Brad wasn't anticipating anything, because no battle plan survived first contact with the enemy. Still, in the silent seconds after he knocked on the door, he remembered what Ray had said. There had been a few seconds of silence just like this after Brad explained that he had a long layover at BWI and asked if Ray had Nate's current address in DC, and then Ray had said, "You know what, fine. You should get this over with."
Brad hadn't asked what he meant by that; there was no need to give Ray more of an opening for mockery than he already had. Obviously Brad hadn't been as subtle as he thought he'd been. But the fact was, Nate hadn't been completely subtle, either.
About a week before they returned to the states, he and Nate had finally had something like a conversation about what they meant to each other. It had been more pauses and significantly omitted words than actual discussion, but they'd managed to communicate the salient points.
Yes, there was something important. It was mutual. They'd figure it out later, stateside. Nate had a girlfriend waiting for him, and though they'd never been very serious--never lived on the same coast longer than a leave or a law school break--he'd still have to be a gentleman about it. Nate was on his way out of the Corps, to boot. They'd talk when he was free. It would be safer then.
But then nothing. Nate had gone to radio silence once they were stateside, but Brad had gotten enough glimpses of his reunion with his girlfriend to realize he wasn't going to walk away from her on the spot. By the time Nate brought her to his paddle party two months later, Brad had figured out that Nate had made his choice, and he couldn't hold that against him. Nate hadn't promised him anything.
For months Brad had only heard from him through the same CC'd emails that bounced around the whole platoon. Recently there had been a few private messages about the book Nate was writing, fact-checking some things he remembered Brad saying. There had been exchanges of pleasantries, bare-bones sitreps. Nate had passed up the opportunity to make a pointed reference to the girlfriend of seven months ago, and Brad found himself wondering if that meant that in the end Nate had regretted the choice he made when he was first back from Iraq.
A couple of weeks ago, staring at another blandly friendly email, it had occurred to Brad that there was one thing Nate had promised him: they had agreed to talk about this. Brad figured his first long leave from the Royal Marines was as good a time as any to call in that debt. He would look Nate in the eye, hear his explanation, and by the time he got back on the plane Brad would know what was going on, whether Nate told him the entire truth or not. The loose end would be properly secured and Brad would be squared away.
Ray's voice was still echoing in his head--get this over with--when Brad heard faint sounds of movement on the other side of the door. He made sure he was at a non-threatening and recognizable distance from the peephole in the door, smiling slightly, and waited.
There was a rattle of security chain, a thud of locks being opened, and the door swung inward.
Brad observed several things in the same sweeping glance, and first, last, layered over all of them, was the fact that seeing Nate for the first time in seven months made his heart thump almost painfully against his ribs. He'd thought that he was misremembering the intensity of that want, but it had been lying in wait all along, a mine in his chest waiting to be triggered.
There was no time to think anything about that, because after seven months, there was a lot to take in about Nate.
Nate looked exactly like Brad always pictured him: exhausted in the full life-in-a-combat-zone sense of the word, used up and without hope of resupply. He was red-eyed and underweight.
He'd let his hair grow out, though, and he was wearing a Dartmouth t-shirt. His appearance screamed civilian, but despite his departure from the grooming standard he looked basically neat and clean.
He didn't look at all surprised to see Brad. He looked curious, like he didn't know what Brad was going to say--which was fair, because Brad didn't either--but not surprised to see him standing there.
There was a baby tucked into Nate's left arm: dressed in blue so probably male, small enough to have his head at Nate's elbow and his butt in Nate's palm, young enough that his legs were still folded up in the fetal position. Most of Bravo Two's welcome-home-from-OIF babies had been born within the last two weeks--Brad's checked luggage contained four identical Paddington Bears for the ones he'd known about--so that made sense.
Nate's left hand, cupped around the baby's bottom, did not bear a wedding ring or any sign that Nate had ever regularly worn one.
Nate was wearing his combat boots under his ragged jeans, indoors, when neither he nor the baby were dressed to go out into the March chill anytime soon.
Ray had hesitated to give Brad this address and then said get it over with. Ray knew. Ray knew Brad didn't know. Ray had deliberately cooperated in keeping this a secret from Brad; Nate had also deliberately omitted it within the last two weeks. This wasn't casual secret-keeping. This was the real deal. That meant a bunch of things that Brad couldn't stop to parse, because now Nate had answered the door with the baby and showed no sign of being aware that he'd been caught out, and no surprise at seeing Brad standing an ocean away from his last known location.
He looked, in fact, exactly like Brad had just walked up to him from the wrong side of the Humvees and Nate couldn't figure out how he'd gotten over there unseen.
"Brad, what are you doing here?"
Brad mustered up a casual smile, nodded slightly toward the baby, and said, "Thought you could use a little backup, sir. I was in town, figured I'd come by and see if I couldn't take a watch for you."
Nate grinned with a definite edge of sleep-deprived derangement as he glanced down at the baby and then back to Brad. He ran his free hand over his hair--it was long enough that it had gone a little curly--and he said, "I'm going to have to take you up on that, Staff Sergeant. I can't remember the last time I slept more than a few minutes."
Brad forced himself to keep smiling even as his stomach dropped. That answer was nothing but red flags, and there was nothing he could do but respond in kind and hope things weren't as bad as they sounded.
"I've heard the first few weeks are like that, sir."
Nate looked down at the baby again, the grin easing into a smile. "Ten days today. My mom says once you get to three weeks it's not so bad."
Brad mentally marked off the rest of his fortnight's leave. His mom and Ray and the Bravo Two babymamas would either understand or he would disown every last one of them. They'd let Nate get into this state in the first place, and left him alone like this with an infant.
"Want to show me the AO, sir?"
"Of course," Nate said, taking a backward step. "Come on in."
The apartment was meticulously neat. There was a box of baby wipes on the coffee table with a white cloth folded on top, next to a notebook with a pen tucked between the pages. The package of diapers was on the floor between the table and the couch. The television was on, playing CNN on mute; the blaring headline at the moment was about the crowds in the streets of Madrid, and the image switched under Brad's glance from the near-riots to images of the bombed trains. The crawl said something about the Democratic primaries.
In the furthest corner of the room, facing the TV and the door, there was a small desk set up with a laptop open on it, a stack of papers and a travel mug beside it. There was another neatly squared stack of folded white cloths there, a small empty baby bottle and a pacifier balanced on top.
"Stow your gear wherever," Nate said, waving toward the living room, away from the coat closet beside the door. Brad obediently swung the backpack off his shoulder and set it on the floor by the armchair that stood perpendicular to the couch. Nate darted past him to collect the empty bottle from the coffee table.
"Kitchen's over here," Nate said, and Brad followed him in through an archway. There was a little more evidence of occupation by a newborn here: a baby swing took up the place that should have belonged to a second chair by the kitchen table. A sheet of paper stuck to the cupboard above the microwave had a bunch of numbers crossed out and 68 SECS ON MED circled, with the words HEAT, SHAKE, TEST in block capitals at the bottom of the page. A row of empty bottles were aligned neatly on top of the microwave, each with a top set in front of it. There was a half pot of coffee keeping warm beside the microwave.
"Formula and coffee are in that cupboard, and there's formula already mixed in the fridge." Nate braced the bottle between his hip and the counter so he could unscrew the top one-handed.
"Feeding and changing schedule's in the logbook on the coffee table. Spit rags are everywhere, use whatever you want." Nate set the bottle components in the sink and opened the dishwasher, then put each in its place among other identical bottles and tops. "Baby puke cleans up pretty easy anyway. He had a major shit blowout a few hours ago, so there probably won't be another one today."
Nate smiled a little and knocked on a wooden cupboard door as he said it, then turned on his heel and led Brad out of the kitchen to the hallway. Nate's bedroom door stood open. The double bed was neatly made, and a little portable crib was set up directly beside it, on the far side from the door. The bathroom door also stood open; there was a baby seat on the counter beside the sink, between it and the toilet. Skilled as he obviously was in managing with one hand free, sometimes Nate would want both.
The baby's bedroom door was closed, and Brad braced involuntarily for what might be inside, but it was a typical nursery. It was decorated in neutral light yellow and green; they hadn't known in advance whether it was a boy or girl, then. The crib was half-full of stuffed toys, which meant that the baby never slept there. The changing table was stacked with clean baby clothes and more folded white cloths, so it was likewise never used.
The top of the dresser held both halves of a baby monitor--Nate clearly did not trust to radios of any kind to keep tabs on his son--and several framed photos: Nate and his parents and sisters, older people Brad didn't recognize, a couple of Bravo Two photos. Exactly one picture--a solo portrait--showed the woman Brad had seen seven months ago at Nate's paddle party, when she'd stuck to drinking 7-Up and Nate had stumbled out the door after Brad when he left.
Nate had grabbed his shoulder and said, "Brad, I just--I want you to know how important you are to me. As a team leader and a--a--" and before Nate finished that sentence Nate's girlfriend had stepped out the door.
Brad had broken Nate's grip, nodded crisply, and turned away.
Now Nate said, "He'll sleep anywhere, so I don't bother putting him in his crib. It's good for him to be flexible."
"Marines make do," Brad agreed.
"Yeah, that's my boy," Nate said, and he casually swung the baby out of his flexed arm, up to his shoulder. The baby stayed perfectly inert. "Semper Gumby, at least so far."
Brad smiled for the non-joke. Cautiously, offering his hands without reaching too close to the baby, he said, "Why don't you let me take him, sir? You should try to sleep."
Nate just nodded easily. "You're right, yeah. Here, you know how this works, don't you?"
Nate was already stepping in, flipping the baby down from his shoulder and into Brad's left arm with that bizarre careless-looking ease parents had with their tiny infants. This was real, beyond the possibility of a joke or a delusion or any other easier explanation. Nate--the LT, the guy Brad had been hung up on for the better part of a year--Nate was a dad.
Nate looked up questioningly at Brad as he let go of the baby and stepped back. He'd asked a question.
Brad said confidently, "Support head and neck, diaper the end shit comes out of, bottle goes in the end that cries."
Nate's smile widened. "Yeah, that covers it. I'll wake up if he cries, but he should sleep another hour or so. Thanks, Brad, you're a lifesaver."
Brad kept his arm perfectly steady under the warm, dense weight, and pivoted on his heel to clear Nate's path to the door. Nate preceded him, turning aside to go into his own bedroom. He turned back in the doorway, and Brad took the liberty of reaching out his free hand to touch Nate's shoulder, giving him a gentle push.
"I've got this, sir."
"No, I know you do," Nate said. He looked suddenly utterly serious in a way that didn't fit their quiet and pristine surroundings. Brad automatically stood a little straighter under the weight he carried, feeling the same old tangle of furtive eagerness to impress Nate.
"Sergeant, if anything happens, I trust you to handle it. Don't worry about me, just take Linus and go. He's all that matters now. Everything's in the front closet. You can be Oscar Mike in ten seconds. Understood?"
"Solid copy, sir," Brad said, keeping his face absolutely blank thanks to years of practice. The baby--Linus?--weighed just about as much as his M4. Brad felt naked without his Kevlar.
Nate gave a sharp nod and turned away, walking to the bed and collapsing onto it--on top of the covers, boots still laced up--without a backward glance. Brad stayed in the doorway, watching to be sure Nate was still breathing, and then looked down at the baby.
Linus Fick had round pink cheeks and a tiny round nose, fine blond eyelashes and tiny translucent eyebrows and an almost invisible cap of blond hair. Ten little fingers balled into tiny fists, feet covered in clean white socks. His pale blue onesie had a duck on the chest, and white plastic diaper-edges showed at the leg holes. His fast, deep breaths pressed against Brad's chest. Brad laid a hand carefully over the round of his stomach and felt it rise and fall under his palm, felt the fragile rigidity of his miniature ribcage.
How far gone is your daddy, little man?
Brad took another glance at Nate. He was lying motionless on his side, knees drawn up slightly. His t-shirt had ridden up, exposing a wedge of pale skin above his jeans, the lowest bumps of his spine visible. His arms were folded in front of his chest like he was cradling... not a rifle, not anymore.
Brad reached out with his free hand and quietly closed the door. He stayed still for a count of sixty after he'd done that, but Nate didn't make a sound from the other side and Linus stayed asleep. Brad turned away, returning to the living room. He confirmed with a glance that Nate had indeed relocked and chained the door after Brad stepped inside, and then walked over to the desk to find the TV remote. Sure enough it was there, on the far side of the laptop.
The file on screen was all text, widely spaced, impossible not to read at a glance. In the two weeks since Brad last had an email from him--since Linus had been born--Nate's book had gotten up to the firefight in Nasiriyah. The top page on the stack beside the computer was a sketched map of their route.
Brad looked up, and the picture on the TV was of the Afghan hills. He gritted his teeth and changed the channel until he found ESPN. They were talking about hockey, which as far as Brad knew Nate had never given a fuck about. He turned the volume on at the very lowest setting, just a barely-audible murmur of broadcasters' bright, smooth voices talking about nothing important.
"All right, little man," Brad said, not whispering, but keeping his voice nearly as low as the TV. "So your daddy's head is back in Iraq, which leaves two questions. Where's your mom, and what's in the closet?"
And what the hell am I going to do if those turn out to be the same question? But the horror-movie worst case scenario was actually easy to strategize. If Nate was that far gone, Brad would take Linus and retreat at speed to the nice crowded Starbucks down the street. He would call 911, then Ray, then Nate's parents, whose number Ray would be able to supply. Nate would understand; hell, Nate would agree, once he was in his right mind again. He'd said it himself. Keeping Linus safe was the only thing that mattered.
Brad still hesitated for a second, trying to figure out the best case scenario. It took longer, but he got there. There might be a stroller and a diaper bag in the closet, so that Brad could take Linus along to run an errand if he needed to. And Linus's mother might be....
Brad couldn't pin down what constituted a best case scenario for Linus's mother beyond not dead when she was so obviously not here, but he couldn't just stand there in the middle of the room anymore. Brad shifted Linus up onto his shoulder--moving carefully and slowly, but at least without being compelled to sit down and lay the baby in his lap to get him there. When Linus was balanced on his chest, Brad went over to the closet, turned sideways so that his body was between Linus and the door, and pulled it open.
He saw coats, first--all masculine, all roughly Nate's size--and then he saw the collapsed stroller, a lightweight three-wheeled thing. Brad spent a blissful half-second thinking he'd been completely off base, until he saw the fully-loaded pack on the floor next to the stroller, slightly camouflaged by the coats.
It wasn't camouflaged in any other way; it was a civilian hiking pack in bright red and gray, and most of the gray was covered with stripes of reflective tape. It was positioned with the straps out, and when Brad reached for it he discovered that he could in fact sling it up onto his shoulder, turn, and head for the door all in one motion. Oscar Mike in less than ten seconds.
Brad carried the pack over to the couch, lowering it to the cushions as he sat. He laid Linus in his lap, pulled off his sweatshirt and dropped it on the cushion beside him, then moved Linus onto the shirt, wrapping it around him like a blanket and tucking the whole baby-package against his own thigh. Linus should be too little to fling himself off the couch, and being wrapped up tight would slow him down enough for Brad to catch him if he did move, as well as helping to keep him warm while no one was holding him.
With both hands free and his lap clear, Brad opened the top of the pack. The first thing he pulled out was a folded mess of straps that resolved, when shaken out, into a baby backpack--so if he'd taken off without stopping to unfold the stroller, he could carry Linus on his chest and still have both hands free.
Under the baby backpack was a loaded sidearm. It was a 9mm, cop style. It was probably completely legal and unremarkable; Brad somehow doubted Nate had toted his newborn to a gun shop to buy it anytime in the last ten days. He seemed dug-in to Brad, hunkered down inside his existing perimeter. But he wasn't keeping the gun on his hip or in the bedside drawer or in a gun safe--he was keeping it packed, in case something happened. He wasn't planning on making any kind of stand. He was ready to run.
Brad looked down at Linus--swaddled in Brad's PT gear, fast asleep and months away from being able to even crawl somewhere he shouldn't, probably years away from being able to open the closet door by himself--and then set the gun down carefully on the opposite side of his body, resting heavily against his other leg.
The next thing down was a Ziploc with two empty baby bottles inside. Under that was a whole series of Ziplocs, each one filled with little tubs like the guacamole in a takeout bag. Each tub was full of off-white powder, and each bag also held a half-dozen iodine tablets, for purifying water. Homemade baby MREs, in packs of twelve. If the baby ate every two hours, each bag represented a day's meals, and Nate could feed Linus out of this pack, without resupply or a reliable source of clean water, for a week.
Brad rested his hand on Linus again--his shape was muffled by Brad's sweatshirt, but Brad could still feel him breathing--as he remembered the last baby he'd held before this one. She'd been shoved into his hands at the roadblock outside Al Kut. That baby had been older--she'd held her own head up, and he'd seen her teeth as she cried. She hadn't seemed much heavier, struggling weakly as her mother tried to tell him what was wrong and he tried to insist he couldn't do anything for a sick baby. Doc had said a quarter of those babies were going to die; he'd said that to the LT. They'd all known that number by the time they broke down the roadblock and took off. Brad would bet dollars to dinars that Nate had never stopped thinking about that since he first held Linus--hell, maybe since he first held Christeson's baby girl, two months ago.
Brad had to mentally edit that in: in those pictures he'd seen of Nate holding an impossibly tiny baby, standing in for her daddy who was off in Fallujah, Nate had had a girlfriend who was seven months pregnant. That could have been his own kid he was holding if their luck had been a little different.
And now Nate was ready to retreat hundreds of miles on foot to safety with his child in his arms.
Brad closed his eyes, thinking of the men he'd seen coming through the roadblock, or on the streets in Baghdad. Some holding a kid by the hand, or carrying toddlers, yeah. All of them conspicuously dressed as civilians. Brad remembered noting them using their clothing and kids as shields; he'd never thought about them as frightened fathers trying to get their children to safety, only as potential enemies.
Brad opened his eyes again and ran a hand down a line of reflective tape on the backpack, remembering Nate's unsat haircut and his Dartmouth t-shirt. Camouflage indeed. Nate wanted to look like a harmless civilian when the time came. He had to, with a baby in his arms; he wouldn't dare be--or be mistaken for--a combatant.
Somebody was going to spot his boots, though. They'd spot his boots and then they'd take his baby from his arms and zip-tie him. Maybe they'd just shoot him, if he looked at them funny or they found the gun or something startled them; maybe they'd fucking bayonet him, if they had a Captain America running around. Maybe they wouldn't even bother to take the baby away first....
Brad closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose. No one was going to do any of that. Nate and Linus were in DC, not Baghdad. Brad could not start buying into Nate's paranoid delusions, no matter how well he understood them.
The boots were a mistake, though. The only mistake Brad had spotted Nate making so far, except for forgetting Brad didn't know about Linus. That one could be forgiven. Nate trusted Brad. He knew he could get away with being a little sloppy with his TL.
Brad dropped his hand and reached for the TV remote, turning the volume up one careful click. He still couldn't quite make out words, but he could distinguish separate voices, now. Linus didn't seem to notice, and there was no sound from Nate's bedroom. Brad resisted the temptation to go and check on Nate.
Instead, he went back to rifling through the pack. There was a zippered pocket near the top, which held a hundred dollars in small denominations, a roll of quarters, and Nate's passport. It had been issued just about ten years ago, showing a teenaged kid with floppy hair and a close-mouthed smile that suggested braces. There were a few European stamps dating back to Nate's high school and college years. They were the marks of affluent family vacations; there was nothing to suggest the bearer had ever traveled to a war zone, let alone fought there.
Tucked into the passport were two sheets of paper, folded together. The first was a photocopied birth certificate from the GW hospital, baby's footprint in the corner.
Linus Ulysses Fick. Jesus Christ. Either Nate had already been markedly Not All Right ten days ago and no one had known how to rein him in, or he was an even more ridiculous Ivy League Classics nerd than any of them had ever suspected.
Brad filed away Linus's mother's name, for future searching--there couldn't be that many Corinne Earleys in the DC area--but the next page relieved him of the necessity. The photocopy had picked up the notary's seal, in the same spot on this page as the footprint on the birth certificate, overlapping the signatures. The following is a legally binding agreement regarding the custody of the minor child Linus Fick. The Linus looked like it had been filled in later--typed, not printed, slightly crooked. They'd settled this even before the baby was born. Nate had sole custody and received no financial support. They'd agreed to meet and renegotiate by the end of the year, but that meant Nate was on his own for at least the next nine months.
That, Brad concluded, had been an absolutely final breakup. Maybe it was no wonder nobody argued with Nate about what name he stuck the kid with.
Maybe it meant Brad had some kind of chance, except.... Brad looked down at Linus, as enormous in his implications as he was tiny in form. Except Brad had just dropped into terrain he was entirely unprepared for. Still, there was nothing to do but keep moving.
Brad folded the papers up and put all of that away, and dug quickly through the rest of the pack. There were cloth diapers with safety pins, foil blankets and a poncho in plastic packs, a soft blue baby blanket, a few changes of baby clothes, a first aid kit, a package of pacifiers, a tiny plush duck, clean socks and underwear for Nate, a box of ammunition....
Brad packed it all away exactly as it had been, right up to the sidearm and the baby backpack, and gathered Linus up to carry along as he took the pack to stow again in the closet. On his way back to the couch, Brad grabbed his own much smaller backpack.
He lay down flat on the couch, so he could rest Linus on his chest, unwrapping the sweatshirt from around the baby and tucking it under his own head. Linus smacked his lips, waved one fist, his eyes fluttering half-open, and he made a tiny noise, not a cry but a sort of unhappy baby mumble. Brad put both hands on Linus's back--nearly covering his entire body--and made little instinctive shushing noises, and the baby settled down again.
Brad stared at him. He had a faint, uneasy, wait, what just happened? feeling that didn't make any sense. Nothing had just happened. The baby hadn't cried.
Brad shook his head and reached into his backpack, pulling out his phone. He watched it power on, watched it find the signal, watched a string of text messages arrive.
Ray: I was sworn to secrecy! Give Linus a big kiss from Uncle Ray-Ray.
Mom: Welcome back to the States! Send me a text when you're on the ground.
Ray: Why haven't you called to threaten me with death yet? Everything okay?
Ray: If everything is so okay that you're too busy to call me, you'd better not be doing it in front of the baby.
"First of all." Brad curled down to kiss the top of Linus's head. "We are never leaving you alone with Uncle Ray-Ray once you're old enough to repeat things he says."
Secondly, he texted his mom. Down safely, visiting a friend in DC. Going to miss my flight to San Diego.
Thirdly, he called Ray. Before Ray could say a word, Brad said quietly, "You fucked up here, Ray."
He could picture Ray's excited look falling away. Brad reached over and turned up the TV by another click, then resettled his hand on Linus's back before he could move.
Ray was all business, slightly worried, as he said, "What happened?"
"Nate is...." Brad trailed off, trying to work out how much he was willing to say about the way Nate just wasn't there, the way he went down like he was dead.
"Look, you don't have to be delicate," Ray blurted. "By the time he'd spent three days sleeping on my couch after a drunken screaming fight on the phone with his babymama, my illusions about the LT were pretty much shattered."
So the breakup had either started or finished around the time Nate had gone out to St. Louis to see Christeson's baby girl. He and Ray had met up there; it would have been easy enough for Nate to go back to KC for a few days with Ray if he wasn't hurrying home. He'd dropped everything to fly out to St. Louis to see someone else's baby getting born; it wasn't like Linus's mom hadn't had a point. Brad would have done the same for any of them, though. That wasn't a fight with Nate that anyone could ever have won.
"Been waiting to tell me that for a while, huh," Brad observed.
"Jesus, you have no idea, it's been killing me."
"Glad as I am that you could finally get that off your chest," Brad said softly, sliding his hand up and down Linus's back, "the point is, Nate is not...."
Brad looked around the spotless apartment, looked down at the safe, healthy, sleeping baby, and wondered what the hell he could say.
"Shit," Ray muttered. "I thought the emails were getting kind of Stepford."
Brad sighed. "He hasn't been sleeping. He's ready to fucking evac under fire. I got here and he didn't remember that I wasn't supposed to know about the kid."
"Fuck," Ray said again. "Brad, I fucking swear, if there had been one single sign that he couldn't take care of Linus--his mom's been checking on him every day, I was sure she would catch it before I did if something was up. She's his mom, what kind of fucking freak can lie to his mom for shit? And she'd definitely have noticed if Linus wasn't okay."
Brad closed his eyes. "I know. Linus is fine. Taking care of the baby is the one thing Nate is doing."
"Like... right now? Is he sitting next to you clutching the kid like he's his precious?"
Brad winced, but it was too late; he was never going to get rid of that mental image. "He's sleeping, Ray. You were a few steps down the triage list from making sure he didn't suffer an actual psychotic break."
"Okay, so, bright side, he's not actually psychotic," Ray said. "Is he stockpiling weapons?"
There was something comforting about knowing that Ray was running through roughly the same mental checklist as Brad.
"Just one sidearm that I've seen so far, but he's keeping it in his go bag."
"Huh." Brad knew Ray was thinking what he was thinking: that was a good sign, as far as it went, but Brad hadn't checked anything like all of the apartment, and he had no way of knowing what Nate had stashed somewhere for ready use.
Brad sighed again, and Ray muttered, "Yeah."
"Do me a favor?" Brad said. "Could you call the airline and try to stop them from sending my luggage to San Diego without me?"
There was a short silence and then Ray said, "Bradley Colbert, did you just give me permission to impersonate you while interacting with innocent civilians?"
Brad smiled. "Just this one time, Ray, for the purposes of rescuing my clothing and toiletries from their clutches."
"Well," Ray said, "as you should have realized by now, it only takes once."
Ray hung up before Brad could spit out an answer to that, which was probably for the best.
Brad checked that his phone was silenced and then set it down on the coffee table, picking up the remote to turn up the TV one more click. The voices were intelligible now--they were talking about baseball, another sport Nate had never shown any interest in--but easily ignorable. Brad steadied Linus against his chest with one hand and rolled half onto his side to reach the notebook with the other.
Nate's logbook. Brad settled back and cautiously took both hands off Linus, using them to hold the notebook overhead so he could read it. The pen marked the most recent entries. The last had been written--Brad checked his watch--about fifteen minutes before Brad had arrived. 1406: bottle, finished 2oz, belched audibly. Asleep in arms 1425-
Brad propped the notebook against the back of the couch and wrote neatly on the lines beneath, 1440: B arrived. N asleep on bed 1445-
Skimming backward, Brad could see that Linus did in fact eat roughly every two hours, and required diaper changes about as often. Brad stared thoughtfully for a moment at 0750: shit explosion. Both showered. and then searched out the pattern. As Nate had said, catastrophic shit requiring a shower had occurred on each of the last three days, though at varying intervals.
More regular were the uninformative notations that read Mom here and a span of time, two to three hours at some point during the morning or afternoon each day, all the way back to the beginning of the logbook eight days ago. She'd shown up shortly after the shit explosion this morning, and nothing else was noted until after her departure, close to noon.
That wasn't just checking in; that was, in fact, someone taking a watch to relieve Nate. His mom had to be trying to give him a chance to get some sleep, but Brad would swear on his life that Nate hadn't gotten any sleep worth mentioning in at least the last two or three days. Brad knew how that looked on him; he was pretty far gone into serious sleep deprivation. Even if Nate had never seen combat he'd be out of his mind right now.
And yet--if he was just hanging around with his mom and Linus, he'd have kept track of what Linus was doing in the logbook. Even if he felt weird about documenting everything the baby did in front of his mom, he could have remembered it to write down after his mom was gone. That meant that Nate wasn't with Linus and his mom when she was around, which circled back around to the fact that Nate ought to have been spending that time sleeping; the only way Brad could see it going was that Nate was pretending to sleep, to give his mom the impression that he was all right.
The emails were getting kind of Stepford, Ray had said. Brad checked his watch. They were coming up on thirty minutes now since Nate had fallen limply onto his bed. That was a good start, if Nate was actually sleeping. Brad wouldn't have questioned it--wouldn't have thought Nate could fool him--but evidently he'd been fooling his mom and Ray.
Brad looked down at Linus--definitely asleep, though as Brad watched he squirmed around and yawned. Brad squeezed him a little closer, and Linus settled down again. No matter how long Brad watched the baby sleeping peacefully, he couldn’t banish the image of Nate lying awake in his bed, waiting for two or three hours to tick by. And if Nate's mental state this morning had been anything like it was when Brad showed up--if he'd thought he was leaving his mother and son alone and unprotected in a potential combat zone....
"Time to do some recon, little man," Brad whispered. He sat up and eyed the television, considering turning it up a little louder to cover the small sounds he would inevitably make. The TV took care of that by getting suddenly louder as the sports news broke for low-production-value local commercials. Brad stood up, wasting no time in this window of cover, and walked silently to the bedroom door. He eased it open, letting the sound of the TV filter in gradually, and then slipped inside and pushed it nearly shut behind him.
Nate was lying exactly as Brad had last seen him, curled on his side with his booted feet hanging off the edge of the bed. Only now did Brad see another significance in the fact that Nate had put his back to the door.
He paced carefully across the ground he hadn't covered before, lowering each foot gingerly in case the floorboards creaked. He made it to the far side of the bed without making a sound and without Nate moving or reacting to his presence. By then he was reasonably certain that Nate really was asleep, but Brad still crouched down by the foot of the portable crib to look across the bed at Nate's face.
He'd gone absolutely slack, emptied out by his loss of consciousness in a way that made Brad want to wake him just so he wouldn't be so far away. Brad wouldn't, of course, and he probably wouldn't really get Nate all the way back if he did; he'd been halfway to gone from the minute he opened the front door. Brad held his position and watched Nate sleeping. Linus, secure in Brad's arms, took two breaths for every one Brad could see Nate taking.
Brad remembered to breathe himself, but his chest ached with the obviously futile urge to protect Nate. It had never been an impulse he could indulge--it wasn't his place, and Nate's life was his own to risk, his duty his own to pursue--and he couldn't do a hell of a lot about it now. He could maybe help Nate get a few hours of sleep, he could look after Nate's kid, hold him and keep him quiet and safe, but he couldn't get to the Iraq in Nate's head and bring him back. He couldn't fix this. He could only keep watch.
Brad stayed a little longer, watching. It was a hell of a novelty to look at Nate when he wasn't looking back without involving a rifle scope. But eventually Linus started squirming, and Brad knew he had to get out before the baby made a sound to wake Nate up. Brad left without lingering, bouncing Linus a little against his chest as he walked back out to the living room. By the time he'd reached the couch Linus was quiet again.
Brad lay down and settled himself into watchful, motionless waiting for the next thing that might threaten Nate's rest. He let his eyes half-close. He listened to the TV and then tuned it out, listening for more distant sounds. The last thing they needed was a fire truck tearing down the street, but Brad hadn't heard a siren since he reached Nate's neighborhood. It was the middle of the day, and Nate's neighbors were mostly gainfully employed; the building was quiet. The traffic sounds were muted and routine, just the faint, distant growl of engines.
It was Linus who moved first. He squirmed against Brad's chest, and Brad opened his eyes fully to watch the baby stretch, splaying his arms out. He'd been lying face down on Brad's chest, legs tucked under him, but he looked uncomfortable now, his movements only succeeding in mashing his face into Brad's shirt. Brad curled up a little and tipped Linus into his arm, so he lay on his side. Linus went still at the sudden reorientation and opened his eyes, looking straight at Brad. His eyes were deeply, darkly blue, like the ocean at the place where the continental shelf dropped away. He blinked, wrinkled his nose, and seemed to study Brad as Brad looked back at him.
"Hello there," Brad said quietly, conscious that it mattered what he said, that this was the beginning of something. "Brad Colbert. I knew your dad when he was in Iraq for real."
Linus accepted this statement by closing his eyes and wriggling a bit. Brad curled his hand around Linus's bottom, and felt the unmistakable sudden heat of piss on the other side of the diaper.
Linus made a tiny, irritated noise and flailed the arm that wasn't tucked against Brad's chest.
Brad said, "Yeah, I hate that feeling."
He stood up with Linus cradled in one arm and grabbed the pacifier from the desk. He didn't have to look at his watch to know it was time for a diaper change and bottle.
The diaper change was fairly straightforward: Brad laid Linus down on the floor with the package of diapers and wipes both in easy reach, surveyed the diaper before unfastening it to make sure he could put the next one in place exactly the same, and then did so. He noted in passing that Linus wasn't circumcised, but there was no way of knowing whether that was because Nate hadn't been able to handle the idea of anyone hurting his son, or because Nate was a babies-are-born-perfect hippie type, or because Nate was a gentile and didn't see any particular need for it.
He wanted to wonder whether it was a data point in favor of Nate not being circumcised, either, but he was in no way contemplating that while changing a newborn's diaper. He got the kid cleaned off, fastened up the new diaper just like the old one--noted also that the baby's belly button was pink but nicely healed--and then tugged the onesie back into place and fastened it, with the plastic edges of the diaper sticking out the leg holes just as they'd been before.
While he was holding on to Linus's ankles, he felt something hard shift under his finger on one of them. When Linus was otherwise shipshape Brad peeled down the left sock, and found that there was a horseshoe tied with a ribbon around Linus's ankle. Nate's horseshoe. Brad had seen it once in Iraq on its grimy length of parachute cord when Nate tugged it out to fiddle with. They'd been talking at the time, not long before they finally left Iraq altogether. Nate had been avoiding his eyes, talking around what they were both trying to say. Brad had wanted to close his hand over Nate's, wanted to touch the horseshoe, wanted to touch him.
He touched the horseshoe now. It was lighter than Brad expected--not silver. Maybe aluminum. The surface wasn't polished, just a rough cast, but it was smooth enough not to catch on. It had been important to Nate--and obviously it was a sign for luck. And he hadn't kept it for himself, of course. He'd given it to Linus. Linus was the only thing that mattered to Nate now.
Brad raised his eyes from the horseshoe to Linus's face. He was sucking intently at the pacifier, frowning with infant concentration. He looked up at Brad with an expression that made Brad suddenly able to see that Linus was going to look a lot like Nate when he got past being all rounded-off edges.
I want to see what that looks like, Brad thought, so sharp and crystal clear that he just edged away from the idea rather than touch it or look at it too closely.
Linus flung out a hand, spat out the pacifier and made a little discontented sound. Brad tugged his sock back into place over the horseshoe and stuffed the pacifier back in. After waiting a second to see if Linus would spit it back out immediately--he didn't, opting instead to suck frantically at it, like this time it might give milk--Brad gathered up the baby and headed to the kitchen.
He spent a solid ten seconds trying to figure out if he could replicate Nate's one-handed bottle disassembly in reverse, and then realized that that was what the swing was for. He got
Linus settled into it, turned it on, and then moved quickly to the cupboard, figuring he had an extremely limited window before the kid freaked out. From the look of the logbook he was just about never out of Nate's arms.
He grabbed a bottle from the top of the microwave and opened the fridge. There was a mostly-full plastic jug with a piece of tape serving as a label: GOOD UNTIL 3/15 1200. Brad filled the bottle up to the top measuring line and put it into the microwave. Sixty-eight seconds on medium.
When the microwave stopped, Brad glanced at the page on the cupboard again--HEAT, SHAKE, TEST--and then screwed the bottle-top on and shook it. He tapped out a couple of drops onto his wrist, like he vaguely thought you were supposed to, and it felt lukewarm, which was probably better than too hot.
Brad gathered Linus up out of the swing and got himself settled with the baby in his left arm and the bottle in his right hand. He managed to hook the pacifier with one finger of the hand holding the bottle, and yanked it out a second before he plugged the bottle in. Linus looked outraged for a split second and then realized he'd finally gotten what he wanted. His fists waved and his eyes squeezed shut, and his whole tiny body flexed in Brad's grip as he started chowing down.
Brad carried the kid back to the couch and settled in, turning up the volume on the TV one more notch. He stared at the screen through half-open eyes, tuning out the actual words, listening to the tone of voice. It was smooth and rehearsed, but there was something about it that sounded right--sounded at its base like any two guys talking about something they really cared about because they needed to really care about something stupid, and this was the stupid thing they had picked. Baseball, J. Lo, it didn't really make any difference. It was the right kind of background noise, safe and familiar and reassuring.
When the bottle was nearly empty Brad grabbed one of the white cloths off the coffee table and tossed it over his shoulder. When Linus stopped sucking and seemed to be half asleep, Brad took the bottle away and carefully hoisted the baby upright against his shoulder. He patted the kid tentatively on the back, trying to remember any movie he'd ever seen that showed this part. Just when he was starting to wonder if maybe the kid didn't need to burp and it was just a thing people talked about that didn't actually happen in real life, Linus made a little noise, and Brad felt the heat of puke on the cloth on his shoulder, promptly running down onto his back.
Brad grimaced and leaned forward, cupping the back of Linus's head in one hand and flipping the kid down from his shoulder onto his arm for inspection. Linus waved his fists and kicked his feet, making Brad quickly lay a hand on his stomach to steady him. His mouth and chin were smeared with white, but he was otherwise clean; nearly all the puke had landed on Brad. Linus didn't seem particularly upset about having just barfed, and Brad figured the whole experience was a great improvement over having Person and Trombley puking on him during the camp plague in Iraq, especially since he had access to an actual bathroom and clean clothes now.
Brad grabbed another cloth and wiped off Linus's face, then laid the baby in his lap while he pulled his shirt off, bundling both rags inside it and using a dry part to wipe off his back. There didn't seem to be as much of it as there had been in the bottle, so he had to figure the kid had gotten most of his meal down. He gathered Linus up again, slouching on the couch to let Linus's weight rest on his chest, waiting for the kid to fall asleep again.
Brad glanced at the clock, mentally plotting the entries necessary to catch up the logbook. It occurred to him that Nate had been asleep for over ninety minutes, and no sooner had the thought crossed his mind than he heard the sudden thump of booted feet hitting the bedroom floor. Running strides, only slightly muffled by the carpet, came to a sudden halt as Nate came into view of the couch.
Brad smiled slightly as he looked up. Nate was staring at him, wide-eyed, mouth hanging open slightly. Brad could see the panic dropping away into utter incomprehension. Nate was properly gobsmacked. More to the point, he was actually there behind his eyes this time, and the sight of him still made Brad's heart thump a little harder.
"Nope," Brad said, suppressing a smile, when Nate had just stood there for a solid minute. "Not a hallucination."
Nate blinked and then smiled, normal and easy this time, as he stepped forward to brace both hands against the back of the chair. He let out a shaky laugh. "You were wearing a shirt before, though, right?"
Brad grinned and took one hand carefully off of Linus to pick up the wad of his shirt. "Got puked on a little bit after he ate. You were right, it wipes off pretty easy."
Nate winced, his gaze flickering quickly between Linus--resting quietly under Brad's right hand--and the puked-on shirt. Brad could see the muscles shifting in Nate's arms as he clenched his hands against the top of the chair and then made himself let go.
He smiled again, like he thought he might be fooling Brad, and stepped around the chair as he said, "Let me put that in the wash for you. I can take him so you can change."
"I'm fine, I've got him," Brad said, slouching deliberately lower on the couch even as he held out his dirty shirt toward Nate's extended hand. Brad was frankly impressed--and a little surprised--that Nate didn't just snatch the kid out of his arms. But if Nate wanted to pretend that he didn't need Linus in his arms to quell the panic of waking up and not knowing where he was, Brad was going to pretend right along with him. It would be interesting to see how long he lasted.
Nate nodded, still smiling, as he took the shirt from Brad's hand. Brad could see him forcing his gaze away from Linus; he stepped past Brad to pick up his crumpled sweatshirt, then turned and grabbed the empty bottle from the coffee table as well.
Brad rubbed Linus's back as Nate went into the kitchen. The baby was breathing in the same rhythm he had when he was asleep before, so Brad figured he was out. He sat up and grabbed the logbook, updating it while he listened to Nate breaking down the bottle and putting it into the dishwasher.
Nate opened a closet door--tucked into the corner past the little table, Brad recalled, out of sight of Brad where he sat. From the sounds of it that was where the washer and dryer were. Nate walked out of the kitchen, leaving the washer open with the water already running, to go get the hamper from the bathroom. He didn't break stride at the sight of Brad writing in the logbook.
Brad was finished a few seconds after Nate went back to the kitchen. He set the logbook down, pen neatly holding his place, and went to the kitchen doorway, leaning there and holding Linus against his chest with both hands. Nate glanced over at them, the expression on his face aggressively neutral, and then went back to tossing t-shirts and underwear and tiny baby clothes into the washer.
"You can borrow some clean clothes if you need to get going," Nate said. "I can mail these back to you. Do you need a ride back to the airport? I can drive you, my car's just down on the street."
Brad raised his eyebrows and waited in silence until Nate looked over at him again. "I don't know what the hell I said that made you think I was leaving anytime soon."
"You said...." Brad watched Nate realize that he couldn't parrot back anything Brad had said when Nate first opened the door without sounding crazy. He saw the instant when Nate decided to try to brazen it out. "Look, I know you didn't drop by for babysitting duty. I'm grateful to have gotten the relief, and I'm sorry we can't have the kind of visit you intended, but--well, you can see I'm busy."
Brad considered saying I came here for you, and it didn't make any difference to me how I found you. But it was too soon for that. Nate might finally be fully conscious, but he was still a long way off from having the wherewithal to deal with what Brad wanted from him, and Brad wasn't going to rush him into saying no.
Instead, Brad said, "I'll be happy to leave you to get on with taking care of Linus on your own if you can tell me without looking down what color your shoes are."
Nate frowned slightly but didn't look down and didn't hesitate before saying, "Gray."
Brad hoisted Linus slightly higher on his chest and held Nate's gaze. He watched Nate shift his weight--flexing his toes and ankles, testing the feeling of his footgear. Nate still didn't look down, but Brad saw his neutral expression harden into determined blankness.
"Do you remember putting your combat boots on?" Brad asked, and there was no way to avoid saying it gently, even though it meant Nate realizing Brad could see the broken edges he was trying to hold together.
Nate looked away, but he still stubbornly didn't look down at his feet.
"I was tired," Nate said, after Brad had watched his jaw work around a few answers he knew better than to give. "I put on the wrong shoes."
Brad shook his head. "Don't try to tell me you keep them next to your go-fasters, Nate. You dug them out of storage because you feel safer wearing them, and you don't remember doing it. I'm not here to judge you or diagnose you, but I'm not leaving you alone with a kid like this."
Nate's head snapped up, his shoulders straightened, and Brad froze. He was suddenly standing shirtless, holding a baby, unsat in every imaginable way, before the LT, and Fick was righteously furious. His voice was low--he had never wasted energy on shouting--as he said, "Who the hell do you think you are--"
And that was as far as he got before Brad flinched away from his quiet, naked rage, straightening up to a protectively perfect stance of attention. Linus, startled by the sudden motion, made a noise of protest.
Nate went silent so sharply it was like he'd had the wind knocked out of him. Brad petted Linus into silence even as he stared at Nate, watching Nate's mouth move soundlessly like he'd forgotten how to breathe. Nate had vulnerable points that were nowhere near his own body, now, and the two of them had teamed up to nail one, dead on target, without even trying.
As flatly as he could, without reproach or kindness, Brad said, "I'm the guy you trust with your son when you're not sure you can trust yourself. We both know that, and I'm not going to pretend I don't just to spare your fucking feelings."
Nate looked away, and this time he folded his arms across his chest, gripping his own arms tight. Brad wanted to hand him the baby, then, and knew he couldn't.
The water pouring into the washer shut off, and the sudden silence was deafening. Nate turned away and closed the lid, bringing back the sloshing of the water. He stayed there, hands braced on the washer, forehead leaning on the dryer above it, utterly still.
Brad knew better than to reach out and touch him, no matter how badly he wanted to. Instead he said, "Come here and sit down, Nate. I'll find you something to eat--you look like you've been on one meal a day."
Nate went on standing there for a few breaths--Brad could see them, deep inhalations that shifted Nate's shoulders--and then he straightened up and turned to face Brad. Nate stood just as sharply to attention as Brad ever had, and he met Brad's gaze unflinchingly.
With iron-willed humility, he said, "Thank you."
Brad tried not to wince visibly as he nodded. There was nothing to say to that. He took a step backward, clearing Nate's path, and waved toward the table again. "Come on, have a seat."
Nate nodded, deflating slightly from that steely uprightness. He stepped past Brad to the one chair by the table and slumped into it, looking every bit as exhausted as Brad knew he had to be. When he looked up, his gaze settled not on Brad's face but on Linus. This time Brad responded immediately to Nate's obvious unexpressed wish; he stepped in and lowered Linus into Nate's hands.
Nate's eyes closed with a relief that looked like pain as he settled Linus against his shoulder, and he turned his head to press his lips against Linus's hair, raining a whole series of kisses over the curve of his head. It looked compulsive--not remotely insincere, but as physically necessary as breathing. This was who Nate had become, while Brad wasn't looking, and Brad couldn't help wanting him as badly as he ever had.
After a few seconds, Brad tore his gaze away and slipped out of the kitchen on silent feet, going to his bag in the living room to fish out his in-case-of-lost-luggage clean shirt from his backpack. He flexed his arms as he went, frowning. It had only been a couple of hours, but he already felt disarmed without Linus--incomplete, unprepared. A baby and a rifle weighed the same to his arm and his brain.
Returning to the kitchen, he hesitated in the doorway. Nate was still curled tight around Linus--not kissing him now, just sitting with his forehead pressed to the top of Linus's head, arms awkwardly twisted to keep both hands on the baby when he only needed one to hold him. Brad waited, breathing silently and holding himself still so he wouldn't reach for anything that wasn't his, until Nate unwound slightly and raised his head to look straight at Brad.
Nate nodded slightly. Brad nodded back and stepped inside, going straight for the cupboards.
"There's a lot of stuff in the freezer," Nate volunteered, his voice sounding almost normal. "And some in the fridge. My mom keeps bringing food."
Brad located food--canned goods--on the third try, and grabbed a can of soup. "Unless you're making a specific request, let's go with this for now. It's faster, and I bet you don't remember the last time you ate."
"I keep losing track," Nate admitted. "I'm not on Linus's schedule, and I don't cry when I'm hungry, so sometimes I don't get fed."
Brad did not allow his hands to pause in their rummaging for a can opener and a bowl. "No need to cry now. I'll keep track."
"I'm sure you will," Nate said, and neither of them said a word after that. Brad kept his back to Nate, staring intently at the microwave as the time counted down. When he set the bowl of soup and a spoon in front of Nate he got another, much easier, "Thanks."
Brad nodded again and went back to the fridge. As he'd recalled, there was half a six-pack there--more than ten days old, he was guessing. He pulled out a bottle and set it next to the bowl.
Nate already had his mouth full; he looked from the bottle to Brad and back, then shrugged and nodded, acquiescing to Brad's unspoken argument. Nate needed to sleep, needed to relax, needed to trust Brad to be on top of things right now. And the extra calories wouldn't hurt, either.
It occurred to Brad that he hadn't eaten himself since somewhere over the Atlantic, so he got out another can of soup and heated it up. He ate leaning against the kitchen counter, holding the bowl in one hand. He was done almost as quickly as Nate was, despite Nate's head start; Brad was still accustomed to bolting his food before he could be called away from it, to say nothing of having both hands free.
Nate finished the last few swallows of his beer and set the bottle down with a hard, hollow sound. He frowned at it, blinking rapidly, and then looked up at Brad. "This feels like the first time I had a drink stateside."
"Makes sense," Brad said, and set his bowl in the sink before he stepped over to him. "Let me take Linus, you can go and lie down."
Nate nodded, and when he made no move to raise Linus up to Brad, Brad reached carefully down and took him. Nate let go easily enough, dropping his hands into his lap.
"I'll crash on the couch," Nate said as he stood up. "So I'll know where you are when I wake up."
"Okay," Brad said quietly. "We'll be right here."
Brad stayed in the kitchen as Nate walked--head down, shoulders slumped--toward the couch. Brad did the dishes one-handed, and found himself swaying slightly as he did. He paused with his hand under the faucet and looked down at Linus, curled comfortably against his shoulder. It already felt normal for him to be there, and that was even more unnerving than the profound sense of absence when Brad had put him down. There was apparently no limit to the surreal situations he would follow Nate into.
Brad ducked his head and muffled a sigh against the top of Linus's head, then went back to the dishes.
When he went came out of the kitchen, Nate was lying on the couch. He had his boots still on and his face toward the kitchen door, which also gave him a clear line of sight to the front door. His eyes were barely open, and they closed even as Brad came toward him.
Brad sat down in the chair and shifted Linus to his other shoulder. His phone was still on the coffee table, and Brad curled carefully forward to grab it. He had three new text messages.
Mom: Take good care of your friend. Call when you can.
Ray: BA thinks you're a moto asshole but they're holding your gear.
Ray: Speaking of luggage. When do I report for Fick-sitting duty?
Brad replied to Ray first--Thanks. I've got at least the next week covered.--and then sat and studied his mom's message. He knew she genuinely meant it; his mom had long since accepted the vagaries of his travel schedules, and knew not to really expect him until she actually had him in sight. It was no surprise that she'd deduced something close to the truth; she knew that he wouldn't have willingly deviated from his stated plans without a good reason.
Of course, Brad would have sent roughly the same text to his mother in the event of some bizarre best case scenario. If he'd stayed in DC with Nate to do something other than hold his baby and watch him sleep, he might have crawled out of bed around now and seen this message. He might have laughed, and told Nate that he was now under official orders to take good care of him. He might have gotten right back into bed to work on that.
Brad looked at Nate, sleeping on the couch like he was tucked into a grave. He looked down at Linus, curled warmly against his shoulder. If not for Linus... if not Linus then possibly the entire last nine months would have been different. But Nate was a dad now, and Brad couldn't hold the memory of Nate kissing his son in his head and wish that child out of existence at the same time. Not even if Linus turned out to be one more person who swooped in and took away the one Brad wanted.
"No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy," Brad murmured, and dropped a kiss on the top of Linus's head so he'd know not to take it personally.
Nate half-woke every sixty to ninety minutes. The first time he raised his head, Brad was pacing across the living room, stretching his legs while he gave Linus a bottle. Brad stopped and freed one hand enough to flash a thumbs up. Nate smiled, dropped his head back down, and was instantly limp with sleep.
The second time, Brad was--fucking naturally--in the middle of taking a shit. Linus was asleep in the baby seat on the bathroom counter. Brad heard Nate moving, and then he heard Nate call out sleepily, "Brad?"
"Right here," Brad called back, ducking his head as he grinned at the evidence that Nate remembered his presence this time.
"Roger that," Nate mumbled, and by the time Brad came out of the bathroom Nate was asleep again, curled on his side with his shirt twisted out of place.
After Nate and Linus had gone through a few more wake-and-sleeps, Brad got hungry again. He made himself dinner from the stack of meals-ready-to-reheat in the fridge, and then made the same for Nate. Brad set the food out on the coffee table, and Nate woke up a couple of minutes later, sitting up and digging in with no evidence of actual awareness.
When he finished, Nate spent a few seconds staring at the basketball game playing quietly on the TV. He was frowning slightly, like he was struggling to make sense of what he was seeing, or possibly where or when he was.
"Nate," Brad said softly.
Nate looked over, nodded, and stood. He took the two steps over to Brad, ending with his feet between Brad's, and set his hand on Brad's shoulder to brace himself as he bent down. Brad stopped breathing, watching Nate move in on him, but Nate leaned in smoothly to kiss Linus's head. His cheek brushed Brad's with a faint rasp of stubble as he straightened up.
Nate let go of Brad's shoulder and turned away all in one motion, walking around him to the head.
Brad rubbed his cheek against the softness of Linus's hair, but he could still feel the rough touch of Nate's skin against his. He leaned forward and grabbed the logbook, updating it with the times of Nate's waking and eating. The toilet flushed and the sink ran, giving Brad plenty of warning before Nate emerged. Brad watched him every step of the way, but Nate barely glanced in his direction as he returned to the couch. He dropped onto it facedown--muffling his senses, leaving his back unprotected--and didn't move again except for the rise and fall of his breathing.
Brad sat and watched him for several seconds, and then Linus squirmed against his shoulder. Brad picked up the battered paperback copy of The Odyssey he'd found tucked behind the baby seat in the bathroom and resumed quietly reading aloud.
After basketball there were late-night sports shows, which were more prone to involve yelling than their afternoon counterparts. Brad switched the channel to a nature documentary and started pacing again. After ten minutes of that he realized he was forcing himself to stay alert and on watch.
Relieving Nate didn't actually mean doing this the way Nate had been doing it; the way Nate had been doing this demonstrably wasn't sustainable or necessary. Linus would wake him when he needed something. In the meantime, Brad needed a safe place to set him down.
Brad set the remote down on the coffee table, convenient to Nate's hand, and then carried Linus into Nate's bedroom. The crib by the bed was just the right height; he barely had to lean over to lay Linus down, and he could sit on the edge of the bed with one hand on the baby while he waited to see if Linus would wake up to protest not being held.
When it seemed safe, Brad leaned down to unlace his shoes, which he set neatly beneath the end of the crib, and then shucked off his jeans and hung them from a corner of it. He got into the bed on the side nearest the crib, where he could reach right over to Linus without even sitting up.
He just had time to think Oh. That's what Nate's pillow smells like, and then he was asleep.
Brad stood on the berm with his back to the Humvees, scanning the bright blue sky. He could hear aircraft; from the scream of the engines they had to be practically on top of him, but he couldn't see a damn thing, and the sound rose and fell but never got farther away. There was no other sound but the invisible aircraft, no radio chatter at all, and that was wrong--there should have been a storm of interrogatives going back and forth.
Brad turned to look back toward the others and startled himself awake by moving. Nate was coming around the bed, and Brad recognized that Linus was crying, had been crying while Brad stood there in a dream and looked everywhere but where the trouble was. He reached for the baby, but before he'd gotten as far as sitting up, Nate was there.
He caught Brad's wrist and pushed his hand aside. "I've got him, Brad. It's my turn. Go back to sleep."
Brad lay motionless, his wrist on the edge of the crib, while Nate picked Linus up. In a softer voice, Nate said, "Hey, hey, I've got you, I'm here. Okay, buddy, we're all right now, we're okay...."
Nate was bouncing on his heels, and he took one hand off of Linus to rummage in the crib. Brad got it together enough to pull his hand back, scooting up the bed slightly to grab the spare pacifier from the night stand. He held it up and Nate smiled as he took it, his teeth and eyes shining in the light that leaked in from the TV in the other room.
Nate turned away as he got the pacifier into Linus's mouth. The crying vanished into a sudden resounding silence, and Nate was already walking out the door.
Brad stared at the clock. It was nearly five, which meant Brad had, subtracting two wake-ups, had about four hours of sleep, and Nate had had about fourteen. While he considered that, he also considered the fact that Nate had appeared entirely calm this time about having to come and find Linus. And about discovering Brad in his bed.
In the quiet of Linus not crying, Brad recognized that Nate had muted the TV--it was still on, Brad could see the play of light on the wall--and discovered that he could track Nate's progress through a diaper change by sound. Nate was still talking softly; his voice was full of sweet, comforting inflections and the unintelligible words were probably meaningless.
It was late morning in Devon, still dark in DC. Brad wasn't exactly in optimal condition after four hours of sleep, but he wasn't getting back to sleep any time soon. He was still somehow tempted to try--not just to obey Nate, but to make a show of trusting him with Linus.
Brad turned his gaze to the ceiling and listened to every move Nate made. He heard Nate carry Linus into the kitchen--his words were briefly clear as he passed the hallway, "--both need some breakfast, but you first, yeah." Brad heard the creaking of the swing and the sound of the refrigerator opening, water pouring, the microwave running. Then new sounds--a canister, the tap, a clatter of glass.
Brad figured out coffee a second before he heard the first gurgle-hiss of it brewing. He listened while Nate gathered Linus up out of the swing and gave him his bottle. He closed his eyes and visualized. With only one hand free at best, Nate would have to wait for the coffee to finish brewing before he could pour himself a cup. By the time Brad heard the telltale sounds--mug, liquid pouring--the smell of coffee had gotten to him, and he knew he wasn't going back to sleep.
He heard Nate set down a second mug and gave up on pretending.
Nate set down the sugar beside Brad's coffee just as Brad reached the kitchen. Nate's smooth motion was arrested for less than a second, his gaze sweeping over Brad, and Brad tried not to betray that he'd noticed Nate noticing. Brad's jeans were still hanging over the corner of the crib in the bedroom; Nate was still fully clothed, down to his boots. Nate nodded toward the coffee and turned back to the counter for his own, and Brad sat down and drank, studying Nate.
He'd managed to prop Linus's bottle against his chest and now stood slouched against the counter, probably at the precise optimal angle to keep Linus and the bottle correctly balanced while he drank coffee left-handed. Nate's gaze had settled on the pile of clean laundry occupying half of the kitchen table.
When the load Nate had put in finished, Brad had put his own clothes into his pack, and had been perfectly capable of figuring out where Linus's clothes went. He'd folded Nate's stuff, but drew the line at putting it away. It wasn't that he didn't know where it went. He'd finally done a proper sweep for weapons, which had both reassured him (Nate wasn't stockpiling firearms, and in fact had nothing readier to hand than the sidearm in the go-bag) and given him a thorough working knowledge of the contents of every single drawer in the apartment.
He wasn't going to tell Nate that, not in words and not by putting Nate's underwear away while he was tossing the place. He sat quietly and sipped his coffee and watched Nate looking at the laundry, wondering how much Nate could deduce from the way Brad had folded his t-shirts.
"Speaking of laundry," Brad said quietly, and Nate's gaze shifted to him calmly. He really did look a hell of a lot better now that he'd had some sleep. "My clean clothes are being held at a baggage claim office at BWI. Is that ride to the airport still an option if I'm not leaving?"
Nate's face went blank again--at the reference to his attempt to get rid of Brad or at the idea of leaving the apartment or both. Brad waited.
"Of course," Nate said after a brief pause, without trying to smile. "Now?"
"No rush," Brad said, restraining the impulse to glance at the clock. "And I doubt anybody's in the office there now."
Nate nodded as if he'd expected no other answer. He finished his coffee and then said, "We usually go for a run around dawn."
Matching Nate's calm air of unquestionability, Brad said, "I'll come with you."
Nate smiled slightly and straightened up, using his left hand to reposition Linus's bottle. "You hold him, then. I'll put that stuff away and make some breakfast."
An hour later they were on the street in front of Nate's apartment. Linus was in the stroller, mostly asleep. Nate was in PT gear including those gray go-fasters he'd meant to be wearing the day before. Brad had on the only clothes he had with him, a t-shirt and the same comfortable jeans he'd worn on the plane. Not ideal, but better than running in a MOPP suit. The sun wasn't up yet, but it was nearly fully light out, the sky clear and cloudless, a few last stars fading to the west.
Nate led off in that direction, setting a moderate pace and pushing the stroller. Brad took up a station at Nate's shoulder and watched the way Nate watched their surroundings as well as keeping an eye out himself.
By the end of the first block he knew that Nate wasn't nearly as calm as he could--now that he'd had some sleep--mostly pretend to be. It was a question of tempo. At running speed, it was easy to survey their surroundings for potential sniper positions, available cover, the occasional car or other pedestrian. The street was quiet. As irregular as the buildings were on this residential street, they also ought to be as familiar to Nate as Oceanside had ever been. But Nate's eyes never stopped moving; he watched cars all the way down the block, kept checking the position of other foot-mobiles, kept scanning the rooflines after he'd already checked them. The only direction he didn't look was toward Brad.
It was eight blocks after that--eight blocks consisting entirely of turns along the grid that always carried them north and west--before Brad realized that Nate was surveying escape routes. He had to familiarize himself with every alternate path, not only visually but physically. He had to know, specifically, where he'd be able to run with Linus in a stroller. He probably carried the pack, too, when he was alone. It would make a much better test.
They crossed Rock Creek, and once again Brad caught himself thinking in Nate's terms. This made perfect sense: bridges were natural chokepoints and Nate was going to have to know all of them.
He'd managed to shake it off by the time they got halfway around the zoo, and nudged Nate a little to distract him from suspiciously eyeing the trees. "Always kind of pictured you doing laps around the Reflecting Pool. You ever run down there?"
Nate shook his head. "Too much traffic."
Brad nodded. Wrong direction, Nate meant--there was no contingency that would require Nate to evac toward all the high-value targets downtown. Of course, if he was this bad in the comparative quiet of northwest DC Brad didn't doubt that he'd find the traffic in tourist country overwhelming.
After looping around the zoo they headed back, maybe out of deference to Brad's suboptimal gear, maybe because Linus was going to be due to wake up again by the time they got home. They didn't speak any more, not until they were at the end of Nate's street and Nate stopped short.
"Brad," Nate said slowly, like he knew what the answer was going to be and didn't want to get to it any faster than he had to. "Did I call my mom last night and tell her you were visiting, so she didn't need to come by today?"
"Not before I went to bed," Brad said diplomatically. "At midnight."
Nate rubbed his face with one hand. Half muffled by his fingers, Nate said, "That conversation would have gone differently after midnight."
Differently than Nate had dreamed it, Brad concluded, and been reasonably certain it happened. But Nate wasn't going to say that, and Brad wasn't going to push it. Brad also wasn't going to leave him alone with Linus anytime soon.
"So my mom's here," Nate said briskly, dropping his hand to his side and squaring his shoulders. "Early, because I forgot to call last night. You don't have to...."
"I am cleared for civilian contact," Brad promised. "I mean, as long as she's not going to be offended by the smell."
"She's been changing Linus's diapers for ten days," Nate said, getting into motion, and added lightly, "if you can come up with a way to make her leave and not want to come back, you're one up on me."
"I'll do my best," Brad promised, and Nate looked at him for the first time since he'd spotted his mom's car, his gaze sharp and searching. Brad looked back steadily, and Nate dropped his eyes first.
They stopped on the sidewalk outside Nate's building--Brad followed Nate's gaze to the sedan with Maryland plates that had tipped him off from a block away--and Nate said, again lightly, "Why don't you take Linus, I'll deal with the stroller."
Brad was confident that he could break down the stroller as efficiently as Nate could, but he wasn't going to make Nate repeat that request, especially given what Nate had just revealed about his own reliability. Brad picked Linus up and cuddled the sleeping baby against his shoulder while
Nate collapsed the stroller with a few sharp motions. His hands betrayed the tension his voice mostly concealed. He preceded Brad inside, trotting up the stairs ahead of him.
He looked back once, and when Brad smiled encouragingly, Nate smiled back like it was easy. Brad tightened his grip on Linus and was suddenly thankful that Nate hadn't had it together enough to try to fool him to start with. Brad held on to his own smile, conscious he was about to be on display, and kept both hands innocuously occupied holding Linus.
Nate opened the door and maneuvered the collapsed stroller through it. "Hey, Mom, we went out for a run."
"I figured," a woman called back as Brad stepped inside on Nate's heels, and she stopped short in the kitchen doorway as she caught sight of him. Her face went fascinatingly, almost professionally blank, and Brad thought that he knew where Nate had gotten that ability to stay straight-faced with officers. He wondered exactly what it was that Nate's mom did for a living. She was wearing a suit, which only narrowed it down to things Nate's mother logically would do. "Oh, you have a friend visiting."
"Yeah," Nate said, shutting the closet door on the folded stroller. "Mom, this is Staff Sergeant Brad Colbert, one of my Marines. Brad, my mom, Karen Fick."
"Ma'am," Brad said, stepping forward and juggling Linus to offer his hand. "I apologize for showing up out of the blue like I did and distracting Nate. He said he meant to call and spare you a trip."
She smiled as she shook his hand, but Brad could still see something intent and calculating in her eyes--trying to figure out Nate and Brad's real relationship, maybe, or just trying to use him as a data point to gauge Nate's condition. Either way, Brad hoped she'd brief him if she figured it out.
"No problem, Brad, of course. Nate could use a little distraction right now. And it's perfectly understandable that he wouldn't be answering his phone with you here."
Brad concentrated on keeping his smile utterly bland and friendly, even though he couldn't help thinking that if his mother had said that he'd know exactly what she meant by it. Nate's mom was harder to read, and Nate wasn't giving him any keys to translation, just standing halfway between them looking like a perfectly innocent and oblivious civilian.
"Yes, ma'am," Brad said. "He was pretty beat when I got here, so I gave him his bottle and put him to bed."
Nate actually laughed at that, and Brad grinned at the sight even as it occurred to him that he didn't know whether Nate was honestly laughing or just trying to put on the right show for his mother. Brad kept the grin on his face even so.
Nate's mom shook her head, smiling, and reached for Linus. "Well, no trip is wasted if I get to hold my grandson."
Brad handed the baby over because there was no way not to. With her attention on Linus he stole a look at Nate, just in time to catch the split second of horrible tension crossing his face.
Brad was certain, then, that his deduction the day before had been correct. Nate might love his mom as much as anyone, but she was a civilian, and if she was looking after Linus that really just meant that Nate had to be ready to evacuate two civilians, one of whom wouldn't automatically follow his orders and couldn't be picked up and moved easily. And once he was worrying about that he'd be worrying about what would happen to his mom if she wasn't with him, and what might happen to the rest of his family....
Nate got his smile back in place and Brad looked over to see his mom look up as she rocked Linus. "He looks just like Nate at this age, Brad. I don't even have to show you the embarrassing naked baby pictures, you can just change Linus's diaper and get the same idea."
Brad kept a completely straight face and did not ask about how precise that resemblance was. He said, blandly, "Already did that, ma'am. Found out about not giving him a clear shot and everything."
Brad had gotten pissed on once and only once.
Nate was blushing, rubbing his face with one hand and losing his battle against a smile. Brad was pretty sure at least one of those reactions was genuine.
Nate's mom laughed. "Well, I can see my boys are in good hands, then. I'd better get to work. There's more food in the fridge, honey--try to actually eat some of it in the next couple of days, all right?"
"I will," Nate promised, making his motions look almost perfectly casual as he reached for Linus. "Brad will help."
"I'm sure he will," Nate's mom said, stepping in to kiss Nate's cheek as she put Linus into Nate's hands.
She turned away from him to Brad, smiling and reaching for him, and Brad decided that she didn't care whether he was Nate's boyfriend as long as he kept her son and grandson in one piece. He didn't bother trying not to look uncomfortable as she darted in and put her hand on his shoulder, but he ducked to let her kiss his cheek. He watched over her shoulder as Nate turned half away, hiding embarrassment at his mother or the intensity of his relief at having Linus back in his own arms.
Brad was just straightening up when Linus let out a little squall, waking up in his usual demanding mood. Nate turned back toward them, holding Linus tightly against his chest, and said, "Sorry, Mom, I'd better--"
"Yeah, that's Grandma's cue," she said, smiling and stepping toward the door. "Have a good day, guys."
"I'll walk you out," Nate said, and passed Linus, still crying, to Brad without making eye contact. Brad held his ground, and Nate stepped around him to follow his mother to the door.
Brad couldn't help checking Mrs. Fick's reaction, and caught her brief startled look at the sight of Nate casually giving up Linus to someone else. In the next second it was swallowed up in a benign smile at Nate, and she offered him her arm as she turned.
"Guess that means I'm making breakfast," Brad said to their backs, tucking Linus up against his chest and heading for the kitchen. It only took a few seconds to get Linus quieted down--there was a pacifier on the kitchen table, which helped--and then Brad tucked him into the swing and got on with fixing his bottle.
Nate went straight into the shower when he came back in, and Brad figured that was as clear a request as he was going to get not to mention anything that had just happened. He added it to the list of things he wasn't bringing up and sat down with Linus to watch Animal Planet until Nate was dressed.
Brad automatically took the spot in the backseat beside Linus, on the opposite side from Nate. Nate didn't say a word about Brad's choice. It wasn't until they were on the way and Brad found himself scanning everything on his side of the Jeep that he realized what he was doing. He was watching his sector, and Nate had recognized that as automatically as Brad did.
Brad shut his eyes for a few seconds, leaning his forehead against the window, and barely managed to count to five before Nate said, "Brad? Everything okay?"
Brad picked his head up and met Nate's gaze as Nate darted a quick look over his shoulder.
"We're fine," Brad assured him. Brad rested a hand on Linus's chest and went back to watching out his side of the car, memorizing the route as they went, mentally mapping it against the way he'd come down from the airport yesterday. A few more laps and he'd have a pretty good grip on the DC-to-Baltimore corridor.
They were silent--Nate driving, Linus sleeping, Brad watching--until they passed the first sign for the airport and Nate said, "Concourse E, right?"
"Yeah," Brad said. "Lower level, baggage claim. I have to find out what British Air did with my gear after Ray convinced them to hang on to it."
"Would that be before or after they fed it to bomb-sniffing dogs?"
Brad winced and smiled, turning his head a little further to hide his expression from Nate. "After is obviously the only relevant question. Before won't make much of a difference by now. But surely the fact that I wanted the luggage off the plane proves I'm not a terrorist?"
"You could have gotten cold feet," Nate pointed out blandly. "They'll want to make sure."
"In that case, the fact that nobody broke down your door in the night seems like a good sign."
"They'd have gone after Ray first, he's the one who called the airport. He could be in Guantanamo by now. They may not have figured out your twenty yet. He wouldn't have told them."
Brad frowned out the window and considered that, then pulled out his phone. Tell me you're not being detained as a suspected terrorist.
He stared at his phone. Ray did not respond.
"You'd better come in with me, sir," Brad said. "I might need a witness to let my superiors know I went AWOL because I got disappeared by the TSA."
The silence while Nate didn't respond to that was very loud.
"Even if it doesn't turn into a security issue it could take a while," Brad offered. "I wouldn't want to leave you circling."
Nate knew perfectly well why Brad wanted him to come into the airport. Brad knew he knew. He knew neither of them were going to say it voluntarily; he just wasn't sure if Nate would try to force the issue again.
Nate took the turn for hourly parking, and Brad had his answer.
They'd walked about ten feet from the car when Brad caught himself cataloguing all the available ambush positions afforded by the rows of parked cars in the garage. Nate had Linus tucked up against his shoulder and was constantly looking around, including behind him, until Brad dropped back a step and took his six. Nate walked a little faster after that, and didn't turn his head again.
It got worse once they went into the terminal; the sight lines were slightly better, but they were surrounded by people moving in every direction at once--wearing heavy clothes, carrying all kinds of baggage, and as this was an unsecured area there was no telling what was in any of those bags. Brad's eyes never stopped moving, trying to evaluate everyone and also keep tabs on Nate. Nate was moving faster now, and Brad stayed on his heels. He could feel himself bracing to do something--catch Nate, shield him from an attack, he didn't even know what. And he was supposed to be the calm one.
He had to stop sharply when Nate turned on him, and Linus was in Brad's hands even as Nate said, "Take him for a minute, I need the head. Ten meters, your eleven o'clock."
Brad glanced in that direction and spotted the baggage office, and even as he nodded Nate was brushing past him and disappearing into the crowd. Brad stood still for a few seconds, looking after him, but Nate was moving purposefully toward the men's room sign. If he needed a few minutes in a small enclosed space to pull himself together--well, at least Brad knew where Linus was. Nate would come back for Linus as soon as he was able.
Brad turned back to the baggage office and set out in that direction, forcing himself not to look closely at the people walking by. BWI was not a war zone.
As it turned out, the baby made a good prop; Brad barely had to explain why he was there, just pulled his ID out of his pocket and let the woman behind the counter coo at Linus while she tracked down his luggage. As closely as Brad watched, he couldn't see any sign that she was calling in reinforcements to detain him. She did disappear into a back room for a couple of minutes, but returned just as Nate walked up to the door.
She had Brad's sea bag with her, and no extra security. The bag was, however, adorned with a few extra INSPECTED BY TSA stickers. Brad resigned himself to everything inside being fucked up.
"I'll be right with you," the woman said past Brad, and Nate said, "No, I'm with him," at the same moment Brad turned and tried to give him the baby to free his own hands. Brad hesitated at the last second, catching sight of Nate's carefully blank expression and the tautness of his shoulders.
Nate sidestepped without a glance at Brad or Linus, moving around Brad to reach for the bag, and Brad looked the other way at exactly the right second to watch the baggage claim woman put it together: Brad, Brad's military ID, the baby, Nate. It wouldn't have been obvious without Linus; without Linus they were just two guys. With Linus, they were too obviously a couple--too obviously a family--to mistake.
The instant of realization passed, and she gave a plastic-bright smile and settled Brad's bag into Nate's arms as gingerly as if it were another baby, as if it hadn't already been very thoroughly violated.
Nate said, "Thank you," and shouldered the bag, turning even as he did. He walked, stiff-legged and head up, straight back out of the confined, cornered space of the office.
Brad gave the woman a quick smile, swallowing all the things he could have said to try to explain it away. He wasn't going to waste the time, not on her, not when he was fighting the impulse to do just the opposite, to cheerfully confirm everything she was thinking.
Instead he said, "Thank you, ma'am."
She nodded, and her smile relaxed to something almost sincere, and then Brad was off after Nate. He caught up to him halfway back to the bridge to the parking garage. All the way there he was watching the people they passed, and instead of wondering if one of them had explosives under their coat, Brad found himself wondering what they saw when they looked at him and Nate and Linus. He should have felt exposed. He tried like hell not to feel hopeful.
He glanced over at Nate as they reached the garage and felt abruptly guilty for even considering it. Nate wasn't worrying about it, for the same reason Nate didn't seem to have noticed what the woman at the baggage office was thinking; Nate was still watching for an ambush.
When they reached the car, Nate unlocked the back passenger door and then moved around to the trunk. Brad shifted his grip on Linus and opened the door. It couldn't be that hard to get a kid belted into a car seat.
Brad had gotten as far as setting Linus down, and was just starting to maneuver the belts around him, when he heard an echoing high-pitched screech. He automatically ducked lower, getting his head down and flattening a hand over Linus. He heard a thud from Nate's direction at the same instant he realized that had been a car taking a corner too fast somewhere in the parking garage. Brad glanced at Linus--he had his pacifier plugged in and his eyes closed, so if he wasn't asleep he was close enough--and then shifted backward to check on Nate.
Nate was crouched beside the wheel, and when he glanced up at Brad he reached up without a word and hauled Brad downward and sideways, into the cover between the wheels of Nate's car and the next one over. Brad hit the concrete on his knees and Nate tipped onto his ass, his back against the tire. Brad tried to shift away, but Nate jerked him in closer.
"Stay here," Nate insisted. "We're safe right here."
He was grinning, all his grim containment gone. He looked like he was in a firefight, like he'd just gotten that shot of adrenaline and the world had narrowed down to a problem he could probably solve: not getting shot. And not letting Brad get shot, either.
He didn't let go of Brad's arm, and his hand was hot against Brad's skin, overlapping the edge of his t-shirt sleeve. Brad's knees were between Nate's splayed legs, and Brad braced a hand on the tire behind Nate's head, holding himself as much away from Nate as he could without fighting to break his grip. If they'd both been in full gear they'd be touching, knocking Kevlar, but he wouldn't be able to feel the sweat of Nate's palm, the twitching of his fingers against Brad's skin. Nate's breath would sound the same, but Brad might not be able to hear it above the zip of bullets and the radio chatter.
Brad had a weird, doubled awareness of their bodies, the closeness of his face to Nate's. He knew what it was to Nate, who was six thousand miles away from here--it was safety, urgency, a moment when any touch was excusable and there was no possibility of it meaning anything but what it meant. Nate's gaze was darting around, checking angles of possible attack.
At the same time, Brad was in Baltimore in civvies with his body held barely out of contact with Nate's, Nate's quick breath tangible against his cheek. Brad couldn't take his eyes off Nate, and he knew how this would look to anyone else, how this could be something else, lead to something else, if he could possibly reach from where he was to where Nate was.
Brad glanced toward the open car door. Linus hadn't made a peep yet. Brad wasn't sure whether to wish he would cry or not; sooner or later Nate was either going to snap out of this or he was going to reach for a rifle or radio that wasn't there. For now they were staying in cover, and Nate was trying to catch his breath.
Brad listened to the cars outside--rumbling engines, honking horns--and tried to pick out the sounds of people, wondering if they sounded like civilians to Nate right now. Brad watched the tempo of Nate's glances slow down, his eyes finally settling on Brad. He blinked a couple of times, frowning. Nate opened his mouth to speak and didn't say a word. Brad knew he could stand up now, could break Nate's grip, break the illusion--multiple illusions, maybe all of them--and end this. He was still debating whether to do it when he heard, and saw Nate hear, a little kid's voice a few rows over.
Brad couldn't make out words, wasn't sure if it was a boy or a girl, but it didn't matter. The kid was speaking English. They were in a parking garage in Baltimore. Brad saw a split second of horror go over Nate--like he thought the kid was in Iraq, under fire--and his fingers tightened painfully on Brad's arm. Then he turned his head, shoved Brad away and scrambled up to his feet, going back to the still-open trunk of the Jeep.
Brad sat for a few seconds longer between the cars, and then he stood up and leaned into the backseat. Linus was definitely asleep. Brad leaned over far enough to kiss his cheek, and then shifted back a little and said in a normal voice, "Okay, little man, let's figure out how your seatbelt goes on."
The trunk closed with as quiet a click as possible, and Brad ignored the motion in his peripheral vision, focused on getting all five points fastened on the seatbelt without jostling Linus enough to wake him up again. When Brad backed out of the car Nate was standing beside the door. He had his head down. His shoulders were rigid. Brad thought he was shaking a little; he'd have to touch him to know for sure, and he'd rather put his hands on unexploded munitions right now.
Nate took his hand out of his pocket and tossed his keys at Brad without looking--badly off-target, but Brad caught them.
Nate didn't say a word, just brushed past Brad and got into the backseat, pulling the door shut when Brad stepped out of the way. Brad stood looking at him through the window; Nate didn't look up, and didn't reach over for Linus.
Brad turned on his heel, heading toward the driver's door. "Yes, sir," he muttered. "My turn to drive."
Nate went straight to his desk when they got back to the apartment, turning the TV back to CNN on mute. Brad stood by the chair for a minute, holding Linus against his chest, watching Nate doggedly ignore them both, and then he picked up The Odyssey and took book and baby to Linus's bedroom.
He'd barely settled into the chair there when Nate was in the doorway, arms folded across his chest. He stood there for a minute, watching Brad while Brad watched him back. He looked like he didn't know why he was standing there, and like nothing on Earth was going to move him from that spot.
Finally, quietly, Brad said, "If you need something, Nate, you need to ask."
Nate looked down, nodded, and said to his feet in a brisk, steady voice that wasn't asking anyone for anything, "Stay where I can see you for a while. Please. It helps."
Brad went on watching Nate until he turned sharply and walked away, leaving Brad to obey the order or not. Brad followed him like they both knew he would.
Nate stayed dug in at his desk like it was a fortified position, only speaking up once--to correct Brad's pronunciation of Telemachus--for the next several hours. He didn't twitch when Linus cried, and Brad never caught him looking at them. After Linus had been through a couple of wake-and-sleeps and Nate had started actually typing at his computer instead of just sitting there staring fixedly at it, Brad went as far as the kitchen to make himself and Nate some food.
Nate came in, almost casually, when the food was ready. He took his plate and stood at the counter, leaving the chair--and Linus--to Brad. By the time Brad had finished eating, Nate was cleaning up, and Brad went back into the living room. He listened for the better part of an hour while Nate scrubbed the kitchen like there was an inspection coming; he came out with his hands looking red and raw and his eyes half-shut.
"Sorry," he said, pausing by Brad's chair and looking down at Linus, "I gotta crash a while."
Brad waited, but Nate didn't lean in for another kiss, didn't reach out to touch Linus at all. Brad gave him a nod, and Nate crossed over to the couch and fell onto it. Brad sat looking at his feet in white socks for a while after Nate was asleep. Linus woke up a few minutes later, and Brad was back in motion.
Nate slept for almost three hours. Brad was browsing the news on his laptop--balanced on the arm of his chair, Linus tucked into his opposite arm--when Nate jerked awake. Brad had barely looked up in response to the sudden motion when Nate was launching himself off the couch, bolting around Brad to the bathroom. Brad heard the water running almost immediately, and he forced himself to keep still; the words in front of him were blurring, and Linus stirred fitfully against his chest, little feet kicking and face screwing up.
Brad closed his laptop and stood, shifting Linus to the other arm and starting to pace. Linus was still whimpering, and Brad bounced him a little, cuddling him closer. "Not you too, little man. You're not old enough to be having your daddy's bad dreams."
Linus settled down before the water shut off in the bathroom; by the time Nate came back Linus was sound asleep again, and Brad was right back where he'd been when Nate bolted.
Nate went back to his desk and settled in. This time he started typing right away, but he still didn't look around. Brad knew better than to imagine that he could step out of the room without making things worse, but it was far from the most awkward close quarters situation he'd ever endured. He shifted to the couch, put his feet up on the coffee table, and updated the log book before opening his laptop again.
He got tired early, barely after dark, and by then Nate seemed sincerely occupied with what he was doing. Brad stood and stretched and said, "Gonna hit the sack."
Nate looked up, his eyes darting quickly from Brad to Linus and back. "Sleep well."
He stumbled out of the bedroom with Linus for diaper changes and bottles twice after that. The first time Nate was still working. The second time Nate was sitting motionless on the couch with his head in his hands. Brad didn't say a word either time.
At some point he woke in darkness, and realized the whole apartment was dark: no light in the living room, no TV. Nate walked into the bedroom a few seconds after that and said quietly, "Don't get up with him next time, it's my shift."
"Roger that," Brad muttered, and his eyes were already closed again when he felt Nate get in on the other side of the bed.
The next time Brad was awakened it was by Nate getting out of bed; Linus was only snuffling and squirming, not really crying yet. Brad watched with half-lidded eyes as Nate walked all the way around the bed to get to him, and the thought slowly assembled in his mind that he could make that easier for Nate next time. A while after that--after Nate had left the room--Brad followed through, rolling over into the still-warm spot where Nate had been lying. When he woke up again there was gray light leaking in through the windows, and Nate was asleep beside him, and Linus was asleep in the crib on the other side of Nate.
Family, Brad thought, and the word snapped into place like a fully loaded magazine into the catch. With the baby there, they were impossible to mistake.
Except that Brad still didn't know where Nate was at any given moment. There was no telling what Nate saw, or what it looked like to him. At some point Brad was going to ask, and when he did he was going to have to get through the conversation that followed and live with the answer.
For now Nate was sleeping. Linus was sleeping. Brad wasn't making a sound. They were what they were.
They went running again, this time leaving in broad daylight. Brad was in actual running gear this time, and they'd timed it so that they left right after Linus was changed and fed. Brad wasn't especially surprised when they struck out westward and kept going to the border of the District before turning back. Nate was still checking every angle and monitoring foot-mobiles, but he didn't get worked up like he had at the airport, and there were no surprise visitors waiting for them back at the apartment when they got in. Nate offered Brad the first shower, and Brad took it, making himself stay under the running water a solid ten minutes rather than rushing back out.
Nate was sitting on the couch feeding Linus when Brad came out in clean clothes, and Brad sat down next to him. Linus spit up on Nate's running clothes in the process of being burped, and Nate just handed him off to Brad and headed for the shower.
"Good timing," Brad observed.
"I have had some practice at this," Nate agreed, flashing a smile.
Brad found a channel showing classic cartoons, ridiculously censored of their original violence but still a thousand times better than the new shit being churned out for kids. He propped Linus on his lap facing the TV, and pretended not to notice when the baby fell asleep. Nate came back and sat down with him after a while, and they both managed to sit straight-faced watching Bugs Bunny for about five minutes before they were reciting along with it and talking about why they'd rather have had Acme doing logistics for the invasion than the contractors who'd actually been on the ground.
"I mean, seriously," Brad said, "look at that delivery time. They'd have been air-dropping batteries to us."
"Road Runner could deliver them," Nate muttered, and Brad looked over and realized that Nate was about an eyelash away from being asleep.
"Yes, sir," Brad said quietly, "right over a cliff."
Nate nodded slightly, and his eyes fell shut.
Brad sat watching him for a few minutes--he was starting to get used to the way it felt--and then lifted Linus from his own lap and set him in Nate's. Nate's eyes didn't open, but his hands came up automatically to hold Linus in place against his stomach. Brad got up quietly and went directly to the second drawer of Nate's desk, where he'd seen the digital camera, and took half a dozen pictures of the sleeping Ficks before he put it back where he'd found it.
When he sat down again he was closer to Nate than he'd been before, but Nate didn't move at all until the next time Linus woke up.
Nate asked Brad to hold Linus for a while after that wakeup, and Brad sat with Linus on his shoulder while he checked his email and made up sufficiently ridiculous stories about how his leave was going for a few guys back in Devon. Brad handed the baby off to Nate when he wanted to make lunch, and Nate gave him back and did the dishes, and this time when he sat down next to Brad they wound up watching Pulp Fiction. Linus woke up twice in the course of the movie, and one of them would change his diaper while the other made a bottle. They worked smoothly together, and it felt almost easy, almost like this could just be how it was, if Brad weren't waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Brad didn't realize he'd fallen asleep on the couch until he jerked awake when Linus screamed. Brad had never heard him make that sound before, and even as he was realizing that sometime in the last forty-eight hours he'd become someone who could tell one baby-cry from another, he was on his feet. He started moving toward the sound--they were in Linus's bedroom, and Linus's screaming showed no sign of settling down--and when Brad turned the corner into the hallway he met Nate coming toward him.
Nate looked as awful as Linus sounded, and he was repeating in a low, steady voice, "I'm sorry, Linus, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, shh--"
Brad barely resisted grabbing the baby out of Nate's hands; he did reach out, and then stopped short. Nate froze when he looked up and saw Brad, and then held Linus out. Brad gathered him to his chest--it took a surprising amount of strength to hold him still with the way he was fighting, and as Brad secured Linus in his grip it occurred to him how easy it would be to hold on just a little bit harder, too hard, and he realized what Nate had been saying.
Brad's head snapped up as he looked to Nate. Linus had never sounded like this before, maybe scared, maybe hurt, and the possibility woke something weird in Brad, something way beyond his reaction to being in danger himself. Half-yelling to be heard over the awful sound, Brad said, "What did you--"
That was as far as he got. Nate looked shocked for a split second and then coldly, dangerously furious; Brad registered that he'd been wrong at the same time that Nate's weight shifted and his shoulder started to go back. His hands were already in fists. He was telegraphing the punch a mile away.
Brad risked taking his left hand off of Linus to shove Nate back with an open palm and yelled on purpose this time. "Not while I'm holding your kid, you fucking psycho!"
Nate let himself be pushed off, but his rage didn't visibly lessen. His fists stayed clenched, his whole body radiating fury as he shouldered past Brad and all but ran for the front door.
Brad couldn't chase him, couldn't stop him with his arms full of the baby, and didn't especially want to keep him in the same small space with Linus screaming like a siren. Still, he put all the command presence he'd ever learned into it as he shouted, "Fick!"
He didn't care if Nate responded to it automatically or was thrown off stride by the affront of Brad daring to try to order him to do anything. He stopped before the door, and turned his head far enough that he could see Brad in his peripheral vision, and Brad could see the side of his face.
"Where's your cell phone?" Brad demanded, even as he bounced Linus gently against his chest. The screaming wasn't subsiding.
Nate still didn't speak. He reached into the pocket of his pants and pulled out a phone, then shoved it back into place as he unlocked the door and fled through it. He had his go-fasters on. He closed the door hard behind him, not quite a slam.
Brad turned his back to the door and took Linus into Nate's room.
"Shh, shh," he murmured to Linus. Nate's reaction--along with the fact that Nate hadn't called 911--almost certainly meant that Nate hadn't actually hurt Linus, that Linus was just scared, or just having some random fit of crying because he was a baby and babies did that.
That didn't mean Brad wasn't going to check. He laid Linus down in the crib next to the bed and managed to wrestle his onesie off without doing exactly what he'd accused Nate of. He took Linus's socks, too, but left the horseshoe, which didn't hide anything and wasn't making any marks Brad could see. Brad ran his hands over Linus's feet and each leg, probing for injuries or any spot that made Linus scream louder when he touched it. He undid Linus's diaper for the sake of being thorough and checked his hips, butt, genitals, and belly, but there was nothing to see, nothing that seemed to hurt.
Linus's wailing was already changing in tone from that horrible thing he'd started with to the irritated crying he did sometimes while having his diaper changed. Brad did the diaper back up before Linus decided to express his displeasure in biohazardous form, and continued checking his chest and arms and what there was of his throat. Then he turned the kid onto his stomach and checked his back, his neck, and his head.
Linus managed to pick his head up just to scream more. Brad picked him up and then, when that motivated Linus to struggle harder, dropped flat on the bed to let Linus rest on his chest.
"Sorry, little man. Your daddy will be back soon. Shh, shh." Linus was already settling down, and the crying tailed off completely while Brad half-sang, half-mumbled his way through a Spice Girls song. Brad waited a while after he was quiet, and then shifted enough to get to his own phone in his pants pocket.
He had a text message from Ray--I wish, interrogation would use 300% more of my skills than this lameass job.--which he assumed would make sense at some future time when he gave some attention to figuring out what Ray thought they were talking about.
In the meantime Brad texted Nate. He's sleeping now. Come home when you're ready.
Brad stared at his silent phone long enough to remember that he'd asked Ray, more than a day ago, whether he'd been arrested as a terrorist. He picked the phone up and texted Nate again.
Five minutes later, while Brad was considering whether to get Nate's mom's phone number from Ray, Nate texted back.
When Nate had been gone two hours, Brad texted him again. INT: Are you alive? Over.
That text came back almost immediately. Affirmative.
It got dark. Brad ate dinner. Linus slept and woke and made little snuffling noises. It might have been Brad's imagination, but the baby seemed worn out, resting more limply against Brad, giving up on his bottle faster in favor of falling asleep.
Brad sat on the couch and waited with the TV off and his laptop closed, not even pretending that he was doing anything else.
He listened to Nate's neighbors on the same hallway getting home, and he recognized Nate's footsteps when they approached. He recognized the jingle of Nate's keys. Brad slouched back on the couch with Linus asleep on his chest, and watched Nate come in.
Nate locked the door behind himself and stood right there for a while, looking back at Brad.
Softly, trying to let his voice enter the silence without a splash, Brad said, "I'll put him down if you want to hit me now. You have the right, for what I said."
Nate started walking toward him, hands shoved untidily into the pockets of his jeans.
Brad kept talking steadily. "I was serious, though. Not while I'm holding him."
Nate stopped right in front of Brad, their knees brushing. He was looking down at Brad, holding his gaze, while Brad looked up. Nate recited evenly, without expression, "You fucking psycho."
Brad tilted his head and shrugged a little. "Hit me twice, then. But I have to put him down first, and now you're in my way."
Nate leaned forward--telegraphing a mile away again--and picked Linus up off of Brad's chest. He kissed the top of Linus's head and then turned and sat down at the end of the couch, leaving as much space as physically possible between him and Brad. Brad folded his arms across his chest and waited, watching the way Nate sat. He didn't lean back and get comfortable. He didn't sit ramrod-straight, making some kind of point. He just slumped forward, with Linus cradled against his chest. He looked tired.
"That's the longest I've been away from him since I brought him home from the hospital," Nate said, looking down at Linus. "He only spent one night there, but I couldn't stay with him in the nursery, and Cory didn't want me hanging around her hospital room, so I came back here. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't think about anything but keeping him safe. I started assembling that pack. I didn't sleep again until I had it all ready to go. He changed everything."
Brad held perfectly still and didn't make a sound.
"I have PTSD," Nate said, still looking down at his son. "It got a lot worse when Linus was born, and it's pretty bad right now. If I don't do something about it somebody's going to get hurt, and the easiest person for me to hurt is him."
It was a good and necessary thing, Brad knew. It only felt like watching Nate bleed out from a wound neither of them could find to put pressure on.
Brad shifted closer on the couch, scooting up and over until he was pressed to Nate's side. He felt Nate feel it--Nate's shoulder jerked a little against his--but Nate didn't pull away. Brad hunched over further than Nate, propping his elbows on his knees so he could look up into Nate's face. He didn't need to say that he was there, or that Nate only had to ask if there was anything he wanted Brad to do. He just had to be there, shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh with Nate. He watched Nate look down at Linus and waited.
"Linus's first checkup is tomorrow morning," Nate said, and then looked up and met Brad's eyes. His mouth turned up, a ghost of a weary smile. "I realize there's no point pretending you won't be there, but please come with us. It would be a big help to me."
"You're right," Brad said with a nod. "No point pretending I'd be anywhere else."
Nate nodded back and then returned to staring down at Linus. Brad leaned into Nate, a gentle whole-body shove. "We should get to bed."
Nate did tense, then, and he didn't look up. "Brad...."
"We all need to sleep. We all need each other in sight." Brad kept his voice steady and cool as he added, "I don't plan to give you any more reasons to hit me."
"I wouldn't," Nate said quietly, and Brad tried not to let those small, tired words mean too much to him, even as he knew he wouldn't be able to help it. "I just--tonight--"
"Tonight we're both too fucking tired to talk about this, and I don't want to be out here on your couch, and I don't want you out here on your couch. Like you just said. No use pretending we're not all going the same place."
Brad worked his shoulder against Nate's and added, "You should take the side by the crib, it's your turn next time he wakes up."
Nate nodded, and after another minute he stood. Brad followed him into the bedroom, turning off the couple of lights he'd put on as he went. Neither of them bothered with a light in the bedroom, and Brad started undressing right away, while Nate was still leaning over the crib, murmuring things Brad pretended not to hear. Brad got into the bed first and closed his eyes, not watching even the silhouette of Nate undressing.
There was a moment of slightly awkward motion when Nate got into the bed, shifting weight and tugging at covers. Brad was trying to find an angle he could lie at to have his feet on the bed without intruding too far into Nate's space and then realized that Nate, who wasn't much shorter, was doing the same.
They wound up lying at almost parallel angles, heads slightly less than a pillow's width apart, shoulders almost brushing. When they'd both been still for a while and Brad was starting to think he might actually sleep soon, Nate spoke.
"I got scared."
Brad's eyes came open like the words were a gunshot, but he looked over at Nate without moving. His eyes had adapted enough for him to see that Nate had his eyes closed.
"Yeah?" Brad offered, when Nate didn't say anything else.
"That's the answer to your question," Nate said, still without opening his eyes. "You wanted to know what I did to make Linus cry like that. I got--" Brad saw him hesitate this time, looking for a different word. His mouth tightened for a second when he realized there wasn't one. "Scared. Anytime I get really tense, if I'm holding him, he cries like he's scared, too. He won't stop if I don't calm down, and it's hard to calm down when I'm making him cry."
"At the airport," Brad said, remembering that abrupt handoff. "And when your mom was here."
Nate did open his eyes then, turning his head to meet Brad's gaze as he nodded.
Brad wanted very badly to say You could have just hit me. But if Nate was going to be brave about this, Brad wasn't going to leave him alone in it, or show reluctance to stay with him through it.
"Thanks," Brad said instead. "Good to know. He did calm down pretty fast once I realized he was okay."
Nate nodded again and turned onto his side, facing away from Brad, and Brad closed his eyes.
Brad woke up twice to Nate getting in and out of the bed, and once he found himself standing in the kitchen holding Linus and wasn't quite sure how he'd gotten there. Linus nuzzled intently at his chest, making hungry getting-ready-to-cry noises, so Brad gave up on figuring it out and made a bottle.
It was getting light when Brad woke up and found Nate sitting on the edge of the bed, staring into Linus's crib.
"He's still sleeping," Nate said quietly. "It's been over three hours."
Brad frowned. "I got up--"
Nate glanced over his shoulder. "That was three hours ago."
He went back to staring at Linus, and Brad wondered whether Nate had actually slept at all overnight. He said, "Please tell me you haven't been sitting there staring at him for an hour."
"Ten minutes," Nate said, and Brad figured that wasn't too bad. "I tried to lie down and wait for him to wake up, but I had to keep checking that he was still breathing."
Brad pressed his face into the pillow for a few seconds, and then he pushed himself up to sit and put his hands on Nate's bare shoulders. Nate turned his head and met Brad's eyes, and Brad tugged, dragging Nate down toward his pillow. Nate went where Brad wanted him, lying back, but his face was closed and unreadable as he looked up at Brad, waiting for whatever Brad was going to do next.
Brad felt the impulse flash through him like lightning. He could distract Nate from Linus, distract him from everything. But even if Nate allowed it--hell, even if he welcomed it--it wouldn't be what Nate needed from him right now.
Brad shook his head slightly and knelt up, leaning precariously across Nate to the crib. When he reached for Linus, Nate put his hand up on the center of Brad's chest, taking some of his weight. Brad picked up the baby with two hands and settled back onto his heels. He laid Linus down on Nate's chest, and then lay down again next to them while Nate wrapped both arms gingerly around the kid.
"There," Brad said when his head was back on the pillow and his eyes were nearly closed. "Problem solved. Go back to sleep."
"Thanks," Nate said dryly, "this is much more relaxing." But he didn't put Linus back in the crib, and Brad slept another hour before Nate moved enough to wake him up.
Brad stood at Nate's side while Nate signed in with the receptionist at the doctor's office, and just like the woman at the airport, Brad could see her taking one look at them and coming up with her answer. Brad turned away, keeping an eye on the rest of the room while Nate filled out the clipboard she'd given him, handing it back before they went to sit down.
Brad glanced over once they were settled to see what Nate thought of the looks they were getting, but Nate had grabbed a magazine off the stack on the waiting room table and was reading--or at least feigning interest in--an article about potty training. Nate had a baby backpack for non-emergency use, too, so he had Linus sleeping cradled against his chest and both hands free. He was using those hands to flip idly through a magazine.
Nate looked up--Brad had been staring pretty obviously for several seconds--and his expression was so calm and guileless that Brad would have bought it if he didn't know better. Linus was still asleep, so Nate couldn't be completely freaking out under there, but Nate choosing this moment to actually relax didn't make a hell of a lot of sense either.
"Here," Nate said, and Brad realized Nate had grabbed another magazine and was offering it to him. Brad was never going to be interested in doing Christmas crafts with his kids, especially not in March, but he nodded and took the magazine, letting it fall open in his hands while he looked around more carefully.
Their appointment was early, so there weren't many other people in the waiting room. There was a black couple in the next row of chairs with a miserable-looking toddler lying across both their laps, and a white woman three seats down from Brad had a baby in a carrier seat on the floor in front of her. She was rocking the seat with her foot while staring intently at her Palm Pilot. Brad was perfectly happy to accept an assessment of extremely low risk on their surroundings, but--he glanced sideways again--Nate just hadn't been that logical in the last few days. He was eerily calm now. Stepford.
The couple with the sick toddler got called back, and a moment later a nurse was in the doorway asking for Linus Fick.
Nate stood and Brad stood with him, following him through the door like he had an absolute right to be there, no matter how much it confirmed the deductions behind those looks. The nurse just showed them into a little room--markedly warmer than the waiting room, with a space heater in one corner--and said, "If you could get Linus down to his diaper, the doctor will be here in just a minute."
"Thanks," Nate said, showing her a smile.
He turned his back to the door to face the exam table, unsnapping the baby backpack with one hand and bracing Linus with the other. Brad moved around to the other side of the table--back to the wall, and he could watch Nate's six even if he was out of position to shield him--and reached for Linus as Nate got the fastenings undone. Nate let Brad take him and lay him down, and then Brad kept his hands on either side of Linus while Nate undressed him. Nate tugged his socks off last, and his hands paused in their methodical motions.
Nate didn't look up. Brad watched Nate's hands, hovering over the horseshoe charm.
Nate untied the ribbon and stuffed the horseshoe into his pocket, and Brad made his face as expressionless as he could. It was going to be like that, then. The doctor didn't need to know about anything Nate didn't want him to know about, and Brad wasn't going to push him.
Linus started moving around a little, making discontented noises but not quite awake yet.
"Could you hold him while I--" Nate gestured toward the backpack, and Brad nodded and picked Linus up, unzipping his fleece to hold Linus half-inside it against his chest while Nate got the backpack off. Linus settled quickly into the warmth and went quiet and still, sleeping soundly again. Nate turned aside to stack the backpack and Linus's clothes on a chair, and of course that was when the doctor--a Chinese guy who came up maybe to Nate's shoulder--walked in.
He saw Brad first--Brad didn't look over at Nate's suppressed startle from the door opening behind him--and smiled brightly as he said, "Mr. Fick?"
"That's me. Call me Nate, please," Nate said, turning and getting his smile back into place, offering a hand to shake which the doctor accepted with only a quick flickering glance between them. "This is Brad, he's been helping me with Linus, I figured he might as well come with us and hear how we're doing."
"Of course," the doctor said, stepping in and offering Brad his hand. He didn't look surprised at all, so maybe this was totally normal, or maybe the nurse had briefed him.
Brad shuffled Linus over and shook, and the doctor said, "I'm Dr. Lee, it's good to meet you both. And this must be Linus?"
Brad got both hands back on Linus, and Dr. Lee put his arms out expectantly. Brad looked over at Nate even as he held the baby out, but Nate stood his ground, out of arm's reach. The doctor took Linus in an obviously experienced grip.
Dr. Lee rocked Linus a little, brushing a finger against his cheek, and said, "He seems like a pretty good sleeper, huh?"
"He's used to being held and passed back and forth," Nate said, shoving his hands into his pockets. The fingers of his right hand moved visibly in his pocket, worrying at the horseshoe.
Brad stepped out from behind the table and took up a station by Nate's side, close enough for their arms to touch.
"He sleeps about two hours at a time," Nate went on, "and he'll sleep through just about anything. The other day we had to go to the airport to get Brad's stuff, and Linus didn't even wake up for planes going overhead. He sleeps in the stroller when we go running."
The doctor nodded, looking back and forth from Nate to Linus--poking a finger into his hand, rubbing a thumb over the sole of his foot. "You hold him most of the time, then, or do you usually put him down when he's asleep?"
"I hold him more," Nate said, and Brad watched in fascination; Nate sounded completely calm and casual, like he didn't document this shit minute-by-minute in his logbook, which he definitely hadn't brought along to show the doctor. "He sleeps in a crib by my bed when I'm sleeping, but otherwise--it's just easier to have him right with me, I can respond faster when he needs something."
The doctor nodded, flipped Linus to the other arm, and resumed gently poking at him on the other side. His voice was low and soothing. "Some families find that works best for them, keeping the baby close. You said he's sleeping two hours at a time--he's eating about every two hours, then?"
Nate nodded, and though he tried to keep his voice light, it came out pretty close to the clipped tone of a report. "Formula, two ounces at a time. I keep offering more, but he's usually not interested in any more than that. This morning he slept four hours and then ate a little more."
The doctor nodded again. "Well, he'll keep growing and keep changing. You just keep paying attention and I'm sure you'll do fine. Would you like to help me get him on the scale, here?"
Nate nodded and stepped forward, and Brad stayed in place, watching.
"Now," the doctor said casually, laying Linus on a scale and not looking at either of them, "biologically, Linus is...."
Nate jerked a little at that, and looked over at Brad, who raised his eyebrows. You didn't see this coming?
Nate blinked a couple of times but didn't obviously react to the assumption one way or the other. "He's mine. His mother and I were--we decided I should have full custody."
There was a second's pause where Nate didn't say something like Brad's just a friend. Before Brad could decide whether he wanted to fill it in himself--to say nothing of whether he'd be lying if he did--Nate went on, "She said she would forward a copy of her medical records from the pregnancy to your office for Linus's history, did you get those?"
"Yes, I believe we did, and I'll double-check when we're done here," the doctor said, getting Linus's diaper out of the way and waving Nate's hands off so he could look at the scale. "Pregnancy and delivery were normal?"
"Yes, no complications," Nate said, putting his hands into his pockets again. "Linus has been just fine all the way."
"Good, that's good to hear. Seven pounds, three ounces, that's a couple of ounces down from his birth weight, isn't it? That's expected at this point. Now let's check his length."
Nate helped hold Linus down while the doctor stretched his legs out straight, and that was when Linus woke up in a flurry of arm-waving and decided he wasn't into this.
"Hang on," Nate said softly, catching one of Linus's hands to hold. "Hang on, Linus, I've got you, you're all right."
"Twenty-one and a half," the doctor announced, "so he is growing even though his weight is down a little bit, that's just what we want to see. Nate, why don't you pick him up for me."
Nate did, gathering Linus up and rocking him until he was quiet and calm, and the doctor stepped in to measure Linus's head, talking soothingly to him--or possibly to Nate--the whole time, before proclaiming another measurement that he said was perfectly normal.
"Now we'll just test a few reflexes--" the doctor took Linus from Nate and took him over to the exam table, and Nate fell back to Brad's side. He still seemed calm, Brad thought, and of course that was when the doctor propped Linus up on the table and said, "Now, some parents find this one a little unsettling, but I assure you it's perfectly safe. We're just going to make Linus feel a little bit like he's falling."
Brad caught Nate's wrist at the same time that the doctor let Linus fall backward, and Linus's arms flew out sharply. Nate twitched forward, muscle going hard under Brad's grip, and then--probably realizing at the same time Brad did that the doctor's hand had been behind Linus's head and neck the whole time--he took a half step back, so that he was right at Brad's side. Brad didn't let go, and Nate didn't pull away.
"That looked good," the doctor said without looking over at them. "That's the Moro reflex, which makes a baby throw his arms out like that to try to grab you if he feels like he's in trouble. Unfortunately that one will be long gone by the time he's a teenager."
The doctor did some other stuff that looked less alarming--feet, hands, more prodding at Linus's head and at his belly, getting out the stethoscope and all of that. Brad kept still, holding on to Nate and listening to his steady breathing, trying not to think too much about anything or to let his attention wander past this moment, this room, and what he was doing right here.
The doctor asked Nate a few more questions, calm and casual, while peering into Linus's eyes and ears, and Nate's answers came pretty close to matching his tone, mostly light, just a little too quick to be perfectly calm.
The doctor fastened up Linus's diaper and turned back to face them, saying, "Okay, this is for you," as he offered the baby to Nate.
Brad didn't let go quite quickly enough to avoid being seen, but the doctor didn't say anything. He passed Linus to Nate and then went over to the computer in the corner to enter some information. Nate, meanwhile, lifted Linus up against his shoulder, and Brad didn't really think twice before leaning over to look Linus in the eye and make sure Nate wasn't upset enough to set him off. Linus just blinked at him and then yawned.
"Good man," Brad said quietly.
Nate turned toward him even as Brad turned away, shuffling through the stack of Linus's clothes to find the onesie and socks to put on first. By the time Brad straightened up Nate had turned Linus around so his feet were sticking out; they looked kind of pink and cold, so Brad put the socks on first, even though it was strange to be putting them on without tucking the horseshoe underneath.
He'd just finished and was strategizing how to get Linus into the onesie without making Nate put him down when the doctor said, "So it looks like Linus is doing great, but what about you guys? He's waking up every two hours, that's got to be tough on you."
Nate was looking down at Linus, and he didn't look up when the doctor spoke. Brad couldn't see any reaction on him at all. Brad gave it another second, to be sure that Nate wasn't going to look up and offer some smooth, glib, prepared set of lies he wanted Brad to support, and then he stepped into the breach.
Brad looked over his shoulder with a smile for the doctor and said, "Well, I've only been doing it for three days, so I'm good. This is my vacation. Nate already had it down to a science by the time I showed up, I just stepped in to help for a while."
Brad glanced back at Nate, hoping that had been enough of a stall--or enough of a cue, if Nate had been really out of it--to get him ready to give some answer that would let them all get out the door in one piece.
Nate was looking up, now, but he was looking straight at Brad, searching his face for something. Brad looked back, eyebrows raised, and waited for Nate to get with the program.
"Nate?" the doctor prompted. "How has it been for you?"
Nate hesitated another second with his eyes on Brad's before he finally, finally redirected his attention where it belonged.
"Brad's been great," Nate said firmly. "Brad's been a huge help, I couldn't have asked for a better--"
Brad waited for the noun and did not look back toward the doctor. Nate looked away from them both and changed tacks, leaving whatever that might have been unsaid. His voice was lighter when he went on.
"The thing is, with or without Brad, I'm not doing very well."
Brad felt himself go cold and calm; the whole room took on a perfect clarity. He knew precisely where the doctor was standing, didn't have to turn his head, didn't even have to try to calculate his position. He knew Linus was still awake, squirming sleepily against Nate's shoulder, and he knew exactly how calm Nate was, because he was, too.
"I left the Marine Corps seven months ago," Nate said, shifting his grip on Linus, letting the doctor do the math. "It's been a little bit more than ten months since I last saw a dead child by the side of a road. For Linus's first ten days, I was so far under the surface I didn't understand that I had a problem--I thought this was just how things were going to be for me, having a kid, having been in combat. But since Brad's been here, I've realized I need help--more help, a different kind of help. I probably have PTSD, and whatever you call it, it's pretty bad. I had some symptoms before, but it's gotten worse since Linus was born. I don't think I've done anything to endanger him or anyone else yet, but I know that could very easily change if I don't get myself squared away soon."
Nate turned a little then and met Brad's eyes again, his previous calm swallowed up into a faint but distinct exhilaration. Looking at him, Brad could almost hear bullets flying around them. "Brad? Would you say that's a reasonable summary of the situation?"
Brad had never felt quite this ambushed even when being shot at. It took him a few seconds to shift mental gears enough to do what Nate was asking of him. He turned and looked at the doctor, who was giving them both a concerned but not especially surprised look, no sign of being out of his depth with this.
"I think Nate's view is pretty accurate. He's had a few bad mood swings, but he's kept it under control as far as Linus is concerned. He's hypervigilant. I realized pretty quickly when I arrived that Nate was having problems, but he was doing an excellent job of taking care of Linus, and he's continued to do so."
The doctor nodded slowly, and Brad stole a glance at Nate, who met his gaze and gave him a short, sharp nod.
"Now, Nate," Dr. Lee said, drawing Brad's attention back, "you say that you've recognized your symptoms as PTSD, and Brad, you also sound like you're familiar with the warning signs--I assume you've both been taught to recognize those symptoms?"
Brad nodded along with Nate.
"I'll skip the brochures, then. Nate, it sounds like you qualify for VA treatment, but I assume there's a reason you're telling me and not the VA's intake process." He glanced quickly between Brad and Nate, but didn't make the point out loud.
"I decided last night that I needed help," Nate said briskly, once again totally ignoring the implication. "I'm telling you because I'm not going to conceal my condition from people who have a reason to know it. You asked how I was doing, and that's my answer."
"I'm concerned about the amount of time you could spend waiting for treatment if you do go through the VA," Dr. Lee explained. "If seeking private care is an option...?"
"Just give me a few minutes, I'll make some calls. I refer new parents for help on a pretty regular basis, Nate, and I believe I can find you someone who has experience dealing with veterans. I'll try to find a doctor who can see you within the next couple of days. You're doing the right thing in asking for help, and I think if you follow through on this, you and your family are going to be fine."
"Thanks," Nate said, and the doctor gave Brad a look almost as inscrutable as the one Nate had turned on him a few minutes ago, and then let himself out of the room.
"Okay," Nate said. "Okay, Brad, could you."
Brad turned and took Linus as Nate held him out, tucking Linus half under his fleece again. Once he had the baby settled, Brad held absolutely still while Nate stared through the wall.
"Okay," Nate repeated to no one, and then he backed up a step and sat down hard on top of Linus's clothes, his elbows dropping onto his knees and his head into his hands. Brad stood looking down at him for a couple of seconds; he watched the shaking start at Nate's hands, watched it hit his shoulders and dissolve into full-body shivering as the adrenaline dropped him like a rock. Because that had been an engagement with, if not exactly the enemy, definitely something unknown and dangerous. Nate had willed himself through it with the same cool detachment he'd shown while dodging bullets, but there was a price to pay on the other side.
Brad looked down at Linus--blinking sleepily against his chest--and then he stepped around Nate and sat down beside him, because he couldn't stand to keep watching this and pretending that he was only here to help with the kid.
He leaned his shoulder into Nate's, first, but that didn't seem to register with Nate. Brad put his free arm around Nate's shoulders, then, tugging him in close. For a couple of breaths he stayed rigid, just vibrating in Brad's grip; Brad could hear the plastic back of the chair rattling quietly against the wall.
Then Nate pushed closer. He was curled down so far that the top of his head was against Brad's collarbone. Brad felt an instant rush of something better than adrenaline--relief and pleasure and something beyond words--at the feeling of Nate finally, finally being willing to lean on him like this. Whatever it meant, and despite the surrounding circumstances being just as bad as they had always been for as long as he'd known Nate, it felt good to have him here.
Brad tucked his own head down, his forehead against Nate's hair. "Okay, Nate. Okay."
Nate elbowed him a little, uncurling one arm, but he didn't reach for Linus, who was hidden between their bodies. Nate reached under Brad's unzipped fleece and grabbed a fistful of Brad's t-shirt, pulling it tight against his ribs.
Brad closed his eyes and turned his head slightly, pressing his lips to the back of Nate's head. "Yeah. I've got you."
"For now," Nate said, and his voice was almost steady, just a little muffled for being spoken more or less into Nate's lap, down under the tangle of their bodies.
"Ten more days of leave," Brad agreed, because that was the simplest answer and the one he should have mentioned before now. "Nine until I should be on a plane back. I'm all yours for now."
Nate nodded against Brad's chest.
"Out of curiosity," Brad said, not bothering to try to sound less serious than he was. "Did you sleep at all last night?"
Nate let out a huge breath, shakier at the end than at the beginning, and shook his head against Brad's chest. That was about what Brad had been expecting, and he let himself think of it as a problem he could solve. Nate would need to sleep when they got back to the apartment. Brad would lie beside him for a while, maybe, until he was sure Nate was really sleeping....
Nate pushed away, and Brad let him go. Nate twisted to scrub his face against his arm and then straightened up, blinking at Brad.
"I should tell you," Nate said, holding Brad's gaze. He sounded rehearsed again, but it wasn't coming out evenly anymore.
Brad just nodded, firmed his grip on Linus, and braced himself.
"Even after--even after I told you last night, I wasn't sure I was going to do this this morning. Maybe call someone, maybe--I didn't know. I hadn't decided yet."
Nate looked away--let himself look away, that was obvious. Brad shifted closer to him, and Nate didn't pull away, but didn't look at him again, either. "I was lying there listening to you and Linus sleeping, and I was thinking about what I could have done if you hadn't--if something had set me off like that and you weren't there to keep me in line. If I'd gotten angry at Linus. And I knew I could have hurt him, and I knew if I did I should give him up, someone should take him away from me. I should be begging someone to take him, if I hurt him."
Nate was looking everywhere but right at Linus, and Brad couldn't look away from what he could see of Nate's face. He was miles away, back in the dark, back inside his own head.
"And I realized that if I lost him, if I had to give him up, I would kill myself. Not that I would want to, or that it seemed like a smart choice, just--if Linus was gone I would kill myself, QED. And that's--that's not--I can't live like that. Literally. I can't live like that."
"Not for long," Brad agreed, pleased to hear his voice come out dry and cool.
Nate did look at him then, startled into a genuine grin.
Brad shrugged a little, tilting his head. It was true, and it was about the only thing he was qualified to say on the topic.
"Not for long," Nate repeated, and his voice wobbled and cracked on the last word, his grin widening too much to hold the shape of the word. He started laughing and slumped back in his seat, head against the wall as he cackled, venting pressure like a teakettle.
Brad looked down at Linus, who blinked up at him and flailed with one arm as if demanding that that weird new noise stop. Brad wondered if he had ever heard Nate really laugh before now. He shifted Linus up against his chest, rubbing one hand over his back to soothe him, and kept his eyes on Nate.
After the first couple of minutes Nate slumped over again, dropping his head into his hands, the hysterical hyena-laugh settling down into waves of giggles that came and went with his breath.
The door opened, and Brad glanced up to see Dr. Lee standing there holding a business card. He raised his eyebrows, and Brad shrugged.
The doctor nodded, stepped inside just far enough to hold out the card to Brad, and mouthed take your time as Brad reached for it. Brad waited until the door had closed behind him to reach over and slide the card under Nate's fingers.
Once again Brad drove them back to Nate's apartment, but this time whenever he checked over his shoulder, Nate was staring out the window in a more or less fixed direction--not, Brad thought, that he wasn't trying to monitor his sector, but that he was too drained to actually do it.
Nate carried Linus inside, and went straight into the bedroom with him. Nate laid him in the crib and then sat down and folded over to take off his shoes. Brad followed him as far as the bedroom doorway and decided not to mention that Linus was due to eat again in about twenty minutes. Nate could be asleep by then, and Brad wasn't going to stand in the way of that.
Nate turned to look over at Brad instead of just flopping down once he had his shoes off. "You just going to stand there and watch?"
Brad smiled a little and shrugged. "I'm pretty good at it."
Nate nodded, parted his lips, and then pressed them together. He shifted his arms and started to brace himself back up to his feet, concentrating like he had a couple of hundred pounds on his shoulders. Brad moved before Nate had gathered himself to do it, dropping down to sit beside him as Nate subsided.
"Thank you," Nate said quietly, looking him steadily in the eye. "For everything."
Brad nodded. There were a few dozen guys he'd have done the same for, and he knew Nate had a similar roster. It wouldn't have meant the same thing with any of them, and he hadn't had any reason to drop in on any of them to find out he was needed. He didn't want Nate's gratitude, but he couldn't brush this off as insignificant, either.
"I know we have to talk," Nate said. "I know I owe you an explanation, and I don't know exactly what you want from me or what you need, or whether it's possible. I'm in no state to process anything right now."
Brad shrugged, even as a hope welled up in him that he couldn't hold down; if Nate wanted to talk about it, then Nate wasn't dismissing the possibility out of hand, despite the way everything had changed. "I think the fact that I'm here and you haven't kicked me out covers most of it."
Nate gave a fleeting smile even as he shook his head. Of course Nate was going to be difficult, of course he was going to insist on talking and negotiating and respecting everyone's feelings and making sure everyone was in their right minds and--
Nate swayed toward him and Brad put up a hand to brace him, and before he'd realized that Nate hadn't just fallen asleep on him, Nate's hand was on his jaw, guiding him into a kiss. It was just that for a few seconds, just the fact of a kiss, a dry press of lips to get them across that particular line. Then Brad hauled Nate closer and Nate threw an arm around Brad's neck. Their mouths opened in sync and Nate pushed into the kiss, licking into Brad's mouth.
Brad held on to him and let him lead, and Nate was halfway onto Brad's lap by the time he lifted his head and said, "Is this okay? Can we just come back to the rest of it later?"
"No," Brad said, aware that he was breathing too hard to carry off the deadpan and way past giving a fuck. "I'm going to file a sexual harassment complaint."
"Too late," Nate said, "I'm not your CO anymore. You're just going to have to screen my calls and convince all your friends to hate me like a normal person."
"I'm actually on very good terms with all my exes," Brad said. "Although not--" he tugged Nate into another kiss, "quite--this--" and then Nate didn't let him back up to say anything else.
Nate leaned into him harder and harder until Brad collapsed backward. Nate stretched out over him, barely pausing in kissing him, though the kisses were unhurried. Nate's weight held him down, but Nate wasn't deliberately applying any force; he'd finally collapsed and Brad happened to be in the way.
It wasn't much of a surprise to Brad when Nate broke off a kiss to yawn, but Nate laughed at himself a little as he did it. "Sorry. I'm not going to be good for much."
"Both shocking and disappointing," Brad murmured. "I was definitely under the impression that you were about to tear my clothes off and fuck me through the mattress."
Nate squirmed a little and kissed Brad again; he didn't hate that idea, Brad thought. He might hate how patently impossible it was right now, which would make two of them. The next time Nate came up for air, Brad took charge, tipping onto his side and dragging Nate up the bed until he had his head on a pillow. They could share one now, and curling into each other took care of the problem of fitting on the bed together.
Nate raised his head to look over Brad's shoulder to Linus's crib, and Brad didn't bother looking back before he said, "He's fine, Nate. He'll cry when he needs me, and you're going to get some sleep."
"Yeah," Nate said, and went limp against Brad, asleep almost instantly.
Brad stayed awake a little longer, listening to both of them breathing. He tried not to think of the obvious consequence of getting what he wanted, which was that he immediately had to start worrying about losing it. But not yet, because Nate was in no condition to have that conversation. For a while longer, Brad could lie here and imagine that the thing everyone else saw was true, that Nate and Linus were his to protect, that they could be his to come home to.
For now, Nate had said, and once Brad remembered that the words wouldn't stop echoing in his head. For now.
He had just dozed off when Linus woke him up.
Nate slept into the midafternoon, and then came out of the bedroom with the card Dr. Lee had given him in his hand. He found his phone and shut himself in the bathroom with it. Brad wrote the time down in the logbook; when Nate came out five minutes later and said, "Tomorrow, seventeen hundred," Brad had already put the pen away. All he'd needed to record for today was N scheduled appointment for PTSD treatment.
"That calls for pizza, doesn't it?" Brad said.
Nate dropped onto the couch beside Brad and leaned across him to kiss the baby. Linus had been waiting patiently for Brad to go back to reading to him, but made a little happy-sounding noise when Nate said, "Hey, buddy, how's Brad treating you?"
Nate nodded solemnly to Linus's answer and then straightened up enough to kiss Brad, as chastely as was necessary when Brad had his hands full of baby.
"Not going to ask how he's been treating me?" Brad asked. "Because you'll notice the washer's running and I'm wearing completely different clothes than I was this morning."
"You've been very brave, Staff Sergeant," Nate agreed. He gave Brad a slightly more rewarding kiss, and then leaned against Brad's shoulder and ordered the pizza.
He gave slightly slurred corrections to Brad's pronunciations of Greek names when Brad went back to reading, and didn't otherwise move until there was a knock at the door.
That made him jump a little and sit up straight, but he didn't otherwise go on alert, and he accepted Linus when Brad handed him over and went to find his wallet.
Nate stayed on the couch with Brad and Linus, reading and watching TV, but Brad could see him winding tighter with every hour that passed. After ten he wouldn't touch the baby anymore, and at eleven he moved over to his desk and focused on the laptop. A little before midnight, Brad got up and said, "I'm going to bed, you want me to take him with me?"
Nate looked up and gave a single sharp nod, and Brad decided against trying for a kiss goodnight. When he looked back from the hallway, Nate had turned on CNN.
Around three, Brad took Linus to the kitchen for a bottle, and Nate was right where Brad had left him; Brad didn't spot the tears on his face until he came back out to sit on the couch while Linus had his bottle. Nate didn't seem to be aware of them; he was staring ferociously into his laptop. Brad watched a drop fall from his jaw and decided against the couch.
He crouched down next to Nate's desk, in his line of sight, and waited for Nate to spot him. It took a couple of minutes, and then Nate blinked owlishly at him before he turned away and rubbed his face hard against his arm. When he came back up, he was staring at his laptop again, deliberately not looking at Brad this time.
"Come to bed soon," Brad said quietly. "I'm not going back to sleep until you're there."
Nate didn't look at him, but he nodded. Brad stood up and walked away.
He sat on the edge of the bed in the dark with Linus, listening to the familiar wet sounds of him drinking, watching the TV light flicker against the wall. By the time he had Linus ready to sleep again, he still hadn't heard a sound from Nate's direction. He laid the baby down in his crib and stretched out on the bed, tucking his hands behind his head and staring at the ceiling.
He only waited about two minutes before the TV turned off, leaving the apartment dark. He heard Nate walk to the front door and check the locks, and then Nate came into the bedroom. He undressed to his boxers and lay down on the far side of the bed from Linus, head on his own pillow, arms crossed over his chest.
Brad rolled onto his side and slung an arm over Nate's belly, spreading his fingers across the bare skin of Nate's side. Even there, he could feel the tension humming through him. Brad shifted his fingers in small movements over Nate's skin, waiting for Nate to react, waiting to acclimate himself to the reality of being able to reach out and touch Nate like this.
Nate didn't pull away, which seemed like a good enough sign. Brad made his own voice dry and calm when he spoke. "Suggestion."
"I am really not in the mood," Nate said flatly, but he still didn't push Brad's hand away.
Brad slid his hand down to the top of Nate's boxers and felt the muscles tense under his hand. "Good, because I wasn't really planning on rose petals and piano music. I was planning on getting you off so you might be able to get some sleep, so I might be able to get some sleep. If you think it's too soon to let me put my hand in your panties, go rub one out in the head, but I really think it'll be more fun for both of us if you let me give you a hand."
"You do know how to sweet-talk," Nate muttered, but that still wasn't anything like no.
Brad waited. This wasn't about what he wanted. This was about taking care of Nate. He could wait all night to do that.
Nate unfolded his arms and started to push up onto his elbows--not sitting up, but looking past Brad, so Brad moved his hand up to hold Nate down.
"The guy in the next bed is sleeping," Brad said firmly, quietly but not bothering to whisper. It wasn't necessary. "Unless you're a hell of a lot noisier than I think you are, we don't have a problem."
Nate let out a shaky breath and slung his arm over his face. Brad closed the gap between their bodies, pressing up against Nate's side and slinging one leg over Nate's. There was no mistaking the way Nate shuddered at the skin contact; the echoing shiver that shook Brad could have been just sympathy.
"Been a while since anybody else touched you?" Brad breathed beside Nate's ear.
"Been a while since I did," Nate muttered, sounding too strained to be sheepish.
"Well, then." Brad slid his hand back down Nate's chest to his boxers and tugged them down. Nate arched up to let Brad get them off. Brad dragged his hand back up the inside of Nate's thigh to his balls, cupping them for a second before he got his hand on Nate's half-hard cock. Nate made a tiny sound, sharply cut off, and shifted his arm down from covering his eyes to cover his mouth.
Brad kept his hand still and pressed his mouth to Nate's shoulder, the top of his arm, and felt Nate getting harder against his palm. He rocked his hand, letting Nate push up against it in little shivers, listening carefully.
When he'd counted a hundred, Brad said, "You have to breathe or I have to stop, Nate."
Nate's arm shot down fast, and he dragged in a breath as his hand landed on top of Brad's, pressing Brad's fingers closed around his cock. "Don't you fucking dare."
Brad made a wordless noise of agreement, all his concentration on jerking Nate off as slowly as he could bear. He had his hand on Nate for the first time, had Nate pressed up against him and shaking apart. There were limits to Brad's conscious control over this situation.
Nate's hand shifted to his wrist, urging him on faster.
Brad pressed his mouth against Nate's shoulder, this time with a scrape of teeth, as he put all the finesse he could into a handjob while his wrist was in a vise-grip. That took enough concentration that he almost managed not to grind his own hard-on against Nate's hip, but it wasn't long before Nate's hand let go of his wrist and fumbled toward Brad's underwear.
"Nate, you don't--"
"Shut the fuck up," Nate said, too breathless to sound as authoritative as usual, rolling onto his side and bringing both hands to bear on the problem of getting Brad naked while Brad's hand was still moving on his dick. "I don't need your combat jack, I need you."
Brad grinned even as he moved enough to let Nate yank his boxers down. Nate took advantage of the shift in position--and Brad's speechlessness as he considered his dizzying array of options for retorts--to shove Brad onto his back and climb on top of him.
Leaning down into a kiss, Nate added, "In a purely sexual sense, asshole, didn't I tell you to shut up?"
Brad let his grin disappear under Nate's mouth and didn't think about how every single part of that was such a transparent lie that it was practically the truth. He pushed his cock up against Nate, and Nate squirmed around, grinding down on him, until they were lined up, rutting against each other. Brad pushed up on one elbow to keep kissing Nate, throwing his other arm around Nate's neck to hold him down.
Nate whispered filthy, frantic curses into Brad's mouth and came first. Brad figured that meant that there was no loss to his dignity in lasting barely a minute longer, his cock sticky-wet with Nate's come, Nate's weight pressing down hot all over him while Nate pressed open-mouthed kisses along his jaw and down his throat.
Brad bit his lip as he came--Nate had told him to shut up, and even if he hadn't it was no time to let any of the things he wanted to say come rushing out. He lay dazed in the dark, stunned as much by the sensation of thorough happiness as by the orgasm, until Nate's thumb pressed against his mouth, against his teeth where they dug into his lower lip.
"Breathe," Nate said into Brad's shoulder, giving no apparent consideration to his position directly on top of Brad's lungs. "And don't fucking hurt yourself."
I know, that's your job, Brad didn't say, and unclenched his teeth to kiss Nate's thumb instead.
A couple of hours later, Brad was sitting on the edge of the bed feeding Linus his bottle. Nate, who had woken up enough to mumble worriedly when Brad got up, was sleeping now that Brad and Linus were back in the room. He was snoring as he sprawled across the bed with one hand on Brad's hip, and Brad didn't even try to be disgusted with himself for finding the sound somewhere between reassuring and adorable.
Brad reached over to the night stand and grabbed his phone, flipped it open one-handed, and tapped out a text message to Ray.
When you say not in front of the baby, what do you think about over to one side?
The phone buzzed while Brad was burping Linus. He picked it up to check after he'd put the baby down.
Fucking disgusting in every possible way, was the message waiting for him. As he read it, another message arrived.
When Brad woke up the shower was running, and Nate and Linus were both gone from the bedroom. He put on boxers--Linus was awake now, some kind of standard of decency ought to apply--and headed toward the bathroom, stopping short in the hallway when he realized Nate had left the door open.
Brad stared down at the floor, grinning helplessly at that casually undefended boundary, and then Nate started singing REO Speedwagon and Brad actually had to cover his face with his hands. When he had his breathing under control sufficiently, he stepped into the bathroom and started singing along, filling in when Nate lost a few words to a startled laugh. Brad brushed his teeth, still humming along until Nate's singing trailed off, and then he pushed the shower curtain aside far enough to see Nate running a washcloth down Linus's back.
Brad grabbed Linus's towel off the rack, slung it over his shoulder, and held his hands out. Nate shifted carefully toward him and met his eyes with a grin and a nod, and Brad took Linus and settled him against the towel. He carried Linus out to the bedroom and sat down to dry him off properly, rubbing his head and making his hair stand up in spikes while Linus flailed around. He managed to get a diaper on him fast enough not to get pissed on, and then just sat on the foot of the bed, playing around with Linus, tickling him with the towel and making him kick and squeal.
After one particularly loud shriek dropped into silence, Brad realized that the shower was off. He looked up to see Nate standing in the doorway with a towel around his hips, watching them with an expression that made Brad want to look away, like he wasn't supposed to see this. Like this was more naked than Nate had been in the shower, or last night in this bed--just smiling at the two of them, just looking perfectly happy to stand there in the doorway with his hair dripping down his forehead.
Brad tossed Linus's towel at Nate, and Nate grinned as he caught it and put it to use drying his own hair.
A little after noon Linus started crying and wouldn't stop. Nate and Brad passed him back and forth, checking all the obvious possibilities--neither of them were wound up enough to be upsetting Linus, he didn't need his diaper changed, and he wasn't hungry, or at least wouldn't stop crying to eat. He wasn't running a fever. Nate insisted that there was a specific cry for gas and this wasn't it, and Brad was half-certain he knew what Nate was talking about. Setting Linus down in his crib made him scream louder, but Nate and Brad agreed--mostly through hand signals--to rotate five minutes at a time through each of them holding him and leaving him in his crib. They'd just have to wait him out; eventually something had to work.
Brad had just finished his turn holding Linus and set him down when he noticed his phone, still on the night stand and blinking a text message notification. Brad picked it up, prepared to reply to Ray's latest obscene suggestions for him and Nate by dialing the phone and letting him listen to Linus scream.
But when Brad flipped open his phone, he realized the message wasn't from Ray.
Brad, Mom. Interrogative. What is your 20?
Brad winced. It was never a good sign when his mom resorted to radio protocol to get to his attention, and ignoring her wasn't an option.
"Brad?" Nate's voice was a welcome low tone against the ongoing shriek from Linus.
Nate was standing in the bedroom doorway, and the frown on his face deepened as Brad turned far enough for Nate to see the phone in his hand. "Something wrong?"
Brad mustered up a wry smile and walked over to Nate. "Aren't you supposed to be listening to soothing music for the next four and a half minutes?"
"You were supposed to come see if I was thirty seconds ago," Nate said evenly, not budging from the doorway. "I got worried."
Brad shrugged and held out his phone, keeping his eyes on Nate's face as he read it. Brad had never tried very hard to sell the Iceman shtick to the LT, but it would still be interesting to see if Nate took it the way a lot of Marines would, as if this were obviously SOP for communication between Brad and his family.
But Nate didn't look amused on any level. His frown deepened, and he looked up at Brad, giving him an uncomfortably intent look, as if Brad had Nate's undivided attention even when Linus was ten feet away screaming his head off.
"She does actually know my twenty," Brad explained. "At least, she knows I'm in DC with a friend who needed me to stay around for a while. I haven't updated her."
Nate shook his head slightly, raising a hand to wave away Brad's words. His focus didn't relax. "You're supposed to be in San Diego right now. That's where you were supposed to go on your leave, to see your family."
Brad shoved his phone into his pocket and shrugged again, not quite able to look away from Nate's stare even to roll his eyes. "It's my default, Nate. I go to California on leave because I don't usually have a reason to be anywhere else. Right now I have a compelling reason to be here, so here I am."
Nate's gaze jerked away from him, and Nate stepped backward, out of the doorway, clearing his path as he said, "You should call your mom."
Brad studied Nate, but Nate kept his gaze fixed on the door frame, and Brad gave up on figuring him out anytime soon. He'd put Linus down; it was his turn to spend ten minutes not getting stressed out by listening to him crying.
"Yeah," Brad said, "I know. I'm going to call her now."
Nate nodded without looking at him, and Brad stepped out of the bedroom, letting his arm brush against Nate's body as he went. He crossed the hallway to the bathroom, shut the door--which muffled but didn't eliminate the sound of Linus's crying--and dialed his mom even as he did the time zone calculation and tried to figure out if she would be home from work today, if she'd have taken vacation days this week because he might have been home.
"Who is this and what have you done with Brad?"
Brad smiled. "Hey, mom. It's me, I promise."
"I'll hold you to that," she said, and then "Is that a baby crying? Sweetheart, where are you?"
"At my friend's place in DC, like I told you," Brad said. "It's just him and his son, so I'm staying to help out."
"Are you calling for advice on why the baby might be crying?" His mom sounded honestly baffled.
"No, we covered all the logical possibilities and I think Nate's been looking stuff up on the internet when my back is turned. We're just trying to wait him out without anybody losing their minds, so I thought I'd call you while it's not my turn to hold him."
"I'm honored," his mom said, but she'd gone from confused to worried, and Brad realized that it hadn't been much of an accident that he hadn't called before now. He braced for impact a second before she said, "I don't think you've ever mentioned a Nate who you were close to."
Brad fixed his gaze on the opposite wall and said, "I always called him Lieutenant Fick before now."
Brad listened to Linus wailing for a solid thirty seconds, which in no way obscured the sound of his mother's silence sailing straight past worried and into really concerned, Bradley.
"And now you and Nate have become good friends, since you left recon."
"I'm still in recon, this is a temporary exchange," Brad corrected first, and then, "Nate's out of the Corps, he left in August. I didn't tell you about it because I wasn't really in touch with him then. He had a lot going on with the baby on the way and moving out here, and I was getting ready to go to England."
"And then you stopped to see him on your way home and realized that he needed help taking care of his baby and you decided to just stay indefinitely," his mom summarized in a calm tone that would have hidden her skepticism if Brad hadn't learned it from her and then carried it into the pressure-cooker of the Corps and refined it into an identity.
"He knows how I feel about him," Brad half-lied, just to head off the excruciating conclusion of his mother's line of thought.
"I'm sure he does," his mom said, not sounding the least bit perturbed by Brad's jump ahead in the script. "It's usually fairly difficult to miss when you get like this about someone. But if you say one word about not minding that he doesn't feel the same, I'm getting on a plane and dragging you away from him, crying baby or no crying baby."
"It's not," Brad said hastily, and then stopped. It's not like that was an argument guaranteed to make him sound exactly like the fifteen-year-old with a doomed crush on a straight military school classmate his mother clearly thought he still was. But there was nothing he could say that was concrete enough to refute her and wasn't a lie or a presumption.
"I can't promise you it's going to work out with me and Nate," Brad said finally. "But I love him too much not to try."
There was another little silence from his mom; he thought he might actually have surprised her with that one.
"I haven't said that to him yet," Brad added. He couldn't work up much anxiety over saying it to his mom--she'd held too many of his confidences too safely for too long, but he still had to cover his bases. "Don't tell him I said it to you first, okay?"
"I will put it on my list of topics not to mention at the Seder," she promised him after a briefer pause. "Or--Hanukkah, actually, if you think you'll be able to get leave and bring him out then."
"Maybe Hanukkah," Brad agreed, and didn't elaborate on the odds or everything that might interfere. "If things work out, and if Nate's ready to drag Linus cross-country for holidays by then. He'll be nine months old."
"Nine months in December," his mother said, sounding aghast. "Do you mean right now he's all by himself with a newborn?"
"Two weeks old today," Brad clarified, not sure when exactly babies stopped being new. "And he's not alone. He's got me. For the rest of my leave, anyway."
"Brad, how long has the baby--what is his name, anyway?--how long has he been crying?"
Brad glanced unnecessarily at his watch. Thirty seconds left until Nate's turn to pick him up. "Linus. Forty-seven minutes."
"Linus," his mother repeated, sounding exactly like a woman who knew better than to question her children's choices in naming her grandchildren. "Well, if he's two weeks old and nothing's broken, he doesn't even know what he's crying about. Put him in the car and just drive until he falls asleep. That always works sooner or later."
Brad abruptly remembered that--being small enough for his mother to carry and screaming, wailing, with some angry-sad thing in his chest that could only get out through his mouth. He remembered how she'd pulled the seatbelt tight against his chest, right where the knot sat, leaned across him to roll down the window, and then put the car in gear. When they hit the freeway the rushing air through the window was finally louder than he was and he could finally, finally stop screaming because he was finally moving fast enough to get away from whatever it was. He'd never been able to explain what it was that made him scream like that to his mom, the thing that tightened in his chest until it overwhelmed him, but it had never really mattered. Even though he could never make her understand, she was right there with him in the night, in the car, rushing him down the road to get him away from it.
"I think you were four or five before you outgrew that completely," his mother said, and Brad was momentarily disoriented to find himself still in the bathroom of Nate's apartment with Linus still crying outside. "Go on, go take care of your boys."
"Thanks, Mom," Brad said, and hung up before he could try to tell her what he was thanking her for.
As it turned out, Linus found the Beltway extremely soothing.
Nate went into his first therapy appointment with all the enthusiasm Brad would have expected him to show for a court martial. Less, actually, because Nate probably would have gone into a court martial full of righteous fury. When Dr. Gold--a tall black guy who was obviously ex-military from his shaved head all the way down to his perfectly-shined shoes--opened a door to the waiting room and called Nate back, Nate stood up, square-shouldered and grim, face devoid of expression, and followed without a word.
Dr. Gold's eyes skipped past Nate to Brad, who had Linus asleep on his chest, a diaper bag between his feet, and an ancient copy of People Magazine open on his knee. Brad raised his eyebrows and gave the faintly challenging smile he could get away with to an officer who wasn't directly in his chain of command. Dr. Gold's lips twitched before he stepped back from the door to let Nate through.
A couple of minutes later, Linus finally woke up from the limp, sodden sleep he'd fallen into four hours ago on the Beltway. Brad knelt on the floor to change him, unable to resist making the whole operation ostentatiously efficient under the bored gaze of the receptionist. When he'd squared everything away, he pulled the waiting bottle out of its pocket and settled back into his seat with Linus tucked safely against his chest. Brad did not look up to see if he was being watched.
Linus was halfway through his bottle when Brad heard the faint, distant sound of Nate yelling. He couldn't make out words, but he knew that voice. He focused on his breathing like he was aiming a rifle. Linus, so intent on drinking that he had a little wrinkle on his forehead, didn't seem to notice at all.
Nate quieted down within about thirty seconds, and only then did Brad glance up toward the receptionist. She offered him a warm, soft smile, and Brad was too thrown by it to do anything but nod and return his attention to Linus.
Brad managed to burp Linus without requiring a change of clothing for anybody, and then settled Linus in his arm.
"Sorry I didn't bring your book, little man," Brad said, studying the options on the table next to his chair. "We're not rotting your brain with tabloids."
He grabbed Popular Mechanics because it said SCIENCE on the cover and promised new cars, dinosaurs, and teleportation.
"Here we go, everything a growing boy needs," Brad said, and glanced at the date, curious about how old the new cars were going to turn out to be.
February 2003. He automatically translated the date to the place: Kuwait. He glanced toward the door--Nate had been quiet now for twenty minutes, and the hour was more than half gone--and then cleared his throat and flipped past the ads for cigarettes and hairspray and the Army in search of something worth reading to Linus, who was still looking up at him, waiting for him to say something interesting.
"Dinosaurs," Brad announced, and started reading.
At fifty minutes past the hour, Brad stopped and set the magazine aside, listening. Nearly another minute passed before he heard low voices on the other side of the door, but he stayed seated until Nate stepped through, looking tired and determined, holding a prescription-pad slip in his left hand.
Brad gave him a questioning look, and Nate nodded and came over to him, wordlessly taking Linus from Brad's arms and cuddling him to his shoulder. Brad stood, shouldering the diaper bag and putting a hand on Nate's elbow to turn him toward the exit.
Nate took the driver's seat. Brad, after a few seconds of consideration, took the passenger seat. Nate didn't say anything until they were out on the street.
At the first red light, Nate said, "I need to stop at the drugstore."
"I have to ask you for another favor. A series of favors," Nate said.
"Nate, I'm not going to say no."
"Yeah," Nate said. "But I have to ask, and it's.... He doesn't want to put me on Prozac or something right away. He thinks my PTSD was getting worse for a while before Linus was born, at the same time that I was losing sleep over breaking up with Cory and worrying about having full custody, and then it got a lot worse when Linus was born and I completely stopped sleeping."
Brad nodded. "So the prescription is for sleeping pills, and you need me to take care of Linus at night when you're knocked out?"
"Don't," Nate said sharply, and then sighed, opening and closing his hands. "You don't have to make this easy for me."
Brad gave that the solid ten seconds of silence it deserved and then said, "Nate, I don't have to do any of this. Yes, I will get up with your kid at night so you can get enough sleep. I've already been doing that."
Nate blew out a breath. "Some people have paradoxical reactions to sedatives. It could just make the hypervigilance worse or cause some other side effects. I need you to be my spotter."
"Done," Brad said. "And Ray's already offered to come out here when I have to leave. You don't have to be on your own."
Nate snorted. "Yeah, he emailed me the day after you showed up to say he was taking his turn next and that you probably wouldn't mention it. He keeps sending me pictures of things he's going to bring Linus as presents."
Brad felt almost physically jolted by the idea of Ray going over his head to the LT, and, simultaneously, the idea of Ray buying his way into Linus's affections when Brad had never given him anything.
"Good," Brad said after an unavoidably noticeable pause. "Then you're covered."
"For now," Nate said under his breath, and Brad didn't have an answer for that.
Nate came back from the kitchen with a bottle just as Brad finished changing Linus.
"Do you mind feeding him?" Nate held out the bottle, and Brad shook his head as he took it, offering Nate a neatly wrapped dirty diaper in exchange.
Nate smiled wryly at the trade and took the diaper back to the kitchen, dropping it into the trash with a surprisingly solid thud. Brad gathered Linus up and settled on the couch to feed him, listening as Nate poured himself a glass of water and pointedly rattled the pill bottle he'd left on the kitchen counter.
When Nate came back with the little orange bottle and the glass of water, he went straight over to his desk. He set them down and then dug through a couple of drawers before he came up with a pad of paper and a pen.
"I should go to bed once he's down," Nate explained, flipping open the pad without looking up. "It'll take about half an hour for the pill to kick in, and I have to do some homework before I fall asleep."
Brad raised his eyebrows. "Homework?"
Nate glanced up and shot Brad a familiar grimly amused look.
"It's the other half of my therapy prescription. I'm supposed to get more sleep." Nate set down the paper, picked up the pill bottle, and tipped out one pill--where Brad could see how many he was taking, though he didn't make much of a show of it--and knocked it back, taking a quick swig of water to wash it down.
"And I'm supposed to do this," Nate went on, as though there had been no pause, waving a hand at the pad of paper. "Keeping track of some of my thought processes, so I can learn how to redirect them when they go bad on me. Ultimately I'm supposed to learn how not to be afraid of being afraid, or get angry about it, or...."
Nate trailed off as he started writing. Brad watched him in silence until he paused, forehead wrinkled in concentration.
"You sound like you think it's bullshit."
"It's not," Nate said evenly, and started writing again. "It's one of the most scientifically quantifiable forms of therapy. I just don't like being told how to think."
Brad nodded. That was so self-evident it was almost meaningless. "I can't imagine anyone would."
Nate just nodded and kept writing, so Brad returned his attention to Linus. The bottle was three-quarters gone--tipped up almost vertical--when Nate spoke again.
"Don't look at this one, okay?"
Brad looked up, startled, but Nate was staring fixedly at the page, though his hand was still.
Brad shook his head. "Of course not."
Nate did look up then, holding Brad's gaze for a few seconds before he nodded. "Thanks."
Nate flipped the cover closed on the pad of paper and put it away in the top desk drawer. He shut off the desk light and came to sit close against Brad's side, their bare arms pressing together.
Brad tugged the bottle out of Linus's mouth and handed it to Nate without looking over. Linus's mouth kept working for a few seconds, his blobby tongue poking out through his pursed lips, before he realized it wasn't working. Linus opened his eyes with a grunt of annoyance, and Brad grinned and tipped him into Nate's waiting arms.
"Sure, piss him off and then give him to me," Nate grumbled, but his voice was warm, and he leaned into Brad as he got the bottle plugged back into Linus's mouth. "There you go, Linus, I've got you, you're not going hungry."
Linus settled down, looking perfectly content, and Brad tried not to think too much about the warm feeling in his own chest. The quiet between them didn't offer many distractions, so Brad reached for his own.
"I have just one question."
Nate gave him a quick, slightly wary look.
Brad let his smile spread slowly, a little in advance of the words. "Linus, Nate? Really? Linus?"
Nate huffed and elbowed him sharply, without letting the bottle get out of position, though the milk sloshed a little inside. "I named him after my grandfather, Brad. The horseshoe was his; it's melted-down shrapnel he took in World War Two."
"Oh," Brad said, and gave a respectful nod. "Okay, understood."
Linus finished his bottle. Brad reached over to the desk for a spit-rag and dropped it over Nate's arm. Nate turned Linus upright against it, propped on his lap, and started rubbing his back.
"Ulysses, though," Brad said, watching the steady motion of Nate's hand.
Nate did smile a little at that. "Better than the Greek version. Odysseus was the only soldier I could think of in literature who made it home safely in the end. His wife was waiting for him, he found his son. That seemed important, right then."
Brad had looked up a summary of The Odyssey once when Linus was sleeping, so he'd figured it was something like that. All the same, hearing Nate say it made the image of Nate in that first terrifying day of fatherhood uncomfortably vivid. Brad gave in to the minutes-old impulse to put his arm around Nate's shoulders, and Nate tipped his head back onto it with a smile. Brad leaned in for a kiss.
Linus let out a truly impressive belch. Brad jerked back and Nate started laughing. When Nate turned Linus around to reveal his startled expression, Brad joined in, leaning into Nate as he settled Linus against his chest. Even after they stopped laughing, Linus stayed wide-eyed, looking back and forth from Brad to Nate. Brad settled his free hand on Linus's belly, curling his arm around Nate's to reach.
"We've got you, little man. Go to sleep."
Linus's gaze settled on Brad when he spoke, and he blinked a couple of times and then yawned hugely, tailing off into a little kitten-noise before he mashed his face sleepily against Nate's shirt.
"Oh, I see how it is," Nate muttered. "You swoop in for a week and he'll do anything you say."
Brad had to take a breath before he could say lightly, "I am obviously destined to be the cool dad."
Nate smiled, but he didn't look up. Brad ducked his head to kiss the corner of Nate's mouth, and this time Linus didn't interrupt them.
"I should put him down," Nate murmured after a while. "We should get to bed."
They'd killed fifteen minutes of Nate's estimated thirty, but that left them another fifteen to get Nate truly relaxed. Brad smiled against Nate's mouth. "Good plan."
Brad stood up and Nate followed him a second after and went wide-eyed, wobbling. Brad steadied him, and Nate leaned against him for a few seconds, blinking, eyes fixed on the far wall.
"Okay," Nate mumbled. "I can feel that."
"You got Linus?" Brad kept his hands on Nate.
"Yeah." Nate straightened up firmly, hoisting Linus a little higher against his chest. "Yeah, I'm good. Come on, bedtime."
Nate would never overestimate his ability to take care of Linus, so he couldn't be too far gone. Brad let him go, and Nate turned crisply away. Brad went and checked the door and turned off the lights while Nate headed straight to the bedroom. When Brad got there, Linus was already down and Nate was standing shirtless by the foot of the bed, swaying slightly as he tried to get his jeans undone.
Brad got one hand on Nate's hip and one on his shoulder, steadying him, and Nate looked up with a lazy smile at the same time he got his pants open. His pupils were blown, his mouth hung slightly open as he smiled, and his cheeks were flushed pink.
"You," Brad declared, leaning in, "are fucking stoned."
"Yeah," Nate sighed against Brad's mouth. "If I lie down now I'm gonna fall asleep."
"You should lie down, then," Brad pointed out, but he didn't take his steadying hands off of Nate, and definitely didn't push him toward the bed.
Nate hooked an arm around Brad's neck and shook his head, his lips brushing Brad's. "Not yet."
Brad shifted the hand on Nate's shoulder down to his side. "Waiting for something?"
Nate leaned forward, pressing his other hand to the small of Brad's back. "You."
Brad couldn't help smiling as he kissed Nate. Nate rocked against him, a full-body press, and Brad's hand on Nate's hip slid easily into his unfastened jeans, getting his hand on Nate's ass to press him closer. Nate took his hand off Brad to shove his own jeans down a little further as he started really grinding against Brad's hip, making faint frustrated noises into the kiss.
Brad broke away, tightening both hands on Nate's hips. "Let me, Nate."
He dropped smoothly to his knees. Nate wobbled again, but Brad had him braced and Nate got with the program fast enough, spreading his feet to a safer stance and bending enough to settle his hands on Brad's shoulders. Brad leaned in to mouth at his dick through his shorts, watching Nate's abs go tight as he gasped and shivered. Brad closed his eyes for a few seconds, memorizing all of it, the heat and the muscular press of Nate's dick on the other side of his underwear, the smell of him, Nate's weight holding him here, the sound of Nate breathing above him, fast and careless.
Nate's weight shifted onto Brad's right shoulder--Nate's left hand--preparatory to Nate trying to use his right hand for something else. Brad beat him to the punch, reaching up and peeling Nate's boxers down. Nate moved anyway, getting a grip on his own dick before Brad had to decide whether to go for it hands-free or trust Nate to keep his own feet without Brad holding on.
Brad left his hands where they were and ducked his head, licking up the line of Nate's knuckles, making his fingers twitch and not quite touching his dick. Nate shifted his grip and Brad tilted his head, licking over Nate's fingers, flicking his tongue against the pad of Nate's thumb. Nate made another frustrated noise and moved his hand, jacking himself, and Brad leaned his head against Nate's hip and watched, hands tight on Nate's hips, until Nate's hand on Brad's shoulder shifted in, pressing against the side of his neck.
"Brad." It was a plea, though not a question.
Brad opened his mouth and didn't bother trying to figure out what to say; he swayed back enough to look up and meet Nate's eyes as he put his tongue to the head of Nate's dick, just pressing it there to get the sharp-salty taste of him.
Nate pushed, his knuckles bumping Brad's chin, his dick skidding in along the wetness of Brad's tongue, and Brad closed his lips around the head of Nate's cock and sucked softly, breathed through his nose and then sucked again. Nate's eyes were on him, wide and dark and unwavering, and Nate's fingers tightened and loosened rhythmically on Brad's shoulder.
The pressure of Nate's hand against Brad's chin vanished, and Brad pushed forward, taking Nate's dick further into his mouth as Nate's hand drew back. Nate let out a long shuddering breath and pressed one knuckle against Brad's lower lip, and Brad pulled off slowly and smoothly, letting Nate's hand follow him.
They went back and forth like that, gathering speed as Nate got harder. Nate's breathing got more ragged, gusting half-swallowed words down on top of Brad's head. Brad had to put some effort into balancing Nate, pushing first with one hand and then the other as Nate swayed in his grip, and all the while he was sucking him off slowly and patiently, ignoring his own dick, aching in his still-zipped jeans.
Brad pushed his tongue out past the head of Nate's dick on an upstroke, licking at Nate's fingers. Nate's grip went tight at the base of Brad's neck--fucking Vulcan neck-pinch territory, and he wondered if it would leave a mark and remembered it didn't fucking matter if it left a mark. Brad sucked suddenly harder, right at the head of Nate's cock.
Nate dropped his right hand to Brad's shoulder as Brad took Nate's weight on his hands. He bobbed his head a couple of times, taking him deep without the guide of Nate's fingers, only the urging of Nate's gasps and the spasmodic clenching of his hands.
Nate said, "Brad," sharp and clear.
Brad looked up and met Nate's eyes and then smiled and winked. Nate's eyes squeezed shut as he came, hips jerking in Brad's grip as come splattered onto Brad's tongue.
Nate held himself steady until Brad let his dick slip free of his mouth, and then Nate shuddered, his arms starting to give way. Brad stood nearly as smoothly as he'd gone down, his own dick throbbing insistently as soon as he moved.
Nate's arms looped readily around Brad's shoulders, and Nate leaned into him, pressing his forehead to Brad's throat, his bare skin pouring heat through Brad's clothes.
"Now you should lie down," Brad said. Nate was balanced at least partly on his own two feet, but he had the limpness of near-unconsciousness as he leaned on Brad.
Nate shook his head slightly against the crook of Brad's neck. "Your turn."
Brad laughed a little and contorted enough to kiss the back of Nate's neck. "Probably not going to be an even trade."
Nate shook his head again, but he dropped his right arm from Brad's shoulder and got his fingers tucked into the front of Brad's jeans, which was enough to make Brad's dick harder, straining toward the promise of Nate's touch.
Brad closed his left arm around Nate and finally opened his right hand, letting go of Nate to get his own pants undone. Nate's hand followed Brad's into his pants, curling around Brad's dick as he pulled it out. There wasn't a lot of strength to Nate's grip, but just the warmth of his touch was enough to make Brad shake right now. Brad leaned into Nate, and Nate braced just enough to let him, keeping them balanced.
Brad tangled Nate's fingers with his as he closed his hand on his dick, jacking himself in fast, tight strokes while Nate pressed clumsy, wet kisses to the side of his neck. Brad closed his eyes and leaned his cheek against Nate's hair. He exhaled a long, shaky, silent breath as he came, spattering Nate's stomach and dripping down over their fingers.
Brad stood still, focused on keeping them both upright, while Nate wiped his hand on the back of Brad's underwear and then helpfully pushed them, and Brad's jeans, further down his legs. Brad wiped his own hand on his shirt and then got both hands on Nate, holding him still while Brad kicked his own pants off.
He turned Nate and then shoved him just hard enough to tip him over. Nate dropped heavily, bouncing slightly when he hit the bed on his back. He opened his eyes just enough to glare sleepily at Brad, and Brad grinned and took off his shirt before he bent to tug Nate's pants off his ankles. Nate squirmed away up the bed, reaching for the night stand, Brad's come still wet on his belly.
"There's a spit rag here somewhere," Nate mumbled, starting to turn onto his side to look for it.
Brad moved quickly around the bed--sparing a fast glance to be sure that Linus was still sleeping undisturbed in his crib--and grabbed a box of wipes instead. He moved onto the bed, straddling Nate's hips, and Nate fell onto his back, lying still while Brad cleaned him up. He was asleep by the time Brad finished, and Brad cleaned his hands for good measure and then took the wad of dirtied wipes and threw them out in the bathroom, shutting off the bedroom light as he went.
By the time he came back Nate was snoring, but he stopped when Brad rolled him onto his side. Brad spooned up behind him, just to keep him properly situated, and was asleep himself before he had time to think anything of it.
Linus woke up crying. Nate didn't wake up, though he mumbled something anxious-sounding.
Brad murmured, "Shh, I've got him, it's okay," against the back of Nate's neck. He shut the door behind him as he took Linus out to the living room. Linus cried while Brad changed his diaper, cried while Brad made him a bottle, and for ten truly alarming seconds, cried instead of accepting the bottle.
When he finally did get down to it, Brad curled over him and kissed his forehead. "That's my boy."
Linus didn't respond, and in the quiet of him not crying Brad could hear Nate snoring in the bedroom. He waited for some other response, some objection, but it didn't come. Not from them, and not from himself.
"That's my boy," Brad repeated out loud, deliberately. Linus waved one hand but didn't stop steadily sucking.
Nate had only smiled when Brad called himself Linus's dad--the cool dad, sure, but they both knew which was the important word there. Brad might tell himself he knew better than to think it meant anything real that Nate wanted to sleep with him, wanted somebody to lean on, somebody to get off with, during the roughest time of his life. But he couldn't tell himself it meant anything other than what it meant for Nate to agree, however tacitly, however obliquely, that Brad was Linus's dad.
Brad might have to leave in a week, but he was coming back. There was no for now about this, not where it mattered. There was just this.
Linus apparently took that as a challenge: he slept barely ninety minutes at a time for the rest of the night. By seven in the morning Brad was yawning almost too much to drink his coffee while Linus sucked down another bottle.
There was a medium-strength yell--pillow-muffled and sleep-slurred but probably Brad?--from the bedroom. Brad gulped down the rest of his coffee and moved in that direction even as he heard the arrhythmic multi-stage thudding of Nate getting out of bed. By the time he made it to the bedroom doorway Nate was on his feet, rubbing his head and blinking.
He looked at Brad--sweatpants, t-shirt, baby--and then down at himself. "I'm naked."
"Affirmative," Brad said, trying not to yawn again.
"I don't," Nate said, scrubbing a hand over his face. "I'm not--what--"
"You're not really awake yet, you're just not drugged unconscious anymore," Brad volunteered. "Go back to sleep, we're fine."
"I can't," Nate mumbled, looking confused. Brad had never seen him helplessly disoriented like this; it was weirdly both endearing and disturbing.
"It's okay," Brad said, stepping farther into the room.
Nate seemed to latch on to the idea of moving; he walked straight into Brad, wrapping his arms around him and Linus together.
"Good morning." Nate ducked his head, probably talking to Linus although there was no telling right now. Maybe he just couldn't hold his head up. "You're okay? Everybody's okay?"
"Everything's fine," Brad assured him. "Linus is fine."
Nate tightened his arms around them for a moment, kissed the top of Brad's shoulder, and turned away. Brad stood there and watched him rebound hard off the night stand before he managed to fall back into bed.
When he was snoring again, Brad looked down at Linus and said seriously, "That is your daddy's brain on drugs."
Brad was stretched out on the couch with Linus asleep on his chest, watching with his eyes half-shut the crap that passed for Saturday morning cartoons these days.
"We'll get you some Schoolhouse Rock," Brad promised Linus, running a hand up and down his back. "At least you can sing along with that."
"They still show that one sometimes," Nate said, and Brad froze, startled, as he looked up and saw Nate coming over to the couch. He was fully clothed, not yet showered or shaved but looking basically alert and present.
He perched on the edge of the couch at Brad's hip, setting one hand over Brad's on Linus and leaning over the baby to kiss Brad good morning. Brad smiled and curled up into it and then flopped back as Nate sat up.
"I think they do, anyway," Nate added. "It's not out of the question that I hallucinated it on day eight."
"Saturday," Brad translated. "A week ago."
Nate blinked and then nodded. "A week ago."
"Remote's all yours if you want to look for it," Brad offered magnanimously.
Nate smiled and then looked away, toward the TV but not at it. Brad felt the chill of dread hit his stomach as Nate's smile fell away into a pensive look.
"Did I," Nate said, and then shook his head. "Did you notice anything last night? Did I seem to have any side effects?"
"You were out like a light once you were actually on the bed," Brad said slowly. "I didn't notice you having nightmares, you were sleeping pretty hard. Do you remember--"
And he stopped short, because Nate winced.
"Nate," Brad said, remembering to breathe in and out and to keep his hand on Linus light. "What do you remember."
Nate shook his head. "It's fine, it's--I assume we had sex, which I know I would have wanted. I trust you--"
"Nate," Brad repeated, holding down something unhelpful that felt like panic. "What is the last thing you remember."
Nate sighed, squared his shoulders, and looked over at Brad. "I remember making Linus a bottle while you changed his diaper. I remember looking at the clock and thinking I should take a sleeping pill soon. I don't remember actually taking it, but I kind of remember sitting on the couch with you and holding him. And then I remember waking up naked this morning and hugging you and being too groggy to function and going back to bed. I'm pretty sure that's where the bruise on my knee came from."
Brad elected to focus on Nate, on this moment, and not on any of the implications of that. "You're pretty calm right now. You're not surprised."
"It's a listed side effect," Nate said. "Memory loss. I didn't think it was likely, but I didn't look up any double-blind studies to check the odds. They list seizures and death, too."
"Seizures and death, I would have known how to handle," Brad said sharply, drawing a startled look from Nate. "You didn't tell me you might be fucking roofied."
"It's okay," Nate said, "I--"
"If you say you trust me I will fucking--" Brad sat up, handed Linus to Nate, and scrambled off the couch, away from them both.
That had been obviously stupid, in hindsight. He hadn't asked Nate what the side effects might be, hadn't read the fucking pamphlet himself rather than rely on Nate to supply information about his own condition; he'd been fucking careless. He'd been careless with Nate, with Nate's safety, after Nate had asked him to be on the lookout.
Behind him, Nate said evenly, "Brad, whatever I did, whatever I said--"
"You didn't--" Brad stopped short. You didn't say anything. You let me say it and then you smiled.
Brad shook his head and didn't turn around. "You're going to have to do your fucking therapy homework over again. Top desk drawer."
"Okay," Nate said.
"You asked me not to look at it," Brad said. "I told you I wouldn't. When you were done you sat down with me on the couch. I gave you Linus and you finished feeding him and you carried him into the bedroom and put him in his crib, and then--" and then Brad had realized Nate was stoned, and he'd had sex with him anyway, because Nate wanted to, because going down on a guy wasn't taking advantage of him, because he'd have done the same if Nate was drunk, because they'd gotten off together before and he knew Nate was all right with it.
"We got off, and then we went to sleep. That's what happened."
Nate stayed silent, and Brad managed to stand still through a count of thirty before he turned. Nate was sitting upright on the couch, all straight lines except for Linus asleep on his shoulder. Brad couldn't help seeing them as a unit like that, perfectly contained, perfectly complete.
Nate nodded. "Thanks for telling me what happened. I'm sorry I didn't warn you about the side effects."
Brad nodded back. "I should have asked. I should have checked."
Nate didn't say anything to that. Brad wanted him to, wanted to yell when Nate said it wasn't Brad's fault, but Nate didn't give him the opening.
Nate said, "How was Linus?"
Brad shrugged stiffly. "Up and down every hour and a half for eight hours, so I'm--" even as Brad said it it was true, a crushing weight of exhaustion dropping onto his shoulders, "--pretty beat. I'm gonna go grab some shuteye, if you're all right with him."
"We're fine," Nate said, and that was all Brad needed to hear before he turned and walked away.
He willed himself to sleep pretty quickly, only to wake up with a start at the first sound of Linus fussing. He knew Linus was fine with Nate. He lay there with his eyes closed, trying to fake himself back to sleep while cataloguing every sound from the obvious to the minuscule that told him Linus was just fine with Nate. Of course he was. Nate was Linus's dad.
Brad tried to push that thought aside and focus on something else, anything else, but it lodged in the front of his mind and prickled at him, useless and inarguable.
Brad played possum as hard as he could when he heard Nate moving in his direction, but Nate just laid Linus down and then sat on the edge of the bed between Brad and the crib. "Room for one more?"
Nate knew he wasn't asleep; there was no dignity to be saved by pretending he was. Brad opened his eyes and met Nate's searching gaze.
Brad thought he kept a pretty good poker face, but whatever Nate saw was enough. He scooted closer and then knelt up to straddle Brad's hips, folding down to look Brad in the eye with his hands braced beside Brad's shoulders.
"Are you ready to tell me what happened that you left out of your summary earlier?"
Brad shook his head.
"Okay," Nate said, obviously having expected that. "In that case, I'm cashing in the question you can't refuse to answer. Exactly what kind of sex did we have that I don't remember?"
"I sucked you off," Brad said baldly, aware that the bare fact of mouth and dick was a bigger lie than no information at all. "You were pretty useless after that, so I jerked myself off."
"Nothing else?" Nate said. "Zero to blowjob, you just pushed me down on the bed and put me to sleep with your mouth?"
Brad fixed his gaze on the ceiling over Nate's shoulder. "We kissed on the couch for a while before you were sure Linus was out and wanted to put him down. Once he was down, you wouldn't lie down until we'd both come, because you knew you would fall asleep once you did."
"So you were on your knees for me," Nate said meditatively. "And then--did you stay on your knees and jerk off like that?"
"Stood up," Brad reported, remembering the weight of Nate's increasing bonelessness. "Had to get you by the shoulders to hold you up."
Nate nodded. "Was I completely unconscious? I can't imagine being awake enough to stand and not wanting to touch you. Trying to touch you."
Brad remembered Nate's fingers caught between his own, Nate's wrist pressing against his as he jerked himself off, Nate's mouth on his neck.
Aware of the impulse, aware he could resist it if he wanted to badly enough, Brad raised his right hand and rubbed his fingers against the side of his neck where Nate's mouth had trailed open-mouthed kisses. He had looked carefully a few hours earlier; there was no mark.
Nate didn't say anything, just ducked down over Brad, following Brad's fingers with his mouth, licking over and between them. Brad tilted his head, giving Nate access as Nate kissed his way up Brad's throat. Brad closed his eyes, letting Nate do what he wanted, but Nate pulled away when he got to the point of Brad's jaw and Brad had to look again.
Nate pushed himself up and shook his head, looking down at Brad with a rueful little smile. "I didn't mean to do that. I'm going out of order."
Brad raised his eyebrows.
"I'm sorry," Nate said seriously, holding eye contact without flinching. "Not just because I didn't tell you, but because I made a considered decision not to tell you. I didn't want to think about possible side effects because I didn't want to trigger some kind of self-sustaining anxiety cycle over what might happen. I was thoughtless. You needed that information. If you'd had to deal with me having some kind of medical emergency and I hadn't warned you--"
"Hey," Brad said, his anger failing in the face of Nate's goddamn earnestness, and the sudden awareness that Nate had shaved while Brad was asleep. "Nate, like I said. I would have known what to do about that."
Nate nodded. "I know. You would have handled it. You're handling me having memory loss. You know how to make do. That doesn't mean it wasn't a shitty thing for me to do, sending you into that situation without all the intel I could possibly give you on what to expect. I regret it and I'm sorry."
Brad nodded slowly and then corrected, "You didn't send me anywhere, Nate. You were right here with me the whole time."
Nate smiled. "I hope so. And I know you don't want me to talk about this, but Brad, I was betting on us having sex last night. I knew I wouldn't want to take that pill and then lie in bed staring at the ceiling. I knew you'd want to distract me. That's what I meant when I said I trusted you. I trusted both of us. I hate that I can't remember having your mouth on me for the first time, but you couldn't have done anything I didn't want you to do. Just..." Nate shook his head. "Not logically possible."
Brad nodded again. "I did figure that out, actually."
"Okay," Nate said. "Well, I'm working on not assuming you'll figure things out when it's important to me that you know them."
Brad smiled a little bit, because he could see where this earnest and thorough apology was headed. "Are you going to warn me before you take your pants off, too?"
Nate snorted. "I'll keep you fully apprised of the situation, yes. Let me know if you have any questions."
"Roger that," Brad said, the end of the words muffled by Nate's mouth coming down onto his.
Nate kissed him carefully at first. Not tentatively, as if unsure of his welcome, but with care, lavishing attention on Brad's mouth. Brad could feel his dick stirring just from that, just from Nate's tongue on his, the drag of Nate's lips and the rush of his breath. It was good and it was a waste at the same time.
Brad pushed up into the kiss, nipping at Nate's lower lip, and Nate lifted his head. "Did you want to register an objection, Brad?"
"I was feeling inclined to reminisce," Brad replied, raising his hands and closing them around Nate's forearms, digging his fingers into the muscles.
"Last night, when I was on my knees for you--" Brad watched Nate's eyes flick down to his mouth and back up to his eyes, and he grinned, licking his lips and speaking slower. "You couldn't stand up without help. You had to keep your hands on my shoulders to hold yourself up. I liked that. I liked being the thing that held you up."
Nate smiled a little, his eyebrows tilting up, but he didn't say You liked me being the one holding you down.
Brad nodded anyway.
Nate made a thoughtful noise and raised one hand, setting it down on Brad's shoulder, but he lifted it away before he'd put much weight on it. It wasn't the same at this angle.
Nate put his hand back on the bed and shifted his whole body lower instead, knees sliding down and hands slipping up past Brad's head.
His weight settled onto Brad, and Brad put his arms around Nate, tugging him down the last hesitant half-inch. Nate grinned and ground down against him as he shifted forward for another kiss. Brad closed his eyes, breathing deeply to feel his body lifting Nate's weight on the inhale, and didn't think about anything beyond this, kissing Nate and keeping him here. He was getting hard, grinding against Nate, and he could feel that Nate was too, but there was no rush to do anything about that. He didn't doubt that Nate had a plan, and Nate had promised to keep him apprised.
Sure enough, right about the time when Brad's hips found a rhythm, pushing his dick up against Nate's thigh, Nate tilted his head back and said, "Brad."
Brad opened his eyes and got immediately distracted by Nate's mouth, wet and kissed-pink and hanging enticingly open as Nate caught his breath.
"Brad," Nate repeated, lips curving up, and Brad dragged his gaze up to Nate's eyes. Nate was grinning. "I'm going to blow you now, okay? I owe you one."
It wasn't a surprise, but Brad couldn't restrain the way his entire body responded to that, arching up against Nate, wanting it now. Still, Brad managed to keep his voice almost even as he said, "That seems fair."
If Brad closed his eyes he wouldn't know Nate was smiling at all. "I thought so. I'm also going to take my shirt off."
Brad nodded, and sat up when Nate pushed up onto his knees, tugging his own shirt off at the same time; he managed to avoid looking over at Linus as he did so, and if Nate looked, Brad missed it.
Nate pushed him gently back down to the bed, and his hands stayed on Brad, skimming down from his shoulders, over his chest; he knew it was nothing Nate hadn't seen before, but they'd never really had the opportunity to both look and touch at the same time. He could feel his skin heating under Nate's hands, like all the blood in his body wanted to be wherever Nate was touching him. This was new.
"I had my shirt on last night," Brad said, and Nate looked up sharply. "I didn't get around to taking it off until we were done."
Nate nodded, and then folded down over Brad--he had a sudden weird mental image of hajjis kneeling in prayer--and kissed the center of Brad's chest. He didn't straighten back up, just worked his way down Brad's body to his pants. He looked up when he'd hooked his fingers into them.
"Ten-four," Brad said, reaching down and shoving lightly at the top of Nate's head. Nate resisted the push long enough to make the point that he could, and then he bowed his head and focused on getting Brad's pants off him. Brad watched Nate and focused on continuing to breathe.
Nate closed his hand on Brad's dick, and Brad's fingers tensed involuntarily in Nate's hair. Nate glanced up at him again, holding his eyes as he lowered his head to lick, and Brad shuddered as much for the look on Nate's face as the feel of Nate's tongue on the head of his cock. He rubbed his own tongue against the roof of his mouth, remembering the feel and taste of Nate last night.
Brad slid his hand down Nate's cheek, pressing his thumb to the corner of Nate's mouth. Nate looked over, turning his head to lick over the tip of Brad's thumb, then lapped at Brad's dick. Brad kept his hand on Nate's cheek, eyes just barely open as he watched Nate take him in.
He kept as still as he could under Nate's hand, Nate's mouth, didn't make a sound above ragged breathing. Nate was lying between his legs, not holding Brad down at all anymore, and he could have bucked, could have thrust, could have done anything. But he lay still and let Nate have him, let himself have the heat of Nate's mouth and the strong, steady grip of Nate's hand, Nate's perfect coordination. It didn't take long for him to get close; he'd always been ready to go wherever Nate would take him.
His fingers tightened on Nate's jaw and Nate looked up, pulling off Brad's dick almost entirely, just working his tongue against the head, mouth open around him. Brad nodded, Nate nodded back, and Brad closed his eyes and stopped breathing as he came, dropping his hand to clutch at the sheets rather than leave marks on Nate's skin. Nate sucked him through it, not letting up until Brad twitched away.
Exhaustion dropped onto him for the second time, softer now, a gently smothering weight. He didn't need the press of Nate's body to make him work at breathing anymore, and his eyes stayed half-shut even when Nate moved. Brad tilted his head back on the pillow to get him into view as he crawled up over Brad's body.
He kissed along Brad's collarbone and then up his throat again, brushing his lips along the stubble on Brad's jaw until Brad turned his head just enough to catch Nate's mouth with his. Now Nate seemed tentative, holding back, and Brad made a frustrated noise against his mouth and reached up to catch Nate's shoulder and pull him closer.
Nate took the hint, deepening the kiss, letting Brad have the taste of himself on Nate's tongue. Brad ran his hand down Nate's bare back to the top of his jeans. He slipped his fingers under, and that was enough to make Nate's whole body twitch down against him.
Brad smiled, and Nate lifted his head. "I promise not to be unduly shocked if you lose these," Brad offered, rubbing two fingers against the top of Nate's ass.
Nate rocked down into him, almost the same rhythm. The cloth of Nate's jeans was a strangely intense sensation against Brad's skin, not exactly good or bad, but mesmerizing.
"Good to know you're on board." Nate reached back and caught Brad's wrist, tugging his hand out of Nate's pants and pressing it down to the bed. "I've been informed that I was pretty useless when it was your turn to get off last night, so it's really only fair if you just lie there and relax while I take care of myself."
"Well," Brad said, and tucked his hand behind his head on the pillow. He was willing not to bring up Nate's hand on his dick last night if it meant letting Nate have his way now. "In the interests of fairness."
Nate pushed up off of Brad long enough to get his pants undone and shoved down. The sight of him tested Brad's resolve, and he was about to reach out when Nate's weight came down on him again, Nate's forearm a bar across his chest.
Nate met his eyes, and his smile had turned hungry. "Okay if I lean on you?"
"By all means." Brad could feel his breath strain against Nate's weight.
Nate pressed down for a kiss, his dick shoving hot against Brad's belly. He moved a little, hips hitching as he thrust lightly against Brad's skin, and then he pushed himself back up, reaching down with his free hand. Brad had exactly the right angle, lying there with his eyes half-closed, to look down between them and watch as Nate's hand closed around his own cock.
The sight of Nate jerking himself off in the space between their bodies sent little aftershocks of pleasure through Brad. If he could have gotten hard--if his body hadn't been three-quarters asleep already without him--he'd have been getting ready for round two. As it was, his breath caught, and Nate rocked forward without stopping the motion of his hand. Brad lifted his head to meet Nate in another kiss, and when Nate rocked back again, Brad raised one hand and wrapped it around Nate's arm, just to be touching him.
"Correct me," Nate said breathlessly, looking up at Brad again, "if I'm wrong. But I think if you were holding me up last night while you jerked off, you must have come all over me."
Brad nodded, mouth going dry with helpless want.
Nate's hungry smile got wider. "Good."
He pushed up a little higher, concentrating his weight on Brad's chest, giving Brad a better view as his hand sped up, working his dick until he shuddered and came in spatters over Brad's skin. Brad looked up to find Nate looking down, watching his own hand and his own dick. When he met Brad's eyes the hunger was still there even though he'd already come; his gaze was fierce and hot, holding Brad in place better than any weight.
Brad grinned, a come over here and make me smile, and Nate's full weight dropped onto him, Nate's sticky hand catching his jaw to hold him still as Nate kissed him roughly and thoroughly.
They were both even more breathless when Nate finally let up, and Brad's eyes slid shut almost at once. Even half asleep, he kept a hand on Nate when he shifted away. He didn't go far, and within seconds he was back, swiping something cool over Brad's skin. Brad laughed even as the smell hit him.
"I woke up naked and smelling like baby wipes," Nate agreed. "So can you."
Nate lay back down half on top of him and was quiet for a while. Brad was nearly asleep when Nate said, "Whatever it was, I stand by it."
Brad opened his eyes; Nate sounded too serious to be ignored. He had his chin propped on one wrist, almost too close for Brad to focus on, and he looked as serious as he sounded.
"I don't think it was the sex," Nate said. "You were pissed that I didn't remember, but you didn't mind telling me what happened when we had sex, so I think it was something else, not the actual sex. And whatever it was that I said or did last night that I don't remember--I'll stand by it if you just tell me what it was."
Brad was too tired, and had already put himself too much into Nate's hands, to swallow the words any longer. "We were talking about Linus. I said I was obviously always going to be the cool dad."
Nate blinked twice--it was clearly nowhere near what he'd expected--and then a smile lit his face, spreading slowly as he got the idea and started to believe it. He was incandescent after a few seconds, and Brad couldn't help smiling back. He didn't even blink, trying to memorize the look on Nate's face. He hadn't seen it straight on before, hadn't seen those few seconds of surprise and then the instant when Nate understood him and was delighted by what he'd said, accepting it completely.
Nate opened his mouth, and Brad shook his head, raising a hand to press his fingers over Nate's parted lips, still stretched in a smile.
"That's all," Brad said. "You didn't say anything. You just smiled."
Nate pushed his hand down. "I stand by smiling, then."
"Yeah, I can see that."
"Well, stop." Nate reached over and covered his eyes. "Go to sleep, you need some shuteye before tonight. You're on fire watch again."
"He's a little young to be setting shit on fire when we're not looking," Brad muttered, but even as he said it he swatted Nate's hand away, pushing up to look over at the crib and make sure that Linus was still asleep.
Nate huffed and shoved Brad back down, sitting up and twisting away. When he came back he had Linus, and he set the baby down on Brad's chest and then pressed in close against Brad's side himself, throwing his arm over Linus and Brad together.
"There," Nate said against Brad's ear. "Problem solved. Now go to sleep."
Brad smiled, and laid his arm down over Nate's, and obeyed.
That night, after dinner and homework and fighting over which ABBA songs were the worst to sing to a baby--Linus, unhelpfully, didn't object to any of them--and putting Linus down in his crib, Nate sat on the edge of the bed with the orange bottle and a glass of water.
"Okay," he said. "I'm going to take this and then I'm not going to say anything or make eye contact with you."
Brad switched off the light, which meant his back was turned while Nate dropped the pill into his hand. When he turned back, Nate was still holding it there, waiting for Brad to be watching.
"You think you're joking, but you're not," Brad said.
Nate shrugged acknowledgment--he didn't know, he couldn't argue--and knocked the pill back, then lay down. Brad got in on Linus's side of the bed, and they lay there in the dark.
Brad remembered what Nate had said when he apologized: I didn't want to just lie there staring at the ceiling.
Brad reached over with his left hand, across Nate's body to catch his left wrist.
"Come here," Brad said, and turned onto his side, facing toward Linus, tugging Nate to him. "You snore when you sleep on your back."
Nate didn't resist, pressing up close against Brad's back, tucking his arm firmly over Brad's waist.
"And the best part is," Brad said, smiling just enough for Nate to hear. "In the morning you won't remember that I let you be the big spoon."
He felt the vibration of laughter against his back, but Nate didn't make a sound.
Linus relented, sleeping close to three hours at a stretch overnight. When the drugs started wearing off, Brad was half-asleep in bed, waiting to see which Fick would wake up next. Nate didn't yell this time when he woke up, just groped sideways across the bed.
The motion got Brad's eyes open and he spent a few entertaining seconds watching as Nate methodically patted his way across the foot of space neither of them were lying in. He found Brad's shoulder, squeezed it, and turned his head to squint at Brad while his hand continued to survey the terrain, traveling methodically down Brad's arm and back up.
"Hey," Nate yawned. "I have clothes this time."
"Your virtue is in fact safe with me," Brad assured him. Nate being sleepy wasn't nearly as disturbing when he was still in bed.
"Horse," Nate mumbled, scooting closer. "Barn door."
Brad turned onto his side and pulled Nate in, tangling their legs together. "Unlike virtually every other Marine you ever commanded, sir, I have no sexual interest in livestock."
"I am assured," Nate agreed, pressing a sleep-sour kiss to Brad's mouth. They didn't talk after that, trading lazy kisses until Nate slumped against Brad, heavy with sleep, and Brad followed his lead.
When Nate woke up for real he was obnoxiously well-rested. He kept looking around with wide eyes like he'd never seen Brad, or Linus, or his apartment before, and saying things like, "This is so weird, my chest doesn't hurt."
They went running, and Nate's constant scanning of their surroundings almost blended in with his generally disturbing state of sunny alertness. They ran mostly north this time, and Brad slotted their route into his mental map and watched Nate doing the same, taking note of every incline, every curb the stroller had to be hopped over. Nate's eyes darted to the sniper positions and the locations of potential cover.
He also talked to Brad, which was new. Occasionally he pointed things out to Linus as they passed, notwithstanding the fact that Linus was both asleep and probably unable to focus on things on the far side of the street. Nate said "good morning" to people they passed, smiled and nodded and looked completely plausible as a Civilian Jogger Dad if you didn't watch his eyes the whole time.
Nate offered Brad the first shower when they got back, and by the time Brad got out the sheets on the bed had been changed, the laundry was running, and Nate was scowling at the warnings on the back of a bottle of Windex. Brad took Linus from him first, and then the Windex. He gave Nate a kiss while Nate was still smiling ruefully, before he could say anything about it. Nate took the hint gracefully and went off to take a shower.
Brad put the Windex away on its high shelf and looked down at Linus. "Today is going to be a Grade-A officer-caliber fucking shitshow, little man."
Linus didn't have a response to that, so Brad propped the kid on his shoulder and went looking for his phone. He texted Ray first. Have you and Fick settled on dates?
He spent a few minutes considering what to send his mom--he and Nate still hadn't talked, and he still couldn't swear to her that this was going to work. Finally he gave up and sent By the end of the day I will probably need either bail money or the dates of Hanukkah.
Neither of them had replied by the time Nate popped back out of the shower, and Brad held down his own position as best he could over the next few hours, watching Nate bounce around from cleaning to cooking to working at his laptop to writing in his homework book, winding tighter and tighter with each lap around the apartment, getting progressively more obviously sick of being in the apartment.
Being pinned down somewhere didn't make it any more tolerable to stay in the same place indefinitely. Brad watched Nate and tried to work out the worst case scenario. At some point, if it got bad enough, he was going to break and fling himself out the door on a suicide mission just to get out.
Brad pegged that at an excursion to some fucking tourist trap. Nate would call it exposing Linus to culture--or somehow justify dragging Brad to see tourist shit because he was visiting--and then they would get to spend a few hours trying to prevent Nate from having a complete breakdown at the Tomb of the Unknowns with a thousand strangers looking on.
The best case scenario was some sort of genuinely necessary errand: with a concrete, finite mission to a location that was both nearby and familiar, they'd probably do just fine. It might not relieve Nate's restlessness any more than running had, but it might head him off from doing something completely disastrous.
Brad was still trying to think of something he could plausibly claim they needed--a delivery service had brought groceries and diapers while Brad was asleep the day before, which cut down his options--when Nate said, "I was thinking of taking Linus to visit my parents. We could go after the next time he eats."
That took the best case scenario off the table. Now that he'd suggested his own idea, Nate wasn't going to be foisted off onto something markedly easier. Still, visiting Nate's parents was way below visiting a war memorial on a sunny Sunday, so Brad didn't dig his heels in completely.
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" He managed to keep his voice light, letting Nate choose his own level of "good idea" to address. He even succeeded in not saying sir. No need to turn this into any more of a bridge Nate was determined to take than it already was.
Nate didn't pretend not to know what Brad meant, which was almost reassuring.
"It's a thing people do, and I don't want to not do normal things. I can't let my condition keep Linus away from people. We've done the drive--we took Linus to the airport on Tuesday--and my dad hasn't seen him since I brought him home."
None of that actually added up to yes, I think this is a good idea, but that could only ever have been a lie, so it was just as well that Nate wasn't trying it.
"I don't know if you remember this," Brad said slowly, because he had to make the point. "but going to the airport didn't actually go that well."
He could see Nate's face closing down from persuasion into stubbornness with every word he said, but he had to try. "Why not invite your parents to come down here? You've been cleaning like you expect company, and it's--" a secure location, "familiar."
"I remember," Nate said, his words clipped. I'm not hearing the aggressiveness I'd like. "It's something I have to do, Brad. I have to push myself, I have to do things that challenge me. That's the only way I'm going to get better."
There was absolutely no utility in pointing out that Nate already found it a challenge just letting his mom hold Linus--and that had been here, on his own ground, with Brad standing right next to him for backup. Nate was determined to do this, and making him mad in advance was just going to mean he spent that much more time being mad.
"You told me that the other night," Brad said instead, making his words soft enough to deflect Nate off his primary trajectory. "That your therapy is about learning not to be afraid of being afraid."
Nate looked disarmed by that change in the angle of attack; he nodded and then sighed. "I've got a lot to learn," he admitted. "But I have to try."
Brad nodded. He had Nate's six, and he was going to hold that position as long as he possibly could, even if--when--it meant following Nate to stupid places. It wasn't the worst case scenario. It was almost certainly survivable.
"After Linus eats, then."
The drive up to Baltimore wasn't bad, except for the anticipation. Once they got off the freeway Nate was playing tour guide, pointing out places he'd hung out as a kid, a field where he'd played soccer, houses where his friends had lived. Brad obediently looked where Nate pointed, but his eyes kept coming back to the set of Nate's mouth, the tension of his hands, the constant restless wandering of his gaze.
His tells were getting less obvious as they wound through progressively quieter streets. Brad knew when they'd reached Nate's parents' street because his Stepford smile suddenly appeared as they rounded a corner. They turned in to the driveway of a house with a sightline to that end of the street, and as Nate turned off the car, it occurred to Brad that he was missing a vital piece of intel.
"Nate," he said, and when Nate met his eyes Brad could just barely see him in there, under the practiced calm and the plastic smile. "Do your parents know...."
Nate leaned in and kissed him, and when Brad closed his eyes he felt like Nate.
"I told my mom on the phone," Nate said, pulling back just far enough to breathe. "But she said she'd spotted us when she came to visit, thank you very much."
"I'll bet she did," Brad said, dredging up a smile of his own. That did answer all of Brad's questions, in fact.
The front door opened and Nate's parents both came out onto the stoop. Brad pulled away from Nate and got out of the car as Nate got out on the other side, and while Nate greeted his parents and submitted to hugs, Brad got Linus out of his car seat. Nate took the diaper bag before Brad had even made it around to the other side of the Jeep, but Brad managed to keep possession of Linus until they were inside with the door shut.
Brad kept his eyes on Nate as he handed off the baby to Nate's dad, but he couldn't read anything from Nate's expression. They found seats in the living room, and Brad stayed close to Nate while Nate's parents passed Linus back and forth, bringing out drinks and snacks and keeping up a bright patter of conversation. They talked about Linus, and about Nate and his sisters as babies, and other relatives of Nate's as babies, and other relatives of Nate's who had had or would soon have or might ever have babies, or who Nate in any other way needed to be updated on.
Brad kept quiet, filing away names and working out family relationships, answering as briefly as he politely could when asked direct questions. He kept one arm casually on the couch behind Nate, trying to pick up some kind of physical sense of him without getting into uncomfortable PDA territory.
At some point Nate's mother declared that they needed to take pictures, and she got up and handed Linus to Nate.
Brad's arm fell down onto Nate's shoulders without his volition. Nate didn't look at him, just cuddled Linus against his chest, and Linus, who'd been out less than ninety minutes, blinked his eyes open and yawned.
"Hey, buddy," Nate said softly, brushing a knuckle across his cheek. "Hey, there you are."
Brad leaned closer, shoulder to shoulder with Nate as he looked down at Linus. Tell me how daddy's doing, little man.
Linus's eyes darted back and forth between them, and he flailed his arms, his face starting to crumple.
"Yep," Brad knocked his shoulder against Nate's. "Definitely my turn to hold him. Come here, Linus."
Nate handed him over smoothly, in no apparent hurry, and Brad positioned Linus against his chest so that he was facing out, blinking curiously in the direction of his grandparents. Only when he'd secured Linus did Brad look up and realize that Nate's mom was already clicking away with the camera.
Linus made a little disgruntled sound, and Brad remembered to smile as he looked down, bouncing him a little. "Sorry, little man."
"Brad is pretty careful about allowing himself to be photographed," Nate said.
"Oh," Nate's mom looked crestfallen as she lowered the camera. "Brad, of course I won't--I wasn't thinking--"
Brad shook his head, still smiling. "It's fine as long as you don't email them to anyone with a dot-mil address. Could you send Nate copies for me? My parents will want to see them."
He felt Nate twitch very slightly at that, but he didn't look at Brad and didn't say a word.
Nate's mom just looked relieved. "Sure, of course--you said you'd be staying at Nate's for the rest of the week?"
"Something like that," Nate said, before Brad could answer, and Brad looked over at him. Before he could ask, or even wonder very much, what that had meant, Nate was saying, "Do you want us to actually all look at the camera and smile? We've got about two more minutes before Linus goes back to sleep."
"Nate, hey, don't jinx him like that." But when Brad looked down Linus was already doing the slow blink of impending sleep.
"Just a couple, your grandmother always complains if she doesn't get something that looks like it came from a portrait studio," Nate's mom said.
Nate pressed up against Brad's side and they all smiled for the camera, Brad jostling Linus enough to keep him awake a few seconds longer.
Once the camera was put away, there was a feeling in the air that the party was breaking up. They talked a little longer, but everyone was sitting a little closer to the edges of their seats, and pretty soon Nate's mom was gathering up glasses to take back to the kitchen. Nate picked up everything else and followed her out. That meant this was almost over, they were almost home safe, and Brad could take two minutes to go and take a piss before they drove back to DC.
He offered Linus to Nate's dad, excusing himself, and Nate's dad directed him to the location of the guest bathroom, which didn't require him to pass through the kitchen. All the better; he might get there and back before Nate realized that Linus hadn't been within grabbing distance of either of them for a couple of minutes.
When he got back to the living room Nate's parents were sitting on the couch where Brad and Nate had been, holding Linus while Nate took pictures with a slightly fixed and entirely dutiful smile on his face. Brad hesitated in the doorway, watching and repressing the urge to somehow extricate someone from this--Nate's parents kept up a bright and cheerful stream of chatter, and Linus was safely asleep--until Nate lowered the camera and looked right at him.
Nate dropped the smile, replacing it not with his blank air of calm but with a steady, resolved look. Brad tilted his head--are you sure, you don't have to--but Nate nodded firmly. Brad nodded back and came into the room to join him.
Nate handed the camera back to his dad, and took Linus from his mother in exchange.
"No, don't get up," Nate said, waving his parents down as he turned to hand Linus off to Brad. Nate dropped to perch on the seat his parents had shared. Brad sat down at his side but kept his eyes on Linus, letting Nate manage this himself.
"Mom, Dad," Nate said, sounding stiffly rehearsed. "I probably don't need to tell you, but I do need to say this out loud."
Brad shifted Linus to his shoulder and watched their faces. Nate's dad looked worried. His mom looked like she had in Nate's apartment, carefully expressionless.
"I have a probable diagnosis of PTSD. I had an assessment appointment last week, I have my next phone and office appointments scheduled. I'm doing cognitive reframing and I have a prescribed sleep aid that's working well so far."
As Nate spoke, Brad watched his dad relax a little, looking not surprised but relieved. Nate's mom kept very still, and didn't show anything. Brad thought again how like Nate she was with that poker face, and then he thought, oh.
"That's all," Nate said after a pause.
He stood, hauling himself up with a hand on Brad's shoulder, pushing him down slightly as he went. Brad stayed put, watching as Nate's mom got up, mirroring him.
She tugged Nate into a hug, and Nate just bowed his head at first, permitting it. She tugged his head down and whispered to him, her other hand rubbing his back. Brad spread his own hand on Linus's back and was suddenly, viscerally aware that even at twenty-six years old and eight inches taller than she was, Nate was still her baby.
Nate's shoulders jerked at something she said, and then his arms came up and he hugged her back, ducking his head down to her shoulder and holding on tight. Brad averted his eyes and caught Nate's dad still watching, covering his mouth with one hand, before he looked away and met Brad's eyes. Brad flinched from the contact, looking down at Linus instead.
He only raised his eyes when Nate cleared his throat and muttered, "Excuse me."
Brad watched him walk out the front door, and once again braced himself to stand and follow. He'd only shifted his weight when Nate's mom turned to face him, openly brushing tears from her face, and pinned Brad in place with a look.
"Thank you," she said, smiling, her voice steady.
"Ma'am," Brad said, unwilling to take credit for what Nate had done for himself and equally unwilling to contradict.
She didn't say anything else, just kept smiling at him and sat back down on the couch, taking her husband's hand. Brad figured he might as well get what intel he could out of this; Nate was probably fine, and would have told Brad to come with him if he hadn't wanted a few minutes alone.
"You're a therapist?" he guessed. Nate had seemed confident that his quick summation would be sufficient, and it made sense of the way Nate had simultaneously resented and defended his therapy. Don't you say that about my mom.
She nodded. "Nate asked me when he was fifteen not to express any judgments about his mental health."
Brad nodded slowly. "He decided a few days ago to tell people who needed to know. Another friend is going to come out and stay with him for a while when I leave, so he'll have someone to help him with nights, but I know he's going to need your support as well."
Nate's parents didn't actually look at each other, but Brad saw some communication pass between them--an exchange of touches, a shift of body language--before Nate's dad said, "I was wondering about that, Brad. You've been pretty quiet. You're staying in the Marine Corps as a career?"
"Yes, sir," Brad said, and realized that Nate had quietly run interference for him up until this point. Left alone with Nate's parents, he was going to get the what are your intentions toward our son talk, which was a strange sort of first. He'd only ever gotten to this point with Kristi, and he'd known her parents since he was twelve years old; he'd never gotten much further with a guy than maybe knowing his last name.
"I'll have my twenty years in before Linus is out of grade school," he added, looking down at Linus and feeling a little dizzied by that realization even as he said it like it was self-evident. "It's going to take me away from Nate and from Linus a lot; I'm on exchange to the Royal Marines for the next year and a half."
He stopped himself from saying more; that was a conversation he had to have with Nate before anyone else. He waited for them to ask more, to try to make him defend his service or his ability to be any kind of partner to Nate--he was bracing to refuse to defend either--but they didn't ask.
Instead, Nate's mom looked down at Linus and then back to Brad, and said, "I can see that you're very good with Linus, but does it bother you at all to be dating someone who already has a child?"
Brad put his head down and studied Linus, considering the question. The way she said it made Nate sound like a single mom he'd met on a blind date last week; they hadn't even started out anywhere near that, never mind where they were now. Even if he and Nate had never kissed, even if they'd never gotten to the point where Nate thought it was a good idea to introduce Brad to his parents, even if Brad had never had any right to think of Linus as his own kid--even then, Linus would have been a Bravo Two kid. He would always have been something to Brad, no matter how long it took Nate to finally let Brad know about him.
And now, after the week they'd had, after everything Nate had let Brad say and do, they were long past that. Brad and Nate had made their choices, and obviously Linus was part of the deal.
None of which Brad wanted to try to explain to civilians who figured he'd been dating their son for a week. Without looking up, Brad said, "I was just about the age Linus is now when my parents got me."
He gave them an extra second to put polite faces on, and then put his chin up and said evenly, "I've never belonged to a family that put biology first. I don't have any reason to start now."
Brad got two almost alarmingly warm smiles for that, and he looked away again, shifting Linus in his arms. He stage-whispered, "There you go, little man, no shotguns required."
Nate's mom laughed, and Nate's dad said, "Oh, we're long past the illusion that we can protect Nate from his relationship choices."
Brad smiled--he doubted Nate took direction in his personal life well at all--and then realized that he was holding in his arms the material evidence of Nate's last, apparently disastrous, relationship.
He looked up at Nate's parents--still smiling fondly at him, which did not make this any easier--and said cautiously, "Nate doesn't talk about Cory."
For this, Nate's parents actually did look at each other.
"Nate isn't talking to Cory," Brad elaborated when they stayed silent, even as he remembered Nate saying screen my calls and convince your friends to hate me. "Is he allowed to?"
"The agreement is informal," Nate's dad said. "But no, he isn't. He doesn't know where she lives, and he doesn't have her current phone number. We're staying in touch with Cory's parents, and we'll pass along pictures of Linus to them. In theory, they'll be able to visit Linus at times when we watch him for Nate; they don't want direct contact with Nate either."
Brad nodded slowly. "Is she--do you know if she's all right?" Their visit to the doctor, that how are you both doing, that should have been aimed at Linus's mom, too. Nate couldn't ask, but someone had to. "She just had a baby two weeks ago, is she...."
Another pause, and then Nate's mom said, "She's having a hard time. This wasn't easy for her. But she'll be all right."
Brad nodded--there was a deliberation in the words that told him he wasn't getting any more than that. He didn't really have any right to ask, nor was he honestly interested in knowing much more.
"I'd better go find Nate," Brad said, and this time no one tried to stop him when he got up.
Brad held Linus while each of his grandparents kissed him goodbye, and then received his own hugs. He dutifully hugged back this time, nodding his way through their assurances that they would worry about him when he was gone, and that he was welcome to come visit at any time, and finally escaped out the front door.
Nate was sitting so still in the passenger seat that Brad hesitated by the door and waited to see him breathing before he moved on to the back and got Linus settled into his car seat. When Brad came back to the driver's side, he saw the keys were already lying on the seat, and he picked them up and climbed in. He looked over at Nate for several seconds, waiting for Nate to show any kind of situational awareness, but he stayed where he was, slumped in the seat with his forehead resting against the window.
Brad reached over and prodded his thigh with one finger, and barely connected before Nate's hand closed hard on his wrist.
Brad waited, but Nate just held on. Brad flexed his fingers and considered the logistics of driving back to DC one-handed.
"That what you were thinking of when you said you needed to challenge yourself?"
Nate shrugged, then nodded, then let go. Brad took his hand back for exactly long enough to start the car, and then set it down on Nate's thigh, and kept it there all the way back to DC.
Nate got out of the car almost before Brad had turned it off and got Linus out of his car seat. Brad led the way back inside, unlocking the doors and holding them for Nate, who moved like it took all his concentration to hold on to Linus while putting one foot in front of the other. Once they were in the apartment, Nate went straight to the couch and dropped onto it with a soft thump, both hands steadying Linus against the muted impact.
Brad went and sat down beside him. After a while, he broke the silence to say, "I think that went pretty well."
Nate nodded in his peripheral vision. "It's fair game now that I said it. They'll tell my sisters."
Brad nodded understanding. They'd tell his sisters, which meant Nate wouldn't have to.
"I need to stay awake," Nate said next. "If I sleep for the next five hours I'll be too awake when it's time to take my sleeping pill."
Brad thought there wasn't actually much danger of Nate being too well-rested anytime in the foreseeable future, but he said, "Guess we'll have to keep you up, then."
Nate nodded, still staring vaguely toward the TV. Brad studied him, considering. All the tension had gone out of him; he reminded Brad of Linus, sleeping hard after that hour-long screaming fit, wrung out and exhausted. The difference was that any kind of threat or surprise right now would push Nate past that exhaustion. It was too familiar, too much like the way they'd functioned throughout the invasion, and Nate would go straight to high alert.
"No action movies," Brad opined aloud.
Nate winced and shook his head.
"I hoped it wouldn't come to this," Brad sighed, and he stood up and found his backpack, digging down to the bottom for the CD-folder full of burned discs. He flipped through the selection of bootlegs, considering, and then went straight for the hard stuff, taking it over to the DVD player. It started automatically--no menus--so the credits were already rolling by the time he got the TV turned on and returned to the couch to sit beside Nate, who was already laughing silently, his head tilting back in slow motion as it hit him.
Brad reached over and lifted Linus out of Nate's arms--Nate let him go without a twitch--and turned him so that his sleeping face was toward the TV.
"Linus," he said solemnly, while Nate's laughter ramped up to an actually audible sound. "This is Fantasia."
Brad sat up and pushed his pillow against Nate's stomach. Nate curled around it protectively and stayed on his side, never flickering an eyelash toward waking. Brad stood the rest of the way up and picked up Linus, carrying him to the living room for his first diaper change of the night.
When he took Linus into the kitchen, Brad discovered his phone sitting on top of the microwave, neatly in line with the row of clean bottles. He picked it up while Linus's bottle was in the microwave and flipped it open to a message from his mom.
Midnight and you haven't called for bail. Hanukkah is 12 7-15. Send pictures!
Brad glanced at the clock, but even with the time difference it was too late to call his mother for nothing important. He texted back Will do. Nate's parents took some of us today.
The microwave beeped, and Linus echoed it with a half-cry. Brad dropped his phone and got the bottle out, putting the lid on and shaking it one handed before testing it with a few drops on his own tongue.
Once he got the bottle into Linus's mouth and Linus had settled down to eat, Brad reached over and tapped out another message on his phone where it lay on the counter.
Linus wants whatever presents make the least noise.
The eight-hour mark after the sleeping pill came and went, and Nate stayed fast asleep. Brad took Linus out to the living room with him and checked his email and his phone. His mom had texted back Already shopping. Of course I won't get anything Nate will hate.
"Hear that?" Brad murmured. "You already have her wrapped around your little finger."
Linus squirmed in his sleep, mouth bending in something that looked like a smile, though Brad knew he was too young for it to be a real one. He found himself smiling back anyway.
Nate wandered out an hour later, looking wide awake. He came over to the couch and took Linus from Brad, hugging the baby to his chest and kissing the top of his head. Nate stayed sitting there, looking down at the baby. It wasn't sleepy abstraction; he was holding himself too carefully. He was refusing to look at or touch Brad while Brad sat blatantly watching him.
Brad kept very still and refused to think about worst case scenarios, about any scenarios at all.
"Let's go get coffee," Nate said when Brad had almost succeeded in making his mind entirely blank with non-anticipation.
It took Brad a few seconds to even hear what Nate had said, because he was bracing so hard against something worse.
Nate looked up with amusement almost covering the wary look in his eyes, and Brad forced his mouth and brain into gear. There were plenty of options, most of them hip local places, but only a few where Brad had noticed Nate studying the menu boards as they ran by.
"Starbucks or Potter's?"
Nate looked startled for an instant, and then pleased. He'd obviously expected resistance, but Brad wasn't going to argue about going somewhere they'd already run past a handful of times. Nate knew exactly how much he wouldn't like being a sitting target, but they'd be within sprinting distance of home if Nate got in over his head, and Brad was sure of the ground between here and most of the cafes and coffee shops within a six-block radius.
"I was thinking Starbucks," Nate said. His smile twisted a little, and he added dryly, "It's nice to know what to expect before I even walk in the door."
"Glad I don't have to explain the irony of railing against the man when you are the man, sir," Brad said. "Linus should sleep another hour, if you want to go now."
Nate leaned over and kissed him, fast but thorough.
Nate was on alert but kept his cool on the walk to Starbucks. Once inside and supplied with coffee, Nate led the way to a couple of chairs near the rear of the store--they sat with the wall at their backs and a good vantage on the door and everyone else in the room.
Since everyone else in the room consisted of parents with babies or small children, people squinting at laptops, and one guy monopolizing an entire table with a drift of papers and books, Brad felt pretty confident devoting all his strategic attention to Nate, who talked nonstop once they were settled. He started out staccato and brittle, and talked faster and more enthusiastically the more he added caffeine to his obvious adrenaline high. His eyes tracked nonstop over the room and the street outside the plate glass windows.
When he started gesturing, Brad stood up, took Linus from him, and sat back down. Nate stopped talking and focused on Brad long enough to look a little sheepish, but Brad just said, "Seriously, it's a wonder you survived that many consecutive philosophy classes without suffering repetitive strain injuries from the non-stop circle jerk."
Nate said, "I did know a guy who wound up in traction," and then he was off again.
Neither of them lingered in the process of drinking coffee; after the first five minutes it was purely and simply a test of how long Nate could stand to sit there, which turned out to be twelve and a half minutes. At that point, something happened--a car went by fast, and Brad thought that from the spot where Nate was sitting there would have been a startling flash of reflection off the windshields of the parked cars out front--and Nate went silent and froze, hands closing into fists.
Brad kept still and waited him out, and after about thirty seconds Nate said, "Let's go," in a low, controlled voice totally at odds with the story he'd just been telling about studying all night for some exam.
Brad nodded, and Nate stood up and led the way back out of the Starbucks, throwing out their empty coffee cups on the way. Brad had his hands full of Linus, and stayed on Nate's six until they reached the sidewalk.
Nate walked fast, looking everywhere, including checking in on Linus every ten or fifteen seconds. He was stretching his legs, and Brad had no problem keeping up, but two blocks from home Brad abruptly realized how hard Nate was working at not breaking into a run. Brad stopped walking, and Nate--tethered to Linus like they were handcuffed--stopped too.
"Nate, go," Brad said, taking a hand off Linus to wave down the street.
Nate looked up at him, uncomprehending, and Brad could see it on him, the need to move. He remembered being a kid with something furious and loud inside him fighting to get out, something that needed to scream or run or fight its way free. He remembered how he'd gotten over needing his mom to drive him down the freeway to get away from it, how he'd survived until he could jump on a bike and drive away himself.
"Run," Brad said. "Go, it'll help."
Nate looked for a second like he was going to kiss Brad right there in the middle of the sidewalk with cars going by. Then he leaned in and kissed Linus instead, resting his hand on Brad's hip for a second, hidden between their bodies, before he turned on his heel and took off running.
Brad walked after him toward the apartment, quickly enough to see Nate just keep on going past it, putting on speed. Brad slowed his own walk to a stroll, and made his way over to Nate's Jeep. It was parked in the sun, and Brad managed to haul himself up onto the hood one-handed and sat with Linus on his lap, enjoying the heat of the sun-warmed metal and the high vantage point while he waited for Nate to come back.
It took twenty minutes, and when Nate reached them he was dripping sweat and still looking a little wild, but he sounded almost normal when he said, "Sorry, I should have given you the keys."
Brad shrugged and handed Linus down to Nate, who took him gingerly and handed him back when Brad had his feet back down on the ground. But Linus didn't wake up and cry, and Nate turned away and walked at a normal pace to the door of his building to let them all in.
At 11:13 in the morning Nate said, "Phone appointment," and went and shut himself in Linus's bedroom with his phone. Brad put on Pocahontas, but she hadn't even met John Smith yet when Nate came back out to sit next to him on the couch.
Brad handed him the baby. They both sat there in silence for another few minutes, staring at the TV until Nate said, exactly as if he were making an unnecessary but inarguably correct observation about the movie, "I love you."
Brad looked over at him, and Nate looked back, meeting his eyes with a determined steadiness. Brad nodded, striving for the same tone and almost hitting it. "I love you."
Nate nodded and looked away, and then after a couple of minutes he grabbed the remote control and turned off the TV.
Nate kept his gaze fixed on the blank screen and spoke softly into the resounding silence. "I've been informed that there is no minimum sanity requirement for getting into a relationship, especially when you're already in the relationship and what you're really doing is putting off talking about how you're going to make it work."
Brad didn't look away from Nate. "It is going to work."
Nate finally looked over at him, staring for a few seconds before he turned his whole body to face Brad, shifting Linus up onto his shoulder. "You said before that the fact that you were here and the fact that I hadn't kicked you out covered a lot of what we had to say."
Brad shrugged. "I came looking for you when I had no idea why you cut me off for nine months, and I stuck around when I found out why. And you trust me."
Nate smiled, looking down at Linus. "And that's it."
"It's a start," Brad said, and reached over to put one hand on top of Nate's, resting on Linus's back. "We're doing this, and neither of us is going to back down because it's hard. I think you could do better than me, especially with a kid in the picture, but I'm not going to question my luck."
Nate looked up, startled, and Brad elaborated.
"I'm a Marine, Nate. I'm career. I'm not going to be around much and when I am I'll just be this guy passing through. There are a couple of wars on, and I'm going to be one more thing for you to worry about ninety percent of the time. I'll do my fucking best not to get myself killed, but I can't promise you shit."
Nate's eyes narrowed. Brad nodded.
"We're being deployed. Next month, Iraq. They gave me the option of switching to another unit to do more training instead, but like fuck am I skipping out on the guys I've been with for the last five months."
"You will never," Nate said, and then he broke off and looked away for a few seconds before he pushed Linus at Brad. Brad hugged Linus to his chest and Nate followed him right in, straddling Brad's lap and planting his hands on Brad's shoulders.
He looked angry in a weirdly simple, straightforward way as he said, "You will never be just some guy passing through. Never."
Brad shook his head. He hadn't meant it like that; he knew he was important to Nate. He was just never going to be very useful.
Nate wasn't letting it go. "If I don't see you again for ten years, I'll make sure Linus knows who you are, so he'll be as happy to see you again as I am. If I never see you again--"
Brad put a hand firmly over Nate's mouth. He didn't want to hear the end of that sentence; if he never came back he wanted Nate to move the fuck on, to find Linus a nice new mommy or daddy who would be around to make his lunches and tuck him into bed and do everything else Brad wasn't going to be around for.
Nate tugged Brad's hand off his mouth and held on to Brad's wrist as he leaned down to kiss him. Brad flattened his palm against Nate's chest, holding him off just far enough not to squish the baby. Nate backed off before either of them was out of breath, twisting to sit beside Brad. It was Brad's turn to stare at the darkened TV, giving Nate a moment to pull himself together.
"Anyway," Nate said, sounding almost calm. "You're not dropping off the face of the fucking Earth. You'll call when you can. I will write you the most boring letters you've ever seen go past the censors, but you'll know what I mean."
Brad shook his head. "For the next year and a half, you can send me the dirtiest combat jack material you can think up. And I want pictures of Linus, all the time. Just probably not in the same envelope."
Nate huffed a breath of laughter. "No DADT with the Royal Marines, huh?"
"Asking and telling are in fact actively encouraged if you have a hot boyfriend," Brad agreed. "And I have been repeatedly assured that they think DADT is bollocks and I can go right ahead and fuck anyone I like except the wives, girlfriends, and boyfriends of Royal Marines and no one in the States will ever hear about it from them."
Nate didn't argue with hot boyfriend--he smiled--but then tilted his head back against the back of the couch. "After next year, though. Linus makes it so much more dangerous for you, we're so much more obvious. I know you didn't want kids anyway, and this just--"
Brad waved a hand sharply, cutting Nate off.
"First," Brad said, scooting Linus up his chest, focusing for a beat on the warm weight of him, the solid, inarguable presence of this kid he'd never known existed before a week ago. "I still don't want 'kids'. But this kid right here, who has spent the last week pissing and shitting and puking on me and making sure I don't sleep more than three hours in a row and never letting me have both hands free and generally fucking torturing me into loving him--anybody who wants to stop me from being Linus's cool dad is going to have to pry him out of my cold dead hands."
Brad dared a glance over, but Nate had that smile on his face again, the same one he'd had the last time Brad called himself the cool dad, Linus's dad.
Brad hesitated, searching for the words and trying not to be distracted by that smile, the way it felt to stake that claim and have it accepted every time. "I'm going to have to lie about it. I'm going to have to pretend it's not like this, that he's not--that I don't feel like he's my kid too. But I will not hesitate to take the risk, and it's not as big a risk as you think it is."
"Brad, it would be a dishonorable--"
Brad shook his head. "You know too much about the chain of command to think it's fucking fair, Nate, or that I'm going to get treated the same as some half-trained DLI recruit. You know it's not black and white, the same standard for everyone."
Nate frowned, but he didn't disagree, and Brad laid it all out for him, the same way he'd worked it out for himself.
"You were a good officer and we probably owe you our fucking lives, but as far as the Corps was concerned there were ten more just like you waiting to take your place. You left, they didn't give a fuck. A combat-veteran recon E-6, with the level of training I have--this whole exchange is a long-term investment, not just in my skills but in keeping me happy with the Corps."
Brad shook his head, shifting Linus to the opposite shoulder and stretching his left arm. "Given what I'm hearing from guys at my level who've signed in the last year, when my re-up comes around I can not only get enough cash in a signing bonus to put Linus through the Ivy League school of his choice, odds are I can get written permission to fuck whoever I please as long as I don't put a gay wedding announcement in the Marine Corps Times. If I'm ever investigated my CO's going to demand video of me stating name, rank, serial number, and how much I love sucking cock. So if everybody you know in DC figures out that Linus has two daddies--unless you're hanging out with the Joint Chiefs, we're going to be fine. I’m too valuable for them to let me go that easy."
Nate gave the TV a dark look and said lightly, "Thank God there's a war on."
Brad shrugged and nodded. It was supply and demand and the chance to do what he was meant to do; he might not have chosen these wars, out of everything he could imagine, but he was never going to be wishing on a star for world peace. There didn't seem to be any real danger of that anymore anyway.
"It's weird if you think about it," Nate said, sounding calm and detached in a way that could only mean the opposite. "When you and I joined up--I couldn't imagine that there was ever going to be another real war, not with tens of thousands of troops on the ground, not going on for years. Peacekeeping actions, a few weeks mopping up after some three-day air war, but nothing like this. It seemed like big long ground wars were obsolete, didn't it? And now I can't imagine that the wars will ever end without being replaced by new ones."
Brad nodded slowly. It was true. War had changed--was changing on the ground over there, would keep changing--and it was also true that there would always be another one. There always had been.
Nate shook his head. "Brad, think. It's not always going to be our war. In twenty years it's going to be Linus's war."
Brad froze, his hands tightening instinctively on the baby.
"Linus, and Christeson's Maya, and Tony Junior, any kids Ray spawns, your sister's kids, every one of those toddlers at Starbucks--they're going to be the ones getting sent over there if things don't change."
Brad studied Nate, but Nate didn't look back at him. Finally, Brad said, "If you're going into politics, you're going to have to be even more closeted than I am, and that probably won't work."
Nate flashed a smile full of teeth, fierce and determined. "Not politics. Policy. I'm--" Nate looked away, scrubbing his hands over his face, and then settled himself back firmly at Brad's side. "I'm starting grad school in the fall. Harvard."
Brad wanted to make a joke about Nate already having master's-level cocksucking skills, but he couldn't help doing the calculation. Only yesterday he'd been saying He's going to need your support, figuring that once Nate came clean to his family they'd be able to look out for him.
There was no way for it not to sound wrong, but Brad had to ask. "Do your parents know that?"
Nate snorted, ducking his head, and then nodded without looking up. "Obviously they don't agree that I need to figure out how to take care of Linus on my own because I'm going to be on my own five months from now, but, yeah, they know. It's been on the table since before he was born."
Brad scooted closer to Nate, putting a hand on his shoulder. "You don't--even if your family's not there, I'm not there, you'll get the help you need."
Nate nodded. "Doc says if I can't face letting somebody other than you babysit him five months from now, I have to figure out some other way. I don't know, though, I could probably take him to class for the first semester at least. Once he starts walking and talking it'll be worse."
Brad tightened his grip on Nate, careful at the same time to keep his grip on Linus gentle. "Nate. You're going to figure this out."
Nate sat up straight under Brad's hand and then turned toward him, taking Linus from him and tucking himself tight against Brad's side.
"I am," Nate agreed, talking more to Linus than to Brad as Brad turned toward him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders to keep them--to keep all three of them--together. "I am going to figure out Harvard, because Harvard means connections and leverage. And I am going to need all the leverage I can get if I want to move the world fast enough to make it safe for Linus."
Brad pressed a kiss to Nate's temple. "World peace, seriously? If you put me out of work, you're going to have to support me."
Nate shrugged, a jerky push against Brad's chest. "World peace is a tall order. But I'd like Linus to have a better war to go off to, if that's what he chooses to do."
"So you're just aiming to take over a little bit of the world, then," Brad said.
"Just the foreign policy parts," Nate agreed, entirely seriously. Brad couldn't even begin to disbelieve him.
"You'll be back in DC, after Harvard," Brad said, and the pieces he'd been half-aware of shuffling around in the back of his head for the last few days started to fall into place.
Nate nodded. "Two years, and then I'll be back here for as long as it takes."
"All right," Brad said. "So I angle for Parris Island when I get back from the exchange."
Nate twisted to look up at him, and Brad set his hand on Linus's head, thinking again of what he'd said, almost casually, to Nate's parents. He'd have his twenty before Linus was out of elementary school.
"Sooner or later I let myself be talked into DI school," Brad went on, smoothing down the blond fuzz of Linus's hair with his thumb and not meeting Nate's eyes. He could see it in his mind's eye, playing out like any other mission he'd ever set himself.
"And then I do what it takes to get myself a tour at OCS. Quantico will be a shitty commute, but I'll be home most nights. Even if I'm training grunts at Parris Island, that's long leave every thirteen weeks and a few weekends in between. Access to a phone every night."
"Brad," Nate said, and then nothing. Brad eased away just enough to meet Nate's eyes.
Nate looked just as stunned as he had when he first ran out to the living room and found Brad holding his kid.
Brad looked away. "You're right. It's not going to be our war forever. I'm at the top of my game now, and the place for me is on the front lines. For now, for years yet. But not forever. You and Linus, you just make that more obvious."
Nate looked away and then back to Brad, searching his face.
Brad looked back, waiting him out. He could clarify more, talk about the various options he'd always seen for his career, the fact that he'd always liked bringing along younger Marines, how that had been one of the most satisfying things about being a team leader. He would, if Nate asked. But Nate didn't look like he'd gotten that far yet.
"Could you," Nate said, and Brad nodded and took Linus from him.
"I'm just going to," Nate said, standing up, and walked away. Brad listened, considering whether to put Pocahontas back on, but Nate just went and got the hamper and went into the kitchen.
When the deja vu got too bad to wait any longer, Brad stood up and went to the kitchen. He leaned in the doorway and watched Nate put stuff--Brad's clothes, Nate's, Linus's, all mixed together--into the washer.
"I'm not--I wouldn't ask that of you," Nate said, turning socks right side out. "I wouldn't ask you to avoid being deployed, I wouldn't..."
"I'm not saying I won't be deployed," Brad pointed out. "I'm just saying I've got a ten-year plan now, and it involves getting home to you."
Nate froze for a few seconds, just staring at Linus's bright red onesie without any expression at all. Then he tossed it sharply into the washer, shut the lid of the washer with such careful control that he obviously wanted to slam it, and walked stiffly around the kitchen table to Brad.
"I was going to be good," Nate said. "I was going to be rational, even though that's not coming easy right now. I was going to agree that you can't promise me anything, that there are things no one can promise."
Brad nodded slowly.
Nate reached up and closed a hand on the back of Brad's neck, fingers digging in hard enough to hurt.
"Fuck that," Nate said. "If you're going to say that--if you die on me after this, I will find you in the afterlife you don't even believe in and I will make it a hell. You had goddamn better come home. If it takes ten years, fine, but if you let me down now, Brad--"
Nate cut himself off, tightening his grip harder, shaking Brad a little.
Brad leaned into the grip, resting his forehead against Nate's. He let his hold on Linus sag slightly, so that the baby leaned against Nate's chest, and Nate caught a shuddering breath and loosened his grip on Brad just enough that it didn't send weird numb lightning bolts up and down his spine.
"Come home safe to us," Nate said quietly. "Or you will fucking regret it."
"I am assured of this," Brad said softly, and Nate laughed a little and squeezed tighter on the back of Brad's neck, then let up again and tilted his head enough to kiss.
Nate's kiss was as fierce and undeniable as his grip, and Brad let him have what he wanted, opening his mouth to Nate and letting him in. This time Nate did keep it up for long enough that Brad had to focus on breathing through his nose before it was over.
Nate backed off a half-step, chest heaving, his hand on the back of Brad's neck finally easing to just a flat palm. Only his eyes hadn't cooled off; he held Brad's gaze with an expression of absolute command. Brad knew he was being given an impossible order, and he knew that there was nothing he would not do to obey it.
He nodded, letting Nate see that it was as close as he could get to a salute with his hands full. Nate nodded back and then looked away. He let his hand slip from the back of Brad's neck, and his shoulders slumped. He looked exhausted, and Brad didn't feel much better. He closed the distance between them again, hooking his arm around Nate's neck, and murmured, "We have this window of about seven, maybe eight years, where we can watch all the Disney movies we want and pretend we're showing them to Linus."
Nate's laugh this time was hollow and weary, but he nodded, leaning into Brad, and said, "Let's go fucking watch some Disney movies, then."
By the end of Pocahontas they were tangled up together on the couch, Brad lying half on top of Nate with Linus on his chest, Nate's arms around them both and one of Nate's legs hooked around Brad's thigh. Brad dozed off like that in the middle of thinking he should get up and put another movie on. He was just the right kind of too warm in the middle of the dogpile, and he didn't want to disturb Nate or Linus, who were probably both asleep.
He woke up when Linus started squirming and grumbling, and Nate, sounding half-awake, said, "I've got this," and then tried and failed to maneuver himself out from under Brad before Brad moved.
Brad curled up and Nate wriggled free, staggering upright--one leg asleep, Brad diagnosed even as he fell back onto the couch. Nate took Linus from Brad and paced, muttering to him, for a minute before he headed for the diapers. Brad lasted another thirty seconds lying on the couch, and then noted the unbroken silence: the washer was finished. He got up and went into the kitchen and found himself making a bottle on autopilot, but once it was in the microwave he redirected over to the laundry.
Nate came in on his heels, getting the bottle from the microwave and doing the shake-and-test routine while Brad was still stuffing clothes into the dryer. Nate headed back into the living room a few seconds ahead of Brad, and they collapsed back onto the couch together, side-by-side instead of stacked, with the soundtrack of the dryer and Linus chowing down. Brad leaned over and tucked his finger into Linus's fist, and Linus held on tight and looked over at Brad, then back up at Nate.
"So, Hanukkah is December seventh to fifteenth and you're invited," Brad said to Linus. "My mom is already shopping for Linus."
"Oh," Nate said, sounding blank.
"I'd've taken you home to meet my parents, but I don't think planes are a good idea right now."
Nate snorted. "No. Not for a while yet. But you told your parents about us. About Linus."
Brad nodded, electing not to get into his communication strategies with his parents, or exactly when he'd said what. "Yeah. If you can't go for Hanukkah they'll probably come visit. They might come and visit anyway, I'll make sure you're in touch."
Nate looked over at him. "Do they--did you tell them...?"
"I said you needed help with the baby. I can explain the rest of it to them if you want me to."
Nate nodded more firmly this time.
Brad leaned into his shoulder, wiggling his finger in Linus's grip until Linus took over waving it around.
"I don't know what my exam schedule will be," Nate said after a while. "We'll try to get out there. We just have to be back in Baltimore by Christmas."
"Of course," Brad said, because Nate's family celebrated Christmas. Then he caught the undertone to the have to, remembered, and said with barely a pause, "Christmas is when you meet up with Cory, isn't it?"
Nate was very still and then nodded.
"I talked to your parents a little," Brad said. "And I read the custody agreement in your go-bag."
Nate let out a breath. "Yeah. We meet at Christmas. She'll--she was supposed to be in her last semester of law school right now, but she took a leave of absence because of the baby. She'll be able to graduate in December and take the bar in February, so at Christmas she'll be in between."
Nate curled forward a little, wrapping himself around Linus and pulling away from Brad.
"Hey," Brad said quietly, wrapping an arm around Nate's shoulders and tugging him closer. "I don't give a fuck what happened. You didn't tell me about it because it was complicated and nothing you wanted to say on the phone. Now I know and we get Linus out of it and I get you, so that's all I need to know."
Nate shook his head, but he didn't say anything for a while. Brad sat and listened to Linus eating, listened to the dryer running, listened to Nate sitting still beside him and searching for words.
"I didn't tell you because I knew if I talked to you I would remember how I felt about you," Nate said quietly. "And I needed--I was trying. I was trying so hard to make it not just something I did for the baby, something honest between me and Cory. It had to be real or we'd never have a chance. I knew if I told you, you would think of it as me trying to do the right thing because I knocked her up. Even if you didn't say it, I would know what you were thinking and I would have believed you. Anyone else could maybe suspect that I didn't--that I hadn't--that it was going to be an uphill battle. But you would have known for sure."
Brad winced. He'd been thinking that all along, that Nate stuck around as long as he did because he was a good guy, dutiful, devoted to his kid. But Nate really had cared about her at least enough to try.
"We were engaged for three days in November, the week before the birthday ball," Nate said. "I don't know which one of us was more terrified by it, once she had a ring on her finger. We didn't tell anyone. We hardly spoke to each other from the morning after until she gave the ring back and we agreed not to try that again. We didn't go to the ball and I took the ring back to the store. I think we both saw the writing on the wall then, but we thought we could make something else work. We'd never talked about the future until Cory got pregnant. Cory didn't--she's twenty-four, this is her 3L year, a baby wasn't in the plan. I convinced her it could work out. Except I was already kind of fucked up even then, and she wasn't the one I was in love with. It just didn't work."
Brad leaned his face against Nate's shoulder, trying to stay out of his peripheral vision while he played over Ray's words-- three days sleeping on my couch after a drunken screaming fight over the phone with his babymama--in his head, searching for some shred of a joke.
"You make it sound pretty civilized," Brad said, when he'd gotten his expression under control, and he looked up just in time to see Nate wince. So, yeah, Nate was sanitizing the story.
"We yelled a lot," Nate said. "Never--I swear to you it was never anything but yelling. Never."
Brad nodded against Nate's shoulder. Nate would never have done any kind of harm to Linus's mom.
Nate leaned back, and Brad went with him, slumping against the back of the couch.
"Whatever Ray told you is true," Nate said. "It was pretty bad right at the end."
"That's usually how you know it's the end," Brad agreed, even if he'd never really done it like that himself. By the time he'd seen Kristi and Pete again, afterward, they'd all moved past any screaming there might ever have been and into this being how things were.
The rattling air-bubble sound of Linus finishing the bottle was loud in the quiet of Nate's hesitation, and Nate laughed a little as Brad leaned away from him to grab a spit-up rag. Nate offered him the baby when he sat back, so Brad laid the cloth over his own arm and propped Linus up, looking down at his own hands and Linus's blond-fuzzed head.
"When I went to St. Louis, when Lauren went into labor, Cory asked me if I'd fucked Christeson in Iraq. If that was why I cared more about his kid than my own pregnant girlfriend."
Brad froze--better that than patting Linus's back too hard. He didn't look at Nate. He didn't want to know what his face looked like right now.
Nate laughed again, harsher this time. "I mean--she didn't ask. But that was the semantic content of it. And when I said no, I said a bunch of things about Christeson being an E-2 and nineteen years old and nothing about me being straight or not willing to cheat on her.
"So that was," Nate waved a hand. "All over but the shouting. Lots of shouting. Probably a lot more than I remember."
Brad shifted Linus and the spit rag up to his shoulder and sat back beside Nate, looking him straight in the eye.
"It would probably be polite to express regret right now," Brad said. "Maybe apologize, because I'm somehow involved in the demise of your attempt at a perfect little heterosexual nuclear family."
Nate looked blank, but Brad could see the smile coming from a long way off. He'd had a lot of practice spotting it in camouflage.
"I'm fucking glad, Nate. I'm glad you ran off to St. Louis. I'm glad you were there to hold Christeson's baby girl for him, and I'm glad you spent three days drunk on Ray's couch, and I'm glad you were too stuck on me to make it work with her. I'm glad I get you and we get Linus."
"Asshole," Nate said, without particular inflection.
Brad flashed his teeth. "I promise to be totally fucking magnanimous in victory."
"My hero," Nate said dryly, but the smile was actually visible as he got up to put another movie in.
That night--after giving Nate a blowjob he promised to remember this time and getting one in return that Brad definitely wasn't going to forget--they lay a while in the dark. Brad was listening to Nate's breathing as it slowed, prepared to reach across him and get his sleeping pill before he fell asleep without it. They weren't quite there yet.
Then Nate said, "Do your parents know?"
Despite the first half of that question being ten hours away, Brad knew instantly what Nate meant. When he'd asked Nate that he'd meant Harvard; Nate meant Iraq. Brad's sleepy post-sex calm was interrupted by a twist of shame in his belly.
"I'll let them know. We don't leave for a few weeks after I get back to England."
"No," Nate said, and he rolled toward Brad and laid one hand flat on Brad's chest. "Brad, you were supposed to see them on this leave, weren't you? So you could say goodbye? To them and your sisters and your friends."
Brad shrugged. "My priorities changed."
There was enough light for Brad to make out Nate's look of utter frustration. No danger of anybody falling asleep on their own, now.
"Brad, we're your family now, but that doesn't mean we're your only family. You need to--look."
Nate moved his hand, touching Brad's shoulder lightly, running a hand down Brad's forearm. Brad twitched under the almost-ticklish touch, and Nate said, "You're not holding Linus. Linus isn't here."
Brad definitely twitched then, and looked toward the crib without thinking. Nate's hand slapped down on his jaw, tugging him back to face Nate.
"No," Nate said. "You don't get to hold him. You don't get to see him. Because it's twenty-nine years from now, and he's going off into harm's way without coming home to say goodbye, and without letting us hug him one more time and tell him we love him and give him pointless advice that he doesn't need because he knows a hell of a lot more about the war he's fighting than we ever will. We don't get to look at his face again and remind ourselves that he's all grown up and not the baby we remember him being. And we might never--"
"Fucking Christ," Brad snapped, shoving Nate away. He sat up and then hesitated a second to remember gentleness instead of the angry yank he could feel coiling in his arms. He picked Linus up carefully and settled the baby against the empty place on his shoulder, curled his empty arm around the familiar warm weight.
Nate sighed behind him, and Brad felt the movement through the mattress before Nate was plastered against his back, both his arms coming around Brad and Linus.
"I don't want you to leave one minute before you have to," Nate said against the side of his neck, resting his head on Brad's other shoulder, balancing Linus's weight. "But I can't help understanding their side now."
Brad nodded, unable to speak through the vast and horrible comprehension striking him with every one of Linus's breaths against his collarbone.
"I'll buy a plane ticket in the morning," Brad said, closing his eyes and leaning back into Nate. "You can call Ray."
Brad opened up his laptop during Linus's 0200 feeding and bought a ticket for the earliest flight he could find to San Diego on Friday morning. Linus would be three weeks old on Friday. Brad printed out the reservation and laid it down on the coffee table where Nate wouldn't miss it, and then he sat back and picked up his phone, looking back and forth from it to Linus. It was going on midnight in San Diego, a stupid time to call for a non-emergency, but he couldn't stop carrying out Nate's analogy; he'd want to know Linus was coming home the minute Linus knew it.
On the other hand, his mom would never believe he was in his right mind--or sober, at least--if he called her at midnight to say he was coming home.
He flipped open his phone and texted. Getting into SAN 0917 on Friday. Nate thinks you'll like him better if he doesn't keep me all to himself.
He hit send and then wondered if his mom kept her phone by the bed even when she knew he was safe. He wondered how sure he would have to be that Linus was safe to stop keeping his phone by the bed. Even when no one was in a war zone there were car accidents and the flu and heartbreaks--and even if his mom weren't worried about Brad at any given moment there were still his sisters to think of. He suddenly couldn't imagine how anyone ever coped with worrying about more than one kid at the same time.
Two minutes later he had an answer to as much of it as he could realistically hope for. See you then. Tell Nate he is officially favorite son-in-law. Kiss Linus. BRING PICTURES.
Brad looked down at Linus, who was looking back up at him intently.
"Hey," Brad said softly, postponing that kiss until the bottle was out of the way. "You're going to give us so much gray hair, aren't you?"
Linus blinked a couple of times, which Brad took to mean yes, because of course he was. Twenty-nine years from now... in twenty-nine years they'd probably have arrived at some kind of truce, at least. Fifteen years from now was going to be the killer. Nate had been ordering his mom out of his head at fifteen. Brad had already been out of his parents' house, off to military school. And from there they'd both ended up in the middle of the same clusterfuck; Nate had taken more injuries than anyone could see, and Brad was going back for more.
"Maybe your mom's been totally okay all her life," Brad suggested. Give or take the last nine months. "Maybe you should try to take after her."
Linus scrunched his face up, looking skeptical and so much like Nate that it hurt a little, right in the center of Brad's chest.
"You've got us in your corner no matter who you turn out to be," Brad promised. "Be Nate Junior if that's your thing. And if you turn out like me--Nate seems to understand that. I'll try to translate. And if you turn out to be your own kind of crazy, we'll still have your back. We'll always have your back."
Linus shut his eyes, still frowning in concentration, and Brad ducked around the bottle to kiss his forehead. "Just always come home, little man. We'll always be waiting up for you."
Brad kept getting up and going back to bed until the time Linus woke up and Nate was there, pushing Brad down into the pillow. "I've got him, I'm awake. My watch."
"I'm awake," Brad argued, except he still had his eyes closed. He didn't really need to look at anything to get up with Linus, he had all the routes memorized.
Nate's hand pressed a little harder into his chest. "I'm more awake than you. Sleep. We'll still be here when you wake up."
For now, Brad thought, and then he was asleep again.
Brad was standing in the living room before he understood that he had bolted out of bed at the sound of Ray's voice, and that Ray was now laughing at him from the screen of Nate's laptop while Nate laughed silently beside it.
"Take that, Nate, I told you he loves me best," Ray yelled. "Jesus, Brad, you look like you been rode hard and put away wet. What's the LT been doing to you?"
"Classified," Brad replied automatically.
"Whatever, I'll get all your filthy secrets out of him this weekend, we're going bar-hopping Friday night."
"Nate makes an excellent designated driver," Brad agreed, and gave up and went to sit next to Nate on the couch.
"Oh, God, family portrait," Ray said as Nate passed Linus to Brad, sounding obnoxiously delighted in the way Brad knew was actually completely sincere. "I am screencapping the shit out of this, you guys. You are a fucking gay Chrismukkah card."
"What if we just didn't pick him up from the airport?" Brad asked, turning to look at Nate. "Do you think they'd just lock him in with the lost luggage?"
"Fuck that, homes, I'm flying into National, it's on the subway. And I know about six alternate modes of transportation to get to Nate's place. Do you remember who gave you his address in the first place?"
"Thanks for that," Brad said, realizing halfway through that he was speaking in unison with Nate, right down to the dry tone.
Ray grinned hugely. "Someday you guys are going to get gay married and I will give the most epic fucking speech. I'm already writing it. It's going to be a whole PowerPoint presentation."
"Someday I am going to set your whole trailer park on fire," Brad said, and Ray grinned wider, because he knew perfectly well what Brad meant.
In the middle of the afternoon, when Brad was staring at his email and trying to remember what he'd meant to say when he started the sentence he was typing, Nate said out of nowhere, "Let's take a nap."
Brad looked up at him with exactly the same sense of bafflement, like he'd known how this went a minute ago and now it had gotten away from him. Even at his most exhausted--especially at his most exhausted--Nate had only slept when Brad pushed him to, and he had never tried to take Brad with him for such sincerely innocent-sounding purposes.
Nate stood in front of him, holding Linus in his left arm, his right hand held out to Brad.
"You're not tired," Brad said, realizing it as he said it. Nate actually didn't look tired right now.
Nate beckoned with his fingers, not budging and not dignifying that observation with a response. "Come on."
"Yeah," Brad said, because he recognized even a very gentle and persuasive order when he heard it.
He put his hand in Nate's and let Nate pull him to his feet. Nate adjusted his grip as he turned away and held on to Brad's hand, towing him to the bedroom and pushing him toward the bed when they got there. Brad fell onto the bed on his back while Nate laid Linus down in his crib, and then Nate shoved at his side, rolling him so that he had his back to Linus.
Nate spooned up behind him and wrapped an arm and leg around him, holding him still, though it felt pretty redundant. Now that he was horizontal Brad didn't think he was getting up again for anything less than gunfire.
"This is stupid," Brad muttered, trusting Nate to know that it wasn't really an objection. "I'm getting plenty of sleep."
Nate snorted against the back of his neck. "Compared to what? BRC? SERE?"
Brad reached up and put his hand on Nate's wrist. "That what you were telling yourself?"
Nate pressed tighter against Brad's back, his face against the back of Brad's shoulder, and he said, "It felt like that. It felt like doing SERE with no end date and a hostage who would take all the damage if I fucked anything up."
Brad slid his hand up Nate's arm and got hold of his shoulder, holding on to Nate as tightly as Nate was holding him.
"I don't want him to know that," Nate said quietly. "I don't even want to know that myself. I don't want to remember my first days with him being like that, being that desperate to get through the next minute and the next and the next."
Brad let go of Nate's shoulder and put enough force into twisting over that Nate let him do it. Brad tangled their legs together and put his arm around Nate and pressed in too close to meet his eyes. More necessary than a kiss, Brad said quietly, "It's not that bad. It doesn't feel like that, and I won't remember you like that. I'm just tired."
"I know," Nate said. "So we'll just take a nap."
Brad's phone rang after dinner, startling the hell out of him and Nate. Linus, who was settled on Brad's lap directly on top of the phone, made one of those shocked faces like he made sometimes when he farted really loudly. I didn't know I could make that noise.
"Not you, little man," Brad said, while Nate laughed at them both. Nate reached out for Linus, who was moving from startled to unnerved and possibly ready to cry as the phone kept ringing under him.
Brad tugged the phone from his pocket, fighting down a laugh as he flipped it open and said, "Colbert."
"Brad," his dad said, and Brad felt his incipient laughter freeze in his chest.
"Dad?" Brad couldn't help sounding anxious as he said it; he literally could not remember his dad ever calling him on the phone; they rarely even exchanged hellos when Brad's mom put him on at the end of a conversation. Nate looked up with a whole different startled look, catching Brad's worry even as he made soothing noises for Linus.
"No, go back to the other thing, you sounded like you were having a good time," his dad said, which meant nothing terrible had happened to precipitate the call.
Brad stood up, looking away from Nate's concern, making his voice light and easy. "Linus thought he farted my ringtone, it was a magical moment."
Brad's dad laughed, and Brad couldn't help smiling. He and his dad were so rarely on the same wavelength, any time Brad could make him laugh with something he said felt like a victory.
It was easier when they were in the same place. He and his dad could share disapproving looks over Brad's sisters' boyfriends, or go surfing together, or hang out in the garage working on one of Brad's bikes or one of the supernumerary cars his dad was forever fixing up. From the year before Brad went into military school until he came home from boot camp, Brad had barely spoken to his father. They'd been unable to exchange more than three words without it turning into a screaming fight. But they'd still gone surfing together whenever Brad was home, and they'd been able to laugh at each other and applaud each other without anybody getting angry.
"So how's the surf look for this weekend?" Brad asked. "We going to be able to go out Saturday?"
"Yeah, we should be able to find something." His dad knew what he meant, and sounded pleased at the prospect. "You missed some serious waves the last couple of days, but it sounds like you've been pretty busy."
"You could say that," Brad agreed, glancing over at Nate, who was settled back on the couch and watching Brad intently. Linus was quiet against his chest, but Nate was still rubbing his back. When Brad looked over, Nate kissed the top of Linus's head without looking away from Brad. Brad nodded acknowledgment.
"We've had our hands full with Linus. I don't know how Nate did this on his own for ten days. I don't know how people who aren't trained to function without sleep do this at all."
His father snorted. "We learned pretty fast, with you."
Brad hesitated, looking for the words to say he got that, that he understood it now--but he didn't know if he could claim that much, his eight days against his father's twenty-nine years. He didn't know what to say that might not be accidentally presumptuous or insulting or somehow damaging to this moment of near-rapport.
He kept silent until his father cleared his throat and the chance was gone. "There actually was a reason I called, Brad. Not that I'm not looking forward to seeing you on Friday, but I hear I have a new favorite son-in-law, and I'd like to actually hear his voice at some point."
Brad looked sharply away from Nate with a futile, irrelevant sense of trying not to give his position away. Christ, Nate was about to get the what are your intentions toward my son talk. From Brad's dad. Or....
"Is Mom there?"
"She does want to talk to Nate too. Did you want to...?"
"No, no," Brad said, before his dad could put the phone down and go get her. "I mean, I want to talk to both of you for a minute, before I hand you over to Nate."
Brad glanced over, and Nate nodded and gave him an unworried smile. Brad looked away again. He'd issued the warning. It was up to Nate what he did with that information.
"Sure," his dad said, faintly puzzled, and then the sound was muffled as he called for Brad's mom to pick up the phone.
"Sweetheart?" she said, almost instantly. She'd been waiting for that, but not hovering over his dad.
"Mom," Brad said. "Dad."
"I'm here," his dad said, confirming he was back on the line.
Brad closed his eyes. "I'm--one of the reasons it's important for me to come out there this week is that I'm being deployed again next month, back to Iraq."
There was silence on the other end of the line. He'd told them about being sent to Iraq in person, last time, months before the actual deployment materialized. He had no idea how they'd found out he was going to Afghanistan; maybe from CNN, or maybe through some company families phone tree. He'd never asked.
"I'll be with the same unit of the Royal Marines that I've been training with," Brad said. "I know and trust these men. I have the same confidence in them that I've had in my recon platoons. The situation over there is much more defined now. There are established bases; I should be able to keep in touch more than I could the last couple of times."
"Are you--" his mom said, and Brad braced himself against the raw emotion in her voice; he remembered the sight of Nate's mom wiping away tears. But when she spoke again she sounded matter-of-fact. "You're able to be open about Nate with them, aren't you? You said the rules are different there. Do you want to make him your next of kin, so he would--"
Brad stared very hard at the front door and didn't look toward Nate or give any other tell that he was discussing him.
"No," he said firmly. The last thing he wanted, if he got blown away on this deployment, was for Nate to get a knock on the door and hear the news alone, from some stranger. "We can talk about that when I'm there, but, no, I think it's better to keep things the way they are."
"I understand," his mom said. "We'll talk about it. And of course we'll keep Nate in the loop if there's anything he needs to know."
"Thank you," Brad said, because there wasn't anything else to say.
They weren't asking questions, and they wouldn't, not yet. They knew he would tell them what he could tell them and that when he reached the end of the available information, that was the end. They would talk about it more when he was actually in San Diego and could try to make them understand what had happened to him in the last eight days--or maybe they would just know. Maybe there was some secret sign on him now, like an IR chem light, that only other parents would recognize.
"Did you want to talk to Nate now?" Brad added, when neither of them said anything.
"Sure," his mom said, "I love you, honey, I'll see you at baggage claim on Friday."
There was a tiny pause, and then his dad added, "I love you, son."
"I love you," Brad parroted back. They always said it more when they knew he was going away, and he had never hesitated to say it back at those times, even when everything was complicated.
"Let me get Nate," Brad added, and turned back to the couch. Nate was standing, waiting for him, and they made the handoff, trading Linus for the phone.
Brad turned away and headed for Linus's room. Nate didn't need an audience for whatever--presumably pretty gentle--interrogation he was about to get as the new favorite son-in-law. Brad heard him say hello in something damn close to his talking-to-officers voice. He laughed and then said, "Nathaniel," and, "Sorry, Catholic."
Brad shut the door and looked down at Linus, who was, unhelpfully, asleep. Brad kissed the top of his head, the same spot Nate had kissed a couple of minutes ago. "I love you, little man."
The words seemed to echo in the quiet room, ringing in Brad's ears. He couldn't figure out why for a second; he'd never said that to Linus before, but he'd said other things. Saying it now wasn't momentous.
Except it was, Brad realized abruptly, because he'd heard it before, thousands of times, but not for twenty years.
He'd still been a lot smaller than his dad--maybe eight or nine, maybe even younger--when he'd responded to a bedtime, "I love you, little man," with a burst of rage, the kind he had to scream or run or drive away from until he learned to control it. He'd screamed, that time, right in his dad's face. Don't you call me that! I'm--not--little!
It had made some kind of sense at the time--he'd been big enough for his parents to talk about him being a big kid, the big brother, riding his own bike to school, taking some responsibility for himself, and being called little had rankled. Even so, the shocked look on his father's face had been awful; but it had only made him scream more, at the time, feeling horrified at what he had done, at how easy it had been to hurt his father.
His father had never called him little man again; and maybe that had been where it started, because his dad had been surprised, that time, when Brad turned suddenly vicious. A few years later that had been SOP. He and his dad had fought more and more and talked less and less. Even when Brad learned not to scream and run away and fight all the time, they still didn't talk much for fear of saying the wrong things.
"I'm sorry, Linus," Brad said quietly, shifting Linus against his chest. Linus just squirmed against him, settling himself comfortably, peaceful and oblivious to all the ways they were going to fuck each other up in the next twenty years.
It wasn't Linus he should apologize to, he knew, but he and his parents had made their peace years ago. They'd moved past the clusterfuck of Brad's adolescence--and the warning tremors of Brad's childhood--and into this adult thing where his parents respected the boundaries Brad set and Brad was as dutiful as he could be. He traded texts with his mom and surfed with his dad and loved his family in a careful, quiet way. It worked.
"And then you came along," Brad said quietly, looking down at Linus and turning things over in his mind.
The door opened behind him as Nate said, "Good talking to you, too, and I'll let you know as soon as I have my schedule. Yeah, of course. Thank you. Here's Brad."
Brad took the phone and let Nate take Linus from him. "Dad?"
"We're here," his dad said.
Brad took a breath and went for it. "I just thought of something I wanted to tell you. Take a wild guess what I call Linus all the time. Ever since I first met him."
There was a little silence, and Brad nearly held his breath. He should have just said it, shouldn't have made it a test. His dad might not remember it at all. Brad didn't look at Nate, who was still standing in the doorway with Linus.
And then his dad gave a breath of laughter and said, "Little man?"
Brad grinned with relief. "Yeah. All the time. I didn't even remember why until right now."
"Then I guess I did all right," his dad said, like it was easy to say.
"Yeah," Brad said, forcing the words out cleanly. "Yeah, you did."
By the time he and Nate were both properly awake on Wednesday morning, they had barely twenty-four hours left before Ray's flight got in. Once Ray arrived, Brad would be on his way to leaving, even if there was an eighteen-hour overlap. That would all be goodbye, but this was goodbye, too. This was their last day alone together, just the three of them.
They didn't get out of arm's reach of each other all day, passing Linus back and forth. They didn't talk much, didn't turn on the TV for noise to cover the silence. They both read for a while, Brad narrating some more of The Odyssey to Linus when he was awake, though they still had more than half of the thing to go and nowhere near enough time to read it all. Nate kept telling him how to pronounce things, just like any other day. Brad manfully resisted the temptation to say some of them wrong on purpose to make Nate correct him more.
Linus woke up again in the midafternoon, and they did the usual diaper-and-bottle routine, settling in together on the couch while Linus ate. When he was done, Nate got up and got a blanket, spreading it on the floor, and only had to make a little gesture at it to indicate that Brad should lay the baby down.
Linus started flailing almost right away. Nate reached over and petted his back. "We're right here, buddy."
Brad set his own hand down in front of Linus's face, wiggling his fingers enticingly, and Linus's flailing took on some focus as he tried to grab despite not actually having meaningful control of his limbs.
"This is one of those things you're supposed to do," Nate said.
"This morning I remembered reading about it. I read all these books before he was born. I thought all I was going to be worried about was whether he walked and talked soon enough, you know? And this morning I realized he's never going to learn to walk or talk or crawl or anything if I don't...."
Brad looked up from Linus to Nate, smiling enough to take the sting out of the obvious. "Let him go a little?"
Nate looked perfectly serious as he nodded.
Brad looked down at Linus again. "I have this feeling like I know exactly what you were thinking about when you remembered."
Nate snorted, and Brad looked up to see his mouth twisted up into a wry smile. "Not rocket science, Brad."
Brad nodded. There was no getting away from it. "It's going to be weird as fuck. I've never spent a deployment missing somebody. I wouldn't wish combat on you again, but it's going to suck doing it without you there."
Nate frowned. "You were engaged."
"Kristi," Brad agreed. "I'd been in love with her since I was twelve years old, but we were already doing the long-distance thing by the time we were in high school. Military school, boot camp, SoI, training, a couple of cruises. We spent more time apart than together, and we'd been doing that since before the first time I got my hands on her tits. She was never--when I was gone I was in a whole other life than when I was with her. She was this other planet I got to visit sometimes, but when I left--I would write her letters, but it was always this fantasy. I wanted her, but when I wasn't with her there wasn't any space for her in my life. You...."
Nate set his hand down close to Brad's, pushing a knuckle into Linus's chin, and Linus lifted his wobbly head to look at the new landscape.
"I missed you when I was in England," Brad confessed. He saw Nate look up, but Brad kept his gaze down on Linus and their hands, not quite touching each other.
"I thought--I told myself it was just because we'd never settled anything," Brad said. "But you would fit right in wherever I go. I'd be training and I'd wonder what you'd think of it, how good you'd be at it. I wondered what you would think of the men, of the officers, of every little stupid charlie foxtrot we ran into. When I heard we were going to be deployed again, all I could think was it was going to suck to go without you. That was about when I realized I had a problem."
Brad looked up in time to catch Nate smiling, then looked away again.
"Did you mean it when you said you trusted them as much as us?" Nate asked quietly.
Brad met his eyes before he nodded. "I do. They're good guys, good at what we do. We've got good gear, even. And the officers could be a lot worse."
Nate kept smiling. "Don't go getting too attached."
Brad shook his head, still serious. "I'm coming home to you."
Nate snorted. "When you're good and done kicking ass. Admit it, you're looking forward to getting back into it."
Brad shrugged and then nodded; there wasn't any point denying something so true. "There'll be parts of it when I forget about you and all I'm thinking about is a mission or a firefight or not dying, and that'll be...." Brad trailed off, because it wasn't happy or fun or even good, not in the way those words meant here, in a quiet apartment with an increasingly frustrated baby trying to figure out how his arms and legs worked on the floor between them. Brad scooted his hand closer to Nate's, crossing their fingers over each other. Linus promptly jammed his face down onto Brad's thumb, mouthing at it while windmilling his arms.
"Yeah," Nate said quietly, and Brad looked up. Nate knew, of course. Nate would never go back into combat now, didn't crave it like Brad did, but he still remembered how it had been.
Brad nodded. "But I'm still going to miss you."
"Don't get fucking distracted wondering what I'd do in a firefight, okay?"
"I'm coming home," Brad repeated adamantly. Surviving would mean forgetting them sometimes. It would mean keeping all his focus on staying alive. He would do what he had to do to come home safely.
"Anyway, I already know what you do in a firefight. You break cover and dodge bullets so you can direct traffic."
They dawdled over everything in the morning, right up until the point where they had to hurry up, taking showers and passing Linus back and forth to get fed and geared up to drive down to National. They were just about ready--Nate was trawling through the diaper bag to make sure they had something they probably wouldn't need--when someone knocked on the door.
Nate looked up, startled. Brad passed straight from surprise to understanding without a middle stage of suspicion, a snap of perfect informational sublimation. He walked over and opened the door without bothering to look, and sure enough Ray was standing there grinning, backpack dangling off his shoulder, suitcase at his feet.
"Oh, God, you look so much worse in person," Ray crowed over Brad's mutter of, "Conniving whiskey tango bastard." Brad leaned in to hug him before letting him in the door.
Ray mugged him before they parted, getting hold of Linus and tucking the baby expertly against his own shoulder as Brad took a step back, sensing Nate's approach behind him.
"Oh man, seriously, are you surprised?" Ray demanded, pushing past Brad to hug Nate. Brad watched and didn't even attempt to think anything of it. "Do you not remember the fucking sneaky part of the recon job description? Did you actually think I would give you my real flight information so you could drag your headcase ass, your baby, and Brad to an airport on a fucking weekday to get me?"
Nate stepped back, smiling and shaking his head. He hadn't immediately grabbed the baby from Ray, which was almost weirder than the hug. Brad looked back and forth from Nate--looking as happy and calm as he had a couple of hours ago, not like the Stepford face he'd put on for his parents--to Linus, who was snuggled up asleep on Ray's shoulder like he didn't know the difference. Brad turned away to grab Ray's suitcase and bring it inside before he shut and locked the door.
"Right now Brad is trying really hard not to look like he thinks I'm going to drop you," Ray was saying to Linus in an only slightly saccharine tone. "But this is not your Uncle Ray's first rodeo, little dude. I have babysat so many little cousins and neighbor kids I could probably change your diapers blindfolded."
"You should do that," Brad said, shoving his hands into his pockets and keeping an eye on Nate, who was standing just out of arm's reach of Ray, not looking at all like he was worried Ray was going to drop his kid. "I'll watch from over here."
"Well it'd be fuckin' easy right now," Ray said, still talking more to Linus than to Brad. "He's asleep and all nice clean and dry."
"If I'd known you were coming I'd have arranged for him to be screaming and covered in shit," Nate said, cheerful and calm and a world away from the guy who'd opened the door on Brad a week and a half ago. It was a good thing; Brad knew it was a good thing. He knew he should be happy for Nate and happy to see Ray and glad that Linus was going to be in slightly manic but essentially reliable hands.
Instead he forced a smile and said, "Speaking of," before he did an end-run around them, making for the head.
He took a leak, staring at the wall and trying to get his head squared away. This was stupid and he knew it was stupid and it didn't help to know it. He felt all cracked open and helpless against this, like one of those nightmares where he was standing naked on a berm watching bullets fly around him, not even smart enough to take cover. He flushed and washed his hands and didn't feel any more equipped to go back out there.
The bathroom door opened and Nate stepped inside, shutting it behind him and crowding Brad up against the sink with his hands still wet.
"I forgot to say I'm going to miss you too," Nate announced, pressed up against Brad's side.
Brad stared at the water spots on the tap and thought he should have cleaned that. He shut his eyes and put his arm around Nate.
"Harvard is going to be weird as fuck after the last five years," Nate said quietly. "After everything I've seen and done and been, to go back to a classroom like I'm that college kid again. It's going to be so fucking strange. And I know I'm going to spend the whole time wondering what you'd be saying about all the bullshit and all my Ivy League classmates."
"You'll know." Brad turned a little more toward Nate, putting his other arm around him. "Just try not to repeat it to their faces."
They stood in silence for a few more seconds, and then Brad shifted slightly away from Nate--the weirdness of Linus's absence was a nagging itch. Nate turned away at almost the same instant, and Brad followed him to the kitchen doorway, where they stopped side by side.
Ray was perched on the counter, a plastic container of pasta from the fridge balanced on top of Linus's belly, eating and talking. "And then you can get away with anything, because adults think you're too much of a loser to get into trouble."
A bit of pasta slipped off Ray's spoon and fell onto the top of Linus's head, and Brad snapped, "Ray."
Ray looked up and then down. He ducked his head and licked the food off of Linus's head; by the time he looked up again Brad was there, taking Linus gently but firmly away from him. Ray managed to grab the container fast enough not to have pasta dumped all over him. Brad touched his lips carefully to the spot Ray had licked clean, checking for residual heat and finding none.
"It's all good, " Ray said, unperturbed and with his mouth full again. "That's why I didn't heat it up."
"Nate," Brad said, without looking up. "You should feel free to say what I would think of Ray to his face. Threats and insults are the only way to keep him in line."
"I'll have to practice," Nate said dryly behind him. "I'm sure slack-jawed baby-licking degenerate is going to come into it somewhere."
Ray grinned with sauce all over his teeth.
Brad nodded and kept a straight face, patting Linus's back. "Good start."
A few hours later Ray had dug an assortment of weird and obnoxious and occasionally fascinating baby toys out of his suitcase and made them watch Toy Story. He'd also successfully changed an impressively shitty diaper, laughing in delighted disgust. He'd managed the bottle fine, too, following the directions off the cabinet without clarification from Brad, shaking and testing properly before offering the bottle to Linus.
When Linus was clean and fed and asleep on his shoulder, Ray looked from Nate to Brad and said seriously, "Okay, I get that we had to have a little probation, but I'm pretty sure I aced all my skill tests, so you guys can go."
Brad glanced over at Nate, who looked suddenly wary and closed off.
"No," Ray said, before either of them said a word. "Don't even argue. You got a fucking babysitter for Brad's last night in town, and unless you both turned into big hairy dykes since the last time I saw you, you're not getting married without going on at least one fucking date. Get the fuck out of here already. I've got this covered."
Brad's reflex was to argue, but he kept his eyes on Nate, considering the possibilities. Nate probably would stay calm knowing Ray was with Linus; he'd managed to leave him alone with Brad days ago, when he wasn't doing nearly this well. Nate was looking at him--not meeting his eyes, just looking him up and down, and Brad realized that they could have hours uninterrupted, and that after tonight there was no knowing when he'd have another chance to touch Nate, to see him, to be even remotely alone with him.
Nate's eyes snapped up to Brad's. "You need anything?"
Brad shook his head.
Nate jerked his chin and turned, and Brad fell in behind him. They each gave Linus a quick kiss goodbye; Brad squeezed Ray's shoulder in wordless thanks as he did. Nate grabbed his keys and they were out the door.
About the time they hit the stairs, Brad started laughing.
Nate looked back at him, and Brad said, "Oscar Mike in ten seconds."
Nate smiled and shook his head, facing front again and leading the way.
Checking into a hotel in the middle of the day carrying nothing but a plastic shopping bag from the drugstore down the street was actually more obvious than walking around with a baby. The woman at the front desk kept an admirably straight face, and Brad reveled in not giving a fuck what she thought. He swung the bag on his finger, letting the box of condoms press blatantly against the thin plastic until she handed a key over to Nate.
They stood in the elevator without touching, and by the time they got into the room the adrenaline of their escape and the supply run was wearing off. Brad tossed the bag onto a chair and started stripping. Nate flopped onto the bed and fought his way out of his clothes without even sitting up. Brad stood and watched for the last few seconds before Nate was finished and then lay down beside him.
They were completely still for a few seconds, watching each other. The longer they just lay there breathing, the more Brad could feel inertia settling over him. After thirty seconds he felt like he might never move again.
"Can we just," Brad said, and Nate's eyes closed before he even finished speaking.
"Fuck yeah," Nate said, breath escaping him like a deflating balloon.
Brad made the heroic effort to roll onto his side, laying one arm across Nate, and was asleep almost instantly.
Brad woke up with his face in a pillow and a weight on his back, kisses pressing softly against the nape of his neck. He recognized the generically unfamiliar smell of clean sheets--hotel--and the hands on his back and the pattern of kisses--Nate.
He lifted his head and looked to the left side of the bed, and everything snapped into focus when he registered the empty space there, like a missing tooth. Like a missing limb.
Nate shifted off him when Brad tensed, and Brad turned onto his side facing Nate, searching his eyes in the light of one of the bedside lamps. Dark had fallen, and Brad's glance at the clock revealed that he'd either been asleep about six hours or he'd already missed his flight out. "Did you sleep at all?"
Nate smiled and yawned, nodding. "More than I expected to. Checked my phone every time I woke up. Ray's sent about eight text messages to say that Linus loves him the best now, so apparently everything's fine."
Brad nodded. Obviously everything was fine. Of course Linus was just as safe with Ray as he was with them or any other reasonably competent adult.
And here they were, both awake, alone in a hotel room, with less than twelve hours left together before Brad had to leave. They wouldn't have another chance like this for months, maybe years, maybe....
Brad leaned in and kissed Nate, and Nate pressed in close to him again. Brad ran his fingers through Nate's hair, closing his eyes and trying to focus on nothing but this moment, Nate's mouth on his, the warmth of Nate's body against his and not the empty space in the room.
Nate pulled away suddenly, flopping over onto his back.
"Sorry," Nate said, eyes closed, and Brad swept a glance over his body, noting that Nate wasn't any more turned on than he was. "I just--this is so fucked up--"
"Nate," Brad said, poking him in the center of the chest. Nate opened his eyes. Brad pointed down his own body, and Nate squeezed his eyes shut again, laughing silently.
"It's distracting," Brad said, and when Nate kept shaking with silent laughter, Brad gave up on restraint and crawled over him to grab Nate's phone and check the text messages for himself. Brad held himself over Nate as he checked--Latest diaper is proof Linus loves me the most, His cuteness is a WMD, good thing no one's looking for those here, Linus and I have decided to write our own telenovela, Linus's first word: Ray!--and then a new one came in.
Linus likes Waylon better than Johnny Cash.
Brad texted back NO COUNTRY MUSIC without thinking about it, and only turned the phone to show Nate afterward. Nate snorted and took the phone from Brad, sending his own text back. He snapped his phone shut and dropped it, and Brad was still braced over him on the bed.
"I wanted to fuck you," Nate observed calmly, touching his fingers to Brad's lips. Brad experienced a weirdly intellectual burst of desire: he absolutely wanted that, in a way that currently did not connect to his dick at all. "But I think neither of us would enjoy it much at this point."
"There was a chance we could a minute ago," Brad agreed. "But I'm never going to get it up now that I have to worry about what horrors Ray is inflicting on Linus's developing ears."
"I could resurrect the ABBA debate right now," Nate said, pushing up onto his elbows to kiss Brad. "Or we could agree to a rain check on fucking and get out of here."
They successfully rescued a wide-eyed Linus from line-dancing lessons, and Nate's neighbors from Ray playing the goddamn Achy Breaky song at a volume that would in fact justify homicide in most jurisdictions. Ray maintained that dance lessons could never start too early, and Nate snorted and said, "Yes, they can," in a long-suffering tone that revealed too much.
It took about five minutes for Brad to get the right part of Fantasia cued up. Nate gave in with good grace and waltzed Linus expertly around the room.
They wound up watching all of Fantasia, piecemeal and out of order, because Ray kept remembering something else that was his favorite part and demanding that Brad find it immediately. By the time the last segment ended, Ray had finished icing his knee after conclusively demonstrating that Nate's living room was a terrible place to do some kind of twirling flower dance he'd done to this movie as a kid, Linus was clean and fed and safely back to sleep with plenty of classical music to undo whatever brain damage he'd suffered in Ray's care, and it was too late for Nate to take a sleeping pill and have any hope of waking up before Brad's flight took off, never mind before Brad had to leave.
Brad figured that Nate could read a clock as well as any of them, but he still nodded questioningly toward the desk, where Nate kept his homework papers. Nate grimaced and nodded. He went and got his notebook from the drawer and went into the bedroom, leaving the door open behind him. Brad got a blanket and pillow from the hall closet for Ray, tossing them at him one-handed.
"Sleep tight," Brad said. "For about two hours, then we'll be up again for a feeding."
Ray shrugged and smiled. "Still more fun than waking up every two hours for Scud attacks. Night, Brad."
Brad went into the bedroom and shut the door, settling Linus in his crib before he stripped down to his boxers and lay down with his back to Nate, listening to the scratch of his pen. It seemed to go on longer than usual, but it might only have been that Brad didn't usually lie there and listen with his eyes closed, trying to memorize every second of this feeling, safely surrounded, everything he needed within easy reach.
He came fully awake when Nate shut the light off. He listened without moving as Nate undressed, but once he felt weight on the bed Brad dropped onto his back. Nate lay down half on top of him, one leg between Brad's and his head on the same pillow. Brad closed his arms around Nate, holding on while Nate held him still.
Brad listened to Nate's breathing and felt the way his own breaths had to lift Nate on each inhale. This was the opposite of the hotel; he could feel they were going to move, this time, just as inevitably as he'd known they couldn't before. When Nate turned his head and kissed the corner of Brad's mouth, it felt like the culmination of something long-planned, and the touch felt like it carried the weight of Nate's whole body, the last ten days, the last year.
Brad shifted to meet him in a kiss, licking into Nate's mouth, learning him all over again one more time. They traded deliberate kisses, purposeful but unhurried. They had only this one last night, but they had hours of it yet, hours until Linus was likely to wake up again. Brad let his hands move slowly over Nate, down to his bare ass and up to tangle in the short curls of his hair, tilting his head between one kiss and the next.
Nate's hands were mostly still on Brad's shoulder and side, but soon Nate was rocking down against him, grinding his dick slowly against Brad's hip. Once they were both fully hard and moving together, Nate's fingers hooked into the top of Brad's boxers. Brad shifted up enough to let Nate tug them down, kissing Nate the whole time, never making a sudden move, never rushing. They could go on like this all night, dragging it out for all the time they had.
The door slammed open, letting in a sudden flood of light and Ray in a flurry of motion. He threw something onto the bed in a rattle of flimsy plastic even as he said, "Jesus, Nate, you don't know where Brad's been, and also not in front of the baby."
He never broke stride, coming around the bed to Linus's crib, scooping him up, and storming back out while Nate and Brad stayed frozen on the bed.
Ray slammed the door behind him, dropping them into darkness with their dark adaption totally fucked. They stayed like that for a few seconds longer, until Brad couldn't keep still anymore and flexed up under Nate, driving his dick against Nate's belly.
Nate started shaking silently. The TV turned on in a sudden roar of Fantasia music, and Nate's laughter burst into sound a second before Brad started laughing too.
"Did he," Nate gasped, groping sideways on the bed and giggling, falling off of Brad as he searched for what Ray had thrown at them.
Brad rolled the other way, switching on the lamp by the bed so that he could see Nate laughing helplessly over the drugstore bag of supplies they'd never even opened at the hotel.
"You don't," Brad managed to get out, crawling over to him and still laughing as he pressed sloppy kisses to Nate's shoulder, his bicep, his cheek, reaching down to get a hand on Nate's dick, still just as hard as Brad's. "Be careful, Nate. You don't know where I've been."
Nate choked on laughter, coughing, and Brad pounded him helpfully on the back with the hand that wasn't jerking him off while Nate dumped out the condoms and lube with one hand, wiping his eyes with the other.
Nate pushed Brad away once he had both hands free, barely holding back a laugh as he said, "Lie down and think of England."
"Fuck England," Brad replied, controlling his voice with an effort as he dropped onto his stomach and spread his legs. "I'd rather think about you. Unless you want me to think about jerking off thinking about you, which is going to happen a lot in England."
Nate shoved at him again, settling over his back, dick against Brad's ass. He managed to sound mostly serious as he spoke against the back of Brad's neck. "Think about whatever makes you stop laughing long enough for me to fuck you."
"Understood." Brad pressed his ass up against Nate's dick, squirming to get him lined up--and rubbing his dick into the sheets--while Nate just stubbornly lay there on top of him, grinding into his ass cheek and kissing the back of his neck.
Brad heard Ray switch chapters to the part with the hippos and alligators and muffled his laugh in the pillow. Nate was shaking again, mostly holding it together to say into Brad's ear, "Piano music and rose petals?"
"Fuck you," Brad said, bursting out laughing again. The TV got louder, which made him laugh harder, and Nate was writhing with laughter on his back, grinding his dick against Brad's ass.
They both wound down to almost-not-laughing, and Nate got back on track first.
"Hands and knees," Nate said, and his voice shook but didn't break.
Brad pushed up under him even as Nate moved off of him and the music swelled out in the living room. Brad hung his head and bit his lip, staring at his own dick upside down and listening while Nate got the lube open, the obscene spurt of the stuff onto his fingers. Brad shifted his knees further apart in anticipation, feeling the stretch of muscle in his thighs, and a second later Nate's wet fingertip, chilly with lube, was pressing against his hole. Brad bit the tip of his tongue and concentrated on relaxing as Nate's finger pushed into him in one smooth, unhesitating motion.
Nate crooked his finger, jerking a bark of sound from Brad's throat. It was too exactly right, the fast progression of good, stretching pain and the weirdness of being opened up and then sudden, electric pleasure, all right on top of each other. Nate kept working his finger inside Brad, nailing his prostate and drowning out everything else with sharp bursts of sensation until Brad was shifting his ass back impatiently.
"You don't have to convince me," Brad managed to say. "Just. More."
"Mm-hm," Nate said, sounding completely distracted, but the motion of his finger changed. There was the always-disconcerting feeling of cold lube wet on the outside of his asshole, and then Nate was slicking another finger into him.
Brad managed to just exhale this time--the second finger was just more of everything, nowhere near the sharp shock of the first. Nate kept at it until Brad was not only fucking himself back onto Nate's fingers but letting out a low, involuntary growl of frustration. Nate crooked his fingers and Brad shifted his weight to slap one open hand against the wall at the head of the bed in sheer frustration at the not-enough of it. The volume of the TV got suddenly, sharply louder.
Brad pressed his face into his arm, refusing to actually laugh this time.
Nate said, "Yeah, okay, okay," and eased his fingers free in time with Brad's forcibly even breathing.
Brad took his hand off the wall and put it on his dick, jacking himself slowly, just enough to distract from the wet-open feeling of his ass while Nate tore a condom open and slicked himself.
Nate swatted Brad's hand away, and Brad put his hand--quietly--back up on the wall, bracing himself. Nate closed one hand on Brad's hip and then there was the pressure of Nate's cock against his ass. Brad pushed back to meet him, mastering that second of impossibility that always hit him, and then Nate was pushing inside and Brad's breath caught on the burn, the invasion, the overwhelming rightness of it.
Nate stayed still until Brad started breathing again, and then he flexed his fingers on Brad's hip. Brad felt the tiniest of shifts in Nate's weight as Nate's dick shifted inside him, and then Nate started to shake, his other hand closing on Brad's hip like he had to steady himself, had to hold himself up.
Brad looked over his shoulder just in time to watch Nate, staring down at Brad's ass, lose control of his face. It crumpled into something that looked like pain, and Nate folded forward, shoulders shaking, as a keening laugh escaped.
"My ass is ridiculously fantastic," Brad offered, just managing to get the words out without laughing at Nate.
"I can't," Nate gasped against Brad's back, as Brad shifted his weight to support them both, which made Nate's dick move inside him in a different way from the minute shaking of Nate's entire body. "She's--looking--at me. But it seems--"
Nate broke off in giggles, and Brad put his head down and let his own laughter shake him, realizing where this was going.
"It seems," Nate repeated, "so rude, to cover up her face."
Brad arched his back, shoving his ass up onto Nate's dick and his shoulders up under Nate's face. "Stay--right--there."
Nate made a noise against Brad's spine that wasn't quite a laugh and that vibrated through him like the buzz of a tattoo needle. His hands tightened hard on Brad's hips, anchoring them both, and when he finally moved a little, pulling out and thrusting in again, Brad's breath stuttered in his throat.
They were both quiet then, and all the frantic energy they'd been expending was suddenly focused here, on the snap of Nate's hips and Brad shoving back against him. Nate's breath rushed silently against Brad's skin as Nate started to fuck him as hard and fast as he could while leaning down onto Brad's back. Nate peeled a hand off Brad's hip, leaving it throbbing with incipient marks, and jerked him off with quick, tight strokes.
Brad pushed back as hard as he could, trying to push Nate over the edge, but Nate had the leverage and the control, syncing his strokes on Brad's dick with his thrusts into Brad's ass. Brad gritted his teeth and held on, trying to make it last, trying to stretch this fuck out as long as it would go. He tried to focus on anything other than his ass and his dick and the pleasure that rattled through him on every stroke: Nate's weight on his back, raising sweat between them that dripped down Brad's sides. His arms were aching from holding them both up, starting to shake as Nate kept fucking him. The music was playing, and Nate's room smelled familiar now, underneath the sex, and through all of it Nate was fucking him, jerking him off, pushing and pulling him relentlessly through this. Sensation piled on sensation until Brad couldn't hold himself back from it at all, giving in to his orgasm with a last soft gasp.
Nate fucked him straight through it, which made it seem to last forever. He only dropped his hand from Brad's dick when Brad grabbed his wrist--and only then because Brad overbalanced and Nate had to catch himself before they both collapsed flat onto the bed.
Brad still wound up face down in a pillow, with Nate still inside him, Nate's weight coming to rest on him again. Brad could feel him trying to slow down, trying to make it last, and then speeding up again because he couldn't resist.
Brad turned his head, reaching back to grab any part of Nate he could reach. He got his fingers onto the sweat-slick back of his arm and dug them in.
"Nate, come on."
Nate's rhythm faltered, and Brad rocked up until Nate shoved into him one more time and came in a long, silent shudder.
He collapsed onto Brad's back and they lay still a while. The music changed and changed again and finally Nate sighed and pulled away from him. Brad shivered and rolled over onto his side, feeling wrecked and raw. Nate was on him again a second later, pressing up to him chest-to-chest and sliding an arm around Brad to keep him close.
"I should clean up," Brad mumbled, with absolutely no intention of getting out of bed or breaking Nate's grip.
"No," Nate murmured. "You should promise me that you were either too young to drink or fucking wasted when you got that tattoo."
"Twenty-four and cold sober," Brad lied without a shred of remorse. "Fuck you, it's an awesome tattoo."
"Fuck you," Nate returned, lazy and nonsensical, before he pressed a long, sloppy kiss to Brad's mouth.
When he pulled away, Nate added breathlessly, "You know when you get to fuck me."
Brad closed his eyes and nodded, close enough for Nate to feel. "I will come home to you."
Nate's hand on Brad's back drifted down to the borders of Brad's tattoo, tracing idly. Brad closed his eyes and kept breathing, only to startle awake again when the music changed.
"Gotta clean up," he muttered, and this time Nate nodded and gave him a gentle push.
Brad grabbed clothes from the clean pile on top of Nate's dresser and slipped out into the hallway naked, squinting against the light of the TV until he got into the darkness of the bathroom. He had to turn a light on there, but he still cleaned up mostly by feel with his eyes closed, only opening them to watch while he washed his hands when he was done.
He pulled on shorts and a t-shirt and went out to the living room.
Ray was lying on the couch with Linus on his chest, watching Brad through half-open eyes. He picked up the remote and turned the music down enough that Brad didn't have to speak up.
"Can I have him back?"
"Did you wash your hands?"
Brad leaned over Ray, sticking a finger under his nose. Ray sniffed and then nodded, taking his hands off Linus and letting Brad gather him up.
Brad pressed a kiss to Linus's forehead before settling the baby against his chest, and Ray's eyes came open a little wider as he watched.
"I'm really fucking happy for you," Ray said quietly.
Brad nodded. "I don't think there's anyone else in the world who I'll hate less for being here with them when I can't."
Ray smiled a little at that, but not so much that Brad doubted he understood that as the exact truth it was.
"I keep trying to think of a way to say I'll take good care of them for you that doesn't sound like super fucking creepy innuendo, but I'm going to do my best."
"I know," Brad said, rubbing Linus's back. "Thanks."
Ray just nodded, and then closed his eyes and turned onto his side, his back to Brad and to the TV.
Brad picked up the remote and shut it off, leaving them in silence and darkness while he carried Linus back to bed, back to Nate.
Brad didn't think he slept--he was always conscious of his careful grip on Linus and Nate's arm over them both--but not nearly enough time passed before his phone alarm was chirping in the dark. Brad kept still, but Nate pushed up and reached across him to silence it. Nate took Linus, and that put it past the point of resistance. Brad got up.
He took a shower, fast but thorough. The people he'd be sharing a plane with really didn't need him smelling like baby wipes and sex sweat, to say nothing of the fact that he'd be hugging his parents when he got to San Diego. When he returned to Nate's bedroom wrapped in a towel, Nate had turned a light on and pulled Brad's backpack and sea bag onto the bed with him. He was reclining against the pillows with Linus on his chest, and he watched in silence while Brad pulled out clothes and got dressed, pocketed his phone and packed in the last of the clean laundry from the dresser. Everything else was already in his bag, but Brad looked through it one last time.
He looked up when Nate moved, pulling out something that had been half-hidden in a fold of the covers. The Odyssey, and under Nate's thumb, pressed against the cover, a silver-shining key that Brad recognized from his rummage through Nate's junk drawer on his first day here.
"I don't want to lock the door behind you," Nate said quietly, and Brad knew he didn't mean he couldn't be bothered to get out of bed and see Brad out.
"I'll lock up," Brad promised, reaching out his hand, pressing his thumb down beside Nate's on the key as he took hold of the book.
"You can read to him when you call," Nate added.
Brad nodded. "I'm not going to make you wait twenty years, Nate. Not even ten."
"Just come home safe," Nate said quietly. "I don't care when."
Brad moved around the bed to sit down on the edge beside him, his heart squeezing too tight to let him speak. This was it; this was the last moment. He reached out and shut off the light and then pulled Nate close, Linus held between them. He pressed his face to Nate's, not going for a kiss, just breathing close to him one more time, resting a hand on Linus's belly to feel it rise and fall.
"I will," he whispered. "As many times as I leave, I will always come home to you."
"Go on, then," Nate replied.
Brad nodded and stood, gathered up his things, and walked away in the dark without looking back.
Brad let most of the others go out ahead of him. He wasn't going to draw attention by making a point of going last, but it would be easier to lose himself in the crowd when there were plenty of other reunions in motion by the time his boots hit the ground.
He glanced at his watch and worked out the time difference, his other hand moving automatically to the rectangle in his blouse pocket, the photo he'd carried for months now of him and Nate and Linus together. Today was a Tuesday, Nate's shortest day of classes. Nate and Linus would be home for lunch already. If Brad could get his phone up and working within the next half-hour he had better than even odds of catching them before they went down for a mutual Tuesday afternoon nap.
He walked down the stairs, scanning the crowd by sheerest habit. It was full of waving Union flags, kids and women and camouflage fatigues and green berets and tear-streaked beaming faces. It was utterly safe, but still just another base of operations that was nowhere near home.
Brad registered out of place first, and then the little American flag being flapped wildly in a baby's fist. Someone shoved him from behind with a good-natured insult that was just a blur of English-accented noise. Nothing Brad's senses reported fit together or made any sense. Linus was perched on Nate's arm, in the middle of a tarmac in England, waving an American flag.
It was an entirely physical sensation: a head rush like being about to drown, like breaking the surface and drawing breath for the first time. Brad started running, and there was no coherent thought until he'd reached them, until he had his arms around them both, his face pressed against Nate's neck.
This is why, he thought. This is why guys run the last five yards.
Nate's free arm closed around him, and Linus's flag-holding fist was pounding at his shoulder. Brad straightened up when he could make himself loosen his grip that far.
"You had class today," he said, hands still clenched in Nate's USMC sweatshirt, because they were in public and he couldn't--
Nate reeled him back in and kissed him. Linus kept whacking Brad with the flag, and everyone around them kept screaming and chattering and crying just like they had been the minute before.
"It was worth skipping," Nate finally said when he broke away, grinning as bright as the desert sun. "Just to do that once."
Brad stared and then turned his head to actually look properly at Linus, who went abruptly still under Brad's scrutiny. His eyes had lightened up to the same translucent green as Nate's, which the computer screen had never shown right. His blond hair curled over his ears and at the back of his neck, and he was wearing a t-shirt with a devil dog on it under his jacket.
"Hey, little man," Brad said. "Guess we get to do story time in person tonight."
A look of total confusion came over Linus's face; he let go of Nate's shoulder with the hand not holding the flag and reached for Brad's face.
"Yeah, Dad's not on the computer tonight," Nate said, angling Linus closer. "But that's still him, I promise."
Linus smacked a hand onto Brad's chin, still frowning.
"What's the password?" Brad asked. "Telemachus? Penelope? Odysseus?"
He drew out the last name with a hiss the way he always did to make Linus laugh, and Linus's eyes went wide and his mouth stretched into a huge three-toothed grin.
"Yeah, it's me," Brad agreed, taking Linus from Nate before he could launch himself across. He had to adjust his grip hastily as Linus's full weight hit him. "You're not a rifle anymore, huh, little man? You're a fifty cal."
Linus crowed cheerfully, waving both arms and smacking Brad in the face while Brad pressed kisses to the top of his head. Nate stepped in closer to catch Linus's hands, guiding one hand to rest gently against Brad's jaw.
Brad grinned helplessly at him. "I was coming home, Nate."
"I know," Nate said, leaning into him. "I figured we could meet you halfway."