The first time Nate presses his hands to Brad's tattoo, he flinches away. It's slight, a barely there shudder of movement but with palms pressed to spine, Nate feels it and knows it for what it is.
They're in an abandoned house somewhere near Novak, Brad bleeding all over a mattress that's probably an infection hazard, the reminders of Nate not being quick enough to shoot a fucking ghoul.
"If we had an incinerator," Brad says, like he hasn't just shuddered away from a touch, like nothing out of the normal has happened. "Ghouls would be a piece of cake. You set them on fire and you sit back and relax."
"We don't have an incinerator," Nate replies, keeping his hands to himself now. He focuses on the wound, imagines he can almost see the blood clotting. He needs to find some scissors,s some spare clothes that aren't too disgusting. They ran out of bandages a while back. "So don't goad them next time, okay?"
"It worked." Nate doesn't say anything, just focuses on ignoring the clash of colours on Brad's back and doesn't hope it was just a coincidence, because hoping would mean he was thinking about it.
The second time Nate purposely puts his hands to Brad's tattoo, skin to skin, more than just a gentle brush, they're at an NCR outpost. Nate stays in the clothes they'd stolen from a Jackal, keeps his bag by his side and hopes nobody catches a glimpse of the NCR armor still inside. It comes in useful sometimes, he says, when Brad tells him just to ditch it. It'll get you killed is Brad's reply, but so will most things.
They're cramped together in a bare spittle of a shower, the water tinged brown and cold anyway, but they're both covered in too much dirt. Nate doesn't remember the last time he felt clean - it was long before he met Brad either way. They keep their shorts on, just in case, but when Brad passes him the sliver of soap and turns around, his hands move slower than they should.
He presses his fingertips to Brad's ribs, flush over the contrast of them, gentle along the edges before he moves back and up, over Brad's shoulders, the knot of scarring on the left. He digs his thumbs in, meets tense muscle and a snort of derision, and he moves on.
He brushes the soap over Brad's back, works up a pitiful lather and rinses it and Brad stands still, relaxed and slouching and comfortable. The colours wash away behind the suds, come back brighter than before when the water washes away a grey tinge, and Brad stands, rolls his neck and his shoulders and is still. When Nate stills his hands against the tattoo, holds them wide, his thumbs just meeting in the centre, he flinches, shudders all the way up and takes a half step. He's tense again, even when Nate pulls his hands back.
"Don't," Brad says, nudging at Nate's shoulder to turn him around, slipping the soap from his hand. "Don't."
In a bar, Brad tells him about the tattoo. There's an empty bottle of whiskey between them, a darkened corner to sit in, but he stares over Nate's shoulder as he talks.
"It's from a poster I saw," he says. "When I was in the Legion." Nate doesn't gasp, his eyes don't widen, he nods. "You already knew?"
"I guessed." Brad almost smiles at that. He cracks open a bottle of Sarsaparilla on the edge of the table, takes a long sip and shrugs.
"It was a propaganda poster but-" he takes another sip. "Maybe one day." He sets the bottle down on the table with a clink, and it's simple, but Nate already knows it means the conversation is over. He has questions - questions that start with so, the legion, huh? and end with why don't you like it being touched like that? but, when he thinks about it, when he watches Brad drumming his knuckles against the table alongside the music, he thinks he might already know.