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Phoenix Blue fic: Breaking the Surface 2/2

March 15th, 2012 (07:11 am)
sympathetic

feeling: sympathetic

All notes and whatnot in Part One



To say that hadn’t gone the way he thought it would was an understatement. Saying that he loved getting shot in the head would have a similar discrepancy.

Though, all things considered, he might take a bullet to the head again instead of a fight like that. At least with a gunshot, the headache made him forget the rest of his emotions.

With this, not so much. Rachel’s words were still ringing in his ears, and even as he pushed the throttle of the boat to make it go faster, he couldn’t get it all out of his head.

He wasn’t even sure how it had happened. After writing down his feelings last night, he’d intended to talk to her straight away and explain. But when she’d been too lost in her writing, he’d thought to leave well enough alone and go to bed. The cup of coffee was supposed to be his starting point this morning, but things had devolved quickly.

And he didn’t even know how. How had he gone from drinking coffee to storming out? How he had gone from supporting her to sabotaging her life’s work?

Rick wasn’t great at relationships. The only serious one he’d had in the last five years was a manipulative woman who had taken his life apart and put it back together for her own flights of fancy. Before that, he’d been too strung out to be of any use to anyone, which was how he’d ended up as the link weak enough to use and discard in the robbery.

So it was entirely possible that he was out of practice. Hell, it was entirely possible that he had never had a clue and that his idyllic notions of a future with Rachel had been fermented in naivete and adrenaline.

But he had been trying. In everything, he had been trying. He had bought the house with her in mind, making sure it had all the things she might want. He tried to do things with her they both liked, tried to make sure she had the things she enjoyed. He encouraged her to call home, to make friends, to get out, to write. He wanted her to be successful and fulfilled. He wanted her to be happy.

Which was why he’d agreed to think about the interview in the first place. But when he’d sat down, when he’d put it all on paper, he realized that he didn’t even know how to say what he felt. He didn’t even know exactly what any of it meant. How could he hate that event and still need it all the same? It was the best and the worst thing that ever happened to him. It was his nightmare and his epiphany, and everything had changed then.

The problem was, he still wasn’t entirely sure who he was. He was never sure, unless he was under the water and singing. Clarity was still something elusive in his life. Before, the drugs had taken the clarity from him. Later, the fear and isolation had clouded his judgment.

Now it was just confusion.

Rick was confused.

That was what it was. He was confused and scared and uncertain and he wasn’t sure how to tell her anything because he wasn’t sure how to admit any of it to himself. He had wanted his life back but he’d never thought about what that meant. He’d never thought about the people he’d left behind, the mistakes he’d made. He didn’t know how to acknowledge that he’d been tricked and used.

It was weak and humiliating, and he wasn’t strong enough.

He just wasn’t strong enough.

He eased off the throttle and slowed down until the boat was idling. Dropping the anchor, he proceeded to kill the engine and look out across the water. He was about a mile out. Normally he’d go farther, but location wasn’t important to him at the moment. He just wanted to go under – and now. It was the only way he knew to escape, to find some kind of peace of mind.

And he needed peace of mind right now. Because as if his life wasn’t enough of a mess, he’d managed to alienate Rachel, too. She was the one person who had found him. She was the person who mattered to him most in this world.

And he’d managed to insult her and piss her off all at once. At least he knew now that he was capable of screwing up his life without anyone pulling the strings. He was something of a failure, no matter what the context.

Taking a breath, he sat down on the deck, stretching himself out and closing his eyes. He blew out a breath and worked to control his heart rate. He moved his muscles, stretching each one carefully and slowly, holding his breath while he let his body relax.

The dive would help. If he could get himself together, if he could just think then maybe he could explain it to Rachel. Maybe he could make her understand what he was trying to say. He wasn’t trying to hurt her; he just needed time.

They could make it work.

Once his body was stretched, he forced his breathing to stay even. It was hard with his agitation, but he had dove under worse circumstances. Once he got under, it would all make sense.

At the edge of the boat, he looked down into the blue.

He had to believe it would all make sense.

-o-

This probably wasn’t a surprise. At least, it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise.

After all, Rachel had something of a history with imploding. Even though she’d managed to vindicate herself with the story about Phoenix Blue, she had spectacularly ruined her life before that. She’d been waitressing, for goodness sake, and the only person who had found her to be reliable was a sketchy tech criminal of a neighbor.

Really, the only reason she had made anything of herself at all was because she’d gotten lucky and Rick had come after her. She owed Rick a lot for that.

But that didn’t help her now. And he wasn’t helping her now. Mostly, the entire thing was a sodding mess. She didn’t have a story and now she wasn’t sure she had a boyfriend.

All she had was a mess.

With a sigh, she got up off the bed and made her way out into the kitchen. Her late night writing marathon was catching up with her now, and she felt the weariness all the way down in her bones.

Coffee was in order. Food would probably be better, but she wasn’t sure she had the energy to make anything.

Shuffling out, she found the coffee pot still on. Grateful, she poured herself a fresh cup, taking a quick sip to help revitalize her sluggishness. Maybe she should have had a few more sips before talking to Rick. That probably would have helped her.

She wasn’t the most diplomatic person and she also wasn’t a morning person. When those two factors conflated and then were added to a lack of sleep, disaster was usually in order. Today was apparently no exception.

Frowning, she rummaged through the cupboard, pulling out a box of cereal and popping it out. She took a dry handful and ate it, taking the box and the mug to the bar. Sitting heavily on the stool, she took another drink and grabbed another bite of cereal.

She sat there, eating, letting the caffeine do its work. That was when she saw the stack of loose leaf papers.

Between the two of them, there was often paper all over the house. She jotted down story ideas, sometimes key sentences that came to mind. Rick was prone to scrawling lyrics over everything, sometimes even bars of music to pass the time.

This one was Rick’s, but it wasn’t lyrics and it certainly wasn’t music. The prose was bunched together in paragraphs.

Curious, she picked it up, giving it a cursory look. Key words started to stand out and she realized what this was.

It was his story.

The bloody story he didn’t want to tell her, written out, plain as day. If he’d done this, why hadn’t he wanted to talk to her? What was the big deal?

Frowning, she began to read.

And then she began to understand. It wasn’t as plain as day after all.

By the end of the page, Rick’s words were small and tight, evidence of a purposefully grip. He’d been forcing them at the end, keeping the emotions at bay. Even in the stark black in on the plain white page, she could read the emotion. It was right there, in every word, in every letter.

Rick’s story – it wasn’t just the stuff of a best seller. It was his life.

His entire life, and it was all tragedy and devastation. He still carried the scars – she’d always known that with the ridged line beneath his hair and the puckered gathering of skin above his knees. But not just those scars – emotional ones.

This was a story of addiction and failure, betrayal and misplaced trust. It had stripped him of his life; it had taken his dignity. And it had left him with no comfort or sense of stabilization.

The scrawled story was entirely a mess. The sentences ran together and the ideas jumped around. Rick didn’t even know how to make heads or tails of it. The idea of it was barely coherent.

When he’d said he’d try, he’d probably meant it. But in this case, trying didn’t mean doing. Trying meant starting to sort through the mess in his head to come up with something to say. He was traumatized, probably a classic case of PTSD and any number of other psychiatric diagnoses.

And she’d yelled at him. Accused him of lying to her.

Dropping her head back, she groaned. “I’m such a bloody prat!”

Looking out toward the water, she saw that the boat was still gone. He was probably diving – it was his only chance to unwind. She could wait for him to get back home, make him dinner and apologize to him then.

But this was too important. She owed him that apology – and she owed it to him now.

Putting the paper down, she finished her coffee in one last gulp before getting up and heading outside. Rick had taken the main boat, but the small one would get her where she needed to go. She knew where Rick liked to dive. She knew how to find him.

Now she just had to hope she knew how to win him back, too.

-o-

The water was perfect. The clear blue was open in all directions, stretching deep beneath him and wide on all sides. He focused his breathing and kicked harder, going down and down.

Above, the light faded and the water temperature dropped. As he descended into a calmer blue, he felt the world above dissipate, apart from the events of the last day, which came into acute focus.

The mess of emotions was gone. As his body slowed itself down, focusing on the things it truly needed, he understood what mattered most.

The past was traumatizing, yes. He didn’t understand it. He didn’t want to face it. But it didn’t define him; at least, it didn’t have to. Not anymore.

Ultimately, what he did now defined him. He had to decide what he wanted. If he clung to his past, if he tried to control it, then it still had a hold on him. Then he was still the drugged out kid in a robbery he didn’t know anything about; still the cowed would-be fugitive hiding out as a kept man with the woman who set him up. He was still pathetic.

But he didn’t have to be. He could let go. He could talk about it. For himself.

For Rachel.

Under water, his lungs tight and his consciousness narrow, he knew that she was the one thing that mattered. The only thing worth going back up for.

The least he could do was tell her his story. She might be able to help him make sense of it, or, at the very least, she could understand him better for it. It could only make them happier.

The clarity was perfect and he felt himself relax. His concentration wavered and he realized he’d lost track of time. Looking up, he gave a strong kick, propelling himself back toward the surface.

But the light was too far away. The pressure in his head was too much. His concentration faltered, just for a moment.

And then just for a lot more.

There was a brief second of fledgling control – his mind frantically remembered: he had to move, he had to go up, he couldn’t black out – but it slipped away from him before he could pin it down.

He never felt his lungs give in to take the breath, and his last thought was of Rachel as the darkness took him away.

-o-

She came by his boat sooner than she expected. His favorite diving spots were farther out; he said the water here wasn’t as calm; wasn’t as invigorating. She hadn’t quite caught on to the distinction, but she figured that as a novice, her sense of such things probably wasn’t very refined.

Still, it was probably something of a blessing and a curse. She was eager to see him, but if he hadn’t taken the time to go out to his favorite spots, then his state of mind was probably less than ideal.

Which was understandable. After reading his story, it was almost a wonder he was functional at all.

Anxious, she pulled up alongside, throwing a rope across to his boat before carefully pulling herself on board. She tied the small boat alongside before making her way across the deck.

He wasn’t there or in the small cabin. Moving toward the side, she looked out over the calm waters. She must have just missed him, then.

Glancing at her watch, she did a rough mental calculation. She hadn’t seen him jump in and she’d been in range for a good minute or two. Rick was an adept diver – by his own admission, he could go nearly five minutes without surfacing – which meant he would be coming up any minute.

She watched the surface, looking for the telltale signs of disturbance. Patience was never her strength, though, and she found herself fidgeting.

Which was ridiculous, of course. He’d be up soon. Talented as Rick was, he still needed air. She was just being hyper aware because of her own restlessness.

She glanced at her watch and frowned.

It wasn’t just her restlessness. He should have been back up by now.

Stomach churning, she straightened, looking back over the deck. “Rick?” she called, louder now, hoping maybe she had missed him somehow before.

There was no answer, though. There was just nothing. Rick was gone, under the water—

Her heart skipped a beat as her stomach constricted. She remembered what she’d read in her research, all the criticisms of the sport. How it was too dangerous, how it could go wrong without warning, how even skilled divers could pass out for no reason and it would all be over.

That was why it was never recommended to dive alone.

She swore.

Now, she scrambled, heart pounding in her chest. She had no way of knowing how long it had been, but she had to hope it hadn’t been too long. It couldn’t be too long. It couldn’t be too late.

She’d find Rick. She’d find him and he’d be okay and they’d talk and make things better. That was how it had to be. She believed that. She had to believe that.

Shoes off, she pulled off her clothes, grateful for her newfound habit of wearing her bikini underneath. It was one of the perks of a beach lifestyle. It was a matter of convenience most days, to support her jaunts out onto the sand and water.

Now it was a matter of life and death.

Rick’s life. Because she couldn’t think about anything else.

Climbing the edge of the boat, she snagged a pair of goggles with shaking hands. Perched on the rail, she put the goggles in place and found herself trembling. The air was warm but her skin still prickled. She should have had a wetsuit on, but there wasn’t time to worry about that.

There wasn’t time to worry about anything. The thought of stretching and breathing exercise – all of it crossed her mind but she put it aside. If Rick was under the surface, she had to bring him back up.

With a steadying breath, she tried to clear her mind and jumped in.

In the water, she oriented herself for a moment. There was still no sign of Rick, so she took a few more breaths before diving down.

Over the last few weeks, her diving technique had improved dramatically. She knew how to get distance now, how to kick for a straight and fluid dive.

Normally, she’d be struck by the vastness of the water. She’d let herself effuse into it.

But not today.

Today’s dive wasn’t recreational.

Eyes open, she descended slower than usual, mindful of her surroundings. She had no way of knowing where exactly Rick had dived and she knew it was possible that if he had been under, he had drifted.

She might never find him.

That wasn’t an option she could consider, though. It just – wasn’t.

The pressure built in her chest, panic pounding behind her eyes as she pulled to a stop, turning around. She looked up and down and around, spinning as best she could to gauge her surroundings.

Some fish swam by; the water wafted.

No Rick.

He had to be there.

He had to.

It didn’t take long for her lungs to burn – her lack of preparation was showing itself; she wasn’t ready for this dive. She needed to go up – and soon – but she hadn’t found Rick.

They went up together, she remembered.

They went up together or not at all.

That resolution was what she needed, and her courage overrode her body’s demands.

Turning, she swam with the current, drifting away from the boat as the water pulled her naturally. The world threatened to black out around the edges, but she kept it doggedly at bay, her determination the only thing that mattered.

Rick.

She had to find Rick.

When she caught sight of the form in the water, at first she thought she was imagining it. Oxygen deprivation; death throes. One last cruel hallucination.

But as she neared, Rick’s sun-bleached locks were evident and she recognized the tattoo on his arm.

Her heartbeat swelled and she kicked forward with new intensity. He was drifting, arms limp and legs lax, body suspended in the endless blue. His face was almost peaceful, eyes closed and mouth open.

The pressure in her head was almost blinding now and the need to breathe threatened to overwhelm her. But she couldn’t lose it now – not with Rick so close. Not when Rick needed her.

He had needed her this morning, too, and she hadn’t been there. He might have needed her all along in ways she didn’t understand, couldn’t understand. She wanted to understand, though, not for the book. For them.

For him.

Closing in, she wrapped an arm around his chest. His larger form was unwieldy and it was awkward to pull him close, his still-warm fleshed pressed against her own.

It wasn’t easy, but she didn’t hesitate. Instead, she anchored him to herself as best she could and kicked desperately for the surface.

He was heavy, even in the water, and the slow ascension seemed to take hours. Every second was a lifetime and her lungs were screaming for air.

But her own needs were nothing compared to Rick’s stillness. She felt frantic, but he was limp. Devoid of life.

If he’d been down there too long…

It could be too late.

Warm water drownings rarely had happy endings. Free diving was a dangerous, sometimes controversial sport. No one was recommended to do it alone.

Her eyes blurred, the tears building behind the goggles. She kicked, harder now, the emotions weighing down her growing need to breathe.

Her vision narrowed dangerously and her body felt numb. Her mind tunneled its awareness and the light at the surface became the only thing she could see. She had to get them there. She had to.

When she broke the surface, she almost forgot to breathe. The light blinded her and it was only after the air pressed coolly against her skin that she realized she was up.

And she breathed.

The first breath was deep and ragged, desperate and wet.

The next came easier and with the next, her vision returned. Awareness came not long after and she realized she was a good twenty feet from the boat.

Glancing down, her arms felt heavy, and Rick was still there, head dipped forward toward the waves. She tilted his head back, and it rolled limply on her shoulder, lips blue in the glaring sunlight.

The air was revitalizing but the pressure didn’t abate. Couldn’t abate because Rick still wasn’t breathing.

Desperate, she kicked forward. It was a harder swim, Rick almost slipping from her grip. She struggled to keep him above the surface, and they both went under a few times as she got them back toward the boat.

By the time she got there, her muscles were overtaxed, screaming with exertion. She was panting, each breath excruciating as tears bit at her eyes.

“It’s okay,” she said. “Come on, come on, it’s okay.”

She wanted to believe that; needed to believe that. But Rick didn’t move, his body heavy and still as she maneuvered it on board.

The last haul was the hardest of them all, and she was crying in earnest by the time she managed to hoist him up the ladder and over the rail. Even then, they both fell gracelessly to the deck, the impact jarring her and sending Rick’s body splaying limply across the wood.

Ignoring the pain, Rachel struggled to find her footing, going on hands and knees to Rick’s side. He was sprawled on his side and she rolled him onto his back as carefully as she could.

His face was ashen now, lips darker than before. Pulling off his goggles with one hand, she pressed her fingers to his neck with the other. There was nothing. The dread filled her stomach and she swallowed hard as she leaned over and opened his mouth, pinched his nose and breathed.

His chest rose, then fell. She breathed for him again with the same lackluster results.

He was dead, she knew. He was dead, he was dead, he was dead.

The mantra numbed her, repeating in the back of her mind as she frantically tried to remember what to do.

She knew because she’d written about it. It’d been an article about the changing regulations. She’d written that doing it in real life was nothing like on TV, nothing like the movies.

The feeling of someone’s chest moving beneath her hands. The sound of a rib, cracking under pressure. The heaviness of someone’s body when no life was left.

It made the arms hurt, made them ache. It left her breathless and crying, exhausted and heaving.

Beneath her, Rick was already dead. Body slack; face expressionless. CPR was a last-ditch second chance. It didn’t always work.

She knew the statistics. It didn’t always work.

She didn’t stop though. Nothing she knew could change the fact that this was Rick, that she had to save him, that they needed to be okay.

“Come on!” she screamed, losing count of her compressions and just pressing and pressing because it was all she had. “I won’t ask you a bloody question, just come back!”

He didn’t move, though. He didn’t move.

She screamed, bending over to pinch his nose roughly and blowing two hard breaths into his mouth. Over him again, she pressed down, sloppy, desperate movement while the tears blinded her.

“Please,” she begged. “Please.”

Rachel was a smart, rational woman most of the time. She believed in the fact and she understood the truth, so she knew that people didn’t come back from the dead on a whim. She knew it wasn’t emotions or promises or anything; sometimes it was luck. Sometimes it was chance. It was a biological roll of the dice.

But there, on that boat, when she asked, she believed he answered.

Because, just like that, his body jolted. He gasped, heaving and coughing violently. It wasn’t fate, it wasn’t the odds, it wasn’t biology: she’d asked and he’d listened and he was alive that was what mattered.

Hands trembling, she rolled him his side and nearly collapsed, her head dropping to his shoulder as his body shook.

But he was breathing. When the coughing died down, he was sucking in gulping, haggard breaths.

It took her another moment to remember how to move, and when she stepped over him, hand still on his arm, she tried to get herself back in control.

“Rick?” she asked, looking at him intently. “Are you with me?”

His face was still discolored, lips unnaturally dark even as he gasped noisily. His eyes were squeezed closed and his breathing was punctuated by fits of coughing.

“Rick?” she tried again.

At that, his eyes cracked open, meeting her worried gaze. He didn’t say anything – she suspected he couldn’t say anything just yet – but he didn’t need to.

He didn’t need to say anything at all.

She smiled, a watery, almost hysterical smile. “It’s okay,” she told him, holding him steady and keeping his gaze. “I found you once and brought you back from exile, so getting you back this time shouldn’t be nearly as hard.”

He kept breathing, wet and ragged, and didn’t look away even through heavy lids. He understood her, she could tell. He understood. What he remembered, she couldn’t be sure, but he was still there.

After the terror of finding him underwater, that was a solace she’d cling to.

Still, it was a bitter comfort, because it wasn’t so simple. Stories could gloss over section, hit the dramatic rescue and culminate the rest in a few key sentences. Living it was different. She was shaky and still terrified – whether ready to cry or laugh, she wasn’t sure. Because Rick had drowned and she’d brought him back and there was more to it than that.

She could remember from her research; could still see the words in her mind. Complications from drowning: water in the lungs, secondary drowning, pneumonia. Medical treatment is always recommended.

Steadfast, she pushed the thoughts out of her mind. She’d found him. He was alive. That was what mattered.

“You’ll be okay,” she promised this time, eyes not wavering.

He still didn’t reply, and he was trembling with exhaustion. She wanted to stay with him, to hold him, but there wasn’t time. She had to get him to shore, get him to a hospital. She had to get him safe.

Still, it was a hard thing to leave him.

It was necessary, though. Resolved, she squeezed his shoulder before getting to her feet. “You’re going to be just fine,” she vowed, as earnestly as she could.

Legs numb, she went back to the helm, feet wooden on the deck. She had proven herself cruel and selfish today, but not a liar just yet.

Looking back at Rick, still wheezing where she’d left him, she hoped she never would.

-o-

Rick surfaced.

Not from underwater, but it might as well been. He gasped, choking for air. The exertion left him shaking, eyes filled as he tried to get his breathing back under control.

That was usually easy for him. It was a skill he’d perfected; he has mastered his breathing. He knew how to still his heart rate, lower his blood pressure, retain total control over himself.

It didn’t do him any good now. His lungs labored uselessly and his eyes had trouble focusing.

There was no water; there was no sky. He wasn’t on the water.

The hospital, he remembered. He was in the hospital.

The memories came back, choppy like the sea. He had dived, then he’d been on the boat. Rachel had been there. Not yelling this time, but holding his hand. Telling him he’d be okay.

But he wasn’t okay.

Rick sucked hard, his lungs protesting the movement. Nothing felt okay. His ears were ringing, his mind spinning. Things were bright white around the edges of his vision. Everything else was blurry, hazy, like seeing underwater without goggles.

He blinked and the shapes coalesced into coherent forms. People.

Not just any people. Doctors and nurses, mouths covered with masks. There was a bright light over him, blaring directly in his eyes.

And voices. They were all around him but still distant somehow. He couldn’t make out the words even if they seemed to be talking to him.

One of the people made eye contact, very deliberately.

Rick blinked again and his ears popped and he convulsed with new awareness. The pain in his lungs was more acute now, and his throat was burning while his head ached. The cacophony was almost deafening, but the woman looking straight into his eyes was clearer now when she said, “Mr. Earnhardt, do you know where you are?”

He took a breath and his flesh broke out in goosebumps. He tried to cough but didn’t have the energy and convulsed again. He tried to speak, but his voice didn’t work, and the words were garbled in a wet mess.

The eye contact didn’t waver, steadfast if clinical. “Do you remember what happened?”

He swallowed hard and everything hurt. He tried to squirm away from the pain, but there was no refuge. He remembered the boat, he remembered diving. He remembered Rachel, at his side. Telling him how selfish he was.

His chest tightened and somewhere a monitor was bleating.

“His O2 stats are down near 80,” someone said.

“We’re going to have to intubate,” someone replied.

The person above him didn’t move. “Rick,” she said slowly, purposefully. “You’ve been in an accident. We’re going to help you.”

But they couldn’t help him with the things he needed help with. They couldn’t help him fix things with Rachel. He needed to tell her he was sorry. He needed to tell her that she came first. He needed her.

Someone else came into his field of vision, holding an instrument Rick didn’t recognize. “Just some pressure here,” he said, moving toward Rick’s mouth.

He panicked and flailed, twisting away as best he could. There was a flurry of activity as he was held back down and someone ordered them to up the Ativan.

“Please, Mr. Earnhardt,” the woman said. “We’re trying to help you.”

He shook his head, desperate. His chest felt like it was being squeeze and words were hard, but he had to say them. He had to speak. “Rachel,” he said, the effort nearly breaking his will. He breathed hard, garnering whatever energy he could muster. “Rachel.”

The woman looked intent, her brow furrowing slightly from under her cap. “The woman you were with?”

Rick nodded, relieved. “Tell her—“ he tried, the words choked off again. He hacked ineffectually, his body arching with the effort. “Tell her, I’m sorry.”

“Okay, that’s it,” the man said, moving forward again, more decisively this time. He made no pretense as he opened Rick’s mouth. There was the cool pressure of metal on his tongue and something pressed into his throat. He wanted to gag but found himself too weak. Consciousness faded and numbness pervaded as his chest expanded and Rick went under once more.

-o-

In her head, she could read this like a book:

Rick was unconscious by the time we reached the hospital. He was breathing, but it was compromised. I have little medical experience, but I still knew something was wrong. The ambulance met me at the dock, and I managed to ride along. The medic didn’t say much, but when we got to the hospital, the doctors were grim as they asked for his information in broken English. When I told them it was a diving accident, they pursed their lips, like they should have known, like this was preventable. When they told me I’d have to wait, they were cold but professional.

It had all the makings of a good story. Add in a few paragraphs about a tense wait and add in the appropriate revelations and then bring the story to its climax before Rick woke up and everything was happily ever after.

If she could ever bring herself to write about it now.

The hours of waiting, the uncertainty and the tension – it was all lost. She was tired and she was nervous, but she was also bored. She jittered, bouncing one leg than the next as she looked at the clock and waited.

Waited for something, anything. The last she had heard, they were still assessing him, moving him to a room. They would let her know when she could see him.

Nearly two hours later, she was wondering if they’d forgotten.

Sitting up, she clenched her jaw and took a deep breath to calm herself. It didn’t work.

Sighing, she ran a hand through her limp hair and shifted. They’d given her a pair of scrubs since she’d left her clothing back in the boat. She didn’t even remember if she’d locked it up. She probably should call to have someone check. And someone needed to check in at the dive shop, make sure it was up and running without Rick. He wouldn’t want it unattended.

It mattered, she knew, but she couldn’t make herself care. She shouldn’t be here. Rick shouldn’t be here. It was all a mistake.

She never should have left Rick walk out without talking first. She never should have fought with him in the first place. She’d been operating on too little sleep – she was prone to writing manically when her muse struck – and she’d been short with him through no fault of his own. She was a temperamental writer under the best of circumstances and when she was sleep deprived, she was rarely at her best.

This wasn’t just a mistake. This was her fault.

The recriminations were easy to come up with but harder to make parse.

In her head, she couldn’t help thinking about how to capture that angst. It was impossible to turn off her writer’s brain. She wondered if longer or shorter paragraphs would help communicate the endless stretches of time when waiting for news.

Then, there was a nurse there.

Rachel startled, straightening and then standing, feeling awkward.

The nurse offered her a smile. “You’re here for Mr. Earnhardt?”

“Yes,” Rachel said readily. She swallowed, tucking her hair behind her hair. “Is he okay?”

Her smile faltered and she nodded gravely. “He is currently stable,” she explained. “However, he seems to be suffering from secondary drowning. The water in his lungs is deeply problematic and he is already showing signs of illness. We suspect pneumonia will set in.”

Rachel blinked. It was more information than she’d counted on. And she didn’t have a clue what to do with it. “But he’s okay?” she asked again, too aware of how young she sounded.

The woman’s smile returned. “He is very ill,” she said. “But he’s a fighter, yes?”

That was an understatement. Rick had survived more than Rachel could ever fully grasp. His written story was evidence to that.

She took a breath and this time it did steady her. She nodded. “Yes.”

The woman seemed satisfied. “Would you like to see him?”

“Yes,” Rachel said. “Of course.”

The woman offered no further explanation as she led Rachel through the halls. The ward seemed to be more intensive, and the beds were separated by curtains. When they got to one, the nurse pulled the curtain back. “You may sit with him until visiting hours are over,” she said. “The call button is just by the bed.”

With that, she left, and Rachel found herself alone with Rick.

Rick.

Rachel’s breath caught in her throat, her confidence faltering as she got a good look at him.

He looked smaller somehow, cluttered on the bed with equipment. There was an IV attached to his arm, hanging above him with clear liquid. There was a small monitor on one of his fingers, trailing up to a bank of monitors with several electrodes on his chest. He was covered with a sheet, but his chest was bare, showing the tattoo on his arm. Her eyes lingered there for a moment, seeing the phoenix rising. Rick was like that, rebuilding himself from the ashes. He’d done it before, more than once; she had to hope he could do it again.

His mouth was propped open by a tube, which snaked away from his body to another set of machines to the side. This machine was noisier than the rest, whirring and whooshing as it dispersed oxygen. The tube was taped down around his lips, hastily applied to keep the life-saving measure in place. Another tube was directed up his nose, and it made her itch just thinking about it.

His eyes were closed – which was to be expected, she knew, even if it was somewhat unsettling. Rick was a quiet man – he had a profound stillness in him that ran deep. Rachel often didn’t understand it, but as she saw him lying there, she realized how much she relied on it. How much she drew from his simple ways and consistent strength.

Which was why he looked so vulnerable there. Dependent on machines, lost among them. He’d spent so long being anonymous that she hated to see him resigned to it here, too. Just another patient in a hospital bed.

He was more than that. He was more than a free diver; more than Phoenix Blue even. That was what was easy to forget sometimes, especially when writing her book. People cared about him because he was a reclusive singer, but she couldn’t think of him that way. That was why she’d found him, but she had come to be with him afterward for entirely other reasons.

She had chosen him because he was Rick Earnhardt: thoughtful and soft spoken, driven by quiet passions and willing to do what needed to be done. He had integrity and a gentle fearlessness that she could learn a lot from.

And she loved him.

Hesitating, she inched closer, trying to force herself to breathe in order to keep the tears at bay. At his side, she lingered, reaching her hand out and scooping his limp fingers into her own.

They were warm and she squeezed them carefully, barely suppressing a sob in her throat.

“You shouldn’t be here,” she said to him, her voice shaky. She tried to smile, looking at his face. “You should have stayed home.”

They could have had breakfast; they could have laughed and talked and then gone out diving together.

Wetting her lips, she forced herself on. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I let my enthusiasm get the better of me. I didn’t mean it.”

Rick’s blonde spikes were matted to his head, askew.

Her jaw was tight. “And even if I did, I was wrong,” she admitted. “I’m sorry.”

The monitors beeped their steady tune.

She sighed, lifting his hand and brushing her lips against it. “I’m so, so sorry.”

Rick didn’t move, his countenance unflinching.

A sob broke through but she reined it in, sniffling. “I don’t know how far you’re under right now, if you can even hear me,” she said. “But you’re the one who said it when you laid out all the rules. We go down together and we come back up together.”

Tears slipped from her eyes and she pressed his hand to her cheek, eyes closed.

“Please,” she said, begging now, hoping he could hear, hoping he would listen one last time whether she deserved it or not. “Come back up with me.”

-o-

On his first dive, Rick had almost panicked. With the water so thick and cloying, he had lost his sense of direction. For a moment, he had thought it would consume him whole, that he would drown and no one would ever find him again.

In that, he had had a pressing need to get back to the surface. His ascension had been desperate and rushed, and when he broke the surface, he’d shaken and cried.

He almost didn’t go back down, but the thrilling beat of his heart had been motivation enough. In the years of his exile, nothing had made him feel alive until that first fateful dive.

The second was no less frightening, but he controlled himself better.

By the third, he was beginning to understand. Not just the self control involved, but the magic of it all. Diving was another form of meditation, the communion of one’s mind with one’s soul, resounding loudly in the bottomless depths of the sea.

Now, when he dove, he rarely wanted to surface. He tried to stay as long as he could. He preferred the world down there – liked its peace and tranquility – over the hectic nature of life above.

But he always surfaced. Sometimes, he wasn’t sure why. It was more than biological imperative. It was that he knew there was something better.

It had taken years, but he’d found it. In his music career. In Rachel.

He had things worth living for.

This dive was deeper than the rest. The water around him was so dark he could hardly see. His lungs did not burn for air; his mind did not labor against the inevitable pressure. He was free. Entirely unburdened. He could stay here forever, let himself drown and finally be at rest

There was allure in that.

But people would miss him now.

Rachel would miss him.

And he would miss her.

No more hiding. No more running. Diving was his refuge, not his exile. The difference mattered.

Rachel mattered.

She was close. He wasn’t sure how he knew, but he knew. Her voice echoed in his mind, calling him back.

Come back up with me.

Another chance. Rick knew better than to squander that.

So Rick steeled himself, kicked with all he had and felt himself rise.

The darkness faded and light drew near. The quiet fell away and reality tapered back. His eyes fluttered opened and were blinded as oxygen filled his lungs.

He choked, flailing a little because he had forgotten how to breathe. He bucked, trying to move, but someone squeezed his hand.

Rachel.

She was there, sitting by his bedside. She looked tired and worn, hair greasy and face undone. But she was smiling. “Hey,” she said. One hand was wrapped around his, the other reached up, brushing his hair off his forehead. “You came back.”

He wanted to explain. His apology was trapped in his throat. He seized slightly, trying to speak, but she shook her head.

“You can’t talk,” she said. “You’ve been on the respirator for a few days now, but you’re getting better.”

He wanted to fight, but he didn’t have the energy. It took everything he had to keep his eyes open.

Yet, he couldn’t look away. He needed her to understand. There was so much he wanted to say to her, but he didn’t know how.

She smiled, fingers trailing across his forehead. “I know,” she soothed. “You don’t need to say it. You don’t need to say anything.”

The certainty of it surprised him, and he wondered about her book. He thought about the interview and her dreams and everything as his eyes blinked slower and slower and he descended into the deep again.

-o-

Waiting was the hardest part. Rachel was not a particularly patient person, and the long periods of inactivity were hard on her. She felt restless, too confined, and her desire to leave was pressing.

But she couldn’t leave. Not with Rick still in the hospital.

It had been a slow recovery, to say the least. His fever had started rising as the pneumonia had set in. His lungs struggled to breathe through the fluid as the risk of secondary drowning came and finally receded. The subsequent infection was a lingering problem, though, and his body fought against it, though it did seem all uphill to Rachel.

Such things were hard to qualify, though. With the ventilator tube in place, the doctors kept Rick heavily sedated, leaving him fever-flushed and flaccid. Sweat slicked his hair and she had taken to washing him down with cool washcloths. It wasn’t much, but it was something, and in the long hours of waiting, it gave her something to do.

When the hospital kicked her out each night, she curled up at home. Sometimes she sat in front of the computer, staring at the blinking cursor on the page. She had so many things she wanted to say, but for once, she didn’t know how to say them. She didn’t even know how to begin when the ending was still so undecided.

She called home occasionally, checking in with Ralph, who promised to call Rick’s mother about the situation. Rachel knew she should probably call the woman herself, but she didn’t want her first conversation with the woman to be about how she had almost killed her son.

Sometimes she sat on the dock, staring out across the water, wishing he could be here with her. Other times, she tried to sleep, lying on his pillow just to smell his lingering scent.

When the fever finally peaked, the doctors stopped talking about if and started suggested when, even when they couched such promises in the unknowns. When he woke up, they didn’t know what he would remember. When he came off the ventilator, there was no way of being sure if he’d have sustained damage.

And Rachel had done the research by then. She knew the risks associated with warm water drowning. She knew the possibilities of brain damage, ranging from simple memory loss to pronounced impairment. It could impede his verbal skills, limit his motor capacity, reduce his overall mental capacity.

Rick might not come back to her. That was what the doctors were saying even without saying it at all.

But at Rick’s side, Rachel had refused to believe it.

And then he’d opened his eyes.

He hadn’t said anything, not with the tube, of course. But he’d looked at her and with the fear and the pain, there had been recognition.

He’d come back for her.

And she would not leave him now.

She took to her visits with more vigor. She talked to him, prepared the house. She organized her things and cleaned the boats. She kept the dive shop running and kept everything in working order. She told him about the things they’d do when he got out. The places they’d go together.

She just talked. About her journalism career, about her life back home. She told him about Ralph and her boss at the paper and how she’d been such a silly idiot at university. She told him about her first boyfriend and her parents’ divorce. She told him everything.

Then, slowly after the tube was removed, he started talking back.

At first, he was only semiconscious, eyes open but confused before he drifted back to sleep. Then, he was fleetingly aware and she explained every hour where they were and how he’d okay. After a bit, he would awake looking for her and then he’d listen to her talk before sleep won out again.

He was still weak, pale now that the fever had receded. His breathing was still heavy but markedly improved and Rachel found her mood being buoyed at the prospect of his full recovery.

And yet, in all the things she said, she still hadn’t broached the topic that landed them there. She had talked about writing, even gone on about her book, but she had not mentioned the interview. She half hoped he wouldn’t remember; she was all about the truth most of the time, but in this case, it was just uncomfortable.

Irrelevant, too. She had been short-sighted in her comments, and if this incident had taught her anything, it was that the story wasn’t nearly the all-important thing she had believed it to be.

Plus, she didn’t want him to think it still mattered to her. She didn’t want him to worry about it. She owed him an apology, though, and at the very least, she could use some time until he was fully recovered to figure out just the best way to give it.

Unfortunately, Rick beat her to it.

This probably wasn’t so surprising; Rick had a strange knack for defying her expectations. She did all the hard work but he knew how to come in at just the right minute and blow her preconceptions straight out of the water. He’d done it before, he’d likely do it again, and he did it to her now.

“I’m sorry,” he said, out of the blue. They’d been watching a movie on the tele, making small talk toward the end of his recovery. The doctors had talked about releasing him in a few days.

She looked at him, a bit surprised. “For bad taste in programming?” she quipped.

But his face was serious. “About the fight,” he said.

Her stomach churned just slightly and she did what she could to keep her emotions from showing on her face. Instead, she kept a tight, composed smile. “So you do remember?” she ventured, a little cautious.

He nodded, quite serious, not thrown off by her conversational airs. “It was just harder than I thought it’d be,” he explained, voice still rough from the ventilator. “And I – don’t know. Didn’t want to face it. It’s a part of my life that I’ve never known how to deal with, but for you—“

She sat up, scooting closer to the bed and shaking her head adamantly. “No,” she said as readily as she could. “I’m the one who made the sodding mess. I put my own desire for a story ahead of you. I mean, what you went through—“

“Is nothing compared to what it’d be like without you,” he said. “You were right; I do need to face it.”

She reached out, twining her fingers in his. “Yes, you should,” she agreed. “But not for some stupid book.”

“It’s not stupid,” he said. “I mean, you went diving with me. You give me space to write my music. I owe you the same.”

“You do more than you know,” she said. “You’ve been entirely generous with your time, your space, your money—“

“I want to be there for you,” he said, earnest. “Like you’ve been there for me.”

She laughed, tears stinging at her eyes. “And all this time, I was thinking the exact same thing.”

His face broke with a small laugh. “I just was so afraid that something would happen, and I wouldn’t get to tell you the things that mattered,” he said.

Something warm unfurled in her chest, and she edged even closer, shaking her head. “And I was so afraid that I had missed what you’d been trying to say all this time,” she said.

His smile widened. “Well, we’ve made quite a mess of things,” he said.

She laughed, nodding. A tear slipped from her eye and she wiped it quickly. “Well, you are prone to theatrics,” she pointed out. “Robberies, being left for dead, successful careers as a recluse musician. Free diving accidents really are just expected.”

His fingers squeezed around her own. “Just wanted to make sure that you had a little more material for your book,” he joked. “Wouldn’t want it to get boring or anything.”

“Ha!” she said. “Next time you want to add drama, let’s try to avoid the near death experiences, okay?”

He winced a little. “I think that’s a good idea.”

“Yeah,” she said. She paused, looking at him fully. He was perfect, really. Everything she wanted.

“What?” he asked, eyeing her back with a bit of suspicion.

“I was just thinking,” she said.

“That’s usually a dangerous sign.”

She swatted at him. “I was thinking that you were right about another thing.”

He inclined his head, eyebrows raised. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” she said. “When you were lecturing me about diving and all the safety protocols.”

His cheeks flushed. “For all the good it did me.”

“But you were right,” she continued, a bit insistently now. “You just forgot the most important rule.”

He cocked his head. “That is?”

Her smile returned, sure and content. “That we should never dive alone,” she said.

The flush in his face spread and his cheeks tugged up into a grin. “I suppose I did say that, didn’t I?”

“You did,” Rachel said. “So I guess I’m just going to have to stick around and hold you to it, then.”

“Then I may just have to keep you around and make sure you finish your book,” he returned coyly.

“Well,” she said. “I think that sounds like an apt compromise.”

She leaned forward, catching him in a kiss.

He nodded, eyeing her with amusement now. “An apt compromise indeed,” he agreed before he leaned forward and kissed her back.

Needless to say, that was all the conversation there was to be had about that topic for the day.

-o-

The splash of water in his face was warm, and the bite of the salt revitalized his senses. His lungs were relaxed; his body loose. His mind raced and his heart skipped a beat.

Rick had dived countless times – the water was his place of refuge – but he could not control the small twinge of trepidation as he treaded water just beyond the boat.

After all, the last time he’d gone down, he’d very nearly never come back up. He had always known the risks, always accepted them, but he couldn’t deny that he was a little gun shy about going under after what had happened.

When he had first started diving, he had fancied that he had nothing to lose. Now, that wasn’t necessarily true. He had his life back, his reputation, his career. He had cleared his name. He had Rachel.

Next to him in the water, Rachel grinned. “You ready for this?”

He took a breath, letting it out and searching for his calm. “Yeah,” he said. Then he hesitated. “Mostly.”

“Nervous?” she asked.

He shrugged, a little sheepish.

Her eyes were alive. “Me, too,” she said. “But I figure this time we’re going down together.”

There was something in the way she said it; something certain, something right.

He grinned. “And we’ll come back up together, too.”

“I’m counting on it,” she said. “Shall we?”

Rick nodded, taking a breath. Rachel did the same. After a few steadying moments, Rick held it in, closing his body off to all other impetus as he dove behind the water. As he descended into the depths, Rachel was right next to him, and the kicked in unison as the water swelled around them and the rest of the world disappeared.

Comments

Posted by: blackdog_lz (blackdog_lz)
Posted at: March 15th, 2012 06:26 pm (UTC)
Stephen and Abby

I love a happy ending and this definitely qualifies as a very happy ending :)
Rick's self-flagellation reads very in character and I'm pretty sure that you have Rachel's persistence and stubbornness spot on.
The little tidbits about the irregularity of the muse are adorable, especially since they are so true.
And I can totally relate to your portrayal of Rick using sport to center himself. It's easy to lose yourself in sport, those moments are the best to think about your live and future.

So an absolutely great birthday present :)

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: March 20th, 2012 08:38 pm (UTC)
james entreaty

I do try to give characters happy endings more often than not, even if I do put them through angst along the way.

I really loved Rick in this movie and not just because of his (very nice) looks. He had so much guilt and regret, and even though he got what he wanted in the end, I imagine he still has quite a bit of lingering difficulty coping with everything he's been through. Because he has been through a lot.

And a writer always has a love/hate relationship with the muse. It was fun being able to add reflections of that variety!

I was worried about the underwater parts since I've never actually been underwater like that and I've never really been one to lose myself in sports. So I'm glad I was still able to pull off a convincing narrative about it :)

And mostly, I hope you had a really wonderful birthday. You deserve it!

(And I have to thank you again for selling me your copy of this movie!)

Posted by: kristen_mara (kristen_mara)
Posted at: March 22nd, 2012 01:12 am (UTC)
James and Cat


*uses my only Phoenix Blue icon again, because of subject matter and because you luv it!*

////She wondered if longer or shorter paragraphs would help communicate the endless stretches of time when waiting for news.////

LOL - I love the glimpses in this fic about how things are seen by a writer's mind. I can certainly relate to it! How to capture, and the inspiration that hits.

Yay for a happy ending *G*. And it ends on the lovely image of them diving together, after discovering a lot about themselves and each other.

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: April 1st, 2012 02:04 pm (UTC)
happy rick

I still love that icon very, very much :) And this morning I finally decided to upload my own Phoenix Blue icon because it didn't seem right that I didn't have one yet. I may have to go back and edit my posts to include it :)

Writers do have peculiar minds -- often that only other writers understand. It was fun to write that POV.

It goes to show I am capable of happy endings :) (Sometimes....)

Thanks! For everything!

Posted by: kristen_mara (kristen_mara)
Posted at: April 4th, 2012 10:05 am (UTC)
Pensive


I love your new icon! And I forgot that I do have another PB icon...

Yes, you're certainly going more for happy endings now ;) I heartily approve and can give my giant 'poke for sequel' stick a rest.

Thanks and you're very welcome *G*

Posted by: nietie (nietie)
Posted at: April 9th, 2012 10:01 am (UTC)
phoenixblue

*applauds* I LOVE this! This is so much better than the whole movie. I love the depth in it.

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: April 14th, 2012 03:48 pm (UTC)
james sings

I'm so glad you liked it! I tend to want to write h/c for every movie/show I really like, and this movie just had too much opportunity for angst to ignore. The fact that it feels like a good follow up to the movie means a lot! Thank you!

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