It may be November, but Southern California sure hasn’t caught on; Nate’s got his shirtsleeves rolled up and his sweater slung over his arm, and he’s just about warm enough that he wants iced coffee instead of hot. He hadn’t stayed in Oceanside long enough to ever get used to it, and maybe it’s ridiculous, but it feels wrong to him on some level that it’s Thanksgiving and the people around him in the grocery store are in shorts and teeshirts and sunglasses.
Nate probably should have known better than to try to brave the pre-Thanskgiving rush, but he’d figured it wouldn’t be too bad. He’s been waiting for ten minutes already, though, and now the woman in front of him—natural blond, natural tan, high-end yoga gear and those fucking ridiculous five-toed running shoes—is detailing some improbably complicated beverage concoction, and the one cashier looks so puzzled by the espresso machine that Nate half wants to go back there and make the fucking drink himself. It’d get him out of here faster, at least. Behind him, a man is on his cellphone despite the hand-drawn sign taped to the register saying “No cellphones at the counter, please!!!” and illustrated with three cheery smiley-faces. Nate sighs.
He’s just about to give it up for useless and go back to his car when the back of his neck begins prickling like he’s being stared at, and someone steps up behind him just inside his personal space. Nate pivots, quiescent-but-never-absent instincts kicking in, and sees—
Brad fucking Colbert, in all his clean-cut surfer-boy glory, taller than life and twice as handsome. Nate’s heart lurches a little in his chest.
“Well, well, well,” Brad says, giving him a shit-eating grin and stepping in to give Nate a back-pounding hug. “Long time no fucking see, sir.”
“Yeah, I—” Nate says, and then stops, because there’s wondering whether he’d run into someone from Bravo and then there’s actually running into Brad in the middle of a Ralphs in the suburbs, and it’s a little unexpected. “I thought you were out of the country,” he says.
“I was,” Brad says, rocking back on his heels. He’s still smiling, like seeing Nate after more than a year is nothing unexpected. “Home for a few days, though.”
Nate’s just about to ask when the guy behind them interrupts. “Excuse me, are you gonna order, or what?” he asks, sounding pissy, and Brad rolls his eyes and elbows Nate up to the counter. “Large coffee, black,” he says, thumbing his credit card out of his wallet. “And whatever he’s having.”
“Large, with milk,” Nate says. He doesn’t quite know what to say. His brain is still stuck on the fact that Brad Colbert is apparently buying him coffee. This was not what he expected when he got up this morning. Though not, quite frankly, unpleasant, either.
Brad scrawls his name on the slip and tugs Nate out of line, propelling him towards the doors with a hand on the small of his back. “So, I thought at first my eyes were playing tricks on me,” Brad says, conversationally. “Because why would Nate Fick be in a grocery store in San Diego?” It’s the trademark Colbert delivery, dry and rhetorical. He tugs Nate to a stop under the awning shading the corner of the parking lot, and Nate stumbles, barely avoiding sloshing his coffee. Brad grabs his arm to steady him. “I thought,” he says, and pauses dramatically, eyebrows raised. “I thought, huh, good looking guy, looks like the LT, but nah, can’t be, because the LT would have called if he was in town.” He grins, takes a sip of his coffee. “And yet,” he says. “Here you are.”
“Here I am,” Nate agrees, smiling, and Christ if it doesn’t feel the same as it always did, this back-and-forth banter, and the ease of it makes him bold. He leans one shoulder against the wall, lets himself slouch a little. “So, what would I have said if I called?” he asks.
Brad’s grin edges into something a little sharper. “Ah,” he says, thoughtfully. His eyes still haven’t left Nate’s. “Hey, Brad, I’m in town, want to grab a drink?” he says, and he gets Nate’s cadence so precisely that Nate is startled into laughter.
“So, hey, Brad,” he says. “I’m in town. Surprise! Want to grab a drink?”
It feels like flirting, but fuck it. He’s not in the Corps any longer. Maybe he should care, but faced with Brad Colbert out of uniform and in flipflops and aviators, he kind of doesn’t give a damn.
“How long are you in town?” Brad asks, and it’s not an answer, but his eyes are steady on Nate’s.
“Through Friday,” Nate says. “Fucking airline cancelled my flight out tomorrow morning.”
“Ah,” Brad says again. “Then.” He takes a swig of his coffee, and gives Nate a little half-smile, somehow softer than the others. “I’ll do you one better. Come join us for Thanksgiving. Unless you have other plans?”
Nate takes a deep breath. “Us?” he says, carefully.
Brad’s gaze is calm, but he’s fiddling with the lid of his coffee cup. “My parents and my sisters, their partners and kids,” he says. “Nothing crazy.”
Okay, so, no girlfriend, then. And maybe Brad’s not offering what Nate hopes he’s offering, but—he wants it, anyway. “You sure?” he says, and Brad smiles.
“Can’t have you wandering around San Diego alone, sir,” he says. “Who knows what trouble you’d get into, without me there to keep you in line?” He fishes the receipt from his hip pocket, smoothes it out against the top of his thigh. “Here,” he says, scrawling something on the back of it. “You’ve got a car?”
“Such as it is,” Nate says, jerking his head towards his godawful rental, and Brad smiles.
“Good,” he says. “2 o’clock.” He tucks the receipt into Nate’s shirt pocket. There’s a millisecond where neither of them speaks, and Nate catches his breath.
But then Brad’s stepping smoothly away. “Listen, I’ve got to get home, or my mother will have a fit,” he says, hefting his grocery bag to illustrate, Nate supposes, the groceries he’s been sent to fetch. “No bailing, Fick, I mean it. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
It sounds like a statement, but Nate answers anyway. “Yeah,” he says. “Get out of here. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Brad smiles, and turns, sharply, and lopes off. He always did that in Iraq, too, never bothered with small talk.
Well. This wasn’t what Nate was expecting from this trip, that’s for damn sure. He thinks for a moment, and then gives in to his curiosity. “Brad,” he calls after him, and Brad turns, eyebrows raised. “‘Good-looking guy,’ huh?” Nate asks.
Brad laughs. “Call it like I see it, sir,” he says. “See you tomorrow.”
The address Brad gives him is in the suburbs south of town, a subdivision, but a nice one: small well-kept houses, large yards, and the glint of the ocean between the trees. He rings the doorbell at promptly two pm, and there’s a long enough pause before the door opens that he feels a little frisson of nerves. He wonders if this isn’t a little weird, him showing up at his former TL’s house to celebrate a holiday with his family. There’s always been this whatever-it-is energy between them, but they’re not what Nate would call friends, exactly.
The woman who opens the door gives him such a friendly smile, though, that he feels his anxiety dissolve. She’s tall and slender, brown hair pulled up in a messy bun and an apron thrown over her outfit. “Hey,” she says, “you must be Nate. Sorry to keep you waiting, we had a pie emergency.” She sticks out a hand, and then realizes it’s covered in flour and pulls it back, laughing. “Come in,” she says, stepping out of the doorway. “I’m Leah,” she adds, over her shoulder, as Nate follows her into the house. “My brother’s in the living room, I really don’t mean to be rude, I’m just gonna—” She gestures towards where Nate presumes the kitchen is, and gives him such an apologetically imploring look that he can’t help laughing.
“Yeah, no problem,” he says. “I’ll just—” And then Brad appears, smiling his crooked smile.
“Hey, ” he says, eyes warm. He’s in dark jeans, nice shoes, a sweater. He looks really good.
“Well, you clean up well,” Nate says, before he can help himself, and Brad laughs, an unabashedly happy laugh he’s never heard from him before.
“Thanks,” Brad says. He reaches out to take the bottle of wine Nate’s holding, and quirks an eyebrow at him. “You too,” he adds, and then before Nate can say anything, “come on in, I’ll introduce you round.”
Nate follows him in. The house is nice—hardwood floors, lots of light, comfortable furniture, bright art on the walls. Nate likes it. He darts his glance around the living room. There’s a brown-haired woman watching him from the sofa—the other sister?—and a man he presumes is Brad’s father is pouring himself a drink at the sideboard. Brad shepherds him in.
His hand is warm against the small of Nate’s back again. Nate’s beginning to get the feeling that Brad is perhaps a different person when he’s at home than the man Nate knew in Iraq.
“My mother’s in the kitchen,” he says, slanting a glance at Nate, “and Leah you met already. Maya and her husband are on their way.” He stops in front of the woman on the couch, who stands up, shifting the sleeping baby she’s holding to one shoulder to shake his hand. “Agathe, Nate, Nate, Agathe,” Brad says.
“Leah’s partner,” she adds. She’s got a faint accent and sharp cheekbones and that air of undefinable elegance he associates with European women. “Glad you could join us.”
“Thanks,” Nate says. “It’s good to be here.”
“And I’m Paul,” Brad’s dad says, coming over to join them. He’s tall and slim, dark hair just beginning to shade to silver at his temples. He has Leah’s eyes. “And this,” he adds, gesturing with his glass, to the baby, “is Sophie. Most important person here.”
Brad laughs. “How could I forget,” he says, drily, but he’s amused, Nate can see.
“Good to meet you, sir,” Nate says. “How old is she?”
It’s clearly the right thing to say; Mr. Colbert and Agathe both beam. “Six months,” he says. “And call me Paul, please. I get enough of the ‘sir’ thing from my son; maybe between the two of us we can get him to stop.” It’s fond, though; he claps Brad on the shoulder and smiles. “Can I get you anything to drink?”
He glances at Brad, who’s watching Nate with inscrutable eyes. “A glass of wine, if it’s on offer?” he says, and Mr. Colbert—Paul—nods and disappears into the kitchen. Agathe follows him, and so it’s just the two of them.
And it’s funny, Nate thinks, how easy it is. He hasn’t seen Brad in over a year, since that last impromptu Bravo get-together in New York, and they’d spent more time joking around with the guys than catching up; he has only the vaguest notion of what Brad has been doing, where he’s been. They’d kept in touch enough that Brad had sent him a congratulatory email when he’d graduated, enough that if Nate had planned to be in California for more than a day he would have called, but not so much that he really feels like he has any right to be here.
And. The thing is, he’d kissed Brad, once. By accident, and when he was half-tipsy: just leaned in, distracted and thinking about something else, and kissed him full on the lips instead of simply saying goodbye. Brad had blinked at him, thoughtfully, for a moment, and then made some joke about—Nate doesn’t even remember what. And a week later he’d shipped out to Dover and Nate had headed up to Boston and they’d never mentioned it again.
And yet. Standing here in the glow of the late-afternoon autumn sunlight, listening to the rise and fall of Brad’s parents’ voices in their kitchen, to his sister’s laughter, Nate feels as if maybe it wasn’t that they were pretending it hadn’t happened, but rather—that they were just postponing the discussion.
“I want to hear what you’ve been up to,” he says, and Brad smiles.
“You know, the usual,” he says. “Trying to keep the kids from shooting each other. Invading third-world countries. Putting up with the incompetence of command.” His eyes crinkle at the corners when he smiles.
“Lovely,” Nate says, smiling back. Brad’s father reappears, carrying a glass of wine for each of them. There’s a pause while they both fall silent. He doesn’t know how much Brad talks about his deployments when he’s home; he doesn’t want to say the wrong thing. Brad’s father darts a glance between them, and Nate catches a hint of the same alert watchfulness that Brad has. Interesting.
“What brings you to San Diego, Nate?” he asks. “Brad tells us you served together, but am I right in thinking you’ve left the Corps?”
“Yes, sir,” he says. “Brad and I were in Iraq together in 2003.” Brad, who’s perched himself on the window-ledge and is leaning against the plate glass, has his ankles crossed and his fingers cupped loosely around his wineglass like he’s settling in to hear a story. “One of the finest Marines I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet,” he adds. Brad’s eyes flicker away for a second before rising back to meet his gaze.
“We’ll feed you even if you don’t flatter me, Nate,” Brad says. “Answer the man’s question.”
“Patience, young Jedi,” Nate says, shooting him a look, and Brad chuckles. “I got my Masters after I left the Corps,” Nate says. He never likes name-dropping Harvard; it’s useful, at times, but frankly he hates the attention, as if it were something so damn special. “Worked for a year in D.C., but there’s a fellowship at UCSD I’m interested in, and they flew me out here. Unfortunately, the only time they had was over Thanksgiving.”
Brad’s gaze sharpens. “UCSD, huh? You didn’t mention that.”
“I hardly had time,” Nate says, mildly, but he’s interrupted by the chime of the doorbell. Paul hands his glass to his son and goes to open the door. Nate breathes a sigh of relief. It’s not that he minds talking about what he does, not at all, but he’s uncomfortably aware of Brad’s father’s subtle-yet-still-palpable scrutiny. He wonders what Brad had said, to his parents, to explain Nate’s presence. He wonders whether it matters that Brad never mentioned that his sister is gay.
“Come on, sir, let me introduce you to my baby sister,” Brad says, pushing himself out of his lean and into Nate’s personal space. “This conversation isn’t done yet,” he adds, in a murmur for Nate’s ears alone.
Which, yeah. Nate’s definitely getting that impression.
Brad’s sister and her husband blow in, laughing and breathless, pink-cheeked from the wind. There’s a bustle of voices and unwrapping coats and stowing luggage, and then introductions, and the next time Nate catches his breath they’re all at the dining room table, candles lit and wineglasses topped up. Brad’s mother (beautiful, blond, with cheekbones like Meryl Streep and a wide smile) says a blessing, and they dig in.
Nate’s family does Thanksgiving all out: white linen tablecloths and the good silver, home-cooked everything, a fire in the fireplace if the weather’s cold enough. This is more casual than that, but it’s got its own kind of warmth: there’s such a tangible sense of delight in family company that it makes him wonder. It’s hard to square with the Brad he knew in Iraq, who brought a picture of a motorcycle, of all fucking things, and never once mentioned sisters or parents or anything that indicated he had any life at all, outside the Corps. Nate wonders whether Ray’s been here, sat around this table and talked with Brad’s mother about the decline in philanthropic funding, or discussed the economy with Brad’s father; if he has, he’s never said a thing.
Nate knows Brad, the Marine; it hadn’t occurred to him that there was an entirely different version of Brad, the man, but he’s beginning to wonder. This Brad ribs his younger sister mercilessly, talks seriously with his brother-in-law the fireman about the challenges of working for municipal government. He asks his sister-in-law about her childhood, tells stories about his own that make his mother laugh until she cries. This Brad shoots Nate a glance when Nate lets his knee rest against Brad’s under the table. This Brad doesn’t move his leg away.
Nate twirls the stem of his wineglass between his fingers, and gives in and watches.
Apparently the Colberts don’t watch football, for which Nate is grateful; he’s always hated the American tradition of spending half the holiday in front of the TV. If he hadn’t run into Brad, he’d have spent the evening being pissed at the airline for postponing his flight and catching up on work at his hotel. As it is, though, he’s eating maybe the most delicious pie he’s had outside of his mother’s kitchen, and flirting with the man who was once his TL in the presence of his seemingly very indulgent family. He’d stop, except that Brad very clearly doesn’t give a damn.
Brad’s leaned back in his chair, tilted precariously on its back legs, watching Nate. His parents have abandoned the table in favor of cooing over Sophie on the couch, and Leah and Maya and Jim and Agathe are tackling the piles of dishes in the kitchen. “They’re not gonna let you help,” Brad said, when he’d made a move to join them, and Nate maybe would have been inclined to test it except that Brad had pinned him with that steady gaze, and apparently that’s all it takes for Nate to do whatever he wants.
Good to know.
“Want to take a walk, sir?” Brad asks, when Nate sets down his fork. “Work off some off my mother’s attempts to ensure I won’t be fit for duty next week?”
He raises his voice enough that it carries, and Brad’s mother laughs. “I love you too, Bradley,” she calls, and Brad quirks a little smile.
In the end, Brad’s parents stay at the house in case the baby wakes up, but the six of them trail slowly down towards the beach, paired off two by two on the narrow path that wanders through people’s backyards. It still doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving weather, as far as he’s concerned, but it’s a beautiful night.
Watching Leah and Maya, linked arm-in-arm and heads tilted together, laughing, Nate misses his sisters, suddenly. “I should call my family,” he murmurs.
Brad darts a glance at him. “Probably too late, tonight,” he says, practically. It’s quiet for few seconds but for the quiet lilt of Agathe’s voice as she tells Jim something, the rise and fall of Maya and Leah’s laughter. Brad’s hand brushes against Nate’s as they walk. “You miss them?” he asks.
“A little, yeah,” Nate says. “But.” But that’s not really what’s on his mind. He hooks his little finger into Brad’s. “That’s not really what I’m thinking about,” he says. It feels like a confession.
Brad’s grin is startling in the dimness. “Is that so, Nate?” he asks. The absence of the familiar ‘sir’ feels more intimate than it has any right to, given the number of years it’s been since anyone’s called him that for real. Brad rubs his thumb over the soft skin on the inside of Nate’s wrist, once, and Nate shivers.
They come out onto the beach, suddenly, a stretch of dark sand and darker water appearing in front of them around a curve in the path. Leah and Maya and Jim and Agathe gather down at the water’s edge, but Brad stops, in the shadows just at the edge of the treeline, and tugs Nate to a stop, too. They’re pressed together, shoulder and thigh. “You gonna take that position at UCSD, Nate?” he asks.
“I was thinking about it, yeah,” Nate says. He slides his hand along the smooth wool of Brad’s sweater, shifting him so they’re standing face to face. The air smells like crushed greenery and night-blooming flowers. Brad’s close enough that he could kiss him, if he wanted. “What—” he starts, but then one of Brad’s sisters’ voices drifts out of the darkness.
“Brad,”—Leah?—says, “stop flirting for a minute and come over here already.”
Brad’s throat ripples when he swallows, but his voice is calm when he answers. “I told you, Leelee, we haven’t had that conversation yet,” he calls back. The moonlight turns his face into stark lines of shadow. “But,” he adds, “we’re about to, so leave us alone.” The corner of his mouth tilts up in a smile.
Nate hooks his fingers into Brad’s belt loops, tugging him closer. “So you have been flirting with me,” he says.
“Yes,” Brad says. “I have been.” His eyes are serious, but he’s smiling. His hands settle lightly on Nate’s waist.
Nate feels a little breathless. “Why now?” he says. “Why not before?”
Brad shrugs, and he looks away for a moment, gaze flickering off into the shadows before he looks back at Nate, eyes steady. He’s silent for a second. “I wanted it to be real,” he says, finally. This close, Nate can see the faint flicker of the question in his eyes.
Oh. “Oh,” Nate says. “Yeah?” He gives in to his urge to touch, and slides his palm up the broad expanse of Brad’s back. The night isn’t cold, but Brad shivers. “Real sounds good,” he says, carefully.
“Yeah?” Brad asks. “Good.” His voice is rougher than Nate’s heard it. Happy.
His sister’s voice comes again, from somewhere a little closer, but Nate’s too busy studying the flutter of Brad’s eyelashes to turn around to look. “Come on, little brother,” she calls.
Brad’s eyes are steady on Nate’s. Somehow he’s grabbed Nate’s hand, his fingers shockingly warm against Nate’s skin. He ducks his head and brushes a kiss against the inside of Nate’s wrist, the same place he’d touched earlier. This time, it makes Nate feel like his whole body’s glowing.
“Come on, Nate,” Brad says. His eyes are laughing. “I’ll race you.” He darts away, not giving Nate a chance to respond.
Somewhere down the beach, his sisters and Jim and Agathe are laughing. Nate pauses for a second, listening, and the jogs after him, towards where the sound is coming from in the dark.