Those Who Love: Part 2
Continued from Part 1
Alex was the first to approach the shell-shocked young man. "Who was he, Nick?"
Derek frowned. "You don't know? Surely, there has be some connection... some reason for that particular spirit to visit you...."
Nick's dry laugh stilled Derek's protests. "Sorry, boss," he explained with a blush. "I should have been more specific. I don't know the guy's name, but I knew his face all right. I had nightmares about it for weeks."
"Who was he?" Rachel asked, almost afraid of the answer.
"The first man I ever killed."
Still staring at the doorway that the latest spectral figure had vanished through, Nick related his story, as emotionlessly as though he were talking about someone else. "Everyone thought I was too young for the SEALS, that I was too wet behind the ears to be in the Navy's elite team. Little did they know that the training was a walk through the park compared to what my old man had been teaching me. Anyway, Sarge made sure I was part of the squad that went drug hunting in Central America. I think he wanted to see what I'd do under a relatively controlled situation." Nick glanced quickly at his team members. "We'd been hearing rumors for months about Desert Storm. I guess they wanted to weed out the weaklings before the situation escalated. Anyway, we'd been told that the 'War on Drugs' was real and if we came under any fire, to give back as good as what we got." Nick's voice got thinner as his memories took him deeper. "I remember seeing that guy and realizing right away that he was aiming for Sarge and that Sarge didn't know he was there. So I took him out before he could do the same to any of our guys. I remember thinking that it took forever, once I pulled the trigger, for the bullet to hit him.... and that we stared at each other the whole time..."
"And the shot killed him?" It was Derek's turn to encourage Nick to continue.
"I always wondered. I mean, I saw it hit him and the look on his face as he fell, but I never knew for sure." Nick shrugged. "I guess now I know. Funny thing was, I got a commendation for that shot, they said that I prevented any casualties for our team."
"What's funny about that?" Alex asked, "It sounds as though you did save some of your squad."
Nick snorted. "The citation was what brought me to the attention of Richter. He got me on his team because of it, said I was young but had a good head on my shoulders."
The ex-SEAL didn't need to say anymore, his Legacy colleagues were all to familiar with John Wesley Richter. Nick's former SEAL commander had survived the ambush that supposedly killed everyone in the squad but Nick. The young man had respected his leader and seen him as a mentor figure, taking his loss harder than he had his own father's. His Legacy teammates had been witness to how difficult it had been for Nick to come to the realization that Richter had been alive all along, and in the service of a Dark god. The young man had taken on his former commander one-on-one and beaten him, really ending the man's life this time... but at an emotional cost that had left Nick hurting for months.
"I'm sorry," Rachel said. She was well aware that she, and the whole team, had been uttering those words to Nick a lot over the past day... but there didn't seem to be anything else to say.
"Yeah, I know," the young man responded with a shrug.
Derek moved to take control of the situation. "I doubt that this morning's visitor will be the only one. We better get busy, something tells me this situation is escalating."
Once again, the Precept was proven right.
The situation *did* escalate, the visitations of spirits from Nick's past becoming a veritable parade of the dead by early afternoon. Even the tenacious ex-SEAL's fortitude was tested and the young man became distracted enough that he could no longer do research. Instead, he retreated to the sitting room, where at least the ghostly visitors wouldn't disturb the others.
Rachel stuck by Nick, hoping to offer emotional support and desperate to discern some sort of pattern from the visitations. With the latter, however, she was out of luck. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the ghosts' order. One specter might be an innocent victim that had perished despite Nick and his Legacy teammate's best efforts, the next a favorite teacher that had been killed by lightening when Nick was still in high school.
Alex continued her research, hoping to find out what might be behind the restless dead and the mysterious "Lady" to whom each and every one referred. Derek divided his time between the two groups, desperate to find out what had targeted the youngest member of his House but uncomfortable letting Nick out of his sight.
It was during one quick appraisal on how Nick and Rachel were doing that the Precept entered the sitting room to find Rachel by herself, pensively staring out the window. Derek hurried to her side and looked out too. He was relieved to see Nick going through his martial arts routine out on the lawn. Derek knew how the activity brought peace to the young man's restless soul and realized that the activity would help ground the ex-SEAL.
"I wonder why we didn't think of that before," he said to Rachel by way of a greeting.
"He thought of it himself," the psychiatrist answered, not looking at her leader. "Said he needed to get out and move. I talked him out of going on a run. I thought it best he stay close to the House." Unspoken was Rachel's desire to keep a close eye on her young friend.
"How's he doing?" Derek asked.
Rachel leaned her forehead against the cool glass before turning to meet the Precept's gaze. "I'm worried, Derek. There are so many of them...."
Derek knew what she meant. "Nick's been a soldier for a long time, Rachel, even though he's still young. Warriors tend to have a lot of dead. "
The blonde woman threw her arms up in frustration. "Give me a break, Derek! Nick's not even thirty, yet he's seen so much death. It's not fair."
The Precept opened his mouth to answer, something along the lines that life wasn't fair, but stopped himself. He had no wish to be slapped this afternoon, either physically or verbally. Rachel, he knew, was capable of either. Or both.
Instead, Derek reached for Rachel's notes, reading the names recorded there. "I don't see Nick's father on the list."
The psychiatrist snorted. "So far, all of them seem to be trying to convince Nick of something. I know Nick has made some progress with his feelings about his dad, but do you honestly think that Jonathon Boyle would be able to persuade his son to do anything?"
Derek's sad smile conceded her point, but he had another theory. "Or it could be that his father's spirit is unavailable to whatever is responsible for these visitations. Nick did help Jonathon's soul find peace." The Precept nodded again towards the tally Rachel had been keeping. "Nick's SEAL squadron isn't listed either, and he helped their spirits move on too."
"I guess we'll just have to wait and see," Rachel conceded, but then went on with her greatest worry. "The quantity of them isn't the worst of it either."
"What do you mean?"
Rachel closed her eyes in pain. Despite her training, she could feel Nick slipping through her fingers, as every phantom seemed to take a piece of him along with it when it left. "He's starting to listen to them."
Derek looked at her in dismay, but was saved from answering by Alex's abrupt arrival.
"I've got it!" She cried, brandishing an old book at them.
The Precept turned towards his former student, "What is it?"
Breathless, Alex launched into an explanation. "Francis Mudd. Reverend Mudd was the sole survivor when cholera broke out in his town during the 1870s. He moved back to the east coast and eventually became friends with the Boston Legacy House's Precept."
"And..." Rachel prompted.
"Years later, 1901 to be exact, Mudd contacted his old friend when he started being afflicted by ghostly visitations. For two days and a night, Mudd was haunted by spirits from his past. The Legacy documented it."
"What happened?" Derek all but barked the question, anxious to get all the details.
Alex turned towards her mentor. "Mudd's journal says that he was being wooed by Death to be her lover. According to the Legacy's documentation, the Reverend resisted. Until the second night. The final visitation was from Mudd's dead wife... and he followed her. He died, right in front of a team of Legacy operatives, but there was nothing they could do to stop it. It's was Mudd's choice."
"Is that it?" Rachel whispered, "That's how it's going to end?"
"No!" Derek denied. They'd find a way to keep Death's seduction of Nick from being successful. They had to, failure carried too high a price.
"Well, actually, once I knew what I was looking for, I found a couple of other instances," Alex said, quickly trying to assuage her friends' grief. "In 1501, France was at war with Poland and the leader of the French army, Lionel XXXX, wrote of a similar experience in his diary. The pattern was similar. Two days and a night of visits from the dead, each talking about Lady Death's charms and then Death herself came courting on the second night. This time, she took the form of XXX's dead mistress."
"Was Death successful?"
"No," Alex said, relieved to relay good news. "Apparently, XXX was a religious man and took all of the visitations, even the one from his dead lover, as visits from the Devil. He refused her and his diaries indicate that he never heard from Lady Death again. He survived the war and eventually died in bed of old age."
Derek closed his eyes in relief. They had a chance, then. "You said you came across several other references?"
Alex sat down, the most important news she'd discovered having already been delivered. "Just a couple that might be related. Apparently, there was a serial killer in Canada earlier this year that said he killed twenty-six people in order to get Lady Death's attention as a likely suitor. And then, the House in Buenos Aires reported unearthing a cult that worshiped Death, in the guise of an all-powerful woman that had to be courted."
"Derek, do you really believe that Death is wooing Nick?" Rachel said. The dry facts that the younger woman related were logical enough, but the scientist in Rachel was having a hard time believing that something like Death, even if it were an entity rather than just a concept, would manifest itself in search of a mate.
"Death, or something claiming to be Death," Derek conceded, happy to have some sort of name to put on the mystery that they were facing. "Whatever it's called, it's clear that nothing we can do will stop the visits."
"All we have to do is get Nick to tell her 'no.'" Alex said. "That should be easy enough."
"I'm not so sure, Alex. If you'd asked me last week, I'd have said that Nick would laugh at the idea." The worry was palatable in Rachel's voice. "But whatever's behind this, Death or some demon disguised as Death, is one smart cookie. All these dead from Nick's past, each one that comes opens up an old wound and reminds him of loss and pain, all while telling him how wonderful this 'Lady' is. I think he's half won over already."
"And the most convincing of Nick's dead has yet to show." Derek said hollowly. "If Mudd and XXX's accounts are correct, then the most important of Nick's dead will be the form Death will take to make her final, personal plea."
"Oh, God..." Alex said, as the meaning of Derek's words hit her.
The Precept nodded, seeing that Alex understood the depths of the problem.
"What are we going to do when Julia comes to take him?"
"Listen to yourself, Derek," Nick said in disgust. "You're proposing that the not-so-Grim Reaper has come a'courtin'... and that I'm her chosen beau. What sort of sane person's supposed to believe that pile of crap?"
"I doubt that we're talking about Death herself," Derek patiently explained, "this is probably a demon or some other manifestation that is assuming the persona of Death..."
"To what purpose?" Nick asked.
"We don't know," Alex interjected, "but the pattern seems to match the other documented instances. We're not sure why you were chosen, but it seems clear that you have been."
The combativeness drained out of Nick's face. "I guess Death wants a lover that's already familiar with her." The young man turned away from his friends as his contemplation turned inward. "I guess if there's anything I've learned over the last couple of days, it's that I have more than a passing acquaintance with the dead."
"Nick," Rachel got up from her seat to kneel next to the young man's chair. "Don't let these visitations blind you to the flip side. There are lots of people still on this earth that love you, there are three of them in this room."
Alex chimed in, "Not to mention those that you saved by your Legacy work. There have to be dozens of people who owe their lives to you."
The young man got up abruptly, making Rachel make a grab for the chair's arm in order not to topple over. Pacing over to the window, he looked out, keeping his back to his friends. "But at what cost, Alex? You say I've helped save a lot of people. What about those that are dead because of me?"
"That's immaterial right now," Derek said, using his best no-nonsense voice. "If Alex's research is correct, and I think it is, you have a simple choice ahead of you. All you have to do is to refuse to go with this supposed 'Lady Death' and it will be over."
His back still to his three older companions, they all saw Nick stiffen at the Precept's words.
"Nick," Alex said hesitantly. "You are going to tell her 'no,' aren't you?"
"Of course he's going to say 'no,'" Derek answered for the ex-SEAL. "Nick's never one to back away from a fight. Life is the ultimate struggle, giving in to this apparition would be a cop-out. That's not Nick's style."
The Precept's goading words got a reaction out of the younger man, but not the one that Derek had hoped for. Instead of meeting fire with fire, Nick slumped. "I'm just so damn tired... and if that's a cop-out, then that's the way it is." And when he turned to meet the concerned gaze of his friends, they were chilled to realize that their friend's eyes had the same cold emptiness that characterized the eyes of the dead.
Unless they managed to change his mind in the next few hours, Nick already belonged to Lady Death.
Nick may have lost his inner fire, but he maintained his stubbornness.
His companions were anxious to turn the young man's inclination away from accepting Death as his lover and each tried their own arguments to sway him. Rachel even broke her cardinal rule about her daughter; she used Kat to try and convince Nick to remain with the living. A sudden thunderstorm kept the girl away from Angel Island, but the psychiatrist still played upon Nick's attachment to the youngster, especially his sense of responsibility towards his young friend.
"Suicide is leading cause of death for teens and young adults," Rachel had argued. "If you do this, what am supposed to tell Kat? You know how she emulates you what if she decides somewhere down the road that death is the answer to her problems too?"
"Don't worry about Kat," Nick had finally told her. "She's too smart to act like me. You'll have Alex and Derek around to be good examples."
Derek thought a phone call to Nick's mother might offer the young man encouragement, but that idea had been a pure disaster. The woman had already lost a husband to the Legacy and had an older son that had disappeared years before. Mary Boyle was convinced that her remaining son was headed straight to Hell for his work with the Legacy and she'd just as soon he get it over with sooner rather than later, thank you very much. The Precept had contemplated a second call, this time to Philip Callaghan, the young priest being one of the few that Nick was willing to have deep spiritual discussions with. Unfortunately, the intensifying thunderstorm disrupted communications, isolating them on the island. A storm, the Precept was sure, that was not a natural phenomenon.
Lady Death, it appeared, was not above cheating a little.
Finally, Nick had retreated to his room to wait for the coming night and its last visitation. At a loss for how to proceed, his friends had let him. They weren't quite ready to give up, but knew they'd have to think of something... and soon. Night was soon approaching.
Nearly defeated, the three older House members met in the library and discussed their options. Appealing to Nick's sense of duty had failed, along with emphasizing ties of family and friendship. Even old-fashioned guilt had not been able to convince Nick to stay with the living.
"What it comes down to," Rachel said, "is that Nick needs a reason to keep on living. Something beyond the Legacy."
"Don't we all?" Alex said, worried for her friend, but knowing how their Legacy work tended to consume any normalcy their lives had to offer.
"Love," Rachel said, eyes bright with excitement. "The most basic of human emotions. That's what will convince him to stay."
"But we love Nick," Alex protested, "and that obviously isn't enough. Not even his mother..." The young researcher broke off as she realized there was one type of love she hadn't yet contemplated, one that Rachel had already thought of.
As one, the two women turned to look at Derek.
A very chagrined Derek Rayne approached the door to Nick Boyle's bedroom. He had suffered terribly for the last couple of years, not daring to let anyone know of his secret feelings for the ex-SEAL. In fact, the Precept had been so focused on his own nobility for not pressing his suit on the young man that apparently he hadn't detected that his yearning for Nick hadn't gone unnoticed by everyone in his House. According to what Rachel and Alex had just told him, it seemed that Nick was the only one oblivious to his feelings. They, as well Dominick and even Philip, had read him like an open book.
Not only that, but the two women seemed to think that Nick felt the same way about *him.*
It was a blow to his ego to discover that he'd covered his emotions so poorly. If that weren't bad enough, it appeared as though he'd wasted time fruitlessly trying to hide what he felt. Time that could have been better spent on other business, like romancing the object of his affections rather than sighing over him from afar.
And, worst of all, if Rachel and Alex were right about Nick being in love with him, then by not pursuing that love, he'd left the ex-SEAL vulnerable to "Lady Death's" seduction.
Determined not to waste any more time, he finally allowed his colleagues to convince him that by telling Nick how he truly felt about him, he might persuade the young man to choose life over becoming Death's lover. The Precept had held off until now, still certain that he was too old for Nick and that his love wouldn't matter one jot to the ex-SEAL in making his decision.
It was Rachel that had ultimately convinced him. "What do you have to lose?" The psychiatrist had argued. "Consider the alternative."
Derek didn't want to consider the alternative, a world without Nick Boyle. And so here he was, a fool with his figurative hat in his hands, hoping that his pathetic offer of love would be enough to entice Nick away from Death's embrace.
His quiet knock at Nick's door was answered with an equally quiet permission to enter.
The Precept found Nick sitting cross-legged on his bed, fingering a picture restlessly. As Derek entered, the young man looked up, giving him a ghost of his usual crooked grin.
"I had a feelin' it was you or Rachel or Alex."
"Oh?" Derek asked with a quirk of an eyebrow.
Nick shrugged. "Death doesn't sound like the type of woman that knocks on doors... or needs to."
Derek almost let the customary way that Nick had of making light of a serious situation lull him into a sense of normalcy... until he realized that Nick's smile wasn't reaching his eyes.
Not capable of meeting the younger man's gaze, Derek looked around the room. It was decorated with a few tokens of Nick's past, some framed Navy medals, a model version of Nick's beloved Mustang convertible, but the Precept was surprised at the overall spartan nature of Nick's most intimate living space. Had it always been this empty? And why had he never noticed?
The Precept felt decidedly awkward, but plowed ahead anyway. He may have been blind about some things, but now that he had hope, he was determined to see it through. Besides, sunset was nearly upon them, meaning the last visitation was imminent all the inspiration he needed to tell Nick about his feelings
"Nick, about what I said earlier this afternoon," he began, "About you not backing down from a fight..."
The ex-SEAL waved his hand. "Don't worry about it. You're right, it's the coward's way out." Nick took one last look at the photo in his hands before shoving it underneath the bed's pillow. "If my dad were here, hell, if even Richter was around, they'd probably kick my butt for being a pansy."
"Don't even think about patronizing me, Derek. I know what I'm doing, I'm running away." Nick laughed, the sound nearly a sob. "And I'm runnin' a hell of a lot further than most cowards do."
"Why?" Greatly daring, Derek perched on the edge of the bed, choosing to ignore Nick's proclamation of cowardice. He was here to persuade Nick, not argue with him.
The Precept's gentle question prompted another laughing sob. "Are you kidding? Over the last couple of days, it's been brought to my attention that more than a few of the people around me have died."
"Not everyone who loves you is dead, Nick."
The ex-SEAL went on as though he hadn't heard the other's words. "One way or another, Derek, everybody leaves. Dad died... Jimmy took off... Philip took off... Julia died. I'm tired of bein' left behind... I'm tired of bein' alone." Nick looked away from the older man, staring at the bedspread. "I guess I'm just tired."
"Nick..." Derek put one hand under the smaller man's chin, tilting his face up. "Look at me, please." When Nick did, he smiled and let his fingers drop. "Not everyone has left, Nick. Rachel's here... Alex is here... and I'm still here too."
Nick closed his eyes. The Precept's words and voice had almost fooled him into thinking Derek really cared. But after this afternoon, when Derek's first response had been of struggles and duty and fighting, he knew then that the older man only thought of him as a Legacy colleague. Nothing more.
Derek was mostly focused on Nick's response, but out of the corner of his eye, he saw a shimmering begin. Realizing that full night had arrived and he was rapidly running out of time, the Precept decided to change tactics.
Bending forward, he brought both hands up to cup the ex-SEAL's face and kissed the younger man thoroughly.
Nick's eyes popped open in surprise and at first he let the kiss continue, even leaning into it in an instinctive response. But then his mind kicked in and the young man exploded up from the bed.
"What the hell was that?"
Derek shot a worried glance over to the shimmering in the corner, realizing with dismay that the twinkling lights were beginning to coalesce into a vaguely human form. "Nick, when I said that not everyone who loved you was dead, I meant me. I love you."
Nick looked at him in open-mouthed amazement. "Of all the lowdown, rotten tricks you've pulled, Rayne, this is the worst."
"Nick, I lov..."
"Can it, Derek. You do *not* play with someone's emotions that way." Nick still had not noticed the otherworldly form taking shape in the room. "I don't care if you're trying to keep me from doing this or not. Don't lie to me like that. Not about something like a kiss."
Desperate now, Derek also rose from the bed. He'd hoped to bring back some of Nick's fire and emotion, but not like this. Anger had not been what he'd been aiming for, not at all.
"Nick, I am not lying to you. The kiss... the way I feel... it's not just about tonight -- about the choice you have to make. I've felt this way a long time, just ask Rachel or Alex."
Seeing that the glowing form's features had settled into the face of Julia Walker, Derek realized he was out of options and almost out of time. He grabbed the smaller man roughly by the shirt and pulled Nick to him, stopping just long enough to challenge the ex-SEAL by saying, "Try telling me *this* is a lie." Then he kissed Nick again. This time he let all of his pent-up desire flow out through him into Nick, growling softly as he lightly nipped the ex-SEAL's lips before dipping in to taste his mouth again.
Finally, the Precept pulled back, steadying the younger man as Nick swayed from the loss of contact. "I love you, Nick."
"I love you, Nick," a feminine voice echoed.
The ex-SEAL turned, recognizing the voice. It wasn't the first time something paranormal had assumed the countenance of his dead lover, Julia Walker. Where the incubus' duplication of Julia's form had been perfect, however, Lady Death's was not. Not exactly. The difference was in the eyes. Instead of Julia's eyes, the sockets of Lady Death's were dark and filled with thousands of tiny points of light, like the entire night sky were housed there.
Lady Death held her arms out to Nick, her voice throbbing with emotion as she offered her intended his choice. "Come with me, beloved. I promise you no more pain. No more loss."
Torn, Nick turned from her to Derek.
"I can't promise you an end to pain, Nick. It's part of life." The Precept's eyes were bright and full of tears. "But I can promise that you won't be alone. Not anymore."
Death was persistent. "Leave this mortal world, beloved. Join your dead and weep no more."
"Stay with me, Nick," Derek pleaded. "Please."
Nick looked from one to the other, finally turning back to Derek. "You promise not to leave?"
"I promise, Nick," Derek said, ignoring Lady Death. "I won't leave. Not of my own volition."
"What does the living world have to offer you?" Death asked. "Pain. Suffering. Loneliness. By my side, those mortal concerns would all be ended."
The ex-SEAL turned towards the Lady. "Yeah, but with you, there'd be no living either. No more Saturday morning cartoons. No more strawberry ice cream. And no more being the first one awake in the House, just so you can make the coffee exactly the way you like it." Nick turned back to Derek as he spoke. "Something tells me, lady, that your kisses would be cold. I like mine warm."
"No. Thanks but no thanks. I'm staying."
The Lady's form shimmered and started to fade. "So be it."
Then, She was gone.
Derek and Nick looked at each other in silence. Then, the Precept gave a most uncharacteristic whoop of joy and grabbed the smaller man around the waist, euphoria and adrenaline giving him the strength needed to swing the ex-SEAL around.
At Derek's happy noise, the two women burst in, delighted to discover Nick still in the land of the living... and nestled in Derek's arms. They basked in the joy the couple exuded for a moment, then Rachel elbowed Alex and they left, giving the lovers the privacy they needed.
Derek finally tired of swinging his lover, his grip changing into a caress as Nick's body came to a stop. Then he pulled the younger man in for another kiss, this time being gentle.
When they broke apart, Nick pressed closer with a sigh. "Figures you tell me something like this when I'm too tired to do anything about it." Now that the crisis had passed, the stress and emotional tidal wave he'd just endured were beginning to tire the ex-SEAL. Despite his happiness, Nick drooped in Derek's arms.
"Doesn't matter," Derek said, kissing the top of Nick's head. "Now we've got all time we need."
Leading the younger man to the bed, Derek stretched out on it, pulling Nick down to lay next to him. The ex-SEAL snuggled in tight and Derek nuzzled his cheek affectionately, realizing the other man was already mostly asleep.
Thinking he could quickly get used to having Nick sleeping in his arms, the Precept stretched out in satisfaction. As he did, he heard a rustling noise and realized that it came from the picture that Nick had shoved under the pillow earlier. Considering how Nick had been concentrating on it when he'd come in, the Precept figured it was an important memento from the young man's past... likely a photo of Julia or perhaps of Jonathon Boyle. In either case, it most certainly was an important item to Nick and one that should be protected from damage.
Reaching under the pillow, Derek retrieved the picture and idly looked at it before carefully placing it on the night stand. To his surprise, it wasn't a picture of Julia. Or of Jonathon. Or even of Nick's old SEAL team.
It was a picture of him, Derek Rayne, that Nick had been contemplating before his appointment with Death.
Unlike space, in Hell, everybody can hear you scream.
This time, when Horton's cries reverberated in the bottomless pit of purgatory's endless twilight, there were two sets of eyes watching him. One red with malice... and the other filled with the thousand points of light, as if they contained all the stars of the night's sky.
For once, Nick seemed content to let Derek drive. Or steer, as the case may be.
The young ex-Seal leaned bonelessly against his new husband, staring intently at the wedding ring adorning his hand as though it would fly away if he took his eyes from it. Derek felt the same way. After years of loving Nick from a self-imposed distance, it seemed a miracle that not only did they finally have the type of relationship he'd craved, but that he'd had the chance to propose marriage... and Nick had accepted.
Of course, it hadn't been quite that easy. Derek had known that flowery speeches, not to mention getting down on one knee, would not be the way to go with this particular young man. He'd waited until after they'd made love one night, that sweet period of time between satiation and sleep, before popping the question. Nick, characteristically where emotional matters were concerned, had been hesitant.
"Derek, two guys can't get married, not even in San Francisco."
The Precept had propped himself up on one elbow, the other hand lazily tracing circles up and down the younger man's sweaty chest. "I know it won't be legal, Nick, not to the government. But I've been in the Legacy far too long not to believe that rituals have power - even those not recognized by the state of California."
"Yeah, but even if you can find someone to do the ceremony, would you want to wear a ring? My ring? I mean, you have to travel in some pretty fancy circles, what would those high society types think of you being married to another guy?"
Derek had made himself chuckle and leaned in for a quick kiss. "What would they think? They'd think 'What is a good looking stud like *him* doing with an old man like *that*?'"
As anticipated, Derek's dig at himself had gotten a protest from Nick, that he wasn't old and hadn't he just proved it a few minutes before they'd started this crazy conversation?
In truth, the Precept's desire for a marriage ceremony had more than one reason. Oh, he was eager to join himself to Nick for both their lifetimes, but he'd made that commitment weeks before, as had Nick when he'd turned away from Death's seduction. He didn't really need a ritual to commemorate that choice, it was written on his heart. Both of their hearts.
Derek knew, at this moment, that Nick was certain in their relationship, that love made his life worth living. But the older man also recognized that his lover's self confidence issues could potentially erode that belief bit by bit. He wanted a ring on Nick's finger, visual evidence that would remind him of love, even when it seemed distant.
"But why, Derek?" Nick had asked, genuinely puzzled. "Why marry me? It's not like I'm pregnant or anything. You're not exactly gonna get any tax breaks either."
The Precept had rolled on top of his lover, his body completely blanketing the younger man's smaller form. Face to face, he answered the ex-Seal's question with the only reason that really mattered. "Why marry you? Because I want to."
That had been that. It was the one and only time in their relationship that Derek had deliberately used "puppy dog eyes" on Nick and he'd found that the other man was no more immune to it than he was.
Less than a month later, they found themselves bound in holy (if not legal) matrimony and sailing their way to their wedding reception. Well, not sailing, but in a sailboat, even if it was being powered by the engine rather than the wind at the moment. Derek's mother had wistfully asked if he would be following the Dutch tradition of the wedding couple arriving at the reception by boat. With Ingrid in the convent, Derek was the only child that Barbara Rayne would see wedded and he was eager to accommodate her. After all, being alone in a boat with his love was hardly a chore.
Nick hadn't minded in the least, his mother-in-law's enthusiasm for their union went a long way towards making him feel better about his own mother's total rejection of the relationship. Derek had been afraid that Mary Boyle's reaction would be a set-back, but Nick had taken it well. "She didn't want me to join the Navy, didn't want me to go for the SEALS, didn't want me to join the Legacy. All the things in my life that have been good for me, she didn't want me to do. It's hardly a surprise that she wouldn't want me with you."
Thinking of the emotional backlash the parental rejection could have caused, Derek shuddered. He didn't want to see that bleak look on Nick's face. Not ever again.
"Hey, you cold?" Nick had felt his husband's shiver and turned concerned eyes on the older man.
"No, just trying to convince myself that this is happening. That I'm well and truly married to you."
The ex-SEAL grinned up at him. "We really did it, didn't we?"
Derek unwrapped his arm from around Nick's shoulders, reaching down to take the younger man's ringed hand and plant a quick kiss the wedding band. "Yes, we really did."
The newlyweds lapsed into companionable silence again, until finally the lights from the wedding reception could be seen. Rachel, Alex, and Kat had gleefully joined forces with Derek's two female relatives to plan the party and he'd almost been afraid to ask what they'd concocted between them. Thankfully, the wiser heads in the planning group had prevailed and, despite Alex and Kat teasing Nick mercilessly about yards of pink tulle covering everything in sight, they'd actually come up with something very restrained. Matching the simple but joy-filled wedding ceremony, an informal sunset reception at the beach had been the final decision. Even Nick could find nothing to fault with the intimate gathering of their most loved friends and family.
Derek suspected the fact that his notoriously casual husband could wear jeans to the reception had something to do with his easy acceptance of the planned celebration, but already a perceptive husband, he kept his thoughts on the subject to himself.
As their tiny craft approached the shore, Derek deftly guided it towards the dock. Nick took care of tying them securely and then there was nothing to do but join their friends on the beach. Seeing the figures gathered at the end of the dock, holding off to give the newly wedded couple a last few moments of privacy, the ex-SEAL suddenly felt overwhelmed. During the ceremony itself, Derek had been the only person he truly saw. Even Philip, who'd performed the ritual, had been out of focus, simply a soft voice guiding them through the words. Suddenly, he realized how public their relationship would be from now on. It was one thing to discuss being married to Derek while they were in the intimate setting of their own bed, it was quite another to face the world with it.
Derek gently took Nick's hand, sensing the unusual shyness in his love. "Ready, Nick?"
The ex-SEAL looked at his husbands face, the love there clearly written there for anyone to see. Suddenly, the small crowd awaiting them didn't seem like a gauntlet that had to be run. Rather, the people gathered were witnesses to the new life he and Derek were beginning together.
Now eager to get started, he stood on tiptoe to plant a quick kiss on his spouse's warm lips. "Yeah, babe, I'm ready."
Then, hand in hand, the two men walked down the dock to the beach, a wedding reception and a life together ahead of them, just waiting to be enjoyed.
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