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"The DNC, sir? Really?" Nate hears as soon as he answers the phone with a drowsy huh. "I thought so much better of you."

There aren't many people left who call him sir—most of his former subordinates have finally come around to just Nate, with the occasional LT or distracted dude can you pass me a beer?—and besides, there was only ever one person who could make it sound like a teasing endearment.

"It's 2:30 in the morning here, Brad," Nate says, pointedly not answering the question.

"Yes. And you gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention."

Even if Nate hadn't believed wholeheartedly in what he said on stage, it probably would have been worth it for Brad's incredulity.

"What, are you jealous? The RNC isn't going to ask you anytime soon; you might accidentally let slip that OIF was a clusterfuck."

Brad laughs. "Touché, sir. Also, I'm not an Ivy League intellectual with a resume longer than my dick."

With entirely more difficulty than he would like, Nate restrains himself from commenting that even a very short resume would achieve that—he's pretty sure it's not true, but the dig is just right there. Talking about penises with Brad would probably go poorly—at least for his imagination. "Well, they're not so fond of intellectuals anyway. You might have a shot."

"At the rate their mental deterioration is going, Ray might have one." There's a beat and then Brad continues. "I think I see why you spoke at the DNC."

Nate opens his mouth to speak, but what he actually does is yawn.

"I should let you go, sir," Brad says. "Sorry I woke you."

"Don't worry about it," Nate mumbles, phone pressed tight between his cheek and the pillow. "It was nice to talk to you. We should do it more often."

He falls asleep almost as soon as he says it, and on the other end of the call, Brad listens to his breathing for a moment before he hangs up.

Calling the LT was probably a bad decision but it's too late to change it now. Brad didn't really need the reminder that in another life—without Iraq or even without the Corps, not that he can imagine such a life—they probably would have been friends.

Brad is smart, he's really fucking intelligent, and he doesn't see any point in lying to himself about that; it's saved his life more than once. If he hadn't been a bit of a fucked-up teenager—and if he weren't so goddamn stubborn, his mom would say—he could have gone to a good college, maybe even joined the Corps as an officer. Nate is more than his intellectual equal; he doesn’t meet a lot of people who are.

It doesn't trouble him or anything—he knew what he was getting into when he chose this life—but it's a pleasant change of pace to talk to someone who can start spewing political theory or Ancient Greek trivia at any moment; in fact, someone who will do just that after a couple of drinks and some goading.

The night they got Nate to recite part of the Aeneid in Greek is one the proudest of Brad's life.

It was also really fucking hot, but he's trying not to dwell on that part. There are things he doesn’t allow himself to think about.

 

--

 

Brad's phone rings ten days later at 6:15 in the morning. He lunges for it on instinct—any news at this time of the morning is bound to be both bad news and important news—and ignores his caller ID, answering with a somewhat snarly “What the fuck do you want?”

"Good morning to you too, sergeant," Nate says, sounding unforgivably upbeat until Brad remembers he's three hours ahead.

"If you say so, sir," Brad says, though he thinks it may have come out as inarticulate mumbling.

"I thought you'd be up by now," Nate says. "Sorry I woke you." He doesn't sound remotely sorry.

On the opposite coast, Nate is biting back a smirk.

"I'm on leave," he hears Brad grumble.

"Well, the shoe's on the other foot now, isn't it?"

"Fuck off, sir," is all the response he gets before the call ends.

Nate mentally stores away the incongruity of it all—the casual exchange tempered by a nominal deference that would be out of place in any normal friendship. Brad told him to fuck off, called him sir, and then hung up on him.

It'll probably never make sense, the juxtaposition of the language of respect with his casual, even friendly, attitude. But that’s Brad, always has been—flippant and deferent in an impressive dichotomy Nate’s never seen anyone else pull off. And it’s surprisingly pleasant, intriguing and challenging in a way that most people aren’t.

He can’t say he doesn’t like it, much as he might think it would be better if he didn’t.

 

--

 

Brad calls him next, a few weeks later, not even waiting for Nate to speak before launching into a rant about officers and retardation and how no one can ever get anything done.

Nate laughs in the right places and sympathizes at the end, pointing out—unnecessarily—that not everyone can be as smart as Brad.

“I’m pretty sure my parents’ dog is smart enough to figure this out,” Brad replies. “And he walks into sliding glass doors.”

There’s a lull in their conversation, and then Brad says, apropos of nothing except perhaps stupidity, “I’m being deployed again.”

“Oh,” Nate says. There’s no appropriate response; it’s not something to express sympathy over, but it’s nothing to be excited about either. “It’s been a while now, hasn’t it?”

“Yeah, I’m more than overdue to be heading back to the desert.”

Nate quirks his eyebrow, even though Brad can’t see it, and then puts the sentiment into words. “But?”

“There are a hell of a lot more Captain Americas and Encino Men than there are Nate Ficks, that’s all.”

Biting back a laugh at the names, he says “I don’t know whether to be sympathetic or modest.”

Brad, for his part, does laugh. “I’ll take the sympathy, sir. They were both fucking imbeciles and you knew it even better than I did, I imagine.”

They’re both still laughing a little when they eventually hang up, but Nate can’t shake the worry that settles in his stomach.

 

--

 

When Nate’s phone rings, he looks into the screen as soon as he opens his eyes and is nearly blinded, though he does manage to make out the word Restricted in place of a number.

The wave of fear and worry is nearly overwhelming—why would someone be calling him from a restricted number in the middle of the night if nothing were wrong?—but he answers his phone to a dry “Hello.”

He gapes dumbly at his phone.

“Why are you calling me?” he finally manages to say.

“You’re a good conversationalist, sir,” is the slightly wry response.

“Doesn’t your mother worry if you don’t call her?”

Brad laughs, and the sound—even distorted by thousands of miles and a questionable satellite phone connection—is more comforting than Nate particularly cares to think about. “I talked to her last week,” he says.

“So for lack of anyone better to communicate with, you called me at the crack of dawn for good conversation?”

“Something like that, sir.”

He’s tired and thrown by the fact that this phone call is taking place at all, which is his defense for opening his mouth to ask “Why don’t you call me Nate?”

“It’s easier that way, sir,” Brad replies.

Nate can hear the way Brad’s voice tenses, but through the phone, he can’t see the set of his mouth or the hard swallow he takes before answering.

Small favors, Brad supposes.

Other small favors: the fact that Nate is intelligent enough to take away from the vague answer that Brad doesn’t want to talk about that particular subject (at least not here and now). The reasons have to lot to do with reminding himself about the impossibilities of some of the things he wants and not all that much to do with respect for command and the relationship he ought to have with an officer.

It’s not even that he doesn’t respect Nate, because he does—a pretty fucking terrifying amount, in all honesty—but that respect appears to have manifested itself less in a desire to follow his orders in the traditional military sense and more in a willingness to, well, follow his orders in less conventional situations.

Or, you know, dreams of Nate jerking himself off to their phone calls. More than once.

But he swallows hard and forces the thoughts away, because that’s the only way to get through a fucking deployment; wanting things he can’t have isn’t going to make the days go any faster, that’s for damn sure.

 

--

 

Brad gets back to the States—returns to phone calls that can be made in the privacy of his own home on a phone that (probably) won’t cut out at the slightest provocation—and it takes him probably longer than it should to remember that he neglected to tell Nate when he was getting back.

There will be no discussion of any conclusions he may or may not have jumped to during the days he was home and Nate didn’t call.

He calls himself nearly as soon as he realized what was going on, and Nate—for once—sounds calm and alert when he answers. Brad, at a loss for any way to stall, dives right in. “I’ve been back for a bit now; sorry I forgot to tell you. I thought I had.”

Nate does the verbal equivalent of shrugging it off, all meaningless words and nonchalance, but Brad wonders if he was worried, during those days when there was no contact because Brad was off surfing too much and Nate was sitting at a desk Brad’s never seen doing a job that’s both so mundane Brad can barely comprehend it and so incredibly, perfectly Nate that he can’t imagine a world where someone else does it.

Brad’s not sure whether he wants Nate to have worried or not; wanting to matter (to Nate) in direct conflict with wanting to be, well, in control of his life, maybe, or at least in a situation where he understands the parameters.

 

--

 

If nothing else, this telephone communication with Brad is casting light on how little they know each other; in Iraq, they barely needed to speak—it was all glances and body language and understanding without needing to speak. But over the phone, that’s all gone and Nate feels a little lost during their conversations sometimes.

Brad is telling a story, his voice low and his words carefully chosen, and Nate forces himself to focus on what’s being said, because he can’t just meet Brad’s eyes and listen to his tone and feel more reassured than he really ought to.

What he ought to do isn’t particularly relevant at the moment, though—or rather, he’s so far beyond what he ought to do that he isn’t sure it’s relevant. He shouldn’t be on the phone this late at night with his former TL, talking about their daily lives and all things banal. He’s pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to befriend any of his men, that that’s not what officers are meant to do—but there’s no way he could have gotten through that experience without forging something like friendship.

Besides, the phone calls are easy, stabilizing. It’s hard to make friends at a job like Nate’s, not with the hours he works and the—just everything, really. Maybe he’s been left permanently fucked-up by everything, but it’s harder now than it used to be.

In all honesty, it’s probably just him, not the job.

Regardless, it’s easier to get home late and go in early and call Brad than it is to go out to bars every night or sign up for dating websites or whatever the hell it is people do now when they’re trying to connect with someone else.

 

--

 

In that other life, the one where they were never separated by that sir—probably the only fucking person Brad’s never resented having to use it with—he’s not sure what they would be to each other.

Technically, they’re not separated by it anymore; Nate is no longer an officer, certainly no longer Brad’s CO. He wishes he could blame all the things they don’t talk about on military politics, but he’s being a goddamn coward, and he knows it.

Brad’s not been in a lot of relationships—seriously—but he’s pretty sure they’re going about this one all backward.

Assuming that he’s not reading into it things that aren’t there by calling it a relationship at all.

Even if it is just a friendship—and he doesn’t think he’s crazy to be pretty sure that it’s not—it’s still all out of order and strange. He’s had plenty of friends (many against his will) and they don’t usually start with heartfelt conversations in the dark and end with banal, if interesting, phone calls.

It's a weird thing to wrap his head around, though Brad's not entirely sure whether it would be for normal people or if he's just fucked his own head up beyond repair—and it's. It like he's got any fucking normal people to ask, except maybe Nate.

For obvious reasons, asking Nate is out of the picture—"Sir, is it normal that I'm having trouble processing the fact that I think I've got a crush on you?" He would consider asking—fuck—Gunny, maybe, except he's sure to talk to Nate and then, well. If that conversation's going to happen, Brad would prefer he were part of it.

There's enough bullshit that happens behind his back at work—expected and understandable but still frustrating. It’s a hell of a lot easier to just shut up and ignore that it’s happening at all; he likes talking to Nate and he’s not sure—it just probably won’t be worth it to try and start something.

And that’s all there is to it.

 

--

 

It's not until Nate wakes up one night reaching across his bed like he expects someone to be there that he admits to himself this is something he needs to deal with. His first instinct is to give his subconscious a good talking-to—there are some things that are just simply never going to happen, no matter what he chooses to read into sleepy phone calls and distracted affection—but that proves easier said than done.

He’s good at denial, though, there are no two ways about it.

And it’s pretty easy to write off the fact that his first instinct was to reach for his cell phone; after all, he communicates with a lot more people than just Brad using it—his parents and sisters, not to mention basically everyone he interacts with regularly, friends and coworkers and business contacts. In fact, and he makes a mental note of this, it’s been a while since he talked to Katie and he ought to call her.

In the morning, he does just that. She picks up the phone with a rush “Good morning, Nathaniel. If you give me just a minute, I need to go check for a rain of fire—”

“Shut up,” he says, laughing. “I don’t call that infrequently!”

“Speak for yourself,” Katie answers. “Beth calls once a week.”

“If you think I believe that for a minute, you’re a lot dumber than I remember you being. Maybe the kid is eating your brain cells at night.”

“Don’t complain about the kid, Nat. He got Mom off your back about grandkids and you know it.”

Nate rolls his eyes. “Yeah, now she just asks me if I’m sure I’m happy in a way that makes it clear she thinks I’m not.

He doesn’t need to be able to see her to know that Katie is rolling her eyes. “Well, are you happy?”

“You really have no idea how many ways I could kill you, do you? No one would even find the body. I know people.”

“What I know is that you’d never do that do Jack—” There’s a noise Nate can’t make on the other end of the line and then, slightly muffled, he hears Katie speaking to someone else. “It’s Uncle Nate,” she says, and then “Don’t worry, she’ll be here in a few minutes.”

A few moments pass, and then Katie’s talking to him again. “Sorry, our babysitter’s running late and Jack’s getting antsy. They usually go out for a walk first thing.”

“No, I’m the one who should be sorry, I didn’t mean to both you if you’re busy.”

“For the love of god, Nate, it’s not like talking to you is a chore!”

He doesn’t answer, because there’s no way to sum up everything that goes through his mind—worry and insecurity and something he would have called PTSD in anyone else but refused to acknowledge about his own mind.

Katie picks up the conversation again. “I know you called because something is wrong. Do you want to talk about it?”

“Not really,” Nate says, smiling to himself at his own absurdity.

“Sure. You called because something’s up but you don’t actually want to talk about it.” Katie’s smirk is audible; she’s won this one and she knows it.

“Well, there’s this friend of mine …”

It’s the first time he’s ever given voice to the idea that creeps around in his subconscious and the back of his mind, that Brad might not be just his friend or at least that he might not want Brad to be just his friend. His stomach twists a little bit, but mostly it feels good, to not just let the idea fester behind his thoughts; Katie is safe, he’s known her his entire life, he can trust her and even if he sometimes has to consciously remind himself of that fact it’s not any less true.

By the end of the call, he’s managed to put a few of the thoughts into words—any therapist would be proud of him—but otherwise he’s still not sure what to make of the situation.

 

--

 

There’s a lull of almost two weeks—usual for them—and when Nate finally breaks it with a call that would be early evening for Brad, he worries that Brad’s been deployed again and just didn’t bother to tell him (never mind the fact that he could have called just as easily and didn’t).

The thought stings more than a little, and he’s relieved for the wrong reasons to hear Brad answer the phone with a terse “Hello?”

“Hey,” Nate says, immediately second-guessing the casualness of it. “I haven’t heard from you in a while and thought I’d check in.”

“Oh,” Brad says, and then there’s a tremendous clattering in the background. Nate jumps, and on the other end of the call, Brad swears loudly. There’s a voice farther away that says something, but Brad ignores it.

“Is now a bad time?”

“A bit, but I can make do. I’m cooking dinner.”

In his mind, Nate sees a woman—a date, a girlfriend—sitting in what he imagines Brad’s house looks like and waiting for him to make dinner.

He hates himself a little bit.

“Sorry for not calling,” Brad says. “I’ve been visiting my parents and they just remember they can put me to work.”

“You cook?” Nate hears himself ask, more incredulous than he really intends to be.

“I have many talents of which you know nothing,” is the quick reply. He can hear Brad’s grin behind the words, but he doesn’t actually have an answer for it—no doubt it’s true, but Nate finds himself too caught up wondering what they might be, and by extension what Brad might be implying, to monitor his speech.

“I thought you’d been deployed again without telling me,” he consequently blurts out.

There’s silence on the line.

After a long moment during which Nate seriously contemplates hanging up, Brad speaks.

“Jesus Christ, Nate.” He sighs, maybe. It’s hard to gauge over the phone.

The temptation to hang up and hide his face in pillows the way he did the first time a girl ever turned him down for a date hasn’t really receded when Brad says “I wouldn’t do that.”

For a minute Nate’s not sure how to breathe.

“I like you too much, sir.”

It’s like those moments in theater, the ones where—out of nowhere—Brad would say something so open and honest and heartfelt that Nate didn’t even know how to begin processing it. And like those times, he has no idea how to respond now. He can’t just make eye contact and hold it a moment too long and pray to a god he doesn’t believe in that Brad understands the things he doesn’t have words for.

There aren’t really words for this—I don’t trust people anymore but I trust youmy whole day is better when I talk to you first thing in the morning.

“Sir?”

Nate swallows his pride and something that feels a lot like fear and grasps blindly for words.

“I—I like you too much.”

“Too much for what?”

“Just—too much.”

This time, it’s Brad struggling for words. “I—oh,” he says, his fist clenching too tight; he can feel the nails digging into his palm.

“Does that mean what I want it to mean?” He bites back, with not inconsiderable effort, the sir that wants to attach itself to the end of the question—part respect, part habit, part reminder to himself that some things are off-limits.

But Nate got out and it’s been years since he was Brad’s CO and, well, the policy isn’t don’t do it, it’s don’t get caught—and neither of them is exactly risk-averse. If Nate is willing to start putting what the fuck this is—and really, has always been—between them into words over the phone, then Brad isn’t going to fight it; Nate was always the cautious one. (He remembers taking unnecessary risks in the name of doing something unequivocally good, not just the bullshit eventual benefit and he remembers Nate calling it off it despite Brad being certain, both then and now, that he was just as desperate to do something helpful and honest and good.)

He hears the noise he’s come to associate with taking a deep breath, but then there’s an answer.

“I think so.” After a pause, Nate continues. “I hope so. I mean, I hope what you want it to mean is what I meant.”

Brad can’t help himself grinning. “One of us is going to have to come out and say it, sir.”

“No one else calls me sir anymore,” Nate says, but Brad already has his answer prepared.

“I’m not anyone else, though, am I?” It’s unabashedly corny, but it makes Nate laugh—ergo, worth it.

“You really aren’t,” he says, though, more honest than Brad expected.

He was just thinking about stupid risks, right? He takes them and Nate stops him so, well, he might as well take this one too.

“So what I am?”

Nate doesn’t stop him this time, though.

Instead, he says “You’re more important than them,” and Brad swallows so hard that Nate probably heard him on the other end of the line. He’s starting to get, now, that it’s not easy for Nate to have moments like this, where he just says what he’s feeling instead of obfuscating and avoiding and skirting around anything that might be important.

“I’m glad to hear that, sir,” he answers, the fucking word slipping in before he can catch himself.

To his surprise, Nate laughs it off. “Haven’t I told you to stop calling me that?” he asks, but it sounds—relaxed, almost, instead of worried or taken aback and maybe this isn’t such a bad idea after all.

 

--

 

The next morning, when Nate wakes up, he has a text message that reads You should come visit as soon as possible. There are things we ought to talk about in person.