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Ball & Chain

Abigail Roux

  Chapter 1

  Kelly stood at Zane’s side behind a barrier at the bus depot of Camp Lejeune. Zane didn’t know him well enough to read him, and he wasn’t interested in trying. He couldn’t get past his own butterflies to analyze his companion’s state of mind.

  It had been six months since they’d watched Sidewinder walk down the gangway to their plane. Six long, lonely months of confusing feelings and dread whenever the phone rang. Zane had woken every morning expecting to hear horrible news about the men he considered friends, and not a day had passed that Ty hadn’t been on his mind.

  The call Zane had lived in fear of receiving had never come, thank God. In fact he’d only received a single satellite call from Ty in all the time he’d been gone, the one telling him when they’d be coming home. It had been like a drop of water to a dying man, and coming just weeks before Christmas, the best present Zane could have asked for.

  Kelly had admitted to much the same type of existence as they’d driven there from the airport. Every day a struggle to keep his mind on something besides the fact that he wasn’t there to help protect them.

  “You nervous?’ Zane asked him.

  Kelly took a deep breath, nodding. “I’ve never been on this side of it. ”

  “Is it any easier on the other side?”

  Kelly glanced up at Zane, shrugging. “Not really. You sit there with all your buddies, men who’ve been your world for months, years. You think about the people at home, wonder if they’ve missed you. Pray they’ve missed you. Your mind cycles through everything that could have changed, and the nerves start building. Even the smallest thing can hit you like a hammer when you come out. I’ve seen guys break down and cry because their wives got a haircut. ”

  “That why you made me shave?”

  Kelly grinned and nodded as the first buses began to pull in. Nerves skittered through Zane as tired Marines in rumpled uniforms began to trickle into the tented areas where family awaited. Kelly inhaled sharply. Zane’s hand began to tremble. “God,” he said under his breath.

  “The first ship holds seventeen hundred men. We might be here awhile,” Kelly warned.

  And they were. An hour and a half later, they were still standing behind the roped-off area, witnessing reunions, waiting. Zane was watching a man embrace two blonde toddlers when Kelly slapped his arm to get his attention. Zane scanned the crowd almost frantically, searching for whomever Kelly had caught sight of.

  He only saw one familiar face, and it wasn’t the one he was desperate to lay eyes on. “I thought they’d be out together,” Zane mumbled. He glanced to his side, but Kelly was gone. He’d bolted and hopped the barrier, taking off at a dead sprint through the celebratory crowd.

  Zane laughed as Kelly cut a swath toward the unsuspecting Marine. Nick was striding through the crowd of young sailors and Marines, nodding as they saluted him in passing. He looked long and lean in his uniform, hair shorn close and face clean shaven. He had more stripes on his arm than Zane remembered seeing in photos, and he walked with a change in his gait, like he might have been hiding a limp.

  Zane hustled after Kelly, but he couldn’t keep up. People parted for Kelly, sliding out of his way like they knew he wasn’t going to let them slow him down just to be polite. He pushed off a few people receiving hugs, hopped around a few children too tiny to get out of the way. It was probably those erratic movements that caused Nick to spot him in the crowd.

  A smile graced Nick’s tanned face, and he braced himself at the last minute as Kelly leapt at him and tackled him to the ground. They disappeared from Zane’s sight briefly, and Zane hurried to join them.

  Kelly didn’t seem to care who saw them, or what anyone thought of his lack of decorum, or even what Nick thought. He hugged Nick hard. Nick flailed under him, trapped between Kelly and the seabag still on his back. He finally wrapped his arms around Kelly and stopped struggling, laughing instead.

  “Jesus Christ, if that’s the welcome wagon, I think I’ll walk home,” Digger said as he approached. He shook Zane’s hand and patted him on the shoulder. Then he dumped his seabag at Zane’s feet and threw himself on top of Kelly.

  A moment later, Owen appeared from the sea of faces and launched himself at the other three, wrapping his arms around all of them as they formed a dog pile in the middle of the crowd. Zane almost felt sorry for Nick being on the bottom. Almost.

  He glanced up, scanning the crowd for the only person he desperately needed to see. He was searching so hard that he almost skipped right over him, standing just a few yards away and gazing at Zane with a smile.

  Zane’s breath caught. “Ty. ”

  “Hi,” Ty said with a bigger grin. He was tanned and bearded, which was why Zane hadn’t immediately recognized him. His hair was longer than when he’d left too, obvious even under the hat he wore, and he was far leaner. But his hazel eyes still glinted like they always did.

  Zane started toward him, not caring who might see or what the consequences would be. Ty jogged the rest of the distance and threw himself into Zane’s arms. Zane buried his face in Ty’s neck, relishing the warmth and solidity of the man. He breathed in his scent, even though it wasn’t the one Zane usually associated with Ty. It was still him.

  “Oh my God,” Zane gasped finally. He tightened his arms around Ty, clutching at his uniform.

  “I missed you,” Ty whispered in his ear. His hands gripped at Zane’s hair, and he stood on the toes of his boots so they could cling tighter to each other.

  The thought of a kiss never entered Zane’s mind. He didn’t even think about stepping back so he could look at Ty’s face, the face he’d seen in his dreams and forced himself to remember every night as he lay awake. He just squeezed his eyes closed and held on to Ty like he might be taken away again, clutched at him as he would grasp for his very soul in a pit of a thousand reaching hands.

  Ty held to him the same way.

  “Can’t breathe!” a pitiful voice finally called out, interrupting the joyous reunion.

  Ty pulled back only enough for him and Zane to glance over at the tangle of limbs and laughter that were their friends. Nick was trying to extricate himself from the bottom, with little luck.

  Ty shook his head. “Don’t care,” he muttered as he finally looked Zane in the eyes and grinned widely. He took Zane’s face in his hands. “Hello, beautiful. ”

  Zane returned the smile, only to have it ruined as Ty pressed their mouths together, kissing him for all the months they’d missed. It was usually at this stage of a dream that Zane would wake up, alone and so heartsick he thought he might cry. But the kiss lingered on. Ty’s hands on his face were still warm and solid. His beard was scratchy at Zane’s cheek. He was real. This was real, and Zane wasn’t about to let it slip away.

  He grabbed Ty and dipped him backward, kissing him for all he was worth. He heard the distant snap of a few cameras, the tears of joy from other reunions, tiny voices welcoming their mothers and fathers home, the muffled gripes from Nick to let him the fuck off the ground so he could at least try to be dignified about coming home. He felt Ty smiling against his lips and holding on to his neck so he wouldn’t fall.

  It was the most satisfying rush of emotion Zane had ever experienced. Better than any high.

  When he finally stood them back up and let go of Ty, they were both breathless and laughing. Zane couldn’t keep his hands off Ty, wanting to maintain contact, wanting to reassure himself that this wasn’t a dream.

  Ty took his hand and didn’t let go. “You look amazing,” he said as he leered at Zane.

  “So do you. ” Zane ran a hand over Ty’s shoulder and the new insignia there. “Captain Grady, huh?”

  “Captain. ” Ty nodd
ed, his beard almost hiding his smile. “They gave us all a bump in rank equivalent to the time we would have served if we’d stayed in the Corps. Owen and I got kicked over to officers. ”

  “Captain Grady,” Zane repeated. He shook his head and swiped his fingers across Ty’s chin. “Nope. You’ll always be Staff Sergeant to me. What’s with the beard?”

  “Special forces. Don’t worry, it’s coming off. ”

  “No, I like it. Keep it for a while. ”

  Ty grinned. “Whatever you want. ”

  Zane pulled him into another hug. He was peripherally aware of the rest of Sidewinder picking themselves up off the ground and trying to straighten their uniforms, and he finally let Ty go long enough to turn toward them.

  They were all grinning from ear to ear, hugging Kelly repeatedly, unable to stop laughing long enough to speak. Kelly began poking fun at their new titles.

  “Mother fucking Master Sergeant O’Flaherty,” he said with a pluck at Nick’s sleeve.

  Nick brushed himself off, retrieving his hat from the ground with a grunt.

  “Why the new ranks?” Zane asked Ty. He did a double take, unable to keep his eyes off the only man he’d been waiting to see.

  “It’s not as good a deal as it sounds,” Ty said. “The ranks came with some pretty steep responsibilities. It was the reason we were called back. That’s . . . that’s pretty much all I can say. ”

  “Are you out now?” Zane asked. “Is it . . . is this it?”

  “Yeah, this is it,” Ty answered. “I’m out. ”

  “Me too,” Digger said, almost singing the words. He bent to pick up his seabag and slung it over his shoulder.

  Owen laughed ruefully. “They asked me to stay on. But, uh . . . I told them to stick it. It’s back to the private sector for me. ”

  Zane snorted, glancing at Nick. He was looking at his feet, and Kelly was watching him with narrowed eyes.

  “Nick?” Kelly asked. “Did they ask you to re-up?”

  “Yeah, they did,” Nick answered without looking up.

  “You didn’t,” Kelly whispered.

  Nick cleared his throat. “They asked me to stay on as a drill instructor. ”

  “Oh, good casting,” Ty mumbled. Zane glanced at him, and Ty mouthed, “He’s scary. ”

  “I told them no. ” Nick smiled at Kelly, then looked around before picking up his seabag again. “I’m done with carrying a gun. ”

  He walked off. The others stared, looking stunned and confused. After a few seconds, Kelly jogged after him.

  Zane finally found his voice and turned back to Ty. “What the hell happened to you guys?”

  Ty was still watching Nick make his way through the crowd, his mouth hanging open. He had to tear his attention away to meet Zane’s eyes.

  Owen grunted and smacked Digger in the chest. “Let’s go get a fucking milkshake. ”

  “Milkshake?” Zane echoed.

  Owen nodded and grabbed up his bag. “And meat. ”

  “Oh, meat!” Digger practically skipped after the others, leaving Ty and Zane alone.

  Ty was still staring after them, frowning. “There’s something wrong with him. ”

  “Digger? Hasn’t he always been like that?”

  Ty shook his head. “Nick. There’s something wrong with Nick. ” He turned to Zane and wrapped his arms around his neck. “I missed you. ”

  Zane pressed his face to Ty’s neck and closed his eyes. He laughed. “Can we skip milkshakes and just go home?”

  “Nope. Bad luck. ” Ty kissed his cheek, then took his hand and began leading him through the celebratory crowd.

  When Ty walked into the federal building in Baltimore, it caused quite a fuss. Zane hadn’t told anyone he was coming home because he hadn’t wanted to deal with all the teasing from his coworkers. But also because he’d wanted to walk out of the elevator and see all their faces when they realized Ty was with him.

  The commotion started with their old team. Clancy saw them and screamed and flailed, which caused Alston to duck and cover like he was used to her smacking him. She came running over and threw herself into Ty’s arms, hugging him around the neck and letting her feet dangle. Ty was wearing a red Santa hat with a white fluffball on the end, and the fluffball hit Clancy in the head when they hugged, but she didn’t seem to care.

  Alston, Perrimore, and Lassiter swiftly joined her, giving Ty hugs and handshakes. Others came over to welcome Ty home, and it didn’t take five minutes for the teasing and ribbing to start. Everyone in the office, including Zane, had had six months to get used to the idea of Ty and Zane being a couple. Zane had endured a great deal of good-natured banter, with a side helping of nasty comments and uninformed opinions. For the most part, though, it had become old news. People had gotten over it and accepted it, then mostly forgotten it the longer Ty had been away.

  For Ty, though, it was all new. And from the look in his eyes, it was scary.

  The uproar in the office gained the attention of the Special Agent in Charge. McCoy stepped out of his office and started to shout at them, but he caught himself when he saw Ty at the center of the group.

  “Grady!” he shouted. The group broke apart and people turned to look at their boss. Everyone was silent as they waited for McCoy to continue. He pointed at Ty and then Zane. “You two, in my office. ”

  He disappeared back into his office.

  Ty and Zane shared a glance, and Zane grinned.

  “Like being home again,” Ty said as they obediently headed for the office.

  McCoy was digging in his desk drawer when they came in. “I’ve got something for you,” he told Ty. He pulled Ty’s service weapon and badge out of his drawer and set them on the desk.

  Ty stared at it for a moment, a smile playing at his lips. “Don’t I have to pass certification again first?”