They fuck things up badly the first time around.
In hindsight, Nate has to admit that it's not much of a surprise. Iraq did a number on both of them, no matter how much they pretended they were fine afterwards; it ate them up alive and spat out their mangled remains. It takes Nate years to acknowledge that. Takes Brad even longer. Sure, OIF was a clusterfuck of epic proportions, but they're fucking Marines – they make do, they deal with whatever shit gets thrown at them and don't let it get to them. Except when they do.
But that's just the thing: you can't take in the bigger picture when you're too close, even less when you're part of it. You inevitably get lost in the details, and you need to take a step back or ten to see the whole thing.
He knows it's unnecessarily bitchy. It doesn't entirely surprise him when there's no response.
He tries calling Brad once, almost six months later. It's 2am on a crisp, cold winter night in Boston, which means that it's morning in the UK. Nate is back at his dorm after going for drinks with some guys from his Finance class. He's drunk and he's lonely and he misses Brad. He also knows from his military connections that Brad's assignment should be over and his unit is back at the base, so he dials Brad's cell phone.
A polite female voice tells him that the number is disconnected, and Nate realizes for the first time that this is it. They're really done.
In Baghdad, a couple of days before they're pulled out, Brad finds Nate outside whatever abandoned building they're temporarily based at, shielded by a stack of crates.
It's not that Nate's hiding, exactly, but he's not on watch and he needs some alone time. He's halfway through a cigarette, and even though he lit it more to have an excuse to be out here by himself in the middle of the night than from the genuine desire for a smoke, dragging in the warm bitterness of it that burns against his throat right down to his lungs has an oddly calming effect.
Brad doesn't seem at all startled to find him here. If it were anyone else, Nate would assume that they'd come by accidentally or maybe saw the thin clouds of pale smoke in the clear night air, but it's Brad. All through the past weeks they've always had the uncanny ability of finding one another, a hyperawareness of each other's presence. Nate has spent this entire operation telling himself it doesn't mean anything beyond a good rapport between a CO and his Team Leader, that it couldn't mean anything more. But he's getting tired of accepting bullshit without questioning it. Even when it's bullshit he's trying to tell himself.
He doesn't turn his head as Brad settles in beside him, their shoulders touching. Neither of them speaks, the silence between them almost but not quite comfortable, charged in a way that makes Nate’s gut clench in anticipation. There's a part of him that wants to break it, fill the space between them with words, but it was Brad who came to him, so he intends on waiting him out. He's reasonably sure that Brad's playing the same game. In the end, Nate wins.
"Sir." Brad pauses a beat, two. He sounds very carefully matter-of-fact. "That clusterfuck at the park. Is Captain Schwetje going to make it a problem for you?"
Nate just shrugs, unwilling to think about it. All he wants to remember from that particular awful episode is Brad's presence beside him, the weight of his stare, the I trust your judgement, the Far enough, sir.
When he doesn't answer, Brad presses on. "If you need me to —"
"Don't worry about it."
Brad raises an eyebrow. He doesn't ask, doesn't push for an explanation, and even though Nate had no intention of elaborating, he can't stop the words from tumbling out of his mouth. "I just — I don't think I really care anymore."
He isn't saying I'm done with the Corps, not in so many words – hadn't even thought of it that way until now, but right there and then, it becomes obvious. He knows Brad is good enough at reading between the lines to hear it too, that unspoken admission.
Brad's face remains impassive. He nods quietly, his eyes searching Nate's face. Nate wonders what he sees, what he thinks of him now, whether Brad looks at him and finds him lacking. When he brings the cigarette back to his mouth, his fingers are not quite as steady as he wants them to be, and he watches Brad zero in on that tiny, tell-tale tremble.
Brad moves fast and soundlessly, plucking the cigarette stub from Nate's mouth. For a moment, his fingers brush against Nate's lips, and the contact is electrifying, like static shock: that sharp little moment of almost-pain when you brush your hand against the metal pins of a disconnected plug.
Nate bites his tongue hard to hold in a gasp. Not quite hard enough, it seems. Brad's smile is wide and predatory, showing a glimpse of bright white teeth. He takes a long, deep drag from Nate's cigarette before offering it back, and when Nate's mouth closes around the edge, he imagines that he can taste Brad on it.
This time, Brad's fingers linger, warm and callused against Nate's chapped lips.
"Like I said, sir. I trust your judgement."
His tone is neutral, but underneath there's reassurance and absolution and a promise. Brad pushes himself away from the crates, disappearing into the night with a final look over his shoulder.
Nate fully intends to wait until he's out before he allows himself to start something with Brad. But the paperwork drags on, and it will take weeks until everything is finalized.
When Brad turns up at his doorstep in Oceanside, a sharp smile on his lips while he's balancing a six-pack and his motorcycle helmet on his arm, Nate doesn't have the patience or the willpower to turn him away.
"I brought beer, sir. Thought we could catch up a bit, now that we're out of the sandbox."
Even though Nate knows that Brad isn't really here for a drink and a debrief, he steps aside. "Solid copy. Come on in, Sergeant."
Brad sets the beer and his helmet right there in the corridor, the first thing he does after closing the door behind himself. The next Nate knows, he's being pushed up against his front door and Brad's mouth is on his.
In theatre, he used to think about this. When he was going into his grave at night and his mind wouldn't shut down enough to sleep even though he knew that he had forty minutes at best and the next chance could be days away, he imagined what it would be like to step into Brad's space and kiss him, to get on his knees for Brad and swallow him down. He always felt a little guilty afterwards, a little dirty, because that was his goddamn TL he was fantasizing about. But in war, you quickly learn to make use of whatever works without questioning it. And if having impure thoughts about his direct subordinate helped him get through the night, then well, as long as it remained strictly in his mind and he never let it affect the way he treated Brad, it wasn't going to hurt anyone.
Except now he's on his way out and the Brad whose body is caging him in against the paint-chipped door of his apartment in California is not a figment of his sleep-deprived fantasies. The way the door handle digs uncomfortably into his back and the creaky sounds the hinges are making under the pressure of his and Brad's combined weight are testament to just how real it is.
Brad kisses exactly like Nate imagined he would, with the same effortless confidence and skill with which he does everything else, laying siege to his mouth and exploring the AO with his tongue. He tastes clean and fresh, like minty toothpaste, and Nate knows that if he thinks he can taste stale sweat and peanut butter MRE and gun oil underneath, it's his imagination playing tricks on him.
He makes one single attempt to put a stop to it, trying to listen to the voice of reason at the back of his head that's getting drowned out by the rush of want. With his hand pushing against Brad's chest, he puts some distance between them. Just a few inches, and Brad already seems too far away, Nate's body pulled in as if they're magnets drawn to each other.
"We shouldn't. I'm still —"
Brad doesn't let him get any further. "Don't make me question your intelligence, sir." His tone is scathing, but there's a small smile making the corners of his mouth twitch. "You're out, give or take a couple of signatures. Doesn't seem productive to get hung up on a technicality."
His right hand has found its way underneath the hem of Nate's shirt, fingers brushing over the waistband of Nate's jeans. Brad's thumb moves in circles over the exposed skin, sending shivers down Nate's spine, and Nate gives in. "Alright. At least lose the 'sir', will you?"
Brad chuckles. "How about you lose some clothes and then we'll see. Sir."
When Brad leans back in for another kiss, it frees Nate from the decision as to whether his correct response should be exasperation or amusement.
At Nate's paddle party, the guys fill him up with what seems like an unending progression of tequila shots, but it's entirely possible that he overplays his drunkenness so that no one questions Brad's offer to give him a lift home. He takes the keys to Nate's Toyota and leaves his bike at Mike's house with a warning to take good care of it as he'll obliterate anyone who touches it.
Ray laughs when he sees them off. "Clever, homes! So if our esteemed former leader inevitably empties his stomach, at least it'll be his own car he'll be fucking up when the piss-poor excuse for beer and the cheap tequila make a reappearance. It's so downright ingenious, it could have been my idea."
Nate flips him off through the open passenger window, reveling in the liberty to be able to do that, not to have to think about proper conduct and the divide between officers and enlisted. The breeze in his face is cool and pleasant, and he closes his eyes and thinks about how much he's going to miss California when he's back West.
Back at his house, he lies on the bed, stretched out, and lets Brad help him get his shoes off before he thinks enough is enough. His hand fisting in Brad's shirt, he reaches up to pull Brad down on top of him. The moment Brad's body crashes into his, the noise in his head immediately seems to quieten and his entire perception narrows down on the firm weight pressing him into the mattress, the soft cotton under his fingers and the flushed, sweaty skin underneath.
"Really?" Brad quirks an amused eyebrow at him. "With all due respect, sir, you could barely walk. I doubt you'd be up for anything more complicated tonight."
Nate takes Brad's hand and presses it against the front of his pants to show him that, with all due respect, Sergeant, he's up for a lot of things. "I'm not really that drunk, Brad. It just seemed like a good idea to act like I was. Also, it's Nate."
Brad grins. "That's astonishingly devious of you, sir. I approve."
Even if they must keep it tightly under wraps and no one can know, when the door falls shut between them and the outside world, Nate truly believes that they can take what they had in theatre and make it work here in the real world: that connection, the effortless silent communication.
Turns out his situational awareness doesn't extend quite far enough, after all.
Nate gets accepted into Harvard. Brad leaves for England. The distance doesn't break them. There are phone calls and e-mails and Skype chats, and it's not enough, but it bridges the time until Brad's stateside again during his next leave.
And then Brad's back for two weeks, larger than life in Nate's dorm room in Boston, and Nate is so happy to see him, live in Technicolor, close enough to touch, that he doesn't quite notice that Brad's a little quieter, a little more drawn into himself than usual, that his smile is a little hollow.
Glorious summer sunlight filters in through the windows, turning Brad's skin golden, and Nate can't stop putting his hands all over him.
They don't leave the room for five days. They order pizza and sleep in and watch ESPN and do some thorough recon on each other's bodies. Perhaps, Nate can't help thinking later, if they'd spent a little more time actually talking, it wouldn't all have fallen apart quite so spectacularly. But then again, talking was never really their forte – even in Iraq, they said more with a quick look than they ever said in words.
On a Sunday morning six days into his leave, between considering going for a run and discussing breakfast choices, Brad says, "My unit's being deployed. We're shipping out the week after I get back."
Nate stills. He nods, all calm and composed, hiding his reaction the way the Marine Corps did such a good job teaching him while quietly hoping that Brad's not that good at reading him. "Where?"
"Afghanistan. They say it's four months. Realistically, probably longer."
"Okay," Nate says, because what else is there to say? He remembers his family's faces when he told them about being deployed to Iraq, the way they struggled with composure, and he suddenly has a new appreciation for how they felt. He thought he understood what it was like, but he had no idea. It's not even on the same scale from this side, being the one staying behind. "Okay, we can make it work. I'm assured of this."
If he sounds like he's trying to convince himself, it's because that's what he's doing. Of course Brad notices, because it's his fucking job to pay attention and zero in on any weakness he can find, pressing where it hurts. "You don't really believe that."
There's a moment when Nate feels disoriented, like there's been an explosion somewhere nearby and white noise ringing in his ears is all he can hear, and he realizes that Brad's not keeping him updated about his assignments, he's breaking up with him. "Do you even hear yourself? I don't —"
"You had a girlfriend before they sent us to Iraq. I remember you mentioning her to Gunny back in Pendleton. What was her name, Sarah? Tell me, Nate, how's Sarah doing now?" Brad quirks an eyebrow at him, and Nate finds himself getting angry.
"I don't think my romantic history, or yours for that matter, are any realistic measure for our relationship. I have confidence in us, Brad, in this. It's only a few months. We can deal with that." He's well aware that he sounds uncomfortably like he did back in theatre, when he was trying to sell some moto bullshit order to his men. The difference is that this time, he believes in what he's saying.
Doesn't mean he's convincing enough to make Brad believe it. "What about the next time they send me away? And the time after that?"
"We'll just make do, okay? It's not like it will be like this forever."
Which... yeah, in hindsight might have been the wrong thing to say.
Brad's face shuts down, settling into his Iceman facade, and his lips curl into a smile that's 100% bitterness and zero humor. "That's just the thing, Nate, it will. I know the Corps has been very much a temporary experience for you, but it's my life. Which is why I think we both agree that we should quit this while we're ahead."
No, we fucking don't both agree, Nate thinks, and it doesn't have to be a choice between us and being a Marine. But he's angry and hurt and frustrated, and what he actually says is, "What the hell, Brad! You can't just make that decision for both of us." He regrets the words as soon as they're out. Brad has never reacted well to being told what he can't do.
"I'm making it for me, sir. I don't care what decision you make." It feels like a slap in Nate's face. He doesn't understand how the morning escalated from contemplating the merits of Jenna's coffee shop on Washington Street versus Starbucks to Brad telling him that they were through. Brad dresses, deliberately unhurried but without lingering, and it's all too obvious that he can't get out of Nate's room quickly enough.
"Brad, I —"
Brad cuts him off before Nate can even start, which is probably a good thing because he has no fucking clue what to say.
"I should get going. I promised my parents I'd spend a few days with them before I'm headed back." Nate assumes it's a lie, because he'd imagine that if Brad had any intention of leaving early, he would have told him at the beginning. Then again, when Brad reaches for his duffel and is already halfway out of the door (out of Nate's life) just minutes later, Nate realizes that he never unpacked to begin with, so maybe he can't read Brad as well as he thought he did.
Nate isn't sure what makes him angrier, that Brad was just waiting for Nate to give him an opportunity, or that Nate had done just that, playing right into his hand.
He also realizes that this conversation, the one where it all went to shit, was the first time Brad called him by his fucking name — and doesn't that just take the cake?
We're sorry. You have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service. If you feel you have reached this recording in error, please check the number and try your call again.
Nate's stomach turns violently, and he tries to take a deep breath to fight down the nausea.
He redials Brad's number, just to make sure. The message doesn't feel any less like a punch to the gut the second time around.
He pulls open his MacBook and writes an e-mail, pours out all his hurt and anger and frustration, calls Brad a coward. I miss you, he writes. And: I fucking loved you, you asshole. He looks at the words until they blur before his eyes. Deletes then. Replaces the past tense with the present. His finger hovers over the send button, but he can't bring himself to press down.
In the morning, hungover and freezing in the chill of his dorm room, he has only a vague recollection of what he wrote. He boots the computer, opens the program and deletes the e-mail without bothering to read it again.
He looks at Nate in a way that spells out that borrowing notes and sharing a coffee is not the only thing he's interested in. He's tall and dark-haired, wild curls that are all over the place and in dire need of a cut. He looks like a hipster kid whose worst life experience was to be handed the wrong kind of coffee at Starbucks, but Nate remember him from class, remembers being impressed by some of his comments and views.
"Sure," he finds himself saying, returning the smile.
It's been ten months since Brad left.
In fact, they're nothing like Brad at all, none of them, which is at the same time the reason that Nate gives it a go and the reason why he breaks up with them.
By the time he finishes his MBA and graduates, he's tired of getting into relationships that he knows are doomed from the start because he's clearly not over Brad. When he takes an internship in DC, he decides that it might be better to stop dating for a while, and when Carla from PR asks whether he wants to come see this show with her because she has an extra ticket, he tells her, "Sorry, maybe another time." She looks disappointed and he thinks about telling her that he just got out of a relationship and is still kind of hung-up on his ex, but considering that the relationship ended two years ago, which is more than twice as long as Brad and he ever were together, he figures it's nothing he needs to share.
He keeps busy, working on his career, and tells himself that there's not enough time to date anyway.
Nate's at a conference in LA, grabbing a bite at a deli during the break, when someone calls out to him.
"Hey LT!" There are only so many people who still call him by his old rank, most of them members of Bravo Two. It's still a surprise when he turns around and finds Trombley at the end of the aisle, wearing a LAPD uniform and carrying a tray of donuts.
He hasn't seen the kid since his paddle party, which feels like a lifetime ago even if it's actually just a few years. It was long enough, apparently, for Trombley to stop looking like a perpetually sullen, heavily armed teenager playing some shooter game with real ammo and live targets. Brad used to say that Trombley was probably the best Marine of them all, but looking at him now, he seems more comfortable and at home in the police uniform than he ever did in a MOP suit.
They exchange polite, friendly greetings, and Nate remembers that Trombley had a newborn kid when they were deployed. "How's the family?" he asks.
Trombley smiles, wide and happy. "Great, sir. Maria's seven months pregnant. It's gonna be a baby girl." He looks one step away from whipping out an ultrasound photo, radiating pride, and Nate is genuinely happy for him. "And you, sir? Ready to settle down and have a family yet?"
It doesn't sound invasive, so Nate allows himself enough honesty to shrug and say, "No. Too busy to date, really. I — There was someone, but it didn't work out." Even after all this time, he can't quite keep the bitterness from his voice.
"I'm sorry to hear that." It's the sort of platitude that generally comes up during awkward conversations about failed relationships, and Nate is about to steer them back to safer topics and inquire about Trombley's job with the police when Trombley frowns at him, suddenly shifty and visibly uncomfortable. "Look, sir, at your paddle party, the guys all told me they'd cut off my balls if I ever said anything to you, and Poke can be one scary motherfucker, but I figure they're not here now."
The moment he makes the jump from relationship talk to Nate's paddle party, Nate can feel his blood turning to ice in his veins. Trombley watches him with sharp eyes, and Nate dreads what he's going to say next, expects slurs and a homophobic rant, perhaps even thinly veiled threats because it's clear that he knows, that they all know, and how the fuck did Brad and he think they were stealthy enough to keep a secret like that from a room full of Recon Marines?
Instead, though, Trombley segues into a weird non-sequitur that totally throws Nate off. "Maria and me, we went through a rough patch. It was just after Iraq and I was pretty fucked up, and she wasn't used to having me around 24/7. We almost split up. She made me go to this marriage counselor with her to fix our shit. I hated it. It was pretty fucking gay." He winces. "Um, sorry, sir. Anyway, that shrink lady told us the key to working things out is to talk about shit. Which, yeah, seemed fucking simple but it was actually pretty hardcore. I figure that us Marines, we're all action, no talk. But, you know, it paid off in the end."
He gives Nate this half-uncomfortable, half-expectant look, and maybe Nate's been a civilian for too long because it actually takes him an embarrassingly long moment to reassess the situation and realize that Trombley is actively trying to give him relationship advice. He lets himself relax a fraction, the knot in his stomach loosening a little. He offers a wry smile. "That sounds like some solid advice, Officer. Unfortunately, I think in my particular case, it comes a few years too late."
Trombley's never been one to mince his words, nor a coward. Nate remembers when the kid left his cover in the middle of a firefight to take out a sniper, how he said afterwards that he wondered what it felt like to be shot. So, really, it shouldn't surprise him at all when Trombley has clearly decided that it's time to stop pussyfooting around the issue. "With all due respect, sir, you and the Sarge led us through the SNAFU that was OIF and brought us all home safely. You were fucking badass over there. Reporter thinks you two are motherfucking superheroes. Seems kind of wrong that you're too pussy to unfuck this shit."
Somewhere behind Nate, a dog barks. Trombley twitches and his eyes dart down the aisle, but at least he doesn't reach for his service weapon. All things considered, Nate muses, Trombley turned out alright.
They occasionally talk on the phone and Ray sends regular e-mails that either consist of long-winded rants about everything ranging from current politics to office gossip, or attachments of weird memes. In hindsight, Nate should have been suspicious of how Ray always, unfailingly, manages to bring up Brad in every single conversation they share. Of course Ray knows. Ray probably saw through his too drunk to stand act at the paddle party with zero effort.
So there's really no point in exchanging pleasantries, and Nate follows Ray's typical sarcastic-slash-enthusiastic greeting by barging in with the reason he called. "Ray, I need Brad's number."
There's silence at the other end of the line, and Nate is afraid that he might have miscalculated or, worse, that something happened to Brad. He thinks he probably would have heard it through the grapevine if it had been anything truly terrible, but for all he knows, Brad's married with three kids now.
Then there's a whooping noise and what sounds like a crash, loud enough to make Nate wince. "Fucking finally!" He doesn't need to see Ray to hear the broad smile he's currently wearing. "LT, my man, you have no fucking idea how fucking happy it makes me that one of you stopped being a sad stubborn cocksucking whiskey-tango retard. Except hopefully without the cocksucking because if either of you idiots shacked up with someone else, you'll make Ray-Ray cry."
Nate makes a noncommittal noise, unsure whether to be amused, touched or annoyed. With Ray, it's always hard to settle on one single appropriate emotional reaction. "I have to admit, I'm a little apprehensive by how invested you seem to be in this."
"Are you kidding, sir? We were this fucking close to staging an intervention."
Nate wisely chooses not to ask who's included in that we.
"Seriously though, homes, what made you see the light?"
It's Nate's turn to grin. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
He hasn't heard Brad's voice in three years. It's only now that he dares to admit to himself how much he's fucking missed that voice. (Missed that voice, missed Brad, missed those large, callused hands on his skin, missed the sarcastic amusement, the wicked smile, the twinkle of mischief in his blue eyes, missed the unfailing, impossibly grounding knowledge that Brad had his back.)
"Hello?" Brad says again, starting to sound annoyed, and Nate realizes that he has no idea what to say.
He's spent the afternoon laying out a plan, carefully choosing what arguments he'd use, how to phrase it, but right in this moment, it's all gone. He knows he has to say something or Brad will probably hang up because he thinks someone is prank-calling him, but his brain has gone offline and his voice is almost breaking on the "Hey."
There's a frighteningly long moment when Brad doesn't react, when there's nothing but silence on his end.
Then, softly, "Nate."
The last time Brad said his name, his voice had been icy, anger hidden under layers of I don't give a fuck. It's nothing like that now. His name falls from Brad's lips like a sigh, like a prayer, like he's missed Nate every bit as much as Nate has missed him. He swallows, his throat paper dry and rough like he swallowed all the sand of Iraq.
And Brad has always been the braver one of them, the one who'd be willing to take a step forward even if he ended up setting off an IED, so he says what Nate's not quite able to get out. "It's good to hear your voice, sir."
"And yours. Also, I believe we talked about losing the 'sir'." His body recalls that conversation and where it went, a shiver going through him at the memory.
"Why break the habit?"
Brad's amused reply sobers Nate up quickly. "Maybe it's time to break some habits," he suggests. He can be brave too.
"Care to elaborate?"
Nate tries to sound casual. "Well, Trombley of all people informed me that we're both pussies for not dealing with our epic communication failure, and Ray basically threatened to set the entire Bravo company on us if we don't get our shit together, and the last three years have been the most miserable ones in my life. I know we messed things up the last time, Brad, but I just— Can I see you?"
He half-expects some depreciating comments about how he sounds like he handed in his genitalia and grew a pussy, but all he can hear is Brad sharply pulling in air and then, "Where are you?"
"LA. I have a work thing, but I already blew off most of today so there's really no need for me to stick around."
"If you drive fast, you can be here by midnight," Brad says, and Nate can't stop smiling.
Nate nods in greeting, mouth too dry to form words, and Brad's response is a minuscule, barely-there smile that's heartbreakingly familiar.
Brad steps aside to let him enter, barely waits until Nate is inside and the door falls shut with a soft bang until he crowds him against a wall. The déjà-vu makes Nate's head spin, or maybe that's just being so close to Brad after all this time. When Brad leans down to close the distance, his mouth slightly parted and inviting and so close that Nate can almost taste him, he knows that if he doesn't stop this now he won't and they both might end up regretting it.
Brad freezes, the genuine smile being replaced by the version Nate remembers he reserved for situations when a fuck off would have been more honest. "I'm sorry, sir. I'm clearly operating on outdated ROE."
"You're not," Nate quickly says before this can turn into another disastrous misunderstanding. "You have no idea how much I just want to get you out of those clothes and into the bedroom within the next sixty seconds."
"Then why are we standing in my corridor arguing?"
Nate sidesteps Brad and walks into the kitchen because if he doesn't put some physical distance between them right now, he won't be able to stop himself from reaching out. "Because that's what we did the last time. We just jumped right into it, and it was perfect and easy and I wish it could have gone on like that, except we never talked and when we did, it all went to hell. This is too important to me to make the same mistake again, so I suggest we're a bit more verbal about what want this time."
"You want to talk about feelings, sir?" The disgusted expression on Brad's face says very clearly what he thinks of that, and Nate is sure that some colorful illustrations of his feelings on the matter will follow, so he puts enough gravity in his tone to let Brad know he's serious.
"I want this to work."
Brad just looks at him for a long moment, and when he speaks again, his voice is soft and serious. "Roger that."
Nate nods. "I know." He doesn't say: I would have waited. It makes no difference now, and he's certain that Brad knows anyway. "I probably shouldn't have implied that I expected you to make a choice between me and the Corps. Because I assure you, I don't." Brad looks like he's about to object, so Nate presses on. "I'm not saying that I like being apart. Only seeing you every couple of months. Knowing you're out there without being able to do a fucking thing to ensure your safety. The lies, the secrets. But I can live with it, for however long I need to. Whether it's a couple of years or until you're 62."
Brad's lip curls into a lopsided smile, amused. "30 years, Nate? That's a very optimistic timeframe you're working with here."
Nate shrugs. "I said a lot of things I didn't mean that day, Brad, but when I told you I have confidence in us, I was dead serious."
Brad looks at him with heavy, unreadable eyes until his stare becomes unnerving and the silence makes Nate's skin crawl. "Interrogative, sir. This girly sharing thing where we talk about our feelings and braid each other's hair, does it mean that we're not allowed to touch until there's an undignified level of emotional honesty achieved? Because, frankly, I'd really fucking like to kiss you right now."
Nate's lips twitch. "I think that can be arranged."
Buried to the hilt inside of Nate, Brad stills, looking down at him.
His pupils are so wide that his eyes are almost black, and when he speaks, his voice is a little breathless but still more grave and intense than Nate ever heard it before. "You wanted us to talk, so how's this for honesty hour: I never fucking missed anyone the way I missed you. I knew the moment I walked out of your door that I had probably made the worst mistake of my life. I was ready to turn around, come back and tell you I changed my mind, that I would do anything I could to make this work. That I would stay right there with you, quit the Corps, whatever you wanted. And it scared the shit out of me. So I fucking walked away and I didn't look back, but there hasn't been a single day when I didn't want to call you and try to fix this."
Nate reaches out, his hand curving around the side of Brad's neck. He can feel the steady beat of Brad's pulse under his fingers, the warmth of flushed skin.
"Doesn't matter. We're here now."
Nate's a little mortified, and Ray is jealous ("Where's my fucking gift basket, homes? I was the one who gave Nate your number. I feel like my part in this epic, glorious reunion isn't properly honored. I'm hurt, Brad. You're breaking my fragile little heart!"). He won't shut up about it until Brad ends up sending him a ridiculous, colorful flower arrangement with an effusive thank you note just to fuck with him.
When Mike invites all the members of Bravo Two to his house for a BBQ, Brad and Nate arrive separately. There are no PDAs, no verbal acknowledgement of their relationship, nothing demonstrative, but when Brad steps up to Nate at the grill, handing him a beer, he lets his hand rest on the small of Nate's back. Nate expects it to fall away quickly, but Brad doesn't move, doesn't step away or pull his hand back even though everyone around them can see and it's as good as an admission.
The only one who makes a comment is Poke, frowning at them. "Ah fuck, dwag, you guys are disgusting," he spits. "You're almost as bad as Person here and the poor girl who's had the misfortune of marrying that motherfucker. They were all over each other when they came around for dinner the other month. Typically white folk touchy-feely stuff. Makes me wanna barf."
"Aww, homes, you feelin' left out? Why didn't you fucking say so? Let Daddy Ray make it up to you," Ray coos, leaning over and planting a firm, wet kiss on Poke's cheek.
Everyone laughs as Poke scrunches up his face and wipes his cheek. Brad's hand remains where it is, unwavering, warmth radiating through Nate's shirt.
When Brad comes back from his third tour in Iraq to spend his leave in DC with Nate, he's irritable and monosyllabic, less willing to offer anything up than usual, snapping at Nate whenever he asks a question, even if he's just consulting Brad's opinion about take-out menus.
Nate gives him two days before he sits Brad down, puts a coffee in front of him and tells him, "Talk to me, Brad."
Brad gives him that look, the one where his eyes get so sharp and focused like he can actually look right inside your mind. "We're good." His tone is firm and sure, cutting straight to Nate's worries and laying them to rest. "I just need to some time to readjust."
Nate nods, not holding his breath for further explanation.
"Nate? For what's worth it, it's good to be home."
Nate smiles. "Then that's all I need to know."
Later, in the dark of their bedroom, Brad lies away, his body curved around Nate's. His fingers map out Nate's sleeping form, drawing invisible patterns and lines and letters. In neat cursive, he spells out Semper Fi on Nate's skin.