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The morning of the assassination, Patti Jankowski got up, took a long shower and towel dried her hair before braiding it into two long ropes that hung over her shoulders. She put on jeans, a t-shirt that showed Mickey Mouse saluting the American Flag, a light tan windbreaker and her comfortable blue SAS sneakers. In her shoulder bag she put a Smith and Wesson .22 caliber revolver, and an umbrella. The forecast was for a 62% chance of rain.

Patti had worked her whole life, only taking sick time once, when she had her gall bladder out at 42. She paid her taxes on time for the two-bedroom ranch in Landover, the house having been the better part of a divorce settlement eleven years ago. Al Jankowski had moved to Kannopolis, North Carolina, with a woman who worked for NASCAR. Patti's own job, in the UPS sorting facility in DC, had let her go 14 months ago. She had just one ticket on her record, for parking in a handicapped zone outside the Rite Aid. She'd asked the officer to overlook it. She was, she told him, just so tired.

She had tried twice before, but couldn't get close enough; she didn't trust her accuracy over more than a few yards. The .22 was front-heavy and had a tendency to waver, especially when her arm was all the way extended. The president did so few appearances on the street, there was always a big crowd, but that day Patti was ready to push her way through to the front and get the job done. She wasn't used to letting work go unfinished. She didn't even leave the house in the morning until the breakfast dishes were done.

The President started his day like any other, with a five am 25K run -- in the gym, in deference to both the weather and his agents -- followed by an eight-minute shower. Breakfast was a loaded Western omelet (extra cheese), half a grapefruit, and three cups of black coffee. He stopped in to the residence to tell the kids to have a good day at school, and to change his cufflinks from the ones his wife had picked out the night before back to his favorite pair, a gift from his mother. An aide met him in the hallway with the morning agenda, and another cup of coffee.

At 9:40 am, he sat down for a meeting with Nathaniel Fick (USMC, Captain, Retired), a foreign policy expert who'd been consulting with the State Department. After introductions, Captain Fick requested that the President call him Nate, since, as he said, he'd been a civilian for a few years now. In return the President insisted that Captain Fick call him by name instead of 'sir,' and, at the close of their meeting, that Captain Fick accompany him to the 11 o'clock appearance he had in Georgetown, so that they could continue the conversation.

The motorcade ran ten minutes late, because of unexpected construction due to a water line break on the route. At 11:13 am, the President, his four primary agents, three staffers and Nate exited the cars and approached the building in front of a cordoned off block full of people. Patti Jankowski waited until the President was twelve feet away, pausing to wave at the group, calling out a promise to be back in a little bit, before she drew her gun.

Captain Fick was hit first, in the left shoulder as he threw himself in front of the President. Agent George Ruiz was hit second, in the head. The President was hit third, in the neck even as Captain Fick's body blocked the fourth shot, which passed through his upper right chest and into the President's. At that point, Captain Fick turned and covered the President as they both fell to the sidewalk, Agent Paula Mottola throwing herself down on top of them. White House Aide Tonia Johnson dropped to a crouch, arms spread wide as she screamed for help. MPDC Sergeant Joseph Dominguez and Agent Tyson Boone rushed at Patti, who squeezed off the final two rounds, shattering a window, and White House Aide Jordan Katz's left femur.

Eight seconds passed from first shot to last. When Sergeant Dominguez and Agent Boone grabbed Patti Jankowski, dragging her bodily over the fallen police barrier, she dropped the gun, saying, "I'm done. My work is done."

The President and Agent Ruiz were both pronounced dead at the scene. The Vice President was sworn in at 11:54 am, becoming the United States' first woman president.

The through and through on Nate's right side missed the lung by slightly more than a hairsbreadth; his left shoulder fared slightly worse, the bullet lodging close to the subclavian artery. When a bullet enters the body, it does so at over 500 degrees Fahrenheit; when it stops, it in effect cauterizes its immediate location. Surgeons at Georgetown University Hospital made the decision to not attempt removal, due the site's proximity to the artery and to minimize the already significant nerve damage. While it remained to be seen how much use of his left arm he'd regain, his prognosis was good.

Once stabilized, his family had him transferred to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, near their home. Nate's sister Olivia came down from Connecticut with her two young children, and rented an apartment near the hospital to be closer to her brother's recovery; his sister Catherine visited daily on her way home from work. Nate's estranged wife did not visit after the first time, leaving their daughter in the hands of her former in-laws and returning to her family home in Massachusetts. It had been agreed that to finalize the already in-progress divorce while Nate was still recovering, still in the public eye, would be in poor taste; it had not been agreed that the couple's daughter Madeline would remain with the elder Mr. & Mrs. Fick, but plans were changed.

Nate had a Secret Service detail outside his door in Georgetown, local cops in the hallway at Hopkins, the latter volunteering their service to keep a peaceful perimeter around America's Hero. Press and fans alike tried to get in during the first days, the more persistent having to be forcibly removed. Nate refused all requests for interviews after his initial statement; he wouldn't talk to anyone who wasn't family and had a nurse fired when she tried to ask him what it was like.

On his fourth day at Hopkins he is transferred to sub-acute care to begin rehab. Two weeks later, on the 24th day after the shooting, Nate checks himself out of the hospital, with the help of an unidentified man described only as very tall and very blond. They drive away.

*

Brad doesn't ask any questions, even though there are just about a thousand of them balancing on the razor's edge of his tongue. He keeps them behind his teeth, about why now, why when they hadn't talked in years. He wasn't confused as to why Nate wanted out, that much was easy to see: Nate gravitated toward a spotlight that he didn't much enjoy, there's your bullshit moth metaphor, right there. Some things get to be clichés because they're so fucking true.

They head southwest through Virginia and into Tennessee, the first leg of the trip home. It's nine hours to Knoxville, closer to eight with Brad behind the wheel. In Knoxville Brad gets a motel room while Nate dozes in the car; makes a supply run after Nate's settled into bed. He comes back with a sack of burgers from Krystal, a 12-pack of bottled water, and a disposable, pre-paid cell phone.

Nate manages three of the little burgers before he pukes, stomach torn up from painkillers and whatever bullshit diet they've had him on. Brad holds him through it, holds him over the trashcan and cleans him up afterward. He doesn't ask about Nate's stitches, just unzips Nate's hoodie and checks the dressings for any oozing; they're warm and dry to the touch, like Doc said they should be. The area around each wound is still a sick yellow and purple, even after nearly a month, but Nate just stares at him and doesn't flinch.

He gives Nate a bottle of water, and Nate leans back on the pillows from both beds, watching Brad take care of the garbage in between little sips and sighs that he can't seem to help. Brad washes up, hands Nate another burger.

"Keep this down, and you can have some Percocet," he says, unwrapping another of his own. He balances on the end of the bed, finishes the sandwich in two bites. "How bad do you hurt?"

"Not bad," Nate lies, and Brad rolls his eyes. Now's a great fucking time for the LT to decide to play macho, like this is nothing, happens every day. Brad has never been shot, not for real. He's been creased a couple times, he's taken shrapnel and that was bad enough, pain like he thought didn't exist in this world; he's been sliced up and beat the fuck down, but he's never had anything like this.

Brad stares until Nate's throat ripples, and his eyelids dip.

"Sir," Brad says, and that brings Nate's eyes back open in a hurry. "Sir, if you feel like the best way for you to get through this is to play it like you're the Terminator and you can't feel pain, I can't fucking stop you, although we both know that movie was terribly overrated and as such is far from the best model."

"Fuck you, it's a classic," Nate rasps.

"Fuck you," Brad answers easily, "and so long as you're with me, you're going to eat, you're going to take your meds, and you're not going to fucking lie to me, because I have no problem dumping your pasty Ivy League ass at the next rest stop like a bag of unwanted kittens, and we'll see if in the past ten years you've forgotten everything, or just most of what the Corps ever taught you. Sir."

"It's not bad," Nate repeats, "compared to. What it was. Brad--"

"Save it." Brad pushes at the still-wrapped burger in Nate's hands. "See how that settles, and then I'll get your drugs."

Nate eats slowly this time, his left arm out of the sling and arranged across his abs. "Where'd you get Percocet anyway?" he asks after Brad presents him with two tablets; he puts them in his mouth with his right hand, then picks up the water to chase them down.

"Doc," Brad says once he's made sure Nate's not going to choke.

"Doc knows?" Nate looks a little betrayed, and Brad thinks about saying, shit, everybody knows, you fucking retard, you took two in the chest on CNN, there are little old ladies on mountainsides in Bhutan who know. That's not what Nate means, though, and Brad nods.

"Somebody had to give me a fifteen minute refresher on field first aid," Brad says. "And I'd already figured out that we weren't exactly going to be hitting up the Walgreens on our way out of town."

"Good choice," Nate murmurs, as if there were any other choice. As if Bravo wouldn't step up, even now.

"Nobody else," Brad says. He gets up, stretches, hands slapping the ceiling. "If in your infinite wisdom you change your mind about terrifying your parents and kid into an early grave--"

"Yeah, saw the phone. Thanks." Nate has drawn steel into his voice from somewhere; it reassures Brad in a way that words would not.

"Like I said, if you change your mind." Brad stretches again. "Need a shit and a shower. Get some sleep."

*

Nate has a pretty good night, all things considered. He only wakes screaming once; and once more in a hot sweat, gasping like he's been drowning. Brad gives him cool water, more drugs; the second time he lies on his back next to Nate and lets Nate match up their heartbeats, their breathing, until they both sleep.

In the morning Brad covers Nate's dressings with grocery bags and hundred mile an hour tape, then lurks outside the bathroom door waiting for a crash that doesn't come.

The rental is a new Charger; it handles good, has enough legroom for them both, trunk space for a couple of duffels and a crate of supplies. It's decent on gas too, they ride the whole way to Memphis from Knoxville on a single tank with some to spare. Brad has traveled this route before, on a bike, eating up the flat endless miles without thought for anything but the horizon. Now he breaks up the day with piss breaks, food breaks, stops to check on Nate's bandages while Nate bats at him with his good hand and curses like he never left the Corps.

Brad ducks into a truck stop with a Subway outside of Memphis, and gets sandwiches for chow before they find a place for the night. He pays cash for everything; the only part of this mission that's on his Amex is the car, and he's got it for two weeks, rented in Oceanside, to be returned to Oceanside. If Nate doesn't want to be found, they won't be. Brad will make sure of it.

The front page of USA Today shouts at him as he passes by the front counter, just a couple left on a wire rack with the local paper and the Penny Saver. JANKOWSKI FOUND COMPETENT TO STAND TRIAL. Brad picks it up, skims the piece for Nate's name. He finds it just below the fold, just above the continued on A4.

Has not been seen since leaving hospital. Believed to be recovering at home. Family could not be reached for comment.

"Ain't a library," says the chicken-necked whiskey tango sisterfuck behind the counter. Brad meets his eye until the guy takes a step back, then drops two ones on the plastic mat which informs him he must be 18 to buy tobacco in the state of Tennessee.

"Keep the change," he says, and stuffs the paper in the trash on his way back to the car.

Nate is tilted back in the passenger seat; watch cap pulled low, a pair of drugstore aviators on his nose. An extra sweatshirt is serving as a pillow, and Brad watches Nate sleep for a moment before getting back in the car.

The call had come perfectly timed. Brad had just come in from surfing, wasn't yet in the shower. Caller ID showed a 410 area code, and if you'd asked him to identify it out of context, he couldn't have even come close, but he knew right then what it was. Nate didn't mention the years or the fact that he hadn't spoken to anybody since it happened, although Brad knew for a fact that a lot of the guys had called. Nate didn't try to play him, didn't bring up old times or rank, just said in that new, rougher voice, Can you come get me? I need to go home.

If home had meant anything else, Nate would've called someone else.

Nate wakes when the car jolts on the way out of the truck stop; Brad apologizes and passes over the bag of food.

"Where are we?"

"Just east of Memphis."

"Mm." Nate pulls off his sunglasses and rubs his eyes. "Don't stop yet. You were going to take 40 the whole way?"

Brad nods. "That's the plan."

"Get off on the other side of the river. I don't. I'm tired of the interstate."

"Solid copy, sir." Brad had mapped out the route between Baltimore and Oceanside into neat eight hour chunks of interstate, marking supply stops and sleep stops at appropriate intervals, memorizing the whole thing on his way east. But west is west; he can make do without a map.

They spend the night in a dump near Little Rock. Brad orders pizza to the room and Nate stays silent while Brad takes care of their gear, takes care of the bill; he doesn't say more than please and thanks as they eat.

"Tired?" Brad asks afterward. Nate's face is pale and drawn, and he's staring at the window like he expects it to break.

"I need a shave," Nate says after a moment, scratching at his chin. "I'm going to take care of that."

Brad listens to the water run, the click of the razor on the sink, then nothing, for too long. He thinks about opening the door, just in case, but then the toilet flushes and the water runs again before Nate emerges. He's done a pretty good job, one-handed, but there's still stubble on his lip, in the places where a second hand would've been needed to pull the skin taut.

"You'll be okay if I make a supply run?" Brad zips his boots as he asks, watches Nate rearranging himself on the bed. "Saw a fine Southern grocery emporium up the road. Figure I can supplement the food stamps of some of Person's relatives and get us some shit for the road."

Nate's mouth twitches. "Yeah. I'm fine."

In the Kroger Brad wanders the aisles for more water, more bandages; near the breakfast cereal he finds a kid's bouncy ball that's about the right size for Nate to use to work on his left hand. He leaves the other shit in the car, brings the ball back into the room with a sixer of cold MGD and presents both.

"Fifty reps with this," he says, holding up the ball, "and you can have one of these." He hoists the beer.

Nate blinks. He's got the Weather Channel on with the sound off, his bare feet small and white on the dark bedspread. "Thanks. But no."

The urge to whip the ball straight at Nate's head is strong, but Brad's used to denying his urges where Nate's concerned.

"Fifty." He crosses the room, putting the beer down on the TV stand. Brad takes Nate's left hand and presses the ball into it. "Those sadists in PT at the hospital had to have been making you run at least a hundred, so really, I'm giving you a break."

"I said no."

The ball falls to the floor, and Brad sets his jaw. "Nate."

"Fuck yourself." Nate's own face has hardened, his eyes gone dark. "Don't push me, Brad. I don't fucking need it, not from you."

There's a mike or so where Brad considers going harder, but he grins instead. "Felt good to get pissed off, huh?" He leans over, swipes the ball up off the floor and puts it on the bed.

"No," Nate says, but there's something almost fond in his voice. "Because I can't punch you in the face, no matter how bad I want to."

"Yeah, you can." Brad opens a beer with his shirttail, hands it over to Nate before opening his own and sitting on the end of the bed. "If you want to beat me fucking black and blue, you can. You just have to—"

"Don't." Nate's expression shutters again, and he takes a long drink of his beer. "God, that tastes good. Brad, just. Not right now."

Brad doesn't ask when.

*

Over half a million people walked through the official public viewing of the President's body; double that lined the streets of Washington D.C. as the cortege made its way to Washington National Cathedral. The President hadn't been Episcopal, not that it mattered. The Cathedral was the only place big enough.

Nationwide, fourteen suicides in the month following were conclusively linked to the assassination. Five thousand, four hundred seventy-nine boys were named after the president, and six hundred twenty-three girls.

Maya Lin accepted the commission to design a memorial near the assassination site in Georgetown. The project was scheduled to break ground in October.

Demonstrations, some peaceful, some not, were mounted in support of Patti Jankowski, certain groups hailing her as a hero, a liberator, a freedom fighter. Unauthorized reprints of Patti's American Flag Mickey Mouse t-shirt were sold at a brisk pace on eBay until attorneys from Disney brought suit against five sellers. A related raid on a screen-printing shop in Scranton, Pennsylvania sparked further outrage.

On the day of the state funeral, a riot in Chicago claimed 26 lives.

Commemorative memorabilia could be found everywhere from gas stations (Bic lighters, air fresheners, glossy magazines emblazoned SPECIAL COLLECTOR'S EDITION) to Tiffany (sterling cufflinks modeled after those the President wore on the day of his death). Most of the items were made in China.

In a Wal-Mart in Oklahoma, Brad and Nate stand for a moment in front of a display of plates painted with portraits of the President and inspirational quotes, Brad watching Nate for a reaction that doesn't come. A tired-eyed older woman in a blue employee vest approaches them, and asks if they need help finding anything. Brad tells her no thanks.

"Has anyone ever told you, you look just like that Captain Fick?" she says to Nate.

Nate's smile doesn't reach his eyes. "Yes, ma'am, I hear that a lot."

*

They find themselves in Memphis again, this one in the Texas Panhandle. Everything is red, the brick buildings, the dusty streets. Dorothea Lange took some pictures here once; Brad can't tell if anything's changed in the ensuing 80 years. Nate is carrying the rubber ball, having picked it up without comment off the motel room floor; now he's absently squeezing it as he stares out the window at the blurring plains.

In Memphis, Texas, Nate calls his father on the pre-paid cell phone. He doesn't ask Brad to step out, and Brad doesn't offer. Their room at the Travelodge has a couch, and Nate sits there with the phone held a bit away from his ear, like he wants Brad to listen, maybe, so Brad sits on the end of the bed, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees.

"Where are you, son?" Mr. Fick is opening with calm acceptance, just a hint of parental concern.

"Headed home," Nate says, echoing the tone.

A loud sigh of relief whistles through the receiver. "When will we see you?"

"Not for a while." Nate squeezes the ball in his hand.

"Maddy misses you."

Brad narrows his eyes. Early in the round to start hitting below the belt.

"I miss her, too." Nate's chin is up, his gaze focused on something Brad can't see.

"Nate. Your mother and I feel—"

The involuntary clench of his fist pulls a sharp noise out of Nate, his knuckles going pale on the ball. Brad gets off the bed and closes the two steps to sit beside Nate, puts his fingers on Nate's wrist. The skin is warm and the pulse is too fast.

"I don't need your opinion. I need your support." Nate's using a voice Brad hasn't heard in ten years. "This is not about what you want. This is not about you, or America, or even about my child."

Brad's been out of the Corps for less than a year; he's fucked two men and three women and had zero actual dates since getting his discharge papers in hand. His life has revolved around the water, the road, and modding an old Vaio laptop into a top of the line gaming system for no other reason than he can, and he would drop that freedom in a second if Nate asked. If Nate said, take my kid. If Nate said, take me.

His hand on Nate's wrist slides down, covering Nate's hand, stilling its furious contraction. "Got you," he murmurs, he doesn't care if Nate's dad hears.

"—home, Nate," Mr. Fick is saying. "Your family—"

"I am," Nate answers. The ball hits the floor with a hollow thump, bounces a few times before rolling away. He squeezes Brad's fingers instead. "I'm going home, that's all you need to know."

Nate turns off the phone.

They sit like that for a while. The air conditioning comes on, and then goes off. Nate's thumb brushes over Brad's knuckles, and Brad remembers the breath in before pulling the trigger, the exhale as the body hit the ground, and the endless, blank instant in between. He never counted; he has no idea how many, but that moment is always just a breath away.

"Kelly left me seven—no, I guess now it's eight months ago." Nate looks up into Brad's face, and Brad pulls out of the lean, closes his parted lips as he straightens. He acknowledges Nate's words with a nod.

"I barely noticed. I was sleeping in my office three or four nights a week, working alongside a bottle of Scotch until whatever hour in the morning my brain would finally give out. We used to stay awake for days, Brad."

"Because we had to, sir." Brad doesn't blink, and neither does Nate, but a slow, sad, familiar smile spreads across Nate's mouth.

"I thought I had to. I thought the work mattered." Nate stands, shaky for a second, then steadies himself with his good hand on the wall, his other hand slipping free of Brad's. "Racking out early tonight. You can leave the light on, if you want."

"It's fine," Brad says. Once Nate has settled on the pillows, Brad gets up and flips the switches by the door.

Something wakes him in the rust-colored dawn; Nate is not in the other bed, the bathroom light is on, spilling out of the half-open door. Brad listens and hears a hiss, a low curse; it's enough probable cause for him to get up and check.

Nate's standing at the sink in nothing but the scrub pants he's been sleeping in; about a third of Nate's hair is in the basin, on the counter and on the floor, it's dusted across his bare shoulders and the dark blue fabric of his sling. The rest is sticking up in haphazard clumps, still long in the back; Nate meets Brad's eyes in the mirror and holds up the bandage scissors without a word.

"I have my ka-bar in my pack," Brad says, taking the scissors and standing behind Nate. "Might be easier."

The corner of Nate's mouth twitches.

Brad turns the water on, wets his comb and drags it through what's left of Nate's hair. One-handed and half-assed, it's a mess, but Nate knows that already. Droplets of water fall from Nate's hair to his shoulders, run down his chest as Brad wets the comb again and straightens out the back.

The bandage scissors aren't the sharpest, but they do the job. With each bit of hair that falls, Brad sweeps his fingers over Nate's skin, brushing it away, steadily clipping until Nate's hair is as near an approximation of regulation as Brad can manage with the tools at hand. He puts the scissors down, reaches around Nate to wash his hands, while Nate watches in the mirror, his eyes dark in the fluorescent light.

He smoothes his hands over Nate's shoulders again, careful of the bandages; he runs his cupped palm down the back of Nate's neck, over Nate's head. His fingers trace the line of Nate's collarbone, the wounds so close, so close; he covers them with his hands and lets his forehead rest on the back of Nate's neck.

Nate draws in a deep, shuddering breath.

"I'm sorry," Brad whispers. For what? For everything, for America letting you down, over and over again, for letting you walk away ten years ago, for this, for what I might do and what I never did. "Nate."

"Me too," Nate answers, voice soft and bruised like the skin under his eyes. Brad feels Nate's good hand come up, fingers covering Brad's, and Brad allows himself to press his lips to the top of Nate's spine.

They are quiet and still, breathing finding synchrony. Brad loses time in the rise and fall of Nate's chest under his hands, until Nate finally shifts with a quiet sigh.

"I need to lie down."

"Okay." Brad pulls back, for the first time ever unable to meet Nate's eyes, but Nate's smile pulls his gaze back to the mirror. It's not the big, easy smile that was so rare, even in the beginning, but something like it.

"Okay," Brad repeats, understanding.

He lies beside Nate, and watches him sleep.

*

Brad wakes again a few hours later, his left arm under him so he can't see his watch, but the light has changed, slanting at a sharper angle through the gap in the drapes. His right hand is on Nate's stomach; the fingers of Nate's left hand are wrapped loosely around Brad's.

He's almost back to sleep when a car door slams outside and Nate sits up with a gasp, hitting out blind. Brad parries the blows, gets his arms around Nate and holds him tight, saying his name until Nate finally goes limp, his breath torn to shreds.

"It's okay," Brad says in a stupid, soothing tone. "I got you. Got you."

Nate's head bows, he nods, his breathing starting to settle down. The back of his neck is vulnerable and familiar.

"We should get going," Nate says. He swipes the heel of his hand over his eyes. "Come on, Oscar Mike in ten."

It takes closer to twenty, but it gives Nate a purpose, dressing and packing and insisting on carrying their shit, one one-handed trip at a time, out to the car. Brad doesn't offer to help, he'll just get bitched at; he checks them out and then sits behind the wheel, laying on the horn when he sees Nate coming toward the passenger side.

Nate flips him off as he opens the door, settling in the seat with a badly masked wince. "I'm fine," he says, shooting a glare at Brad as Brad pulls out of the parking lot.

"Lying is beneath you. And you do it badly."

"Fine has variable meanings," Nate snaps back, smiling a little, and when Brad rattles the prescription bottle at him, he takes one.

They get coffee and some half-assed breakfast sandwiches at a roadside institution with the nerve to call itself a deli, roll west for about an hour before Nate makes a gesture to the north. "We could cut through Colorado. Over the Rockies."

They've only been moving about eight, nine hundred klicks a day, as far as Nate can stand it before he starts getting that pinched look around his eyes and mouth. He's taking fewer painkillers but Brad's not fooling himself that it means Nate's in less pain; what poker face Nate once had is in tatters now.

"That'll add significantly to the timeframe of the mission," Brad says, careful and noncommittal.

On the right hand side of the road, a flag at half-mast flaps in the wind. It pisses him off. The national mourning period has been over for days. These fly-over country fucks are the same people who want a flag burning amendment, but they don't even know the goddamn color guard protocol.

"How are we on cash?" Nate asks after another couple klicks.

Brad nods at the road. "We're good."

Nate reaches for the radio, then stops, drops back against the door. His sigh is threaded with something so tired that it makes Brad's teeth hurt. "I'm not ready. As much as I want… I want to be."

A drop of water hits the windshield, then another, then another, before the sky opens like a dam breaking. Brad flips on the headlights and the wipers, pushes his sunglasses up onto his head.

"You're really out?" Nate asks. His voice is dark. "Promise me you're not AWOL, because I would never—"

"I'm really out," Brad interrupts. "I made my 20 seven months ago, and after reviewing all the options, I decided I didn't want to still have people shooting at me when I was fifty. So. I retired."

Nate is nodding when Brad glances over at him, he's working the ball in his left hand, the fingers of his right tapping softly on the armrest. Brad puts his eyes back on the road.

"I would have, though." He's proud that the words come out without too much struggle.

"Would what?"

"When you called." Brad flexes his hands on the wheel. It was easier, in the unreal yellow light of a bathroom at dawn, to make a quiet declaration that he isn't even sure Nate understood. "If I'd had to, I would've gone—"

It's Nate's turn to interrupt. "I know you would have. I know, that's why I was going to say… I'd never forgive myself, if I asked you to make that choice. Before…"

Brad looks over again; both hands are still, the left one clutching the ball tightly. Nate's head is tipped downward, face in shadow.

"I wanted to ask you, before. To choose." It's the kind of thing that should be said in a whisper, but Nate's voice is clear and even. Maybe he understands more than Brad has been giving him credit for.

Brad's drops his hand down to cover Nate's for a moment; he squeezes until he feels Nate's death grip on the ball relax. "It's not before, it's now," Brad says, swiping his thumb over the backs of Nate's knuckles before he returns his hand to the wheel.

At the next sign for a road going north, Brad turns.

*

They stop outside Colorado Springs when the rain doesn't seem to want to quit; Brad picks up a map at a gas station and throws it in Nate's lap. "You want to drive through the Rockies, you plan the route," he says, shaking the water out of his hair and turning the heat on full blast. "So you're aware, sir, if we end up in a fucking Donner party situation, you're the one getting eaten since you're already wounded."

"Donner party was the Sierras," Nate murmurs, unfolding the damp paper. "I need a table or something."

"You have gone completely POG, haven't you? Can't read a map without a table? Next you'll be wanting light."

"Fuck the light. A table, a chair, and a bed," Nate says with a soft noise. "The weather's killing my shoulders, Brad, I'm sorry."

Brad makes a dismissive noise, concentrates on navigating back toward the vacancy sign he saw when they came in. People are driving like they've never seen rain before, either too fast or too slow, and Brad wishes he'd had the foresight to rent something with a little more tonnage. In the end he just goes where he needs to go and lets the brakes squeal and the horns honk around him. "Fucking civilians." He pulls into the Days Inn lot to find Nate almost grinning at him.

He'd missed that, that almost-grin.

The desk clerk looks no more than twenty, one of those bland tanned college co-ed types that he got tired of seeing between his knees years ago. She's flipping through a copy of Time; on its cover is a collage of faces, the late President, the new Madam President, the shooter, the agents. Nate. AFTERMATH, reads the headline. Brad clears his throat, and she looks up, first with a professional smile, then a more personal one, as she unsubtly looks him over.

"Welcome to Days Inn! How may I offer you excellent service today?"

"Room for one night," he says, taking his wallet out. He's tired all of a sudden, but twenty years of habit keep his shoulders high and square.

"Will you be needing a single, double, smoking—"

"One room. One night. One bed, big enough for two. Please," he tacks on after a beat.

The clerk's face falls. "I need your driver's license," she says, bubbles having evaporated from her voice. They transact the rest in silence.

Nate doesn't bitch about Brad doing all the carrying, a sign he's really exhausted, in pain, or both. He pauses a moment inside the door, at the sight of the king bed, then hitches his good shoulder. "Nothing else available?" he ventures, sitting heavily in the chair by the window.

"I didn't feel up to a verbal waltz with the mental defective masquerading as a desk clerk. This was the most expedient course." Brad slings their bags onto the other chair, skims off his wet jacket and shirt and drops to his knees in front of Nate.

"Whoa." Nate's hand comes down on Brad's hair. "What—"

"Don't get excited," Brad says, letting his bowed head hide the way his face goes soft at the touch. He tugs at Nate's wet shoelaces, picking the knots out with careful fingers.

"I can do it." Nate's touch withdraws, and his voice turns sour. "I don't need you to baby me."

"Shut up." Brad glances up, shakes his head. "Maybe what you need and what you think you need are not in fact congruent." He pulls off Nate's sneakers, one after the other, gets up and puts them with his own on the vent inside the door.

Nate looks stubborn and annoyed, and Brad comes very close to smiling.

"Nap. Then chow." He motions toward the bed.

"What about the route?" Nate unzips his hoodie, maneuvers himself out of it with short, careful movements. "Slow death by cannibalism, should I fail, remember?"

"The mountains aren't going anywhere," Brad says, crossing back to Nate and helping him to his feet. That puts the mulish expression back on Nate's face, and it wars with something else when Brad peels him down to his undershirt and boxer briefs. Nate keeps looking away; Brad keeps his eyes on his task.

The tape is loose on the pads covering Nate's wounds; Brad gently pulls it off, murmurs apologies at Nate's hiss of pain. The sites are healing well, scabbed over and healthy pink around the edges. He checks each one for heat or oozing, finds none, and gives Nate a little push.

"It's warm, and it's dry," he says, kicking off his own jeans and turning the bedspread back. "We're going to rest while we can."

Nate looks like he's going to say something, but in the end he settles beside Brad, on his back, his arms arranged across his stomach. After few minutes of restless shifting Nate stills, turned a little on his right side, his breathing coming even and deep.

Brad edges closer, close as he dares, and closes his eyes.

It's full dark when he wakes again, the sound of the rain on the roof still a steady, lulling beat. Nate's awake too, looking at Brad with sleepy eyes.

"Hey," Nate says.

"Hey," Brad echoes. They're closer now than when Brad dozed off. Nate's shirt is off; he's got pillows propping him up, and a slightly unfocused expression on his face. "Did you take something for your shoulders?"

"Yeah." Nate gives him a shallow nod. "You were out cold. I watched a little TV."

"How'd that go?"

"Not great." Nate looks away.

Brad's not sure of what's right here, if he should push or let go. He's not sure he's been choosing the right roads. "What'd you see?" he asks, putting his hand between them, not quite touching Nate's chest.

"Nothing, it was just. Too much." Nate's throat ripples in the shadows, and he puts his cheek down on the pillow.

"What was too much?" Brad swallows too, inching forward. "You can talk to me," he says. "There's nobody here but you and me."

Nate blinks slowly. "They sent a shrink. After I woke up. She was so young, so… average. And she kept asking me that, what did you see, she kept telling me, you can talk to me, but honestly, how? How was she ever going to understand?"

Brad shakes his head, his hair making a rough sound on the pillow. She wouldn't, of course not, and maybe not even a military shrink would, either. Only somebody who's seen death and violence, not just seen it but handed it out himself.

"Remember the bridge?" Nate whispers. There's no need to qualify, Brad knows exactly which bridge, when and where.

"It was like that?" Brad presses. "Is that why you—"

"You kissed me," Nate interrupts, and Brad's brain stutters, like shifting uphill with a slippery clutch.

"I did not." He's still thinking of Muwaffaqiyah. How fucking close it was for Nate, for all of them.

Nate's teeth scrape his lip. "This morning, after you cut my hair."

If Brad were the blushing kind, maybe he'd be red right now, but maybe it's dark and nobody could tell anyway. He tilts his head slightly. "I thought we were talking about the bridge."

"No."

"We were definitely talking about the shooting." It's the first time he's said the word.

"No," Nate says, a touch of anger in it. He tips himself forward, brushes his mouth over Brad's. "No," he says again, soft, against Brad's lips.

Brad does not spend much time kissing. Whores' wisdom is gold: it's too intimate, too open, too much like love. Animals don't kiss; they just use their cocks and cunts the way that nature intended, a transaction without emotion. Kissing makes it too easy to believe that it means something.

Nate's lips are a little chapped; his tongue is slick and slow. Brad leans up into it, curving his hand around the back of Nate's neck, pulling them together. Hip to hip at first, then gravity takes over and Nate settles on top of Brad, their noses and chins bumping for a moment while they seek out the right angle.

It goes on like that, one deep, lazy kiss after another, like riding a curl that keeps reforming, letting you catch it again and again. They're hard against each other but Brad keeps still, one hand cupping Nate's head, the other resting carefully at the small of his back.

"Can't," Nate breathes all of a sudden, pulling his mouth from Brad's, and Brad feels everything go cold even as Nate's still smearing kisses across his jaw. "Can't hold myself up any more," he finishes, sliding off Brad with a wince.

"Oh." Oh. Brad swallows, rolls and follows Nate down, fitting himself between Nate's thighs. They both hiss, Nate's teeth scraping over Brad's throat, his good hand grabbing at Brad's ass.

"Brad." Nate bites, just below the ear. "C'mon."

There's so much that Brad wants. He kisses Nate, hard, pushes his hand between them to work down their shorts. Nate tries to help, his grunts and breathless sounds making Brad want to scream as they fumble together; it's not enough, not even close to enough. Finally their hips come back together, hot skin on skin, and Brad bows his head and moans, his lips grazing over the scab on Nate's shoulder.

Nate jerks under him, grabs at Brad's hair. "Don't," he warns.

Brad rolls his hips, lets their dicks get acquainted in the sweaty space between them, and Nate's grip relaxes. "Don't what?" Brad whispers.

"Shut up," Nate says. "Don't stop."

An argument could be made about those orders being contradictory, but Brad stops feeling playful when Nate squeezes his ass again, when Nate lets his legs fall open just a little bit more. They rock together in steady time, kisses deep and fierce, and it goes on like the making out did, time stretching out and unspooling into something that feels like forever. Brad's too close to forty to get off like this, but after a while he's too close to think too hard about it: it's just sweat and precome and willing surrender.

When he comes, Nate makes a noise like Brad's never heard before, low and pained and perfect. Brad's body goes tight at the sound; he feels Nate's come hot against his belly, listens to Nate pant and sob. He brings his fist down hard on the mattress, holding back his own noise until he hears Nate say his name again, and he gasps Nate's back in reply as he falls apart.

This is where some people would say I love you, Brad thinks, easing off Nate with a kiss, settling sticky by his side.

"Shower?" Nate says after bit, after he spends some time tracing up and down Brad's back with his fingertips. His voice is rough and muzzy and happy. Brad turns his head and smiles.

"In a minute," he promises.

"Now, or you'll fall asleep again." Nate touches his cheek. "Come on. Please?"

For years Brad has had a running list in his head of things that he'd do if Nate Fick said please; getting out of a comfortable bed for a shared shower is hardly the worst. He grumbles anyway. Nate's relaxed and pliable under the water; the washing up is brief and businesslike, and they make out in the warm spray until it starts to run cold.

They go back to bed without eating, although Brad's stomach growls once, he ignores it. Nate settles on his back and Brad crowds in beside him, a protective arm across his middle. "Wake me in a little while," he says to Nate's collarbone. Nate makes a soft noise, which might be agreement, but means little: they both sleep til morning.

*

Nate is grouchy and quiet on the way to breakfast; he keeps his beanie pulled low, won't make eye contact with the waitress. Brad rubs his forehead and orders the same for them both, eggs, toast, black coffee.

"We could have gotten this to go," Nate says after the woman leaves the table. "It's too—"

"What?" Brad glances around. There are cowboy hats and gimme caps on the men, teased bangs and banana clips on the women; it's 2013 and whiskey tango diners in East Jesus, Colorado never change, perpetually trapped in a nightmare of redneck mediocrity. "I understand that you're used to establishments with a few more Michelin stars than the negative six this place has likely been awarded, but that's why I ordered the eggs scrambled – to lower the likelihood that we'll both die of salmonella somewhere up Route 24."

"I don't give a shit about the eggs." Nate needs to shave again, burnished stubble coating the sharp angles of his jaw. Brad bites his tongue.

"Then what?"

The waitress returns, thumps their coffee down on the table along with an unnecessary dish of creamer cups.

"Thanks," Brad says, since it's clear Nate isn't going to say anything. She purses tired lips and nods before walking away.

It's not about the night before, and if it is, Brad isn't sure he really wants to know about it. But he doesn't think so; Nate was up before him again, dressed and sitting in the chair with untied sneakers on his feet. He'd offered a kiss and Brad had shied; he just isn't the good morning hello kiss kind, never has been. He got down on one knee and tied Nate's shoes instead.

"Are you pissed about this morning?" Brad asks, his tone more testy than he wanted it to be, leaning forward and wrapping his hands around his coffee cup. The worse the diner, the better the coffee; it's a law of nature; it's the American way. He takes a long sip, watching Nate over the rim of the cup.

"No, what? No." Nate blinks at him, hunching in a way that has to hurt his shoulders. "It's not about… that. That's. Okay."

"That's a fucking ringing endorsement, thanks." Brad sits up straight, spotting the waitress returning with two plates. Nate looks away from her again, and she doesn't bother trying to hide her muttered 'jerks' as she walks away.

"What?" Brad demands, because really, this is fucking annoying.

"Laura! Turn it up!"

Laura is the grandmotherly woman at the counter, wearing a hairnet and a sweatshirt with kittens on it – and it is the television mounted above her head, screen flickering with CNN's morning edition.

"Shit."

Nate is up and out the door faster than Brad realized he could move, under the circumstances; he drops a twenty on the table, grabs one more swallow of coffee and hurries after.

They collide in the parking lot, Nate caught in the act of turning back toward the diner, like he was trying to make himself go back inside but couldn't quite do it. Brad gathers Nate to him, fuck the staring rednecks and the slowing traffic, fuck them all. A feeble fist lands on Brad's shoulder, then again and again, Nate fighting against someone who isn't there.

"Can't," Nate is mumbling, folding against Brad's chest. "Can't do it, she. I can't go back, Brad, I can't."

"Okay." Brad holds the back of Nate's head, holds him upright with his own body. "Okay, I know."

"There were twenty-four people in there." Nate pulls back, away, stumbling a little. He gathers his bad arm to his chest, shaking his head. "It was okay, when I went into the store with you? We kept moving. We didn't. I was okay, but."

We kept moving. We didn't present a target. Remember the bridge? Brad nods, digs the car keys out of his pocket. "Let's shove off," he says, taking a deep breath. "We can still make the Mickey D's drive-through for breakfast."

The look that Nate gives him is wary and grateful, like a stray dog responding to its first kindness.

"Come on," Brad says again, and heads toward the car. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Nate turn to follow.

*

It's three and a half hours to Aspen, and Nate sleeps the whole way; Brad thinks about waking him, since he's the one who wanted to take this detour in the first place, but he knows that the change of plan had nothing to do with sightseeing. Nate's nerves are frayed enough; disturbing him when he's actually sleeping sound would be a stupid thing to do. Having the luxury of picking his own battles is still new to him.

Instead he takes advantage of Nate's unconsciousness to finally change the Sirius radio from the god awful putatively "classic" hip-hop that Nate chose to something a little less brain damaging. On the 70s station Roberta Flack is asking where is the love, and Nate sleeps on through the twists and turns of Route 82, the midday sun shining gently on his face.

Brad's not much of a skier and the few times he went as a teenager, with Jessi's family, had been to Jackson Hole. Aspen is an unknown quantity, but seven months retirement hasn't quite reduced his skills to JROTC level; he drives a grid until he finds what he wants, marks it, and then returns to the staging area, in this case a parking space shaded by some pines, outside a restaurant that isn't quite as yuppie hippie sculptured fucking fusion cuisine as the rest. California shows up in the weirdest goddamn places.

He puts his window down a little bit before he kills the engine, and Nate wakes on cue, blinking and yawning.

"Where're we?" Nate asks, fumbling for the bottle of water in the console. Brad resists the urge to brush nonexistent hair from his cheek, which has a little jagged mark from where it'd pressed against the zipper of his hoodie.

"Aspen," Brad says. "You missed about half the Rockies."

Nate takes sips of water with careful, compact motions. "I didn't dream," he says, his face a little lighter than it's been. "It was good."

Brad allows himself the indulgence then, to touch that little red place on Nate's cheek with the back of his hand. Nate's eyelashes dip, his mouth curves at the corners. "That's good too," Nate adds.

"Good," Brad echoes. He opens his own water bottle and takes a long swig, uses it to gesture at the restaurant. "We're going to eat here."

All the soft, relaxed warmth disappears, Nate's face returning to sharp angles and weary lines. "I can't."

"It's the end of the season. There are only three people in there, which you can easily see for yourself from the giant fucking windows. That guy in the cap, nursing his coffee? Looks exactly like my Uncle Arthur. It might even be my Uncle Arthur. And those two pear-shaped townie girls are going to go back to their meaningless little townie jobs soon, so it'll just be us, the staff, and possibly my father's sister's late husband." Brad sits back in his seat, and points at the restaurant again. "Oorah?"

Nate's breaths are coming quick and shallow. Beads of sweat spring up on his forehead, and it's not like Brad doesn't have fucking sympathy, but this can't go on, not if Nate's ever going to unfuck himself to a point where he can live again.

"We could get a room instead," Nate offers, and he's probably going for husky and sexy but his voice just sounds terrified.

Brad does have sympathy. There are nights when he still wakes up sure he's back on that one trip to Afghanistan, that goat-fuck of a mission that made OIF look surgically precise. He also knows it's not quite the same.

"A maximum of eight civilians, sir." He puts the water bottle back in the cup holder. "No more than forty minutes."

"She was a civilian," Nate says, then stops with a look of shock, like he just admitted something truly reprehensible.

"You know the ROE as well as I do. You stop being a civilian the minute you point a gun." Brad holds Nate's eyes, unwilling to lose this.

"It wasn't war," Nate says. He's starting to shake.

For some people, it's always war, Brad thinks. He puts his hand out, and Nate grabs it, hard.

"We're going in there," Brad says, squeezing back. "You and me. I got your six."

"I know." The words come out like a wisp of smoke. "But what if it comes from my twelve?"

Brad leans forward, kisses Nate's forehead. "I got that too. Come on."

The waitress has a hot little body and a bunch of metal shit in her baby face, too much eyeliner and purple lipstick. Her nametag reads "Dana." Brad feels a rant about kids these days bubbling in the back of his throat; he glances at Nate to share his eyeroll, and finds Nate staring at the old man and his coffee. Closer recon shows his cap has a battleship on it, and the name USS Tennessee BB-43. The two girls from the front table get up and leave, calling out bye and thanks.

"You can sit anywhere," Dana the waitress is saying, gesturing wide with two menus and rolls of silverware in her hand. "Slow day."

"Nate?" Brad prompts.

Nate looks away from the old man, refocusing with a visible effort. "Um. Table? There?" He swallows and nods at an easily defensible position halfway back. It's got good sightlines, and it's near the side door if Nate needs to evac in a hurry.

"Great." The girl smiles at Nate, and more metal flashes between her teeth. "Right this way."

Brad pulls out a chair and moves it so that its back is to the wall; Nate gives him a sideways look and sits in it. Brad moves the other chair so he's perpendicular to Nate, so that their elbows brush. Dana smiles again.

"Where you guys from?" she asks, putting down the menus and the silverware. Brad murmurs thanks.

"California," Nate says after a pause. He's still got a minute tremor in his shoulders, but he's looking a little less wrecked.

"San Francisco?" the girl suggests blithely, and Brad can't hold back a snort. Nate's cheeks flare red.

"San Diego," he corrects, and there's the smile, genuine 100 watt Fick. Brad grins too.

"Can we get a couple of—" Brad flips the menu over. The beer selection is abysmal. "—Buds, and water, too?"

"Sure," she says, and smiles at Nate again before swaying away to the counter.

"That was not subtle," Nate says, looking at the placemat. Brad would bet all the considerable amount of cash he's carrying that his ears are burning under his beanie.

"Nobody with that much stainless steel in their face is interested in subtlety," Brad points out. He glances at the menu, sees that they have burgers and puts it back down. "If you feel like you're going to—"

"I'll tell you." Nate looks up, eyes wide and serious. "Right now… it's okay."

Dana returns with their drinks; Brad orders his burger and fries, and that makes Nate smile again, commenting that nothing ever changes before ordering the same, only with cheddar instead of Swiss.

It's almost like they're just friends – more than friends – having a lunch on vacation, that this is normal and not actually the most fucked up thing they've ever done together. There isn't a trial, looming inevitably on the horizon, and Nate isn't going to have to testify at it. There isn't a kid back in Baltimore that misses her daddy, nobody ever shot the president and Brad could lean right across this table, right now, and kiss this guy, here in broad daylight. They eat, they talk about the music that's playing, and Dana flirts with Nate with no apparent idea of who he is.

Brad sits back in his chair, orders another beer, and comes very close to relaxing.

"Another refill, Carlton?" Dana stands by the old gent with the coffee pot in hand, and he shakes his head.

"That'll do me," he says, the first time Brad's heard him speak. Nate looks over too, and Brad can guess that Nate's seeing what he's seeing. If he served on the Tennessee he's got to be at least 90; when he rises he takes a bill off a clip and drops it on the table, then takes his cane off the back of his chair. "Many thanks."

Brad isn't surprised when the man crosses to their table, and from the look of it, Nate isn't either. Nate stands and pulls off his cap; Brad follows him up, hand on his back to steady him.

"Captain Fick?" The man, Carlton, asks, apparently seeing nothing odd in finding Nate in a café in the middle of the Rockies. His skin is a mass of wrinkles and age spots, his eyebrows bushy and white. The eyes underneath are brown, clear and shrewd.

"Yessir," Nate acknowledges. He offers his hand, and the man gives it a firm shake.

"Good to meet you, Captain. Chief Petty Officer Carlton Heinz." He offers his hand to Brad also, and Brad's perversely pleased at how strong the man's grip is.

"This is Master Sergeant Brad Colbert," Nate says in a soft voice. "We were in Iraq together."

"Pleased to make your acquaintance, Sergeant. Oh, you know, I was twenty when we went out into the Pacific." Chief Heinz smiles. His teeth are straight and tobacco stained. "By the time the war was over, I'd pretty much got used to the sound of the shelling, and I was ruined for any other kind of life." He changes hands on his cane, and shifts his weight. "Now I've been retired almost as long as I was in, but I still hear that shelling sometimes."

"Would you like to sit?" Nate offers.

"No, no, I don't mean to keep you." Chief Heinz waves his free hand. "I expect you've got a whole lot of folks wanting to talk to you."

Nate's Adam's apple bobs in the corner of Brad's vision. "To be perfectly honest, Chief, I don't know. I've been trying to avoid the spotlight."

The admission amazes Brad, coming as it does to a perfect stranger, but it doesn't seem to faze the Chief, who nods. "You did what you could, Captain." His voice cracks a little. "You did what any of us would have done."

Nate nods back, his jaw set. Brad can feel Nate's heart pounding under his palm.

"You have my thanks," the Chief says, his eyes growing bright, "and the thanks of a grateful nation."

Maybe it's no that Nate sighs when the old man brings his hand up to his brow, but maybe it's just oh. They both return the salute, Nate's with a trace of a tremor in his hand.

Chief Heinz turns, not quite parade standard but damn close, and Brad feels Nate starting to shake in earnest.

"I need—" Nate whispers, and Brad's at a loss all of a sudden, unable to anticipate the next move. It makes him furious.

"What?" he asks, fist bunching in the back of Nate's sweatshirt before he catches himself, and flattens his hand in the middle of Nate's spine. "What can I do?"

"Let me go," Nate says, and Brad drops his hand, takes a step back. "Just. I'm going to go sit. In the car."

Brad passes him the keys, not trusting himself to answer, not to bare his teeth and snap at this irrational hurt. Nate puts the keys in his pocket, and walks away,

He sits down, and finishes his beer. He pays the check, and apologizes to Dana that his friend isn't feeling well, yes, the burgers were excellent, no, Mr. Heinz was no bother. He goes into the bathroom and takes a long piss, washes his hands and his face and doesn't look at himself in the mirror any more than necessary.

When he comes back out, Dana's got Nate's beanie in her hand, it must have fallen to the floor and neither of them noticed. Brad thanks her again; she grins and says tell his friend she gets off at six, and Brad laughs out loud in spite of himself.

"Will do," he promises.

Nate's eyes are red when Brad gets in the car, still damp at the edges of his thousand-yard stare. He doesn't react at first, and Brad bites back the stupid question he's been asking for days now. Are you okay. What a fucking useless phrase.

He puts the cap down on the console, the DMZ between them, and Nate looks at it, then back up at Brad.

"Dana, she of the glorious jailbait ass, gravity defying tits and inability to pass through a metal detector--"

Nate snorts a little chuckle.

"--wishes you to be informed that at she will be off duty at eighteen hundred and at that time, should you wish to perform depraved acts upon her person, she will be extremely... flexible. In accommodating you." He dares a sideways smile. "And she still has no fucking idea who you are."

Nate returns the smile, but his eyes are still focused on the middle distance. "Not sure I do, either."

"That's bullshit," Brad says. It comes out fond and tired, not the moto snap he'd intended.

"Do you?" Nate's giving him that look, that late night by the road in Iraq look. "Do you know who you are?

The question isn't the one he'd expected, or at least, the pronoun isn't the one he'd expected, but either way he has an answer. "I'm a Marine," Brad answers. "Just like you."

*

About an hour later they spill out of the mountains into a valley town that trickles downhill toward the I70. When the blue signs start appearing, Brad looks to Nate, who's been quiet but alert as they twisted and turned the last sixty klicks. The radio has stayed off.

"Short way or long way?" Brad asks. It's not even dark yet, they could push on halfway across Utah before quitting for the night, but he's just the driver. He takes the orders, he doesn't make them.

Nate pulls out the Colorado map, folds and refolds it until he seems satisfied that he's got the AO laid out, his finger tracing a line that Brad can't see.

"Moab," he says. "Seventy west, til you see the sign for Moab, then south. We'll stop there."

"You thinking of getting some off-roading in?" Brad reaches for his water, dares to brush the back of his hand over Nate's knee.

"It's a good stopping point. We'll bunk in Moab, drop down to Flagstaff tomorrow, then the next day, Phoenix and 10 all the way home." Nate isn't looking at him, but he resettles in his seat; something about the movement makes it feel to Brad like they're closer.

"Roger that, sir." Brad marks the on-ramp. There's not much traffic, so he puts his foot down and lets the Charger move. Their route's been nice and scenic, but there's a lot to be said for a straight road and a big engine.

"I don't want to go through Vegas," Nate says after a moment. "And I don't want to go through the Mojave. I know cutting down through Arizona is longer."

"There's nothing wrong with the route." Brad looks to his right, trying to get a read on where Nate is. "How're your shoulders? You haven't had any meds since breakfast."

"I miss my kid." It's far from the answer Brad expected, and there's a catch in Nate's voice as he continues. "I'm… grateful. To my parents. And they can protect her from the fucking chaos."

"But." Brad breathes in and out. He sets the cruise control at 82, then touches the brake and turns it off. He flexes his hands on the wheel.

"But I'd rather have her with me."

This time when Brad looks over, Nate's looking back at him. "I understand," Brad says.

"I know it's a lot to ask, considering, but—"

"I get it, you need to go where you need to go," Brad interrupts. He frowns at the road. "Your kid should come first. I understand."

"I'm asking you for help," Nate says. "You fucking retard." Nate's weak left hand lands on Brad's arm, fist closed.

"Was that… was that a punch?" Brad stares, swallowing the rest of the wash of emotion. "Because what I saw was the most limp-wristed pussy faggot attempt at violence since that time Person got in a catfight with a fucking Laker girl."

"Fuck you," Nate says, hitting Brad again, a little harder this time, but the effort shows on his face. "Brad."

Brad takes his hand, gives the fingers a squeeze. "You're serious." He looks back to the road, the white lines and the blue sky flying by.

"Sooner or later, whether or not I want to go back will cease to be an issue." Nate's voice drops, shaking a little. "They'll fuck around for a while longer, probably months, maybe even years, but I'm going to have to. And I'm going to need. Help."

Ten years where Nate didn't call, where the emails tapered off and finally stopped altogether. Nate graduated, Nate got married to some Back Bay princess, Nate wrote a book that barely mentioned Brad at all. Nate moved on.

And Nate somehow knows, when Brad meets his eyes again, and he shakes his head. "I tried. But I missed you every fucking day," he husks.

Brad bites down on the inside of his cheek. He's thirty-nine years old, he's a man, he's a Marine. He's not going to break down like some screaming teenage girl, pissing herself and crying at the latest Disney Channel dicksuck's concert.

"You too," he says.

Nate leans back in his seat, his whole body going slack. "Wake me when we hit Utah," he says, and closes his eyes.

*

There's a Mexican restaurant across the road from the motel in Moab; in line ahead of them is an older Native woman, with her hair in two long gray braids. Nate starts to shiver before they even make it up to the hostess stand, grabbing at Brad's sleeve and shaking his head. Brad puts his arm around Nate, whispering stupid bullshit and holding him close while the hostess walks away to take the woman to her table. People are looking, and Brad looks back, unblinking, until they blanch and turn away.

"Can't stay," Nate grits out. "Please?"

Brad doesn't bother with apologies; they order takeout to the room instead and Nate calms in increments, eating with slow, methodical movements, not speaking until he announces his need for a shower.

For a moment Brad entertains the idea of joining him, but something in Nate's eyes tells him not to try it; there's a time for fucking around and now isn't it. He digs his phone out of his pack instead, turning it on and wincing at the number of voicemails he has.

He deletes most of them unheard; he sends a text to Doc (Got him. Owe you. Thanks.) and another to Poke (On mission. Sitrep soon. Tell Person to stop fucking calling me.), saves Mike Wynn's to deal with later. Then there's one from the 410 area code, time stamped the morning after Nate called his parents. Fuck. Brad touches the screen, and brings the phone up to his ear.

Sergeant Colbert, this is Stephen Fick. I'm Nate Fick's father. I understand that you and my son served together in Iraq, and… I understand he may have contacted you. It is imperative that my son return home immediately, so if you have any information regarding his location or intentions, please, call me any time, day or night.

The man sounds exhausted, gone past anger and into fear. Brad thumbs over the message, erasing it, and turns off his phone again.

When Nate comes out of the bathroom he crawls into bed alongside Brad, pushing his face into Brad's shoulder for a minute before resting his head on Brad's chest. Brad's stomach flips and tightens; he strokes over Nate's side, the skin there warm and still damp from the shower.

"Tell me about her," he says, smoothing his palm up and down Nate's hip. "Tell me about Maddy."

He feels Nate's lips curve. "She's terrifying. She's smarter than me already."

"Of course she is," Brad answers. He gives Nate's hip a squeeze. "You're a fucking retard. She's three?"

"Three and a half. She's blonde, like Kelly, and my sister Cat? Pin straight hair. My eyes. She's all… baby fat, she's got dimples, I don't know where they came from."

"That's good." Brad brushes his lips over the top of Nate's head.

"And she's such a little bitch." Nate laughs, a half-strangled sound. "Not spoiled, she's just. Matter of fact. You tell her no, she doesn't throw a fit, she doesn't pout, she looks you in the eye and says, 'Daddy, I'm mad at you.'"

That surprises a laugh out of Brad; he can picture it, somehow, Nate's huge serious eyes looking out of a small, heart-shaped face. That frank tone in a little girl voice.

"Kelly can't handle her," Nate goes on. He shakes his head, stubble scraping at Brad's shoulder. "The baby's so stubborn, so… so much her own person. And Kelly expects her to be a little fucking debutante like she was, white dresses and tagging along to Mommy's Junior League meeting. Maddy'd rather play in the dirt. You can't keep shoes or socks on her, and she's always. Pulling the heads off her dolls, and."

Brad's chest under Nate's cheek grows wet.

"Well," Brad says, rubbing Nate's back. "I think she and I are gonna get along just fine."

Nate huffs again, then rolls away to lie looking up at the ceiling. "I hate sleeping on my back, but it kills my shoulder to stay on my side very long. And since I got tagged on both sides—"

"I won't take the lack of cuddling personally, sir, I promise." Brad turns onto his stomach, propping himself up on his elbows and watching Nate's face. It's warm in the room, and Nate is unselfconsciously naked, sprawled out like he doesn't have a care.

"Kel's not a bad person," Nate says after a bit. "She's just not the right person." An incongruous smile spreads across his lips. "Mike – Gunny – calls her the Ice Queen."

Brad blinks. "Why do I get the feeling that's that brain damaged hillbilly dicksuck Texan's idea of a joke?"

"Guess I have a type."

"Your type thinks you should get some sleep while he gets in a shit, shower and shave," Brad grumps, pushing himself up off the bed. "Fucking Christ, I really agreed to this?"

"The in-laws are gonna love you!" Nate calls after him. Brad flips him off and slams the bathroom door.

It's a bad night, Nate wakes up yelling twice and manages to give Brad a nosebleed with a blind headbutt during round two. Someone pounds on the wall and shouts Shut the fuck up, some people are trying to fucking sleep. Brad puts a cold washcloth on his nose, another one on the back of Nate's neck, and they sit side by side on the end of the bed until Nate's breathing finally comes even and Brad's face stops bleeding.

He cuts Nate off when he tries to apologize, just fires the stained washcloth at the garbage. It catches on the rim, and then slithers into the can with a plop.

"We've survived worse," Brad says.

They lie together through the rest of the night, Nate dozing propped up on all the pillows, Brad curled protectively around him, listening to the traffic and watching the light change outside the drapes. His nose has subsided to a dull throb.

"You're still here," Nate says in a drowsy voice, at around zero six hundred. There are birds chirping, car doors slamming. "I wasn't sure."

I won't leave unless you make me, Brad thinks. "Where would I go?" He skims his fingers over Nate's belly.

"It doesn't seem fair," Nate sighs. "To lose everything. And then get everything I ever wanted."

Over the years Brad has resolutely not examined his feelings, not for Nate, not for much of anything. He operates at maximum when he's focused, or when he's not thinking at all. For some reason, he had expected that Nate worked the same way.

"I think you're still asleep," he says, rubbing with a little more purpose. "Because you're talking bullshit."

"I just kept trying to do the right thing." Nate licks his lips, his eyelids fluttering. "Trying not to be selfish."

Brad swallows; his mouth is dry and tastes of last night's toothpaste mixed with sour old blood from his nose. He leans over and kisses Nate anyway, insisting, and Nate sighs again, opens for Brad's tongue, his hand sliding up Brad's back. Neither of them are inarticulate men, neither of them have trouble expressing their thoughts, but they went for ten goddamn years without speaking to each other: maybe this is the best way.

Nate cups the back of Brad's head, lightly holding, not pushing at all, but Brad chooses to misinterpret, to reinterpret, and starts mouthing his way down. Neck, collarbone, those he mapped the other night. He reviews the area in brief before exploring further. Chest, nipples, ribs; Nate's lost weight since the shooting, Brad can tell, even not having seen him in person since long before. Salty with morning sweat, faint base taste of soap. Brad scrapes his teeth over Nate's hipbone, adds the resultant quiet gasp to the map.

"It's not a mission," Nate growls, and now he's pushing, threading his fingers in Brad's hair. "You don't have to cover every—ohfuck."

Every inch. Every angle. Brad wants to know the taste of every single part of Nate, but the weight of his hand, the rasp of his voice, makes something in Brad's gut uncoil. He hasn't gone down on men often but he's done it enough to know he likes it, that he's good at it the way he's good at everything he chooses to do.

And Nate doesn't even bother trying to be considerate or gentle, Nate tightens his grip on Brad's hair and rocks his dick over Brad's tongue, breathing like a swimmer on every other stroke. Brad loves it, loves the fierceness that this brings out in Nate, that Nate is holding him and using him and it feels right.

Nate makes that sound again when he comes, spilling hot over Brad's lips, his body jerking and bowing. It's the sound of a punch you've been bracing for, even though you know it's coming it still tears the breath from your lungs in a cry you can't quite keep in.

Brad drops his forehead to Nate's belly, gives the soft skin of his side a bite. Nate hisses, yanks on Brad's hair; he can't haul Brad up to him by force but Brad wouldn't resist anyway. The kiss is dirty and a little mean, the same way Nate fucked his mouth, and Brad shoves his cock against Nate's sweaty hip, wanting more but too close to coming to even consider stopping.

"Yeah," Nate says against his mouth, between bites and kisses. "Fuck. Yes."

"I can't—" Brad starts to say, I can't fuck you, I can't and I want to, I can't stop, I can't wait. He buries his face in the pillow past Nate's shoulder, something like a scream tearing out of his gut as he comes. Nate's body wrenches against his, and Brad shudders in response, knowing he's holding Nate too tight and not quite able to let go.

"Jesus," Nate breathes.

Brad's heart is pounding so hard he feels like he's hearing mortar fire. "Fuck."

"Fuck," Nate agrees. His breath is humid against Brad's neck.

"Jesus." Brad lifts his head, meeting Nate's eyes. "I—"

Something large and heavy slams against the wall. SHUT. THE FUCK. UP.

*

Brad steals two more hours sleep at Nate's insistence, or more specifically, Nate's insistence that he'd take over driving if Brad was too tired. Nate claims to be offended that Brad thinks he can't drive one-handed on a straight highway through the desert; Brad pretends to be asleep until he really does pass out.

He wakes to the nearby sound of Nate's voice, low and controlled; opening his eyes he sees Nate beside him in bed, half-dressed, talking on the room phone.

"—made up," Nate's saying. "I'm not going back to work any time soon, and I don't think Kelly's going to fight me on it."

A pause, and Brad can't quite hear the other person's voice, but he'd bet his bike that it's Nate's dad. He moves and stretches, to let Nate know he's awake, and Nate smiles down at him.

"I'm where I need to be. And she needs to be with me."

Brad rubs his face, sits up and swings his feet to the floor. He feels Nate touch his back, a lingering caress down his spine. He shivers, unable to not smile when he turns and gestures toward the bathroom, mouthing that he'll be right back.

Nate nods, and moves the handset to the other ear. The words long term consequences of your float through the air.

"You're a lawyer, not a psychiatrist," Nate snaps. Brad heads for the shower.

When he comes back out into the room, Nate is pulling an undershirt on with careful movements; he considers offering help but one look at Nate's face tells him to keep his mouth shut. He dresses, finger-combs his damp hair, stuffs his feet into his boots.

"Ready?" he asks. He doesn't ask anything else, even though there are at least a dozen questions he could stand to have answers to.

"Yeah," Nate says, and Brad picks up both their packs, one over each shoulder.

Nate has left off his hoodie, and his scars are obvious, the remnants of the scabs surrounded by bright pink and angry red. He steps toward Brad, hooking the fingers of his good hand into the waist of Brad's jeans and lifting his head, lips parted.

Brad turns his head away and Nate's kiss grazes his cheek; he pulls back with a smile that he doesn't quite feel. "We're Oscar Mike," Brad says, and heads for the door.

The desert through the Canyonlands is sere and beautiful, jagged mesas and buttes breaking up the otherwise interminable red and blue horizon. They'll descend this plateau after a couple hundred klicks, down into Arizona, wind through more canyons and cacti and scrub; it's soothing to Brad, it's nothing at all like Iraq's sandy flatness or Afghanistan's frigid hills. This desert is alive.

Brad reaches for the radio after twenty minutes of silence; even that bullshit that Nate calls music is welcome at this point, but Nate reaches over and turns it off as soon as Brad takes his hand away. Brad counts to ten, and then to fifty. He's at seventy-two when Nate speaks.

"That was the second time you've done that."

"Please define 'that.'" Brad says, glancing over to see Nate's jaw working with frustration.

"You won't let me kiss you," Nate says, and Brad stares.

"You seem to be remembering things very differently, sir, but that is SOP for officers." The joke is half-hearted, but he's not having this fucking conversation, and even the weakest diversion will do.

Nate is having this fucking conversation. "Outside of the context of fucking, Brad. I know you don't mind having my dick in your mouth, thanks for that, but anything else—"

"Thanks for that?" Brad repeats. "Did you hit your fucking head?"

"I tried the other morning, I tried this morning, but you act like—" Nate scrubs his hand over his hair. "Like unless we're in bed, it doesn't count, like it's not real to you, you don't—"

Brad counts to three. "I don't what? Hold your hand like a twelve year old girl at the roller rink?"

"You don't act like you want—" Nate starts and then curses. "Fuck it, never mind. Never fucking mind, Brad."

Brad stops the Charger in a spray of dust and gravel on the shoulder of the road; if he doesn't get out of this car for at least the next five minutes, he's going to kill them both. He's got to walk away; he's got to breathe. Jesus Christ, he might actually raise his voice.

A door slams behind him, and leave it to Nate not to get the hint. He turns, arms crossed over his chest. "What."

Nate backlit by the desert sun is heartbreaking and familiar. Brad sucks in a deep breath and holds it.

"I just." Nate shakes his head, speaking in a slow, tight voice. "I don't think it's so unreasonable to want you to give me some kind of assurance that this… that it isn't just you doing me a favor." He makes a circular gesture. "I wanted—"

"Shut up," Brad says. "Just shut your fucking mouth."

"—to know that—" Nate plows on, "I could count on some kind of—"

"Shut. Up," Brad shouts. He half expects an echo, but the canyons just swallow the sound. "I got in a car with only two hours lead time and I drove across the fucking country. I stopped to sleep once, for an hour, and I smuggled a life-sentence's worth of fucking illegal prescription drugs with me. I walked you out of a hospital surrounded by cops and Feds, I held you while you puked, I let you punch me while you screamed and wouldn't wake up, Nate, and yeah. I sucked your dick. So you fucking tell me, what part of that makes you think I don't love you? What part of that doesn't feel real?"

Nate holds his bad arm to his chest, shoulders square. "I told my father. About us."

"So?" It comes out a harsh bark. "So because he hates the idea, you take it out on me? Fuck, you really never have stopped being an officer. The shit still rolls downhill while you stand out of the way."

"That's not fair," Nate shoots back, and Brad laughs.

"You accusing me of not giving a shit about you is a model of fairness?" Brad stalks forward, crowds up into Nate's space. "You not even stopping to think about the fact that spending the past twenty years of my life knowing that a kiss in the wrong place and time could get me discharged, or fucking killed, might wilt my hard-on for PDA? That's fair?"

"No." Nate's eyes are bright. He's shaking harder now, and Brad can't help but reach for him, goddamn it, he can't hold back. He folds his palm over the back of Nate's neck, lets Nate sag against him.

"Was it DC?" Brad murmurs into Nate's hair. "Did the government do this to you? Because I swear you are twenty times more retarded than you were ten years ago."

Nate takes a shuddery breath, a ghost of a laugh. "You always said I was the smartest officer in the platoon."

"In that platoon, that was not a compliment." Brad moves back and away, keeps his hand on Nate's neck. He leans in and whispers a kiss over Nate's mouth.

Nate's eyes drift closed for a moment; when he opens them he looks sad. "My father thinks I'm having some kind of breakdown. He doesn't want us to take Maddy."

"I don't give a fuck what he wants," Brad says. He squeezes Nate's neck. "I'm in this with you. With you."

"Solid copy." Nate's smile is weak, but it feels like starting over.

In Flagstaff they argue again, this time about money, about the fact that Brad's been financing the whole trip, gas, rooms, meals, supplies. He wants to pay for the motel, Brad wants him to shut the fuck up about equitable partnership and get out of the car.

Nate takes a cheap shot and gives Brad the big eyes, radiating sincerity, and says, "Don't you think it sucks for me? Not to be able to do anything for myself?"

Brad wants very badly to bang his forehead on the steering wheel. "The point of me paying for everything was that you kept off the radar and the goatfucking media vultures didn't get the chance to pick you apart." He points at the motel office. "Let me do this. If it means so much to you, you can write me a goddamn check when we get home."

When Brad comes back out with the keys, Nate is standing by the car with their gear on the ground, talking to a balding man in a blue jumpsuit. The man's about their age, he's got a toolbox in hand and a name patch that says "Vernon;" Nate's got his arms crossed but he looks relaxed in spite of his obvious exhaustion.

Vernon's talking about where he was the morning of the shooting, and Brad's jaw goes tight.

"Yeah," Nate says. "Like, when we were kids. The Challenger, remember? Fourth grade. One of the nuns came in crying. I'd never seen a nun cry before."

"Fifth for me," Vernon says with a serious nod. "Public school, we used to watch all the launches in class. We saw it live."

"Yeah," Nate repeats, and then he catches sight of Brad. "Vern, this is my friend, Sergeant Colbert. Brad, Vern was in Iraq, too. He was with IVY, at Tikrit."

"Sir," Vern says, and offers his hand. Brad shakes it.

"It was nice to meet you, Vern," Nate says, and Brad hefts their packs, unsure of what to do. If the guy does maintenance here, then he's going to know that room twelve is not a double. On the other hand, fuck it.

"Need to get some sleep, long drive home," Nate continues. Vern offers his best wishes; Brad dredges up a smile, and steers Nate toward the room.

It's not actually much past dinnertime but Nate's dragging. Brad knows that Nate hasn't had any medicine all day and that's another argument; in the end he lets Brad go get him a sandwich from the Subway down the road, and makes faces while he swallows exactly one pill. Brad eats half the sandwich.

They don't fuck, although Nate gropes Brad a little before succumbing to the charms of the Percocet and passing out face-first in the middle of the bed. Brad moves him to a better position, pillows arranged just so, and falls asleep thinking about how he is completely screwed and not altogether unhappy about it.

"Last push," Nate observes when they're on the road again, headed south toward Phoenix on 17. Brad nods. It's a little past zero seven hundred, the sky light blue and shot with gold.

"We'll take 10 from Phoenix," he says, leaning back and setting the cruise. "Should put us home, at my place, around sixteen hundred."

"That sounds good." Nate has his sunglasses on; it makes his expression unreadable. "Is it the same place?"

"No, I bought a house on South Tait, a few years ago after the market shit the bed. It was a vacation rental, owner got foreclosed on." Brad scratches at the steering wheel with his thumbnail. "It isn't fancy. Two-bedroom adobe. Garage. A sad little patch of grass that isn't worth mowing."

"Eight surfboards in the garage," Nate says, his lips curved. "Dining room table covered in computer guts."

"Seven in the garage," Brad corrects. "The other two are in the kitchen."

"Of course. You still have the R1?"

"Not the same one. Traded up to a 2010." It's a beautiful machine, black on black special edition. It tops out at one-sixty, but Brad's never pushed it up that far. There does come a point when that shit gets trite.

"Anybody waiting for you?"

The uncovered part of Nate's face is still carefully composed; Brad thinks about reaching over there and pulling Nate's sunglasses off, but it wouldn't serve any real purpose except to make him feel better for about ten seconds. It occurs to him to feel insulted, but he can't sustain the emotion, not when he notices Nate's got the rubber ball back in hand, squeezing for all he's worth.

"No." Brad puts his eyes back on the road. "There is not, and there never has been."

"You would've said something."

"Yes, I would have." Brad half wishes he could get angry right now, but he feels tired instead. "And that was a shitty question."

He can hear Nate's intake of breath, but he doesn't look. The road stretches out ahead of them, mile and after mile of shimmering blacktop, and he has a moment of déjà vu so intense that he almost hits the brake.

"I don't know what your life is," Nate says in a voice so soft that Brad has to strain to hear it over the a/c. He flips the fan off.

"I invited myself in," Nate goes on; the motion in the corner of Brad's eye is probably a shrug. "Sure of my welcome. With no real idea of what—"

"Did it occur to you that I would've just said no?" Brad flexes his hands, steals a glance at Nate, and Nate is looking right at him. Even with the sunglasses on, Brad can tell.

"It never once occurred to me that you would say no."

"If I had other obligations. If I had someone else. I would have said no." It's not wholly true; in that case he still would've gone out of his way to help, but there were other things that he'd have refused. Other things that he would not have started. Brad glances at Nate again; Nate's gaze has lowered to somewhere around Brad's chest, and there's something about the humility of the expression that angers him where words did not.

"I've been presumptuous," Nate continues. "Taking it for granted that you'd just… take me in, and you have, but there's got to be an end to your—"

"If you finish that sentence," Brad warns, "I will stop this car – again – and I will have to raise my voice again, and you may be sure, Captain, that you will find the end of my patience, albeit not in the way you think."

"Brad."

"Whatever place you want in my life? Is yours. Accept it." Brad swings out around a tractor-trailer, dropping the gas to the floor. "Just do me the same favor in return."

Nate is silent for a long time, klick after klick going by until Brad suspects he might have just fallen asleep.

"My sister Cat and I have always been really close," Nate says suddenly, and he sounds more like himself, more together if not truly confident. "Mom calls us Irish twins, we're eleven months apart, almost to the day. She's the first person I told when I joined up, and the only one who didn't try to talk me out of it."

Brad nods to show he's listening, but he doesn't respond. It's not time yet. He takes his right hand off the wheel, puts his elbow on the armrest, fingers dangling close to Nate's. There if Nate wants them.

"Night before my wedding, we ditched the rehearsal dinner after party and went to this shitty bar we always used to go to, when we'd be home from school, or. When I'd come home on libo. Kelly doesn't like Cat, Cat fuckin' hates Kelly, I think she figured we wouldn't have our twin time anymore, once I was married. And she was right." Nate pauses, and Brad hears the leather seat creak as he moves. "I don't think she could've talked me out of it, even if she had brought it up earlier? She just wanted to call out my bullshit, for the record."

Nate goes quiet again, and Brad gives in, drops his hand to close around Nate's. The answering squeeze isn't strong, but it's steady.

"In the hospital I had a lot of time to think. Too much time to go over everything up to that day, every choice that took me to that day. And I don't regret not coming out, because that would've meant not becoming a Marine."

"That would have been a less than ideal outcome," Brad says, tightening his hand around Nate's again.

"But Cat was right. Once I was out, out of the Corps, what was the reason for all the lying? My fucking ambition?"

Brad considers the question, but he can't come up with a satisfactory answer. He knows why he keeps his mouth shut, even with DADT a thing of the past – habit, enforced over decades, and a real desire for privacy. You lose enough of your sense of individuality after twenty years in the military; some things you just need to save for yourself.

"People are going to find out," Nate continues when Brad doesn't answer. "About us. I don't… want your place in my life to be… difficult."

"You don't get to decide that for me," Brad says, irritation flashing up his spine. He lets go of Nate's hand, puts his own back on the wheel. "You want this, I want this, we meet in the middle. If we do it any other way, it's not going to work."

"I'm sorry," Nate says stiffly. "I'm just trying to—"

"Well, stop. Stop trying to run this like an op." Brad looks over, catches Nate's eye. "I want to take you home. I want to fuck you – you're really going to like my bed – and I want to deal with the rest of it as it comes. Not before."

"Okay." Nate sighs. He tips his head against the window, face relaxing into something like a smile.

*

After the assassination a late-night comedian observed that, were it possible, the news networks would extend the 24-hour news cycle to a new, 30-hour day. There wasn't enough time to report on every aspect of the shooting, to interview every single witness at the scene, their relatives and their neighbors; for special reports on what the assassination meant for domestic policy, foreign policy, the stock market, the job market, religion, education, immigration, and anything else for which a pundit could be found.

Patti Jankowski's former co-workers from the USP depot all gave interviews, as did everyone on her block back in Landover. Quiet, hard-working. Always kept her lawn neat. Always on time to work. No strong opinions, nothing remarkable at all. She was, they all said, just a regular gal.

A cousin was found, living near Richmond; he told the press that Patti hadn't ever struck him as the kind of person who'd hurt anybody; how, at the few long-ago family affairs he could recall, she was polite and quiet. She had a doll that she carried around, and he seemed to remember her being real fond of horses. She had been, he said, echoing the now familiar refrain, just a regular girl.

Al Jankowski, Patti's former husband, refused to speak to the media. He put up No Trespassing signs all around his property in North Carolina, and in one case threatened a persistent reporter with his shotgun. The shaky hand-held footage of the incident was the lead story on all outlets for the following two days.

Newspaper circulation, in steady decline for more than a decade, shot up in the month following the assassination, as people collected copies of certain editions and subscribed in order to be sure to have those to come. Cable news ratings consistently topped the rest of the prime time television line-up, and any new scoop, anything even resembling an exclusive new angle, would spike that program into the lead.

It was persistently rumored that Oprah Winfrey would make a TV comeback with a prime time special, interviewing all the survivors who were there with the President that day, but Oprah's spokeswoman denied the rumor every time. An entertainment blog called The Daily Impropriety posted that a deal was in the works with CBS, but it was contingent on getting Nate Fick to sign, and so far, the Captain's representatives had refused all offers.

On May 8th, a motel clerk named Ashley Hernandez, of Flagstaff, Arizona, posted to her Tumblr an iPhone snapshot of Captain Fick and one Sergeant Brad Colbert, standing in the motel parking lot near a silver Dodge Charger. In the photo Sergeant Colbert is wearing a white t-shirt and a pair of BDU pants; he has a backpack over one shoulder and his hand on Captain Fick's arm. Captain Fick is wearing jeans and a black undershirt, sunglasses on top of his apparently shaved head. They are smiling at each other.

Ashley's post was titled Heros in my hood!, and explained that while she hadn't met Captain Fick herself, she had met his (so hot!!!) friend Brad, who was so nice. She'd heard from Vern, the motel handyman, that the two of them were on their way to San Diego. Probably, Ashley conjectured, to chill out for a while before the trial started, whenever that was.

So awesome that real American heros stayed right here! I wish I got his autograph lol.

By noon that day, the post had over a million views.

Brad first notices something wrong when they're ten blocks from his house; the traffic is heavier than it should be, even for the cusp of rush hour on a weekday afternoon. The day's drive had gone smoothly, even if had started out tense; Nate had told some stories about Maddy, Brad had told a few about his last hitch and the Captain that made Encino Man look like an Enlightenment philosopher. Nate dropped two pain pills after lunch and slept almost the entire rest of the way to Oceanside, with Brad stealing fond glances and humming along with REO Speedwagon on the radio.

Heavier traffic, more vehicles parked along the streets. A lot of SUVs. A lot of people in suits, women in slacks and dress shirts. White vans, with—

"Motherfucker," Brad swears when he sees the first CNN van, satellite dish on the roof. MSNBC and FOX, too, parked cheek by jowl on the Delgados' front lawn. "Jesus fucking Christ."

Nate blinks, yawns and sits up, looking around, then immediately sinks back down into the seat. "Holy shit," he hisses.

"Here," Brad says, crawling down the block, feeling around the back seat for Nate's hoodie. "Put this on. Beanie's in the pocket, that too."

"Right," Nate says, unclipping his seatbelt and wriggling into the sweatshirt. He zips it up, pulls his beanie on, and puts the hood of the sweatshirt up. Sunglasses last, and inside Brad is plotting no less than thirty-seven separate acts of felonious assault but he breathes through it. If he loses his temper, it will make this goatfuck go from bad to worse.

There are people in his driveway. Nate makes a noise and Brad narrows his eyes; he doesn't bother giving any warning, just turns into the drive and watches them scatter, flitting away and then returning like pigeons around a scrap of bread.

"We're going through the garage," Brad says, parking in front of the door. There are flashes going off behind them, bouncing off the glass. "It's not attached but we'll come out in the back, which is fenced off, and if there's anybody back there, I will kill them."

"Roger that," Nate says.

"Here." Brad digs in his pocket, pulls out his key ring. "You open the door, wait in the garage. I'll grab the bags and be right behind you."

When they open the car doors, the shouting peaks; it reminds Brad of the mob scenes he'd seen in Somalia, in Baghdad. Dozens of reaching hands, the camera lenses, the flashes, and Nate doesn't make it, Nate freezes as the people converge.

"Goddamn it." Brad grabs their packs out of the trunk, slams it, shoves past a longhaired faggot yelling Nate's name. A camera comes too close to his face; he knocks it away.

"Come on," he says, wrapping his arm around Nate, pushing him toward the door. "Come on, just a little further."

He takes the keys out of Nate's fingers, opens the door himself and guides Nate through, slamming it behind them and relocking it. Inside the garage the sound is muted, it's hot and stuffy, full of the smell of engine grease and board wax. Nate slumps against his side. Rage is bubbling through Brad's veins and it's all he can do not to walk back out there and start swinging. If Nate wasn't pressed against him, breathing in shivery little gulps, maybe he would.

The back yard is clear after a visual sweep; nobody up in the goddamn trees, which shouldn't be such a relief. It shouldn't even be an issue; no one should know that they're here. Brad hustles Nate out, along the patio, in through the back doors; he locks them behind him, closes the blinds with a curse.

Nate pulls off his sunglasses, his hat and his hoodie, looks around with wide, panicked eyes.

"I don't know," Brad says to the unasked question. "But I am going to fucking find out."

He snatches the phone off the kitchen wall and dials 911; when the operator asks what his emergency is, it's all he can do not to say that there are a bunch of retards in his driveway and he's planning to open fire. Instead he explains the situation in small words while he makes the rounds of the house, checking windows and door locks, making sure all the blinds are down. There are a large number of persons trespassing, and a need for crowd control. Please send some officers as soon as possible.

Nate sits still on Brad's couch, staring at the black television screen; when Brad comes up behind him and touches the back of his neck, he jumps. Brad's stomach lurches, and he glares in the direction of the street while the operator promises that a patrol car is on its way.

"Thank you," Brad says shortly, and hangs up.

The doorbell rings, and Nate starts again. Brad curses and checks the peephole. It's Anderson Cooper. Trust that motherfucker to come right up to the door, like he's sure he'll be welcome. Like nobody ever says no. Brad wants to shoot him in a place that'll take him a long time to die.

Brad opens the door about a foot, blocking it with his body, and Cooper gives him a supercilious smile. "Mr. Colbert?" he begins, and Brad snaps.

"That's Sergeant to you."

"Sergeant Colbert," Cooper corrects smoothly. "I'm sorry for—"

"I'm sure you're sorry. The way a hyena is sorry when it's tearing apart a corpse," Brad interrupts. His voice is calm. He half hopes the camera is rolling. "Leave. Now. If you haven't vacated my property in ten minutes, I will remove you myself. I will enjoy it. You will not."

A flicker of fear crosses the man's face, but he keeps going. "And are you empowered to speak for Captain Fick?"

"Yes," comes Nate's soft, strong voice from behind Brad. He touches the small of Brad's back. "His 'no comment' is my no comment. His 'get the fuck out' is my get the fuck out."

The hand on Brad's back is shaking.

"No comment," Brad says. "Get the fuck out." He shuts the door and throws the locks.

Nate drops back against the wall beside him. "I'm—"

"If you apologize, Nate, I will murder you," Brad warns.

"—tired," Nate says, although his expression makes it clear that Brad was right. "I'm going to rack out a while."

"Okay." He tugs Nate into his arms, hugs as tight as he dares. In the distance, he can hear the whoop of a police siren. "It's the room with the bed in it."

Nate snuffles something resembling a laugh into his neck, and goes.

The cop who comes to the door is a Marine. It's fairly common in the towns around Pendleton, guys who come for their hitch and then end up staying when it's over – like himself, even though his family ties are in the area, too. Still, it makes Brad's life the hell of a lot easier. There are probably some vague Constitutional issues with the way the officers hustle the press and paps down the block, setting up a perimeter with their cars, but he's still so furious that he can't really care. Brad gives his statement on the porch, in defiant view of the lenses. Fuck them.

"We'll just put a little fear of God into 'em, sir," Officer Rivera says, folding his notebook closed and stuffing it in his breast pocket. He offers his hand, and Brad shakes it. "Call us any time."

Someone shouts something from down the block as Brad turns to go back inside. He closes his eyes and pretends he didn't hear it.

Nate is obviously not sleeping but he doesn't turn or say anything when Brad checks in; he considered joining him for a moment but he knows he wouldn't be able to sleep, either. Tired as he is, and hungry, and he knows there's nothing in the fridge except beer and some guacamole that's probably gone from green to black. Instead he settles on the couch with his laptop and one of the beers, and gets to work.

The leak was the clerk in Flagstaff, not Nate's pal Vern; that's good, because even if he was Army, Brad would've hated to have him killed. He vaguely remembers the girl, young and inconceivably bright-eyed when he'd checked out at zero-six-thirty. No wonder she was so thrilled by him. He remembers asking her where she got the good stuff she was on, and her telling him about the coffee shop down the road. Nate hadn't wanted to stop, though.

As much as he'd love to have little Ashley Hernandez murdered too, he settles for turning his rage toward the big fish. Fox has been jacking it to Nate's picture nonstop ever since the shooting, but it was Drudge – how the fuck? – that was the first confirmed trackback to Ashley's post, leading to the all out fucking bombardment raining down on them now. It is with regret that Brad concludes he can't actually take out that fuckstain either.

He calls the FBI field office in San Diego instead.

It's going to take years to pull this trial together, even if the public is demanding Patti Jankowski's blood as soon as possible – the dozens of eyewitnesses alone with take months to deal with, and Brad's well aware that Nate'll most likely get subpoenaed for depositions sooner rather than later. While the press will cool off after some time has passed, there's no telling how long that will take, and how nasty it will get beforehand. He isn't willing to take any chances, not with this.

After about half hour's conversation and one poorly veiled threat, Brad's got the wheels in motion to have Nate receive some level of federal protection. If it doesn't materialize in the end, he'll figure something else out, but it feels better to have done something more than just sit with his fists clenched, imagining the sweet, satisfying spray of arterial blood from the necks of a dozen different television reporters.

This time when he checks, Nate is asleep, breathing deeply. Brad hasn't felt the need to turn the a/c on yet this year, it's a little stuffy, but it doesn't bother him. He strips off his clothes, crawls in beside Nate and slides one arm over Nate's hips.

"Mm," Nate sighs. Brad wants to smile, but something sticks in his throat; he puts his lips on the back of Nate's neck instead, and wills himself to sleep.

When he wakes it's dark and hot in the room; he and Nate are stuck together with sweat. Everything's quiet, no noise from the street, and he'd turned the ringer off on the house phone, left his cell turned off completely. He wonders if his voicemail is full yet. He's vaguely surprised that half of Bravo hasn't shown up at the door.

Maybe they're biding their time for a dawn attack, he muses, nosing a little at Nate's stubbly jaw. Nate makes a disgruntled noise, and bats blindly at him; Brad smirks and bites, ducking away from the flailing hand.

"F'you," Nate mumbles. "M'beauty sleep."

"That's a lost cause, sir." Brad kisses Nate's shoulder. "It's twenty-one hundred and change, and I? Am starving." He ducks his head and bites again, just below Nate's armpit.

"Gah, stop." This time Nate's slap connects, stinging on the back of Brad's head. He looks up, grinning, and Nate just stares back for a moment, fingers moving to trace Brad's cheek, over his chin.

"Not the time to get serious," Brad says softly, pursing his lips against Nate's fingertips.

"This is very, very serious," Nate answers.

He's already said it once, although he said it in anger, and maybe Nate didn't even notice, because he didn't say anything about it. This would be a good moment, maybe. Brad leans up, kisses Nate slow and careful.

It doesn't stay that way, slow or careful; they end up with Brad on top again, it's just logistically better, makes more sense with the nature of Nate's injuries, and it's just hot as fucking hell when Nate is naked and twisting under him. Scratching up his back, making those delicious, dirty little sounds, and Brad has to keep stopping for breath, like he's not still in peak condition, like this is difficult or something.

"You promised," Nate moans, tugging on Brad's hair, hard enough to hurt. "You said. Fuck me. In your bed."

Brad growls, jerks his hips against Nate's. "You want it?"

"Fuck. Yes." Nate drags Brad's mouth back to his, back to another viciously perfect kiss.

Nate feels so good against him, Brad knows he can come like this again, like they did before, even if it is teenage bullshit that two men pushing forty have no business doing. It would be safe, it would be easy.

"Don't want to hurt you," Brad whispers, dragging his teeth over Nate's lower lip. "I can't—"

"Brad." Nate yanks on his hair again, and his eyes water. "Do it."

It's an order, and maybe if Nate had used any other tone but that one, Brad could've talked his way out of it – and fucking hell, it's not that he doesn't want to fuck Nate in fifty-seven different ways before lunchtime tomorrow, it's just that he's… fucking scared. It happens so rarely that he hardly recognizes it.

He kisses Nate, leads them down to a softer place; every time Nate snarls and tries to make it harsh, Brad rocks nice and easy, jacks Nate with a gentle hand. Bit by bit Nate relaxes, till he's pliant and practically purring in Brad's arms, his cock pulsing a heavy beat against Brad's palm.

Nate whines a little when Brad lets go, then he sighs when he sees what Brad's reaching for; it's not the best stuff for fucking but it'll still be good. When he touches Nate, cautious, with his slick fingertips, Nate shudders from head to toe.

"Been a while," Nate says against Brad's ear, an unnecessary confession, but Brad takes it seriously.

"How long?" He eases the tip of his middle finger inside, and Nate makes a little choked noise.

"Ten. Right, um. After."

Ten years, Brad translates. Right after he got out. Brad wonders who it was, if it was good, if it made Nate happy or just made things worse. He wonders if it should hurt him as much as it does.

"I wished," Nate breathes, pushing himself down on Brad's hand. "I wished it was you."

When he finally works his way into Nate, so goddamn tight and hot around his dick that he's not sure he can breathe, let alone move, it's nothing at all like he imagined. It's way too real, too intense; a part of his brain says get it over with, another part begs, make it last.

"Please," Nate says, his eyes huge and bright in the dark. "Brad."

"Shh," Brad says, leans in for a kiss, leans into Nate, and they both moan, lips not quite touching. Brad pulls back, pulls out a little and does it again, this time glancing his mouth off Nate's as he rocks in.

He fucks Nate slow and deep and hard, absorbing all of Nate's sounds, each cry and gasp; he memorizes the expressions Nate makes, the way he bites his lip and rolls his eyes. Nate's good hand is tight on Brad's bicep, his left hand pressed flat to the small of Brad's back, and it feels a little like Nate's holding him in place, keeping him there where he's maybe needed most.

And Brad's already addicted to the sound that Nate makes when he comes, he already knows he's going to kill before he gives that up; he half-wonders if it's that sound that brings him up to the edge right after, or if it's the way Nate moves, twisting and contracting. It might just be everything; that's the word that Brad thinks, that he might say, as he fucks into Nate harder, trying to hold on and failing. When he spills inside Nate, all he can say is his name.

They lie together for a long time after, until Brad's stomach growls so loudly that it makes Nate jump. Brad laughs, Nate hits him, they make out until Brad's stomach protests again.

One of the greatest advances of civilization is ordering groceries for delivery on the internet, but they just miss the cutoff for that evening: the groceries won't arrive until morning. Brad curses and orders pizza online, too. Nate marvels appropriately at these wonders of technology, Brad gloats disproportionately, the pizza arrives while they're fooling around on the couch.

There doesn't seem to be anyone on the street when Brad answers the door, no obvious intruders or unwanted observers. No cars on the block that he doesn't recognize, and for the first time since he bought this house, he thanks his neighbors for being predictable California bourgeoisie. At least from them, he knows exactly what to expect.

They eat, they drink beer; blue lights roll by in the street a couple of times, and Nate's not voluble, he's never been the chattiest man, but he talks in brief, steady bursts. Maddy, again, eyes shining every time he mentions her name. The work he was doing with the State Department, doing his damndest to steer the ship away from Iranian waters. His voice grows rougher as he recalls how many weeks, months, it had taken for him to get just forty minutes on the President's calendar to present his recommendations.

Nate stops and shakes his head. "And you know the rest." It's the closest he's yet come to actually talking about the shooting; he stares at Brad, eyes unfathomable.

"Next time, Jack," Brad quips, "Write a damn memo."

There's a long pause where Nate just keeps staring, unblinking, and Brad starts to reach for him, but Nate holds up his hand. "Some things in here," he says, in the worst Connery accent in the history of the world, "do not react well to bullets."

Brad snorts. He does not giggle, although Nate's snicker might be described that way; he does tug Nate back into his arms then, trying to breathe around the lump in his throat.

"It's okay," Nate says after a moment, laughter subsiding into little shivers of breath. "I'm. I'm getting there."

"I know," Brad says. He smoothes his hand over Nate's hair, the short fuzz at the crown tickling his palm. "You're fucking amazing."

"Don't give me that hero shit." Nate heaves a sigh. "Not you."

Marines are not heroes, they are Marines. They do what they have to do. It was drilled into them both; Brad knows it like he knows his own name. Maybe better. Sometimes it has been hard to find Bradley Colbert, but it's never been hard to find the Marine.

He cups Nate's head, tips his face for a kiss. "Tired?" he asks. He rubs his thumb over the lines at the corners of Nate's eyes, and Nate nods. They leave half the pizza on the coffee table; they go to bed.

*

Brad wakes with a start in early darkness; it happens sometimes, waking up sure that he missed check-in, then remembering there is no check-in anymore. Never again, if he wants; he's made his pension; he's saved and invested well over the years. He settles back beside Nate, closing his eyes. Got to return the rental car later. He'll have to take a cab back, because Nate shouldn't drive it, and Nate definitely can't follow with the bike.

"I can hear you thinking," Nate says. The back of Nate's hand lands in the middle of Brad's face.

"If you break my nose again—" Brad threatens.

"You'll what?" Nate yawns. "Didn't break it, anyway. Go back to sleep, baby."

He could mean it one way, but Brad's pretty sure he means it the other; by the time the shock at the endearment has worn off, Nate's snoring softly. Brad takes Nate's hand. No check-in. Just this. Just sleep.

The sound of the doorbell is the next thing he's aware of, loud and persistent. He scrubs his hands over his face, looks at his watch -- It's almost zero nine hundred. Brad groans.

"If it's Anderson fucking Cooper back for more," he grumbles, getting up and tugging on a pair of jeans off the floor. They might actually be Nate's.

"Groceries," Nate says, yawning and stretching, wincing when he stretches that little bit too far. "Remember?"

"That's why you made captain, sir," Brad says, leaning over and kissing Nate's mouth. "Right back."

"Mmmph," Nate answers, stealing Brad's pillow. The doorbell rings again.

"Just one goddamn minute," Brad snaps. These are definitely Nate's jeans, because his wallet isn't in them. Right, he was wearing cammies yesterday. He glances quick out the peephole, while pulling the chain back – definitely not Anderson Cooper.

But not the kid from the grocery store, either, and Brad's halfway through the act of opening the door, he can't exactly slam it shut now, especially not in Nate's father's face.

Every curse he ever knew in twenty years of being a Marine and thirteen years of being friends with Ray Person is rattling through his head right now, threatening to spill out in a flood of frustration, but he's better disciplined than that. He straightens, and looks Mr. Fick in the eye – it's easy to do, they're the same height, and that's not at all something Brad's used to.

"Sir," he says. He pitches his voice low. "This is… a surprise."

Nate looks like his dad; even if he didn't, Brad would still know the man's face from the family portrait that was the only picture Nate carried in Iraq. The years have been kind – Mr. Fick is over seventy, but he's still fit, his eyes sharp, his shoulders only the slightest bit stooped.

"May I come in, Sergeant?"

Brad's pretty sure he's still got Nate's come on his stomach. He almost laughs. "Of course, sir, I'm sorry," he says, opening the door a bit wider. There's a car he doesn't recognize across the street, and he swallows another tsunami of profanity when the sun catches the lens pointed out the window.

Mr. Fick harrumphs and pushes past him; Brad breathes out, and shuts the door. He locks it again with a knot of dread in his gut that has nothing to do with the photographer in the beige Honda.

"It's a pleasure to meet you," Brad tries, offering his hand. Mr. Fick shakes it. It's a smooth hand, not callused or scarred, but it's strong.

"Wish I could say the same." Mr. Fick looks at Brad over his glasses.

Open hostility is nothing new to Brad; he's been shot at regularly for more than half his life, had rocks and bottles and metal thrown in his face. He's had men and women and children scream at him in rage and fury and grief; he's been punched, cut, kicked, and once, memorably, hit so hard with a cricket bat that it cracked his Kevlar. And it's never been personal.

"I'm sorry that it's under these circumstances," Brad begins; he's no diplomat, but he's willing to try. "Things have not been handled as well as—"

Nate, of course, chooses that moment to shamble down the hall and out into the living room. He's wearing nothing but black skivvies and his scars stand out so red against his white skin; he's saying "—put the goddamn milk in the fridge and get your ass back in this bed, Sergeant."

Brad has always felt that the expression 'embarrassed to death' was hyperbolic. This is new data that may change his conclusion.

"Nathaniel," Mr. Fick says.

"Dad?" Nate stops by the couch, crosses his arms, cupping the elbow of his left in the palm of his right hand. He looks to Brad, then back to his father, and his face is so open that Brad wants to leap in front of him for protection, an impulse so ironic under the circumstances that Brad finds himself fighting hysterical laughter.

"Where's Maddy?" Nate asks.

"With your mother, at home." Mr. Fick pauses. "Where you belong."

Nate's chin goes up. "I am where I belong, and my child belongs with me."

Mr. Fick walks away from Brad, away from the door and up into Nate's space; Brad moves on instinct, circling around them to come up on Nate's left, covering his weak side.

"He's very protective," Mr. Fick observes, as if Brad were a dog, and inside Brad bristles like one. Mr. Fick looks back to Nate. "I understand that the two of you… care. About each other. But that is not the issue. This… running away is not a sustainable solution."

"It is if you in fact know what the problem is," Nate says. "Which you do not. Which you refused to listen to, over and over, even before I left the hospital. Hell, even before any of this."

Nate had always spoken of his family as loving and supportive, as having always been there for him. But fear makes people behave in fucking strange ways, and Brad can see that Mr. Fick is afraid for his son. What must it have been like, to get that call? To have sat in that hospital, waiting for the news, while the whole country exploded around him?

Mr. Fick looks exhausted. No wonder he's so fucking angry.

"Nate," Brad says, putting his hand on Nate's hip. "Let's sit down."

"I don't need to sit," Nate says. "Dad, the only way I am ever going back to Washington is on a DOJ summons. That life is over. It's dead."

The older man flinches at the word, which was surely Nate's intent. "I'm not telling you to go back to Washington. Just to come home to Baltimore. Come home to your family. You don't know what you've put your poor mother through."

"Does my poor mother know what I've been through?" Nate's starting to shiver, and Brad recognizes the sign by now, it means Nate's running out of energy, physical and emotional. "Do you? Does anybody, except maybe somebody else who was there?"

"By that logic," Mr. Fick says dryly, "shouldn't you be shacking up with one of the Secret Service agents, instead of some Marine?"

It feels like all the blood in Brad's body rushes to his head, he's so angry that he's going to pop a vein but he feels so fucking cold. "Sir—" he begins, but Nate cuts him off.

"You do not fucking get it, do you?" Nate shouts. "I am some Marine. Jesus Christ, Dad, you're a tax attorney. You've never been in danger in your entire life, you don't know, everything is fucking civilized and reasonable to you. You've never even touched a gun, you've never killed, you don't know how it is to feel more in common with, with her than with your friends, your family."

Mr. Fick takes a step back, shaking his head. "Nate."

"And you don't get to talk about Brad like he's not here," Nate hisses. "You are in his house, which is, for as long as he'll have me, mine too, Dad, so you will be fucking civilized and reasonable, and if we have to fight you for my daughter, I will do it, do you understand?"

"I don't understand," Mr. Fick pleads, and now he turns to Brad, his eyes shining. "I have never understood why—" He stops, and covers his face with his hand.

"Dad," Nate says. He puts his hand on his father's arm. "Dad, I. Just sit down, okay?"

The bell rings again, and Nate and his father don't even look toward the door. Brad grinds his teeth and goes to check; this time it is the groceries, and he ushers George inside, past the Ficks who are sitting on the couch now, speaking in low voices. Brad feels like he has whiplash.

George unpacks the bags while Brad cuts around to the bedroom to find his wallet; he tips the kid, signs the receipt and sends him out through the back, with strict instructions to lock the garage door behind him. George rolls his eyes but he's a good kid, Brad knows he'll do what he's told.

He takes his time putting everything away, arranging the pantry shelves with their modest contents to a precise gestalt. Every now and then voices from the living room will rise, but Brad has schooled himself in selective hearing for a long time; he makes coffee, and takes a cup with him to the bedroom. He listens to his voicemails, sends some texts, and then hits the shower.

When he emerges back out into the bedroom, towel around his hips and feeling slightly more human, Nate is sitting on the end of the bed. His face is pale and drawn, those lines around his eyes and his mouth etched deeper; he holds his hand out and Brad goes to take it, sits beside him.

Nate kisses him, sweet and intense, and Brad sighs into it, rests his forehead against Nate's when they stop.

"I missed you so fucking much," Nate whispers. "I am not leaving you ever again."

Brad nods, swallows hard. "Roger that, sir." He sits back a little, gives Nate's hand a squeeze. "How's your dad?"

"Getting there." Nate licks his lips. "He's gone to get a hotel room. He's… agreed to have Mom come out with Maddy."

"To stay?"

"To try it," Nate says, making a face, "Which means to stay, which. I wasn't kidding. She's my daughter. I'll do whatever I have to do to keep her."

"I know." Brad nods again. If Nate asks, he'll admit that he's intimidated as hell at the prospect of introducing a toddler to his life, but if he's not asked, he's sure as fuck not telling.

Nate knows, though, somehow sees it in his face, because he smiles. "You're scared."

"I am attempting to think practically," Brad says with a scowl. So much for admitting it. He gives Nate a push and stands up, going over to the dresser for skivvies and a pair of shorts. Nate snorts behind him.

"The great Iceman is scared of a three year old girl. Oh, I have got so many calls to make. Does Poke still live over in Vista? Because."

"Sure, call him," Brad says, zipping up his shorts. "I have no doubt that my parenting insecurities will be the first thing he wants to discuss with you." The messages that Poke, and everybody else, have left all indicate that their position is going to be compromised within the next 24 hours. He's going to need to buy beer.

Nate humph, sounding very much like his father. Brad keeps that observation to himself as he rummages in his drawers; he pulls on a ratty old Rip Curl tee and turns to find Nate looking at him with a thoughtful expression.

"What."

"Nothing," Nate says, the corner of his mouth quirking. "I just...don't think I ever saw you in your natural habitat before."

Brad shrugs. It's another thing, another piece of the gap that was between them, that they're trying to close with sheer will.

"You can wear suits and ties all you want, if that's your thing," Brad says. He remembers a handful of off-duty moments, and the paddle party, and Nate always in creased khakis and a polo. Always correct. The clothes Nate's been traveling in, jeans and wife-beater undershirts and that ragged-ass black hoodie, are as foreign to him as his board shorts are to Nate. He wonders if those things are what come naturally to Nate, or if they're another uniform.

He's starting to get used to the idea that he has time to find out.

Nate ignores the comment, stands up still a little shaky, still in nothing but those damn black boxer briefs. He closes the short distance between them, puts his right hand on Brad's side and kisses his cheek.

"What's that for?" Brad asks.

"I just. I think." Nate stops, his face solemn but his eyes so, so sincere. "I'm fucking scared too, but I think. We might be okay."

Brad closes his eyes, presses a kiss to Nate's forehead. "Yeah, we are assured of this."

*

The wheels of justice grind exceedingly slow; the wheels of the Department of Justice grind at a pace that makes tectonic advancement seem like a bullet train.

Twenty-nine months of trial preparation, close to a thousand hours of depositions. Motion upon motion is filed, each one torn apart by the media-employed experts the moment they enter the record. The defense cannot deny that Patti Jankowski pulled the trigger; they intend to deny that she knew what she was doing when she did it.

She snapped, says Craig Robertson, the defense attorney, to anyone who'll put a camera on him. He has a stylist on hand at all times. The poor woman, he says. She was just pushed too far.

Anne Kim, the lead prosecutor for the government, tells the press quite frankly that she'll be damned if she lets this turn into a mockery of justice like the Hinckley verdict; in private she says that it's going to be a shitshow, that the defense is really planning to play this temporary insanity charade all the way through and she can only pray that the jury is not that fucking stupid.

The jury selection takes weeks; twelve peers are finally chosen. Seven men, five women. Three white, three Latino, three black, three of mixed race. They range in age from twenty-one to seventy-six. The name of the hotel where they are first sequestered leaks within four hours, and thereafter they are periodically moved according to a random schedule.

Nate is the fourth witness for the United States. He's slated to testify on a Thursday, at ten in the morning.

It's early when the FBI escort arrives to take Nate to the courthouse; Maddy cries for almost an hour after he goes and won't let Brad hold her, just curls up in a sweaty ball in the middle of the bed and sobs. When she cries herself out she finally goes to him, pressing her hot cheek to his and whispering her fear.

Nate was right when he said that she was smart; she remembers things, she has an advanced grasp of cause and effect. She knows that this place is where she lived when her father was sad, she knows that this place is where her father got hurt; she knows that her father has been tense and quiet since they arrived in DC, ergo the next thing to happen will be something bad. Q.E.D.

They go through her suitcase, put an outfit together – that floaty white skirt that looks like a ballerina should be wearing it, a miniature PT shirt replica, complete with FICK stenciled across the front. It was a gift from Gunny Wynn, at a Bravo barbecue they'd had a few weeks after Maddy first arrived in Cali. Those fuckers spoil her rotten. Sneakers and her bright blue rain jacket round out the ensemble, because you have to wear a jacket to court, she informs him. Brad grins and puts on his suit.

Maddy's sneakers squeak on the marble floors of the courthouse; he takes her jacket off and picks her up. She usually protests that she's almost six, that she doesn't want to be carried, but this time she just puts her chin on his shoulder, staring around at everything, her long legs dangling and her feet smacking his thigh.

Brad recognizes one of the agents in the hall outside the courtroom, Agent Pierce; Pierce meets them with a shake of his head, and gestures down the hall. "You're going to have to sit with her in the family room. There's a feed."

"That's fine," Brad says, hitches Maddy up on his hip. Another agent, that he doesn't know, escorts them to the family room door.

George Ruiz's widow, Julia, is there with her two little boys. The younger was only four months old at the time of the shooting, now he's nearly three, bumbling around the room with a pacifier in his mouth that Julia says she doesn't have the heart to take away. The older boy is Maddy's age, quiet and serious. He sits close to his mother, back straight, his eyes on the large monitor hanging from the wall. George's parents are there, too, and his sister.

There are some other family members there, Jordan Katz's parents, in from Connecticut; Tonia Johnson's husband, Damon; other people that must be somehow related to this nightmare but that Brad hasn't met. He greets all the people he does know, takes a chair and resettles Maddy on his lap. She sighs, turns her face to the monitor when she hears her father's voice.

Nate's kept his hair buzzed off, he's lightly tanned these days from playing outside with Maddy, from running and biking and continuing to fail to learn to surf. His therapy has been going well, some days better than others. His suit is charcoal, recently tailored; he's wearing the pale green patterned tie that Maddy picked out. It reminded her, she said, of their ocean at home.

She snuggles into Brad's side, tucks her thumb into her mouth; ordinarily he'd be giving her a flick on the back of her hand but like Julia, he doesn't have the heart to take it away, not today. Not with Nate on that screen, saying,

"Yes, the defendant."

Brad swallows hard.

Anne Kim turns toward the jury, so she's speaking to them as well as to Nate. "Captain, will you take us through what happened after you saw the defendant point the gun at the President?"

"I was standing to the President's right. He had turned back toward the crowd to wave at them, and I turned as well, just as Ms. Jankowski pointed her weapon. I am very familiar with firearms, I recognized what I was seeing, and my instinct, my first reaction was to turn myself further and step in front of the President. She fired, and I was hit in the left shoulder."

Nate touches the spot with his right hand. It looks unconscious, an absent gesture, but Brad knows it's deliberate.

"And what happened next?" Anne prompts.

"Agent Ruiz was hit. I didn't see it, precisely – but one second he was in front of us, the next he was on the ground, and my face was covered in blood."

Brad doesn't look at Julia. She's certainly not looking at him.

"Another bullet went past my ear," Nate continues, speaking clear and level. "I recognized the sound. I was hit again, on the right side. It spun me a little, back against the President. We fell, and I heard more shots. Someone – Agent Mottola, I now know – landed on top of us."

Anne's face is sympathetic; she crosses to the stand, puts her hand on the rail. "Is there anything else about the defendant that you specifically recall?"

Brad can see Nate's Adam's apple bob. He glances down at Maddy; she's got her thumb just resting against her lips, her eyes following the action on the screen with unblinking attention. She's not often physically affectionate with him – it's been a long couple of years, learning their relationship – but she's stuck like a barnacle to his side now. He feels grateful.

"—calm," Nate is saying. "She was absolutely calm and focused. She looked me right in the face as she fired. When I was on the ground, it was chaos, there was screaming, people were running, and they had knocked over the barrier, and I could see Ms. Jankowski being taken into custody. She surrendered without a fight. She never lost her cool."

"Thank you, Captain Fick," Anne says. She drums the rail with her fingernails, a click that's audible even on the feed. Brad can see the corner of Nate's mouth twitch, then the camera pans away as she returns to her table.

Craig Robertson stands, smoothes his lapels, and then leans back against the defense table, crossing his arms over his chest

"You observed my client to be 'absolutely calm and focused,' is that what you said?" The camera swings back to Nate.

"Yes." Nate's face is impassive.

"You served in the Marine Corps, is that correct?"

"Yes."

"And that is where you gained your aforestated familiarity with weaponry?"

"Yes."

"You served how many combat tours?"

"Two. Afghanistan, and Iraq." That corner of Nate's mouth twitches again.

"Would you say you can recognize most firearms by sight?"

"Define recognize."

The camera is still on Nate, but the microphones pick up Robertson's huffing noise. "You stated, Captain Fick, that you 'recognized what you were seeing.' The definition in question would be yours, then. What did you mean by that?"

"That I know the barrel of a gun when I'm looking down one," Nate answers. He lifts his chin a bit.

"Your Honor," Anne cuts in. "Is the counselor making a point, or making conversation?"

"I am attempting to clarify the witness' testimony," Robertson says.

"You may proceed," Judge Alexander grunts, "but along a less meandering path, Counselor."

"Yes, Your Honor." Robertson's voice sounds vaguely mocking. "Captain Fick, did you recognize the specific weapon my client was holding, or simply recognize it as a weapon?"

"I recognized it as a small caliber handgun. More than that I couldn't say, at the time."

"Because?" Robertson prompts.

"She was about three meters away, there was a crowd around her, and the gun was pointed directly at me." Nate's jaw works. "There were a number of variables."

"So you couldn't see it," Robertson crows. "You weren't close enough, and you didn't have a clear view, and yet you feel confident to speak to Ms. Jankowski's facial expression?"

"Your face is approximately four meters from mine right now, and I can see your smirk just fine."

The gavel cracks. Maddy jumps, and Brad puts his hand over the top of her head, murmuring shh even though she hasn't made a sound. Nate's shoulders hitch so slightly that Brad's sure no one else notices.

"Captain Fick, watch yourself. Counselor, if this line of questioning is complete, move on."

Nate inclines his head in the direction of the bench, the bare minimum of apology.

"If Captain Fick cannot speak to my client's demeanor, then the jury cannot draw conclusions from his testimony about her state of mind, Your Honor. And Ms. Jankowski's state of mind is, in fact, what is on trial here."

"Ms. Kim?"

"I have no objections," Anne's dry voice comes from off-camera. "For now."

Someone coughs in the courtroom. Nate doesn't look, doesn't turn. He just waits.

"You were shot twice," Robertson says, dropping the words into the silence.

"Yes."

"Do you recall how long you remained conscious after the shooting?"

"Not specifically, in terms of time." Nate tips his head to the right. "But I was awake until the EMTs started loading me with morphine."

"Awake and fully observant of Ms. Jankowski's behavior, despite being shot twice, having your face covered in blood, having another person fall on top of you? You testified that the scene was chaotic. How much observing could you have possibly done?"

"I was a Recon Marine. Observation under adverse conditions is what I'm trained to do."

"Hadn't you been out of the Marine Corps for a decade at the time of the shooting?"

"A retired Marine is still a Marine." Nate blinks once.

"Daddy's pissed," Maddy whispers, tipping her face up at Brad.

"Yes, he is," he murmurs back.

"Following the shooting you were hospitalized for how long?" Robertson asks. His footsteps are loud, and he comes back into frame, standing closer to Nate. He sticks his hands in his pockets.

"Three and a half weeks."

"You weren't officially released though, were you? You checked yourself out, against medical advice."

"That's correct."

"And you and your former wife, she had filed for divorce from you a few weeks before the shooting, correct? She left you, and you left your child in the care of your parents, is that correct?"

"No." Nate's jaw flexes again. "My former wife filed for divorce three months before the shooting, following a mutual separation. She maintained primary custody until the shooting, at which time she left our daughter in the care of my parents."

Robertson makes a little rolling gesture with his index finger. "Whereupon you checked yourself out of the hospital, AMA, and left your child alone with her grandparents, while you traveled to California and moved in with another man."

All the eyes in the family room turn to Brad. He keeps looking straight ahead.

"—Your Honor!" Anne is interjecting. "Relevance?"

"I'm attempting to build a picture, Your Honor." Robertson raises his hands in false surrender.

"Proceed with caution, Counselor." The camera cuts to the judge for a moment, looking over his glasses at Robertson, a spot of reflection shining on his dark, bald head. "Try asking some questions, instead of making declarations."

"Of course." Robertson's smile is oily. "Isn't it true, Captain Fick, that you were placed on suicide watch for several days following the shooting?"

"Yes." Nate gives the man a curt nod.

"And isn't true that veterans of the Iraq War develop post-traumatic stress disorder at a rate of ten percent? A disorder that is exacerbated by exposure to violent situations? And that you yourself have received treatment for PTSD?"

"Yes, I—"

"So you're suicidal," Robertson announces, holding up one finger. "You suffer from a debilitating mental condition." He holds up a second finger. "You had a severe breakdown in the hospital, didn't you? An incident with a nurse, whom you verbally assaulted?"

"She—"

"Yes or no, Captain."

"Yes." Nate's tone is low and icy, and Brad can see his fist clench on the rail, feels his own ball up in sympathy. This bottom-feeding scum-sucking sister-fucking piece of shit.

Robertson holds up a third finger, then a fourth. "And you had another breakdown following that one, leading to your abandoning your child and coming out as gay—"

"Objection!" Anne shouts. "This is completely inappropriate."

Nate opens his mouth, leaning forward, and Brad's gut twists. Please, he thinks. Please don't.

"I simply want the jury to understand who it is that is testifying, sir! If this is a man who can with any sort of rational accuracy make observations as to the state of mind of my client!"

"You simply want the jury to hear your prejudicial statements," Anne fires back.

"I should have ducked," Nate says, and his low, strong voice brings the room to a halt.

"Excuse me?" The camera swings back up to Judge Alexander, then returns to Nate. Nate's face is far from placid, but his tone is still calm when he answers.

"I should have ducked," Nate repeats. "That's what rational people do. No sane person steps in front of a bullet, let alone six. I believe that's what Mr. Robertson is getting at. That everything I've done, every choice I've made, from the moment that his client pulled a gun in a crowded street and murdered two men, has been irrational. And that may be true."

Judge Alexander takes his glasses off.

"Your Honor," Robertson says, "the witness should not—"

"Quiet. Go ahead, son." The camera pulls back just a little, getting both the judge and Nate in the frame. Brad barely breathes. Maddy puts her thumb back in her mouth.

"But I know what I saw, and I've told this court what I saw. The defendant took aim, fired, and killed. There are four children left without fathers, two women left without husbands. There's a man left with only half his leg. And there's me, and maybe I went a little crazy in the aftermath." Nate puts his hand on the rail of the witness box. "That doesn't change the facts, sir."

The judge's face is unreadable. "That," he says evenly, "is for the ladies and gentlemen of the jury to determine. Captain Fick, you are dismissed with the thanks of the court. Thirty minute recess – Ms. Kim, Mr. Robertson, my chambers. Now."

Brad scoops up Maddy, cradling her against his shoulder as if she were much smaller; she puts her legs around him and her arms around his neck. He grabs her jacket off the arm of the chair, heading toward the door with only a backward wave at the others.

"Is it over?" Maddy says as they step into the hall. Her voice sounds very loud, bouncing off the marble.

Agent Pierce is escorting Nate toward them, and Brad lengthens his stride, meeting Nate's tired smile with one of his own.

"Yeah," he says, hugging her a little tighter. "I think it might be."

 

*