faced and hostile.
There was a short, sharp silence. “Christ, you can be an unpleasant bastard,” Will said finally, evenly. He threw the last of his foil-wrapped ice cream into the fire, and the flames jumped, sparks shooting up with bits of blackened metal.
Taylor said tersely, “You want a more pleasant bastard for a partner, say the word.”
The instant aggression caught Will off guard. Where the hell had it come from? “No, I don’t want someone more pleasant,” he said. “I don’t want a new partner.”
Taylor stared at the fire. “Maybe I do,” he said quietly.
Will stared at him. He felt like he’d been sucker punched. Dopey and…off-kilter.
“Why’d you say that?” he asked finally into the raw silence between them.
He saw Taylor’s throat move, saw him swallowing hard, and he understood that although Taylor had spoken on impulse, he meant it — and that he was absorbing that truth even as Will was.
“We’re good together,” Will said, not giving Taylor time to answer — afraid that if Taylor put it into words they wouldn’t be able to go back from it. “We’re…the best. Partners and friends.”
He realized he was gripping his coffee cup so hard he was about to snap the plastic handle.
Taylor said, his voice low but steady, “Yeah. We are. But…it might be better for both of us if we were reteamed.”
“Better for you, you mean?”
Taylor met his eyes. “Yeah. Better for me.”
And now Will was getting angry. It took him a moment to recognize the symptoms because he wasn’t a guy who got mad easily or often — and never at Taylor. Exasperated, maybe. Disapproving sometimes, yeah. But angry? Not with Taylor. Not even for getting himself shot like a goddamned wet-behind-the-ears recruit. But that prickling flush beneath his skin, that pounding in his temples, that rush of adrenaline — that was anger. And it was all for Taylor.
Will threw his cup away and stood up — aware that Taylor tensed. Which made him even madder — and Will was plenty mad already. “Oh, I get it,” he said. “This is payback. This is you getting your own back — holding the partnership hostage to your hurt ego. This is all because I won’t sleep with you, isn’t it? That’s what it’s really about.”
And Taylor said in that same infuriatingly even tone, “If that’s what you want to think, go ahead.”
Right. Taylor — the guy who jumped first and thought second, if at all; who couldn’t stop shooting his mouth off if his life depended on it; who thought three months equaled the love of a lifetime — suddenly he was Mr. Cool and Reasonable. What a goddamn laugh. Mr. Wounded Dignity sitting there staring at Will with those wide, bleak eyes.
“What am I supposed to think?” Will asked, and it took effort to keep his voice as level as Taylor’s. “That you’re in love? We both know what this is about, and it ain’t love, buddy boy. You just can’t handle the fact that anyone could turn you down.”
“Fuck you,” Taylor said, abandoning the cool and reasonable thing.
“My point exactly,” Will shot back. “And you know what? Fine. If that’s what I have to do to hold this team together, fine. Let’s fuck. Let’s get it out of the way once and for all. If that’s your price, then okay. I’m more than willing to take one for the team — or am I supposed to do you? Whichever is fine by me because unlike you, MacAllister, I —”
With an inarticulate sound, Taylor launched himself at Will, and Will, unprepared, fell back over the log he’d been sitting on, head ringing from Taylor’s fist connecting with his jaw. This was rage, not passion, although for one bewildered instant Will’s body processed the feel of Taylor’s hard, thin, muscular length landing on top of his own body as a good thing — a very good thing.
This was followed by the very bad thing of Taylor trying to knee him in the guts — which sent a new and clearer message to Will’s mind and body.
And there was nothing Will would have loved more than to let go and pulverize Taylor, to take him apart, piece by piece, but he didn’t forget for an instant — even if Taylor did — how physically vulnerable Taylor still was; so his efforts went into keeping Taylor from injuring himself — which was not easy to do wriggling and rolling around on the uneven ground. Even at 75 percent, Taylor was a significant threat, and Will took a few hits before he managed to wind his arms around the other man’s torso, yanking him into a sitting position facing Will, and immobilizing him in a butterfly lock.
Taylor tried a couple of heaves, but he had tired fast. Will was the better wrestler anyway, being taller, broader, and heavier. Taylor relied on speed and surprise; he went in for all kinds of esoteric martial arts, which was fine unless someone like Will got him on the ground. Taylor was usually too smart to let that happen, which just went to show how furious he was.
Will could feel that fury still shaking Taylor — locked in this ugly parody of a lover’s embrace. He shook with exhaustion too, breath shuddering in his lungs as he panted into Will’s shoulder. His wind was shit these days, his heart banging frantically against Will’s. These marks of physical distress undermined Will’s own anger, reminding him how recently he had almost lost Taylor for good.
Taylor’s moist breath against Will’s ear was sending a confusingly erotic message, his body hot and sweaty — but Christ, he was thin. Will could feel — could practically count — ribs, the hard links of spine, the ridges of scapula in Taylor’s fleshless back. And it scared him; his hold changed instinctively from lock to hug.
“You crazy bastard,” he muttered into Taylor’s hair.
Taylor struggled again, and this time Will let him go. Taylor got up, not looking at Will, not speaking, walking unsteadily, but with a peculiar dignity, over to the tent.
Watching him, Will opened his mouth, then shut it. Why the hell would he apologize? Taylor had jumped him. He watched, scowling, as Taylor crawled inside the tent, rolled out his sleeping bag onto the air mattress Will had remembered to set up for him, pulled his boots off, and climbed into the bag, pulling the flap over his head — like something going back into its shell.
This is stupid, Will thought. We neither of us want this. But what he said was, “Sweet dreams to you too.”
Taylor said nothing.
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