The first time it happens, Brad’s laying under the Humvee, counting down the minutes until they’re supposed to leave this particular shithole for another.
Something cracks like lightning up his spine and he rolls out from under the vehicle, banging Person on the ankle. “Someone hit?”
Person looks at him with one eye open and one eyebrow nearly vertical in a Brad, there is something seriously wrong with your face expression. The radio handset hangs from his shoulder, quiet. “No," he says. "No one is hit. You’re having a fucking dream, man.”
Brad does a quick assessment. Their camp for tonight is in no disarray. Tracers are arcing overhead and to the west, but the snap of gunfire isn’t all that close to their position. It’s almost quiet for a war zone. They’re here another two hours at twenty-five percent watch, and really, he should be getting all the sleep he can.
Dark shapes dot the ground – sleeping Marines. He can hear a few guys talking but mostly, they’re soaking up all the downtime they can. He can see the LT’s victor, make out Fick and Gunny Wynn through the dirty windshield. Fick’s yawning. Wynn’s saying something, but his voice doesn’t carry.
No one’s been hit. Brad rolls back under the Humvee and falls asleep in seconds.
The next day there’s an itch at the base of his skull. Brad has Ray look at the back of his head just to be sure he hadn’t been bitten by something disgusting while lying in the sand overnight. “You’re just paranoid, homes,” Ray reassures him, slapping him on the back. “Only your gross dirty head. No spider eggs.”
Trombley starts to tell a story about a dead cat he saw once, presumably to get to a point about insect larvae. Brad cuts him off with a sharp “No, Trombley,” while Reporter guffaws.
The itch hangs out for a while. Brad ignores it, as he ignores the ache in his bones from riding in the Humvee for days on end, the throb of the blisters on his feet, the desire to spend at least a whole fucking hour in a real goddamned shower.
“Brad,” the LT says at his shoulder. Brad turns in his seat to speak with him, and the next time he thinks about the itch, it’s gone.
“Feels weird, doesn’t it?” Fick asks, as the platoon stands in a huddled circle at Paige, watching Jacks and Chaffin urge their captured scorpions into battle.
“What’s that, sir?”
Under his soft cover, Fick’s face is still hollow-looking, but the camp medics had pronounced his bout of dysentery to be over. Brad’s barely a week recovered from his own four days of non-stop shits, so he's somewhat sympathetic. His C.O. looks like he could use an extra dozen MREs, but extras are hard to come by in camp.
“We’re not home yet, sir,” Brad replies with a shrug.
Fick laughs. His gaunt face lights up a little. “I can always trust you to put things in perspective, Brad. Thank you.”
The itch flares at the base of Brad’s skull, but then settles into something feels like someone pressing lightly between his shoulder blades. The LT walks off, and Brad watches him go, for long enough that Person can sneak up on him and jab him in the ribs.
“If you ever do that to me again, I will fuck you up so fast,” Brad warns with a glare. He doesn’t mean it at all.
At the airport in Kuwait City, Christeson asks if he’s seen the LT, and Brad answers, “He’s using the head,” without even thinking about what he’s saying. He hadn’t seen Fick go in there and there’s no good reason why he should know that. But he does, and it’s weird. It makes him feel like squirming. That’s not a feeling Brad likes, and he stares through the window at the planes taxiing the runway until it fades out a little.
When he looks back at the platoon, he sees Fick standing off to the side. One of his hands is moving, and Brad realizes he’s counting to make sure everyone is there. When he stops, he looks over suddenly and meets Brad’s gaze. Now we’re going home, he mouths with a lopsided smile.
Roger that, sir, Brad mouths in reply.
He's disappointed when he hears Fick is leaving the Corps - they need leaders like him, men who can walk that sometimes-fine line between taking care of their Marines and getting the job done - but he's not surprised. It's the Corps' loss, not Fick's. There's no doubt in his mind that the Captain was made for better things than the possibility of death on dusty foreign soil.
The paddle passes from man to man until it comes to Brad. He's sort of drunk, but no more drunk than everyone else, Fick included. "My fondest memory of Captain Fick," Brad intones, holding the carved piece of wood, painted for First Recon and with a parachute cord-wrapped handle, high above his head. Then he sighs. "Fuck, I think you ladies have covered every fucking thing already."
Everyone laughs except the Captain, although he smiles at no one in particular.
Brad had thought about this before, but every story he'd come up with, someone else has already told. "I'm sorry you're leaving, sir," he says instead. "You know the point of this ritual but I'm going to say it anyway. We're less without you."
Then he passes the paddle to Gunny Wynn, who launches into a tale of being awake for forty-eight hours on a Recon training mission. Brad can feel Fick's gaze still on him. The itch lights in his skull again, and it's confusing. He doesn't know what he's feeling in that moment.
He reaches for the nearest bottle.
On Fick's last day with Recon, Brad is the first man at the squad bay. The doors are all unlocked, and he stands outside the office for a moment, looking in at the desk that had been Fick's, and now belongs to Morel. There's a box sitting on it, half open. The top is labeled in thick black marker. FICK.
Brad looks at it a second longer, then makes up his mind. He goes back to his locker and grabs the nearest piece of PT gear, a slightly faded sweatshirt. Carefully, he folds it. Then he slips into the darkened office and tucks it underneath the other items in the box.
It's probably the wrong choice, he knows. This... thing, in his head - he's willing to bet it's only his imagination. And Fick is likely to throw this box in a closet and leave it there for years besides. But Brad's doing this anyway, leaving the sweatshirt as a question he can't ask out loud.
He closes the office door with a soft click, and goes to wait for the rest of the platoon to arrive.