It's one of those dingy roadside bars, the front windows crowded with neon lights advertising brands of beer they've probably never had on tap. Nate is in a booth along the wall, nursing a glass of some watery swill. He's been here since they opened four hours earlier; the main attraction arrived, right on schedule, ninety-three minutes ago.
He checks his watch, one concession from home he hasn't relinquished yet. It's wide and bulky on his wrist, but provided he doesn't switch on the holographic display, there's nothing to indicate that the electronics inside are any different from a contemporary timepiece. He has to keep this up for... another hour and fifty-six minutes -- less if he's miscalculated his target's penchant for speeding, or if there was a detour between the parking lot and the scene of the accident.
Nate could have asked, Do you remember that night, the one we brought you in? Retrace your steps for me, after you left the bar. But that might have given away his plan, which was all he'd had left in his desperation.
It's a weeknight, so the bar's not exactly crowded. Even in a throng, his target would be impossible to miss, head and shoulders above the rest. Nate watches him throw back another shot, opposite hand not quite touching the pocket containing the rumpled letter. He knows that it was penned by the ex-fiance, and the gist of it goes: So long, it's been real.
Rain picks up, not a cleansing downpour, but a tired drizzle that's just enough to float up oil residue on the roads, turning them shiny and slick.
So many details converging. Alter the slightest one and the entire structure topples as if struck by a wrecking ball. But Nate is better than that, a fucking demolitions expert who can pick an event apart at the seams, and drop the rubble precisely where he wants it. It's the aftermath, the rebuilding, he's not sure he can handle.
He knows his target's tolerance for alcohol, and judges the slight wobble as the man vacates his bar stool, heading for the bathroom. Nate would follow to be sure there isn't an unscheduled bolt out the rear exit, except there's the matter of an unsettled bar tab. He still might follow if he wasn't positive that the motorcycle in the parking lot will refuse to start. It was the first thing he took care of, approximately ninety minutes and six shots ago. The rate of intake is declining, with the total likely to top out around ten, maybe with a beer or two at the end for appearances.
Total price to rearrange an entire life: fifty-five bucks, plus tip.
A pair of legs halts next to Nate's booth, and he knows without looking up that it was a mistake to let the target out of his sight. Bastard snuck the long way around, came up on Nate from behind. It's classic Brad, so familiar that his heart clenches before he can stuff the reaction away.
"You've been watching me. All night."
There's no point in denying it, no gain in giving Brad the confrontation he wants. The challenge is naked in Brad's voice, along with the surety that he's the baddest motherfucker in the joint, that he can make any of these lesser creatures back down with a growl and a curl of his lip.
Nate could have him pinned on his back in under five seconds. It's happened before, but only one of them remembers.
"Sit down," Nate suggests. "I'll buy you a round."
"I'm not in the mood for company."
"That wasn't my offer. Sit." He does look up then, and it's frankly shocking when Brad responds to the authority in Nate's level stare. He doesn't recall it being so easy in the first days of their acquaintance, when handling Brad was like juggling a grenade with the pin out. Maybe it's different when Nate is merely a curiosity instead of a potential threat.
Maybe Brad assumes this is a pick-up. They didn't, before. Not for lack of interest on Brad's part, but for reasons that no longer exist. Nate left them on the other side of the rift, three hundred years from now.
Nate raises his arm, signaling a round. Business is slow enough that the drinks arrive before the silence in the booth can become stifling.
Brad lifts his glass with his fingertips, as if to gun it, then changes his mind and sips instead. He pulls a face at the cheap, harsh taste.
That bottle of seventeen sixty-two Ferintosh we shared, I'm sorry to take that away from you, Nate thinks, watching him. I'm sorry to take it all away, but you'll never miss it, and it's not like I had a fucking choice. We're both to blame for the damned paradoxical feedback loop, but I'm still sorry to have to be the one to break it.
"Brad," Brad says, when he finally realizes that Nate wasn't lying about that offer of non-company.
"Nate." That's the only truth on the drivers license in his wallet. His cover is deep -- identification, computer records, credit cards, bank account -- but he hasn't invented the history yet to go with it, so smalltalk will be tricky. He can't fuck up on the details; Brad will catch him. Brad's meticulous about that shit. He can't let on that he can read the underlying hurt and regret and bitterness in Brad's every gesture, as easily as lifting words from a page.
Perhaps he'll become a scholar, the twenty-first century's foremost expert on ancient Greece. He lived there for three years, on and off. He's survived in backwater timelines before. It's the permanence of this arrangement that frightens him.
But would Brad be interested in a scholar? There's no common ground, not when he hasn't caught Nate out in the halls in full hoplite kit, fresh practice abrasions dotting his skin. Maybe something more adventurous. Hell, he could turn treasure hunter. Nate knows the location of a wrecked Spanish galleon; he sent the team that sank it.
"It's raining," Brad remarks, "and I hate this goddamned song." The jukebox is twanging away. What he means is that he's tired of looking in himself, and Nate has failed to provide the distraction he'd hoped.
Who was she? Nate could ask, but he already knows the story. Or, What branch of service? That isn't the route he wants to take, though.
"Why were you watching me?" Brad seems genuinely curious. None of his expectations have panned out.
"You remind me of someone. A friend," Nate adds, to prevent it from sounding like a bad line. "That's all."
Brad surprises himself with his own humor, proof that the alcohol is speaking. "What, tall, blond and brooding?"
Nate motions. "The hair, I guess. He was a Marine." It's cheating, a little.
"Huh. So'm I. What unit?"
Mine, Nate thinks. The best damned agent I ever fielded, and this is the anniversary of his death. Or would be, if I wasn't here to stop it. "The One-Two," he lies, trying to remember a battalion that isn't based at Pendleton. Getting specific in territory that's familiar to Brad is dangerous.
"To the friends in memory, then," Brad says, throwing back the rest of his drink. There's a self-deprecating twist to his mouth, and the next shot goes down straight away, like he's remembered what he was trying to drown.
After that, the stretches of silence are more comfortable than anything.
Nate knows that Brad is on leave, otherwise he wouldn't be drinking so late. He also knows that the ride that took Brad this far north was an anger-fueled escape; and that against the prospect of a long cab trip and abandoning his baby overnight, the return ride must have seemed like a tenable risk. But, forty-seven minutes later in the parking lot, the bike refuses to start. Brad lets out a string of curses, not even close to his best effort, and kicks at a stagnant puddle. He almost winds up on his ass, but even in his condition he's not about to vent his frustration on that pampered machine.
It's so Brad that Nate has to wipe the wistfulness off his face before approaching, his own keys in hand. "Hey, having trouble?"
"It won't-" Brad begins. He's not above glaring; glaring won't scratch the paint. "I can't fucking see out here. Why doesn't this place have any goddamned outdoor lights?"
"I'll give you a lift," Nate says. If he'd offered ten minutes ago, when they were settling the tab, he knows Brad would have refused.
In fact, the contrary asshole is still looking for another way out. "Maybe I can call someone." He's running through the list of acquaintances in his head, all of them a hundred miles away, and most of them probably in bed. "Shit. I just- Is it too much to ask that one fucking thing go right for me today?" he asks, turning defeated eyes on Nate, willing Nate to understand.
He's getting his wish and doesn't even know it. The difference between the engine turning over and not is the difference between a cold, lonely end in a ditch versus seeing the sun rise tomorrow. The team that rescued Brad the first time... they aren't coming, not anymore. Mission scrubbed. The loop has to be broken from the outside, before it can begin.
Brad won't ever know about any of that, but Nate can give him something. "That's my truck," he points. It's no coincidence that he came prepared with a folding ramp to get the damned bike in the bed, and the tiedowns to lash it in place.
"I don't-" Brad tries again. There's an odd hope bleeding through. "It's an hour drive."
Christ, it's going to be difficult overcoming this... this. Witnessing one of Brad's more ignoble moments isn't going to endear Nate to him. Nate will have to think of something to offset it, strong enough forge a connection despite Brad's hesitance. He didn't come all this fucking way to lose the one thing he gave up everything to save. Twice, now.
Nate doesn't say, It's no trouble, because that kind of bullshit doesn't work with Brad. "I'll find some way for you to pay me back," he says, jangling his keys encouragingly.
It's just suggestive enough that it does the trick, although Brad refuses to wait in the cab like a good little trooper. He has to supervise the help Nate bribes in the bar, anxious every step of the way until the bike is stowed, the tiedowns checked and re-checked. Then and only then does he crawl up onto the bench seat, with help.
Nate gets him strapped in, and makes sure his fingers aren't in peril of the closing door. He slips behind the wheel, cranks the engine before asking, "Which way?"
"Left," Brad mumbles. "Oceanside."
There's a pretty big gap in the directions, but that doesn't matter. They aren't going to Oceanside. Less than a mile down the road, Nate casually reaches into the map pouch on his door, pulls out a stunner weapon -- his second and last concession from home -- and puts Brad out with a jolt that Nate prays he won't remember come morning.
It's a roadside motel, on the old side, but quiet and clean. Nate already has a room along the back side of the single, rectangular building, and no one gives a shit that he has to literally carry his falling-down-drunk friend in from the truck.
The motorcycle keys are a problem. As soon as he's conscious, getting the fuck out of an awkward situation will be Brad's number one priority. Nate's solution is to lock them in the cab, and then hide the truck keys in the mini fridge. It won't stop a determined Brad, but it'll slow him down.
Nate works on making Brad bed-worthy next, boots and clothes off, down to his skivvies. Nothing Nate hasn't seen before in the costume rooms, although he does linger over the tattoo, recalling the first time he saw it. Distinguishing marks are a liability to field agents, but Brad was prepared to fight tooth and nail to keep that ink. Nate's glad now that it stayed, a piece of continuity between the Brad that was and the Brad that is. Plus, he actually likes it.
The stunner blast is good for four, maybe five hours. There was a pit stop before they left the bar, but Brad's bladder is still going to wake up screaming. His head also, so Nate has aspirin and water standing by. Nate flops him over on his back -- he knows Brad prefers to sleep that way -- pulls the covers up over him, and reluctantly crawls for the second bed.
Just the steady sound of Brad's breathing guarantees the best sleep Nate's had in a while.
It's early morning when he wakes. There's just enough purplish light seeping around the edge of the curtains to highlight the huge shadow that's looming over Nate's bed. He almost forgot how quiet the fucker can be, when he wants.
"I can't find my fucking keys," Brad growls. He's fully dressed, fidgety with the need to be elsewhere.
It only sounds petulant because Nate knows the rest is an act, that Brad isn't dangerous unless you've done something to earn it. He's exactly aware of the line that shouldn't be crossed with Brad, because more than once he's stood right up against it. "G'morning to you, too," he slurs. It becomes a groan as he stretches, arching his back off the bed, and that's all it takes to acquire Brad's undivided attention.
Okay, maybe it helps that the sheets have slipped down, even though he isn't nude. Merely close. Reaching, he flips on the light.
Brad finds his manners. Sort of. "Um. I wasn't- I should probably thank you. For last night."
"Probably?" Nate teases. "You mean you can't remember?"
Brad makes this aghast little sound, his expression priceless to match. It's even better because Nate knows he's already tried to piece together what happened, checked the trash can for condom wrappers, that kind of thing. "Did we-"
Nate kicks free of the covers and stands. Barefoot, he loses another inch to Brad, but they're near enough in height to explain why Nate doesn't find him the least bit intimidating. "I was a perfect gentleman, and you were dead to the world. So no, sorry to disappoint you."
"I'm not disappointed," Brad nearly snaps.
Oh. Oh, holy shit, I'm an idiot. "Yes you are."
Something -- maybe Nate's utter conviction, or lack of needling smugness -- causes Brad to swallow down further denial. Instead, he draws his shoulders square and expresses very plainly, Yeah, well so fucking what?
Their history might be gone, but Brad is still Brad. Nate won him once before; the absence of an artificial tether could actually work in his favor the second time.
There's maybe three feet separating them. "Brad, c'mere," Nate says, and not even a stranger could mistake the assurance with which his mouth forms the name. Even the added, "Please," isn't a request.
Between his curiosity and his willingness to meet a challenge, Brad can't stop himself. "You are..." He shakes his head, meaning irritating, intriguing. "I'll warn you right now that I don't like surprises."
No, you fucking hate them, Nate remembers. "Fair enough." He reaches up, pulls Brad down into a kiss that's as frank and unsentimental as he can make it. Full disclosure is the intent, but in the end he settles for meticulous and very, very thorough. He feels Brad's arm come around his bare waist, cinching them together and pulling Nate up on his toes. He allows it for a while, snared in the sense of the familiar. This isn't something they ever did, but they ran right up to the brink so many times that they might as well have.
"Wait, it's my turn," Nate breaks off, when Brad gets serious about trying to back him for the bed.
Brad just laughs at first, fingertips dipping beneath Nate's waistband. But whatever he sees in Nate's expression acts like a dash of water to the face. He cycles from surprise to confusion to anger in the space of one deep, indrawn breath. "What the fuck."
"I don't play games," Nate assures him quickly. "And... I don't do rebounds. I put my number in your phone last night while you were passed out. Call me when your head's back on straight. I promise I'm not going anywhere. Or if you want to talk, before that, call me. Or maybe I'll call you, just to hear- I'm sort of on the rebound myself."
Brad shifts his weight side-to-side. He's almost never unsure of himself; but keeping Brad just that slightest bit unbalanced is Nate's specialty. Hell, it's what Brad needs. He'll push and push and push, and he's fucking done with you the moment he's able to trample you.
Nate cocks his head. "So, breakfast?" He also remembers the first time he showed up at Brad's quarters early and unannounced, Brad blocking the door, wearing that infuriating grin. Sorry, I don't do social breakfasts with people who didn't wake up in my bed.
"Yeah," Brad decides, after dragging his eyes down Nate's body and letting them crawl back up it. The ghost of that grin surfaces. "Yeah, I could go for that."
Chapter 2: objective plus 134 hours
Because Bgaleb asked for one week later.
The quaint background music and clink of bottles barely reach Nate. He shifts on the vinyl seat, trying to escape the spot where the springs have caved in, and shuffles the papers, the catalogs, the calendar, the notebooks spread out before him.
Exhibit A: Nate's future.
It's driving him crazy that he can't run the numbers on a few hundred possible outcomes and select the best one. He knows he could try something for a while, change his mind if it doesn't suit; but deep down he must have retained his analyst's inhibitions, because he cringes at the thought of pouring time and resources into a potential dead-end. It would be so much... cleaner if he just had it right from the start.
Free agency is a bitch, as they say. Even more so, it turns out, when you are the free agent. For example, Nate couldn't have predicted that he would end up back in the same bar less than a week after averting Brad's accident. Yet here he is, driven out of his too-quiet hotel room to set up shop in a grimy booth. And if snatches of conversation tug at his attention, it's preferable to the distraction of encroaching solitude. He's too accustomed to compound life, close quarters and round the clock activity.
The bar is a drinking hole, not a pick-up joint. Its regulars are a bit older than Nate, rougher and harder, at least in appearance. He spent the weeks prior to Brad's accident acclimating them to his presence, one tasteless beer at a time. It made for an uninterrupted mission; and he's still enjoying a live-and-let-live sort of acceptance. Even the bartender's stopped pestering him for refills, having learned that when Nate's ready, he'll ask.
There's a television in one corner playing baseball, another tuned to a fighting match, both with the sound turned down. An engine rumbles into the parking lot and stills. Soon after, he hears the door slap open, its worn-out springs providing little resistance.
Nate glares at his kaleidoscope of documents, realizes he's chewing on his lip and doesn't care enough to stop. There's a pattern hidden here, some spark of inspiration for him to follow. He just needs to see it.
Trouble is, like a computer programmer dropped into the height of the industrial revolution, he's had to throw out most of his skills as a cross-temporal mission coordinator. What's left doesn't share much overlap with his knowledge and interests -- at least not in the context of viable twenty-first century careers. And then, the obvious choices require credentials he doesn't have, couldn't fabricate to withstand scrutiny. Hell, without the right piece of paper, he couldn't even land a job as a history teacher.
(Who the fuck is he kidding? Lecturing would be a disaster. He'd be bound to slip up and reveal events that haven't occurred yet.)
The match on the television isn't boxing. It's being conducted in a cage, and the combatants are wearing light, open-fingered gloves. He watches one fighter ward off the other with a flat-footed kick and thinks, I could have countered that.
(Modern-day gladiator? No. Just... no.)
Fuck if treasure hunting -- finding? -- isn't an increasingly attractive option. He would have to learn to dive, maybe barter lessons-
"Brad?" Nate doesn't have to look up to recognize that voice, just scrambles to pull his notes into a pile. "Shit." He can't remember if there's anything Brad shouldn't be allowed to see. Best to be safe.
Brad halts, poised to slide into the booth. "I was going to buy you a drink, but if I'm disrupting-" There's a pause. "You remember me."
Nate's laugh is immediate and helpless. "How could I forget? I just- What are you doing here?"
Brad takes that as an invitation to sit. "It's a free country -- or so they keep telling me."
"Yes, but why are you- I didn't think I'd see you again. So soon," he amends. "Not like, Oh god, I hope I never see him again."
"Your truck was outside, so I came in," Brad says carefully, as if fearing his memory has overstated Nate's intelligence, that the reality is proving more dim.
Nate has seen Brad in the most ridiculous costumes, but it's unfair how good he looks in clothes that suit him, worn jeans and a plain tee beneath an open leather racing jacket. It makes Nate wish he'd put some thought into his own appearance, but he didn't come through the window with much, and shopping has been low priority. Hell, his trousers are scavenged from his uniform, plain enough not to be out of place, although they fabric they're made from won't be invented for another two hundred years. "Oceanside isn't exactly in the neighborhood."
"I would have come in even if I hadn't seen your truck. Have to venture pretty far if I don't want to run into anyone I know." He's not quite lying, more like trying to convince himself.
"You know me," Nate says.
"Actually, I don't." Brad signals the bartender, points at Nate's glass and holds up two fingers. He's not going to risk Nate saying no to that drink. "We spent an hour talking over breakfast, and after I left I realized I still didn't know the first thing about you."
"You know how I take my coffee." Which is appropriate considering that Nate owes his damned caffeine habit to Brad. Now that he has steady access to the stuff, he can see no reason to quit.
The beer arrives. Brad pulls a face at the first gulp. "True. And now I know you've got shit taste in beer."
"There -- that's two things."
This time, when Brad's gaze alights on Nate's papers, Nate lets him be a nosy bastard and read the top sheet upside down. It's nothing but the application deadlines for some local universities. "Student?" he tries again.
"No. I mean, I could be." He should stop there, but doesn't. "My problem is, I don't know what I am."
Brad stays silent, but Nate can see the curiosity eating him.
"Fuck it." He straightens in his seat, aware that the confession will have Brad's full attention. "I'm starting over. Quit my job, quit my life, packed my bags and got as far away as I could. That was it: end of plan. I don't know what comes next."
Brad seems startled, not at the frankness, but because it somehow struck a nerve. He blurts, "I don't know why I'm here."
"Would you believe I'm hoping to get laid?"
"No." Nate's sure of it. The predatory glint is missing from Brad's eyes.
Brad nudges his otherwise untouched beer, centering the glass on the paper coaster. He's pretending that it takes all his concentration. "Me neither. So you tell me why."
"How should I know?" Nate asks, forced nonchalance when his senses are screaming for caution.
"The way you look at me..." Brad makes it an accusation: Get the fuck out of my head. "I think you do."
Nate's been holding to the theory that it would be best if Brad came to him, that it should be Brad's idea; after all, the fucker has a tendency to turn and fight when pursued. He should have realized that, given the initiative, Brad would set a trap. He answers tiredly, as if by rote, "I don't have any rank insignia for you to read, so you can't place me in your nice little hierarchy. You can't decide if you're attracted to me or the mystery I represent. You want to try fucking it out of your system, but you're afraid it will get worse, not better. And then what happens if I turn out to be a lawyer, or, or a vegan, or something else equally antithetical?"
Brad's mouth hangs open a little. He shuts it with a click of teeth, while color rises on his cheeks. It's not a good sign, but he hasn't vacated the booth, either.
"Am I close?"
Dead fucking on, says the annoyed staccato of fingers on the table edge. "Are you a lawyer?"
"No. But I know more Latin than one. ...I also speak three dialects of ancient Greek." Fair warning.
"Should have known you're a pussy intellectual." Brad has the courtesy to look disappointed. "I bet you got your body in an air-conditioned gym. Or do you have a Bowflex at home?"
Thanks to the cultural refresher Nate took pre-window, he actually knows what that is. "Fuck you. I practice mixed martial arts." The sport on the television is the successor to lessons Nate had (lovingly) pounded into him by a retired Spartan soldier, although in the fifth century BCE the style was to fight bare-knuckled on the dirt. And naked. "And I'm more of a history buff."
"Military." Contemporary. Future.
"Hmph. Ever think about enlisting?"
This one's easy. "I have a less than stellar track record with following bullshit orders -- no offense."
"None taken." Brad always made it clear that he enjoys his height advantage over Nate, however slim. He can't put it to good use in the booth, but he makes do, leaning forward a little. "Where do you live?"
"I don't yet. I'm staying in a hotel while I hunt for a place. Haven't even narrowed down the city."
"What made you pick California?"
"I heard the scenery is nice."
"You're going to have to do better than that."
"It wasn't a come-on."
Brad says, "Rebound, I remember," with another flash of disappointment, one that feels genuine.
"You can-" Nate is about to say that Brad can call him, that talking and taking things slow is what he needs. Except it really isn't. Despite the entertaining dance, Nate's had enough goddamned foreplay. He can't run his own mission numbers, but he's desperate for that feedback, the instant gratification of knowing whether or not his effort and sacrifice were worth shit.
The mission will never be over. It's his life, now.
"I can what?"
Nate shakes his head. "Let's get out of here."
There's no victorious smirk. If anything, Brad's face goes blank, impossible for even Nate to read. "I need to be up early in the morning for work."
Nate swallows to push down his heart, which has somehow climbed high into his throat. "You'll have to do better than that." If he's fucked this up, he'll never know when, or where, or how to fix it.
"It's not an excuse." The reply is automatic, almost defensive. Brad doesn't look at Nate. "We'd have to go to my place, and I don't ever- I have to be careful."
Nate bumps Brad's leg beneath the table and succeeds in catching his eye. "So no parading naked in front of open windows. And I'll park my truck down the street." His unbidden smile tastes like relief, but outwardly it must look like something else, because, studying him, Brad's expression goes sort of muzzy, and he can't seem to remember how to blink. "Is that okay?"
"More than okay," Brad says faintly. "You don't... mind?"
"It's fine. I'm no good with bullshit orders, but you'll find that, given sufficient incentive, I'm extremely good at circumventing bullshit rules."
"Fuck me." Brad claws his way out of the both, blindly digs through his wallet to drop a couple bills on the table, more than double what's needed to cover the tab. "C'mon."
Nate escapes being hauled for the door only by merit of taking the lead. And then, Brad's crowding on his heels, urging him faster, every step of the way.