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Author's Chapter Notes:
FYI, if you already read this chapter this morning, go back and read it again because I combine the next chapter with it since they were both fairly short. Thoughts and comments are always appreciated. :)
Twelve years later...

Nick sat down in his favorite armchair with a microwave dinner and a cold beer, then turned on the football game. He watched the screen with a hint of regret in his eyes then sighed as he looked around his small, lonely house. His eyes rested on an old picture of him in his college football uniform with Kevin and Howie on either side of him. They all looked so young and happy, and he was in the best physical condition of his life.

He cast his stare down to the body resting comfortably in the ratty, old chair that was now permanently shaped to fit his figure. He’d put on some weight over the years, as most people do, but it was hardly anything to be ashamed of. It wasn’t the extra pounds that bothered him as much as it was the thought of what he could have been, what he should have been.

Nick knew better than to reminisce about his life so he kicked back the rest of his beer and focused his attention on his favorite team. Montana had no team of their own, so he was forced to root for the Minnesota Vikings, which sucked because they never did that well. Tonight’s game was one of those where they were so far behind that it was almost painful to watch. And before he knew it, Nick had drifted off. He was soon wakened, however, by a loud knock on the front door. Feeling tired and lazy and assuming it was Kevin, Nick didn’t bother getting up from his chair. “Come in!”

When the door opened Nick took one look at the tears in Kristen’s eyes and he dashed across his living room and scooped her into his arms. “I can’t do it anymore.” She sobbed, “I can’t have this fight again.”

Nick sighed, but hugged his friend tightly while she cried. “You’re upset Kris. Sit down and relax. I’ll get you a beer.”

Kristin looked up at him and forced a smile through her tears. “Thanks.”

Nick returned moments later with a beer in each hand. He popped his open and took a sip and watched curiously as Kristin practically downed hers in one giant swig. “So I take it things didn’t go so well.”

“I spoke to an attorney.”

“What about the counseling?”

“The counseling can’t help if he’s not going to try.”

“But you can’t get a divorce, you love him.”

“It’s not about love. He’s not the same man anymore Nick. He hasn’t been since they told him he couldn’t have children. It’s like he blames himself, and I can’t live with the depression anymore.”

“It will kill him if you leave.”

“I can’t stay. I can’t watch him self-destruct. It hurts too much to see him like that.”

“Kristin.”

“It’s too late Nick, I’m done. I gave him the papers this evening.”

Nick was speechless. He knew Kristin and Kevin’s marriage had been rocky for several years now. He’d heard all about it from both of them every now and then, but deep down they were still clearly in love with each other, so despite the troubles they’d had, Nick never imagined he would see this day.

Kristin felt his disappointment and began to spill tears once more. “Am I a bad person Nick?”

“Of course not.” Nick whispered. “You guys have been through some rough times and Kevin hasn’t exactly been fair to you. I don’t want to see you break up, but I can’t blame you for wanting a better life.”

There was a reason Kristin always came to Nick when life at home got hard. She knew Nick understood family dysfunction. She knew he understood both her and Kevin. He was the closest friend they’d had since pretty much the beginning of time. She knew that no matter what happened, Nick was not going to judge her. In all these years he never had. He was always right by her side and right now, when she needed his strength the most, he was there.

Kristin let her emotions run freely, leaving a wet spot on Nick’s shoulder from her tears. She could feel his strong fingers running through her hair. She was confused, and scared, and his touch was very soothing to her nerves. In a moment of vulnerable weakness, she placed her lips to Nick’s, craving some kind of comfort.

Nick was shocked and immediately pulled back. They looked at each other in utter silence, each resisting urges that they knew they shouldn’t have. Kristin placed her fingers to her lips as if she were just now realizing what she’d done. Tears filled her eyes once more and her body began to tremble. “I’m so sorry Nick. I- I- I”

Nick swallowed a lump in his throat and stood, taking a step back to create a safe distance between them. “It’s ok, but I think the best thing I can do for you right now, for both of us, is not be here. You’re welcome to stay if you don’t want to go home, but I think I’m gonna go see Kevin.”

Kristin hung her head feeling awful that she’d put her friend in this position. “Maybe that’s best.” She whispered, “But you won’t find him at home. He took off when I gave him the papers and never came back.”

Nick released a heavy sigh and grabbed his keys. “I’ll find him.”

Just as Nick was about to walk out the door, Kristin lifted her head, “Nick? You won’t-“

Nick gave her a gentle smile. “I won’t tell him.” He assured her and then disappeared out the door.

Nick jumped in his jeep and headed across town. He knew exactly where Kevin would be. The news of divorce had surely broken his heart and he would no doubt be at Mel’s Tavern attempting to wash away the pain. When Nick pulled up, Kevin’s truck was parked right out front.

He looked bad this time. He was perched on a stool hunched over a shot of something very dark, and no doubt very strong. Nick had only seen him like this twice before. Once, the day Brian told him that he was leaving Mercy and not coming back, and the other, the day he found out that he was sterile and would never be a father. That was a pretty dark day, but tonight, if it was possible, he looked even worse.

Nick took a seat on the stool next to him and ordered a beer. Once it was placed in front of him he took a sip and then was the first to speak. “How you holdin’ up?”

“I’ve lost her. She’s the only reason I live this life and I’ve lost her.”

“You haven’t lost her, not yet, but you’re gonna.”

“She filed for divorce. Did she tell you that?”

“Yeah man, I heard. I’m sorry.”

“God man, do you remember the days when life was simpler, before Howie got too busy, and before Brian was a self-righteous ass hole? The days when we would all drop everything just to fulfill some stupid tradition.”

Nick smiled at the memory. “Those were some good times.”

“Yeah. We should go up there again, you and me. We should take a hike out to Mercy. When’s the last time you went out there?”

“Shit man, I haven’t been there since grad night. I think that’s the last time any of us went back besides you and Kris.”

Kevin’s frown returned at the mention of his wife’s name. He picked up his shot glass and smirked bitterly at a memory. “We should have known. We should have known that night at the springs, life never turns out the way you expect it.”

“Tell me about it. I was all-state sophomore year. They said I could have gone pro, that I had what it takes. Instead I wound up back here looking after my brothers and sisters because my drunk-ass parents couldn’t do it. Life’s never what you expect, but I didn’t let it beat me. My brother Aaron actually went to college because of me, and coaching high school football isn’t so bad. So you can’t have kids, life’s a bitch, but you can’t give up, Kristin still needs you.”

Kevin held up a fat envelope, “She’s the one who gave up on me.”

“You think that’s what she did? I hate to tell you this Kev, but you brought this on yourself.”

Kevin forced the liquor down his throat and slammed the empty glass down on the counter. “Who the hell asked for your opinion?”

“Damnit Kevin, your wife did! Do you think she wants this divorce?”

Nick’s question caught the attention of his drunken friend. Until he said that, Kevin assumed that’s exactly what she wanted. “Well she doesn’t man, trust me. She’s a mess right now. She loves you, she just doesn’t know what to do with you anymore.”

Kevin motioned to the bartender for a refill. The man refilled the glass and Kevin kicked it back like a pro. “She’s better off this way.”

Nick stood up from his stool and shook his head, disgusted with Kevin’s attitude. “You see? That right there, that’s why she’s leaving you man. And to tell you the truth, I can’t blame her.”

“Sure, fucking take her side. You’re probably sleeping with her.”

Nick was done trying to reason. It wouldn’t do any good as drunk as Kevin was right now anyway. Kevin was stubborn enough when he was sober and now Nick was angry. He placed some cash on the table next to the drink he’d only taken a sip of and looked down at Kevin who was downing another shot. A vision of Kristin falling apart in his arms flashed in his mind and he could practically still feel her trembling body. “Being an ass hole must run in the family.” He growled, “You don’t deserve her anymore.”

Nick slammed the door on his way out. After He left the bar, Kevin’s conscience started to catch up to him. “Fuck!” he yelled slamming the counter for a second time. “Hey man, can I get a double this time?”

“I’m sorry Kev, but I think you’ve had enough for one night.”

“What?”

“I gotta cut you off man. I’m sorry.”

“Shit.” Kevin hissed under his breath and then stumbled from his stool.

“You want me to call you a cab?”

Kevin glared at the bartender, but the man just shrugged. “There’s no way in hell I’m letting you drive home like that. They’d have my license for sure.”

Kevin grumbled, but shoved his keys on the counter and then staggered out the door.

When Nick arrived home he quietly crept into the house. Kristin’s car was still in his driveway and he knew she would have fallen asleep on the couch. As he slowly made his way through the living room she was there, exactly as he’d imagined. He smiled at the sight and then placed a blanket over her. He watched her for a moment and then gently kissed her forehead before retreating to his bedroom for the night.

It was nearly three hours later when Nick was wakened by his telephone. He woke with a jolt and squinted at the blurry red numbers on his alarm clack. He groaned at the thought of it being 4 am and rubbed his eyes before answering.

Kristin heard the phone ring and assumed, or hoped, that it would be Kevin, so she made her way into Nick’s room. When she walked in she saw him sitting straight up just holding the receiver in his hands and tears were falling from his face. It was the first time she’d ever seen him cry and immediately she felt sick. “What is it?”

Kristin’s voice pulled Nick from his state of shock and his tears only increased when he looked into her eyes. Kristin knew by the look on his face, she could feel it in her heart. She flew to his side shaking his arms. “Tell me god damnit! What is it?”
“It’s Kevin.” He whispered. “He’s dead.”

Mercy is a small town with only one medical center that housed a tiny morgue. The town was quiet enough that the morgue was practically for show. Every now and then it housed an old person who’d simply reached their life expectancy and was waiting for their burial but very rarely was it home to something so tragic. Normally it’s only guests were the morticians themselves, so Nick and Kristin found themselves standing along a cold white wall as they waited.

Neither could stop their tears and both were in shock as they were shuffled from one place to another and given bits and pieces of information. They’d not spoken a word since Nick hung up the phone and even then he simply told her that there’d been an accident and they had to meet the police at the hospital.

Though there was nothing that could take away the pain they were feeling, there was a little comfort in the fact that they were going through it together. They’re hands were cold and clammy but they refused to let go of one another, and as the town’s sheriff approached them Kristin’s grip tightened to a painful level. “Mrs. Richardson?”

Kristin couldn’t find her voice enough to give a verbal answer so she simply gave a weak nod of her head. The cop offered an apologetic smile and hated himself for what he was about to do. “I’m sorry to make you do this, but it is standard procedure.”

Kristin nodded again and followed the man down the sterile hallway, clinging desperately to Nick as she went. The room had an ominous feel to it, and when they walked through the door it sent chills up Nick’s spine.

From the moment he saw it, he couldn’t peel his eyes from the outline of a body hiding beneath a pristine white sheet. He heard Kristin take in a sharp breath and suddenly realized that he too had been holding his breath. This had to be the worst moment in either of their lives and as the sheriff placed his hands on the sheet, Kristin forced her stiff body even tighter against Nick’s. Nick looked down at her in concern. “You don’t have to do this you know. I can do it if you want.”

The sheriff waited for Kristin’s response as she starred lifelessly at Nick. She looked back down at the slab in front of her and slowly shook her head. “I have to see for myself.”

Nick put his arm around her and pulled her close as the sheet was lifted from Kevin’s bruised face. Kristin’s eyes widened in horror and with a loud gasp, she buried herself in Nick’s chest. Nick held her as tight as he was capable, and tears returned to his face as he choked out the answer the sheriff was waiting to hear. “It’s him.”

The man gave a respectful nod and quickly covered the body. “I’m sorry.” He whispered as he guided them out of the room.

The sheriff switched the light off and locked the door behind them. The action felt so final and so devastating to Kristin that she nearly collapsed. Nick caught her and helped her to the floor as she wept. “I think she needs a minute.” He whispered to the waiting sheriff.

The man tried his best to keep his composure, feeling it was his duty to do so, but the sight of Kristin was simply heartbreaking. He bottled his depressing thoughts and pulled Nick aside for a moment. “Why don’t you take her home and call her family. They might be of some comfort right now.”

Nick looked down at Kristin and nodded. He knew that the task of keeping her together was too big for him alone. It was getting harder and harder for him not to break down as it was. “Make sure she gets a little rest, and then come down to the station after it opens. We can go over everything then. There’s some paperwork involved, but there’s no need to do it right this minute.”

“Thank you.”

Nick helped Kristin in the car and took her over to the ranch. They sat in the car for a moment staring up at Kevin’s parent’s house. “How am I going to tell them?”

Nick turned off the car and opened his door. “I’m not sure, but we’ll do it together.”

Breaking the news to Kevin’s parents was torture, but being able to mourn with them helped Kristin to gain a little control of herself and took some of the pressure off of Nick. After they called Kristin’s parents, and had them sitting in the Richardson’s living room as well, Nick took the chance to get some air. “I think I’m going to go home and get cleaned up and then I’ll be back. Wait for me and we’ll go to the police station together.”

Kristin nodded, and before Nick let go of her hand he forced her to look at him. “You going to be ok?”

Kristin forced what little smile she could. “You’ve been my angel through this Nick. Hurry back ok?”

Nick forced back his tears and placed a kiss on her forehead. “One hour.”

Nick climbed into his car and took a number of slow deep breaths before driving the few miles to his house. It wasn’t until he got through the door that everything truly caught up with him. He fell to the couch heavily and looked around unsure what to do with himself. He was hurting deeply, and yet he couldn’t imagine what it must be like for Kristin right now.

He was exhausted, and the light was finally beginning to creep into the windows, but he knew there was no point in trying to sleep so he just sat there, drowning in morbid thoughts.

His eyes caught the picture of him, Kevin and Howie on the mantle. He picked up the frame and remembered the moment it was taken as vividly as if it’s been yesterday. UMT had gone all the way to the state championships and Nick threw an interception that ultimately costing them the game. Nick was so bummed and it was Kevin who raised his spirits and encouraged him to keep going.

The next season they were in the championships again and Nick was so afraid of a devastating repeat that he nearly had a panic attack before the game. Kevin gave him a motivational speech about how he’d always wanted his chance to make something of himself and this was it. UMT won the game that day and Nick had been named MVP. Kristin had snapped the shot right after the announcement had been made.

Nick stared down at the happy faces in the picture and his eyes filled with tears. His mind could only think of the last conversation he’d had with his best friend. His last words to him had been spoken in anger and were cruel and untrue. Kevin was the best man he’d even known and he needed support, not a lecture.

Nick couldn’t stop the rush of guilt that forced him to finally lose control. His body filled with anger and he threw the picture across the room shattering the glass. Then, in one quick motion, he fell to the floor and cried as if he were a 6 year old that had just been stripped of his family.
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