It starts with a bang.
There’s a bomb in the garden, and Nate sees the spark of the fire in Brad’s eyes when he finds out he gets to set it off; sees the way Brad’s face lights up like a kid with a train set when the explosion rocks the foundations of the earth and sends gravel and debris raining down upon the platoon with thunderous vim. There’s still wonder in this place for Brad. There’s still faith in the value of the mission, and in the good work that’s supposedly being done for these people.
But not for Nate.
It’s a strange, liberating moment, wherein he fully commits to that long-coming decision. He’s getting out. No more of this shit.
He understands that joy Brad feels; that sense of victorious elation after dismantling an enemy explosive without casualties. He’s felt it himself in the past. But the capacity for pride in such small victories has long since become overshadowed by the crushing weight of failure that pervades his every waking thought: failure to save his superiors from their own stupidity, failure to justify his presence in this country.
Failure to find a shred of meaning, however infinitesimal, in this entire clusterfuck of a war.
He doesn’t have the stomach for this. Not like Brad: “The fact is,” he says, eyes flickering up briefly to meet Nate’s, “people who can’t kill will always be subject to those who can.”
And maybe that’s enough for Brad. Maybe that little uncomfortable truth is all he needs to hold on to in order to find something worthwhile in this job. Maybe, strange as it sounds, his cynicism allows those minuscule triumphs to feel like true success.
It’s not enough for Nate, and he’s suddenly, painfully aware that if he decides to re-up, he won’t survive another tour. It might not be a hailstorm of bullets, or an IED, or friendly fire from an overeager recon squad, but one way or another, this place will get the best of him. Unless he gets out first.
The men are cheering and gathering ‘round, and Lilley’s queuing up the video, and as the thrumming of Johnny Cash’s guitar kicks in, Nate feels a profound sense of loss. His eyes meet Brad’s again, and the pain in his chest really shouldn’t be this devastating...
He’s not sure what he expected to happen between them. He’s never really thought past the flirting - past the eyefucking and private smiles and silent stretches of time shared under the twilit Iraqi sky as the bombs and the bullets resounded throughout the distant burning cityscape - and he’s never allowed himself the comfort of a combat jack for fear of solidifying the reality of his attraction. He’s never seriously thought the stars would aline for Brad and him, never thought they would fall into each other’s arms and leave the Corps hand in hand and start a life together back on home soil. And yet, it still feels like a missed opportunity. It feels like throwing away a chance for a love and warmth and happiness that Nate has never dared to hope would come his way. But it’s the way it has to be.
Brad will never leave the Corps. And Nate has to leave. And that’s all there is to it.
Everything else is tangential.
So instead of summoning him off to some private corridor and kissing him senseless until they’re both out of breath, Nate just looks into Brad’s eyes for a moment or two, nods without a word, then turns away with Mike Wynn and walks out into the next stage of his life.
Brad doesn’t follow.
He doesn’t remember much of the flight home.
The plane touches down and Nate’s got a killer headache, and he’s in a sour state of mind, so instead of calling a cab straight away, he walks a few blocks down from the airport and stops in at a local bar.
The room is dark and smoky and lit by lurid neon signs, and Nate’s really not in the mood for conversation, so he grabs the stool nearest the bartender and nurses his drink broodingly, hoping not to be bothered. No such luck.
A woman in a dark green dress slides onto the stool beside him, flipping her dark brown hair over her shoulder and calling to the bartender that she wants a vodka and tonic. Her bright blue eyes flash warmly at Nate and he feels a twist in his gut; they remind him of Brad.
“Care for some company, Mr. Army Man?” she says, glancing over his uniform approvingly. Her voice is low and husky, but somehow pleasant and not grating.
He spares her a brief indulgent smile. “I’m not looking for company, but I won’t be so rude as to reject it.” He motions to the bartender, pointing between himself and the woman, indicating that he’ll pay for her drink. He meets her gaze levelly, propping his chin up with his palm. “And it’s Mr. Marine, ma’am.”
Her lips curl upward in a playful smirk. “My mistake, Mr. Marine. I know how you folks get about people mistaking you for one another.” She takes a sip of the vodka, eyes never leaving Nate’s. “And don’t call me ma’am. Makes me feel old. You may have that innocent choirboy look going for you, but I’m pretty damn sure you and I aren’t more than a few years apart in age.”
Nate snorts in amusement, and he’s pleased by how easily it comes. It’s been a while since he’s laughed properly. “Fair enough.” He finishes off his drink with a quick gulp. “Now that I think about it, I don’t really like the sound of Mr. Marine either. How about we make this easier on ourselves?” He holds out his hand. “My name’s Nate.”
She grasps his hand and shakes it firmly. “Sharona.”
“Sharona,” Nate repeats, nodding to himself. “I like it.”
She grins, finishing off her own glass. “For someone who isn’t looking for company, you’re awfully flirtatious, Nate.”
He shrugs, rapping on the counter with his knuckles and signaling for another round of drinks. “I prefer to think of it as being friendly. And while I wasn’t exactly looking for it, company seems to have found me of its own volition. So there’s nothing wrong with being friendly, don’t you think?”
“Nothing wrong at all.” She accepts the new glass from the bartender with a murmured thanks. She twists on her stool, crossing her legs gingerly and leaning up against the counter. “So I take it you’re just getting back, yes?” she asks, gesturing vaguely at his getup. “Unless you’re about to head off?”
Nate shakes his head. “The former. Just stopping in for a nightcap before I go home.”
She nods thoughtfully, sucking on a small piece of ice. “Where were you deployed, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Iraq,” he answers readily, succinctly.
She gazes at him intently, thumb running up and down the side of her glass. “Who’s winning?”
It’s the type of question that would normally set Nate off, but somehow she manages to make it sound just right: sincere but not naive, teasing but not mocking, genuinely interested but not pushy.
So he just quirks his mouth up into a little smirk and shrugs. “I’m not sure anyone’s winning,” he answers honestly. “At least not as far as my understanding of winning goes.”
Sharona smiles gently, sadly, and lowers her eyes. “I figured as much,” she says quietly. “Although it’s still a kick in the gut to hear it from someone who really knows what’s going on out there.”
Nate sighs, draining his second glass. “I don’t think anyone knows what the hell is going on out there. Or here, for that matter.” They’re both silent for a minute before Nate chuckles detachedly. “Sorry to be a downer.”
She waves a hand dismissively. “Don’t be. You’ve earned it.”
He nods unthinkingly, then stops abruptly, shaking his head. “You say that, but there’s really no way you can know that for sure, is there?”
Sharona sets her glass down, folding her hands in her lap. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not really. I don’t think so.” He motions to the bartender for another refill. “No. I don’t.”
“Okay,” she says, dabbing at the corner of her mouth with a napkin. “Do you want to talk about something else?”
“Like what you’re going to do now.”
His eyes flick around the bar. “Now now? Or now in general?”
She cocks an eyebrow, and Nate sees that she’s smiling again. “I guess whichever way you choose to interpret it.”
For some reason that makes him laugh. “Oh, you’re fun.”
“Not quite. Getting there, though.” He swallows the rest of the alcohol quickly and smacks the glass down on the counter. “I think that’ll do me.” He stands up, staggering slightly, and shells out the cash for the booze.
Sharona stands up with him. “Would you like a ride?”
Nate squints at her through hazy eyes. “Do you have a car?”
“Wouldn’t make sense for me to offer if I didn’t.”
“Well, you could have meant a cab. Or a motorcycle.”
Startled, she laughs loudly, covering her mouth to stifle the sound. “Now that would be a sight. Me, in this dress and a helmet, driving a Harley Davidson down the highway with a tipsy Marine riding bitch.”
Nate laughs, too. “Alright, so it was a stupid question. Maybe I am a little drunker than I thought.” He glances aimlessly around the room another time, thinking the offer over. He nods abruptly, looking back at her. “Yeah, okay. Thanks.”
She links their arms, grinning broadly at him. “Don’t mention it, soldier.”
He fixes her with a stern glare. “Not soldier.”
“I know. That time was just to get your goat.”
Nate giggles a little hysterically, and Sharona has to grip his shoulders as they step out onto the sidewalk so he doesn’t trip. “Get your goat? Maybe it was appropriate to call you ma’am.” That earns him a playful elbow in the ribs.
The night air is cold, and Nate nearly throws up on a homeless guy sleeping outside a laundromat, but somehow they make it to her car, parked three blocks away at a dingy gas station.
“Thanks for doing this,” he slurs drunkenly as she buckles him into the passenger’s seat. “Dunno why you’re being so nice, but ‘s really generous of you.”
She situates herself in the driver’s seat and reaches over to pat his cheek. “It’s no trouble, sweetie. I’d just about wrapped up business for the night anyway.” She winks at him. “Besides, I’ve got a weakness for a man in uniform.”
“So do I,” Nate says without thinking. Realizing what he said, his eyes widen and his jaw drops a little, but before he can think of an excuse to explain it away, something Sharona mentioned triggers a thought in the back of his head. “Wrapped up business?” he queries, frowning slightly. Then it clicks. “You’re a prostitute.” It’s not a question, not an accusation. Just a statement.
Sharona’s looking at him oddly, but Nate can’t quite pin down the expression. “That’s correct,” she says, pulling the car into drive.
Nate’s tongue-tied for a moment before stammering out, “That’s cool.”
“If you say so,” she replies, and Nate thinks that she’s barely restraining laughter, so he guesses she’s not offended.
“Back at the bar,” he starts slowly, head lolling back against the headrest, “were you trying to pick me up? Or, I mean, get me to pick you up?”
“Initially, maybe. Men coming home from the military tend to make for eager clients.” She smiles reassuringly at him. “But after I sat down, I realized you weren’t really in the mood, so I just figured you could use some conversation. Not to mention that after your little outburst a minute ago, it seems to me that I’m probably not your type anyway.”
Nate’s ears turn bright red and he looks away in embarrassment. “Didn’t mean to say that out loud,” he mutters.
She pats his knee. “No worries, sugar. I’ve been privy to far worse secrets than that. Mum’s the word.”
Nate gives her directions and they spend the rest of the drive in silence.
They pull up to house around 2:00 A.M., and Nate tries to pay Sharona for the ride, but she turns him down flat.
“Just promise me you won’t drink anymore before you go to sleep,” she teases.
“I swear,” he slurs. He pauses halfway out of the car, ducking his head back in momentarily. “I...” He bites his lip.
She smiles indulgently. “Yes?”
“I was just wondering...Do you enjoy your, uh, line of work?”
Her smile widens. “Do you enjoy yours?”
He shakes his head vehemently. “No. That’s why I got out.”
There’s an awkward pause, then he backs out and shuts the door. She cracks the window to call out to him. “Have a terrific life, Nate.” Then she’s gone.
Nate chuckles to himself. “Hooker with a heart of gold. I’ll be damned.”
His parents never ask if he’s fine. His father knows it’s a stupid question and his mother is too timid to bring it up. Being in a room with them is like walking on eggshells.
His sister is more straightforward.
“Why won’t you talk to them?”
Nate makes a noise of discontent, setting his fork down with a clatter. “They haven’t asked me anything. If they wanted to discuss it-”
“Oh, shut up. You know how they don’t like to pry.”
“Right, so what’s the problem?”
She grunts in annoyance, folding her arms and scowling openly. “Can’t you just give them something? Something to let them know you’re okay? To let me know you’re okay?”
He wipes his mouth and carries his plate back to the kitchen, setting it down roughly beside the sink. “If you’re the one who wants to know if I’m okay, then you should just ask me yourself.” He looks up at her. “And if that’s what you’re trying to do now, the answer’s no. I’m not okay.”
She makes a little pained sound, as if she’s surprised he actually gave up that much and upset to have her fears confirmed. “Talk to me,” she urges gently.
“I didn’t say I was going to talk about it. I just said I wasn’t okay. I was in a fucking war. Of course I’m not okay. But I’m not going to bitch about it to you, or to Mom and Dad, and I don’t need therapy or group hugs or tough love, or any of that bullshit. I just need some time and space to sort things out inside my own head, alright?” He pauses to take a breath and, seeing the hurt look on her face, forces himself to calm down. “Look,” he sighs, rubbing his forehead, “I’m going to Harvard soon, and I’ll be living on my own for a while...which is what I want. That’ll keep me occupied enough to stop me from going crazy, and isolated enough to avoid feeling like I’m drowning in sympathy.” He puts a comforting hand on her shoulder. “If things still aren’t better when I come home, I promise you’ll be the first person I talk to.”
She swallows audibly, eyes misting up a bit. “You promise?” she says with an encouraging smile, voice wavering slightly.
He nods, pulling her in for a hug and kissing the top of her head. “I swear.”
It just is.
There’s really not that much to say about it. Nate gets up early to jog, attends his courses throughout the week, and occasionally engages in polite conversation with some of his classmates.
He can’t remember the last time his life wasn’t dictated by some sort of routine. But at least this one doesn’t require him to make life-or-death decisions.
He doesn’t date. He’s not ready for that. There’s a guy in his Foreign Policy class who catches his eye, and they go out for coffee once or twice. He’s attractive, and Nate senses that he’s interested, but nothing ever comes of it. Nate doesn’t push past the boundaries of casual acquaintanceship. The guy is tall, has blond hair and blue eyes, and a killer smile. And maybe that’s why Nate doesn’t go for it.
That’s looking to the past, he tells himself. It simply won’t do to dwell there.
He doesn’t keep up correspondence with anyone from his platoon. Mike has his number, but they haven’t spoken since they said their goodbyes.
The first contact is made, surprisingly, by Walt Hasser. It’s a mass email, an invitation to a reunion party scheduled the week before Walt is to be redeployed. Nate has no idea how the hell Hasser got his email address, but he’s touched that the kid thought to include him.
The email says that the party will be at Ray’s house in Missouri, and Nate’s not sure if he can afford to take the time off to fly out there. Then he notices Brad’s name on the invite list.
It’s a bad idea, he knows. But he packs his bags anyway and reserves the plane tickets that night.
The cab drops him off in front of the house, and Nate hesitates only for a moment before walking up the drive and grasping ahold of the big brass knocker.
It’s Mike who opens the door, complete with a wide-mouthed smile and a hideous Hawaiian shirt. He looks so out of place in civilian garb, Nate does a double take before stepping forward and allowing himself to be pulled into a back-slapping hug.
“Nate Fick!” Mike exclaims, grinning openly. “How the hell are you?”
“Taking it one step at a time,” Nate replies, mouth quirking upward. “It’s good to see you, Mike.”
“Mike beams at him. “Well, don’t just stand there, come on in!”
The house is warm and inviting, and Nate’s surprised by the feeling of belonging and excitement that comes over him when the sound of warm laughter and lively banter reaches his ears. He realizes how much he’s missed this.
There’s a resounding cheer of greeting when he enters the room, and then there’s a line of men waiting their turn to shake his hand and pat him on the back.
“It’s great to see you, sir,” Poke says genially. “Hope you’ve been keeping well.”
“Thank you so much for coming,” Rudy says in that eerily earnest voice of his. “It’s great to see you, brother.”
“Howdy, Nathaniel!” Ray shouts from the backyard porch, saluting with a spatula, and Nate can’t help but grin.
“What’s up, LT?” Lilley calls from the couch.
“Sir,” Trombley says with a nod, and Nate’s so surprised by his presence that all he can do is nod back.
Walt’s last in line, all wide-eyed and beaming, shaking Nate’s hand vigorously. “Thank you so much for coming,” he says happily. Then, leaning in closer, “I actually didn’t think you’d come. But I’m really glad you did."
Nate smiles back at him, quietly scanning the room.
Brad isn’t there.
It’s actually a pretty spectacular party; a raucous evening of shared stories and beer drinking and backyard football and throwing on various plants outdoors. Poke treats Nate to a long-winded story about how he was almost fired from his job because of the white patriarchy. Walt steps in to save him after about fifteen minutes.
Trombley is noticeably more relaxed and sociable in this domestic setting than he was overseas. Maybe he doesn’t feel as pressured to come across as a badass here.
When the guys split into teams for football, Ray and Rudy share a laugh over their last unfortunate tussle.
“Maybe we should be on the same side this time, eh?” Ray jokes, ruffling Rudy’s hair affectionately.
It’s fun, and Nate’s glad he came, but he still feels somewhat out of place. He can’t help but think that the bond these men share is different than the one they share with him. He was their commander, their superior. He didn’t get the opportunity to interact with them on a personal level.
So he hangs back a bit, leaning against the house while the game goes on, chatting aimlessly with Mike about life and school and family. It’s not completely comfortable, but that’s not entirely unexpected. The last time these people were all together, they were in a war zone. Nate thinks he can be forgiven for a little paranoid tension.
Nate’s eyes flutter open, and he finds himself staring up at Ray. He twists his head to look around and sees that the room is empty.
“What the f-” He sits up with a groan, feeling a headache coming on. “Where is everyone?”
Ray snorts, walking off towards the kitchen. “They all left, homes. Party’s over. You zonked out on the couch about an hour ago. I was gonna wake you, but Mike wouldn’t let me. Said you get tired from flying."
Nate nods distractedly, noting absently that it’s gone totally dark outside. “Well, shit.” He smiles sheepishly. “Sorry.”
“No worries.” Ray returns with a glass of water and some Advil. “For your headache,” he explains when Nate raises his eyebrow.
“Ah.” Nate swallows the pills and drains the glass. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.” Ray looks at him strangely, chewing on his lip.
Nate frowns. “Something wrong?”
“No, no. Just...I dunno. Where are you staying tonight?”
Nate looks stupefied. “I...uh, wow. I can’t believe this, but I actually have no idea. I didn’t even think about that.” He scratches the back of his head bemusedly. “I guess I’ll try to find a hotel nearby.”
Ray scoffs dismissively. “Fuck that. You can crash here, buddy.”
“I don’t want to impose.”
“Don’t even start with that shit, sir,” Ray warns teasingly. “We’ve survived being shot at together, so sharing a house for the night isn’t that taxing by comparison.”
Nate smiles gratefully. “Well, when you put it that way...”
Ray nods, satisfied. He gestures vaguely at the door. “I’m actually hungry again. Wanna go get some chow before you hit the sack?”
“Yeah,” Nate agrees. “Might as well. I’m not really that tired anymore.”
“Perfect. I’ve got just the place in mind.”
“Waffle House?” Nate says skeptically, sliding into the booth across from Ray. “This is your idea of quality dining, Person?”
Ray flashes him a shit-eating grin, shrugging off his coat. “Don’t knock Waffle House! You won’t find a better place to kick back and swallow down mushy breakfast food at 3 in the morning after an hour of toking.” He sits down heavily, reaching for a menu. “Admittedly, it’s only 11:30, and we’re not high. But my point still stands.”
Nate laughs. “I haven’t gotten blazed since high school.”
Ray smirks at him. “Ooh, look at you! Always knew you were a reefer-smoking liberal dick-suck, Nathaniel. ‘Gotten blazed...’ Christ. Knowing the lingo and everything.”
Ignoring the gibe, Nate focuses his attention on the menu. “You might be the only person who’s ever called me that. Besides my mother.”
“You’re not the boss of me anymore,” Ray drawls. “I can call you anything I want.” Nate raises a challenging eyebrow and Ray quickly backtracks. “Not that I would dare to push you, sir.”
“That’s what I thought,” Nate replies smugly.
A cross-eyed waitress interrupts to take their order. Nate asks for pancakes.
“I’ll have what he’s having,” Ray says with a smile, winking conspiratorially at Nate. “Also bring me a glass of milk, please. Skim.” The waitress waddles off to the kitchen and Ray props his chin up with his palm, gazing at Nate intently. “You know, my mother calls me Joshua. Or Josh Ray. Or Joshie Ray, if she’s trying to piss me off.”
Nate shakes his head, smiling widely. “She does not.”
“No seriously! It’s fucking embarrassing, man.”
“Joshie Ray,” Nate snorts. “That’s ingenious. I’m going to have to start using that.
Ray flicks a straw wrapper at him. “Don’t you dare, Fick. I’ll cut you.”
“No need. Someone beat you to it.” Nate rolls up his sleeve, displaying a thin, jagged gash on his forearm.
Ray gapes at him. “Woah! What the hell happened?”
“Someone tried to mug me in the grocery store parking lot back home. In broad daylight and everything.” Nate mimics a slashing motion. “Came at me with a switchblade, so I kneed him in the groin. But not before he nicked me.”
Ray looks impressed. “Well, shit.”
Nate shrugs indifferently. “It’s no big deal. It wasn’t too deep of a cut.”
“Deep enough to leave a scar,” Ray points out.
“Yeah, most likely.” Ray waggles his eyebrows. “But hey, if it doesn’t, you’ll probably get laid more. Chicks dig scars.”
“And what would you know about that, Person?” Nate says loftily, putting on his best officer-voice.
Ray clutches his chest with a mock-wounded expression. “That hurts me deep, sir. I’ve seen my fair share of pussy.”
“Oh, really? Didn’t take you for a cat lover.”
Ray snickers at that, shaking his head. “I can’t believe you said that. That’s the lamest fucking joke I’ve ever heard in ages.”
Nate holds up his palms in surrender. “So sue me. I’m not a comedian.”
“Yeah, anyway.” Ray waves a hand meaninglessly. “On a semi-related note, what’s your life like on that front?”
Nate frowns. “What? In terms of, uh, pussy?”
Ray grins wolfishly. “Yep. Or, you know, girls. Dating. Got a girlfriend?”
Nate shifts uncomfortably in his seat. The conversation had moved into volatile territory. Not that Ray is the type to beat him up or anything, but still...
So he just opts to keep it simple. “No.” He shakes his head, turning his eyes downward and hoping Ray will leave it at that.
He doesn’t. “Any hookups then?”
“What do you care?” Nate snaps, then immediately feels bad for how harsh it comes out. He sighs. “Sorry. Just...” - he pauses and Ray watches him carefully, no longer smiling - “...just a touchy subject."
Ray nods slowly. “Yeah, alright,” he says softly. “No worries.”
They don’t talk anymore until their food arrives five minutes later. Nate’s halfway finished with his pancakes by the time he realizes that Ray’s just been poking at his with a fork.
He thinks he sees a flash of self-doubt flicker in Ray’s eyes, but it’s so quick, he’s not positive he didn’t just imagine it. “You know he wanted to come,” Ray says.
Nate’s heart stops for a second. He swallows and sets his utensils down. “Who?” he replies evenly.
“Encino Man,” Ray fires back without missing a beat.
It’s so unexpected and ridiculous, and Nate laughs loudly, covering his mouth when the waitress glares at him. “All I will say on that subject,” Nate says between bouts of laughter, “is that I, uh, don’t exactly miss him."
Ray’s eyes sparkle with mischief. “Come now, LT. You’re not an enlisted man anymore. You can speak your mind.”
Nate shakes his head, wiping tears of mirth out of his eyes. “Not happening, Ray.”
“Fine, but I can see right through you, pal. I know you hate him just as much as the rest of us.”
“I plead the fifth.”
Ray sits back, satisfied. His expression turns somber. “But seriously. Brad would have come if he could. He’s in England.”
Nate wants to ask why Ray is telling him this, why he thinks this information is pertinent to him. But for all the time he spends acting like one, Ray is no idiot. And Nate’s not going to insult his intelligence by playing games when he clearly already knows.
So he just jerks his head tersely in something resembling a nod. “Okay.”
Ray’s watching him carefully, chewing on his lower lip. “Have you spoken with him? Since OIF, I mean?”
“No,” Nate says, brow furrowing. “Look, Ray...”
“I’ll back off, if you want,” Ray interjects quickly, looking nervous. “We don’t have to talk about this.”
“No, it’s fine.” Nate pinches the bridge of his nose. “Look,” he starts, sitting up straight, “Whatever...whatever it was that he and I had, or might have had, it’s done now. That’s really all there is to it. He stayed in, and I got out. Any...connection we may have had at some point just didn’t hold up in the face of reality.” He wipes his mouth distractedly with his napkin.
Then, throwing away any pretense whatsoever, he adds, “Even if we’d tried, it wouldn’t have worked.” He hears Ray’s sharp intake of breath, but ignores it. “He would never give up the Corps. Not for me or anyone else. And I couldn’t be the one who has to sit by the phone day after day, wondering if it’s going to ring. I couldn’t open the mailbox every day, not knowing if I’m going to get...that letter. That’s just not me.” He takes a deep, shuddering breath. “So, yeah. It’s probably for the best that he didn’t show up today. That’s one temptation I don’t need.”
Out of all the possible reactions Ray could have to such a revelation, of course he chooses the one Nate finds most surprising.
“I know what you mean.”
It’s not so much the statement itself that’s startling as the way Ray says it. Like he really does know.
And that sends Nate’s mind into overdrive.
He waits until they get back to the house to voice his suspicions.
“What happened between you two?” he asks, relieved that his voice sounds more confident than he feels. “You and Brad. In Iraq.”
Ray has his back turned, but Nate can see the way his shoulders sag in resignation. “Do we have to talk about this?” he whispers, and Nate’s never heard him sound so defeated.
He makes his way to the couch in the dark and sits down with a sigh. “I think we’ll regret it if we don’t. And now that we’re both out of the Corps, we won’t have to face any ramifications for speaking plainly to each other. I doubt we’ll find a better opportunity to discuss this.”
Ray nods wearily, joining him on the couch. “I always knew this would come out in the open. Shit like this never stays buried.” He huffs out a bitter chuckle. “Life’s not that fair.”
Nate makes a soft noise of assent.
Ray stares at the floor, hands clasped together tightly. “It’s pretty much what you’re thinking,” he mutters gruffly. “Do I really have to say it out loud?”
“How can you be sure you know what I’m thinking?” Nate replies, not unkindly. “I don’t know anything. I can only guess. Unless you tell me.”
Ray swallows audibly. “Alright. Fine.” He takes a deep breath. “We did stuff. Sex stuff. Together.”
Nate feels it like a kick in the teeth. It is what he was expecting, but that doesn’t make it any less painful. “Oh,” he whispers.
Nate feels like his head is spinning, but if there’s one thing he’s sure of, it’s that this is not a conversation he can afford to fuck up. “Did you love him? He doesn’t know why that’s the first question he asks, but it feels like the right one.
Ray nods. “Yes.”
“Okay. Did he...did he love you?”
Ray looks at him brokenly, and Nate’s struck with a sudden, bizarre urge to hug him. He pushes it aside.
“I don’t think Brad could have ever fallen for me,” Ray says shakily. He turns his gaze back down to the floor. “He had a bad break-up. Did he tell you about that?”
“No,” Nate says, angry at himself for the sudden flare of irrational jealousy that rises up inside of him.
“His girlfriend since junior high. She dumped him for his best friend since junior high. Married the guy.”
Nate digests that quietly. He has to admit, it explains a lot.
Ray cuts into the middle of his thought process like a knife. “If he was going to fall for anyone, it would have been you.” Glancing up and seeing Nate’s questioning look, he explains, “I told you, dude. It wasn’t like that between us. We were just friends who got lonely. He initiated it, and I reciprocated.” He picks at his fingernails absentmindedly. “I doubt I’ll ever completely understand what it was that he got out of the whole thing. My best guess is just...I dunno. He was always so professional, you know? About everything. I mean, he didn’t make it any secret that he fucking hated Command, but he never disobeyed orders, and he never disrespected a superior officer to his face.”
He sighs heavily, slumping back against the couch. “Maybe he just wanted something in his life that was totally within his control. A sort of ‘fuck you’ to everybody in charge. Or maybe he was just lonely, and that was all there was to it. It sure beat the hell out of a combat jack, I can promise you that.”
Nate opens his mouth to respond, but then Ray adds, “Or maybe when he was with me, he was thinking about being with you,” and he has nothing to say to that.
They sit without speaking in the darkness of the living room, listening to the ticking of the old wooden grandfather clock out in the hall. Crickets are chirping in the backyard, and a grey moth is fluttering at the crack of the windowsill, trying in vain to get inside. The night is warm and humid, and Nate can see a bead of sweat drip down the back of Ray’s neck and curl around to trail down his shoulder.
Nate isn’t intending to stare, but for whatever reason, he is. And he’s still staring when Ray lifts his head and notices him looking. And then they’re looking at each other. And they’re sitting alone together on the couch in the darkness in the privacy of Ray’s house.
It can’t be a bad idea because it’s not an idea at all. Calling it an idea implies that there’s some sort of thought process, which clearly isn’t the case here. Nate’s been in this position enough times in his life to know where this is going, and he’s too tired and drained and confused and frustrated to think beyond what his body is telling him to do.
He waits for a moment or two, giving Ray an out, allowing him to back down if he wants to. But Ray doesn’t move; his eyes have drifted downwards, and he’s staring fixedly at Nate’s mouth.
That’s as good an invitation as any.
Nate leans in, lips ghosting gently over Ray’s. He feels, more than he hears, the hitch in Ray’s breathing, and he pushes past it, deepening the kiss.
Ray’s frozen for a second, and Nate’s thinking about pulling back, but then he responds in kind, opening his mouth against Nate’s, hands snaking around his back to pull him closer on the couch. Nate reaches up and fists his hand in Ray’s hair, twisting his body so that he’s straddling Ray’s hips, pushing him forward and pinning him on his back against the cushions.
“Why are we doing this?” Ray whispers in between kisses, running his hands ceaselessly up and down Nate’s back. “Why now? Why at all?”
Nate slides his hand over Ray’s mouth, effectively silencing him. He stares into his eyes, breathing heavily as he works the top button of Ray’s collar. “I don’t want to talk anymore.”
Removing his hand, he dives back in. It’s a punishing kiss; vengeance for Ray getting to taste what Nate wanted. It’s forgiving; understanding of the pain Ray feels. It’s hot and sticky and wet and dirty, and it’s fucking wrong because Nate is (was) Ray’s superior, but he just can’t bring himself to give a shit. So he doesn’t think twice before pulling back and stripping off his shirt.
Ray’s eyes go wide, and he looks like he’s about to hyperventilate, and Nate gives him a moment to collect himself.
“If you don’t want to, say so now,” he breathes out, working the remaining buttons on Ray’s shirt. “No consent issues between us.”
That snaps Ray out of whatever panic attack he was having. He nods furiously. “Yes,” he chokes out. “Yes, yes. Wait!” - he grabs Nate’s shoulders as he leans in again, holding him in place - “Let’s, uh...let’s...bedroom?”
Nate thinks for a minute, then nods. “Okay.”
Ray’s skin is fire beneath his fingertips.
Naked limbs intertwined in the burning sheets, thrusting up against one another, rubbing themselves off to oblivion.
Nate’s eyes are rolled back, Ray’s hand on his cock, pumping him to orgasm as they pant into each other’s mouths, teeth clacking and tongues fighting, skin flushed red with arousal.
Whatever hesitations Ray had at the start are gone now, and he flips them over so he’s on top, sliding his knee in between Nate’s thighs, pistoning forward and whimpering desperately
“Let me fuck you,” he gasps, kissing a trail up Nate’s neck. “Please, I wanna so bad, please let me, I wanna fuck you, please...”
Nate’s pupils are dilated, his breathing shallow. He cups a hand around the back of Ray’s neck, thumb rubbing tenderly across the skin there. He pulls his head down to kiss him directly. “Okay,” he murmurs into Ray’s mouth. “Prep me."
Ray makes a sort of strangled moan, and then his hand is sliding down Nate’s side and over his hip, and he’s reaching under the bed for something, and Nate hears the pop of the cap before the coolness of the lubrication gel sends shivers through his body as it contacts the skin. Ray’s breaths are coming in ragged, and Nate’s shuddering in pleasure as Ray’s fingers begin to work inside of him, one at a time, in and out.
Nate’s chest constricts and his back arches into the touch, and Ray’s eyebrows lift in surprise as his fingers move with ease inside Nate’s body.
“You’ve done this before?” he queries, and Nate huffs a quiet laugh, pushing his pelvis down further to urge Ray to keep going.
“You didn’t think Brad turned me or something, did you?” he grins, and Ray flushes red, burying his face against Nate’s torso in embarrassment.
“Sorta,” he admits sheepishly, tongue moving across Nate’s chest. “He turned me, more or less.”
Nate grabs a hold of Ray’s hair, pulling him up again for another kiss. “Let’s not talk about Brad,” he says firmly, crashing their mouths together to shut Ray up.
“Mmm...‘kay,” Ray mumbles, resuming his rocking motions. His cock is erect against Nate’s stomach, warm and twitching between them. His fingers stretch Nate wide open, and Nate grunts in exertion, hands squeezing Ray’s biceps fiercely.
“Do it,” Nate hisses after a while. “Put it in me now.”
Ray looks like he’s about to lose it, but Nate lifts his legs, wrapping them around Ray’s back and pulling him in tight, exposing himself.
And then Ray’s in him, and Nate’s groaning loudly, arching forward and shivering, and Ray’s cock is like a knife, and it’s moving and pumping in and out, and Nate feels himself coming and allows himself that release, white hot sticky splatter up against Ray’s chest.
Ray doesn’t last much longer, thrusting rhythmically, panting and swearing, eyes dark and wide, jaw dropped open, head tilting back in a choked cry as he pushes himself over the edge.
And then they’re limp and relaxed, lying there together and gasping for breath in the humidity, basking in the afterglow.
Nate’s half-expecting reality to come crashing down around him, expecting to feel a wild sense of panic and confusion and What the fuck did we just do?
But instead, he feels a strange calm. He feels at peace.
Turning his head to look at Ray, he sees that same calm reflected in those dark eyes.
“Do we need to talk about this, sir?” Ray asks quietly, taking Nate’s hand in his instinctively.
Nate ignores the way his cock twitches at being called sir in bed and simply shakes his head, giving Ray a small, reassuring smile. “I’m all squared away if you are.”
Ray nods, turning to face the ceiling and closing his eyes with a wide yawn. “I am,” he says sleepily.
Nate feels a sudden wave of drowsiness wash over him, and he closes his eyes as well, weirdly content with world.
What’s done is done, he thinks. Trouble can be dealt with when it arrives.
They wake around 11:30 and have a late breakfast. They don’t speak about the previous night, but somehow the silence isn’t especially awkward.
Ray drives him to the airport after they eat.
Standing out beside the car, they stare at each other for a minute or two. Ray speaks first.
“Hope you have a good flight. No screaming babies and shit.”
Nate’s mouth quirks upward in amusement and, in an act of impulse, he reaches into his bag for a pen. Ray raises an eyebrow when Nate grabs his hand, but he doesn’t protest.
“This is my cell number,” he says, stretching the skin tight so he has a better canvas to work with. “Or you can email me, if you prefer that. My address should be listed in that mass message Walt sent out for the party."
Ray nods, looking surprised, but also pleased. “Okay.”
Nate bites his lip, letting go of Ray’s hand and putting the pen away. “Get in touch if you want to talk. About stuff.” He rubs the back of his head uncomfortably. “Or if you want...to do this again."
Ray’s eyes widen, but he just nods again. “Okay. I will.”
Nate mock-punches him in the shoulder affectionately. “See you, Person.”
Ray flashes him a white-toothed grin, and Nate’s startled by the way that makes his stomach flip-flop. “Later, LT.”
They hug, briefly, then Nate’s walking through the automatic doors and back to his life.
But there’s a warmth in his heart he didn’t feel before, and while he can’t quite place it, he knows that whatever this thing they’ve started may be, it isn’t over yet.
Going back to school after an experience like that feels sort of like coming down from a strange high; the surreal nature of it all hits Nate later in the week when he’s standing in the apartment shower one morning, and he dissolves into hysterical laughter for about five minutes.
Classes drag and the assignments are dull, but he soldiers through anyway, telling himself it’s all about the endgame.
Ray doesn’t call, and he doesn’t email, but Nate’s not worried. Just knowing that there’s somehow out there who’s lost the same thing (the same chance at love) as him is enough, for the time being at least. That connection makes it all a little more bearable, and Nate begins to feel a hint of optimism. Maybe getting over Brad will be easier than he thought.
He keeps in touch with Walt via email while he’s deployed, and even sends him a few packages in the mail now and again. He’s not sure exactly how that started, but somehow they end up becoming friends of sorts. Nate’s always like the idea of having a pen-pal, and Walt is surprisingly eloquent and witty in his writing. Nate always enjoys getting a message and hearing about life in the Corps without those pesky superior-subordinate boundaries restricting the honesty of their communication.
He even gets a call from Trombley one Friday night as he’s lounging outside under the shade of a tree with his laptop, working on his thesis paper.
“James?” Nate frowns, taking the phone away from his ear for a moment to stare at it. “How did you get this number?”
“Got it from Hasser,” Trombley’s sullen voice crackles over the connection. “Listen, I’m about to be redeployed, and I’ve sort of gotten in good standing with the General at my base, so he’s giving me an option of where I want to go. So I was wondering if you have any recommendations, as far as that goes?”
“Oh.” Nate flicks a ladybug off his leg, thinking it over. “Well, I guess that depends on what you’re wanting to get out of the experience. Are you looking for the most likely opportunity to shoot people?” There’s silence on the other end, and Nate quickly adds, “Kidding. Kidding.”
It’s a brief conversation, and a little unusual, but Trombley says “Thank you, sir” at the end before he hangs up, and Nate’s left thinking that maybe the kid isn’t so bad after all. For a psycho, that is.
He has a long weekend after about five weeks of being back, and he decides to pop in and visit his parents.
“You need to eat more, Nathaniel,” his mother chides, poking him with a ladle. “You’re skinny as a stick.”
“Bah, he’s not skinny,” his father grumbles from the armchair in the living room. “He’s lean. There’s a difference.”
“I’m fine, Mom,” Nate says, trying to placate her with a kiss on the head. “I promise I’m eating three meals a day, and all that junk.”
He tries not to analyze the way his mind immediately jumps to Ray when his mother calls him Nathaniel.
His sister shows up at his doorstep unannounced less than a week later.
“I was just at Mom and Dad’s,” he says in lieu of a greeting as she steps across the threshold to clap him on the back. “Couldn’t you have come to see me then?”
“I was busy then,” she says with a shrug. “Can you bring my bags in for me? You’re the best.”
Nate’s fridge is empty, so they walk into town and stop at the local pizzeria. His sister smirks at him as a glob of cheese slides of the crust and lands in his lap.
“You’re just lucky Mom’s not here to see you eating like that,” she says lightly. “Acting like you’re God damn starving.”
Nate rolls his eyes, wiping up the mess with a napkin. “I’ve already gotten this lecture. I honestly am eating plenty of food. I just didn’t get around to lunch today because I was typing out an email and got distracted.”
She snorts. “So distracted that you forgot to eat?” She waggles her eyebrows conspiratorially. “She must be one hot lady.”
“You wish,” Nate says dismissively. “It’s one of the men who served under me in Iraq. He was redeployed last month, and we’ve sort of kept up correspondence.”
“Hmm...” she says, nodding absently, expression unreadable. She leans forward. “Well, is he a hot guy, then?”
Nate flushes red, setting down his piece of pizza. He’s never brought up his sexuality with his sister, and she’s never bothered to ask (apart from the occasional gibe about how he needs to get a girlfriend). But she’s no idiot, and Nate’s actually surprised she’s waited this long to pry into this part of his life.
“We’re friends,” he says shortly, honestly. “That’s all.”
She cocks an eyebrow, smirk widening. “Are you sure?” she coos annoyingly. “You know it’s okay if it’s more than that. You can tell me.”
“I really, truly mean it. This guy’s just a friend.”
She looks somewhat unconvinced, but leans back anyway, cutting off her own slice of pizza. “Okay. If you say so.” She chews thoughtfully, staring at him without blinking.
Nate shifts awkwardly in his chair. “What?”
“Is there someone special?” she asks carefully, the teasing tone replaced with a more affectionate, coaxing approach. “Someone you’re seeing?”
Nate glares at the ceiling, willing himself to be patient. He sighs frustratedly. “Not...exactly.”
Her eyes widen comically, leaning forward again. “What does that mean? Share, share!”
“It’s complicated,” Nate says, silencing her with an upraised palm when she opens her mouth to interrupt. “I’m honestly not sure what to call it just yet. But, as I’ve already said, you will be the first person I go to if I need to talk.”
She grimaces, grudgingly accepting his terms. “Okay. But it...it is a guy, isn’t it?” she prods.
Nate looks away nervously, foot tapping under the table. “Yeah, it is.”
She touches his hand briefly, giving it a gentle squeeze. “You know I don’t care about that,” she says softly.
“I know,” he replies, relief washing over him, warm and welcoming.
Ray texts him near the end of the week:
Can I come visit you?
Nate gets the message during his last class of the day. He’s a little surprised, but can’t really think of any reason to say no.
Yes. When? he texts back.
30 seconds later, his phone buzzes:
Ray’s 12:00 flight is delayed, so Nate waits around in the airport for about an hour. When the plane finally does touch down and Ray comes bounding down the staircase to the baggage claim area, Nate feels a flutter of affection and happiness that’s startling in its intensity. The feeling only gets stronger when Ray spots him across the room and flashes his trademark shit-stirrer grin.
They start for each other, meeting somewhere in the middle, and embrace for far longer than either of them initially intended. And when Nate eventually, reluctantly pulls back, he sees the same want and anxiety he feels reflected in Ray’s eyes.
Ray draws in a sharp breath. “Good,” he says after a moment, jaw squaring and nodding tersely. “I’m glad I’m not the only one.”
Nate chuckles at his straightforwardness. “Wanna grab a late lunch?”
Ray shakes his head, cocking his head to the side with a secretive smile. “Nah. I’d rather go back to your place. What I’m hungry for, they don’t serve in a restaurant, homes.”
Startled, Nate laughs loudly, turning bright red and ducking his face. When he regains his composure, he looks up with a serious face. “Get a lot of action with that line, Person?”
Ray flicks his ear, grinning shyly. “I’m hoping to.”
Suddenly not caring who might be watching, Nate reaches out and grabs Ray’s hand. “I think that can be arranged,” he replies suggestively.
They’re barely through the door before Ray’s mouth is on Nate’s, their bodies pressed flush against one another as Ray presses him into the wall.
Nate groans into the kiss, tension draining out of his shoulders as Ray’s hands snake under his shirt, running over the skin with a delicate touch.
“Wanted this so bad,” Ray whispers as he very nearly bruises Nate’s neck with his tongue. “Dreamed about this. Thought about it every day.”
“Uh huh,” Nate replies breathlessly, shattered to realize how much he’s wanted this, too. He spins them around so Ray’s the one with his back to the wall, and he uses his hand to lift Ray’s chin, baring his throat so Nate can attack it with his mouth, sliding to his knees as he drags his tongue along the warmth of Ray’s body.
“Oh, fuck,” Ray gasps out, knees buckling as Nate unzips the front of his jeans. “Oh, fucking Christ, yes. Jesus, Nate. Jesus, please. Fuck...”
Ray’s already rock hard, and Nate takes it all into his mouth without hesitation. Ray’s hips twitch forward, and Nate uses his hands to pin Ray back against the wall so he doesn’t gag. He works up and down, face growing flushed as the heat under his tongue increases and Ray’s ranting becomes more frenzied.
“Holy mother of fucking motherfucker...” Ray babbles inanely, petting Nate’s hair, fingers twisting in the short strands. “Son of a bitch! Jesus Harold Christ on a fucking rubber crutch!” Nate snorts and nearly chokes. He starts to pull off, but Ray holds him in place and glares down at him indignantly. “Don’t you dare, Fick. Finish what you started!” Nate raises an eyebrow at him, and Ray whimpers, hands trembling. “Come on,” he begs, hips twitching forward encouragingly. “Please?”
Nate rolls his eyes and resumes his targeted attack on Ray’s cock. It doesn’t last much longer.
Ray makes a sort of half-cry and shoots off, and Nate sucks it all down without a second thought. He pulls off with a wet sound, bending backwards to lie on the floor and catch his breath. Ray sinks down beside him a minute later.
“Like that, did you?” Nate asks faux-innocently and Ray just stares at him dazedly.
“Those fucking lips...” Ray murmurs, voice reverent as he reaches out to run his thumb over Nate’s mouth. “Those fucking obscene cocksucker lips. Knew you would be brilliant at that.”
Nate laughs silently, scooting closer to tuck his head against Ray’s neck.
They stay like that for some time.
They’re outside meandering down one of Nate’s favorite walking paths, setting everything straight in each other’s minds.
“How did this happen?” Ray wonders aloud, looking up at the sky.
“I’m not sure,” Nate replies honestly.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen.” It’s not a question, but Ray says it like it is.
“It wasn’t,” Nate agrees.
Because Ray’s right; this was supposed to be a means to an end, a stepping stone for getting over Brad. It wasn’t supposed to become an actual thing.
“I made myself not call,” Ray confesses, looking frustrated with himself. “After you left, I wanted to call you so bad, and I didn’t know why. I told myself I was just all mixed up because of Brad, you know?” He chances a glance at Nate, and, apparently satisfied with what he sees, continues. “I figured it was like...what’s that thing people call it? Projecting? I figured it was just projecting, or something.” He sighs. “But then I started dreaming about you. And when I whacked off, I was starting to think about you instead of Brad. And then I couldn’t get you out of my fucking mind, and I just needed to see you, so I could fix whatever the hell is happening to my head.”
Nate nods understandingly. “And are you squared away now, Corporal?”
Ray looks at him strangely, not smiling. “Call me Ray, please,” he says softly, and Nate is almost overpowered by the sudden desire to hug him.
Instead, he says, “Ray. Have you figured out what it is that’s happening? Do you know what it is that you want?”
Ray takes Nate’s hand and holds it tightly, keeping his gaze fixed on the ground as they walk down the path. “I have, and I do.” He bites his lip nervously. “I’m a little scared by it, but...” - he looks at Nate, eyes open and trusting- “...but I want to try for it. If you do, too.”
Nate feels like maybe his heart can’t take this; can’t take what he’s being offered. He takes a deep breath. “You want...everything?” he asks quietly, barely louder than a whisper.
Ray nods confidently. “I do.” He releases Nate’s hand, shoving his own in his pockets. “I’m tired of being stuck in the fucking past. The more time I spend crying like a bitch about everything I’ve lost, the more opportunities I allow to slip me by.” He smiles hopefully at Nate. “I think there’s something here,” - he gestures between them - “and I don’t want to give that up just because it wasn’t in my plan. Just because it’s something I never would have expected in a million fucking years.” He looks at Nate seriously, stopping in his tracks to face him head on. “I can’t think of any good reason not to go for this, apart from being scared shitless. And even that’s never stopped me in the past.”
Nate looks at Ray wonderingly, as if he’s never seen him properly before. There had been a time, back in the desert when he was first getting acquainted with the platoon, when he had once believed that Ray was shallow. He can’t remember why he ever thought that.
He swallows the lump that’s risen in his throat and gives Ray a lopsided smile. “Let’s do it,” he agrees.
It takes some time to be sure, to know that this isn’t simply the influence of Brad Colbert coloring their wants and dreams and desires; to know without a doubt that this is a thing of its own creation, a standalone bond that can live and breathe and survive without the remnants of things could have been lurking in the foreground.
It takes some time, but they get there. And it’s good. It doesn’t feel like settling. Not one bit.
They don’t move in together right away, don’t rearrange the entire structure of their lives to accommodate this growing relationship. But Ray stays at Nate’s apartment for weeks at a time without discussion of visit length, and Nate flies out to Missouri whenever he has enough time and cash to spare. When the semester at Harvard comes to a close, they don’t even need to discuss whether or not they’ll be spending the summer together.
“My place or yours?” Ray asks with a yawn the Sunday morning before Nate’s finals week. “When you’re done on Friday, I mean.”
Nate waves an arm around the room vaguely. “This is ‘my place.’ So unless you want to hang here for the summer...”
“Less humidity here, dude,” Ray points out, tossing a rubber ball up into the air and trying unsuccessfully to catch it in his mouth.
Nate snatches it from him. “A change of scenery might be nice, though.”
Ray shrugs. “Whatever you want to do.”
Nate nods, drumming his fingers on the armrest of his chair. “We don’t have to decide right now. Besides...” - he pauses, and Ray lifts his head to look at him inquiringly - “...I was hoping you’d drive up with me to see my family. So we could do that. Before going...wherever else.”
Ray winks at him. “You were hoping? Like I was gonna say no, or something?”
“I’ve learned never to assume anything with you,” Nate fires back dryly.
“Touché, my captain,” Ray says with a mock salute. “Touché.”
Nate’s father asks him if he’s “sure you want to go down this path?” and reaffirms his love and support when Nate says yes. His mother grumbles about not getting grandchildren, then asks Ray if he’d like a turkey sandwich. And that’s about all the fuss they have to deal with.
Much to Nate’s horror, his sister and Ray hit it off immediately, and he knows instinctively that family get-togethers are going to be a nightmare from here on out.
“I like him,” she whispers to Nate later in the day while Ray is busy treating the parents to an enthusiastic reenactment of the time he (allegedly) saw Johnny Cash in a grocery store. “He’s funny.”
“Between the two of you, I’ll never have a moment’s peace,” Nate mutters. “I’ll probably go prematurely grey.”
She whips him on the ass with a dishtowel. “I like him,” she repeats sincerely, smiling cheerfully.
Nate can’t help but smile, too. “So do I.”
She pulls him into a bone-crushing hug. “You know, I’m still here if you ever need to talk,” she murmurs against his chest. “About stuff from overseas.” She pulls away and pats him on the cheek. “But even you don’t want to, I’m just glad you at least have someone. I’m glad you’re happy.” She quirks an eyebrow at him. “You are happy, right?”
Nate nods in affirmation, smiling as his parents’ laughter carries in from the other room. “I am.”
He means it.
They don’t make any sort of announcement, but pretty much everybody finds out anyway.
Walt is stupefied, and a little pissed that neither of them thought to mention it to him before, but after the initial shock, he gets on board readily.
“You could do so much better, LT,” he says mournfully, ignoring Ray’s indignant squawk. “I always thought a smart guy like you would end up with a pretty doctor or something. But apparently not.”
“I know where you sleep, motherfucker,” Ray threatens, brandishing a spoon. Walt is unimpressed.
Mike has a hilariously similar reaction.
“Seriously, Nate?” he sighs, shaking his head sadly. “A smart guy like you could-”
“I’ll have you know,” Ray interrupts with a scowl. “I happen to be quite a catch.” Mike and Nate burst out laughing, and Ray crosses his arms sullenly.
Trombley reacts predictably.
“I always knew you were a faggot, Corporal,” he mutters glumly. But he doesn’t try to start a fight or refuse to speak to them.
Apparently the ties of war run deeper than casual prejudices.
Poke thinks it’s the funniest thing in the world and spreads it around to the rest of the guys. Most of them don’t give a shit, and those who do don’t make any trouble.
Rudy actually writes them a letter of congratulations, whatever the fuck that’s supposed to be.
“Love is love, brothers,” it reads cheerfully. “Best of luck in your pursuit of happiness, my friends.”
“Such a fruit,” Ray says wonderingly when Nate hands him the letter. “I swear to Christ, he is the gayest motherfucker I have ever met in my entire life.”
All of that is good and well. The only shocker is Brad.
He gets their contact information from someone (probably Walt) and calls to give his congratulations as well.
“Don’t sound so surprised, sir,” his voices intones smugly over the receiver. “You didn’t think you two whiskey-tango Brokeback Mountain hippie liberal dick-sucks could get away with keeping me out of the loop, did you?”
It shouldn’t be so easy. There should be anger and regret and awkwardness and...feelings. The three of them have so much unspoken history. But the conversation flows naturally, and it almost feels just like old times. Somehow they manage to sidestep the whole mess without a single ounce of pain. It’s rather surreal.
Ray gets off the phone first because he has a lunch meeting with a friend, and he shouts a hurried, affectionately profane goodbye at Brad before running out the door.
There’s a brief silence, then Brad finally puts it out there, like they both knew he would. But even so, it comes without heartache.
“If things had been different...” he starts carefully, and Nate holds his breath, “...If I’d gotten out when you did...do you think we might have a had a chance?”
Anyone else would have made it sound like a guilt-trip, or a plea for sympathy. Coming from Brad, it’s just a simple, honest question.
“I definitely think so,” Nate replies easily.
There’s another pause, then Brad laughs quietly on the other end of the line. “Life’s funny isn’t it?” The tone isn’t bitter; it’s mischievous.
Nate smiles. “It certainly is.”
A pause again.
“I’ll be seeing you, sir,” Brad says. “Ray too. I think friends should speak, don’t you?”
“I look forward to it, Brad,” Nate says.
And that puts a lid on the whole thing.
Three years into their relationship, Ray apparently decides he no longer has any doubts.
Nate likes to believe that nothing can surprise him anymore, but waking up to Ray kneeling next to his side of the bed with a little black box in his hand almost certainly makes his heart skip a couple of beats.
“If this is what it looks like, you definitely should have waited until I was fully awake,” Nate jokes in what he hopes passes for a casual tone. “Unless you want to give me a heart attack.”
Ray laughs, but Nate can see the fear behind his eyes. “You know I suck at doing the gay feelings shit, man. Don’t make this harder for me...”
Nate rubs the sleep out of his eyes, sitting up and mussing his hair while resisting the urge to yawn. He smiles encouragingly. “I know. Proceed.”
Ray opens the box and takes out the ring. “I wasn’t sure whether to get one or not, honestly,” he says sheepishly. “It’s kinda corny and retarded, but I figured...you know, it’s tradition.” He holds it up so Nate can see, biting his lower lip nervously. “Look,” he sighs. “The past few years have been...” - he pauses - “Scratch that. That’s a lame start. What I meant to say was...I love you, dude. I’m really, seriously, head-over-heels, hearts-in-my-eyes for you. I’m actually sort of disgusted with myself.”
Nate snorts, but doesn’t respond. He tries to keep a convincing poker face.
“Anyway,” Ray continues, “I guess what I’m trying to say is that...you’re it for me. It still feels really, really weird saying that out loud because I never fucking imagined I’d be doing” - he wiggles the ring - “this, like, ever. With anyone. Much less a guy. Much less you, to tell you the truth.” He blushes crimson and ducks his head briefly. “Jesus, I’m fucking this up...” He holds up the ring again, fixing his expression into a look of determination. “Okay, so I know that we’ve never really discussed this. And I know neither of us really give a shit about ceremonies, or big family gatherings, or even the legal benefits and stuff. But I still just thought that...I dunno. I want to make this official, in some way. I want to let you know that I’m not gonna go anywhere, and-”
Nate leans in and cuts him off with a chaste kiss. “Yes,” he says softly, ruffling Ray’s hair affectionately. “I accept.”’
Reflecting on all the things that are, and the things that could have been, and on the strangeness of being:
“It’s like pulling away from the maze. While you’re in the maze, you go through willy-nilly, turning where you think you have to turn, banging into the dead ends. One thing after another. But you get some distance on it, and all those twists and turns...why, they’re the shape of your life.”