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All the King's Horses

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~~~

100 miles per hour. In the wind and rain, the only thing worth thinking about was the pavement flying past. Just the smallest lapse in judgment, shifting a little too much to the left or right, meant losing control. Brad had no illusions that there'd be anything left of him that didn't have to be scrapped off the pavement if he got careless.

Normally, Brad fucking reveled in the thrill.

Normally, however, Brad wasn't so fucking stupid as to ride without his gear. But today, with the rain pissing down, he got on his Yamaha in nothing but his t-shirt and jeans. The anger that had filled him earlier still prevailed; mixing with the cold rain battering his skin until his outsides were as fucking miserable as his insides.

And his insides were pretty fucking miserable.

He gripped the handle bars tight—his knuckles well past frozen. He concentrated on that pain because at least it was tangible and easy to understand.

Twenty miles later, when a rundown gas station came up on his right, Brad pulled in. If he insisted on riding until his head cleared he could very well end up in Canada.

Maneuvering his bike in the mostly empty parking lot, he found a spot and turned off the ignition. The absence of reverberation and the loss of motion made him feel worse, as if riding fast had forced everything in his chest to compress and now it was being given the opportunity to relax again.

He sat there on his cooling bike, soaked to the bone, letting the rain run down his face. Maybe he could grow roots and stay there like a tree. Trees, he was sure, never felt like this. He lifted his face up to the sky and imagined stretching his arms out wide. He would be a redwood, he decided. With strong bark, and thick roots anchoring him to the ground.

Tires squealed behind him, breaking his vision. Glancing toward the sound, he saw Nate's truck turn into the parking lot.

As Nate skidded into the spot next to him, Brad quickly evaluated his options—he could continue to run, or he could control the location of the showdown. Tactically, he knew which one made sense; it was just hard to overcome the inertia that had kept him seated on the bike for so long. He hopped off the bike and turned towards the mini-mart.

A public place was safest.

Nate caught up to him four feet from the door, wrenching him around by his arm. "Don't run away from me, Brad!"

"Why not?" Brad drawled, laying the sarcasm on thick. His anger was back, front and center and it was too volatile to contain, too personal for him to lock up in the back of his mind. "You're running away from the Corps. I never figured you for a coward."

Nate's face was twisted in anger, and now a red flush crept over his cheeks and neck. "What the fuck is up with you?"

Brad wished he knew. "Nothing, sir."

"Don't sir me—"

"Yes, sir."

"Fuck you!"

Brad's lips cracked in a harsh smile. It felt good to have an outlet for his anger; a relief to direct it somewhere. "Anything else you want from me?"

"Yeah. At least wear your fucking helmet when you ride your death-trap!" Nate shouted, throwing the helmet at Brad's chest.

Brad stepped back, catching the helmet as it knocked him back. He tripped over something and immediately Brad tried to shift his weight as he heard a cry behind him.

"Whattchit boy!"

Brad whipped around, clutching his helmet in one hand, off-balance and confused. There were three old women, dressed in mismatched rags, sitting there cursing and swearing because he'd tripped over them. He could have sworn they weren't there a moment ago.

The woman closest to him snarled as she pulled the shared blanket up close to her chest. "Watch where you're going."

"Sorry." The automatic response rolled from his lips.

Nate eyed him wearily, ignoring the women as if they weren't there. "I should fucking hope so. What's come over you?"

The third woman started moaning. "Oh, I think I broke my leg. I'ma gonna be black and blue tomorrow."

"I said I was sorry," Brad said in his defense. When he tried to back away from them, the middle woman grabbed his wrist and opened her other palm.

"It's okay," Nate said with a sigh, stepping closer. "Look, can we just find a place to talk?"

"What—?" Brad turned back to Nate.

"Don't forget about us, boy," the third woman chimed in. Glancing back, Brad saw she had her hand extended as well.

"Yes," the first woman said. "You can help us. And we can help you. But first—" she extended her hand as well, so that all three of them were waving their open palms under his nose.

Brad found some loose change at the bottom of his pocket and dropped it in their hands just so he could get away. This distraction worked—they scrambled for the coins allowing him to pull free.

"Come on," Nate said as he headed toward the mini-mart. He looked tired and completely unphased by the strange scene with the women. "Let me buy you a coffee. You're soaked."

With a last look behind him, Brad saw the three women huddled together, whispering and giggling, and a shiver ran down his spine. He turned back to Nate, sprinted two steps to catch up and eagerly left the strangers behind.

A blast of air conditioning and a chime greeted them as they entered the store, the cold air freezing as it hit his drenched clothes.

The tension seemed to have dissipated as Nate walked in silence over to the side of the store where the self-serve coffee was. Brad followed. The mini-mart was just a typical small-town hick store attached to a gas station that sold cigarettes, coffee and gas and as an afterthought, had a few isles of random canned and boxed goods with a display of potato chips at one end. Since their argument had been cut-off by the strange women outside, Brad found he was reluctant to pick it back up again.

It seemed pointless to hold on to his anger now. Anger implied intent on Nate's part and whatever reason Nate had for leaving the Corps, it was highly unlikely it had anything whatsoever to do with him.

Brad wasn't sure if that made him feel better or worse and that bothered him, too. Platoon commanders came and went. It was the nature of the beast. It's not like he and Nate were even technically friends.

"You caught me off guard," Brad said eventually.

"I know. I'm sorry." Nate picked up two paper cups and started filling them with coffee. It smelled bitter and burnt. "I swear I'm not running away. If you'd let me explain--"

Looking away, Brad suddenly wasn't sure he wanted to hear it. Disappointment curdled in his stomach, turning to nausea as the smell of cheap coffee wafted in the air. "Does it matter?"

"If I thought that my staying would be worth it, I would," Nate said, turning to face him directly. "But I'm not cut-out for it anymore. I can't sit by and blindly follow orders I know are going to get people injured or killed, and for what? To meet some random objective that someone else has decided is important? I can't trust that our superiors are always going to make that right decision. I value you all too much for that."

The door chimed again and Brad turned, ready to walk away. There was no point in torturing himself with what was very likely horrible coffee, and an even worse conversation. He was about to wave Nate off, make some excuse and get going, climb back on his bike in the piss-pouring rain when a commotion at the front of the store made him stop.

"Put your hands up! Empty your fucking till!" Then there was the click of a round being put into chamber.

Brad's eyes met Nate's and instantly it was like they'd never left Iraq. Without a word, they crouched down and took up defensive positions. Ducking behind a display of chips, Nate shrugged off his soaked leather jacket and peered around. He had a better view from his side. He looked back at Brad and made a circle in the air with his fingers. Quickly taking in the landscape, Brad gave him a curt nod in agreement and went down the other aisle.

Moving only on the balls of his feet, Brad crept past the Spam, the canned marshmallows and pet food and paused when he got to the end. The clerk behind the till was panicking, crying as he grabbed the money and tossed it at the robber. From Brad's location, he could only see the robber's back. Spiky blonde hair, red Adidas jacket, under six feet tall.

"Come on, man. Please. Just don't shoot."

"Shut the fuck up. You should have fucking thought about that before."

Brad sat there on his heels, waiting for Nate to make his move as he evaluated the target. The robber didn't look professional, he was just a teenager, waving the pistol around, trying to keep his eye on the door and the kid behind the counter. There was more danger there because of it. Amateurs were unpredictable.

Nate seemed to understand this as well because when he made his move, he did so slowly, drawing attention to himself without startling anyone.

"Calm down. It's okay. Nobody needs to get hurt," Nate said, coming out of his aisle, hands raised in front of him.

The robber turned on him, waving his gun. "Get the fuck down. Get down!"

"Okay, okay. No problem. Don't do anything rash." Nate knelt down slowly, never taking his eye off the teen.

This was Brad's chance. Silently, with his eyes intent on the back of the robber's head Brad moved into position. He had one hand poised to grab the wrist holding the gun when the door chime went off behind him at the worse possible moment and the robber turned a fraction of a second too early.

There was a flash of angry blue eyes.

There was movement.

There was an incredibly loud bang.

What followed was the most horrible sensation of ripping, of being flung apart by the force of a tsunami, of drowning, of falling, of landing head first against a brick wall and decelerating from sixty to zero almost instantaneously. It knocked the breath and the sight right out of him leaving him completely stunned.

In the darkness, more shots were fired followed by the sound of a body hitting the floor.

Brad opened his eyes and saw the smoking barrel of a shotgun being wielded by the clerk on the other side of the counter. The robber was lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Standing by the door was a woman, clutching her handbag and wailing. Brad easily took it all in.

The thing he couldn't ascertain was Nate's position.

Nate was nowhere to be seen.

Instantly Brad was up on his feet, racing toward the front of the store. He had no idea what had happened, how he'd gotten thrown back so far, but he was suddenly desperate to make sure Nate was alright. He knew in the pit of his stomach that something had gone terribly wrong.

Sparing barely a glance at the dead teen on the ground, Brad rounded the end of the aisle and his head dropped to see Nate kneeling on the ground.

"You're alive," Brad said on the exhale, relief washing though him. But Nate didn't respond. And when he did look up, he didn't look at Brad at all, just at the woman crying.

Nate looked devastated. The sour feeling in Brad's stomach grew stronger as he realized he didn't have all the intel. Something vital was missing.

Looking back down at Nate, Brad took in the fact that Nate's hands were covered in blood and there was a body lying obscured beneath him. Brad moved to get a better look. He had no idea who else could have been shot; there had been no one else in the store.

As Brad stepped around Nate, he slowly took in the clues. He couldn't see the person's face; Nate's body was blocking it. But the t-shirt soaked wet with rain and blood, the jeans with the quarter inch hole in the right knee, the sneakers with grease stains on the soles…it was like Brad's mind was emerging from a hangover and the pain started shooting in his head.

Nate sat back on his heels, uncovering Brad's own face. There was a bullet hole through his right temple.

~~~

It was too hot to walk barefoot on the sidewalk, but it was impossible to skip rope in flip-flops, or so at least Caroline and her friend Beth would have him believe.

"Besides, as long as you move the rope properly, we won't be touching the ground long enough to get burned!" Caroline pointed out smartly to Brad, even though she knew he never screwed up. Caroline just liked having someone to blame.

Brad picked up the two ropes while Beth grabbed the other ends and started turning them in circles.

"Cinderella…Dressed in yella…" Beth and Caroline started chanting. "Went downstairs to kiss her fella…She made a mistake and kissed a snake. How many doctors will it take? 1! 2! 3! 4!"

Brad's favorite part was the numbers. It meant he could turn the ropes as fast as he wanted and it was never hard to trip up his sister. Sure enough, her feet tripped on a rope and the other one came down and smacked her on the leg when she didn't jump in time.

The air smelled of cut grass and sun-block, as the chime of the ice cream truck came from around the corner.

~~~

Brad was pissed. This was not the way things were supposed to go. He was not supposed to get offed by some punk-ass, zit-covered fucknut who had to steal the keys from his alcoholic father passed out on a fucking shitass lazyboy in order to go joyriding on some fucking interstate in the middle of butt-fuck nowhere and happened to find a loaded revolver.

Brad didn't train for the last ten fucking years of his life to die like this.

He stood off to the side, hidden in shadows as Nate spoke to another policeman. It was dark now but still raining. The policemen had umbrellas but Nate had shrugged off their offers and was soaked to the bone. Brad glared at Nate, at his ridiculous stubbornness; he glared at the policemen with their idiotic questions. He swore a filthy diatribe at the crime scene investigators, bagging off imaginary evidence. What the fuck did any of it matter? He was dead, the robber was dead. Case fucking closed. Everyone needed to go the fuck home.

Out of the corner of his eyes Brad saw the coroner packing up the bodies, and closing the back of the truck and felt a strange disconnect. Was he supposed to stay with his body? Was he just supposed to wander around randomly? Wasn't there supposed to be a bright fucking light?

He crossed his arms in front of his chest.

When nothing came to fetch him into oblivion, Brad swore again. The lack of current SOP was pissing him off even more. He wandered back over to Nate as Nate retold the events to yet another cop in a bland, monotone voice for the fifty-millionth time, his eyes also following the coroner who was driving out of the parking lot.

"He was just following my orders. I told him to circle back down the aisle, and wait for an opening to disarm the kid."

"Following your orders?" The policeman eyed Nate skeptically.

Brad glanced at the policeman and then back at Nate, trying to see what the policeman saw. He shrugged. The steal core inside Nate that had allowed him to lead a platoon through Iraq was still very much intact but maybe this cop couldn't see it. Brad blinked and tried to imagine Nate as just a young kid, a few years out of school, joyriding out with his friend and then pretending to play hero when the situation arose.

It was like going cross-eyed to stare at your nose.

He turned to the cop. "You're a fucking idiot."

The cop and Nate, of course, didn't hear him.

"Not in an official capacity, but yes. Brad understood what I was asking him to do."

"Did you hear anything between the assailant and the clerk?"

"Just the demand for the money in the till."

"Did it sound like they knew each other?"

Nate was quiet for a minute then shook his head. "I don't know."

When the cop was done, Nate continued to stand there by himself, looking worse than Brad's fucking corpse he'd just seen bagged away.

"Go home, Nate," Brad said with a sigh. Brad had no idea what home held for him, but it had to be better than standing in a parking lot in the middle of the night. Brad was angry, but not at Nate. Nate didn't need to suffer anymore because of this.

Watching Nate was making something ache inside him.

But Nate just continued to stand there, staring at the entrance to the mini-mart until a car pulled up and Mike Wynn got out.

"Nate," Mike said, looking awful as well. Brad wondered how Mike had found out.

Nate looked at him, and whatever reserves he'd been clinging to seemed to shatter when Mike grabbed his shoulder in support. Nate's head went down and he grabbed the sleeve of Mike's coat and twisted it hard.

"This wasn't supposed to happen, Mike," Nate said when he was able to look up. The flashing lights from the police cruisers were still flickering around. "We weren't supposed to survive Iraq to lose someone here. Not like this."

"I know," Mike said.

"Not Brad."

"I know."

Mike had always been strong and calm under pressure and it was surprising to see the pain reflected on his face as well. Nate stared back at the mini-mart as the rain pick up again.

Eventually Mike tried to steer him toward the passenger side of his car. "Come on, Nate. Let's get you home."

Nate shook free of him. "No, I need to go into base. I'll have to give a report…"

"It can wait. The PCR's already been forwarded up to HQ and a CACO's been sent to notify Brad's family."

"I need to talk to them."

"Not right now, you don't. Let the professionals do it. You need to go home and get some sleep. We'll go into base early and start the process once we know what his family wants to do."

Mike managed to get Nate into his car, leaving Brad standing in the parking lot by himself, thinking about the actions his death had put in place. He thought about the officer going to visit his parents to tell them the news. He thought about what the guys in the platoon would say and suddenly decided that there were certain things he never wanted to know.

He didn't want to picture the look on his mother's face when she found out. He didn't want to hear the phone call to his sister. He didn't want to hear Caroline's sobs. He didn't want to know which of his friends would be his pallbearers or which would be in the rifle party, and he certainly didn't want to be there when Nate delivered the folded flag to his family. He didn't want to see his things getting packed away. He didn't want to be there when they laid his body in the ground.

He didn't want to be fucking dead, but there didn't seem to be anything he could do about that.

Watching Mike's car pull out of the parking lot, it occurred to Brad that he could do something about the rest of it. With no clear plan in place, he started out. He didn't walk so much as just move in the direction he wanted to go, but the good thing about California was that the ocean was never really far away.

~~~

Brad used to build sand castles as tall as him. They'd have a moat that would open up downstream and lead into a water wheel that would spin as the water ran through it. He always knew the perfect amount of water to add to the sand to make it manageable, even though that depended on how wet the sand was to begin with.

He preferred to work alone. No one else seemed to understand his vision or had the skills to create it. At best, they would knock over the tower he had worked on for the last thirty minute; at worse, they would weaken the supporting structure and the entire castle would crumble to the ground.

The irony was that time was his biggest enemy. He never had time to finish completely. What he really needed was another set of hands.

~~~

The sun was hot. Brad knew this instinctively, even though he couldn't feel the heat against his body. He had watched the sun's progression across the sky until it stood directly overhead. He saw the wind moving the leaves of the palm trees, he saw the waves breaking in the ocean but he couldn't feel the air or the mist against his face.

He couldn't touch the sand; his hands slipped right through it.

Dogs walked by and didn't stop to sniff him.

Nobody cared, nobody saw him. He tried to convince himself that it was better this way; to be here where he wasn't reminded of everyone who was leaving him behind.

The loneliness surprised him the most.

~~~

"I spy with my little eyes, something red."

"That's easy-peasie lemon squeezy, Brad," Caroline sang to him. "It's the stop sign. My turn!"

Brad sighed and looked out his window. It felt like they'd been driving forever. Brad never liked these visits, mostly because Bubbe smelled like mothballs and tugged at his hair.

"I spy, with my little eyes, something, yellow!"

Brad glanced at Caroline and then back out the window. "Your stupid shoes."

"No, the candy wrapper. Seriously, Brad. You have to start paying attention."

"I hate this stupid game."

"You're stupid."

"No, you are."

"No, you are."

Brad closed his mouth and refused to keep playing. Caroline didn't speak to him the rest of the car ride, but later, when Bubbe started lamenting about his blonde hair being out of place in the family, making comments to his parents that Brad didn't really understand, but with an undertone that was plain enough, Caroline snuck into Bubbe's laundry room and cut off half her hair with some shearing scissors.

No one said anything about Brad's hair for the rest of the day and for a while Caroline sported a shorter haircut than he had.

~~~

A few days later, Brad walked out onto the water. It wasn't quite the religious experience bible thumpers made it out to be. When he was a hundred feet out, he let himself sink. Again, there was no epiphany involved, no overt loss of hope. Just boredom. Turned out that it was only marginally less boring underwater. There was an occasional fish.

It was interesting to note that he didn't have to breathe. He did because it creeped him out not to, but it wasn't necessary. He could also breathe underwater but that creeped him out worse. So after finding three shoes, a toy truck, and a carburetor, he gave up and walked back to shore.

After that, he sat on the beach and watched people go by.

He thought about what Ray would do as a ghost. Ray would probably tell him to go visit the female change rooms, or waft into the FBI building and find out who really killed JFK. Or more likely, both.

He thought about his family and friends. He couldn't help it. In a few days it would be Caroline's birthday. She was going to be pissed that he found a way to upstage her. Mom was going to insist she sit shiva for the full seven days.

He thought about the cute little hooker on 5th Avenue who he'd met five years ago; the one with the sweet smile and a kink for denim.

Most of the time, though, he thought about Nate and it wasn't just replaying their fight and the events that had led to Brad's death. He thought about all those hours in Iraq when they'd stood side by side, watching the desert. Thousands of miles later, he was still staring at sand and feeling impotent.

This time, he was alone.

He'd never had a problem being with himself before.

He picked himself up. He hated being idle. During his life, the beach had been a haven of sorts, full of thrills on the water, and peace under the sun. Obviously, that wasn't happening now. With nothing else to do, Brad yelled at the top of his lungs.

In the distance, a little girl looked over her shoulder for a second and then turned back to her sandcastle. A seagull crowed in the distance.

Slumping back down on the beach, Brad lay down and stared at the sky.

~~~

"Iraq?" Caroline asked. "Didn't you just get back from Afghanistan?"

Brad's mother had started cleaning the kitchen, which was a sure sign she'd heard about his deployment. She always started cleaning when she was upset.

Brad sat back with his coffee, the rich aroma wafting through the kitchen as his mother started rearranging the spice rack. He felt a twinge of guilt. His father had been the one to send him to military school when he was thirteen. His father, of course, was always busy with work and never really seemed to have the time or energy to worry about whether or not Godfather would get him killed. His mom, he thought, didn't suffer from the same shortsightedness.

"Tempo is important. By pressing now, we hold the advantage," Brad said by way of explanation. He also didn't have any faith that Godfather wouldn't exchange his life for a medal if given the chance, especially since HQ was riding shotgun this time. But this time, he had a new platoon commander too. Brad suppressed his grin.

Caroline arched an eyebrow, then leaned forward and lowered her voice. "Is that why you guys are painting your own Humvees? Because you hold the advantage? Doesn't sound to me like the brass has your back."

"Most of them don't know their assholes from their mouths," Brad said. "But at least Lieutenant Fick is switched on."

~~~

Brad blinked and looked around. He was still at the beach, but it was obvious time had passed. The day was overcast, and storm clouds were approaching.

Thoughts of Nate drifted around in his head, clinging to him like remnants of a dream. The beach was deserted in this weather, leaving only the seagulls to scavenge what they could. As he watched two birds fight over a crust of bread, he decided it was time to stop sulking and get on with it. He was still a fucking warrior, even if he didn't have a substantial form, and maybe there weren't any enemy forces here for him to fight, but he was done sitting on his ass feeling sorry for himself.

~~~

It was easier to find Nate than Brad thought it would be. All he'd had to do was relax, loosen his focus on his current surroundings and then Brad found himself in a dark apartment.

Compared to the openness of the landscape he'd been in, it was a bit of a surprise.

The shadows were thick and unfamiliar. It was a small apartment, filled with utilitarian furniture. There was a desk in the corner of the dining room, just off the kitchen. Shoes were lying in the hallway, a laptop bag was spilling its contents under the dining room table and there were dishes on the coffee table. Before he could do a proper recon, movement alerted Brad that someone was on the couch. Then a key rattled in a lock and the door opened.

Doc and Mike flicked on the lights.

"Jesus fuck, Nate," Mike called out. Brad followed his eyes and discovered that it was Nate lying on the couch with an arm over his eyes.

Doc went over to Nate and sat him up, forcing his eyes open in a pretense of checking his pupils.

Nate tried to swat him away. "Leave me alone, Tim. I'm fine."

"Like bloody hell you are, sir. We tried calling you all weekend." Doc easily pushed Nate's hands away and continued with his examination. "How much have you had to drink?"

Nate glared at him. "I had a beer about an hour ago," he said, pointing to an empty bottle on the coffee table. "I wouldn't fucking get drunk six hours before I'm on duty."

Doc wasn't deterred by Nate's anger, and moved from checking his face to taking his pulse. When he was done, Doc leaned in to listen to Nate's breathing. Brad had seen enough of Doc's examinations to know that if Nate was lying about the one beer, Doc would say so.

Doc sat on the couch, a look of consternation on his face.

"What?" Nate asked, still angry.

Doc leaned forward and lifted Nate's dog tags off his neck and slid them out of his shirt. He turned them over in his palms and read them.

"You know the kind of shit this would cause?" Doc said, taking the tags off Nate's neck.

"It's none of your fucking business."

"Damn straight it's my fucking business because I don't want to lose a perfectly good platoon commander when they take you away to the loony bin. Or worse."

"What's wrong?" Mike asked from behind the couch. It looked like he was standing guard in case Nate decided to bolt.

"He's wearing Brad's fucking dog tags."

"Fuck."

Nate grabbed the dog tags from Doc's hands and got up. "Both of you, get out. I don't need a fucking intervention, I just need some peace and quiet."

"So you can torture yourself some more?" Mike asked, positioning himself so Nate couldn't easily leave the room. "It's not your fault, you know. Brad died fighting. He was a warrior. It's what he signed up to do."

Nate walked around him and opened the door. "Good night, gentlemen. I'll see you at o-dark thirty tomorrow morning for PT."

Reluctantly, Mike gave Doc a nod and headed toward the door. Brad followed them. He'd felt a strange tension in his chest ever since Doc had announced that Nate was wearing his dog tags and he could tell from the look on Doc's face that he wasn't finished saying his piece. He needed to hear whatever it was Doc was going to say.

Sure enough, as Doc went past Nate, he paused, leaning in close and kept his voice low. "Don't wear them, sir. Other people won't understand."

Nate's eyes flashed with something dangerous. "But you do?"

"I was in Iraq with the two of you."

That made Nate pause and grab Doc's arm. "Are you saying that everyone in the platoon…"

"No," Doc said firmly. "I've just seen it before. I don't think Brad knew either. He had a blind spot when it came to these things."

"Well, we'll never know," Nate replied, twisting his lips in frustration.

Brad stared back and forth between the two of them. "What the fuck are you guys talking about?"

Doc gave Nate a slap on his shoulder. "I don't think an answer either way would help you now. You just need to let him go."

After they left, Nate turned off the light and wandered to his bedroom. Brad started to follow, intent on finding the answer to why Nate had been wearing his dog tags in the first place, an answer that Doc Bryan already seem to know. It seemed like such a strange thing for Nate to do, it was something almost intimate—Brad's thoughts froze and quickly retreated from that direction. He made his way to Nate's couch instead.

The bedroom door closed behind him with a click, leaving Brad alone with his thoughts and the feeling of something unsettled inside him.

Looking around, he realized he had never even seen Nate's apartment before. It looked much like he imagined it would. Even with the mess—it was obvious that was recent. Underneath it all, there was still evidence of a neat and tidy house. There wasn't a lot of clutter, the furniture well worn, but in good condition. The empty beer bottle and a manila folder looked out of place on the otherwise empty coffee table. A plate was on the floor beside it, with half a sandwich lying forgotten to one side.

Brad tried to clamp down on the surge of guilt. Nate was suffering and Brad had been sunbathing on the beach. He sat down on the couch and tried to listen for any sounds of distress from the bedroom but everything was silent. He settled in. He could stay here on watch. He didn't know if there was a goddamn thing he could do to help Nate if he needed it, but he was damned if he'd leave Nate again.

~~~

He followed Nate around during PT the next day, where his platoon mates had similarly hollow expressions on their faces which Brad tried to ignore, and then into the Officer's briefing. There, Brad learned that it was indeed possible for Encino Man to be more useless than a bag of hammers. Nate sat through the meeting with a dull look in his eyes, saying nothing, not even when Encino Man told him the wrong grid designator for the training exercise.

Brad had tried to see which dog tags Nate had put on in the morning, but he'd had another lapse in time and when he'd come to, they were already on the base. He seemed to drift naturally to wherever Nate was.

"Nate," Encino Man called out to him after everyone was dismissed.

Nate shuffled back into the room. "Yes, sir?"

"I realize this is a difficult time for you, but I was wondering if you'd made a decision about leaving active duty. You haven't mentioned anything since the day before Brad—"

"Yes, sir," Nate said, interrupting him. "I will be staying in, but I've put in request for an MOS change. I left the paperwork on your desk."

"Really?" Brad asked, doubly shocked.

"MOS change?" Encino Man asked at the same time, with his typically confused expression.

"Yes, sir. To Foreign Area Officer."

"Right." Encino Man had obviously no clue what Nate was talking about. "Well, I'll review it and send it up the chain of command, of course. I'm glad you've decided to stay."

When Nate had left, Brad stayed behind a few extra minutes to absorb what had happened. He followed Encino Man back to his office, watched him glance at Nate's paperwork and then toss it aside so he could open the sports pages.

"You dumb fuck," Brad said to him as he folded the paper to the recap of last night's games. "You don't know how goddamn lucky you are that you get to keep Nate in, and you don't even give a damn."

With a shake of his head, Brad realized that it was no wonder Nate had wanted to leave. Nate was easily the most aware man in the unit and his talents were being squandered because his boss was too stupid to live.

~~~

That night, Nate traded in his beer for a glass of whiskey on the rocks, and his dinner for the manila envelope which had gotten a little thicker since the night before.

The message light on his answering machine was blinking, but Nate ignored it as he settled down on his couch. Brad paced between the kitchen and living room, taking in the pictures Nate had scattered around. A family portrait sat framed on the side table beside his couch. On the fridge were pictures of Nate with his friends; one skiing, one at a softball game. There were also a few pictures of the guys from the Bravo-Two; Lilley had snapped them during the makeshift workshop they'd assembled to prep the Humvees for Iraq. There was one of Ray, with grease all over his face, laughing with Walt and Gabe and another of Mike showing Christeson how to assemble the antennae. The one that caught Brad's attention though, was the one he was in.

In the picture, Brad was talking to Nate, neither of them aware that the picture was being taken. Nate had a calm, relaxed look on his face, and Brad was actually sporting a smile. He had no clue what they'd been talking about, but it didn't matter. He knew he had been happy at the time.

Part of him wondered if that's what Doc had seen.

As the sun set and Nate sat absorbed in his articles and clippings, Brad wondered about all the friends in the photographs and why they weren't here now, dragging Nate's sorry ass out of his apartment.

Around ten, Nate finally got up, put his running shoes on and went for a run.

"Good! Go, get out of here," Brad shooed him out the door. He thought about following Nate, but the intense look on Nate's face made Brad feel like he was already invading his privacy. So he stayed behind and made himself comfortable on the couch.

On the floor, stuck under the leg of the coffee table was an article about Giovanni Rossi. Brad tried to pick it up and put it on the stack of paper Nate had been reading, but his hands were unable to grab it.

~~~

"Flights delayed again, sir," Brad said, handing Fick a coffee and joining him on the concrete hanger floor.

Fick took the coffee with a smile. "Thanks, Brad. I suppose I should stop drinking coffee and try and get some sleep though."

"Probably. The way I understand it, officers require lots of beauty sleep."

Fick rolled his eyes but then inclined his head in Brad's direction as if agreeing. "Well someone's gotta make sure all these kids get back to their moms and dads, you know."

Brad followed his eyes as Fick looked at the platoon scattered around.

"We'll get them home sir. But first, they have to earn their spurs."

"Like testing a young Spartan in the krypteia?"

Brad eyed Fick. Bastard with his ivy league education and all. But Brad had watched the 300. He didn't know what it was called when they sent a young boy out, but he'd gotten the gist of what it entailed. "But with better weapons, I hope."

Fick let out a laugh. "So the tradition of an older man taking on a young male lover is okay as long as they get more than just a knife for going into battle?"

Some workers from the Red Cross came around handing out twinkies. The men descended on the treats like animals and Walt snagged the last one before Ray. Ray tried to take it from Walt, who in a desperate attempt to keep it, slid it down his pants.

There were groans from all the men as Ray tackled Walt to the ground and started undoing his pants.

Brad laughed and shook his head. "No one's going to bothered by a little homoeroticism around here, sir. Just as long as we get to kick some ass and blow shit up."

~~~

For shits and giggles, Brad spent a day following Encino Man around. He was getting used to the emptiness of living through others—it was almost like watching the soaps his mom and sister enjoyed, but with far less amnesia and evil twins.

He mocked the reports Schwetje wrote, he insulted him in meetings with Godfather, he even did hand puppets behind his back during a briefing with the platoon.

No one heard him of course, but Brad imagined that Ray would have been proud.

Before calling it a day, Brad happened to be sitting in Schwetje's office with his feet up on his desk when Greigo walked in. Some people had changed after Iraq. Greigo wasn't one of them.

Brad had to scramble out of the chair before Greigo sat in his lap. He was all for keeping personal space, personal, especially when he wasn't entirely convinced that stupidity couldn't jump the metaphysical corporeal boundary and infect him too.

"What's up, Gunny?" Schwetje asked.

Brad paid no attention to Greigo's posturing and babbling about trivial things. Between the two of them, they could bore a goldfish. But then Brad heard mention of Nate.

"I heard he's staying in?"

Schwetje nodded. "Yeah. That's what he says. Which reminds me…" he searched around on his desk for the forms Nate had given him and finally found them under his coffee mug. "He requested a transfer to Foreign Affairs."

"Really?" Greigo asked, then settled back in his chair with a mean glint in his eyes. "That man is really full of himself."

"What do you mean?"

Greigo crossed his legs, looking smug and self-righteous. "Despite everything you tried to teach him during OIF, he still can't sit back and follow orders that he's given. He has to pretend that he's better and smarter than us. He wants to influence policy not work in the trenches."

Schwetje seemed to think about this for a while. "Are you suggesting I should try and stop it?"

"Oh, don't even…" Brad started, looking back and forth between them. He knew Nate had had some issues with Greigo but he was surprised at the animosity on Greigo's face.

"You're his CO," Greigo continued. "Without your recommendation, I doubt he'd get in to the FOA study program. I think a little humility would help him in his military career, don't you, sir?"

Brad turned to his CO. "I know it's hard. I know it goes against every fiber of your being, but please, sir, do not be any more of a dickwad than you currently are."

Schwetje gave Greigo a small, imbecilic smile and wiped at the coffee ring on the paper. He flipped it over to the back where it asked for his recommendation. "Maybe you're right, Gunny. I can recommend that he stay in Recon and serve a term over at BRC. That might do him good."

"You're a wise man, sir," Greigo said.

And that was it. Brad was shocked how the course of a good man's career could be changed on a fucking whim. He didn't know who to be angrier at: Greigo for his fucking pettiness or Schwetje for not having two brain cells to rub together.

Greigo easily tipped the odds in his favor. "Maybe you should suggest Fick visit the shrink. It's been over a month now. He can't focus. He brought the platoon to the wrong grid location yesterday. His head's not in the game."

"Maybe he brought them to the wrong spot, because our idiot of a CO is a fucking inbred moron," Brad said.

Schwetje nodded as if solving one of the great mathematical problems of the world. "You're right. They missed the extraction because of it. In war, people could have died. We can't afford to have a weak link."

Brad threw his hands up in frustration. This was insane. It wasn't fair. These two idiots were goading each other on, and it was like the fucking stupid leading the fucking stupid. And there wasn't a goddamn thing he could do. He swung at Greigo not because he thought he would hit him, but because there was no other way to expend his frustration.

To Brad's shock, Greigo jerked his head back.

"You okay?" Schwetje asked.

Greigo rubbed the side of his face. "Yes sir. I…I must have just pulled something, I think."

"Really? Maybe you better go see Doc."

"No," Greigo said looking around the room with a confused expression on his face. "No, I think I'm okay. It was nothing."

~~~

"Come on, man. Please. Just don't shoot."

"Shut the fuck up. You should have fucking thought about that before."

Brad crouched in his spot, the conversation ringing in his ear. The robber didn't look professional, he was just a teenager, waving a pistol around, trying to keep his eye on the door and the kid behind the counter. Amateur.

But then something clicked. This wasn't just a random robbery. These two knew each other.

"Calm down. It's okay. Nobody needs to get hurt," Nate said, coming out of his aisle.

 

~~~
Brad spent the night trying to repeat his actions. Nate sat on the couch, reading again, though this time he had computer printouts as well.

Brad tried kicking in walls, lamps, the TV, but nothing registered even the tiniest impact.

"Come on, Nate. Hear me," Brad said and Nate continued to read undisturbed. Brad tried yelling and swearing, but there was nothing.

Close to midnight, Nate packed up his paperwork in the manila folder and put on his running shoes for another run. When he was gone, Brad collapsed on the couch.

"This is so fucking retarded," Brad said, frustration and anger making him swing at the folder left sitting on the coffee table. To his shock, he managed to flip the cover open.

"Fucking figures," Brad said. He was thrilled with this small victory but of course Nate hadn't been there to see it.

"Maybe I just have to be angry," he said to himself.

He tried to picture Greigo's face while aiming for a glass, but nothing happened. He pictured Greigo and Schwetje plotting against Nate and released his energy in the direction of Nate's papers.

Another newspaper article about Rossi fluttered a little at the movement, but otherwise stayed on top. Brad jumped on the couch in victory.

Now he was getting somewhere. His eyes rested on the article, and he noticed that it was from when Rossi was indicted for money laundering last year.

"What are you getting yourself into, Nate?"

~~~

"Sit down, Brad! It's time for a story."

"Why do I have to sit on the floor?"

"Because I'm older and I'm reading the story," Caroline proclaimed from her Little Mermaid chair.

Brad flopped on the floor, knocking over Pinky and Barbie and tossing Skipper in the corner with her stupid talking pony.

"Brad!"

"What?"

"You knocked over my dolls! They wanted to hear the story too."

Caroline jumped off her chair to fix her dolls, giving Brad the opening he wanted. He stole her chair and made her sit on the floor with all her other stupid dolls.

When Caroline had finished rearranging her toys, they had another argument over which book to read first.

Caroline's favorite was a book of nursery rhymes.

Brad's favorite was the Monster at the End of the Book.

The problem with the nursery rhymes was that they never made any sense to Brad. Who cared if Little Miss Muffet was afraid of spiders and Jill should have watched where she was going especially after Jack rolled down the hill. Served her right if she fell down, too.

~~~

"I think I'm finally onto something, Mike," Nate said, pulling out the manila folder and placing it on the table. It was well over an inch thick. Brad let out a low whistle. When had Nate found time to put all this together? "The key was when the cop asked me if the clerk and the robber knew each other."

"Why are you doing this Nate?"

"Yes, why are you doing this?" Brad said, echoing Mike. They were sitting in a small coffee shop downtown, in a window seat off to the side.

Neither of them paid any attention to Brad. Nate held the edge of the folder and hesitated, as if he wasn't sure whether to answer or not. "I think you know why, Mike. I have to make sure there is some kind of justice here. I would do this for any of my men."

The forgiving lights of the coffee shop masked the hollowness of Nate's cheeks and the dark circles under his eyes.

Mike shook his head. "That's not what I meant. I meant why are you still here? I thought you were going to apply to Harvard Business School? Instead, I hear from fucking Casey Kasem that you got orders for your new posting…that you're going to be CO of BRC."

Nate looked out the window. "Goes with promotion, I guess. I always knew I wasn't going to be staying with the platoon much longer."

"I thought that's why you were applying to school. Moving on to bigger and better things instead of stayin' in this suck-hole."

Nate shrugged and drank his coffee. "Brad was right. I was running away from things by wanting to leave—"

"You know," Mike said, not unkindly. "I hate to speak ill of the dead, but if Brad were here right now, I would tell him he was a stupid shithead for saying that to you."

"Dead person, right here," Brad said. It didn't matter. Brad was starting to think he'd been a shithead as well.

Mike continued on uninterrupted. "If he couldn't understand why you needed to leave, then maybe he wasn't as smart as we all thought he was."

"That's not fair, Mike."

"Damn straight it is, Nate. I don't want to see you waste away here, stuck in an office pushing paperclips. You're too good for that."

"Mike—"

"No, Nate. I'm not done," Mike said, leaning closer in. "If you get out, then maybe you can get over Brad. You can move on with your life. Find someone new."

Brad's eyebrows creased in confusion. "What?"

Nate almost bolted from the table, but Mike's hand shot out, grabbing Nate's wrist and pulled him back down.

"Did Tim say something to you?" Nate asked, his whole body tense.

"Tim didn't say fuck to me. But I have two ears, and I was standin' right there. It wasn't hard to figure it out, and then I have to say, it made a whole lot of other stuff make more sense, as well."

Brad had frozen to his spot during the last part of the conversation. An awful pressure was building up inside his chest as Mike's words resounded in his head.

Brad turned to face Nate. "What's he talking about?"

Nate took a deep breath, his tone firm. "Please just let this go. I want to stay in, so you can't say anything."

"You didn't do anything wrong, you know," Mike said gently.

"Even if…" Nate trailed off, looking over his shoulder before continuing. "Even if we didn't have Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Brad was in my chain of command. I swear to you, I was never going to do anything."

"I believe you…"

"Do you?" Nate asked, his voice getting a little louder as he became more agitated. "Because I don't know what I believe. I don't know what's good and right, I don't know what I should have done or not, anymore. All I know is, I have to do this for Brad. I have to make his fucking death mean something or I'm going to go fucking insane."

~~~

"The Queen of Hearts, she made some tarts, all on a summer's day. The Knave of Hearts, he stole the tarts and with them ran away."

Brad watched Alice in Wonderland for the third time that day. Caroline was in a foul mood. Mom had yelled at her for the mess in her room and in response, she'd declared herself queen of the television.

"Why is a raven like a writing desk?" Caroline asked.

"It's not," Brad replied, trying to figure out how to get the remote control from under her legs.

"It's a riddle Brad. How can you be so stupid?"

~~~

Brad was beginning to feel like he'd tumbled down the rabbit hole himself.

"Why didn't you fucking tell me?" he shouted at the air between him and Nate. They were back in Nate's apartment. The sun had long gone down.

Nate sat down on his bed, with his shirt off. He looked utterly exhausted.

"You want me," Brad said.

Nate neither confirmed nor denied it, but now that Brad had said it, he couldn't take it back. His mind couldn't back away from the idea. Couldn't reset to the way it had been before. Adrenaline was pumping through his veins but there was no calm spot in his head where he could retreat.

How could he have not known?

And why did it matter?

Of the two, it was the second question that bothered him the most. There didn't seem to be an answer he could find. But every time he thought about it, every time he asked himself why knowing about Nate's feelings made something ache inside his chest, he got the strong desire to turn around and run.

But Brad didn't run away from anything.

Nate got up to turn off the lights, and then crawled over toward his pillow, grabbing something off his night table before falling on his back and staring up at the ceiling. Nate's hand unclenched a little and in between his fingers, Brad saw his dog tags. Nate brought his hand up to his chest and held them close.

"I'm so sorry, Brad," Nate whispered. "I fucked up."

Brad sat down next to him, moved so that their legs were almost touching, or would have touched if he could touch a damn thing. The knot inside his chest got tighter as he looked at the distance between them yet the desire to run away lessened.

"I just wish you would have told me. It's not fair. I…I can't do anything with the intel now."

"Would it have changed anything if you knew?"

It was eerie because it was like Nate was actually talking to him.

Brad let the silence continue because he didn't know the answer to that and even if he did, it was too much to think about right now. He didn't know if he would have run just as far if Nate had told him that instead of telling him he was leaving.

Instead of answering, Brad tentatively touched his hand to Nate's thigh. He couldn't feel the heat, or the muscles move under Nate's pajama pants, but it was thrilling and unexpected. Could he be interested in Nate?

Nate's breath hitched as he tightened his grip on the dog tags, holding on to them close to his chest.

He looked at Nate's silhouette, so close and yet so completely unattainable. Yes, maybe it would have made all the difference in the world.

~~~

"No, Brad," Caroline proclaimed. "You're not paying attention. This isn't about Jack and Jill. And she wasn't stupid, just 'cos she fell. We're talking about Humpty Dumpty now."

~~~

The bar was teeming, full of military personnel and civilians enjoying the TGIF wings special. Bravo-Two took up five tables pushed together in the corner and Brad was glad to see his friends enjoying themselves. Nate had agreed to a small dinner send off before taking up his new posting at BRC and the men seemed to be making up for their earlier sorrow with lots of drinking.

Nate sat at the head of the table, next to Mike, and Ray of all people.

"So, sir," Ray started with a deep breath, which was never a good sign.

Nate made an effort to smile. "Yes, Ray?"

"Do you think hell is real?"

"Excuse me?"

"Hell is just the white man's way of oppressing all the folk, even the ones with all the privilege of being born white," Poke offered from his side of the table.

Ray shook his head. "Muslims believe in hell, too."

"I think," Nate said, "that all religions believe in some kind of reckoning for souls that don't fulfill their requirements. It's what religions do."

There was silence around the table now; everyone had stopped their casual chatter and were watching Nate and Ray. Brad would have reached out and smacked Ray upside the head for changing the mood, except that the look on Ray's face stopped him cold.

Ray was calm and subdued—worse than his reaction to coming down from four weeks of Ripped Fuel. "Is that where you think Brad is?"

A vein in Nate's neck pulsed, even as he kept his face blank. "What do you mean?"

"I mean Brad was one of the best guys I ever met. He was good guy, but he killed people. Fuck, we all have. So where does a non-believing Jew—who's killed people—go when he dies?"

There was silence around the table and Brad alternated between wanting to strangle Ray and wanting to grab him and hold him close. Thankfully, Rudy spoke up. "I think we have to believe that Brad has found enlightenment, that he's gone ahead to do a recon, to ensure the path is clear for the rest of us. If there's a hell, then Brad's busy slaying demons. Either way, we have to continue to live our lives with his memory among us."

"Amen," Poke said and raised his glass.

Eventually, chit-chat started to trickle around again, and even Ray was distracted when Justin Timberlake came on the TV. The mood was slowly returning to normal, except the fragile thread that had kept Nate engaged in the party had broken. Nate excused himself to go to the bathroom.

Brad debated following him. There was something in Nate's face that looked worse than ever. He was about to go after him when Doc slid into Nate's vacated chair, and leaned in close to Mike.

"Is he okay?" Doc asked.

Mike shrugged. "I don't know. But I can't believe the idiots in command want to transfer him now while those of us who can help him are stuck here."

"He's not still talking about Rossi, is he?"

"Not since last week. I tried to ask him about it earlier, but he blew it off. I just hope he doesn't do something fuckin' stupid."

~~

"As I was going to St Ives, I met a man with seven wives, each wife had seven sacks, each sack had seven cats, each cat had seven kits, kits, cats, sacks, wives. How many were going to St Ives?"

Brad was going to give Caroline a sharp answer, but instead, there was something about the puzzle that intrigued him. So he went to the kitchen table and got out a pencil and some paper. He drew the wives and their bags and the cats and was starting on the kittens when Caroline got bored.

"You're not very good at riddles, are you?" she asked.

He looked down at the crowded drawing. "What? I'm trying to figure it out."

"But it's easy! The answer's one. I'm the only one going to St. Ives. Everyone else was going home," Caroline said, grinning proudly.

~~~

Brad wasn't sure when summer became autumn, but there was a scattering of leaves on the grass, red and brown, starting to decay. He wasn't sure where he was either—but it definitely wasn't California. Ahead, he saw Nate walking up the steps to an old church. Brad went after him.

The sign said: St Gregory's, Baltimore. Mass times, 5:00pm Saturday and 8:00, 10:30 and 12:00 Sundays. All welcome.

Baltimore. They were in Nate's home town.

The church was dark compared to the sunlight outside and almost entirely empty. An old woman sat to one side, praying and Nate was sitting a few pews from the front. He sat there, staring at the cross behind the altar.

Brad sat down on the pew behind him. He was surprised by their location—he'd never pegged Nate as being overly religious.

An older priest looked in from the hallway, eyes flickering to the woman praying and then resting on Nate. With a tilt of his head and a smile, he came over to Nate and shook his hand.

"Nathaniel, how are you?"

"Good, Father," Nate said after the priest had sat down on the pew next to him.

"It's been a long time. I heard from your parents that you were in the Marines now."

"Yes. I'm just home visiting before I start my new posting in Coronado."

The priest nodded slowly. "Is there anything I can help you with? You look troubled. My right ear isn't what it used to be, but the left works perfectly well."

Nate looked around the church, at the stained glass windows and the flowers by the altar. He didn't speak for a few minutes and the priest seemed content with the silence as well.

"I haven't been in here in since high school," Nate trailed off.

"You're always welcome back, Nathaniel. You know that."

Nate shook his head and then looked down at his hands. "No, I don't think I am anymore."

The priest put his hands on Nate's. "God loves and forgives."

Nate looked up, his face as brittle as the leaves that had fallen outside. "Forgiveness requires repentance, Father. I can't be sorry for the things I've done and the people I've killed. Killing them meant bringing my men home alive. The only regret I have was not being able to kill the one who killed my friend. I failed him."

"I'm so sorry," the priest said. "I can only imagine the pain you must be carrying around with you. God will take care of your friend, though. Like he will take care of you."

Brad snorted from his spot behind them. "You may want to double check your intel on that. If this is God taking care of us, I'd hate to see what he does to people who really piss him off."

"Why don't you come to mass tomorrow?" the priest asked. "You're too old to carry the candle for me, but I would love if you did a reading."

Nate shook his head and got up. "Sorry, Father. I'm not the person I was before. I—I should go. My flight leaves soon."

The priest stood up as well. "Very well. Good luck, Nate, and thank you for coming to see me. I hope you find some way to rest the burden you carry. It pains me to see you like this."

Nate shook his head. "Thank you, Father. I hope so too."

~~~

"Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall…"

"Go away," Brad complained as Caroline chanted the nursery rhyme. She'd interrupted his video game to dance around the room. He grabbed the controller back from her.

"No, Brad! It's a riddle," Caroline said, blocking the TV so he couldn't see. "It's not just a rhyme, it's a riddle. You have to figure out what Humpty Dumpty was!"

"Go away!" Brad said again, pushing her aside. She tripped and fell and banged her knee.

Caroline started crying. "You're so mean to me. I hate you!"

The game finished without him, and as his sister sat on the floor and cried, Brad looked at the tears running down her face. For once in her life, Caroline looked genuinely hurt. He bent down and rubbed her knee.

"You're fine, you know," he said, quietly. It was as much of an apology as she was going to get.

Her sniffling slowly subsided. "I just want you to play with me. You never play with me."

Brad rolled his eyes. "Fine. What are we playing?"

"The nursery rhyme. It's a riddle, and you have to figure out what it means."

"But I hate riddles."

"I know, silly. But just cause you can't do them. Mom says we all have to practice at things we can't do well."

~~~

Nate slipped on his leather jacket—the same leather jacket he'd had on the night Brad had died. There was dried blood on the sleeve and smears across the side. He slipped a revolver in the pocket.

Brad looked at Nate, at the bulge in his pocket, and then back down at the manila folder that was overflowing on the kitchen table. Boxes were all packed and ready by the front door.

"What the fuck are you doing?" Brad asked, taking it all in. Rain was battering against the kitchen window.

Nate glanced in his direction and then pulled out his cell phone and dialed a number from the top of his stack of paper.

"Yes, this message is for Mr. Rossi. I thought he would want to know that Andrew Parse, the clerk he has working at the gas station on Interstate 15, has been running his own betting operation on the side, using the money Mr Rossi wanted laundered through the gas station."

Brad stared at him in shock.

"Yes, I have proof," Nate continued, "but I'm not interested in going to the police. I want Parse dealt with. So either you deal with him, or I go to the cops. Simple."

"You're not seriously going to sell out that punk just because some guy came after him and we were in the wrong place at the wrong time?" Brad asked.

Nate closed his cell phone and put that in his pocket as well.

"Nate!" Brad yelled, as Nate ignored him and walked into the living room. "Why are you doing this?"

To his surprise, Nate turned around. "I failed you, Brad. I failed your family. Nothing I can do will bring you back. But I'm not going to let those assholes continue to enjoy their livelihood while you're dead."

"Wait, can you see me?" Brad said, moving back in front of him. Nate's eyes followed him.

Nate's words came out in a whisper. "I see you everywhere, every single day. Sometimes I can almost imagine that you're actually sitting down next to me, sharing my space. But I know you're not there. I know you're not really here with me."

"He's just a kid," Brad said, his heart screaming at him to say something else instead. Something like, I'm sorry. I know. I need you too.

Nate gave him a small smile. "It's not him I want. I want Rossi. The kid who shot you worked for him. The clerk worked for him. Rossi lets his underlings fuck around and he doesn't care, as long as his operation isn't compromised."

"Then give your proof to the police."

"I don't have any." Nate pulled out the revolver to check it was loaded and then put it back in his pocket. "But I will get some justice tonight, one way or another."

"You can't," Brad said, desperate to find some way to stop him.

Nate left the kitchen and returned a moment later with Brad's dog tags. He slipped them over his head, and tucked them under his shirt. "This is all I have," he said, before turning around and going out the door.

~~~

"It's a riddle, Brad. You have to figure out what it means."

~~~

"No, no, no, no, no…" Brad said when he found himself back in the parking lot of the gas station, watching Nate get out of his car. He blinked at the loss of time and then ran after Nate. Nate was going to get himself killed.

But no matter what he shouted, no matter what he said, Nate acted as if he didn't hear him and continued toward the shop.

They called the Marine Corps the suck—but it wasn't. This was.

This fucking impotence of being unable to do anything as someone you'd gladly bleed for went about their life without you, faltering and suffering because you hadn't had the good sense to grab what was in front of you when you could. This emptiness. This helplessness as they strode off on a reckless, stupid mission that you were unable to prevent.

This was the fucking suck.

They made it to the sidewalk, ten feet from the door and Brad couldn't stand it. "Don't do this, Nate."

Nate hesitated, then continued forward.

"Is this because it's me? I don't deserve your sacrifice!"

This time Nate stopped and turned around. "If Christeson had died in my arms, I would want the same justice for him. I was just your temporary keeper. It was my job to get you guys home to the people who loved you."

Nate was about to turn back, when something clicked in Brad's head. What if Christeson had died in Iraq, in the back of Nate's truck. What if it had been Poke, or Lilley or Garza?

Greigo had hated Nate because Nate stuck up for his men. How much had the other officers hated Nate for his reluctance to accomplish their goat-fucked missions thought up because of three generations of fucking inbreading because of the risks it brought to his men?

"What about me?" Brad said. "You only brought me home for my family?"

Nate continued walking toward the door of the mini-mart.

No, Brad thought. He hadn't. He'd showed up at Brad's door to tell him he was leaving, and…well Brad had never got the and part because he'd turned tail and run. He hadn't let Nate finish, because the thought of Nate leaving had burned something horrible inside him and rather than deal with it, he'd turned into a fucking coward.

Brad leaped forward with everything he had. He didn't care what he had to do, he didn't care if Nate thought he was seeing ghosts, he couldn't allow Nate to walk in there and stand in front of Rossi with a loaded weapon.

"I get it," he yelled, reaching for Nate. "I know why you had to leave."

But it was like running through molasses. He couldn't seem to move fast enough, and all he could picture was Nate slipping through his finger. He barely caught up to Nate's shoulder two steps before the automatic door and as his fingers closed around him, Brad dove in one last desperate attempt to catch him.

There was a searing pain in his head, a sensation of ripping through his skin and exposing his soul but when his hand closed against Nate's shoulder, he actually grabbed hold.

Nate's shoulder was real, it was boney and hard, with muscles moving underneath the skin. Brad stared at his hand, extended out in front of him. It looked real and solid, and it was unbelievable. In his other hand was his bike helmet. Nate spun around and looked up at him; mouth opened a little in surprise.

"Brad?"

Brad kept on going. He used his forward momentum to bring himself up into Nate's space, registering the increase in temperature from the proximity, and grabbed the back of Nate's head.

He was no longer a bodiless manifestation of his old self and he wasn't going to spend a second worrying about why, or how it was possible, or what it all meant, because he'd wasted enough time already. He dropped his helmet and wrapped his hands around the sides of Nate's face and brought him forward while taking that last step himself.

Maybe there should have been awkwardness. Maybe there should have been hesitation. But by the time their lips met, the physical touch blocked out everything else.

Brad pushed them back, kept going until Nate was pressed up against the wall and Brad was sure he couldn't get away. Nate's strong hands were digging into the skin on Brad's arms, holding him in place.

Brad buried his face in Nate's neck when they had to breathe, taking in the smell of Nate's leather jacket, the smell of Nate's cologne and shampoo, the smell of rain all around them. He saw the glint of metal just underneath Nate's collar and drew out the dog tags with the tip of his fingers.

They were Nate's.

"What's wrong?" Nate asked.

Taking a quick step back, Brad looked Nate up and down. The hair on Nate's head was almost curly from the rain, longer than it had been earlier when Nate packed the boxes in his living room. But odder still was Nate's leather jacket. It was clean, less tattered, no smears of Brad's blood across the side.

A sound caught his attention off to the right, a quiet cackling that tugged at the corner of his mind. As his eyes tried to find the source, he saw an old blanket blowing across the empty parking lot. It looked exactly like the blanket the old women had been using that night.

"I'm…you're…" Brad started each thought and then abandoned them before the words could fully form.

"I know," Nate said. "We can't do this now. I'm still your platoon commander. But when I'm out…"

"When you're out…"

Nate swallowed. "I know you don't want me to leave, but I have to. For me. For my conscience. And you'll still be bound by the Don't Ask policy, but if you want…if you think it's worth the risk…"

Brad turned back to him with a smile. Maybe everything had been a dream, maybe his death had happened in some parallel universe; either way, it didn't matter. He was alive. Nate was alive. With everything else, they could make do.

Brad was about to lean in for another kiss, determined to gather as much empirical evidence as possible to make sure that Nate really, truly was next to him when something else flashed out of the corner of his eyes.

Blonde hair, an Adidas jacket…

Brad spun around, landing a punch directly across the young punk's cheek. The guy went flying, landing on the sidewalk with a thud. The pistol tucked into his jacket went flying as well, landing in a puddle nearby.

Nate sprung into action, holding the kid down while throwing his cell phone at Brad.

"How the hell did you know he was armed?" Nate asked after Brad had called the cops.

Brad shrugged and looked around once more. There was no more evidence that the three old ladies had ever existed; even the tattered blanket was gone. He looked down at the kid, securely restrained on his stomach with Nate's well placed knee. The irony of it was he saved the kid's life.

He looked back up at Nate and smiled. "I'm good."
~~~

After the police came and arrested the kid, and everyone had made their statements, Nate picked up Brad's helmet off the ground and handed it to him. "Should I follow you back to your place?"

Brad thought about his empty apartment and decided against it, and then he thought about Nate's; about the boxes that wouldn't be packed and the items that wouldn't be out of place. He thought about the clean sheets they had shared without being able to touch them and the only thing he wanted to do was start over again, getting everything right.

"Let's go to the ocean instead," Brad said, slipping the helmet over his head. "I know a nice quiet spot with a beautiful beach. I have a sudden desire to build sand castles."

"I haven't built a sand castle in years," Nate replied.

Brad smiled. "That's okay," he said climbing onto his bike. The rain had finally stopped and the sun was starting to peak out from behind the clouds. It didn't matter that his jeans were soaked right through, or that they were both cold and wet. It was perfect weather for sand castles. "I haven't either. I've been looking for someone to help me. See, I've got this plan in my head…"

~~~

Caroline turned the package over, curious to see who it was from. To her surprise, it was from Brad.

"Happy Birthday, sis," read the card, in his familiar, scratchy handwriting. Wrinkling her eyebrows, she quickly undid the package. It wasn't that Brad never remembered her birthday; it was just that more often than not, she got whatever gift was handy when he was buying.

One year he gave her a wooden duck, another year, a battery charger.

She pulled off the brown paper wrapping and saw a new book of Mother Goose nursery rhymes. Confused, she opened the cover and saw his message:

"I still think Little Boy Blue was a pansy, but I know you like them. I think part of me liked them too."